Saturday, January 19, 2019

Pilgrimage Diary Entry, January 5th 2019 Tamil Nadu, India, Somewhere on the Bus

On pilgrimage is about my favorite thing in the world, it's an indulgence I cannot help but want more of no matter how much I get. What I understand about that feeling is that life's journey is never far from the imperatives of culture: culture makes for differences that demand, invite, and challenge every bit of shared humanity.

Some of us are so fortunate---that strikes me as not earned whatever we have earned---that our journeying places us _together_ in the strange, shared circumstances of sharing our differences. Whatever we agree upon to be or to do, how we act and what we offer, it is nearly always difference that we share. What else makes us human than that we are not all, not one of us the same? How could we be doing this were we not the same? That is as much an opening as it is a meeting, like the journey itself, it gives us no reason to believe that we are somehow here for the same reasons or for much of the same anything. But here we are and we journey to meet the next and the next.

What we believe or believe we are doing doesn't require agreement. We may depend on agreements in every moment just to carry on but nothing about belief makes an agreement true. What's true is more than belief, likely less too. What's true is that we all want something from the journey.

India doesn't so much invite us to believe as it does offer up the idea that believing is something we do along with other things that are done and to be done. How you believe here is what you are doing and what you believe is rarely queried; it's not beyond language or gesture or observation no matter how it is convicted or heartfelt. What we are on the outside obviously doesn't tell us about what is concealed within. We never bring that to conclusion, we tell us ourselves to "integrate" but our inconclusion must persist if there is any hope of further self-discovery.

People vest in belief because the anxiety we must feel to be alive is but few moments from desperation or catastrophe. We all live _as if_ we know what is next because the alternatives are even more untenable. It is how we tell themselves what to do, how to survive, and what makes them us think we can flourish, are happy, have meaning.

What we know with even modest reflection is that this isn't always true even when things work out well. By that I mean we do more than survive, we may be consoled and even flourish, we are living the better for the beliefs we count on to be true. And it is just as often the case that we are not the better for any belief, particularly those we cherish. Our most honored beliefs may not be true, they may have never been true. They may simply do a job we need done even when we admit the same beliefs may also fail us.

Belief may be testable but we humans extol faith, which somehow rises to another level of asservation. What might just be possible or resilient we insist must be more or cut more deeply into us. It's less what we believe or in what we place our faith than the ways we feel. We may prefer being saved by faith or something more like "taking refuge" (as the Buddhists would have it) but none of us are immune to the idea that what we can count we want to count on. We all learn that the tests of belief involve matters so everyday that we don't count them at all, we merely act accordingly. However we take matters into our own hands, the facts persist whether we conjure them or not.

It's interesting to believe we need this "faith" but not because we must but because it may merely be evolutionary. The faithful are not merely selecting as humans do to live faithfully but are being selected because the consequence of denying some or another faith can get you killed, or worse. We have had centuries of traditions not only telling us what to believe but to believe.  It doesn't matter if the faithful refuse reason or attempt to embrace it: truth wants nothing to do with faith.  Truth subverts, it never just believes and faith is by definition a problem, never a solution or conclusion.

Religion does this with especial fervor, often to our positive detriment. But life at its best is difficult and even more difficult to understand because what we want is not the same as what turns out. And it is in those spaces and in those incongruities that we place belief, that which we call upon as the fictional light of faith usually for the purpose of ignoring its well-tested shadow.

Of course, we will be tested by the shadow even when we do not see it. It's the ones we test that take us to others and, if we're lucky, back to some more burning light. Be prepared to be burnt even when you are illumined.  Don't stop looking into the darkness even when you can't see.  The darkness isn't there to be revealed, it's to be included because it comes with the light.

Faith's shadow is neither doubt nor the disappointments that follow after belief; faith's shadow begins when we take up the hard work, often frustrating and arduous tasks that demands we remain stalwart in our incompleteness and ineptness; that we come to terms with truths to live with and to live by that are unfinished and will remain open to further inquiry. We now live in a world of so many facts and so many beliefs that we can not possibly pretend that anyone could grasp it all, not even a fraction of all that what we actually know. That's not a matter of belief. That's as true as any day spent learning.

It is difficult to ask any question when those around you would prefer you did not. We are so tender, so easily insulted, we take truth as personally as we take its discomforting pursuits. It is challenging to follow the evidence wherever it might take us because we might discover things we wish we had not, we might be compelled to change our mind or admit mistakes.

We might never see our mistakes even if we go looking honestly. We might never be able to remedy, fix, or address our failures even when we want to enough to suffer the consequences. What is unintended is just as powerful as any intention. It is exhausting to pursue possibilities that may be unknown or mere speculation because we must refuse mere belief in order to continue to learn. Faith in not believing is likely a positive virtue until it becomes a disadvantage to living with the real differences that separate us.

No one wants to feel separation and there is a good argument that separation does not exist in a world of connectivities. Shall we tell ourselves again that difference is real but separation is not? How worthy or valuable is that contemplation? That strikes me as the question while the point, the content is secondary. What's it worth to us to take up the question? I prefer my truths to be questions. Answers are interesting only when the questions insist on never being erased just because we prefer some, any answer---even those that are true.

But the fact that we are all connected does not mean that our connections are available to our feelings or understandings. Let's admit too that being connected doesn't necessarily make us good or happy either. Those are matters just as ambivalent as any matter of belief or deep felt desire or hope.

Truth is not doubt anymore than it is certainty. Truth is not one process nor does it demand but one, singular method of inquiry. We can feel and know, we can reason and know, we can intuit and gain empowered understanding just as we can experiment with evidence both material and imaginary. What makes truth possible is not that it is somehow there to be found. What makes things true is not merely that we have done our due diligence or reached consensus. What makes things true is not that we believe things or even act in certain ways because of truths.

What makes things true is that we can learn and change, that we can be sure and doubt at the same time. What makes things true is that we can embrace truth as a paradox even as we use it to solve problems, raise serious concerns, or feel deeply about something.

The nature of the paradox of truth is human nature. We are here but we are unfinished and will never be finished; for not even death finishes us off as it casts us into both nothing and the collective memory. We are made of bodies and are nothing more than the powers of cognition but we are also minds and souls who also want all things beautiful possible and impossible because somehow we want or need or just do that.

Truth is not mere preference or belief but neither could it be (and it is) without some willingness to admit our needs or desires be they pleasant or painful. Truth may be blind, pitiless, and indifferent to our wants but we aren't or at least we should hope we are not. Truth doesn't care but we can. The paradoxes don't end, do they?

Our human nature is not a fixed fact however it may have emerged to be, to exist as it does in a shared process, one of nearly unimaginable complexity of its own self-making, little by little, from things so simple now so complex. We invent ourselves but have been invented by facts that we did not invent, that we do not control, that nothing and no one invented or controls. Our shared humanity is true but is not necessary and the universe has no plan, no reasons for our existence, and no purpose to our being. Still we are truly here for this brief, warm respite that is life, burning, howling, weeping, bleeding, and loving, all of us, no what kind of break we got.

Nature is kinder to some than others though nature itself possesses no kindness. Nature doesn't need to think or feel or have cause because it can carry on without any of them and still create life. Culture, history has brought privileges that create deep and painfully real inequities that have nothing to do with goodness or merit, rights or our shared humanity; we social humans can't live without society and society both provides our possibility and invariably brings us to limits, boundaries, and end games that advantage some and cruelly disadvantage others.

We humans are all human but not two of us are really the same, not even those identical twins. We aren't equal nor endowed by a creator even as creation endows us and we pursue in good faith the meanings of equality. We can invent our humanity by dedicating to noble proposition but none of us is beyond the tinctures of hypocrisy, prejudice, or cruelty that we inflict upon one another. None of us is ever just kind even when some of us make too fine a point of being cruel. We can all do that too. We must not only embrace paradox to use it to help us be true, we must succumb to paradox as part of our incomplete nature.

Belief rarely helps but we can't live without it. Faith is often an excuse not to think or change or learn but where would we be without it? How would faithlessness be better? Or maybe when is it better? Better is something we can imagine, perhaps something we must continually reinvent. Maybe that's enough. Maybe being human is less a pursuit of happiness and more an invitation to more, to more better, to whatever that might be given what we can do, each of us.

Friday, January 18, 2019

For the Love of More, And Its Costs. Another Long Note to Myself

I write this morning because I'm working out two stories in the "news." The first is personal but one I think we might share in with some common interests. I mean to say something here about Hindu pilgrimage, the practices of darshan, and all that comes with making this a journey of self. For me, this is nothing less than obsession but I collect obsessions the way obsessives collect whatever it is they are obsessing over. I want only more until there's just the end and I'm gone from this life. The second story involves yet another piece in the news where, once again, I am deeply offended by matters involving religion, education, and the absence of self-critical thought.

First things first, and the happier of the two stories.

We have again returned from India and another rich, evocative, truly wonderful pilgrimage. Darshan is the centerpiece of that effort and the effort itself invites an ardor that's, for me, never enough. I like that it is physically, mentally, emotionally demanding, in every way demanding, that it takes something of you and from you, I like that it's no day at the spa even if there's time along the way to have a day at the spa. The point of pilgrimage is to make a vrata, a vow, a commitment to _see_ and to do what it takes to have experiences of seeing. With that comes the body---pain, health, illness--- and involves all of the other senses, the imagination and all of its powers, the mind and all that is demanded from within a context that _means to overwhelm_ one's capacities, all of them, all of the time. Too much of everything is just enough.  I will get on that bus again and again until I can't walk, I will go find another temple, look for another god, goddess, demon, and demigod, and I will ask for arhati and make darshan. There's never enough for me. It's like poetry, art, music, and literature. It's like the study of science, history, culture, and human possibilities: I am insatiable, I like it that way. This is not going to end until I end. I'll go alone if no one else wants to come.

I am wholly convinced that the reasons I love Hindu pilgrimage and darshan have little to with what the majority of other Hindus are hoping to receive from the practice, though I think it's plain enough that we do share many comparable _feelings_. I have no qualms identifying as a "Hindu" since those are the very signs we pass as we enter the shrines. They say, "Hindus only beyond this point" and while I may not identify with others' beliefs or values, I must admit that we share the same ritual shapes and destinations. We all _do_ the same things and the beauty of the practice itself is that there is no one to dictate what anyone is meant to believe or think or feel. What's required is a shared respect and, above all, a shared behavior that extends into gesture, movement, dress, marker, and, above all, an application of the rules, explicit and implicit. For newbies this orthopraxis has to be learned and mimicked if one wants the shared participation.

I am a creature of ritual, which invariably demands an imposition of protocols that place boundaries and terms on our behaviors. But I am no less a creature of the rigors of critical humanist thinking and the deep evocative powers of mythology to cull the heart's desires, feelings, and mysteries. As I learned Rajanaka that meant wanting _all_ of these things, with all of the complexity, paradox, contradiction, beauty, and strangeness that accompanies a life rich and well-loved, outside and in.

I remain a student of religion because religion is the human endeavor that has had the most to do with our histories of creativity, it has been a repository for the creation of art, beauty, wonder, sensuality, peace, courage, the entire array of the rasas---just as it has been a nearly inexhaustible resource for the manufacture of hatred, sexism, bigotry, manipulation, and false hope. (I feel just as committed to science but far less adept.) To say that I am conflicted over and about things that come from and work through religion is merely to describe my entire personal and professional life.

But I mean to go further: without all of that discomfort, contradiction, ambivalence, horror, and challenge I would want nothing to do with the things-of-religion. Or anything else. Without conflict and shadow, without rage and disdain, without passion and love and hope and softness, these practices that move through religion along with all their forms and stories would be ruinous and, for me, just plain false, nonsense. No one escapes moral compromise or lives without a tincture of hypocrisy. That itself is an idea that religions cannot seem to admit as honestly as I would hope. We are not sinners to be redeemed. I want no redemption or forgiveness. I want to make these facts of life livable, something I can manage to bring into every good thing I seek. Without the strife there's nothing.

So the second story. It's about how Vice-President Pence is offended that we are offended that his wife the art teacher chooses to work in a Christian school where, "The school’s employment application asks applicants to initial a passage stating that they will "live a personal life of moral purity.” The “moral misconduct” that disqualifies potential employees includes “heterosexual activity outside of marriage (e.g., premarital sex, cohabitation, extramarital sex), homosexual or lesbian sexual activity, polygamy, transgender identity, any other violation of the unique roles of male and female, sexual harassment, use or viewing of pornographic material or websites, and sexual abuse or improprieties toward minors as defined by Scripture and federal or state law.”"

Let's not mince words here. These people _are_ Christians because they say they are. There isn't anything like a "real" or "true" Christianity just because you too by be offended by theirs. I am often offended by Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, you name it, just about everyone who practices or claims some belief or behavior on the basis of their religious affiliation that I find less than commendable. I have no qualms about feeling offended or how my feelings and thoughts are matters of judgment. We all judge, no matter what we claim, and the issue at hand is so what about that.

Let's return to Pence. I know, I know but this isn't about that story. It's about what that story claims. This school claims to offer "religious education" and that, I assert, is an oxymoron. Pence wants us not to be offended by what they believe. I am merely offended _that_ they believe though _what_ they believe is reprehensible and moronic. It's not as if I don't have opinions. You may notice this as we continue.

There is no such thing as "religious education" though plainly we can be educated _about_ religion. There is only religious inculcation, even within the most critical and self-examining traditions. Christian scholastics, Buddhist logicians, Kashmiri Shavites---not _one_ them is willing in the end to change their views on the basis of further evidence and experiment.

Further, religious views are not merely captive of language or vocabulary. Rather, the problem is that the method of enquiry does not permit subversion _as the method of enquiry_. And Madhyamaka Buddhist method notwithstanding, they invariably reach their desired conclusions. Madhyamaka is built on the theory of impasse or prasanga, which claims that all argument ends without ultimate certainty. However, ultimate uncertainty is ultimately true---and what if it's not? It's not merely _that_ question that pushes the matter forward it is that provisional-only worlds undermine their claims of what Buddhas know. However they cherish human beings, they are not humanists bent upon the acknowledgement that we reach no "awakened" end game that leaves us all flawed, incomplete, and shadowed. The claim of awakened beings is anti-human, it is sexism and classism, it is merely false, religious nonsense---and, worse, it is dangerous for its manipulations.

The humanist cannot claim the methodologies of skepticism and incomplete knowledge are superior except insofar as they refuse the privilege endemic to religious conclusions. Matters are as true as the best evidence invites us to experiment with the notion of truth. This doesn't mean that everything is opinion or that there is no such thing as "truth." Rather it means that the processes of discovery are themselves subjects of inquiry _and_ that the best (provisional) conclusions are reached when evidence is examined without predisposition for certain outcomes.

As much as the religious might employ strategies of doubt, their ultimate end is self-verification and the reclamation of basic dogmatic assertions; to wit, conclusions are foregone _because_ they are religious objectives. You're not about to convince the Dalai Lama that there's self anymore than the Pope will admit that Jesus was merely human and did not rise from the dead. Don't equivocate over whether this is allegory or symbolic language---the claims themselves are not _replaceable_ no matter what questions are asked or evidence revealed. When Einstein pulled the rug from under Sir Issac, well, that was that: certain _fundamental_ claims in Newton's theories were understood to be faulty or just plain false. What people believe is not the same as what we might discover to be the better truth we can share.

What's at stake is not mere veridical conclusion. "Truths" invoke _feelings_ that may have nothing to do with being rational. How we prefer to feel or what we feel may be all the truth we need to believe some or another truth. But how truth makes us feel may have nothing to do with the facts, with truths we agree are the true explanation. Remember that Charles Darwin withheld his theory of natural selection because he rightly feared that the _facts_ of his discovery would prove deeply disturbing to theists, offend their sensibilities, and provoke backlash. He was right. Again.

Religion comes hand in hand with tender sensibilities; it is the place where we keep many of our most cherished desires, preferences, and feelings about family, tradition, history, our identities. When we are offended it is itself an insight into how we have been made and can make ourselves human. Whatever else might be said, to be human is to explore what moves us to feel, to think, to contend with our mortal selves. Without the contest, the challenges, and contradictions, I have no reasons left to live. Love is not enough even if we can hope to love more and better. Life's never just one thing. It's a maze, a prism, a mirror of selves unfinished, incomplete, and journeying until they are annihilated by the gift of life that made them.