Saturday, February 16, 2008

Hidden Knowledge

My semester is continuing to go well. The discussions are going very well in both of my classes. I am learning a lot by observing how my students are reacting to the material. Here is some of what I have observed so far:


  • A question came up in class one day why some thinkers call God the origin of morality. While my students realized that religion tends to be moralistic, they were bewildered at the thought that all of morality is somehow grounded in God. I was bewildered at their bewilderment. So I asked them what I thought was a simple question: what are the concepts that get associated with the concept of God. I thought they would quickly offer "goodness" as one of those concepts, but they didn't. They came up with omniscience and omnipotence and creator and judge; they puzzled over the supposed immateriality of God; they discussed theism vs. deism. I waited and pushed and finally challenged them: "there's at least one more really big concept--in fact, maybe the most central one--that you haven't come up with." Blank confusion. Rising impatience. And when I told them: "goodness," there wasn't even an "oh, yes, of course!" reaction, but, instead, more blank confusion. One student objected by detailing the image of God the Harsh Judge.

I have to pause a moment to just emphasize how tragic this is. Many thoughtful, well-educated people are surprised to think of God as the source of all Goodness!


I pushed the point. I talked a little about what it's like to believe that Goodness is really real.


Then I took an even more radical step. I quoted the Bible passage, "God is love," and asked them to explore what that might mean. They were totally surprised that that was in the Bible, and wanted to know where! I worked with this in the same way. "Do you believe that love is really real? What is love? What if we regard this 'is' as an equation. If you really believe in love, then does that mean you believe in God?"


Cleverly, they tried to evade the full impact of this question by arguing about whether 'is' functions as a linguistic "equation." (And they had a point: in English sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't.)


Finally, they concluded that the concept of God is so confusing that we should dispense with the word altogether -- or perhaps make up a new one.


This was a very promising moment, because they were finally really getting it! I don't think we should get rid of the word, and any new one we might invent will develop the very same problems, probably in a very short period of time. Even though it is impossible ever to fully stabilize the meaning of a really important and powerful concept like that, what we can do is learn as individuals to hold proposed definitions of such words lightly. This is what my students were finally starting to learn to do -- but I was struck at just how hard this was for them.


  • Related: A lot of thoughtful people have really deeply entrenched negative views of religion, and negative concepts of God. Their objection to belief in God is tied to a really problematic notion of God. They think that, if God exists, God made a world structured by a hidden set of rules that are very exacting and demanding, but we are not given any clear or helpful instruction book. Somehow, we have to figure it out, but the world is so confusing and the advice we get in this life is so inconsistent that no matter what we do, there is someone telling us that it's not really the right way to do it. And this God is going to judge us in the end, and cast us into hell if we didn't get it right. My students are outraged at the unfairness of all of this. So they turn away from religion altogether.

When people turn away from religion for this reason, they lose a whole rich set of concepts and practices that can be really helpful in dealing with life's problems and challenges. That just is not how they see religion. They think that religion is a clever way that the powerful manipulate and control the weak and vulnerable. The weak find false comfort in the "dogmatism" of religion, in letting others tell them what to do. The powerful then use this to exploit and control those weak people.


Those who regard religion this way do not want to think that they themselves are weak. And so arises a culture in which we hide our weaknesses, and have few models for how to deal well with life's difficulties.


I am saddened by the latest campus tragedy: the young man who opened fire in a classroom and killed several students and then himself. I am struck that the news media's explanation is, "he was off his medication." Admittedly, no one seems to know too much more than this so far, and may never really know.


But what I find myself wondering is why we are not really teaching each other how to handle life's difficulties and challenges well.


Medications can and do help in some cases. Counseling is also really helpful. But I find it hard to convince my troubled students to go to counseling or to continue with it if their first attempts do not feel immediately helpful to them. Even though it is great that so many people try to push against the social stigma against "mental illness," that stigma is still there.


Meanwhile, it does not occur to so many people that spiritual and religious traditions are full of wisdom, compassion, help, and inspiration. Whole communities of supportive people, and whole sets of concepts, language, and practices that are tried and true, are rendered invisible by tragic misunderstanding. Those who may most benefit from access to these traditions have no access to them because they cannot get past their own misconceptions about them.


In class last week, I talked next with my students about the notion of "gnosticsm," or "hidden knowledge." We don't think about knowledge in these terms today. The scientific revolution was supposed to be all about exposing that we all have access to knowledge. Any claims to having secret, powerful knowledge are regarded with suspicion. Anything that really is true is supposed to be accessible to anyone motivated enough to look for it.


"But what if there is secret wisdom?" I asked my class. "If there is, I think it is probably hiding in plain view. I think it might be right in front of us, but we get duped into seeing it in the wrong way."


Then I added, "do you realize that you are an elite few, right now engaged in an elaborate initiation into powerful knowledge that is hidden from most other people on this planet? By virtue of your being students in an institution of higher education, this is, in a way, true."


Maybe they thought I was out of my mind (I'll see how they follow up on this discussion on Monday!), but I left class feeling both excited and sad. I was excited that they seemed so surprised, and surprise is all about opening to something really new. If they come through this to new awareness and new understanding, I will be really glad.


But I felt sad too, because I really do feel that I have tapped into worlds of valuable, helpful, powerful knowledge and wisdom that have been immensely meaningful in my own life, but that remain hidden behind thick curtains of misconceptions to most other people I encounter. I cannot speak my native language without fear of being tragically misunderstood. I live this astonishing secret life of engagement with great spiritual forces, and most people have no idea. I don't want this life to be secret. In a way, I am talking about it all the time, but most people miss it. They miss it because the elaborate translations I must perform strip away most of the magnificence of it all; they miss it because they aren't paying much attention anyway; they miss it because they only accept thinned-out narrow meanings of the huge enormous concepts I use.


And how much do I miss of the secret dramatic lives of others, because they too are caught in the same dilemmas of believing that the language they are most inclined to use is also most likely to be misunderstood?


I am so glad for the opportunity to teach this class in Science and Religion, because we are all struggling to find or build a language for talking about these great mysteries. Any language will always have its limits. But communication is possible despite the limits of language, when people really want to communicate.

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