Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Being Judgmental after the death of God, part II

I’ve recently been working on carving out a secular rhetorical space in which to use the word “sacred.” For many people this word cannot be rid of the taint of religion/supernaturalism/absolutism, but I am trying to save it anyhow, mostly for the moral-emotional meaning it carries. To me, “sacred” is a label for whatever is of utmost value, what must be treated with attentive care and respect (i.e. it deserves our time, energy, and money). While I’m attempting to avoid the absolutist quality of the word, I do think it carries an elitist connotation—we should only call “sacred” that which is worthy of our utmost care and respect, as opposed to more profane things which require a more relative amount of care and respect. “Sacred” also has a connotation of universality, at least insofar as when I consider something to be sacred, I will also want others to do so also (or at least, they should expect me to be very offended if they violate the thing I’m calling sacred).

So what is worthy of being called sacred? In a recent post, I criticized Sean Kelly and Hubert Dreyfus’ All Things Shining for posing aesthetic, ethically-neutral answers (sports, talent, craftsmanship, mathematics, social wine-drinking) to this question. I believe that the seriousness of the label “sacred” demands that thinkers consider what is “really” important in life as opposed to matters of passing importance. It is true, as Kelly says in his Colbert interview, that in watching football, what is good and valuable is clear and motivating—that is how we are able to “rise as one” in the excitement of a great play (if it’s our team); but it feels profane to call something like the immaculate reception sacred. While fantastic football surely deserves excitement, I hope we can agree that there are just more important things in life, and that a person who calls a game “sacred” has their priorities crooked. I know human suffering is not as mobilizing, but shouldn’t it be?

I think the existential and the ethical are more appropriate realms in which to encounter the sacred than the aesthetic. I use “existential” broadly to refer to the human individual and social processes of self-discovery, and “ethical” to refer to the human individual and social pursuit of the good. And I acknowledge that the aesthetic is often bound up with these other categories. Perhaps there’s just something about pop culture that I find profane.

But I hate to be this judgmental. I want to claim that the ethical is what truly matters in life, what gives life meaning. But I know that my day-to-day happiness seems to thrive partially on entertainment and other aesthetic pleasures, specifically: comedy, jam bands, food and beverages. My world seems grayer without them. I wouldn’t call them sacred. But I know how much of my time, energy, and money goes into them, and so I wonder about my own priorities.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Being Judgmental after the death of God, part I

             One of my favorite pieces of paradoxical wisdom is: “Wear your vulnerability like armor.” Insofar as all finite beings are fallible, a person making an argument must acknowledge where they are subject to attack, and I find that admitting my faults up front can lead to a more productive, less defensive conversation. So here are the two main faults that both guide and undercut the argument I am about to make:

1) I am a judgmental person. Even though I do not have the authority of a God backing my moral opinions, I hold them very strongly and think less of others who do not hold them. Of course, I think everyone has some moral compass that makes them similar to me—you too are judgmental of others who violate whatever might be your sacred ethical lines: What do you think of rapists, thieves, murderers, and dog-fight organizers? While I assume that you and I are together in judging those kinds of people, those are judgments about what people shouldn’t do. What makes me more vulnerable (and thus apologetic) is that this post is about being judgmental concerning what people should do.

2) I waste plenty of time, energy, and money on the luxuriating pleasures that privilege has afforded me. While I do not watch sports, there are 16 tv shows that I follow throughout the year, averaging probably an hour or so a day depending on what shows are in season. Every summer I attend at least one music festival, which in my life constitutes the height of self-indulgence. I do not yet tithe (giving 10% to charity). I recycle inconsistently. I rarely make my purchases based on “fair trade” standards. I buy more books than I need. While as a citizen, community-member, and philosophy teacher I talk a lot about justice (for the oppressed and the oppressors), I do not yet feel that I have dedicated my waking hours to the “pursuit of justice” as I think I should.

        Now then, here is the kind of “judginess” that I’m struggling with, and I will label its formulation “The Obligation of the Privileged towards Justice”:
As a person of (white, male, class, straight, cisgender, able, average-sized, human) privileges in the 21st century, I believe that I have an obligation to address these privileges. I believe that it is not “ok” to live my life without addressing these privileges in my personal relationships and in my place in society (including my work) and in the world as a whole. I judge others who do not think about their privileges and who do not take on this obligation. While I believe that life is “for” love, expression, belonging, beauty, fun, etc., I think that a life that does not also seriously address the problems of social justice (and the environmental crisis) is unethical.
                To keep with the “secular atheistic” theme of this blog, I’ll state my struggle with my judginess like this: What right do I have to judge others? What right do I have to decide what life is “for,” and whether any person is good or bad? Who do I think I am—God? Who died and made me the messiah?
                My principle of the empty throne should make me more humble than this, and yet I feel the kind of righteous indignation reserved for prophets of God. In another post, I want to think more about the obligation of the privileged towards justice, and what right I have (or don’t have) to judge others according to it.
Meanwhile, I’ll put to you: Are you judgmental like this? Do you think there are human pursuits (work, hobbies) that are a waste of life, time, energy, and/or money? Are we justified? Are we jerks? Both?

Trading in God for fourth and goal

In case you haven’t watched it, this post is inspired by Stephen Colbert’s interview with Sean Kelly on the Colbert Report. Colbert hosted Prof. Kelly in order to discuss All Things Shining, a book co-written with Prof. Hubert Dreyfus at UC Berkeley. In the interview, Kelly explains how modern people lack an absolute connection to a religion as a source of meaning in life. But the sacred can still be accessed—and his example is that of “rising as one with all the other people on the couch,” while watching the Super Bowl. In that moment of excitement, “it’s absolutely clear what’s excellent sacred before you.” In this manner, “football becomes a version of the sacred.” This comment provokes Colbert’s tease which is the title of this blog post.

(Full disclosure: I am not an active sports fan) I think Colbert is right to tease Kelly for “trading in God for fourth and goal.” The authors of “All Things Shining” clearly have an obsession with sports and, without counting, I would guess that about half of the examples in the book are sports-related. While sports and sports-spectating are universally popular pastimes, I believe they are ethically-neutral pursuits that serve our entertainment needs, unlike more value-laden activities such as work, communication, and organization that touch on more fundamental human needs. To call sports “sacred” seems to ignore any ethical criteria about why an activity deserves our time, attention, and energy.

But the authors do not seem interested in ethical criteria:

There are a wide variety of domains worth caring about and there are no objective, context-independent principles for determining which domains these are. You just have to try it out and see. Some people care about mathematics, others about music, some prefer baseball and others bullfighting. Some prefer drinking a local wine with their friends. Whether a domain is worth caring about is determined by whether it appropriately elicits further and further meaningful involvement with it. (219)

I want to seek out secular forms of the sacred, that is, notions of the sacred that do not require a God or a Church. But I think there can be a line between the secular and the profane. I want to believe that what is worth caring about is more than simply what can keep one’s interest. Kelly and Dreyfus’ list of things to care about: math, music, baseball, bull-fighting, social drinking—these are all largely aesthetic pursuits—comes off as a very luxurious sacred. In a world of such great suffering, this list appears shallow and callous. Surely there must be more important pursuits than the ones on this list.

As a Humanist, I think a secular notion of the Good can be developed by examining human need. Attentiveness to moods and development of skills definitely have a place in my image of human health and flourishing—but there are many fundamental levels (think Maslow’s hierarchy) of human need/good that deserve our caring attention before sports (ex: hunger, housing, safety, work, friends, love, family, heritage, history, a better world for the future). Kelly and Dreyfus’ seem to lack a sense of gravitas in the mission of determining what humans might hold most dear in a world after the death-of-God. They don’t even offer bread—only circus.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

How do we find the sacred without God?

In the world of religion, God defines the sacred. The meaning of life is determined by the maker; the task of humans is to learn God’s will and align their values with God’s values. Existential decisions are made in the light of the divine sacred. So it might seem that, without God’s authoritative perspective, humans are at a tragic loss concerning what to do with themselves, what to care about, how to organize and bring meaning to their lives. This utter loss of meaning is known as nihilism. Is the sacred dead in a world without God?

In All Things Shining, a book written by Sean Kelly (Harvard) and Hubert Dreyfus (UC Berkeley –fun fact!) and released earlier this year, the authors mine the classics of Western literature in order to (with a hidden assist from Heidegger) revive/reframe options for a nontheistic notion of the sacred.

The authors offer three (or four) options for locating the sacred:

1) Physis, or “whooshing.” In moments of openness to moods and inspiration, forces that feel external take a hold of us and help us know and act on, instinctually, what the situation calls for—thus we form a “relation to a source of meaning outside of us” aka the sacred. The primary examples offered of this openness to excellence are the heroes of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and Bill Bradley. The “whoosh” is a reference to the way a sports crowd instinctually “rises as one” when an impressive play happens.

2)Poeisis, or skill. Skilled craftsman, especially ones who do not use industrial tools, gain an intimate knowledge of their materials. In this manner, they become aware of meaningful differences in their encounter with the world. The cultivation of skill thus brings with it sensitivity to meaningful differences. “There is, therefore, a kind of feedback loop between craftsman and craft: each jointly cultivates the other into a state of mutual understanding and respect.” (211)

3)Technology—not. To the authors, technology dulls human sensitivity to details and to greatness. They typify technology as “an autonomous and self-sufficient way of life that laughs at everything of sacred worth.” (220) In the view of technology the world is “not sacred but devoid of intrinsic worth, ready to be molded to our desires and will.” (223)

4)Meta-poesis, the skill to know which “whooshing” experiences are appropriate and which are abhorrent. This is the closest the authors come to including the ethical in their ideas about the sacred.

To me, their entire argument hinges on meta-poeisis. While inspiration and skill are powerful and personally-orienting elements in human life, it is ethically irresponsible to make them synonymous with the sacred, because inspiration and skill are ethically neutral. The authors know this, and include meta-poeisis in their discussion because without it, one could be inspired to “whoosh it up” with Nazi mobs. (They fail to acknowledge the ethical neutrality of skill, but I will provide my favorite counter-example: Dexter Morgan. A genius killer like Dexter certainly lives in a world of meaningful differences—one cannot just hack at a body mindlessly. But Dexter’s skill in killing does not engage the sacred, although his inner struggle with vigilantism does.)) So how does one develop the meta-poietic skill to know when to engage physis, poeisis, and technology? The authors tell us that developing such a skill takes courage and risk. We only learn by trying—so go out and get swept up by that “fanatical leader’s totalizing rhetoric,” and only after that will you have the power to discriminate between leaders worth following or not. (220)

As a Humanist, there are certain things I hold sacred—life, love, freedom from suffering—and I do so because I believe that there is an essentially ethical component to the sacred. To me, what we hold sacred must be very very important, fundamental to human life, and precious. The sacred can be violated. Physis and poeisis, inspiration/possession and skill are powerful modes for humans to connect to the world—but they are not in themselves sacred, and they do not naturally connect us to the sacred. “Try it and see” seems like bad advice for finding out if a demagogue is worth following—mostly because the advice depends on an ethical instinct that the authors never really discuss. If, as they say, I have no objective basis for determining right and wrong, how will being inside the Nazi mob help me determine better if they are worth following?

Kelly and Dreyfus finish their book by telling us to try many things and see whatever we find meaningful. If we find ourselves drawn into meaningful involvement, then that is a domain worth caring about. (219) But I think their use of the word ‘meaningful’ is both vague and ethically irresponsible. In my next post, I will focus on the authors’ love of sports examples, and examine the sacred secular in relation to the world of sports spectatorship.

If you want a headstart on the conversation, check out Stephen Colbert’s interview with SeanKelly.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Folly of Love -- April Fools 2011

          Hello, and welcome to my sixth annual April Fools observance. I have set aside this day each year in order to celebrate the opposites that simultaneously enrich and aggravate human life. These opposites are often conflicting values and choices, and we get torn apart in the space between them. We want to be true to our selves, but our selves are too complicated, too multiple— we can’t be true to all parts of our selves at once. And so we make our choices, and take our losses, and we feel foolish. So instead of mourning this, I say we celebrate it, we share our stories of holding and being held by tension, and appreciate, at the very least, that we all end up fools together.
         Given that it is a little under three months until my wedding, I thought it would be 
appropriate to call my speech this year “The Folly of Love.” And for those of you who like to know how long their attention is required, my speech is about eight and a half minutes from this point on.

 The Folly of Love
          I am very pleased to be speaking on the theme of love, because it is one that Erasmus, whose book In Praise of Folly is the inspiration for this party, touches on a few times. In his book, Folly herself speaks, and tells us how necessary she is for human life and happiness. This is especially true in the arena of friendship and love. While harsh truth dictates that we correct every fault we see, folly preserves friendship and love by enabling friends and lovers to turn a blind eye, laugh things off, and often even delight in the other for their faults. Self-love is similarly an important quality for a person, which also can require self-lying. This is a foolishness we can embrace.Folly also points to some other follies of love that are out-dated and offensive, but I thought you’d appreciate hearing them. Folly relates how she had the idea for heterosexual marriage, on account of the fact that women are silly creatures that are nevertheless amusing, and so a wife serves her husband by “seasoning and sweetening the sourness” of the masculine mind with her folly. (28) Good stuff. Similarly sexist, Folly tells us to be grateful that she keeps marriages together by making husbands stupid and thus blind to their wife’s extramarital indiscretions. These are follies we are less into.

Towards the end of the book, Folly acknowledges a riddle of love that introduces my central paradox for today. She says “consider that Plato had some glimmer of this notion when he wrote that the madness of lovers is the height of happiness. For a person who loves intensely no longer lives in himself but rather in that which he loves, and the farther he gets from himself and the closer to it, the happier he is.” (136) Let me spell that out for a moment. According to Plato and Folly, while wisdom and sobriety consist in being self-possessed, folly and madness are characterized by being removed from oneself—thus the expression of “You must be out of your mind.” And yet, to be outside of oneself, which we can call madness, also goes by the name “ecstasy.” The paradoxical wisdom implicit in this point is that, while we seek happiness for ourselves, in love we always find it outside ourselves. In order to possess happiness for ourselves, we must give up on the self-possession which guards our sense of dignity. We have to allow ourselves to affected and transformed by others in order to share life with them. Somehow we gain happiness in losing ourselves.
Now, Folly is speaking here of a very Christian notion of love, one which contains the truth that love is about finding happiness and fulfillment by living in and for the other. This is not an absolute truth—in fact, there is an equal and opposite truth, but we’ll get to that. Still, this piece of wisdom is important, so I want to share it with you by relating my personal experience of it. Like any and every other couple populated by expressive people, Mimi and I have our share of miscommunications and arguments. What I admire in her, among other things, is her persistent ability to momentarily stop taking her own side in order to make me feel heard. Nothing de-escalates an argument like repeating the other person’s argument and validating the emotions behind it. Nothing is harder in an argument either. As a person who generally agrees with my side in arguments, it can feel like a dreadful self-sacrifice to let down my guard and take up the other’s side. It is a betrayal of everything I am (at that moment) standing for. And, of course, the wisdom is that in giving up my position for a moment, I regain my sense of us, regain my sense of self as living not only in myself but in this other person. Because in love I am not merely one, but also a two that is one, I gain happiness in losing that solitary notion of myself.
Now that I have argued for the paradox of selfless love, allow me to make things more complicated by arguing for selfish love. The equal and opposite truth I mentioned before is one I learned from Ayn Rand. That’s right, Ayn Rand. Her famous saying about love goes like this: “To say ‘I love you’ one must first be able to say the ‘I’.” While the Christian definition encourages love by losing the self, Rand argues that the selfless person has no self from which to give love. Applying this truth to my earlier example about arguing as a couple, Rand might point out that Mimi loves me for the strength and content of my convictions, and so giving up my side will only gain me pity, not respect. I suppose, really, that my above example involves a qualified, momentary selflessness, and not the utter self-sacrifice which Rand mocks as the Christian ideal.
I’ll start over. Rand rightly shows us that the phrase “I love you,” cannot be a statement of other-affirmation unless it is first a statement of self-affirmation. To love another person means that I have some strong beliefs about what is worthy of my love. Rand tells us that love is the “response to one’s own highest values in another person.” Beautiful, isn’t it? Let me repeat that, because I think what Rand is saying here is in some sense the secular equivalent of the term “soulmates”: Love is the response to one’s own highest values in another person. I love my partner because I see in my partner a living embodiment of those values I hold most dear—love, learning, openness, justice, communication, ambition, community, creativity, family, and fun. When I love her I also truly love myself, by loving those values in her which I consider sacred. My sense of self, rather than lost in love, is built up, expanded.
Still, while Rand’s point is certainly powerful, it is far from absolute. I mean, listen, I shouldn’t be quoting Ayn Rand anyhow, a thinker who did not even believe in paradoxes. In Atlas Shrugged she writes “Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think you are facing a contradiction, check your premises.” Of course she would call me foolish for saying so, but I think this point is ridiculous. The entire premise of this party is that life is full of contradictions. So Ms. Namesake-of-Rand-Paul, let me give you a contradiction about love that shows that love must be both selfish and selfless, and thus in essence is not really selfish or selfless. In fact, the whole concept of love problematizes any idea of a self, so there!
So here are my premises:
1) I love Mimi.
2) My love of Mimi includes the desire to serve her and her values.
3) Mimi loves me.
4) Mimi’s love of me includes the desire to serve me and my values.
5) Thus, me and my values are included in Mimi’s values.
6) And thus, my love of Mimi must also include serving myself and my values.
7) And this conclusion is true from Mimi’s side also: Mimi’s love of me must include serving herself and her values.
You with me so far? All I’m saying is that two people who love each other miss the point if their love leads them to give up on themselves and their own values. Part of our loving each other is insisting that the other loves themselves.
Of course, the contradiction arises from the fact that our love includes too many damn things to serve, and these things are not always served by the same means. In fact, serving one thing often comes at the expense of the other. C’mon, Ayn Rand—there really is such a thing as conflicting values. Look—I want to be a force for good in the world, and I want to do that through my work, but also in large part through my loving care for my partner and her work. But giving loving care to my partner, well, it can get in the way of my work. But giving less loving care to my partner can get in the way of her work. And the selfish/selfless dichotomy doesn’t really work here, because I find self-affirmation in promoting both my work and in promoting her work. Both are forms of self-affirmation, and because the world is complicated and time is short, these forms of self-affirmation conflict!
And that is one of the many follies of love. Love requires that we be true to ourselves and the other, by serving ourselves and the other. And that’s a lot of servitude for a finite world. So often we are forced to act paradoxically.
Love expands our sense of self so far that it breaks it, and we get lost in the other. And yet a healthy love must also come with a solid sense of self, in order for there to be a self to give and receive love. Do you see how frustrating this is, and how it is a truth about life that is designed to make us feel foolish? Love is supposed to be so beautiful because it’s the place where “two become one,” but rarely do people point out that those two are still also two! Not to get too mathematical on you, but sometimes love makes me feel like I’m two, like I’m one, like I’m one-half, and like I’m nothing. In each interaction I feel my sense of self change over and over, and it is very confusing. I said this to Mimi the other day while discussing this—I turned to her and said: “So if I’m yours, and you’re mine—whose are we?”
So what’s my advice? First of all, who said I was here to give you any advice? And what kind of advice can one fool give to another, anyhow? I’m just letting you know, from my experience, something to expect from love. I don’t want you to look so shocked when love appears to require these heart-breaking contradictions, because—it does. Love’s gifts come hand-in-hand with its sacrifices. The ecstasy of love is a double-edged sword. So let’s celebrate that—because if love is so awesome, then we have to celebrate the parts of it that tear us apart, too.
Thank you.