Sunday, April 22, 2007

Virtue Theory in Action!

Have I mentioned how terribly busy I've been this semester? :-)

Let me now share how I've been able to endure all the pressure I've been under.

Whenever the stress started to get to me, I would ask myself, "How would a fine person respond?" By "fine person," I think of the Greek word for "virtue" which can also be translated "personal excellence." Ancient Greek virtue theory was not so much about developing particular virtues (simply and morally understood) as about developing virtue, or personal excellence. This notion was broader than morality alone, and was more than just developing the sum total of particular virtues.

It's about being a fine person. It's about being morally good, but good in other ways too: being good at what you do, for example, and living with style and grace.

There's not one way of being a fine person. There are as many ways as there are people. Your virtue (excellence) in part expresses your individuality: what you uniquely bring into the world.

And so remembering this one question during times of stress is very powerful: what would a fine person do?

A fine person wouldn't just collapse in a heap and cry. (I do this sometimes, but almost always in privacy. I think it's okay to do this in privacy -- it's just not good to take up permanent residence in this state of being!)

A fine person wouldn't lash out at everyone.

A fine person, instead, would usually be able to put the situation in perspective, and maybe even laugh.

A fine person would see everyone involved as allies, working together on a common problem to be solved (instead of casting some as "friends" and others as "enemies, deserving of punishment").

A fine person would ask, "what can I learn from this?"

A fine person would ask, "how can I respond in a way that permits this situation to make me stronger, wiser, more compassionate?"

A fine person would recognize when he or she is brought to his or her limits, would recognize those limits as temporary, and would be assertive in claiming time to get the rest, or the additional information, etc., he or she may need before making crucial decisions. If this is impossible, he or she would point out to those pressuring him or her to act quickly that they must then be willing to assume their share of responsibility for the decision he or she is thus pressed to make.

A fine person would try to be cheerful and respectful, even when not feeling particularly cheerful or happy with how others are behaving. But a fine person is not a pushover. A fine person maintains her or his own dignity throughout the process as well.

These, at least, are some of the general characteristics I think of when considering how a fine person would respond to life's challenges.

Note that I don't claim to live up to this myself.

But having the presence of mind to remember this and try is a start!

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Purpose of Religion

Many of my students cynically think that the purpose of religion is to scare people into oppression. The powerful created this huge myth as a means for social control. While I don't deny that some people have used religion for such a purpose, I do not regard that as the original intention of religion.

Religion is powerful, and so it will be abused, unfortunately.

So, what is the source of the power of religion? What is its real purpose?

Surprisingly, I think I've found answers to these questions.

The purpose of religion is to help us deal with our pain, suffering, and grief in ways that stop it from continuing to damage ourselves or others. The purpose of religion is to help us learn to "end suffering within" (I think that is a quotation from Thich Nhat Hanh).

I have this image of pain and suffering bouncing around the universe like ping pong balls. You see one coming at you, and the temptation is to bat it away. But doing so often makes it hit someone else and hurt them too. So they pick it up and angrily throw it back at you. Or maybe they miss and hit someone else. Etc.

To end suffering within is to catch the ping pong ball and paint it pretty colors and hang it in the window and show it off to your friends.

The power of religion then is redemption.

It really is possible to stop and hold your pain and suffering and grief instead of flinging it back on others. It really is possible to rework it in ways that make you a better person: stronger, more insightful, more compassionate.

We are artists, creators. The material we have to work with is our life experience. Just because we may not like some of the colors we are given does not mean that we cannot mix those colors with others to create beautiful art. The colors that are our experiences of pain can add depth and richness to the paintings we produce. Added artfully to our canvas, they can bring out the brilliance of the colors we do wish to emphasize.

Our world today, in general, does not do a very good job of teaching us how to do this. Our world today does not even do a very good job of reminding us that we should be trying to figure out how to learn this. Instead, when we are hurting, our culture tells us to find someone to blame -- as if blaming or punishing others will ever really prevent future suffering or help us to heal from our wounds.

Looking for blame misses the point. When we are wounded, it is our wound that needs attention. When we are wounded, we need healing.

The point of life is not to escape all suffering. That is naive and impossible.

Once we realize that most suffering does not destroy us, we can establish a new relationship with it. How can we meet life's challenges in ways that make us better people? How can we learn how to transform the pain and suffering that comes our way into strength, courage, compassion, and insight?

How you answer these questions describes your religion.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Cracks in My Confidence

All the pressure I'm under is starting to get to me. For a while, my confidence was growing. "I can do this!" I had thought. "I'm rising to the challenge!" I knew I didn't want my life to be like this always -- even observing myself handling things well, I was thinking, "still, this is not me; this is not really what my life is about." But I said that like a tentative hypothesis. I was open to changing my mind. I realized that I needed time and experience before reaching a more definite conclusion.

Now small cracks in my new confidence have appeared. At first they were very fine, but now they are growing and spreading.

Too much pressure, and, after all, I'm not really strong enough to withstand it.

Will I ever be? Do I want to be?

It is so humbling (but not unfamiliar to me) to face one's limits head-on.

Earlier experiences like this threw me into existential crisis. While I do find it as painful as ever, at least this time I'm not getting as existential about it all.

All of this has forced me to revisit how I got here. What are the decisions I have made that have led to this? What were my motivations?

After careful examination, I find that I do feel I've been doing the best I can from moment to moment. These have not been bad decisions. Nor have I made any foolish mistakes in how I've handled things. I've stepped in where either my job demanded that I do, or where no one else would. I stepped in because of well-placed care. I've brought my all to the challenges I've faced. I've held off disaster, even when what that took was personally hard on me. My presence and care have made a real difference.

And yet, giving it my all, it still has not been enough.

And now these cracks begin to form under the strain. I cannot continue on like this. I will have to make some very hard decisions in order to bring my life back to something sustainable, something that will not destroy me. And I can do this, and I will. I do need to hang on as best as I can, though, for a bit longer. And I think I will be able to do that. Those cracks fortunately do not cut very deep (yet). But they are a serious warning.

So, why is life like this? I've done my best: why won't life itself give me a break?

It has something to do with the nature of the systems we've created. Our systems are extremely demanding. They demand of us more than we mere mortals can live up to. No one is capable of fulfilling what the system demands of them. The system is too exacting, and so each person who falls short even a little stresses the system for others. And those with the most overdeveloped sense of responsibility get pressed into the stress-points of the system. It's not just their choice -- it's the way the system works. Its forces maneuver those people into those places. It's physics.

People are not wholly without choices, though.

And it's at least theoretically possible to change the system, since the system is, after all, socially constructed.

Seeing the cracks developing in my confidence has forced me to look at what's going on. What's frightening to me is that it is not obvious to me how to free myself now, without losing too much.

But at least I've found a helpful way of thinking about my predicament. And I know that I'm not alone in having this kind of problem.

And, most importantly of all, to solve this problem in a real way I think would solve all of the most important problems our world faces today, because the soul-crushing nature of these dehumanizing forces is what is behind the frenzy that results in both war and environmental destruction.

We desperately need to create systems that enable the development of healthy, harmonious relationships among people and between people and the natural world. This is the urgent task before all of us.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Happy Easter!

Happy Easter!

I really like Easter, because it is about resurrection. It's about how things are not always what they seem.

It's about getting up on a pretty morning feeling really sad like you are waking up from a bad dream, and then you realize with a sinking heart that it was not a bad dream. Something terrible did just happen. The coming dawn that used to hold such promise now seems the betrayal of a promise broken. How can life be like this?

Returning to sleep is impossible. You crawl out of bed into the sharp coolness of the pre-dawn air, and put on some clothes. Not even sure of what you are doing, you go outside, more in a vain attempt to escape your sorrow than for any other reason.

You find yourself heading towards the tomb.

Realizing what you are doing, you think to yourself, "Of course. I can't believe he's really dead. I'm going to the tomb to reckon with the terrible reality that I wish has just been a bad dream. I'm going to the tomb to cry."

As you walk, you imagine putting your hands on the cold stone door. Even in imagining, the coldness pierces your soul.

As you round the last bend and at last glance towards the tomb, you are astonished to see the stone rolled aside. Amazement is quickly replaced by alarm. When you reach the tomb and peer into its emptiness, alarm becomes new puzzlement and then anger. What is this all about? Did someone take him, steal his body?!!!

You pick up the linen cloths in disbelief. Not knowing what to think, you start to cry. These past few days have been so awful, so confusing. How could all of this have happened?

Someone appears. Your distress merges with anger and you demand to know where the body is. But you soon realize that this is no ordinary person you are talking with. This stranger with a peculiar radiance knows you by name, and won't answer the questions you are trying to ask. Instead he reminds you of that bizarre resurrection prophecy that, yes, well, you heard but had not really understood. (There was a lot about your strange, now dead friend that you had not really understood. In fact, there is a quality about this stranger that reminds you very much of what it had been like to be in your friend's presence.)

A kind of other-worldly awe begins to seep into your soul, bringing a strange hope.

"You mean it's true? He is not really dead? He himself got up and left?" you ask.

"Yes and no. Yes, he got up and is not really dead. No he has not left you. He tried to tell you this would happen. Why are you so surprised?"

Bewildered and excited, you take off running to tell your friends, not thinking ahead enough to be able to predict their responses of disbelief.

Their doubt shakes you a little, but not a lot, because your experience at the tomb was so powerful: powerful in that sense of feeling more real than ordinary reality. "Come see!" you urge your friends, sure that they will be affected in the same way.

Their doubt does falter in the face of your own excitement. The sense of ultra-reality rubs off a little on them too. So they follow you back to the empty tomb and are amazed.

All of you stand together in silence for a moment in the empty tomb, mystified. Various rational explanations take turns playing through your minds, but none of them feels right. They all feel contrived. You realize that your limited mind is seeking a way to regain control of a Mystery that is not yours to control.

You realize that it is your disbelief that he could really be dead that is, after all, what you feel most sure about. How could someone so much more alive than anyone you have ever known be dead? Of course that is impossible! Of course he is not really dead.

Of course true love cannot be killed. Of course true goodness slips ever out of reach of even the very worst ragings that human anger can summon. The worst energy we humans can inflict upon the world are feeble flailings next to the power of God's love.

You all look up at each other at the same moment and know without saying anything that you have all reached the same realization.

Here you are, in the presence of a moment that will reverberate through centuries, through millennia, in ways you cannot imagine. Countless people into the future gather with you in that empty tomb and ponder this very same Mystery.

Happy Easter.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Good Friday

I went to a Good Friday service yesterday at an Episcopal church. Sometimes I like going to churches. I always hope that the experience will be rich and deep and meaningful. I long to be transported back to (my admittedly idealized version of) an older time when things were simpler, when people who gathered together in a church were a caring community, when priests were wise and services were conducted with dignity and reverence.

The church is a beautiful one, and the interior space did evoke the promise that all that I hoped for could be realized.

Then the service began. Kneeling, standing, sitting; juggling two books, the bulletin, and another booklet (created for a special portion of the service: the stations of the cross) made it a little hard to keep centered in the right spirit, but I’ve encountered all of this before and was able to handle it with reasonable grace. Racing through the hymns unsettled me a little, but I realized that this was a long service and they were trying to make sure it did not go over the two hours it took.

Then there was the sermon. A high-ranking church official gave it. Palm Sunday reflects back on Jesus’ triumphal entry to Jerusalem, he told us. Jesus came in riding a donkey, and the people cheered. But Good Friday, and the stations of the cross, reflect back on a very different scene: Jesus’ carrying the heavy cross upon which he would be crucified. The same people lined the streets to watch this procession too, but this time, these very same people were now yelling, “crucify him!” Yes, the bishop said, we must face up to this sad truth, that is was we who crucified Jesus.

We crucified Jesus, because we are sinners. While God loves us and is a merciful God, God is also a God of justice, and so, in effect, could not just let us get away with our bad behavior. But there’s a problem: we are so depraved that there is absolutely nothing that we can do to make amends. We are not capable of it. So how can justice be restored? In only one way: that God would send His Son, His only Son, to suffer the punishment on our behalf. Since we in ourselves are not capable of what it takes for our own sinful nature to be redeemed, Jesus is a stand-in for us. In His perfection, redemption is possible. His sacrifice alone has the power to redeem even the depths of our own sinfulness.

“Why did it take this?” the bishop asked with obvious pain. “Why did Jesus have to suffer so?” God’s ways are mysterious. We will never really be able to understand, he said.

After a brief prayer, another rapid hymn; then the Veneration of the Cross; communion; final prayers; and then the service ended with a silent procession. Standing with head slightly bowed, I stole furtive looks at the faces of the many priests and deacons who had come to participate in this special service presided over by this bishop, and of course, I also studied the face of the bishop himself as he passed. How did they all feel about how this went? Did the bishop really believe the version of the story he just told? His face looked thoughtful; his manner reverent. But did he really believe this version of the story?

Maybe I should have gone to the fellowship hall afterwards. I would have positioned myself near to where he was, to observe how he interacted with the people. That would have told me a lot. Maybe I would even have summoned the courage to ask him some questions.

But other forces drew me away from that scenario, and I did not mind too much.

I thought about Kierkegaard. I wondered if any true Knights of Faith had been present, and if so, what they thought of it all.

I myself just felt a deep, resigned sadness. I understand why most of my students “write off” Christianity, feeling it does not speak to them. Those who have gone to Christian churches mostly feel beat up. No wonder they keep associating Christianity with violence. The message of love does not get through to them when juxtaposed with images of crucifixion and a punishing God. They hear sermons in which priests and bishops tell them that they are the ones who crucified Jesus. They learn in school the history of the crusades and of Galileo’s persecution by the Church. Christianity feels to them like a big bully—it’s a healthy response to just slip away from the big bullies we encounter, if we can.

My sadness in this is an appropriate way to reflect on Good Friday. This is what this part of the story is all about.

It is a story about killing the wrong person. (Whenever we take it upon ourselves to kill anyone at all, we kill the wrong person. It is not by killing anyone that anything good can ever be accomplished.)

It is a story about radically misunderstanding who Jesus was and what he was trying to do. (People still radically misunderstand Christianity.)

It is a story about the nature of suffering. For a long time, people took all suffering to be a sign of God’s punishment. But if Jesus himself could suffer and even die, then suffering and death after all must not be God’s punishment, because God surely wouldn’t punish Jesus. It must mean that suffering is not the end. It must mean that death is not the end. It must mean that we should stop punishing each other. It must mean that Jesus was serious in urging us to stop judging each other, and in urging us to establish different kinds of relationships with each other instead: relationships based on caring, compassion, and love.

It is a story about redemption: even though we as humans can get things very wrong and do terrible terrible things, it is impossible for us to destroy God. It is impossible for us to destroy goodness, justice, truth. Our very worst moments turn out not to be the end of the world. When we lash out at each other in punishing fury, we are utterly incapable of destroying goodness itself. After we’ve played ourselves out, and lie gasping and wounded on the battlefield, healing energy quietly steps in and begins its work. The injured are taken to hospitals. The dead are mourned, and mourning is love. The memories of the goodness that their lives had manifested live on in the stories friends and relatives tell.

Sometimes I suggest to my students that maybe Christianity is really all about redemption.

They give me puzzled looks.

“What is redemption?” they ask. They honestly don’t know. No one has ever explained to them what this word means.

And so I meditate on all of this in these days leading up to Easter.