Friday, August 4, 2017

The Storm of Self and Otherness, Finding Refuge and Living in the World

I'd venture we identify with words like "tolerance," "inclusion," and "empathy." We fancy ourselves unbound by dogmas, receptive to differences, and willing participants in diversity. We even try to think about these feelings and issues, understanding that our personal views are shaped and are being shaped by social, cultural, and political forces we neither control nor approve.

There are lots of reasons to be frustrated, infuriated, and eager to withdraw. We need consolation and reprieve, tools for mental health, and methods to flourish when just surviving is no small matter. These stresses are real because no one can manage them to immunity or invulnerability. Being human is a storm punctuated by moments of fair weather. It seems enough to have to care about our own lives, it will require that much more to care about others.

This piece makes a simple enough argument and uses an example that is likely unfamiliar to most.

*First, we must find a deeper peace in the disturbance itself. The hurricane may not feel like refuge and it may not be safe, but that's the first acknowledgement to be made. There is no safe and refuge is not just in some calm eye or at the periphery or in the few days we get "off." Meditation may take us from the hurricane's forces but the weather awaits us wherever we go. Our thesis is that the storm itself is our primary resource. Put another way, it is in being with our contrariety that we become more attuned to the feelings and ideas that shape us and that we try to shape.

*Second, we need to look at others' worlds, others' views, others' imaginings, histories, and traditions. We must do this not only because we live in the world with people with differing views and values (like it or not) but because to see oneself we must learn how to imagine who we are not. Introspection is comparison, evaluation, and preference--- to think otherwise because you are tolerant or inclusive is another kind of self-delusion. We cannot question our assumptions but from within the greater structures ---somatic, cognitive, social, historical--- in which they already exist. To frame worlds we need to try to find the outlines, the dimensions, and the forms that shape. None of us are immune to our bias and neither should we be. If we have done the hard work of contrariety then our opinions are hard won _and_ we might be willing to be changed. Let's embrace that paradox to move this argument forward.

In the deeply arcane world of modern theologies where angels still dance with pinheads, I take a certain notice. It's my job and I still work to fend off too much familiarity, because with too much "I got this" and one becomes lazy, predisposed to think that you _really_ got this. We're better off staying curious enough to read closely, reach out to hone our critical skills, and remember that contrariety means looking for _yet another angle, argument, point of view_. Part of being in the storm is knowing that you can't always predict the weather. Taking imbalance, asymmetry, and limited lines of sight as normal creates more alignment, greater resilience, and honest perspective. Let's not get grandiose: our limitations are crucial to developing our gifts and making the most of our assets. To progress and to grow is to invite the discomforting and trial some for the sake of greater findings.

To take up the contrarian life is to bathe in the irony that to cultivate "contrary" is to soak in empathy. To criticize ---not to diminish, discredit, or project disdain--- but _to understand_ means doing the impossible: trying to see the world as others see, imagining a life you don't lead and aren't likely to embrace. And then apply this very strategy to one's self. This is the core of the contrarian method: learning to imagine, to think, to feel so that one can evaluate, take stock and pause before a hasty judgment. And, yes, you _will_ judge, to dismiss judgment is just another form of judgment. We are always in the business of deciding, classifying, ranking, gauging and guesstimating.

Vital to the process is how we understand the stakes. When the stakes are low for us ---what do you think of the guy who doesn't share your love of beets?--- we need not lean so angularly into our preferences as if they are superior. We endanger our abilities not only to tolerate but to fathom the difference between what is important and what is not. But make no mistake about it, we may be flawed, inadequate, and out of our league when we assay the world, but we are going to do it anyway.  Even the most virtuosic stumble and fail.

Rajanaka calls that humbling process of learning "contrariety" so that we find out what more is possible than confirming our opinions. Rather, we learn more about how to question, placing our arguments (not quarreling, arguing) and feelings (bias, preference, structural prejudice) more in front and before. This could take time to explain but the storm will not wait. Contrariety is the process of being in the storm, staying in the storm, storming back at the storm, and knowing that whatever fair weather you enjoy is worth cherishing. It's coming again, there's nothing to protect you but your willingness to stay in the tempest of learning.

It's crucial too to consider how much is decided, appraised, sized up and negotiated _before_ we are aware cognitively. Our bodies assess first, our minds follow, and the process of choice is neither self-evident nor always actual. Appa used to say that the unconscious is front of us looking back towards us---even when we think it is deeply buried or informing us from behind our awareness. What has been chosen or adjudged, derived and reckoned is no small matter. There are many tools for interrogating these processes, not the least of which are the evocative, symbolic, allegorical resources of myth, poetry, mantra, and other forms of "indirect" inquiry and exploration.

To discover more about ourselves we actually have to care about how others formulate their worlds. We need not assume everyone wants the same things from life, much less that there is a right way, a destination, a goal, or meaning that we all share. In fact, none of those things might exist at all but for our complex processes of invention and contrivance. This doesn't make them less real, only more human: conditioned, provisional, unfinished, and dynamic. "All," "every," "always," are words that we must use and cautiously if we are to fathom the real diversity and difference that is just as human as our sameness in species.

So again, what's with people? And more pointedly, their deepest convictions, traditions, traumatic histories, morals, and feelings that get channeled through the word "religion." If you prefer to say that you are "spiritual" and not "religious" it's worth considering more seriously what it is you think makes you warm to one word and rebuff the other. It matters more that you embark on this more illusive task: what do you want from this distinction rather than what you already believe is the distinction you think you're making.

I'm making a claim here that warrants divulgence. Religion deals with incongruities: between what we want and what say we want, what we hope and what happens, about the difference we try to fathom between what we experience and what appears without our input or consent. In Rajanaka we use the word "paradox" to describe our human condition. The world we see does indeed "go on" without us ---before, during, and after, there's a world "out there." But that same "object" world is our human experience world and we are each "subjects" in it and deciding about it (until, of course, we are not). So there's a there out there and it's also in us and this situation of realities isn't one way or another, it's both and. We left to consider what's on offer and what do we want. Religion is a real part of that story because it informs from behind, during, and it helps determine important issues for our future. The point I want to emphasize is that we're not all the same even though we are all human---more paradox to embrace. I don't expect everyone to agree. (This fact only makes the point, of course.)

I have a good friend who describes himself as a faithful, relatively conservative Catholic. No amount of 21st century evaluations of the natural world's origins and processes repudiates the tenets of his faith. He is educated, sophisticated, and skilled in critical thinking. But he _really_ believes this stuff and when I tease (not really) and say things that would offend (deeply), he takes it well and maintains that his convictions inform his life. I am content to regard these matters in terms of his behavior. He would not contend that one has to be Catholic or religious to be moral or even to get to heaven, where he assures me he will advocate for my inclusion should Peter not find me wholly in the Lord's graces. I jest, but the issues at stake are certainly practical: how do people treat one another, what do they expect of others, and in what ways do their views and values shape, influence, and impose on others. Who gets to decide what?

Appa took ultimacy off the table. He centered his concerns on living our mortal life as wholly mortal. He didn't think that opinions, feelings, and behaviors about things ultimate don't matter. If you think there is a God, an afterlife, a before-life, enlightenment, superior forms of awareness (put here _every_ meditation tradition's claims), all of these sorts of beliefs tell you not only what you want but how you might interact or influence others. We might claim that we are not interested in imposing or indoctrinating others but that is always more a matter of degree than of fact.

It's not a simple equation that allows us to say 'live and let' live is an absolute, no matter how that value plays its part. We actually care what others insist is theirs to believe even if they insist they harbor no views at all (this is an interesting Buddhist claim, for example) or that their views do no mean to impede others' freedom. The important difference between what one believes one "should" or "must" do--- and so others too--- and what one will tolerate even when such ideas or actions violate one's own norms or tenets. What really is okay with us is not always okay with others, not by a long shot.

Inside the Catholic Church right now is a deeply insular argument that involves the role of Catholic dogma and political involvements. If you can stand it, look at this piece in the NYTimes where the factionalism and the dispute involves Vatican politics that represent very different interpretations of dogma.


If you have a real fascination with how these things are argued using terms like "dominionist theology," "Manichaeism," "prosperity gospel," and all the way to "in hoc signo vinces," go read the article that is all the current fuss.


Okay, that was asking a lot. So here are the two crucial paragraphs that outline the so-called liberals' position.

"The religious element should never be confused with the political one. Confusing spiritual power with temporal power means subjecting one to the other. An evident aspect of Pope Francis’ geopolitics rests in not giving theological room to the power to impose oneself or to find an internal or external enemy to fight. There is a need to flee the temptation to project divinity on political power that then uses it for its own ends. Francis empties from within the narrative of sectarian millenarianism and dominionism that is preparing the apocalypse and the “final clash.”[2] Underlining mercy as a fundamental attribute of God expresses this radically Christian need.

Francis wants to break the organic link between culture, politics, institution and Church. Spirituality cannot tie itself to governments or military pacts for it is at the service of all men and women. Religions cannot consider some people as sworn enemies nor others as eternal friends. Religion should not become the guarantor of the dominant classes. Yet it is this very dynamic with a spurious theological flavor that tries to impose its own law and logic in the political sphere."

This is not easy to interpret, as if Pope Francis is somehow okay with legal abortion rights (actually human body rights), same-sex marriage, or other matters the Church is willing to see politically to its own ends. So what in fact is the tribal fight among Catholic theologies (authorities, hierarchies, etc.) if both sides agree that certain claims on human behavior require "moral" adjudication with plainly political outcomes? Both conservatives and liberals believe the sin of abortion warrants political intervention. How is their moral and religious conviction not political?

It's complicated then how these folks think their religious worldviews implicate others who share neither worldviews nor values--- and would oppose their impositions should they demand too dominance in doctrinal views in the realm of opposed secular law. The liberal authors in the cited article clearly see the threat of secularism to be a major concern. But the heart of the matter for them is that conservative Catholics are distorting religious views _and_ becoming political bedfellows with evangelical Protestants in America particularly. They are indeed arguing for _some_ kind of important distinction between Church and State, though it's seems too nuanced to give them more leverage than the conservatives' who say in effect "our beliefs demand _these specific_ political actions." Black and white is always an easier sell and that is a real part of what hovers around the issues dividing these factions. After all, rearranging hearts and minds means finding triggers, appealing to visceral experiences, thinking-less, feeling-more is the easy path.

In another strange feature of this story there is yet another NYTimes piece from a conservative Catholic the core of the argument is that to be an "orthodox" Christian will take removal not only from political allegiances but from the secular world as such. These folks are advocating for a kind of Catholicism that like orthodox Judaism has restricted contact with non-believers and even less political investments. They have decided the jig is up, they've lost to secularism, and it's time to retreat into their own kinds of belief communities. This is a very different strategy that will appeal to very few.


Just how we think our beliefs and values _should_ enter the world in ways that impose upon others is something we all need to think about. Not only because America is politically in the hands of religious fanatics but because _everyone_ harbors convictions that are beyond compromise. Differences cut deeply and when they cut to the core, we must each ask ourselves what we are prepared _to do_, what will we demand and insist, when do our beliefs and values ask more from us than tolerance. The storm will never rage less.