Peace and Love at Christmas

The state of Texas recently passed a law making it legal to say “Merry Christmas” in schools. The law grows out of a misguided worry that secular schools should not even mention Christmas. Some even fear that there is a secular war against Christmas.

Peace, Love, Joy, Christmas

The Reverend Franklin Graham, for example, recently wrote: “The war on Christmas is a war on Christ and His followers. It’s the hatred of our culture for the exclusive claims that Christ made.” This dispute is not surprising given the history of religious conflict and ongoing divisions in our diverse culture.

It might help to recall that disputes about Christmas have a deep history. There is no consensus about Christmas, even among Christians. Eastern traditions celebrate Christmas on January 6. The manger scenes we see around Christmas take liberties with the story. Jesus was most likely born in a cave, not in a stable. The animals are also a later addition, not found in the Bible. The Gospels themselves contain different stories.

This is not surprising for people who study religion. Religions and religious stories evolve over time. This helps us gain some perspective on the so-called war on Christmas. Christmas and Christianity itself has never been just one thing.

But the point of Christmas, it seems to me, is to find a way to look beyond our disputes. We celebrate peace, love, hope and joy during the Christmas season. It would be great to focus on those shared valued and leave the divisiveness for the rest of the year.

In our diverse world, not everyone accepts the exclusive theology behind Mr. Graham’s interpretation of Christmas. But we can all benefit from peace and love, joy and hope. Indeed, it is those values that allow us to coexist despite our deep theological differences.

You don’t need to take the nativity story literally to understand values celebrated at Christmas. We can all understand the dramatic moment when Mary and Joseph are turned away from the inn. You don’t have to be a Christian to understand that this story shows us the need for hospitality and that giving birth is momentous joyous and mysterious.

In some sense, Christmas has already become a secular holiday. It is a regular part of our yearly round of holiday closures and vacation scheduling. We all know that “winter break” coincides with Christmas. Charles Haynes, a scholar at the First Amendment Center, made this point in a recent essay discussing the difficulty of managing religious holidays in our multi-religious culture. His solution is to be equitable, hospitable and respectful of our differences.

I corresponded with Mr. Haynes about this. He pointed out that schools should be free to teach about Christmas, while also teaching about other holidays in an academic fashion. Such teaching might include historic debates over the meaning of Christmas among Christians themselves. The colonial Puritans, for example, banned Christmas because they viewed its pagan elements as un-Christian.

While Christmas is inextricably linked to a celebration of the birth of Christ, the holiday is much more than that — it includes Santa and his reindeer, jingle bells and evergreen trees. These later additions have no connection to the Bible story. Christmas has evolved to be a secular — and universally accessible — celebration of joy, peace, love and hope.

The First Amendment guarantees that conservative Christians like Mr. Graham have a right to point out that Christmas originates in stories about the birth of Christ. Atheists also have a right to argue against Christmas and Christianity, if they like. But the Christmas spirit is more inclusive and welcoming than any exclusive religious or anti-religious diatribe. The values of Christmas encourage us to be warmer, gentler, kinder and more friendly. Inclusivity, hospitality, peace and love are important values for all of us.

The deep and universal message of Christmas is the hope that in an inhospitable world, we might find a peace, love and refuge. You don’t have to be a Christian to understand that. Christians layer theology onto the nativity scene, directing hope beyond this world. But the magic of Christmas is found here on earth in the joyous love of mothers and in the peaceful and hopeful faces of children, who have not yet been hardened by the world and its divisions.

Gratitude

Giving thanks allows us to reconnect with the good in life

Fresno Bee, November 28, 2014 

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Half Dome Thanksgiving

The holidays provide an opportunity to reflect upon gratitude. Our gift-giving rituals allow us to practice the art of giving thanks.

Gratitude is important for living well. Gratitude affirms life and connects us to others. It can even help us feel in tune with the cosmos. Gratitude is kindness reciprocated. It is the resounding echo of love and generosity.

Research in positive psychology has shown that gratitude is linked to happiness. We become happier when we acknowledge what we’ve got to be thankful for. Gratitude also builds and sustains relationships. If you want to feel better and have more friends, learn to say “thanks” often.

As with other virtues, gratitude should be sincere. Insincere expressions of thankfulness are fruitless. Ingratiating flattery is an inevitable part of social life, where schmoozers use gratitude as a tool. But we are social animals, who are pretty good at detecting phoniness. Only sincere gifts and honest gratitude bear the fruit of friendship.

In the end, love and gratitude rest upon the honesty of genuine social relations. True friendship cannot be faked. And gratitude only develops when you really do have something to be grateful for.

In addition to connecting the virtue of gratitude with other virtues such as sincerity and honesty, the world’s wisdom traditions link gratitude with modesty. The Roman Stoics taught that we should not expect much from life and that when something good happens, we should be thankful. Gratitude develops when we see that simple goods are easily obtained. Nearly everyone has something to be grateful for: health, friends, or life itself. Gratitude grows when we view life as a gift, to be lived simply, honestly, and sincerely.

Gratitude also rests upon moderation of desire. Riches, fame, and power tend to stimulate desire, making us feel — oddly enough — ungrateful. Immoderate desires cause ingratitude, leaving us “spoiled.”

Spoiled people are narcissistic. If they give thanks at all, their gratitude is insincere. They expect to receive; but they don’t feel grateful for what they’ve been given. They become resentful when they don’t get the goods they feel they deserve. Resentment builds as acquisitiveness and ingratitude grow.

The solution is modest simplicity. We should expect little and be thankful for much. This helps us recognize love and kindness in simple things.

Ungrateful resentment is a defect of love. Spoiled people have not learned how to love — either how to receive love or how to give it. The art of gratitude aims to receive love with grace and return it with joy.

Christian ethics helps connect gratitude with love. Christians celebrate a loving God, to whom a sort of cosmic gratitude should be given. Religious gratitude points beyond the social world and the simple goods of life toward divine love that gives us the benefits we enjoy.

Such an idea will cause atheist eyes to roll. Atheists often argue that religious thanksgiving is based upon fear of God or a superstitious desire to curry favor with a mercurial deity. Believers might respond by saying that joyful thanksgiving is not fearful and submissive but, rather, a celebration of the goodness of God.

Believers may also suggest that atheists miss out on something important when they do not feel the cosmic sort of gratitude associated with prayers of thanksgiving directed toward a loving God. The atheist may respond by saying that gratitude can be directed to society or to the natural world, which sustains and inspires us. One can acknowledge that life is good without also thinking that it is a gift from God.

This theological dispute should not distract us from the importance of gratitude and love in human life. We are finite and needy beings, whose basic desire for love is only satisfied by a gift from another. Just as you can’t kiss by yourself, you can’t really say thanks by yourself. “Thank you” points toward another person.

Whether the object of our thanks is God, the cosmos, or our friends and family, gratitude reminds us to see love and appreciate kindness. In this difficult world, love and kindness are never guaranteed. That’s why we should be grateful when good happens. And that’s why we should let the good reverberate by saying thanks.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/11/28/4259153_fiala-on-ethics-giving-thanks.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy

 

Thanksgiving Religious Liberty

On Thanksgiving, be thankful for liberty

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Puritan Thanksgiving

Fresno Bee, November 14, 2014 

We should be thankful that the Pilgrims are not in charge of Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims condemned sports and other recreations along with idleness, gluttony and drunkenness. They celebrated modesty, frugality and hard work.

One Pilgrim, William Bradford, recounted an incident in which some men refused to work on Christmas Day. Those slackers spent Christmas playing “stoolball” — an ancestor of cricket. The governor of the colony condemned them for playing while others worked.

Richard Baxter, a Puritan preacher of the 17th century, wrote, “Set not your hearts upon your belly or your sport.” Our Thanksgiving rituals would make Baxter’s heart sink. Baxter was obsessed with the idea of redeeming time from vain pursuits. He thought that since our time on Earth is short, we ought not waste time on “needless sports, and plays, and idleness, and curiosity, and compliment, and excess of sleep, and chat, and worldliness.”

Our Thanksgiving myth celebrates the proverbial work ethic of the Pilgrims. We picture them toiling in the fields. We forget that they were uptight about sport, play and idle talk. We picture them sharing the bounty of their harvest with Indians. But we forget that they eventually slaughtered their Pequot and Wampanoag neighbors.

The Pilgrims were religious fundamentalists. They fled Europe in the name of religious liberty. They were also glad to escape the indolence of European culture. They saw labor as a religious calling. Hard work could prove worthiness for eternal life. Lazy idlers were not going to make it to heaven.

Few Puritans remain. Few see hard work as a religious duty. Even fewer believe that we should avoid playful amusements. Ironically, one of the most common places to hear the term “work ethic” is in sports, where we praise an athlete’s “work ethic.” How odd, to Puritan ears, that we have turned sport into ethical work!

The Puritans were ultimately focused on another realm of value — beyond work and recreation. For many of us, however, life simply is a round of working and consuming. And Thanksgiving has become a celebration of overeating, sports and consumerism.

The Pilgrims would be appalled. But one does not have to be a Puritan to recognize that there is something sad about a holiday devoted to eating, shopping and watching TV.

One of the fundamental problems of human life is that we are never satisfied — either with our work or with our play. When we are busy, we dream of vacation. When we are on vacation, we are anxious to get back to work. All November long we dream of Thanksgiving. But after four days of football, family and fattening foods, we are ready to get back to work.

Philosophers have long wondered about this paradoxical feature of our lives. Schopenhauer, the great pessimist of the 19th century, argued that life was either incessant toil or boring leisure. We slavishly work to create leisure. But when we have free time, we quickly fill it up with trivial games and amusements that are not worthy of human dignity. We work like dogs. And when we are not working, we behave like dogs.

The solution, of course, is to find work that you love and to fill your leisure with uplifting activity. There is something to be learned from the Puritans’ idea that work is a religious calling. If we discovered meaning in our work, then work would be something valued for its own sake, rather than a means to an end.

But the Puritan ethic has limits. There is menace in the missionary zeal of Puritans who condemn sports and other amusements in the name of redeeming time. The goal of finding meaningful work and uplifting recreation is important. But meaning cannot be imposed. It is created under conditions of liberty.

If there is something to work hard to defend, it is the idea that our time is our own. We redeem it according to our own best judgment. Some play; others pray. It’s up to each of us to decide how we want to spend our time. The idea of liberty led the Pilgrims away from Europe. We should be thankful today that we are free of the Pilgrims — free even to waste our time on pigskin and pumpkin pie.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/11/14/4235743/ethics-on-thanksgiving-be-thankful.html#storylink=cpy

 

Calling out hypocrites and looking in the mirror

Like to call out hypocrites? It might be time to take a good look in the mirror

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Fresno Bee, November 1, 2014 

Hypocrisy abounds.

Consider these recent stories:

• The inspector assigned to investigate a Secret Service prostitution scandal resigned because of accusations that he paid a prostitute for sex in Florida.

• A Washington, D.C. rabbi who has complained about sexual immorality was arrested for secretly videotaping women taking ritual baths at his synagogue.

• The director of an ethics center at the University of North Carolina was implicated in a scheme in which student athletes took fake classes and received phony grades. The UNC ethics expert wrote a book on sports ethics where she argued that misbehavior in sports has become so prevalent that “people are shaking their heads in despair as they try to find solutions.”

There are good reasons for despair and a lot to shake our heads about when the ethics experts are suspected of being unethical. A cynical saying says that those who can, do; and those who can’t, teach. Maybe those who aren’t ethical teach ethics, inspect ethics scandals and preach about good behavior

Of course, most people — even most ethics inspectors, clergy, and professors — are not immoral. Decent people are a dime a dozen. But for every 10 decent people, there are a couple of stinkers.

The stinkers stick in our heads. Ordinary decency is boring. It is more entertaining when a hypocrite on a moral pedestal falls from grace. Who doesn’t giggle when a moral authority gets caught with his pants down?

But we ought not to laugh too long. The smug satisfaction we get from watching hypocrites fall is a short step away from hypocrisy. After all, even members of the decent majority have moral blind spots. And the hypocrite’s crimes hurt real people, whose suffering is exacerbated by our giggling gossip.

The Urban Dictionary defines hypocrisy as a crime that everyone but me should be punished for. A book by Robert Kurzban cleverly asks, “Why everyone (else) is a hypocrite?” We readily detect hypocrisy in others but rarely see it in ourselves. We excuse our own moral failings while we condemn others. Moral self-deception is a coping mechanism. And moral blame is a fun social activity.

Most of us will never commit major felonies. But who hasn’t committed a moral misdemeanor? We harbor unspoken animosities and minor lusts. We let grudges fester and nurse secret resentments. We turn a blind eye to the needy, take free rides and avoid responsibility. And we laugh at those who need our compassion.

Moral decency is hard work. It requires continued self-assessment, honesty and modesty. One response to this demanding process is to turn away from the moral mirror and get busy judging others. Self-reflection is lonely and difficult. Pontificating about the moral failures of others is much more amusing than confessing our own sins.

Our culture is fascinated by stories of liars, cheaters, frauds and hypocrites: from Adam and Cain to Judas. The clergy, cops and coaches of the modern world provide further grist for the moral gossip mill.

And we love to gossip. But most gossip is cold and cruel. And it smells faintly of hypocrisy. Jesus was right to condemn the hypocrites who are so busy judging others that they don’t see their own moral failings. That condemnation applies to each of us.

One cynical response is simply to give in to this common human failing. If we are all hypocrites, then maybe we should embrace our absurdity and keep dishing the gossip. The higher path is, of course, to stop the malicious chatter and look in the mirror.

Moral health and ethical hygiene begin with self-examination. Just as you probe your own body for tumors and odd growths, you should probe your soul for those festering lumps that can become moral cancers.

Candid self-criticism is not easy. It’s not always pleasant to look at your own naked body in a full-length mirror. Nor is it easy to put your soul under a microscope. It’s much more fun to mock other people’s bodies and to gossip about their flaws and failures.

Hypocrisy and moral failure are common human afflictions. Forgiveness and compassion may be in order — even toward ourselves. But the best way to avoid hypocrisy is keep your mouth shut and your eye on the mirror.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/10/31/4209328/ethics-like-to-call-out-hypocrites.html#storylink=cpy

Let it go: Amish and Taoist Peace and Forgiveness

Simple spirituality can teach us to say ‘let it go’

BY ANDREW FIALA

FresnoBee October 17, 2014 

I recently attended a conference in Lancaster, Pa., focused on forgiveness and peace. Amish farms dot the countryside and Amish farmers in horse-drawn buggies roam the hills under turning leaves. What a great place to discuss forgiveness and peace.611zcLF19TL._SX425_

A guiding idea for the Amish is the concept of Gelassenheit. This German word means “letting things be” or “letting go.” This idea guides the simple and modest life of the Amish, who avoid vanity, pride and the temptations of the modern world.

A recent book on Amish spirituality by Donald Kraybill explains that Amish Gelassenheit is the opposite of the “bold, assertive individualism of mainstream American culture.” The Amish encourage submission, humility and simplicity as well as forgiveness, peace, love and community.

Our bold and assertive individualism may be the root of many of our problems: crime, war, ecological disaster and social dislocation. Mainstream culture does not encourage us to be yielding or to be humble. Nor are we content to go easy in the world. Would you exchange your car for a horse and buggy, your cell phone for a simpler life?

We fill our lives with gadgetry and we charge down the freeway at breakneck speed. We celebrate heroes who impose their will upon the world. We are rarely encouraged to give way, to yield, or to simply let things be. We are too busy asserting ourselves, defending our rights and expressing our outrage.

But a yielding and gentle spirit is the heart of peaceful human relations. Consider forgiveness. To forgive is to give up on resentment, revenge and the right to retaliate. If I forgive you, I let you get away with what you’ve done. I forgo the right to punishment or compensation. Forgiveness leaves the injury behind, lets go of the past and allows the future to unfold anew.

Love is also connected to letting go. Loving human beings relinquish their egos in communion with others. We want those we love to flourish and grow, to become fully themselves. Loving parents guide their children gently, encouraging development with an accepting spirit.

Some may worry that peaceful yielding and loving forgiveness undermine discipline and order. Some still believe that if you spare the rod, you spoil the child. But peaceful and harmonious communities do not need coercive force. Obedience based upon cruelty is superficial. True moral communities develop when people are patiently persuaded to discover natural affinities and common good.

My contribution at the Lancaster conference was a talk on Taoism. The Chinese philosophers also celebrate the spirit of letting go and letting be. Taoist wisdom encourages us to let things be the way they are. The Taoists emphasize living naturally, spontaneously, without conniving or contriving.

There are huge differences between Amish Christianity and Chinese Taoism. The Amish emulate Jesus and submission to God by saying, “Thy will be done.” The Taoists emphasize finding balance and harmony in nature. They are inspired by natural metaphors, encouraging us, for example, to emulate water, which flows, yields and conforms to the world.

Despite this essential difference, the Taoists and the Amish are similar in advocating retreat from the aggressive world of competitive culture. The Taoists retreated to the mountains of China. The Amish retreated to the hills of Pennsylvania.

Our fast-paced competitive world does not have much room for Gelassenheit. We tamper and tinker, judge and manipulate. We celebrate innovators, entrepreneurs and explorers. The bold individualism of our world is quite different from the quiet agrarian life of the Amish. It is also quite different from the life of the Taoist wanderer, who prefers nothing better than to peacefully fish in a mountain pond.

There is profound wisdom in the slow corners of the world, where letting things go is a way of life. Some of that wisdom should be allowed to influence the contemporary world. Gelassenheit is a concept that ought to enter into our moral vocabulary.

We ought to learn to say, “Thy will be done.” We ought to learn to flow like water. We ought to learn the wisdom of leaving things alone. When people complain about stress — when they are angry, resentful or aggressive — we ought to say to them, Gelassenheit — let it go, leave it be.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/10/17/4184601_simple-spirituality-can-teach.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy

 

Yes Means Yes But What About ‘I Love You’?

Something amiss when we are too casual about casual sex

Fresno Bee, October 3, 2014

California’s new law requiring “affirmative consent” for sex is a good one. The “yes means yes” law rules out the possibility of consent when someone is asleep, intoxicated or otherwise impaired. Neither silence nor lack of protest counts as consent.imgres

That’s a good law. But I thought decent human beings already knew this. Sex without consent is rape. And sex without communication is not very sexy. Trust, tenderness and mutual affection are the heart of erotic experience.

Erotic relations are deeply ethical. Erotic experience is heightened by shared intimacy and imagination. The zenith of the erotic occurs in seeing and feeling your lover’s desire and pleasure. Mutuality and reciprocity heighten pleasure and deepen desire. In a genuinely erotic relationship, there should be no mistake about consent.

In a culture of casual hookups, however, this may be missing. The players in the hookup culture need the reminder that only an explicit “yes” turns on the green light for sex. Indeed, as if on cue, there is a new app for consent called “Good2Go.” Prospective partners can use their smartphones to register consent (and level of intoxication) during a hookup in order to avoid messy “he said, she said” accusations after the fact.

This is an inevitable development. Erotic relationships are a lot of trouble. It is difficult to talk and listen to your partner about feelings, needs, hopes and expectations. In the smartphone universe all of that mushy emotional stuff can be dispensed with. We can send sexy photos, use an app to register consent, exchange bodily fluids and then get back to the lonely business of living.

Erotic experience is much more than a contractual relation in which we consent to intercourse. Unfortunately, our culture tends to divorce sex from social relationships and shared intimacy. Ubiquitous porn normalizes unsocial orgasms. What we used to call “making love” is described as “doing it” or “having sex.” When sex becomes an “it” that we can “do” or a thing we can “have,” we risk confusing a social relationship with an act of solitary gratification.

Some may argue that sexual acts are simply pleasant biological functions, something to be done without much fanfare or any necessary social connection. Some may also object that idealism about making love is a gourmet indulgence for those fortunate enough to have found a loving partner. Many people don’t have the time, energy or opportunity for deeply meaningful erotic relations. A quick consensual hookup may be the best we can hope for in our fast-food world.

I corresponded about this with Professor Qrescent Mali Mason, an expert on the philosophy of sex and love at Drexel University. Professor Mason thought I was too moralistic in my thinking about the importance of what I call making love. She argued that there is something to be learned from sexual experimentation without love. She suggested that experiencing sexual relations with partners we do not love can help us to understand and recognize love when we find it. Professor Mason also pointed out that some people just want sex.

Fair enough. We do have a tendency to idealize and romanticize sex, which is after all simply an animal function. But I still contend that there is something missing when we are too casual about casual sex. Animals can exchange bodily fluids. But only human beings exchange ideas, hopes and dreams.

Some may suggest that the deep problem is that sex has been decoupled from marriage. But there is no guarantee that sex within marriage is loving. Husbands can rape their wives. And people can make love and share profound intimacy without being married. The real problem is that sex is often viewed as a mere bodily function divorced from the erotic and social connection that is its greatest joy.

Technology and the law make the hookup scene easier, safer and more efficient. But consent apps and “yes means yes” laws cannot transform sex into love. Professor Mason concluded her correspondence with me by joking that one reason to like the “yes means yes” law is that we all like to hear a little “yes, yes, yes!” shouted in the bedroom. But I would add that we also like to hear a whisper of “I love you.”

 

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/10/03/4159723_ethics-something-misses-when-we.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy

There’s still a long road ahead to find peace

Fresno Bee, September 20, 2014

Thirty years ago the United Nations declared Sept. 21 as an International Day of Peace. We’ve still got a long way to go.

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Human beings are the most violent animals on the planet. No other species kills its own members in large numbers on a regular basis. And yet, no other species reflects upon its own behavior or loves itself as much as we do. Hope for peace can be found in our capacity for reason and our ability to love.

Quite a few people claim that love provides the path to peace. Bumper sticker wisdom proclaims, “No love, no peace — know love, know peace.” Martin Luther King explained that love cuts through evil and hate. He said, “Love is the only creative, redemptive, transforming power in the universe.” Love moves us to sacrifice and care for others. It connects us to each other in a way that should promote harmony and peace.

But love without reason is blind. Love usually stops at the front door: we love our family but not our neighbors. Sometimes we do “love our neighbors.” But love rarely extends beyond borders. We may love those who share our ethnic, national or religious identity. But it is difficult to love humanity as a whole.

The best teachers of love want to extend it broadly, even maintaining that we ought to love our enemies. That is a radical idea, which may be impossible for mere mortals. But reason does tell us to extend love in a universal direction. A moment’s thought tells us that we are all members of the same species, despite our differences. Reason tells us that racial and ethnocentric biases are unjustified. It points toward an impartial and universal point of view.

We might supplement King’s enthusiasm for love, then, by claiming that reason is also a creative and transformative power in the universe. Reason’s virtue is its demand for objectivity and justification. Reason directs us away from nepotism, ethnic chauvinism, jingoistic patriotism, narcissistic pride and other malfunctions of love.

If we admit that love without reason is blind, we should also admit that reason without love is heartless. Warmongers often make cold-blooded arguments to support their violence. The same is true for murderers, torturers and the rest of violent humanity. Explanations and rationalizations have been employed in defense of all sorts of brutality.

Some arguments in defense of violence are better than others. But things go horribly wrong when callous arguments and cold rationalizations ignore the common beating heart of human experience, which is love. The tragedy of reason is its tendency to become cruelly inhuman and unloving.

A further difficulty is that violence is often justified in the name of love. Reason tells us that we ought to defend those we love against our enemies. But those enemies are also motivated by love and by arguments of their own. All human beings love their families, friends and ideals. Even the suicidal terrorist thinks that he’s justified. The deepest difficulty of violence is that it can be fueled by love and reason — the very things that should prevent violence.

The good news is that many of us are increasingly skeptical of traditional justifications of violence. Domestic violence, for example, would have gone unremarked upon in previous generations. Recent outrage about highly publicized cases of domestic violence is a sign of progress. There is similar outrage about war crimes and military aggression around the world. A growing number of us believe that violence is an irrational remnant of the youth of humanity.

To make further progress we have to link the objectivity and impartiality of reason with the passionate motivation and empathic connection of love. We need universal and reasonable love; and we need benevolent and compassionate reason. We need to love better and think more carefully.

Violence — like hatred, stupidity and ignorance — is easy. Thinking and loving are harder. It takes persistence and patience to love, to think and to build peace. Humanity has slowly worked its way toward a global society, through millennia of horrors. We are making slow progress. But piles of corpses and oceans of tears litter the way. The hard work of the next 30 years — and the next millennium — is to make ourselves more loving, more reasonable and more peaceful.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/09/19/4133666/theres-still-a-long-road-ahead.html#storylink=cpy

 

Contemplating the arts

Take time to contemplate the arts in this trivial digital age

Fresno Bee September 6, 2014 

Poetry, philosophy, literature and art are uniquely human activities. Other animals play, sing and even dance. But no other animal contemplates its own existence.

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Philosopher Contemplating Death

In our quick digital era, one wonders whether there is time for contemplation. Speed and multitasking can undermine focus needed to study a poem, observe a work of art or digest a philosophical insight.

Our digital tools give us unprecedented opportunity to explore the humanities. We can download the great works of literature and philosophy and carry them with us in phones and tablets. We can publish our own reflections with the click of a mouse. Art works are easily copied and forwarded.

This could be a golden age of philosophical reflection and poetic insight. There are hidden backwaters of the Internet where poetry, philosophy and art flourish. But much of the mainstream flows in another direction. The Internet deluges us with foolish factoids, meaningless memes, pornographic pictures and vicious videos. The rising tide of trivia can easily sweep us away.

Our attention is divided by the pace and flow of information. Even conversation suffers: We text instead of call. We dread the spiraling buffer sign and multitask while we wait. Our attention bounces along among scattered bits of quickly moving data.

Speedy multitasking is not all bad. In some cases, a brief text is all you need. When you only want data, a quick download is great. The trivia passing through our gadgets can be surfed and skimmed.

But careful, slow and deliberate attention is important. Life’s most meaningful moments deserve our time and undivided attention: falling in love, giving birth, growing old, dying. Unhurried, sustained reflection is a mature human ability, as is the ability to listen, read and think.

It takes time and concentration to understand Shakespeare or Plato or Picasso. Deliberate, undivided effort is needed to write a poem, construct an argument or analyze a work of literature. The same intellectual skill is needed in the sciences, in law and in other fields. But the humanities are unique in forcing us to slow down, breathe deeply and contemplate.

Shakespeare once compared his love to a summer’s day. That’s a fact (download Sonnet 18 and you’ll see). But what does it mean? Summer days are slow and luxurious. Unfortunately, beauty fades, as does summer. Is there hope? Shakespeare hints that poetry holds beauty in place against the ravages of time.

Does the Internet also preserve us against swift-footed time? You could post Shakespeare’s sonnet on your website along with your other pictures and memes. But copying and pasting is not understanding. Meaning cannot be downloaded. There is no app for insight.

Good poetry is precise. Haiku can be inspiring. Shakespeare’s sonnets are 140 syllables long. Concise communication is a useful art. But we’ve shaved this down to tweets of 140 characters. And we’ve compressed the time we need to reflect upon the meaning of things, while filling the void with data.

Data transfer is to thinking as sex is to love. Human beings could exchange DNA in a quick genetic data dump. But love is much more than this. Love is a mysterious communion of souls haunted by a whiff of eternity. It involves contemplation: You linger, savor and dream about your beloved.

The same is true of poetry, philosophy and other attempts to fathom the human spirit. Lingering, savoring, dreaming and contemplating are the modes and moods of the humanities. Through them we rise above the manic din of data exchange and hover for a moment in defiance of swift-footed, devouring time.

Our electronic exchanges are like quick splashes of water that run off dry land without sinking in. Philosophy, poetry and the arts are stickier, gentler and denser. When given time and attention, they provide deep irrigation for the human spirit.

It is not surprising that the value of the humanities is best expressed in metaphor. Metaphors force us to slow down and think. It is not enough to simply state that the humanities are valuable in themselves — that’s a fact to be posted, tweeted and repeated. We also need to see that poetry, philosophy and art provide an oasis of contemplation in a desert of data.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/09/05/4107180_ethicstake-time-to-contemplate.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy

 

Passion, Heat, and Nirvana

When passions heat, learn to spiritually stop, drop and roll

Fresno Bee, August 29, 2014

We live in a flammable world.  Wildfires scorch the countryside. Anger boils over in the streets. Proverbial powder kegs are hidden everywhere.IMG_2402

Stability and peace are temporary in a world ruled by heat and fire.

Our language is full of fiery imagery. Plagues, protests, wars and ideas can “spread like wildfire.” Fads catch fire and take off. An interest is sparked. A torch is passed. People and ideas burn out.

Ancient civilizations viewed fire as elemental. Some Greek philosophers described the world as an eternal, living fire. The Stoics taught that the universe was periodically consumed in a cosmic conflagration.

In the Bible, God is described as a burning bush and a consuming fire. Jesus said that he had come to set fire to the earth. Christians still speak of being set ablaze by the Holy Spirit and the fire of faith. But fire is also associated with the devil. This indicates our ambivalence about fire. It is both good and evil.

The Buddhist tradition warns against playing with fire. The Buddha once said that all things are on fire: the world, the body and the mind. Liberation is found in taming passion and its pyrotechnics. Nirvana can be understood as blowing out a flame, while leaving its light.

Fire and passion can enliven and destroy. We are both masters of fire and its victims. Passion is the energy of life. But it can disrupt peace. Jealousy, resentment, infatuation and greed can smolder and burst into flames. But ambition and the “fire in the belly” give meaning and purpose to life.

Civilization is a process of domesticating both fire and passion. Homo erectus used fire more than half a million years ago. But homo sapiens used it to take over the earth. We burned forests to clear land for farms. We captured fire and controlled it, eventually learning to burn coal, gas and oil. These combustibles fueled the industrial revolution.

But dangers remain. Famous fires burned down Rome, London and San Francisco. Inflamed passions continue to spark conflict and disorder. And every fire leaves behind smoke and ash. The fires of the industrial revolution produced a smoldering climate. Passionate violence has left smoldering ruins across the world.

Fire prevention and management can provide a guide for living. Put out little fires before they blaze into raging infernos. Clear away the junk and undergrowth that can feed the flames. Prevent sparks from flying when possible. Keep a tight lid on your really flammable stuff. Make sure you know where the fire extinguisher is. And when passion flares up, take a deep breath and spiritually stop, drop and roll.

Once a fire is blazing ethical questions arise. We might attempt to fight fire with fire, as the saying goes, lighting backfires, bringing in the big guns, and unleashing awesome firepower. You may have to destroy some things in order to save others. But that is not always just or wise. Escalation is a worry, as is blowback.

Sometimes it is wise to let fires burn themselves out. A small controlled fire can consume the fuel that could cause a larger conflagration. Just as fever helps cure disease, outbursts of furious rage can burn up emotional energy.

There is some wisdom in those traditions that fear the flames of passion. But the fire in the belly is not always bad. The key is to harness our spiritual energies, just as we do with the controlled explosions of the internal combustion engine. Ambition, pride and the desire for justice need a productive outlet.

Fire and life have co-evolved. The burning sun is the source of life. And every human birth begins in hot-blooded desire. Our passion makes life interesting and worth living.

The giant sequoias provide a lesson. Their thick resilient skin keeps them standing through centuries of forest fire. Their seeds need fire to germinate. Like the sequoia, fire and passion can make us stronger and help us give birth to new growth that emerges from the flames.

Some dream of a calm, cool world. But icy equanimity can’t sustain life. We inhabit a flammable planet. Our bodies and souls are combustible. Wisdom lies in knowing when to light a flame and when to blow one out.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/08/29/4095153_ethics-when-passions-heat-learn.html?sp=/99/1355/&rh=1#storylink=cpy

 

Trying Times, Luck, Compassion

Trying Times Remind Us About Luck

Fresno Bee, August 9, 2014  IMG_0687

As the horrors of this summer unfold – war, disease and refugee children – we should reflect on how lucky we are. If you had been born in Central America, the Middle East or West Africa, your life would be quite different. Of course, you don’t have to travel far to see bad luck. Violence, illness and homelessness occur here, too.

Einstein once said, referring to the deep structure of reality, that God does not play dice. But it does seem that a dice-playing divinity rules our lives. Life and death, success and failure, are often simply matters of luck. Happiness and destitution hinge on the roll of the cosmic dice.

Some believe that a wise and benevolent providence guides our lives. From this point of view, even bad luck works out for the best in the long run. That’s a nice idea. But it is hard to understand why God allows some to thrive while others suffer. If we can’t discern the reason behind our fortunes or misfortunes, we might as well chalk it up to chance.

Americans like to believe that winners make their own luck. Walt Whitman boldly stated the American faith in self-made luck: “Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune.” Whitman told us to take to the road to find our fortune. To get lucky, you do have to open your heart to the world and embrace opportunities when they arrive. This hopeful idealism makes sense in an open and welcoming world.

But for some, the dice are loaded against them. The plight of the children fleeing Central America reminds us that roads are often closed and that welcome mat can be pulled in. A similar problem stacks the deck against the children of Africa and the Middle East. We might admire the courage of refugees who take to the road to find a better life. But the homeless wandering our streets remind us that fortune is hard to find on the open road.

Hard work and determination cannot guarantee survival for unlucky children born into war, poverty and disease. These afflictions prey equally upon the smart and the stupid. Industrious folks may have a slight advantage in Gaza, Liberia or Honduras. But talent and tenacity can’t overcome the chance occurrences of history and geography.

We don’t choose where or when we are born. Nor do we choose our genetic endowment or cultural heritage. The most important facts of our biographies are entirely beyond our control and subject to the cosmic lottery.

The existentialist philosophers coined the term “thrown-ness” to describe the human condition. We are thrown_like dice_into the world. We find ourselves in a place and time, in a body, and living a life that we did not create or choose. Each moment of our lives involves another throw of the dice.

Our only power is in choosing how to react to the rolling dice. Virtue and character appear in the way we navigate the winds of fortune. We can give up in despair and resign ourselves to fate. Or we can resolve to work hard, despite the odds. But at the end of the day, you don’t control the way the dice fall.

Understanding the role of luck in life should make us more modest about our triumphs and less ashamed of our defeats. Every great achievement contains an element of chance that calls pride into question. Seeing that every loss includes some bad luck can moderate feelings of blame or regret.

The truth of luck is that it is always changing. It can be difficult to appreciate good luck, when you are worried about losing it. But admitting the fragility of good fortune can lead you to savor the sweetness of success. And understanding that bad luck does not last forever can give you solace while you wait for your fortunes to change.

In the end, to understand luck is to develop compassion. The unlucky have usually done nothing to deserve their misfortune. Another roll of the dice and it could be you digging through the rubble, burying your beloved or fleeing poverty. Mercy, kindness and generosity are needed in a hard luck world where, it seems, the gods do play dice.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/08/12/4066312/trying-times-remind-us-about-luck.html#storylink=cpy