Thursday, September 10, 2009

Our Common Humanity: What We Share

It occurred to me as I watched people coming into the courtroom this morning that we human beings are all so much like each other, but we are obsessed with our differences. Of course, it is nice that we have differences. But, the truth is we share almost all of our DNA.

Somehow it just hit me in the depths of my heart this morning: we are so much like each other. Maybe if there was another race populating our earth who could do about what we could do, and we didn't take our alikeness/our commonality so much for granted, then maybe we would be glad just to see another human face, to hear a human voice, to be glad that we had someone who walked like we walked, talked, shared the same types of experiences of sickness, joy and death.

John Donne's poem "No Man is an Island" comes to mind.

"No man is an island entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less,
as well as if a promontory were,
as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were;
any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee."

We only come to appreciate our differences if we first have a deep sense of our sameness, that we are bound to each other in the depths of our flesh and blood and spirit.

This morning, I had three clients that I was particularly concerned with. One was a woman who has a very low intellectual capacity, one has been diagnosed as schizophrenic (with paranoid features), and another was a very small man who seemed just fine but was in jail for driving without a licence and the federal government had a hold on him for being an illegal immigrant (he is from Guatamala). And, what hit me as I talked and listened (I actually did that this morning!) to these three clients was just how much like me that each of them was. The woman who was "mentally retarded" wanted to stay with somebody who cared about her, and was nice to her; the man with the mental illness wanted to be out walking on the roads - to be free again, to be left alone; the man from Guatamala just wanted to be able to talk to his family members.

From the scientific point of view, we share 99 plus % of our DNA with every other human being (of course, we also share not too much less than that with all kinds of other non-human animals as well!). Sometimes beginning from science can be a real help. If we would begin our way of approaching others with a deep sense of our commonality, then we would properly understand and appreciate our differences. But, when this deep sense of solidarity is absent, everything goes wrong. This deep sense of solidarity is at the very heart of true faith from God. Where that sense is evident, I believe real faith is there in that person whether they know it or not.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Eastern and Western Thoughts about the Self: making a start, making broad statements and looking for some comments

In Eastern thought, meaning is in being; in Western thought meaning is in doing. Or, so summaries of philosophy and religion say. But, for a Buddhist or Hindu, certainly "being" doesn't mean a static state, but can be a pattern of active living or passive living. The Easterner, I think, is very concerned with living in harmony with BEING itself. And, the Easterner tends to believe that the way to that harmony lies within, deep within. And, the best I can tell, in Eastern thought there is no real concept of the self in the sense of the developed concept of "personality" that we in the West have. But, now I am really stepping into territory where I need to do some reading. Maybe it would be better to say that though the Eastern thinker reflects on inner feelings, and pays a lot of attention to the inner life, the Eastern way doesn't think the self can stake out any territory for itself. What I mean is that in the Eastern way, the self does not define itself over against other things and selves, but in continuity with other things and selves. The human person is a center of meaningful apprehension as well as being a center of activity, but in Eastern thought I think the meaning apprehension is the key, the center and that apprehension abides in any meaningful activity.

I am going to stop here and ask for some clarifications from others before I move on. Some of you have read and analyzed primary writings of Eastern thinkers. A little help from you would be appreciated.

Let me tell you where I am going with this. I have been having this feeling for some time that Paul's thought and that of most of the New Testament is so deeply "Eastern" in how it views and represents the human person that the hijacking of Paul's categories by "Western" theology (Roman theology) is a drastic corruption of the holy tradition of faith. I think that this hijacking began with a first anti-semitic movement in Church history away from Jewish thought (which is deeply Eastern in its own peculiar way). But, later on, when it was not popular to be anti-semitic, biblical scholars defined Jewish thought over against other eastern thought in such an extreme way and in such a western way that the Jewish way of thinking was considered the seed of all western thought. So, everything in Hebrew thought that didn't fit with western categories of thought was excised and forgotten. So, when scholars then turned to the New Testament with thoroughly western assumptions in place, Paul and even Jesus are seen through western eyes, which means not seen at all.

Now, I have to agree that there are some real distinctive aspects of the Hebrew view of God and creation and history, but these distinctive aspects of Hebrew theology need to be understood within an Eastern social/philosophical/psychological context. Christian theology and the Christian view of self implicit in this theology arise out of Hebrew thought, or out of a particularly dramatic reinterpretation of Hebrew thought through Jesus. To not know this intellectually - for scholars - and, to not know this intuitively for people of faith in general is to miss the heart and power of the Gospel of God in Jesus, the Christ.

Now, that I have stepped into such broad statements of abstract thought, I do want to acknowledge the deep influence of Christian theology on western philosophy and western society. And, not all of this can be attributed to a false apprehension of early Christian categories of thought. Maybe I would be on more solid ground if I said it this way: the intersection of Christianity with western philosophy gave rise to a profound and far-reaching interpretation of God's revelation in Jesus. Thus, Christianity was incarnated in the west. But, the intersection of Christianity with eastern philosophy and with thought patterns more eastern gave rise to a profound interpretation of God's revelation in Jesus that is not as widely known by westerners, but that may have more to say to current western societies because it is a new word, a word that sees the distortions of western Christianity. In many ways, Western theology has taken us too far in its direction; the fundamental resources of its thought have been "mined" and are exhausted. Eastern theology is a resource older than western, more primal, and speaks in a still small voice for those who can hear.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Greatest Strength, Greatest Weakness and Thoughts about Being Human

If you understand your greatest strength - really understand it so as to understand yourself in it - then, you will also understand that this greatest strength of yours is also your greatest weakness.

Examples of strengths: compassion for others; abililty to lead others; ability to endure loneliness; ability to reason; ability to feel deeply; openness to the moment.

All of these "strengths" have a shadow side, which is to say they arise from the light places within us, but can arise and tie into the dark places as well. Compassion arises from an ability to identify with and understand the emotions of others, but for a person whose character has gone bad, this ability to understand others emotionally can be used to manipulate and con others. It can also develop into a need to needed, which is a strange way of being controlled by others but also controlling them by keeping them needy. The ability to lead others, though it can fill a great need in groups and in society, can become a dark power if put in the service of bad and selfish goals. It can also isolate a person to the extent that they no longer listen to or respect others. The ability to feel deeply can arouse one to action, but it can also paralyze one and prevent action. Those who are sensitive to others' feelings, are generally pretty sensitive to their own feelings. Emotional paralysis can set in when we get too absorbed in our own feelings. Openness to the moment can allow a person to enjoy and understand what is right before their eyes and in their hearing; but, if not combined with commitment to a longer course of goals, openness to the moment can result in a string of emotional binges and the failure of commitment.

The ability to figure things out through thinking is a great ability, however, there are some things you can't figure out through thinking, such as your deepests commitments; they are matters of the heart and require some real risk-taking to "figure out." Jesus first said to his disciples: "follow me." After that he began to engage them in discussion and trying to think things out. Those who listened to Jesus and were interested and who were trying to figure it all out in their heads always figured out some reason that they couldn't follow him - at least, not just yet. One had to take care of his business; another take care of his older father; another makes sense of it all intellectually. Whatever it was, and whatever it is, there is always some good reason "not to take action." And, so this strength of intellect when not expressed outwardly in action, builds an internal prison: one long course of figuring out why it makes more sense to do nothing than to do something.

When I think of these various and other personal strengths that people tend to have, it seems like the real key to tapping into the positive is a genuine commitment to other people and the courage to act upon that commitment. [As Augustine said to the young convert who 'just wasn't feeling the faith:' "do what you know you should do, and the feelings will follow in due course."] That means an inward conviction of the value of others which finds expression in outward action for others. But, in these others I should include animals other than humans and the environment as well. A genuine commitment to creatures and the creation inwardly which leads to outward action in conformity with this inward commitment also brings a human being on a good path and allows one's personal strengths to develop for good and not for evil. And, I mean good as that which enhances life, and evil as that which distorts and twists and destroys life. When we don't allow our strengths to be expressed in helping someone or something outside of ourselves, then the shadow side of our characteristic arises, causing trouble sometimes for others who deal with us or causing trouble for ourselves.

Lions are meant to dominate other animals and find prey. A lion who is dominated by other animals and fails to find prey dies. There is such a thing as "sinning against your nature." When a human being who is deeply concerned for others and has abilities to help others, well, when that person in fact applies these abilities to carrying out this inward concern, then that person really lives (does what is in accord with his nature). When a person has intellectual abilities to invent machines that ease burdens in this world, and when that person applies these abilities to inventing machines -say an x-ray machine or an electric wheel chair - then that person lives. When a man whose mind is flooded with beautiful poems finds a way to express that beauty to others, that man lives. When a person who has a deep gift of patience with those who have difficulty learning shares that patience with those in need and gives them hope to learn, that person lives. True life is awakened inside of us, but it is incomplete until it finds expression in some action, often some meaningful interaction with other human beings.

Think of times in your life when you were engaged in something and you really felt the best - felt like all of your internal tensions were released because you were truly engaged in something that was good and right for you.

When you sin against your nature, you fight against and tear down yourself. Of course, we all have things we aren't too good at. I am not well organized with paperwork, files, etc. For me to be a little messy in that way is to sin with (not against) my nature. But, I am generally open to a variety of ideas and views, so that when I become very ungracious and judgmental of others views, then I am sinning against my nature. It doesn't hurt me inside to be a little messy with my files; but, it really does hurt me inside - even tears me down - when I become ungracious and start condemning of others. I tend to be very committed to my friends and family. If I fail in my commitments to friends or family, it tears me down on the inside. If a person is the kind of person you can count on, and they become a person you can't count on, that person is probably sinning against their nature. I am also not very good at meeting new people at social events. If I fail at that, it is not that big a deal. However, I am very good at meeting an individual in trouble and hearing them out and giving some decent advice. If I fail at that, it is a big deal.

If I could manage to get myself into some line of work where I wouldn't deal with people who had trouble, and if I could get myself into some office where I could sit and carry on without being interrupted by the problems of others; well, it might seem peaceful for a while, but pretty soon, it would start to tear me down inside, because I would be living a lie. I am here to deal with problems, the problems of people. That is who I am. My mind works to solve problems, to apply some insight greater than my own to help relieve burdens that I also share in this world.

This life is not meant to be a picnic, though it is great that we get to have picnics along the way. No, there is work to do - work that comes from within and flows into action. There will be a day when I can't do the work I am doing today. But, I hope that there will always be some work I can do. Work is a gracious word for me. Because I am not really alive until I meet the challenges of "work." I am something that "happens." The human self is not something static that dwells within us, encapsulated in our bodies. No, the human self is something dynamic that ebbs and flows like the waves of the ocean, and it "happens" in the act of meeting the world's needs with who we really are - co-workers (I hesitate to use this term) of a Spirit much greater than anything we can dream or imagine.

A Thought

If you are available to everybody, you're not really available to anybody.