Tag Archives: Islam

West of What?

ruaneThe heart of Providence College’s core curriculum is the Development of Western Civilization (DWC) program, a sixteen-credit, four-semester, interdisciplinary and team-taught series of courses required of all freshmen and sophomores regardless of major. From its origin in the 1970s, DWC (or “Civ,” as many call it) has been both a regular source of pride and occasionally of controversy, both of which have been the case recently. I have taught in the program for sixteen of the twenty-one years I have taught at the college and directed the program for the four academic years before my 2015-16 sabbatical. At the end of August on the first day of the current semester (my first day back in the classroom in fifteen months), my colleagues and I chose to spend our first ninety minutes with our new freshman students by raising the question that many of them were probably thinking but were too afraid to ask: Why study Western civilization at all?

The very existence of a program such as ours is controversial in many quarters where many wonder, in an increasingly diverse and globally connected world, whether the study of dead-white-guys“dead white guys” is anything more than a lame and outdated exercise in cheerleading for white folks. But others seek to defend the primacy of Western civilization over all others. One of my colleagues began the class with a clip from the Republican National Convention a couple of months earlier. A talking head panel was filling up air space waiting for the first speaker of the evening. After one person mentioned that the hall was filled with lots of angry white people, Iowa Congressman Steve King took offense.

King: This “old, white people’ business does get a little tired. I’d ask you to go back through history and figure out, where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people that you’re talking about — where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?”

Panel moderator: Than white people?

King: Than Western civilization itself. It’s rooted in Western Europe, Eastern Europe and the Unites Stated of America and every place where the footprint of Christianity settled the world. That’s all of Western civilization.

King’s comments astounded a couple of people on the panel and outraged a third—as the table exploded into shouting, the moderator wisely broke for a commercial.

The congressman’s comments reminded me of something brought to my attention a few weeks earlier. A person who gave a talk at my college over fifteen years ago remembered it in a recent column on a conservative website, recalling that some of the people present were not happy with the content of his talk.

 I am sure I noted the fact that some cultures are better than others and I might well have quoted (with enthusiastic approval if I did) William Henry’s observation, in his book In Defense of Elitism, that “It is scarcely the same thing to put a man on the moon as to put a bone in your nose.” I am very fond of Henry’s native prosuperior-civiliztionsboscis image, not least because, like Saul Bellow’s question: “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?”, it is so reliably productive of rage among pampered left-wing academics.

These comments could have been written or said by some of my colleagues on campus who often defend the existence of our DWC program by asking “Why wouldn’t we want to focus close-to-exclusive attention on Western Civilization? It’s the best civilization ever!”

After Congressman King’s clip from the RNC, my teaching colleagues began a conversation with our students by asking basic questions such as “What is Western Civilization?” The students seemed unsure how to answer other than to say “we are!” After a few minutes I made my first contribution. “This is going to sound like a stupid question,” I said, “but I’m sitting over here listening to all of you talk about ‘Western Civilization’ and I’m wondering: West of what? Are we talking geography here? What is Western Civilization west of?” None of us had thought to load a map onto PowerPoint, so I just asked the students to picture Europe, Asia, and Africa in their imaginations. “If we draw a dotted line from north to south to divide the East from the West, where would we draw it?”drawing-the-line

The first suggestion was that it would go through the Middle East, in a way that would perhaps include Israel in the West but perhaps the rest of the Middle East in the East. “What about Turkey?” one of us asked. They weren’t sure. Of course if the dotted line continues straight south from Israel, another question arises. “What about Africa? Is it in the West?” I asked.funny-africa “No,” just about all of the students answered, meaning that our dotted line needs to take a sharp turn left from Israel, bisecting the Mediterranean Sea so that Europe to the north stays in the West (as everyone knows it should) and Africa to the south stays non-West (as everyone knows it should). Remembering Congressman King’s inclusion of the United States in Western civilization (even though it does not make an appearance in DWC until the beginning of sophomore year), the dotted line should cross the Atlantic so that the U.S. and Canada lie on the Europe (northern) side of the line. Mexico and Central America? Iffy. South America? Not sure. It was pretty clear that the line was intended to include those most like us in the West and exclude everyone else.funny-asia

This exercise established pretty quickly that the answer to West of What? cannot be geographical. One student then helpfully suggested that “I think ‘Western’ refers to various ideas rather than geographical areas.” Asked for examples, students suggested things like democracy, human rights, capitalism, and monotheism. One of my colleagues, a theologian, jumped on that one. “Is Christianity a Western religion?’ he asked—“Of course!” was the answer (Congressman King would have been proud). “What about Judaism?” The students weren’t as sure there, even when my colleague pointed out that both Christianity and Judaism started in the same place and that Jesus was a Jew. “What about Islam?” Most of the students thought not (Donald Trump would have been proud), prompting my colleague to point out that for a number of centuries during the Middle Ages the westernmost area of Europe—Spain—was Muslim. Trying to define “Western” by religion doesn’t work much better than geographically.monotheism

Finally, one brave student said “I think that ‘Western’ for most people means pretty much the same thing as ‘White’.” And I suspect there’s a great deal of truth in that suggestion. When we study Western Civilization, we will undoubtedly end up studying predominantly dead white guys unless a concerted effort is made to engage with non-Western influences. I mentioned to the students, for instance, thg-and-iat most people don’t know that one of the greatest—perhaps the greatest—philosopher in the Western tradition, Plato, was heavily influenced by thought from Persia and India. The dotted line is porous, in other words. Furthermore, one of my colleagues who is of Italian ancestry pointed out that one hundred years ago in this country, immigrants from southern European countries such as Greece and Italy were not considered by many in this country as white.

After ninety or so minutes of this, I’m sure our students left largely in confusion. And that’s a good thing. Despite the name of the course, “Western Civilization,” upon close scrutiny, turns out to be as much a reflection of our expectations and prejudices as anything else. This is good for seventeen- and eighteen-year-old young adults to understand at the outset of their forays into their college education. We live in a polarized political and social climate in which labels and categories are used as if they are as objective and set in stone as the Ten Commandments. Only when we realize that all such dividing lines are at their roots random, porous, and fluid might we seize the opportunity to do better.

My Neighbor

0[1]Humility is not a peculiar habit of self-effacement. It is a selfless respect for reality and one of the most difficult and central of all virtues–Iris Murdoch

I recently found myself in the midst of a Facebook discussion, the sort of online discussion that I try to avoid at all costs. The topic was same-sex marriage;s-FACEBOOK-PROFILE-PICTURE-RED-HRC-large[1] in the middle of some testy back and forth between persons of vastly different beliefs and commitments, one of the few students I am friends with on Facebook, a young Muslim woman, posted this:

I honestly wonder – why are some religious folks so quick to condemn and oppose the legalization of same-sex marriage and yet lack a response of even a marginally close degree of intensity to such inequalities of wealth and resource that inevitably lead to world hunger and suffering – inequalities which their respective religious texts and prophets make clear to condemn and resist far more than to gay marriage? I am not seeking to belittle or invalidate anyone’s beliefs but am genuinely seeking to understand the difference in importance given to these issues – I would truly appreciate an answer to this, from anyone here.

For me, at least, that cut through a lot of the bullshit that had been e-flying around in previous comments. I posted the following in response:

Unfortunately, I think it is because what the great religions REALLY require of us is too hard. The prophet Micah wrote that what God requires of us is to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” That’s a lot harder than taking positions on social issues that don’t cost anything. It’s very clear from reading Scripture that the measure of our journey with God is how we treat the poor, the needy, the disenfranchised, the suffering–not the positions we took on same-sex marriage, or abortion, or how often we were in church.Aime-Morot-Le-bon-Samaritain[1]

All of this is placed in sharp focus by a very familiar story. Is there any of Jesus’s parables more familiar than The Good Samaritan? And is there any parable whose message is more impossible to live out? Jesus uses the story to illustrate mercy, the second of Micah’s directives for following God, agreeing with the man who concludes that the true neighbor in the story was “the one who showed mercy.” I’d like to reflect on the Good Samaritan story with the last of Micah’s directives in view: Humility.

On its face, humility is not a popular virtue; indeed, self-effacement, being a doormat, deference to others—all popular synonyms for humility—seem more like vices than a virtue. aristotle-conferance_1[1]Humility is not included in Aristotle’s famous list of virtues, and philosophers for millennia have struggled with humility, often ignoring it or altogether denying that it is a virtue. One contemporary philosopher suggests that humility “seems at best a saving grace of the mediocre and at worst an excuse for passivity towards human wrongs.” It certainly doesn’t fit comfortably with the dominant American notions of independence, individuality, and aggressive achievement. And yet one can scarcely read a page of the Psalms or the New Testament without encountering calls for humility. So what exactly is being called for?

In the Good Samaritan story, the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan all see the man beaten, robbed, and left for dead in the ditch. And yet their manner of seeing is very different. The story says that in the case of both the priest and the Levite, “levite[1]when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.” I have heard and read many explanations, theories, and accounts of why these religious guys walked on by; the most common is both the priest and Levite assumed that the man was dead and did not want to violate the many prohibitions in the Law against those who handled holy things for a living touching anything dead. In other words, the priest and the Levite saw the injured man through the lenses of their societal roles and commitments. They saw the injured man with the eyes of the self.

“But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.” If the Samaritan had chosen, as the priest and the Levite did, to see the injured man through self-defining lenses, he also would have walked on by. Travelling on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, the Samaritan was in enemy territory—Samaritans and Jews had nothing to do with each otherpara-1[1]. The man in the ditch was almost certainly the sort of person that the Samaritan had been taught to hate. The Samaritan is on a journey, undoubtedly in a hurry, with miles to go before he sleeps—why does he stop and allow his agenda to be seriously disturbed? What does he see that the priest and the Levite did not see?

As simple as it sounds, the Samaritan stopped because he saw the injured man unfiltered. Simone Weil calls this ability to see unfiltered “attention,” and suggests that it is at the heart of true human connection. “Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention. The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle.” 1358330283_humility2[1]Another word for this miraculous ability to see unfiltered, to attentively look at what is in front of me unencumbered by my usual filters and agendas, is humility. And it is at the heart of true faith.

And this, I believe, is why defining ourselves morally in terms of positions taken on hot button issues is far more attractive than actually attempting to live a life guided by what the texts simone_coat[1]and principles of one’s faith actually demand. As Simone says, true attentiveness—true humility—is a miracle. Human beings are not naturally wired in this way. Iris Murdoch notes that “we live in a dream, we’re wrapped up in a dark veil, we think we’re omnipotent magicians, we don’t believe anything exists except ourselves. Our attachments tend to be selfish and strong, and the transformation of our lives from selfishness to unselfishness is sometimes hard even to conceive of.” This is what makes the Good Samaritan miraculous—he is able to truly see what is front of him and respond directly without a moment’s concern for anything other than what this man needs.

Iris Murdoch defines love as “the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.” Love and humility, in other words, go hand in hand. Love and humility energize the apprehension of something else, something particular, as existing outside us. In our daily lives we are continually confronting something other than ourselves. We all, not only can but have to, deal with the resistant otherness of other persons, other things, history, the natural world, and this involves a perpetual effort. Good_Samaritan_Sicard_Tuileries[1]But at the heart of the Christian faith, illustrated by the parable of the Good Samaritan, is the promise that the possibility of transformative love and humility is in each of us, ready to be introduced into the world if we will only look away from ourselves toward what is directly in front of us.

We are called to cultivate Good Samaritan moments—moments in which the human being in front of us is not dark-skinned, poor, female, gay, disabled, conservative, wealthy, Muslim, male, straight, ugly, liberal, old, Christian, obese, or attractive, but rather is a person whose needs, hopes and dreams are real and independent of us. It is a task to come to see the world as it is, a task that can only be attempted with the miraculous energy of humility. When I believe that I have seen all there is to see, the Christ in me says “let me look again.”