Gandhi, Judgment, and Truth

Fresno Bee, February 14, 2020

One local effort to dig deeper deserves our attention. The “Interfaith Scholar Weekend” (ISW) is an ongoing attempt to think critically about religion. This effort began in 1998. It has grown into an annual crosstown collaboration of religious and educational organizations.

The subject this year is Mahatma Gandhi. From February 21-23, the ISW will host Gandhi’s grandson, Rajmohan Gandhi, a professor from the University of Illinois. Professor Gandhi will speak at events at Fresno City College, Fresno State, Temple Beth Israel, and Wesley United Methodist Church (the Fresno State Ethics Center is a co-sponsor).

Jim Grant, the ISW chair and director of social justice ministry for the Diocese of Fresno, explained that the Central Valley has a robust and growing interfaith community. He shared stories with me of a number of examples of how people from different local religious communities have worked together to defuse religious tension, injustice, and hate.

The impetus for this year’s visiting scholar is the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth. Gandhi is revered as a “mahatma”—a great soul or saint. Gandhi helped to liberate India. He developed strategies of active nonviolence that were employed in the American Civil Rights movement.

But Gandhi has his critics. Some say he did not speak out forcefully enough about racism and India’s caste system. Others blame him for not preventing the partition of India and ensuing violence among Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims.

In light of this, it is worth noting that local Sikhs and Muslims are among those sponsoring the visit of Gandhi’s grandson. The point of this event is to think critically. What we might learn is that no one is perfect.

Gandhi’s grandson makes this point in his recent book, “Why Gandhi Still Matters,” where he describes his grandfather as a “fallible” man. But he points out that the Mahatma is held to a higher standard. Gandhi is blamed for not overcoming the challenges of his own time and for “not solving all of the problems of our age.” But his grandson reminds us that no one can solve all of our problems. Perfection is too high of a standard.

This message is important, I think, for efforts to develop tolerance. We often give our own preferred saint the benefit of the doubt, while leaping to condemn the heroes of the other side. This is a truism of the history of religious conflict.

It is also a feature of our fractious political life. Some applaud Pelosi. Others cheer on Trump. Some love Rush Limbaugh. Others hate him. Each side vilifies the other.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant once said that nothing straight can be built from the crooked timber of humanity. Gandhi might agree. With regard to religion, the Mahatma said, “I hold that all religions are true but imperfect inasmuch as they are presented through human agency and bear the impress of the imperfections and frailties of the human being.” In simpler terms he explained, “All religions are true; all religions have some error in them.”

The problem, of course, is that we are quick to see the errors in other people’s religions while remaining blind to faults in our own. The solution is to look more carefully, dig more deeply, and think more critically. Gandhi gives us another clue. He said, “I claim no perfection for myself. But I do claim to be a passionate seeker after truth, which is but another name for God.”

We are all flawed. If Gandhi wasn’t perfect, then neither are we. But like him, we can seek truth by trying to learn more, think better, and judge less.

IF YOU GO

The Fresno Interfaith Scholar Weekend will be held Feb. 21-23. The opening event is a free lecture, “Truth in an Age of Untruth,” and it starts at 7:30 p.m. in the Old Administration Building at Fresno City College, 1101 E. University Ave. For the full schedule and to learn more about the featured speaker and activities, go to http://interfaithscholar.org/.

Seeking wisdom in dark times

Fresno Bee, January 5, 2020

This past year, things got foggy. We were confused by fake news and conspiracy theories. We had a hard time seeing beyond partisan division. A kind of spiritual darkness – racism, hate, greed, and anger – lurked in the shadows. Let’s hope that in 2020, we can see more clearly and spread more light.

The goal of the Western philosophical tradition is enlightenment. Immanuel Kant, the great German thinker, said that we should “dare to be wise.” Enlightenment requires us to have the courage to think for ourselves.

Enlightenment is not simply another word for knowledge. Knowledge grew in amazing ways during the past decade. But it is not clear that we are more enlightened.

We have probed into deep space and into the subatomic realm. We know how to edit DNA and make clones. We have discovered planets orbiting distant suns. Human spacecraft visited Pluto and left the solar system. We have learned more about evolution and the history of life. We also understand the perilous impact of human development on the climate and our planet’s ecosystem.

SEEKING WISDOM

But what good is all of this knowledge without a moral compass and an engaged wisdom? Wisdom situates knowledge within a larger context. Ethical insight leads us to do good with our knowledge.

Philosophers have long worried about knowledge that lacks ethics and wisdom. Bertrand Russell, one of the great philosophers of the 20th century, warned that knowledge without “comprehensive vision” is dangerous. Knowledge of atomic energy created the threat of nuclear weapons. Knowledge of power and propaganda creates the threat of authoritarian politics.

Russell defined wisdom as emancipation from the tyranny of here and now. This gives us a clue about how wisdom is to be found. To be wise is to look up, look around, and look within.

For two and a half millennia, philosophers have called upon us to seek wisdom by seeing things more clearly. Plato suggested that most people are slaves to darkness. We sit in dark caves, he said, looking at flickering images. These images confuse us about reality. We don’t know how to distinguish right from wrong or how to live well. If we could leave the darkness of the cave and see the light, Plato said, we would be good and happy, just and wise.

Plato knew nothing of television, the internet, virtual reality and artificial intelligence. But what he said about life in the cave of ignorance is appropriate to our century. We passively consume images. Our thumbs move across screens. Our eyes flit across the page. Algorithms collect data about us, generating more images for us to consume. Our minds are washed by waves of infotainment. Our bodies grow soft. Confined within silos of information, the human spirit becomes warped. And the social world grows more divided.

One crucial solution is to clean the lenses of perception by learning to think critically about the images that surround us. But clear vision is useless if we look in the wrong direction. Sharp-sighted sociopaths and keen-eyed kleptocrats are very good at manipulating images and seeing how to hurt and take advantage.

We also need to look in the right direction. We need to look up from our screens and take a look around. Most importantly we need to look within. It is self-knowledge that helps us see how bias, prejudice and self-interest cloud good judgment and narrow our point of view.

JESUS’ PARABLE OF THE GOOD SAMARITAN

Narrowed vision is a common human problem. A hint about this is found in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. Several people walked past a needy man. Either they looked at him but did not see him, or they saw him but quickly looked away. The hero of the story saw the man’s need. He did not look away. And he took action to make things better.

That’s what enlightened insight looks like. Clear vision helps us see reality as it is. But wisdom should also lead to action. To be wise is to see things clearly, to see them wholly, and to see what needs to be done.

So let’s seize the new year as an opportunity to gain wisdom and seek enlightenment. This is a challenge for this year, this decade, and for a lifetime.

Schadenfreude, Civility, and the Presidential Debates

Presidential debate reminds us we need less spite and more pity

Fresno Bee, October 1, 2016

 

We ought to cooperate to build each other up, rather than seeking to tear each other down.

The National Institute for Civil Discourse has issued a set of civility standards for the presidential debates. These standards ask us all to be respectful, responsive and responsible.

After this week’s debate, the group conducted a civility survey. Most respondents thought Hillary Clinton was more civil than Donald Trump. But civility is often in the eye of the beholder.

There were strong remarks from both sides. Clinton accused Trump of saying crazy things. She laughed at him. She accused him of being a racist. And she warned about his temperament.

Trump accused Clinton of being “totally out of control” and lacking stamina. At one point, Trump said he could have said something “very rough” about Clinton and her family, but that he refrained from doing so because it is “inappropriate” and “not nice.”

Trump went on to complain about Clinton’s negative attack ads. Trump said, “It’s not nice. And I don’t deserve that.” Soon enough Trump was attacking Clinton out on the campaign trail.

Watching wrecks

I leave it to you to draw your own partisan conclusion about who is naughty or nice here. I’m interested in a larger problem. I worry that we secretly hope for outrage and scandal. And it seems we often get what we ask for.

The debate drew a huge TV audience. Some people probably tuned in for the same reason they occasionally watch auto racing. We like to watch people get smashed up. Hypocrisy is fascinating. Buffoonery is entertaining. Offensive remarks give us something to preach about.

I have to admit that I watched the debate secretly hoping to witness a train wreck. As I watched, I felt for a moment like a kid egging on a fight. I’m not proud of that. A presidential debate has profound implications for the future of the world. But I watched it hoping for scandal.

What’s wrong with us? Why do kids yell “fight, fight, fight” with such glee? Perhaps they, and we, are bored, secretly hoping for mischief.

Civil discourse and serious deliberation is often boring. Reality television, the 24/7 news cycle, and the rest of pop culture keep us addicted to bizarre behavior. It is not edifying but it is entertaining.

Schadenfreude

Another concern is that we are often motivated by schadenfreude. That’s the feeling of joy that is experienced when witnessing someone else’s misfortune.

17420schadenfreudeThe philosopher Immanuel Kant called schadenfreude a devilish vice. It is connected to selfishness, envy, cruelty and bloodthirstiness.

We laugh when other people fail. We enjoy seeing the powerful fall from grace. We are fascinated by humiliation. We gawk at other people’s shame. And sometimes we egg on cruelty.

Of course, this is all morally corrupt. Cynicism and schadenfreude do nothing to make the world better. Cruel laughter is hateful. Sarcasm breeds contempt. And cynicism causes us to disengage from the world.

Another way

The solution is a moral one. Other people’s failing should inspire compassion, not cruelty. It may sound naïve, but it is true: We need less spite and more pity, less hate and more love.

We ought to cooperate to build each other up, rather than seeking to tear each other down. Rather than honing in on other people’s defects, we ought to strive to see their beauty. It is wrong to put someone else down in order to boost yourself. Our words and deeds should contribute to the common good.

This is all part of a humane and civil morality. It’s what we ought to teach our children at home and in the classroom. This is how businesses ought to be run. And it is essential for a functioning democracy.

We are all responsible for growing incivility. Insults, taunts and bullying only work when there is a receptive audience. At the Trump-Clinton debate, the audience was instructed to remain silent. But the audience could not restrain itself. They laughed and applauded, despite themselves. And soon enough, back out on the campaign trail, partisan audiences egged on incivility.

Incivility in the presidential campaign is a symptom of a larger disease. If the candidates are more uncivil than they used to be, that’s because we allow them to get away with it – and also because we get a thrill from watching train wrecks.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article105137046.html#storylink=cpy

Enlightenment Values and Education

Ignorance is Not a Virtue

Fresno Bee, May 20, 2016

  • Ignorance, enlightenment are political issues
  • American universities are committed to enlightenment values
  • Democracies flourish when citizens are enlightened

Obama at Rutgers graduation- Ignorance is not a virtuePresident Barack Obama defended Enlightenment values recently in a commencement address at Rutgers University. Obama described the American founders as Enlightenment thinkers who opposed “superstition and sectarianism.” He concluded, “In politics and in life, ignorance is not a virtue.”

This caused a minor flurry of commentary. Many took this to be an attack on Donald Trump, which it probably was. Trump tweeted that it was Obama who was ignorant. And so it goes in an era when even university commencements are politicized.

But universities are not politically neutral. They are bastions of enlightenment. They proclaim enlightenment values in their Latin mottos. The Rutgers motto says, “Sun of righteousness shine upon the West.” Fresno State’s motto says, “Receive the light and give it forth.” The University of California’s motto is “Let there be light.”

WE CURE OUR MORAL BLINDNESS THROUGH FREE INQUIRY AND RATIONAL ARGUMENT.

The enlightenment ideal is politically progressive. Defenders of the enlightenment believe that knowledge makes the world better. And they know that knowledge rests upon freedom of thought.

The great Enlightenment thinkers were liberals in the broad historical sense of the term. They advocated liberty, equality and justice – and in some cases, political revolution.

Enlightenment thinkers believed that tyranny and injustice could be overcome when the light of reason is allowed to shine. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppression will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.”

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant used a Latin phrase as the motto of enlightenment: sapere aude. This is a command: “dare to know!” Enlightenment rests upon a set of such imperatives. Speak truth to power. Be audacious in pursuit of wisdom. Follow the light, wherever it leads.

Some critics claim that this is a bunch of Eurocentric nonsense. They reject Enlightenment values as the oppressive ideology of colonizers and slaveholders. It is true that the heroes of the Enlightenment were white European men. They were wrong about a lot of things, including slavery.

We all have blind spots. But enlightenment provides a solution. Enlightenment requires self-criticism. We cure our moral blindness through free inquiry and rational argument.

Other critics reject reason as a solution to the human problem. Some believe that faith and feeling are more important than argument and inquiry. Others fear that liberal education is irreligious indoctrination. Some even think that science is an ideological temptation.

But blind faith is willful ignorance. Good ideas do not need protection from criticism. Rational critique strengthens good ideas and helps us avoid bad ones.

Martin Luther King once said, “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” Immoral people often plead ignorance, when they are caught doing something wrong. Others turn a blind eye to injustice.

Voluntary ignorance is negligent and recklessly indifferent. Knowledge generates responsibility. Mature people accept the obligations that knowledge creates. Moral people also shine a light on their failures. They admit their mistakes and work to correct them.

Some people are proud of their prejudices. Others wear bigotry as a badge of honor. The ignoramus relishes his own stupidity.

Such bovine complacency is the opposite of enlightenment. Conformity and obedience are easy. But cud-chewing contentment is beneath the dignity of human being. And docile herds are susceptible to the whims of the demagogues. Fanatics manipulate superstition, while tyrants prey upon a compliant populace.

CUD-CHEWING CONTENTMENT IS BENEATH THE DIGNITY OF HUMAN BEING.

Enlightenment is not easy. It is hard to think for yourself. Some claim that ignorance is bliss. But ignorance is not bliss – it is merely the path of least resistance.

To claim that ignorance is bliss is to deny our innate inquisitiveness. We are born ignorant. But we have a thirst for knowledge.

Education feeds off of curiosity. It questions everything and stimulates further inquiry. A good education arouses our mental energies. A great education leaves us with burning questions.

Laziness, cowardice and self-interest occasionally get in the way. It is easy to rest comfortably in our misconceptions. No one is completely wise or perfectly moral. Dark spots of ignorance remain within each of us. But the solution is obvious: more enlightenment and less stupidity.

Our schools and universities are a product of the Enlightenment, as is our republic. Democracies flourish under conditions of enlightenment. They falter when ignorance grows. They thrive when citizens dare to be wise.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article78862672.html#storylink=cpy

Perspective gained from the mountaintops

August 9, 2013

Summer trips to the mountains can open important vistas. The mountains provoke a sense of the sublime, offering hints of meaning that inspire reflection. Mountain vistas, oddly enough, provide a source for understanding human dignity.

It is important to occasionally observe the slow work of the glaciers, the relentless rush of waterfalls, and the immense temporal vistas of the starry night. It is edifying to lose yourself before the overpowering sublimity of the natural world. Our lifetimes are insignificant when considered from the vantage point of Half Dome. The length of human history is nothing at all when compared with the history of the planet, the solar system or the galaxy.

Romantic poets and philosophers celebrated the experience of the sublime in nature. It is sobering to know that from the standpoint of glacial time, nothing we do matters. But it is possible to be uplifted and inspired in the face of the relentless forces of nature.

Despite what the mountains tell us about our own insignificance, we know that the only thing that matters to us is this meager existence of ours. The glaciers may not care about our passions and ideas. But for each of us, present awareness is of infinite worth. The sublime contradiction between the fullness of consciousness and the fact of our own finitude is the source of deep wonder and thought.

I often ask students at the beginning of the semester whether they know the names of any of their great-great-grandparents. It is not surprising that, for the most part, they do not. The present generation has little need for remembrance that goes back beyond a few decades. We have too much to do today.

The past recedes quickly as we rush toward the edges of our lives. At some point in the not-too-distant future, we will each be forgotten. But the waterfalls will roar and the granite cliffs will silently endure, as the marks we’ve left behind are effaced by the erosion of time.

How does such an awareness of our insignificance and the experience of the sublime connect to our understanding of ethics?

One response to the sublime is to “seize the day.” A sense of your own finitude can drive you to want to live the present moment to the fullest. Time is short. So make the most of every second. But we ought to avoid nihilistic hedonism and egoistic preoccupation. An ethical approach to seizing the day teaches us to live aware and engaged, embracing the totality of experience, without narcissistic self-absorption.

Another response to our fragile mortal existence aims to develop reverence for the past and a sense of gratitude toward those who paved the way. This is a feature of many religious traditions which commemorate ancient stories about those who came before. An ethic of remembrance attempts to slow the onslaughts of time, insisting that the past has meaning.

Awareness of our own mortal frailty should also lead toward deep reverence for life. If this is the one and only opportunity for life that each of us gets, then we should work to make things better, especially for those whose lives are miserable and even shorter than our own.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant once suggested that two things filled him with awe and wonder: the starry skies above and the moral law within. The most amazing aspect of the experience of the sublime in nature is that we are able to conceive it. No other creature has a sense of the depths of time, understands the work of the glaciers or recognizes the movements of the planets. Human consciousness is a rare and precious gift in the vast and unconscious cosmos.

Likewise, no other creature is able to think about the meaning of existence and the questions of ethics. We are the only beings in the universe who conceive right and wrong, good and evil. That wonderful capacity for moral reflection is what imbues human life with dignity.

The mountains are majestic. The work of glaciers is awesome. The thundering waterfalls are inspiring. But there is nothing on earth comparable to the majestic and awesome thunder of the human mind that witnesses these wonders.