Tag Archives: Richard Rorty

Jesus and Karl Marx walk into a bar . . .

We should read the New Testament as saying that how we treat each other on earth matters a great deal more than the outcome of debate concerning the existence or nature of another world. Richard Rorty, “Failed Prophecies, Glorious Hopes”

One of the many things I enjoy about teaching philosophy is that I regularly get to engage with students in studying the texts of thinkers labelled as “dangerous” or worse by various authority figures in my youth. Darwin . . . Freud . . . Nietzsche . . . Marx . . . these were some of the influential thinkers that good Christians needed to stay away and be protected from, recent Western civilization’s version of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. At least three of the four admitted to being atheists, and the fourth (Darwin) was at least an agnostic by the time he died. I doubt anyone in my youth who warned against the diabolical and anti-Christian energies of these authors had much (or any) first-hand familiarity with the texts in question, but one thing was certain—no God-fearing person would read, or allow her or his children to read, such disruptive and destructive filth. It’s almost enough to make one want to home school their kids.

This is the first semester in recent memory that I am getting to engage with all four of these worrisome guys in class. Nietzsche and Freud have already made appearances in my General Ethics class, we just spent two weeks with Darwin in my “Beauty and Violence” colloquium, and I was reminded the other day that Karl Marx will be showing up in my American Philosophy course a few weeks from now. Why? Because of a fascinating article by Richard Rorty, one of the late twentieth- and early twenty-first century’s most influential and controversial American philosophers and public intellectuals (another atheist, btw). Rorty dominates the last few weeks of my course; since I have not taught the course in a few years, I am rereading everything before the date it shows up in the syllabus. I remembered Rorty’s essay “Failed Prophecies, Glorious Hopes” as one of the most controversial readings on the syllabus—as I reread it a few days ago I thought “Wow, that’s really out there—and I agree with just about all of it.”

Rorty’s essay is focused on a comparison of two highly influential texts that don’t usually go together: the New Testament and The Communist Manifesto. But the juxtaposition is not as strange as it might seem. Rorty suggests that

We should read both as inspirational documents, appeals to what Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature,” rather than as accurate accounts of human history or of human decency.

So imagine that Jesus and Karl Marx walk into a bar together—what would their conversation be like? Let’s get past the obvious jokes (“Jesus and Karl walk into a bar, which happens to be out of Karl’s favorite red wine. Jesus gets a glass of water and makes him some.”) and listen in.

  • Jesus: Did you really write that religion is the opiate of the masses?
  • Karl: Yeah . . . you got a problem with that?
  • Jesus: No. I wish I had said it first.
  • Karl: What ever happened to your prediction that you were going to come back, the Second Coming and all that?
  • Jesus: What ever happened to your prediction of the breakdown of capitalism and the rise of an enlightened proletariat?

As Rorty points out, the “failed prophecies” parts of both of these texts are pretty embarrassing; the failures of either text to transform humanity are downright tragic.

We have been waiting a long time for Christians to behave better than pagans . . . We have waited a long time for regimes calling themselves “Marxist” to explain to us exactly what these new ideals look like, and how they are to be realized in practice . . . Many millions of people were enslaved, tortured or starved to death by sincere, morally earnest people who recited passages from one or the other text in order to justify their deeds . . . Most of us can no longer take either Christian or Marxist postponements and reassurances seriously.

But Jesus and Karl share a lot more in common than unfulfilled prophecies and misguided followers.

  • Jesus: The problem with followers is that in short order they lose sight of what really matters.
  • Karl: You’ve got that right—I wonder if the people claiming to be my followers ever actually read my book.
  • Jesus: The percentage of your “followers” who have studied your book carefully is probably about the same as the percentage of my “followers” who’ve read mine carefully.
  • Karl: Your core message and mine are actually very similar. I read this the other day: “We should find inspiration and encouragement in the New Testament and the Manifesto. For both documents are expressions of the same hope: that some day we shall be willing and able to treat the needs of all human beings with the same respect and consideration with which we treat the needs of those closest to us, those whom we love.”
  • Jesus: I like that! Who wrote it?
  • Karl: A guy named Richard Rorty. Why didn’t you know that? I thought you knew everything!
  • Jesus: Hey, I’m human! Wasn’t Rorty an atheist?
  • Karl: Yeah—you got a problem with that?
  • Jesus: Not at all—I like atheists. A lot less bullshit to cut through.

Once one gets past the failed predictions and the misguided actions of less-than-perfect followers, Rorty says, both the New Testament and The Communist Manifesto are hopeful texts—embodiments of our greatest aspirations and dreams.

When reading the texts themselves, we should skip lightly past the predictions, and concentrate on the expressions of hope . . . There is a difference between knowledge and hope. Hope often takes the form of false prediction, as it did in both documents. But hope for social justice is nevertheless the only basis for a worthwhile human life.

Marx believed that religion is an opiate because its promise of a better life after one dies dulls a person’s senses to what needs to be done now in order to make our lives better and our societies more just in this world. But the message of the gospels can be read in the same way—the Sermon on the Mount is about this world, not one in a prophesied future.

At the end of his essay, Rorty fuses the two texts into a call that might strike some as . . . well . . . radical.

“Christian Socialism” is a pleonastic [I had to look that word up]: nowadays you cannot hope for the fraternity which the Gospels preach without hoping that democratic governments will redistribute money and opportunity in a way that the market never will. There is no way to take the New Testament seriously as a moral imperative, rather than as a prophecy, without taking the need for such redistribution equally seriously.

Those, of course, are fighting words for many who call themselves followers of Jesus. But they can be summarily dismissed only if the inspiration for one’s Christian faith is cherry picked from parts of the New Testament that leave out vast portions of what Jesus reportedly said as well as descriptions of how the early Christian communities organized themselves economically. Jesus and Karl have a lot in common—I wonder who is picking up the tab.

Parents and teachers should encourage young people to read both books. The young will be morally better for having done so.

What I inherited from Mad Eagle

On this Father’s Day, I’m remembering my Dad with whom I had a complicated relationship but who I miss very much. He has undoubtedly made more appearances in my blog in its four years of existence than any other family member other than Jeanne. This post–originally titled “Tapestries and Quilts,” was one of the first posts I ever published–it reminds me just how much of who I am is due to Mad Eagle (one of Dad’s many nicknames).

My father was an autodidact, a learned man with little formal education beyond high school. He was a voracious reader of eclectic materials, usually books with God and spirituality at their center of gravity. He often was reading a half-dozen or more books at once, all stuffed into a briefcase that could barely hold the strain. During the times he was home, a regular part of his schedule would be to take off in the dim light before sunrise in the car on his way to a three or four-hour breakfast at one of the many favorite greasy-spoon breakfast establishments within a fifty mile radius. While at breakfast, he would spread his reading materials in a semicircle around the plate containing whatever he was eating, and indulge in the smorgasbord of spiritual delights in front of him. He used colored pencils from a 12-pencil box to mark his books heavily with hieroglyphics and scribblings that were both wondrous and baffling. It was not until I was going through some of his daily notebooks a few weeks after he died that I came across the Rosetta key to his method.

He often would marvel, either to the family or (more often) to his “groupies” listening in rapt attention during a “time of ministry,” at the wonders of watching God take bits and pieces of text, fragments from seemingly unrelated books, and weave them together into an unexpected yet glorious tapestry of brilliance and insight. God, mind you, was doing the weaving—Dad’s role apparently was to spread the books in front of him and simply sit back and see what percolated to the top, in an alchemical or Ouija-board fashion. God, of course, did stuff for Dad all the time. God even told Dad where to go for breakfast and what to order. This, for a son who had never heard God say anything to him directly, was both impressive and intimidating.

From my father I have inherited a voracious appetite for books, which is a good thing. Once several years ago, in the middle of an eye exam my new ophthalmologist asked me “do you read very much?” Laughing, I answered “I read for a living!” Actually, it’s worse than that. I recall that in the early years of our marriage Jeanne said that I don’t need human friends, because books are my friends. At the time she meant it as a criticism; now, twenty-five years later, she would probably say the same thing but just as a descriptive observation, not as a challenge to change. Just in case you’re wondering, over time I have become Jeanne’s book procurer and have turned a vivacious, extroverted people person into someone who, with the right book, can disappear into a cocoon for hours or even days. Score one for the introverts. But Jeanne was right—I take great delight in the written word. I’ve always been shamelessly profligate in what I read. My idea of a good time, extended over several days or weeks, is to read whatever happens to come my way along with what I’m already reading, just for the fun of it. As one of my favorite philosophers wrote, “it’s a matter of reading texts in the light of other texts, people, obsessions, bits of information, or what have you, and then seeing what happens.”

I admit that my bibliophilic ways sound a lot like what my father was doing at breakfast. I’ll go even further and admit that, despite the spookiness of Dad’s claim that God wove disparate texts together for him into a tapestry of inspiration and insight, I know something about that tapestry. How to explain the threads with which I connect Simone Weil, George Eliot, Fyodor Dostoevsky and William James through Anne Lamott, Friedrich Nietzsche, Aristotle, and P. D. James to Ludwig Wittgenstein, Annie Dillard, the second Isaiah, and Daniel Dennett? How to explain that an essay by the dedicated and eloquent atheist Richard Rorty provides me with just the right idea to organize a big project about spiritual hunger and searching for God? How to explain that a new novel by an author I never heard of (Muriel Barbery), which Jeanne bought for herself but passed on to me instead (“I think this is your kind of book”), was so full of beautiful characters and passages directly connected to what I’m working on that it brought chills to my spine and tears to my eyes? Is God weaving tapestries for me too?

Maybe. But I think a different sort of textile is being made. The process of throwing texts together and seeing what happens is not really like weaving a seamless tapestry at all. It’s more like sewing together a very large, elaborate, polychrome quilt in which the pieces and patches can be attached, separated, contrasted, compared, in the expectation that something unusual and exciting just might emerge. Why can’t Freud and Anselm have a conversation with each other? Why can’t Aquinas and Richard Dawkins get into a real debate without knowing ahead of time who is supposed to or has to win? In The Waste Land, T. S. Eliot writes “these fragments have I shored against my ruin.” I’ve never liked that, since it sounds as if T. S. can’t think of anything better to do with the pieces of stuff lying around the wasteland than to use them as props shoring up his wobbly whatevers. Try making a quilt.

I suspect that the transcendent makes many demands on us, most of which we have only fuzzy intimations of. This one I’m pretty sure of, though: truth is made, not found. The divine emerges from human creative activities in ways we’ll never recognize if we insist that God must be found as a finished product. As a wise person once wrote, “The world is not given to us ‘on a plate,’ it is given to us as a creative task.”

How to Educate a Story-Telling Animal

Man is in his actions and practices, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue

I suspect that all academics who can still remember their graduate school days will recall books in their disciplines that were all the rage, books that all of the graduate students talked about but that no one had read. after virtueDuring my graduate years in the late 1980s and early 1990s, two of these books were Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature and Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. I don’t recall exactly when I finally read Rorty’s book (I promise I did), but I recall very clearly the circumstances surrounding my first reading of After Virtue. My teaching assignment for the fall semester of my second year at my first teaching job after my PhD included two sections of “Ethical Theory.” Although according to my vita my systematic area of specialization was ethics, this would be my first opportunity to actually teach an ethics course.

In the early part of the summer, I constructed a typical introductory ethics syllabus, a cafeteria-style tour through relativism, egoism, divine command theory, utilitarianism, and Kant, followed by an applied topic or two. Shortly afterwards, I happened to come across After Virtue as I was rearranging a bookshelf in my office, and decided that it was about time I read this book that everyone had been talking about. I expected it to be my “fun” reading for the summer. It absolutely blew me away—I story telling animalsat up late at night and finished it in less than a week. I could not get out of my head the possible implications of MacIntyre’s claim that human beings are “story-telling animals” for ethics and teaching. As soon as I finished the book I immediately went to my office computer—we had no computer at home—located my newly constructed ethics syllabus, and deleted it. Reading After Virtue changed the way I think about ethics. I have taught upwards of forty sections of introductory ethics in subsequent years; virtue ethics eats up more and more of the syllabus each time. But the most important pedagogical question After Virtue raised for me struck deeper than “How should one think about the moral life?” Because if it was truly the case that the dozens of students in my classes each semester are “story-telling animals,” the most important question for me became “What is the best way to invite/seduce such an animal into the life of learning?”

Over the almost twenty-five years since that summer of MacIntyre, I have become convinced that students flourish most often in a learning environment when the teacher is willing to place her or his own narrative on public display, particularly the portions most intimately related to her or his own life of learning. VM Ruane 9It’s a strange but true fact that my students know more about me than anyone other than Jeanne and my immediate family, simply because I put myself—my foibles and fears as well as my certainties and successes—on public display every time I enter a classroom. I get my students to start thinking about themselves in narrative fashion by showing how my own narrative has been written and shaped by what I have read, studied, and experienced. They learn that Aristotle is on our ethics syllabus because thinking about virtue and moral excellence as habits to be cultivated rather than rules to be obeyed has made a profound difference in my own moral journey. They learn that the relatively obscure Simone Weil is the syllabus because a seemingly random encounter with one of her essays changed my life many years ago. And so on.

Stories are not only the natural context within which human beings understand themselves and each other, but often are also vehicles of inspiration. What is it about stories that grabs the attention of co-learners in ways that facts or objective descriptions cannot? carseTheologian James Carse writes that “The way an audience is visibly awakened by a narrative example during an otherwise precisely factual lecture shows that stories touch closer to a listener’s center than accurate descriptions of objective states of affairs.” In my experience, students care less at first about what a text is saying than about what this text is doing on the syllabus. More directly, they want to know “Why does this text matter? What difference has it made in your life?” And the only possible answers in response to such questions will of necessity be narrative in structure. According to Richard Rorty, the classroom must be a place where “the teachers [are] able to teach the books which have moved them, excited them, changed their lives,” inspired by

An encounter with an author, character, plot, stanza, line or archaic torso which has made a difference to the [teacher’s] conception of who she is, what she is good for, what she wants to do with herself: an encounter which has rearranged her priorities and purposes.

The only way that there can be “joy in the work,” to use Simone Weil’s phrase, is if there is an example, a lived story, of such joy on display. Over the many years of seemingly endless core curriculum reform debate on my campus over the past decade, I often argued that the true point of what we are doing in the classroom has, first and foremost, little to do with content. What we are doing is facilitating and nurturing the attitudes and skills of lifetime learning. macintyreSuch attitudes and skills must be shown in embodied form.

Telling a story is a creative activity—telling one’s own story is perhaps the most important creative activity a human being ever encounters. As MacIntyre tells us, it is through paying attention to the narrative structure of human reality that we begin to fashion the disparate, fragmented aspects of our existence into a unified, morally responsible whole.

To be the subject of a narrative that runs from one’s birth to one’s death is . . . to be accountable for the actions and experi­ences which compose a narratable life . . . in what does the unity of an individual life consist? The answer is that its unity is the unity of a narrative embodied in a single life.

And telling a story is more than getting the facts straight. A life lived with only the facts in mind is a life subjected to “just one damn thing after another.” As James Carse points out,

No matter how carefully we line up the historical data or how honestly we report the actual events through which we have lived, these do not by themselves tell the story of our lives. To tell all is not to tell a tale.facts Getting the facts straight is not enough to find the story to which they belong. In fact, getting the facts straight is a very different activity from that of finding a story that can be “faithful” to the facts.

Good story telling, like good pedagogy, is attractive and seductive. Each individual human story is endlessly hopeful; there is an inherent joy in shaping the classroom experience within narrative parameters. Because the stories being told are the ones that matter most—the stories of our lives.

The Best Story Ever

Every year during Holy Week, even the most tepid Christian, for at least for a week or so, tracks the story that recounts the last days of Jesus, from the joyous donkey-ride on Palm Sunday through the betrayal and agony of a few days later to a cold and silent tomb. “But it’s just a story,” the skeptics say, no different than the myths and legends of Greek mythology or the tales of King Arthur, similar to the way in which those who wish to dismiss Darwin say that his theory of natural selection is “just a theory.” four h[1]But sometimes a theory is more than just an educated guess, and sometimes a story is more than an entertaining piece of fiction. This is one of those times.

Judging from the New York Times best seller list, the past ten or fifteen years have been good ones for atheists. Thanks to the “New Atheists,” from Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett to the late Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, it has never been trendier and more acceptable to critique all manners of religious belief and commitment, placing God in the dustbin of ideas whose time has come and gone. The word seems not to have filtered down to the rank and file in this country—the United States, according to poll after poll, remains extraordinarily religious—but for those “in the know,” certainty about God’s non-existence can be fashioned from any number of educated sources from a multitude of disciplines and interests.

Most “new atheist” tomes define “religious belief” and “God” in extraordinarily narrow and comically uninformed terms. The authors beat the crap out the strawman-demo[1]straw man they have created, and then declare that the “God myth” has been destroyed once and for all. As a colleague in the theology department once posted on Facebook, if the “new atheist” description of God is an accurate one, then she guesses she’s an atheist as well. Apparently Sam, Dan, Richard, and Christopher have never met a living, breathing person of faith, a person committed to a framework of belief that evolves, grows, and deepens in the midst of doubt, fear and uncertainty. There is no one definition of God to be proven wrong—I would go so far as to suggest that for many theists, God is more of a verb than a noun, more of an action than an object or item whose existence needs to be verified.

good-without-god-epstein[1]A few months ago, I read the first few pages of Greg Epstein’s Good without God. Epstein is the Humanist chaplain at Harvard University; Jeanne gave me a heads up after she heard him being interviewed on NPR. An interesting juxtaposition—humanism and chaplaincy. I appreciated the first few pages of Epstein’s introduction, where he takes the new atheists to task for their failure to take religious belief seriously, but it was Epstein’s definition of God that fully caught my attention. “Humanists believe,” Epstein writes, “that God is the most important and influential literary character that human beings have every created.” Really. For a moment I couldn’t decide whether that was highly offensive or something worth taking seriously.

Epstein’s definition brought to mind a passage from Richard Rorty, whose work I like a great deal. Rorty was an atheist, but wrote many fascinating and insightful things about pedagogy, democracy, philosophy, religious belief, and more. philosophy-social-hope-richard-rorty-paperback-cover-art[1]About texts that inspire, Rorty wrote that “to have inspirational value, a work must be allowed to recontextualize much of what you previously thought you knew;” inspired teaching “is the result of an encounter with an author, character, plot, stanza, line or archaic torso which has made a difference to the [teacher’s] conception of who she is, what she is good for, what she wants to do with herself: an encounter which has rearranged her priorities and purposes.” With Epstein’s definition of God as a highly influential literary character in mind, this passage took on new dimensions. Recontextualizing much of I previously thought I knew—making a difference to my conception of who I am—an encounter which has rearranged my priorities and purposes—that sounds a lot like God. Not bad for an atheist, Richard. In this light, Epstein’s definition of God is not offensive at all; on the contrary, I love the idea of God as a story, as God as text. Go for it.

esther_denouncing_haman[1]Just about every religion imaginable is full of stories, and Christianity is no exception. In the stories of the Old and New Testaments, I dare you to find one character whose encounter with God did not recontextualize and rearrange (or perhaps disarrange) everything that character thought he or she knew. From Abraham, Moses, Deborah, David, and Esther to Zechariah, Mary, Mary Magdalene, Peter, jesu21b[1]Nicodemus and Saul/Paul, the pages of the Bible and the traditions flowing from it are strewn with transformed priorities and redirected purposes. The transformation is not the result of reading a powerful book, no matter how inspired, but encountering a living, dynamic story whose primary divine character explodes expectations and dismantles assumptions at a glance.

Concerning this dynamic, annie_dillard[1]Annie Dillard with her usual bemusement and wit quotes C. S. Lewis’s remark that “a young atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.” Continuing in her essay “The Book of Luke,” Dillard suggests that the Bible, itself nothing but an outdated tome, again and again opens doors for the unsuspecting that, once open, can never be shut. “This Bible, this ubiquitous black chunk of a best-seller, is a chink—often the only chink—through which winds swirl . . . We crack open its pages at our peril. Many educated, urbane, and flourishing experts in every aspect of business, culture, and science have felt pulled by this anachronistic, semi-barbaric mass of antique laws and fabulous tales from far away; they entered its queer, strait gates and were lost.” From a similar religious background to mine, Dillard’s parents often sent her to img_1213715354346_301[1]Bible camp in the summer—Annie wants to know “what we they thinking?” “Why did they spread this scandalous document before our eyes? If they had read it, I thought, they would have hid it. They did not recognize the lively danger that we would, through repeated exposure, catch a dose of its virulent opposition to their world.” If you want to have your priorities and purposes rearranged permanently, jump into the middle of this greatest story ever told and start looking for the main character. You will never be the same.

But God as a fictional character? God as a text? Don’t human beings write stories and texts? Is God just a figment of the ever-creative human imagination? That’s seems a bit “out there” even for a freelance Christian. But maybe not. Consider, for instance, Yann Martel’s Booker Prize winning 2001 novel Life of Pi, recently made into an Academy Award-winning movie a couple of years ago. Pi Patel, the lone survivor of a shipwrecked Japanese freighter, has just been rescued after more than two hundred days in a lifeboat. Life-of-Pi-IMAGE[1]Representatives of the insurance company arrive in Pi’s hospital room in hopes of finding out why the ship sank. Pi’s story, which forms the heart of the book, is spectacularly entertaining and completely unbelievable. In addition to the human passengers who include Pi’s father, mother and brother, the ship is carrying dozens of caged zoo animals. Pi is the only human survivor but finds himself sharing the lifeboat with an injured zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and a four hundred fifty pound Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.pi[1] Before long the hyena kills the zebra and orangutan, the tiger kills the hyena, and it is just Pi and Richard Parker. For more than seven months they share the boat, working out a tenuous survival relationship and together encountering remarkable adventures including flocks of flying fish, tiger sharks, and a carnivorous island. Upon finally washing ashore in Mexico, Richard Parker walks off into the jungle without so much as a glance back, and Pi is rescued by several conspecifics.

The story is entertaining, but entirely unacceptable for the insurance claim report.

Pi: What do you want from me?

Insurance guy: A story that won’t make us look like fools. A simpler story for our report. A story the company can understand. A story we can all believe.

Pi: A story without things you’ve never seen before?

Insurance guy: That’s right.

Pi: Without surprises, without animals or islands?

Insurance guy: The truth.

So Pi tells them another story. In this story there are no animals, but Pi is joined on the lifeboat by an injured sailor, the ship’s cook, and Pi’s mother. It is a story of violence, evil, treachery, cannibalism and murder. Eventually Pi is the only human left standing and survives alone for several months before bumping into Mexico.

Insurance guy: That’s a terrible story.

Pi: Neither story explains what happened to the ship, and no one can prove which is true and which is not. So which story do you prefer?

Insurance guy: The one with the tiger. That’s the better story.

Pi: And so it goes with God.

And so it does. We can weave the details of our lives and our reality into a story of “yeastless factuality,” as Pi would describe it, in which we allow no characters or events beyond those that we think we have already figured out. But the human heart is attuned to a different story, one in which much is uncertain, many things are unknown, a story that we are both characters in and authors of. Holy Week is a story containing at its core this same unpredictable character both human and divine, a character of infinite surprise energizing the story with boundless love and mystery. It’s a much better story. Let’s live it out.

Defensiveness

images[3]I got into a bad habit a few years ago that I thought I had broken. Over the past several years I have had a dozen or so letters to the editor published by our local city newspaper, usually in response to someone else’s letter to the editor that annoyed the hell out of me. I read the paper on-line, and soon discovered that it is possible to comment on any letter or article immediately, with postings collecting underneath the letter on the screen. Such discussions often go in directions vastly different from what the original letter suggests. The philosopher and teacher in me wants to jump into such discussions, especially when they involve important issues that mean a lot to me. With the recent addition of Facebook-logo-ICON-02[1]Facebook into my life, lately I’ve been finding it hard to resist the temptation.

What happens, though, is not a discussion. The battle lines get drawn instantly on every possible issue between conservative and liberal, religious and non-religious, all protected by the anonymity of a screen name. So “X” calls the writer of the letter under consideration a “bleeding heart” because she is calling for additional funding to be allocated for environmental issues, “Y” calls “X” a “typical Republican moron” because all he/she cares about is his bank account, “X” responds that “Y” must be a Head_up_ass_liberal_zoom3-300x287[1]“liberal with his head up his ass” because global warming is only a theory, several other posters get involved within five minutes, and we’re off the races.

At this point I should either click on the sports section or turn the computer off. Instead, I take at least 30 seconds to craft the “post to end all posts” on this topic, in response to which all other contributors to the discussion will, after a moment of respectful e-silence, fall over each other in their gratitude for having been shown the light. What happens instead is that “X” and “Y” (as well as many others) turn on me for all sorts of unexpected reasons. I must be more of a liberal with his head up his ass than “Y” is (“X”), my ideas will never work because I sound like an Ivory_Tower[1]“ivory tower pointy headed intellectual” (“Y”). Or even worse, sometimes the discussion goes on as if my post had never occurred. It’s bad enough to be e-trashed on a discussion forum; it’s far worse to be e-ignored. So now I really should turn the computer off, read something, write something, take a walk, talk to a human being—anything but continue participating. But of course I have to respond (if I’ve been misunderstood and insulted) or post even more eloquently and pointedly (if I’ve been ignored). And throughout the morning I find myself frequently returning to the website to see who has posted, what they’ve said, and spending more time contributing to a discussion that never was a discussion in the first place. It’s like driving by a bad accident on the highway—I have to look.

Why am I doing this? I’d like to believe that my participation in such “discussions” is a well-intentioned but misplaced instance of my teaching vocation in action. All teachers want to facilitate the opening of closed minds, the establishment of the life-long process of learning. Now I know that the participants in these “discussions” are not my students, but I have in the back of my mind the glimmer of hope that if a person is interested enough to participate, that person might also be interested in learning something, in broadening horizons, in realizing that even the most obvious “no brainer” sort of “truth” might be wrong. Vera-Brittain-002[1]And I’m accustomed to encountering resistance from my experiences in the classroom. As Vera Brittain writes, “most people wish above all else to be comfortable, and thought is a pre-eminently uncomfortable process.”dav_soc[1] I fully realize that defensiveness is a natural reaction to having one’s most treasured assumptions challenged, so I expect resistance. Learning and opening up hurts—that’s why they killed Socrates, right? Richard Rorty says it nicely: “The best way to cause people long-lasting pain is to humiliate them by making theRorty11[1] things that seemed most important to them look futile, obsolete, and powerless.” So I try not to do that. But I’ve never been so frustrated in my life, to the point that a couple of weeks ago in the middle of a typically rigid and inflexible discussion I posted “If there’s any one who regularly posts here who has ever, even once, changed their opinion on an important issue because of something someone posted here, please post and let me know!” And no one ever did.

But guess what? If anyone else had posted that challenge, I would not have answered it either. Because I’ve never learned anything new or changed my mind about anything from participating. Well I guess I’ve learned one thing—I’m just as rigid, inflexible, and intolerant as everyone else who participates. I can account for that partially because of the format; dueling sound bites and bumper sticker slogans, wrapped in anonymity, seldom lead to anything but arguing and e-yelling. But there’s more to it. When I step from behind my self-righteous “facilitator of lifetime learning” teacher screen, I’m just another worried, insecure human being who is scared to death that he might not have all the answers. That’s who is typing the contributions to these forums on my computer, not someone who has “seen the light” and wants to help others see it too. As I accuse others of being unable to listenhc[1], to think, to deliberate, to imagine that they might be wrong, I realize that there’s no place inside of me where I even for a moment suspect that I might be able to learn something from an extreme pro-lifer, from a hard core conservative Republican, from a person whose religious beliefs include the Earth being created 6000 years ago, from someone who is convinced that global warming is a hoaxEVOLUTION[1] and natural selection is “just a theory,” or from someone who thinks that the solution to gun violence is more guns and who believes that the bombings in Boston last week would not have happened if those watching the race had been packing firearms. Who died and made me God, so sure that the value of another’s opinion is directly proportional to how closely it matches up to mine?

So it would be best for me to stay away from such forums—they don’t offer many opportunities for growth. But the first word in the monastic rule has come to mean a great deal to me is “Listen.”  Perhaps a good post-Lenten exercise for me would be to spend forty days reading the comments on letters to the editor carefully and never saying anything. Just e-listen. I don’t think I can do it.

desert-listen-mb-1024x746[1]