On Motherly Love

Motherly love is neglected in ethics.  The Golden Rule speaks of brotherly love.  It says, “love your neighbor as yourself.”  But we might also say: “love your neighbor as a mother loves her children.” 

Brotherly love creates solidarity and respect.  Motherly love is a more active process of nurture and care.  A mother’s love is specific.  It concerns itself with your unique well-being.  Brotherly love spreads widely and grows thin.  Motherly love is intense: it responds to your needs and encourages you to fulfill your potential.  Brotherly love is universal and abstract.  Motherly love is for real people with concrete needs.

Motherly love involves labor. To live well is to participate in the labor of mothering: to give birth, to nurture, and to care.  We all do this.  The poet is a mother.  So too is the musician, scientist, and farmer.  Anyone who gestates, nurtures, and grows things is a mother.

Patriarchal metaphors confuse us.  We speak of founding fathers.  We imagine an artist imposing his will on the world.  We see the farmer as inserting his seed and extracting the fruit.  But art, politics, and agriculture require nurturing care.

We also conceive of God as a father who begets a son.  This patriarchal metaphor limits our imagination.  Divine creativity is not masculine imposition.  Rather, it is an unfolding from within.  It makes sense to say that God gives birth to the world. 

A hidden account of the importance of motherly love can be found in ancient philosophy.

When Pythagoras descended into a cave seeking wisdom, he was nurtured there by his mother.  She was the only person he communicated with from his dark retreat.  When he emerged from his cave, he began teaching about reincarnation.  This symbolic re-birth—the emergence from a cave—shows up Plato’s allegory of the cave as well as in the Christian Easter story. 

Pythagoras’s theory of reincarnation allowed that he had once been a woman.  So it is no surprise that he brought women into his school.  His wife, Theano, and his daughter, Damo, were among his most important disciples. 

Socrates also spoke of mothering.   He described himself as a midwife who helps others give birth to the wisdom that is within them.  That process is guided by love, conceived in motherly terms. 

The source of Socratic midwifery was a mystical woman named Diotima.  She taught Socrates the mysteries of motherly love.  Diotima said, “All of us are pregnant, Socrates, both in body and in soul, and, as soon as we come to a certain age, we naturally desire to give birth.”

These ideas gestated and evolved for centuries until Plotinus offered a grand synthesis.  He invoked female energies in his theology.  The god of love, Eros, is the child of Aphrodite.  Thus the creative energy of the universe comes from the goddess.  And in one pregnant passage, Plotinus suggests that Aphrodite is identical with the cosmos itself, which is a process of the unfolding of motherly love.

These metaphors are fascinating.  But we must be careful.  In a patriarchal world, women are often reduced to their capacity to be mothers.  A deeper vision of the power of motherly love calls patriarchy into question.  The ancient thinkers hinted that mothering was fundamental.  This vision empowered women as it did in the Pythagorean school.  And it is inclusive: it is for women and men, poets and philosophers.

Contemporary authors have also made this point.  Hannah Arendt focused on “natality” as “the capacity to begin something anew.”  And Nel Noddings calls our attention to what she calls “the maternal factor.”  Patriarchy ignores the amazing organic capacity of the female body.  The life of the species flows through mother’s bodies.  But motherly love is not merely about bodies: natality and maternity are spiritual metaphors.

Mothering is the compassionate heart of ethics.  It is available to every human being who has been mothered and cared for.  Brother love is fine.  But a higher love models itself on a mother’s love for her children. This is a love that is careful, graceful, and nurturing.  Motherly love is fundamental.  It may even be the pregnant power of the universe itself.

Compassion and Suffering: Tears and Laughter

Fresno Bee, April 4, 2021

Pope Francis once said that compassion is the language of God. Let’s seek it this Easter

Compassion is celebrated by most of the world’s moral traditions. Compassion is the source of human connection. Some think it even goes beyond that. Pope Francis once said that compassion is the language of God. But philosophers worry that compassion is too passive, subjective and melancholic.

The Dalai Lama is an important voice of compassion. He explains that as compassion grows, we develop “both genuine sympathy for others’ suffering and the will to help remove their pain.” Compassion is more than passively feeling the other’s pain. It is also an active response that wants to alleviate suffering.

Buddhist teachings about compassion are often oriented around suffering. A colleague of the Dalai Lama’s, Thupten Jinpa, explains, “At its core, compassion is a response to the inevitable reality of our human condition— our experience of pain and sorrow.”

This is obviously important in a world that includes far too much pain. If we were all more concerned with the suffering of others, the world would be a better place. And while this focus on suffering can seem gloomy, the Buddhists connect compassion with tranquility and happiness. The Dalai Lama says, “The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater our own sense of well-being becomes.”

This may seem paradoxical. But it is only a paradox if compassion is understood as shared suffering. Melancholic compassion is only half of the story. Compassion is also at play in laughter and love-making. Compassion shares joy as well as tears.

To keep compassion too tightly bound to suffering and grief is like having Good Friday without Easter. The point of the Easter story is not to wallow in the darkness, but to re-emerge into the light.

Compassion shares “passion” or emotional experience with others. Our passions are not only negative. Grief, mourning, and despair are certainly important emotions. But wonder and delight are also powerful experiences. Compassion moves us to share the passions of the other person, in sadness and in joy.

Compassion feels good because we are social beings. The receptiveness of compassion is wired into our brains by evolution. As social beings, we enjoy sharing in play, poetry, music, and in the rituals of social life. We do better when we do things in common. Compassionate activity overcomes loneliness and despair. It also allows us to share in playful fun.

One recipe for happiness is found here: if you want to be happy, hang out with happy people who are doing happy things. Happiness — like sadness — is contagious.

Compassion is only melancholic when it is confused with pity. Pity dwells in the negative. We don’t pity people who are doing well. Pity is reserved for the suffering.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant warned against pity. Compassionate pity can “infect” us with the suffering of others, he said. If I suffer because another person is suffering, the result is simply more suffering.

Compassion is better understood as a natural urge to help those who suffer. And while this urge can lead us to act, Kant thought it was insufficient. Sometimes our compassionate urges prevent us from doing our duty. This occurs, for example, when mercy prevents us from punishing those who deserve to be punished. Kant thought that compassion had to be guided by justice.

A similar problem holds for the famous Golden Rule. Love of the neighbor is important. But this does not mean you ought to give the neighbor anything he wants. Love without justice is blind. But justice without mercy is cruel.

A further problem occurs when compassion becomes intrusive. Sometimes we want companionship in our suffering. We cry better (and laugh better) in the company of friends. But sometimes, we simply want to be left alone.

Of course, compassionate people understand all of this. Truly compassionate people have a knack for knowing what is needed. They hold us when we need to cry. They offer laughter when the time is right. They leave us alone when we need solitude. And they try to connect justice and mercy in a world where suffering is common.

God, Guns, and the Gospel

Is God pro-gun?  President Trump seems to think so.  This week Trump attacked Joe Biden, saying that Biden is going to “take away your guns, destroy your Second Amendment, no religion, no anything. Hurt the bible, hurt God. He’s against God, he’s against guns.”

Trump gives voice to a prototypical American myth of a land that loves God, guns, and the gospel.  You can see this mythic complex in cowboy movies and elsewhere.  WWII gave us a song with the lyrics, “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition and we’ll all stay free.”  In 2009, Lynyrd Skynyrd released an album called “God & Guns.”  The title track (covered recently by Hank Williams, Jr.) says, “God and guns keep us strong.  That’s what this country was founded on.”  The song seems to respond to something Barack Obama said about “bitter” and “frustrated” Americans who “cling to guns or religion.”

Of course, religious liberty and gun ownership are protected by the First and Second Amendments.  But the subsequent case law is complicated and contentious.  These complex Constitutional questions are not easily reduced to the simplistic idea that to be an American is to praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.  The First Amendment gives you the right to worship God in your own way.  It protects pacifists, atheists, and militant Christians  The Second Amendment affirms the right to have a well-regulated militia and bear arms.  It does not, however, help us interpret the Bible.

We live in a country where over a quarter of Americans (28%) believe that the Bible should take precedence over the will of the people, according the Pew Center.  So, it is important to note that the Constitution allows Americans to disagree about the Bible.

The Bible is not a useful guide on the question of guns anyway. There is nothing in the Good Book about guns, which didn’t exist back then.  The Bible talks a lot about swords.  But to say that the Bible is pro-sword ignores those passages that suggest turning swords into plowshares (Isaiah 2:4).  I’ve pointed out in my book on the Bible that for many issues, ancient Biblical texts are indeterminate and uninformative.

Of course, guns and swords are part of a larger question of self-defense.  But the Bible is not a useful guide here either.  Some texts show the Jewish people fighting for their survival.  Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans that the political authorities use the sword to execute justice.  But Jesus told Peter to put away his sword.  And Christian martyrs often followed Jesus’s model and submitted to execution.

Some Christians are pacifists.  Others are not.  And the Bible is ambiguous.

A recent book by Michael Austin, God and Guns in America, reminds us of the diversity of Christian belief about guns.  Austin suggest that some Christians hate guns and love God.  But others love guns and love God.  I would add that even atheists disagree: some hate guns others don’t.

That’s why we ought to keep these issues separated, just as the First and Second Amendments are distinct.  On the one hand, religious liberty permits us to interpret the Bible any way we want.  On the other hand, there is the question of self-defense and the “well-regulated militia.”  The issues of legal self-defense and justified violence are complicated enough on their own, without conflating them with unanswerable questions about the Bible. 

But most public argument about this stuff lacks subtlety.  Political slogans, popular music, and prophetic preaching are typically not bastions of critical thinking.  Art and politics pull emotional levers by using affective language and making vague gestures.  Religion does that too, much of the time.  But critical thinking asks us to analyze arguments and carefully excavate the historical sources. 

Smart people continue to debate the Bible and the Constitution while reaching divergent conclusions.  That’s why it is hard to take Trump seriously when he says Biden will hurt God and the Bible.  The Constitution prevents any President—whether Trump or Biden—from taking unilateral action on any of these issues.  And if there is a God, He can probably take care of Himself. 

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

 

Take care in making judgments about morality

Fresno Bee

March 21, 2014

http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/03/21/3835573/ethics-take-care-in-making-judgments.html

A report published last week by the Pew Research Center concludes that many people think that belief in God is essential for morality.

In the U.S., 53% of respondents believe that belief in God is essential for morality. These numbers are higher in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The numbers are high in the Middle East, with the exception of Israel, where only 37% link belief in God with morality. In European countries the numbers are lower. In France only 15% affirm the religion-morality link.

This data seems to correspond with research done by Will Gervais and other social scientists who indicate that nonbelievers have a bad reputation. People tend not to trust atheists. They don’t want their children to marry one. They are reluctant to hire one. And many will not vote for one.

These sorts of surveys are interesting — but limited. Morality and religion are complicated topics. We should be careful about reducing a millennia-long conversation about religion and morality to a few factoids taken from public opinion polls.

The morality-religion linkage is quite complex. One approach — the Divine Command theory of ethics — holds that morality is based upon God’s commands, understanding moral rules as created by God’s will. Related to this is a claim about moral knowledge: that without a revelation from God, we would not know the moral rules. Furthermore, the motivation to be moral is thought to come from hope for an eternal reward or fear of final judgment.

Critics of atheism may think that since atheists do not believe that there is a judging God, atheists have no reason to be moral. They may think that since atheists reject revelation, they can have no knowledge of morality. And they may think that without God as the source of morality, morality becomes completely groundless.

But this overlooks much. Many religious people do not simply ground morality in God’s literal commands. They interpret and apply moral rules using reason and common sense. It is also true that many atheists are not anti-religious zealots who think that there is nothing to learn from religion or traditional morality. Indeed, many atheists are careful and attentive students of religion.

Atheists and theists can agree that morality makes life easier and better. Murderers, rapists, liars and adulterers lead difficult and miserable lives. Generous, truthful, caring and courageous people tend to be happier. Eternal rewards and punishments raise the stakes. But morality and happiness are closely linked in this world.

A further problem is posed by religious diversity. Those who maintain that belief in God is necessary for morality still have to explain whose God and which morality. Even within a religious tradition such as Christianity, there are big disputes about morality. Christians themselves disagree about a variety of issues, from gay marriage to abortion to the death penalty.

Disputes about religion and morality are deep and contentious. In a world of religious diversity, a broadly tolerant and humanistic approach to morality may be our best hope for finding common ground. We might agree, for example, that everyone is entitled to believe what they want about religion, so long as they respect others’ right to the same freedom of belief. Belief in God is not necessary for belief in religious liberty.

As our awareness of religious diversity increases, we must avoid simplifying the morality-religion question in the way that the Pew Center poll does. Simplistic thinking and stereotyping of this sort can foster intolerance.

Atheists are not necessarily immoral. Nor is it true that religious people are close-minded bigots. Such gross generalizations are disrespectful, unkind and unhelpful. Despite our fundamental differences, we are each struggling to make sense of life and live it well. If we acknowledged our common struggle to live well in a difficult world, we might learn to be more tolerant, generous and caring toward those who do not share our understanding of religious or moral truth.

A global morality of respect for persons and love of our neighbors is fundamental to a free and peaceful world. Morality in this sense is not the exclusive possession of any particular religion (or non-religion). Instead, it is a condition for cooperation among people who disagree about life’s hardest and most important questions.

 

 

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/03/21/3835573/ethics-take-care-in-making-judgments.html#storylink=cpy