Christmas peace and the anti-political turn

Fresno Bee, December 17, 2023

Donald Trump is threatening to govern as a dictator. Joe Biden is cruising toward impeachment. And partisan bickering never seems to end. But it’s a mistake to fret too much about the absurdity of American politics.

The crises of our republic matter. We live in a broken world. But the ugly mess of political life is less important than we think. There has never been a perfect country. To obsess about politics is to fail to understand that politics cannot solve spiritual problems.

So, I disagree somewhat with Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, who wrote an interesting recent column on “The Spiritual Unspooling of America.” That “spiritual unspooling” includes loneliness, suicide, drug overdoses, polarization, violence and hate.

Murphy suggests that the antidote is a better kind of politics. Sure. Better politics might help. It would be nice to live in a good country led by honorable people. It would be wonderful to live in a world of harmony and peace. And we should work toward those goods. But as I argued in a recent column, humanity is constructed of “warped wood” not easily made straight.

The real solution for “spiritual disintegration” is, well, spiritual. Harmony, peace and honor have always been in short supply. Learning to accept the tragically flawed reality of political life is an essential part of wisdom. Once we understand this, we can look elsewhere to find solace and hope.

Our spiritual malaise will not be solved by better politics. Your flourishing does not depend on Trump or Biden. Politics is not the highest good. The best and most important things transcend political life. These transcendent goods include spirituality and art, love and community.

This anti-political idea is clear at Christmas. The story of the season is of a new conception of power, born of humility and existing apart from politics. Christianity teaches about a kingdom that is not of this world. Jesus was not a political leader. He raised no army and was murdered by the state. According to one important story, when Satan tempted Jesus with political power, Jesus refused.

The turn away from politics is a common theme in the world’s wisdom traditions. The Taoist sages avoided politics. Lao-Tzu, the founder of Taoism, left China because he was fed up with the hypocrisy and corruption of Chinese politics. The wisdom of Buddhism aims to cultivate nonattachment, which looks beyond the tumultuous fires of social and political life. And the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus encouraged his followers to “live unnoticed” in a garden sheltered from political turbulence.

Unfortunately, it is easy to be seduced into an obsession with politics. The partisans and the political media encourage this obsession. Political squabbles keep us glued to our screens, while helping the partisans raise money and get people to the polls, and into the streets.

But political obsession is a recipe for anxiety and despair. The more upset we become about politics, the more we focus on things that are really beyond our control. Instead of cultivating our own gardens, we get frustrated. And when things go wrong — as they always do — we end up angry and hopeless.

Rather than obsessing about politics, we need to understand that spiritual health is found in religion and other deep sources of meaning; in small local and loving communities; in music, art, and ceremony; and in connection with the wonder of nature.

Spiritual integration depends upon a set of habits that are good for body and soul. It is cultivated in silence and solitude. It is nurtured by love. It flourishes among friends and family. It blossoms when we discover wisdom, wonder and gratitude.

The bad news is that we are easily distracted by the crises of the moment. The partisans and the news cycle feed the frenzy of political frustration. The good news is that higher goods are easily obtained, if we turn off the TV and rediscover the world of nature, spirit, and loving community.

This does not mean we should drop out of political life, as Lao-Tzu did. Citizenship requires us to pay attention. And ethics demands solidarity with those who suffer.

But at Christmas, we should also remember that comfort and joy are found beyond the halls of power.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article283061398.html#storylink=cpy

Secular Freedom and Respect For Marriage: Why the Culture Wars are Getting Old

Fresno Bee, December 4, 2022

As the Respect for Marriage Act passed the Senate, the culture wars resurfaced. This law will guarantee that same-sex marriages and interracial marriages are respected. In response to the Senate vote, President Biden said, “love is love, and Americans should have the right to marry the person they love.”

I agree that this is good news for love. But didn’t we already resolve this issue? Well, the Supreme Court threw things into disarray with its Dobbs decision earlier this year, which called into question the idea of a “right to privacy.”

And while Biden praised the legislation, not everyone agreed. One commentator, R.R. Reno, editor of the conservative Christian magazine First Things, said that what he calls “the Rainbow Reich” was trying to radically restructure society. He said that the ruling elites are “determined to drive our country into a ditch.”

Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, responded by saying that the Senate had “voted to redefine marriage, weaken society’s fundamental covenant, and threaten the religious freedom of Americans who, by religious conviction, cannot join in the legislation’s revolt against marriage and family.” He saw this legislation as a sign of “civilization crumbling.”

This hyperbolic language prompts a big sigh. When a civilization crumbles, you might expect marauding enemies. But letting people who love each other get married hardly seems to qualify as the end of civilization. This culture war re-run is a dud. It’s worth noting that 12 Republicans voted for the legislation. And those who opposed it seem like Scrooge at Christmas.

Biden himself was once opposed to gay marriage. He voted in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act in the 1990s. But society evolves and attitudes change.

Indeed, there is a growing acceptance of marriage equality. According a recent Pew Center survey, most Americans (61%) think it is good that same-sex marriage is legal. This opinion is more prevalent among the young: 75% of 18-to-29-year-olds are OK with same-sex marriage. For those over 65, that number drops to 50%.

The culture wars are getting old because they are being fought by older people. Young folks are ready to move on. And the warnings of the apocalypse fail to resonate.

But catastrophe is a handy rhetorical tool. Donald Trump is a practiced doomsayer. When he announced he was running for president again last month, he said that the Southern border had been “erased” and that the country was being “invaded.” He said, “The blood-soaked streets of our once great cities are cesspools of violent crimes.”

The merchants of doom hope to draw attention to the product they are selling by proclaiming that the end is nigh. In order for your party to save the world, the world must first need saving. Political and religious rhetoric are often infused with the rhythm and rhyme of doomsaying and messianism.

If you thought that things were going OK, why would you need a politician to save you? And if you were content with life and unafraid of death, what appeal would there be in religion?

The idea that life is pretty good and that there is nothing to fear in death can be traced back to the teachings of the Greek philosopher Epicurus. The followers of Epicurus believed that happiness was easily obtained. They advised people to stay out of politics. And they basically ignored religion. The problem is that politicians and religious zealots have a knack for making us feel bad. A modern Epicurean might add that today’s media can add to our anxiety by amplifying the prophets of doom.

Epicureanism teaches us to stop listening to the prophets of doom. We should focus on easily obtained pleasures. We should mind our own business and leave other people alone to love and live as they want. It’s not true that civilization is crumbling.

Secular systems make life better for everyone because they allow us to enjoy the freedom to live how we want. Things are better today than in former years, when interracial marriage was illegal and when gay people lived in the closet. And if the doomsayers keep preaching about the decline of civilization, they may soon find themselves talking to empty churches.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article269497617.html#storylink=cpy

Waning Religion and Our Epicurean Moment

Epicurus

Religious membership in the U.S. has dropped below 50% for the first time, according to a recent Gallup Poll.  Some Americans continue to believe in the supernatural.  A 2020 survey indicates that half of Americans believe in ghost and demons.  But it is remarkable that today fewer than half of Americans belong to an organized religion. 

This new data confirms other surveys indicating secularization.  The Pew Center has documented the rapid growth of “the nones” (those who do not claim to belong to a specific religion) and the decline in church attendance. 

Some pundits worry this indicates a cultural malfunction.  Dennis Prager says, “When Judeo-Christian principles are abandoned, evil eventually ensues.”  Shloto Byrnes says that the West is suffering from a “Godless delusion,” arguing that “to be human has meant to be religious throughout history.”  And Shadi Hamid suggests that secularism fuels political extremism. 

These hyperbolic concerns are misguided and misleading.  Many societies have done quite well without Judeo-Christian values.  It is not true that human beings have always been religious in the contemporary sense, or that we need to be.  And rational humanism actually offers an antidote for extremism. 

The Covid-19 crisis provides a great example.  Prayer and miracles will not solve this crisis.  Scientific medicine provides vaccines, prevention protocols, and treatments for infection.  When people get sick these days, they go to the doctor instead of the shaman. 

Scientific naturalism is ubiquitous.  To predict the weather, we consult meteorologists instead of astrologists.  Earthquakes and volcanoes don’t appear to us as the work of mercurial deities who need appeasing.  Reason and humanism provide us with useful advice that improves health and happiness.

And despite what Byrnes says, humanism has a long history.  It made a strong appearance 2,500 years ago in the philosophy of Epicurus.  The Epicurean philosophy aimed to cure the anxiety caused by religious superstition.  Epicurus offered thoroughly naturalistic explanations of earthquakes, lightning, and the like.  The Epicureans taught that happiness was easily obtain by focusing on friendship and virtue in a world emptied of the supernatural. 

The Epicurean philosophy was popular in the ancient world.  But Stoic and Christian authors vilified Epicurean naturalism.  Epicurus’s name was falsely associated with licentiousness and shameless hedonism.  This caricature is unfair to a school that emphasized modesty, frugality, and friendship—and the deliberate avoidance of political extremism.

As a result of persecution, however, few of Epicurus’s original writings exist.  We do know that Epicurus defended an early version of atomism based in a naturalistic view of the world.  His views are remarkably modern. 

Epicurus taught that the cosmos was made up of atoms moving in the void.  He held out the possibility that in the infinite space and time of the universe, there were other worlds that resulted from the same natural processes that produced our world. 

Epicurus said that the soul was merely a combination of certain kinds of atoms.  When the body died, the soul dissipated.  There was no life after death.  If there were gods, they were not concerned about human life.  Religious myths and superstitions caused anxiety by making us worry about the whims of the gods and life after death.  In order to cure that anxiety, a better understanding of nature helps.

Epicureanism also provided an antidote to extremism.  Religious zealots sometimes end up trying to silence the advocates of reasonable naturalism.  They can also fall prey to outrageous conspiracy theories. But rather than engage these zealots in the streets, the Epicureans advised living unobtrusively.  Political tumult results in unhappiness.  The Epicureans tried to avoid that by retreating to private communities, where friendship, reason, and happiness could be cultivated. 

It seems that now is a good time for an Epicurean renewal.  Religion is waning. And while some zealots are succumbing to extremism, most of us are rediscovering the importance of science, reason, and restraint.

The Covid lockdown has also encouraged us to find happiness in simple things.  While extremism and violence has erupted in the streets, we are re-learning the wisdom of living simply and with social distance.  This is an Epicurean moment: a time to rediscover the wisdom of naturalism, a time to turn away from superstition, and a time to cultivate modesty, simplicity, and friendship.

Beyond Self-Care: Cultivating an Active and Engaged Self

Self-care is a common theme for 2021.  One wellness website said: “focus on yourself this New Year’s Eve” and “indulge in these self-care strategies as you enter 2021.”  The article recommended “allowing yourself to indulge in a night of luxurious me-time.”

This is not a bad idea.  A little self-care is fine from time to time.  But self-indulgence is occasional.  It is not a way of life.  We need something larger and less transitory.  Self-care should become self-cultivation. 

The self is not an infant we care for or a set of appetites to be indulged.  The self is a dynamic system that seeks fruitful activity.  The adult self is a growing and changing, goal-oriented being.  The self thrives when it is challenged; it prospers when it produces lasting goods such as love, art, science, virtue, and wisdom.

The pampering indulgence of self-care is aimed at stressed out people.  Self-care is an antidote to the rat race and a response to the tragedies and suffering of 2020.  But “me-time” should not climax in onanistic withdrawal.  2021 will require the active intelligence of an engaged self.

There is some wisdom in self-care.  The self-care movement often affirms modesty and mindfulness.  This affirmation of simple pleasure is useful for those who are wound up tight by our cranky, competitive culture.  It is OK to unwind on occasion.  Drink some wine.  Soak in a tub.  Take it easy.

Sometimes the self-care movement offers clichéd common sense about hygiene and mindfulness.  Yes, we should drink more water, be present, and take walks in nature.  But this often becomes sappy, self-indulgent pampering—an apology for sleeping late or over-eating.  And self-care is often merely a marketing ploy for spas, lotions, and chocolate. 

The self-care movement is quite broad. On the one hand, it includes the discipline of yoga.  As one yoga website puts it, “Yoga is a great form of self-care.”  On the other hand, self-care is about… well, something else you do with your hand.  An article in The Oprah Magazine celebrates masturbation as part of a “self-care routine.”  The author reports that some evenings she even cares for herself twice!

There is nothing wrong with pleasure.  But moderation is essential.  And pleasure is not an end in itself.  Happiness and morality often require us to forego pleasure.  Work, discipline, and focus are essential for the self to thrive.  Stress and anxiety are essential parts of a creative and ambitious life.  When other people are suffering, self-care is selfish.  Justice and compassion impel us beyond self-care toward care for others.

This discussion can be traced back to the conflict between Epicureans, Stoics, and Christians.  Epicurus suggested we should live modestly, avoid controversy, and enjoy simple pleasures.  The Stoics rejected this.  They emphasized strenuous duty, while claiming that pleasure makes us soft.  Christians also rejected Epicureanism, focused as they were on suffering, death, and resurrection.  Epicurean self-care is too sensual for Stoics and too secular for Christians. 

Ideally, we would weave these ideas together by connecting self-care with self-cultivation.

Care is rooted in a kind of worry.  A care-free person has no worries.  When we care for something, we worry about it.  The problem of self-care is that it is a kind of worrying about the self.  It can be onanistic and self-absorbed. 

Cultivation is much more affirmative and dynamic.  When we cultivate something, we grow it.  Cultivation is related to “culture.”  Culture is a dynamic process that is the result of labor, interaction, and imagination. 

Human beings are not only focused on pleasure and relaxation.  We are also concerned with love, justice, courage, compassion, knowledge, art, and wisdom.  When we are absorbed in fulfilling activities, the self fades away.  The self-oriented path of indulgence is limited in comparison with the self-less activity of inspiration, insight, and interconnection. 

So here is what I propose for the new year.  Instead of retreating to the bathtub, let’s put our hands to work.  Learn.  Teach.  Create.  Make music.  Do science.  Love your neighbor.  Fight for justice.  Pursue wisdom.  These are the goods of a fully human life.  The challenge of 2021—and of life in general—is to cultivate a self that loses itself in inspired and engaged activity. 

Giving Thanks for Simple Things

Covid-19 has transformed Thanksgiving.  This year we should shelter within our bubbles and stay close to home.  Rather than complaining about a downsized holiday, let’s use this as an opportunity to rediscover the wisdom of living modestly and being thankful.

Ancient wisdom celebrates gratitude and simplicity.  Ancient sages teach us to be grateful for simple things and to celebrate abundance without extravagance.

Thanksgiving has strayed far from this idea.  Rather than a time to count your blessings and give thanks, it became an orgy of over-indulgence.  The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade is a department store advertising gimmick.  The Black Friday frenzy is far removed from gratitude.  Good riddance to these extravagances. 

The Puritans of New England would be appalled that this festival of gluttony and greed commemorated their colonial adventure.  The Puritans connected thanksgiving with repentance and purification.  Instead of feasting, early Americans typically linked the ritual of giving thanks to fasting. Thomas Jefferson called for” public days of fasting and thanksgiving” when he was governor of Virginia.  During the civil war, Abraham Lincoln called for several days of “fasting and thanksgiving.”  In 1863, when Lincoln declared a national day of thanksgiving, he called for a day of prayer and “humble penitence.”   

This may go too far for those of us with a more secular orientation.  But there is wisdom in humility and abstinence.  You don’t have to be a Puritan to understand this.  Abstinence clarifies values.  Fasting heightens appreciation for simple things.  A thanksgiving feast that breaks a fast should consist of modest fare, eaten mindfully.

Mindfulness, gratitude, and abstinence are linked in most of the world’s traditions.  Muslims practice something like this during Ramadan.  The Buddha fasted and meditated on the way to enlightenment.  Ancient Taoist texts speak of “fasting of the mind” giving rise to the freedom of emptiness. 

This is not as far out and mystical as it sounds.  Mindful self-restraint quiets envy and desire.  The consuming self is like a vacuum.  It sucks things in: food, pleasure, and possessions.  But all of this frantic sucking produces anxiety, fear, greed, and envy. 

The mindful self stops sucking.  It becomes less focused on its own emptiness and more aware of its secret abundance.  The Greek sage Epicurus said that we already possess all that we need in abundance.  But we are confused.  We mistake wealth for happiness.  And we allow greed to make us ungrateful.  

When we discover self-sufficient abundance, it overflows.  It then becomes easier to give—and to give thanks.  The consuming self is a sucker and a taker.  The grateful self is content with what it has.  And in its contentment, it discovers compassion.

The ancient Greeks advise us to gratefully accept what fate gives us.  Seneca recommended an occasional fast as a reminder to be thankful.  This trains the spirit to be content no matter what fate sends our way.  Stoic serenity does not depend on money or good fortune.  Rather, it is built upon simplicity and gratitude. 

Seneca expressed these ideas in a letter criticizing the Saturnalia, the Roman equivalent of our holiday season.  He complained that preparations for the annual orgy went on all year.  And he noted that the season culminated in drunkenness and vomiting.  Seneca said it is wise to avoid all of that and to learn to “celebrate without extravagance.” 

The pandemic can help us re-learn this ancient lesson.  The usual extravagances have been cancelled.  And we are forced to abstain.  Rather than complain, let’s rediscover the wisdom of simplicity and gratitude.