Monday, September 1, 2014

Thoughts on Wisdom and Knowledge on the Cusp of a New Academic Year

Here at Gettysburg seminary, presession for new students is tomorrow, and Wednesday the academic year officially begins. In many other places, school already is underway and the summer is officially over. Having spent the vast majority of my life following the rhythm of an academic rather than a calendar year, September always brings lots of excitement and enthusiasm, as well as some butterflies--a good thing, I think. I never want to have been at this so long that I become blase at the thought of meeting new students and engaging with them both in the classroom and beyond. It is an incredible gift to have this as my vocation and I never take it for granted.

So, this weekend, I have been thinking a lot about the "this" in that previous sentence: what am I doing, exactly--particularly when I teach? Here at the seminary, of course, we talk about "formation," and recognize that we are about much, much more than conveying information. Instead, we are concerned about the whole person: her growing into her sense of vocation; his deepening his understanding of God, self and the world--all for the sake of witnessing to God's passionate love for and presence with creation. But at the same time, there is much that we do here that I think also is relevant for secular education.
Two things I'd like to share that I have found helpful on this topic: one is brand-new, the other much older. 

 Here is the recent one, an article in The New York Times about "the mental virtues": The Mental Virtues.  In this piece, the author, David Brooks, cites a 2007 book, Intellectual Virtues by Robert C. Roberts and W. Jay Wood, which describes what they call "cerebral virtues." These are: love of learning; courage [both to hold unpopular views and also to take academic risks]; firmness [a moderate position between rigidity and timidity]; humility; autonomy; and generosity. I don't disagree with any of these, and I think they are particularly important for theological education, where religious zeal sometimes can lead to arrogance, intolerance and an inability to listen to anything that challenges one's own sacred views. 

But here was my favorite quote from the whole piece: "Montaigne once wrote that 'We can be knowledgeable with other men’s knowledge, but we can’t be wise with other men’s wisdom.'" That, to me, is really, really important, because it's a reminder that an academic course of study isn't primarily about mastering knowledge. I mean, of course, knowledge is important, and for all of us--new students and experienced ones--there is always much to learn. I'm grateful for that, and hope to always have the disposition of a learner. But, the larger question always should be, "To what end?" 

Ultimately, if we view knowledge as a gift from God--and certainly, given the fact that millions and millions of people around the world don't have the opportunity even for primary school education, let alone higher education, those of us who do have those opportunities should recognize that gift--then, like all gifts, it is meant to be used in the service of the neighbor and for the glory of God. Obviously, this is particularly true at a religious institution, but I think all education is meant to build up--not just oneself, but one's community--and indeed, the whole world. Education isn't meant to be collected and hoarded--shown off as one's private possession, but "given away" lavishly in service to the world. That's the "wisdom" piece, I think: the ability to process and integrate what one has learned with a larger understanding of one's vocation in the world, and one's place in the vast interrelated web that is the human [and non-human] community. As the brilliant, beautiful poet Mary Oliver asks, "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" It takes wisdom to answer that question.

Related to that--and in conclusion, let me close with the older piece: It is titled "Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God," by Simon Weil, and it comes from her book, Waiting for God. It is a moving exploration of the connections between study and prayer, and a reminder of why study always has been understood as a spiritual discipline. She begins the essay with this statement: "The key to a Christian conception of studies is the realization that prayer consists of attention. It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable toward God. The quality of the attention counts for much in the quality of the prayer." And the gist of her overarching argument is that when we study--regardless of the subject or of our facility in it--we learn the discipline of paying attention--of patience and waiting. And it is in this overarching disposition of openness, which requires humility, a giving up of control, and putting oneself in the hands of God, where we see the last, best fruits of study--and this is true for all students, of all capacities. Giving attention to one's studies trains us to give attention to God--and to our neighbor. She writes, "The capacity to give one's attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing," but this indeed what is most required.  Indeed--giving attention to God also, I would say, is a rare and difficult thing--it is hard to be still, to be open, and give God fully one's time and one's presence.  

She concludes the essay with these words, "Academic work is one of those fields containing a pearl so precious that it is worth while to sell all of our possessions, keeping nothing for ourselves, in order to be able to acquire it." I couldn't agree more.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

I Love it When a Conference Comes Together

Remember "The A Team?"  I loved that show back in the 80s--and I even loved the remake with Liam Neeson.  If you know the show, you know the line, "I love it when a plan comes together"--it was George Peppard's signature phrase, and usually came as a triumphant declaration of success, in spit of all evidence to the contrary.

All that is really apropos of nothing, except that it is the phrase that keeps coming into my head now that I am home from Vienna after attending the 17th Congress of the International Association of Buddhist Studies.  And the reason, of course, is that the past week was just about as perfect as one could hope for:  great weather, great hotel, great food, great city, and a great, great conference.  I came back about as intellectually fulfilled and stimulated as one can be--without any of the accompanying exhaustion or annoyance that so often is part of the conference experience.

For me, I think part of the wealth of the experience was that even though I presented a paper [on the concept of God in "The Lotus Sutra"--using Wittgenstein's language theory to argue for it], mostly I was there as a listener.  With very, very few exceptions, the scholars in attendance were Buddhologists--many of the big names I have read were there, which is always fun [I love being an academic nerd]--and I was mostly out of my depth.  But what this meant was that I was freed up to be a listener:  I took copious notes and payed attention as intently as I was able.  I found it very liberating:  you know how sometimes when you are listening to someone else, you aren't really listening at all, but rather thinking about what you are going to say just as soon as you can break in, just to show how much you know?  Scholars tend to do that more often than we should, I think.  But not me, at least not this time:  what in the world was I going to ask Jan Nattier, who was talking so compellingly about the challenges with translating a translation, and the differences we see, for example, when translating a Chinese text [for which the original Sanskrit has been lost] into Tibetan [a primarily monosyllabic language] vs. Mongolian [an exuberantly polysyllabic language]?  Um, OK--whatever you say!  So, having immediately come to terms with my ignorance, I threw myself into the disposition of a listener and a learner--and boy, did I learn!

Here are just a few example:  John Powers had a great presentation on the physical marks of the Buddha's body, asking why they have been all but excluded in contemporary discussions of Buddhist practice, even though they are so central throughout various Buddhist texts as a key proof of the Buddha's identity, and the enlightenment of his followers.  [Turns out Buddhism has its own mind/body problems....].  Taka Oshikiri offered a very interesting presentation on the introduction and development of tea in Japan, including its role in monastic life [Zen monastic life in particular]; and I also met a lovely woman, Katarina Plank, who works in Gothenburg [near my Swedish relatives!], and she gave a very interesting talk about the construction of a Thai Buddhist temple in the north of Sweden, in Fredrika--including a bit about the larger Buddhist population in Sweden.  There were also two very interesting presentations about Buddhism in Sri Lanka, and the militant attitudes and actions of some of the Buddhist monks there--surprised?

I could go on and on, but I won't:  suffice it to say that every day was a great day, and I came away totally humbled and totally inspired.  I guess what I want to offer here to conclude the blog is how I was again reminded how vitally important it is to be in conversation with people different from yourself--and, obviously, how important it is for the church to be carrying on those conversations:  both as an institution and as individuals, particularly those individuals who are public ministers.  I mean, after my presentation, a Buddhist nun came up to me and asked me to explain how I can talk about compassion in light of all the wrathful ways God treats God's people in the Bible.  It's a fair question--and, of course, not a new one, but how it changes when it's being asked by a woman who has dedicated her whole life to Buddhism, standing gently before me in monastic robes with a shaved head.  

Even though I can count on one hand the number of times Christianity was even obliquely referenced [oh, one of those times was a reference to Bultmann & demythologizing:  did you know there were scholars working to "demythologize" Buddhism in Japan about 40 years before Bultmann?  I didn't!], I was thinking about my seminary context and my students the whole time, processing the all the ways my own understanding of Christianity, and my thoughts about Buddhist-Christian dialogue, were being challenged and changed.  There is just no way to replicated that experience without "the other"--and without putting yourself "under" their authority and wisdom.  It's a powerful, transformative experience that I wish for everyone.  The church and its members would be better for it.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Problem with Just "Standing-by"

So, I just read this article in The New York Times this morning about continuing discrimination against women, particularly in the sciences:  Harassment in Science
It's an interesting article, and, of course, much of what I read there I know women also have experienced in theological education and public ministry.  I could say a lot more about that.  I won't.

Instead, here is the part of the article I want to lift up.  At one point in the article, the author offers the following story:

                        "Most men are not creeps, and they have a powerful role 
                        to play here. During a field trip at a journalism conference 
                        a few years ago, I had an engaging conversation with a 
                       keynote speaker. As we parted, he told me, in front of two 
                       other men, 'Your husband shouldn’t let you out of the house.'  
                       The two bystanders brushed off this insulting attempt at a 
                       compliment. It was easier for them to let it go than to call out 
                       a friend, and their behavior said it was all right to treat me like that."

Christians actually have a name for that behavior, and it's called "bearing false witness."  I know have talked about this many times before, and in many different places, but I can't help but feel it bears repeating.  Luther was quite clear that bearing false witness goes beyond simply talking trash about your neighbor.  Instead, it also explicitly includes keeping silent and NOT speaking up when someone else does the trash-talking.  As I have noted before, Luther uses the image of "cloaking and veiling" our neighbor with our own honor, writing:

"Thus in our relations with one another all of us whatever we can to serve, assist, and 
promote their good name. 
On the other hand, we should prevent everything
that may contribute to their disgrace."  

And, let's be frank, as long as we live in a patriarchal society that continues to discriminate women in many different ways, it is of critical importance that men use their social capital on behalf of women and risk speaking up and speaking out on their behalf, rather than just standing by and keeping silent in the face of sexist jokes and dismissive comments.  

Here at the seminary, for example, I can tell you what a different it makes when my male colleagues emphasize to our students the importance of inclusive and expansive language--and model that for them in their own behavior--making clear that this is not just a "women's issue" or something the female faculty keep trying to shove down everyone's throat.

I know how hard it is to risk your own social standing to challenge something someone says in a group, especially a group of friends or colleagues.  But our responsibility to the neighbor is clear--and when we don't challenge people who make sexist [or homophobic or racist, etc., etc.] comments, we're not being impartial or unbiased, we're putting ourselves on the side of injustice--just by saying and doing nothing.  The fact is, "standing-by" is actually a misnomer:  if you're not standing up, you're "standing in."  We all need to pay more attention to where we stand:  there is no neutral location in situations of oppression.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Does Religion Make You Happy?

So, I finally discovered podcasts--and by that, I mean I finally took the time to go through and curate a manageable list of my favorite podcasts that I can actually keep up with:  no small task, I tell you!  Anyway, one of the podcasts on my list is "Freakonomics"--find it here:  Freakonomics Postcast

Anyway, one of the recent episodes was titled, "Does Religion Make You Happy?", and it begins by talking about tithing in particular:  so, specifically, does religious giving make you happy?  [The second half of the podcast talks more generally about the question of whether or not religious people are happier--so the whole podcast is interesting.]  Regarding this question of tithing, though, on the one hand, they note that there are lots of positive associations between happiness and giving, particularly as it relates to religious affiliation and participation:  however, at the same time, there are lots of caveats with the data, so one can't simply say, "Yes, giving to your church [or temple, mosque, etc.] makes you happier."

Speaking from my own experience, as a Christian, here's what I think can be said--at least about Christianity.  There are two really important Christian teachings that are interconnected, and relate directly to this issue of wealth & giving.  The first is that all we have comes from God--we don't technically "own" anything:  what we have comes into our hands only temporarily, and after we die, it passes out of them--"you can't take it with you," as the proverbial saying goes.  The second is that all we have is to be used for the sake of the neighbor and to glorify God:  having received from God in joy and thankfulness, we give back to the neighbor in joy and thankfulness--we have a mandate to care for our neighbor with the gifts we have given.  These are, of course, very counter-cultural ideas, as they grate against the notion that we have a right to all we have earned [I worked hard for it & it is mine], and that the neighbor has no claim on me or my resources.  These are sinful, self-centered commitments, but boy, are they hard to dislodge, especially because our capitalist society works so hard to convince us that money is the most important measure of personal value, success, accomplishment, and, yes, happiness.  However, the fact is that this is patently untrue--and there are plenty of studies that demonstrate the  opposite:  once you have achieved a level of wealth that enables you to be comfortable [safe housing, enough food, etc., etc.], people making $500,000 aren't happier than those making $50,000.

So, again, speaking personally, I have found lots of joy and freedom in the practice of holding one's possessions loosely:  enjoying them while you have them, but being willing to let them go when needed.  It does feel good to be a generous person, and to actively practice the spiritual disciplines of generosity and simplicity:  not being shackled to money--being bound to it both physically and spiritually.   Of course, let me be clear:  I'm just as sinful as the next person, and there are lots of ways I could live more simply [wardrobe, shoes--enough said]--I don't practice this nearly as well as I could.  However, I am grateful at least for the fact that I have been formed by a tradition that emphasizes that giving is important, and that has inculcated a sense of joy and peace when I do it.  My faith nurtures me in these disciplines.  I think my active participation in the Christian church has made me more sensitive and aware of the needs of my neighbor--both locally and globally--and has given me a stronger impetus and desire to actively engage those needs with my time, talents and money.  And, that makes me happy--it really does.  

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Tragedy and the Sanctity of Life--even a Tiny Shrimp

Well, it's been quite a news cycle this week, hasn't it?  From the downed airline over the Ukraine, to the terrible fighting in Gaza, to the horrific stories of gang violence in Honduras and the masses of children seeking refuge in the United States--every day just seemed to bring worse news.  

It's hard to know what to say in these situations:  there is simply so much evil in the world, so much human sinfulness.  And even thought I am part of a religious tradition that looks that evil and sin right in the eye and doesn't blink, and even still dares to proclaim both hope in the future and trust in God's love and mercy in the here and now, sometimes that hope seems so desperately fragile.

I'm reminded here of Emily Dickinson's poem: 

                   "Hope" is the thing with feathers -
                   That perches in the soul -
                    And sings the tune without the words -
                   And never stops - at all.....

And, frankly, it's not even about numbers, is it?  The news media cares about numbers, of course--300 is a bigger story than 30--but when it's your child, your spouse, your city, one is enough to bring you to your knees, and you don't need a mounting body count to despair.

So, in trying to imagine what clinging to hope might look like in the face of all this, I was quite heartened to come across this little story in The New York Times about Buddhists rescuing shrimp.  Yes, you read that right--shrimp:  read the story here--The Sanctity of Life.

If you know anything about Buddhism, you know it is characterized by a strong tradition of reverence for life--all life, not just human life.  Some of this comes out of the belief in rebirth, in which you or someone you love could end up in the next life as a cat or a donkey, or even a shrimp.  But some of it also relates to a belief in the deep, deep interconnectedness of all life, and the way in which the health and flourishing of every part of creation is related to every other part:  all sentient beings for sure, and even plants and non-sentient life.  This idea, Christians should be able to understand--even if the stuff about rebirth doesn't quite make sense in a Christian framework.

So, somehow in the face of all this loss and destruction I was quite moved at the thought of individuals spending their day painstakingly digging through the mud with tweezers to rescue stranded shrimp to set them free in the local river.  You may say this is foolish:  why waste time with shrimp when there are people in need that should be helped instead?  I get that, but I also disagree with it in some measure:  behind that kind of reasoning is a false argument that implies first that shrimp and people are not connected; and second, that there is some kind of limit on love and compassion--that only some can be helped but not all, and only certain kinds of altruistic acts have real value.  Instead, I think it is more accurate to see that cultivating love and care for all life creates a climate in which people directly benefit, and might even mitigate against the violence that too often is the first response in situations of fear or anger.  We all know how cruelty to animals too often leads to cruelty to people; why can't we imagine that the reverse is true:  kindness to animals can lead to greater kindness and compassion to people, too?

This practice of "life liberation" or "mercy release" is not without its detractors and its problems.  But it is also a gloriously defiant act:  taking the time and effort to save a few precious creatures, even knowing that many, maybe even most, will not be saved is both illogical and breathtaking.  It strikes me as a welcome challenge to pragmatic cynicism, and a loud flap of hope's wings.  Maybe shrimp aren't much in the grand scheme of things, but they are something; and just as importantly, so is the attitude of love and compassion behind their rescue. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

George Saunders on Kindness

As I'm sure some of you know, the author George Saunders delivered the commencement address at Syracuse University this year.  You can find the full text of it here:

Anyway, it proved to be so popular, it actually was printed as a book, which I bought and read today.  It was really quite delightful:  short [which personally, I think is the most important characteristic of a good graduation speech], poignant, funny and actually spot on in terms of what a fresh-face graduate with the world at her feet actually needs to hear.   The point of the speech:  be kind--that's what matters.  It's hard to disagree with that.

Here are my favorite bits of the address.

Best opening sentence of a graduation speech ever:
"Down through the ages, a traditional form has evolved for this type of speech, which is:  Some old fart, his best years behind him, who over the course of his life has made a series of dreadful mistakes (that would be me), gives heartfelt advice to a group of shining, energetic young people with all their best years ahead of them (that would be you).
And I intend to respect that tradition."

When it comes to regrets, he says, "What I regret most in my life are failures if kindness.  Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering and I responded....sensibly.  Reservedly.  Mildly." [I'd put it this way:  There's nothing worse than mild chagrin in the face of injustice.]

" a goal in life, you could do worse than:  Try to be kinder."

" heartfelt wish for you:  As you get older, your self will diminish and you will grow in love.  YOU will gradually be replaced by LOVE."   
As I read this sentence in particular, I was thinking what an important idea this is in both Buddhism and Christianity.  Christians have both a name for this process (sanctification) and the means of attaining it (spiritual disciplines). Buddhists do, too: in some ways, you could argue that, in a nutshell, this is the process of enlightenment, and the means by which one attains it is the eightfold path.  Speaking of Buddhism, by the way, it was quite interesting to me that Saunders actually talks about selfishness as a sickness in us, and kindness (read:  selflessness, or, stretching a bit, no-self) as the "cure."  You can't get much more Buddhist than that!

Finally, and in some ways most importantly:

"...accomplishment is unreliable...Since, according to me, your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving:  Hurry up.  Speed it along.  Start right now. "

Good advice for all of us, right?

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The World Cup, Diversity & our Life Together

I had planned to write a blog on the World Cup yesterday, but the hours got away from me:  it's not easy being dean [cue music & Kermit's voice...].  Anyway, I'm so glad I waited, because this morning, I read this fabulous piece in The New York Times:

Seriously, even if you stop reading the blog right now, read this article!  [Nutshell:  it talks about how life is more like soccer than baseball; that is, it's not about a bunch of individuals playing their best, but rather a situation that depends on a network of individuals functioning well together.  The point is, in soccer, a highly synchronized team of mediocre players will beat a team comprised of the best individual players in the world, if those players can't play well together.]  I'll come back to the article shortly.

Anyway, what I wanted to say is that I have loved, loved, loved the World Cup, and that's not only because I love, love, love futebol, which I do, but also because it has been so wonderful to feel in a very visceral way part of the world community:  cheering along with people in Argentina, the Netherlands [that semi-final was rough for me], Mexico, Nigeria, etc., etc., etc., and learning something about their countries and histories with names and faces attached.  Oh, I know--I'm supposed to live like this all the time, and, to some small degree, I do:  I pay attention to what is going on in Germany, where my beloved goddaughter and her family live, and where I spent a fabulous year of my life; in Sweden, where my all my dear cousins live; in Japan, a country I fell in love with when I visited two years ago; in India, a country that has a deep hold on me culturally and religiously; in Papua New Guinea, where I spent a summer teaching with my first theological mentor--you get the idea.  I have a decent list of places like this, places where I have a personal connection and a vested interest, but it is by no means exhaustive.  There are plenty of countries around the world about which I know nothing, and which, if I'm honest, I'd even be hard pressed to locate on a map [Benin, anyone?].

But, for three glorious weeks [my long-suffering husband aside, I still say glorious!], I have lived in a truly global world--right here in Gettysburg.  I have cheered and sighed with people many time-zones away, in real time, and I have fallen in love with their heroes, like the Mexican goalie Ochoa, and learned something about their character and their backstories--the individuals, the teams, and the countries--and it's been amazing.  I'll be sorry when it ends on Sunday.

All of this reminds me why diversity is so important.  I live much of my life in academic and ecclesiastical circles where much of time--or at least, some of the time--"diversity" can feel like a dirty word.  In hiring new faculty, for example, or accepting new students [or even seeking new congregational members], some people balk at the idea that diversity should be a priority:  you know, because what we need are the "best" candidates/people, and that has nothing to do with skin color or country of origin.  I find this argument specious, because it seems to be predicated on the idea that what we're really looking for is a brain, and brains are all the same regardless of the kind of head that houses them.  It's ridiculous, isn't it?  We're not just brains--or "souls" or "hearts"--whatever that would mean [and I could go off on a great tangent here about Ludwig Wittgenstein's philosophy, which I have been re-reading lately, but I'll spare you]:  every aspect of who we are is enfleshed, and therefore every aspect of how we think, how we view others, what we read, and whose voices have authority are deeply rooted in where we were born, how we were raised, and the cultural milieu that surrounds us.

And, here's the important part:  when we come together as a community, we enrich the whole with our differences; and each of us as individuals become more than we were before with these different engagements and friendships.  Here is the paragraph from the Times piece that I especially liked.  

"There is also a developed body of research on how much our very consciousness is shaped by the people around us. Let me simplify it with a classic observation: Each close friend you have brings out a version of yourself that you could not bring out on your own. When your close friend dies, you are not only losing the friend, you are losing the version of your personality that he or she elicited."

I think this is a true observation for more than just close friends:  I think this happens for us in many relationships we have over time in our lives.  Thinking about it that way, I realize that I want to be the kind of person that has all kinds of "versions"--facets that have been brought out by friendships with lots of different people; and I want that not only in my personal life, but in my professional life as well--and in my church life, for that matter.  Differences are important--they matter--and just like in soccer, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; and I'm challenged and changed in ways I could never have imagined without someone inviting me into a new perspective, a new picture, a new corner of the globe.

Come Sunday, I'll be rooting for Germany, no doubt; but I have to confess, I've really come to love Messi over the course of these weeks, and if Argentina wins, I'll be happy for him.  And either way, I'll celebrate the beautiful game, and the way it brings together the whole world, even for just a short time, making us feel just a little more connected.