Secular or Sacred? A Pandemic Conflict

The pandemic has brought the conflict between the sacred and the secular to the surface. 

The Archbishop of San Francisco, Salvatore Cordileone, led a recent protest against Covid-19 restrictions.  He claimed that restrictions on worship violate the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion.  He said, “when government asserts authority over the church’s very right to worship, it crosses a line. Our fundamental rights do not come from the state… they come from God.”  He also suggested that “secular elites” lack compassion for religious people and do not understand the pain caused by restricting worship.

The Archbishop did not deny the need for reasonable restrictions on religious liberty.  The problem is that we disagree about what is reasonable.  In fact, we always have. 

150 years ago the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Mormon polygamy (Reynolds v. U.S.), arguing that the state can restrict religious liberty.  The Court said that religious belief is not “superior to the law of the land” and that religious liberty does not “permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.”

The worry is that religious liberty can open the door to a kind of anarchy, as each sect claims an exception to the law.  The Mormon polygamists of the 19th Century did not think that polygamy meant anarchy.  Nor is the Archbishop prescribing general lawlessness in the face of the pandemic.  But it is difficult to figure out where to draw the line in disputes between the secular and the sacred. 

Furthermore, the Archbishop suggests that some values transcend the law of the land.  He says that our rights come from God—not from the state.  This may mean that we have a right (or even an obligation) to violate the law of the land in the name of a higher law. This is what happens in cases of civil disobedience and conscientious refusal. 

Public health and the common good would seem to call for restrictions on worship. But do religious people have a right to refuse?

A significant problem is that terms such as “public health” and “the common good” are subject to interpretation.  A religious person may think that spiritual well-being is part of public health.  And some religious communities think that communal worship is essential for the common good.

The Archbishop suggests that secular people often don’t understand the powerful role that ritual and communal worship play in the lives of religious folk.  There is some truth to this.  The idea of the sacred opens a realm of transcendent value, which has no parallel in non-religious life. 

The secular world is “disenchanted,” as Max Weber put it a hundred years ago.  Philosopher Charles Taylor said something similar: “The modern identity and outlook flattens the world, leaves no place for the spiritual, the higher, for mystery.”  Speaking as secular person, I think they are right.  The sacred, the transcendent, and the holy are indeed flattened in the secular world.

There is much to argue about here in terms of ethics, theology, and the meaning of life.  But let’s leave these existential arguments aside and return to the problem of the pandemic.  The present situation is this.  Some religious people live in a world of mystery and enchantment that requires communal celebration of shared rituals.  These communal practices appear to violate the public health rules created by a secular political system, which views the world as disenchanted and flat. 

This conflict becomes more complicated when the source of political and legal authority is called into question.  Are the laws a human creation, the result of a social contract?  Or are these laws reflective of something deeper, more mysterious and sacred? 

The present crisis prompts these deep questions.  To answer them we need the help of political philosophers and theologians.  But there will be no unanimous consensus about how to answer these questions. 

This gives us clue to finding common ground.  The fact that we disagree shows us the need for liberty.  The Courts are going to have to draw lines. These judgments will not be satisfactory to everyone.  But let’s agree, at least, that we should be free to ask these questions and to disagree about the source of the law and the meaning of life.

The Adventure of Virtual Education

The transition to virtual education is a new adventure for students, parents, and teachers.  Adventures are difficult and risky.  But that’s their allure.  If it was easy, it wouldn’t be inspiring.  Adventures also involve uncertainty.  This calls for curiosity and creativity.

On the first day of class I asked my students in Zoom how they were feeling.  Some reported anxiety.  But a couple said it might be fun to learn this way.  Let’s build on student’s youthful energy and squeeze something zesty out of our anxiety. 

One teacher explained to me that she feels like an explorer in virtual space.  There are new tools to master.  Old ideas must be reorganized and re-evaluated.  What was once taken for granted is now up for grabs.

Conservative souls will always resist change.  But nimble spirits enjoy the unprecedented and unimagined.  Dynamic minds are ready to adapt.  We find joy in riding the waves of change.  This is the genius of the artist, entrepreneur, and explorer. 

Education is dynamism. It is an art of transformation that cultivates change and nourishes development.  Random change is not good.  It must be guided. Some truths remain perennial.  But evergreen truth is not a fence or a prison.  Redwoods thrive because they bend in the storm.  New growth adapts to new soil.

Boredom and complacency are deadly diseases.  They ruin businesses, marriages, and classrooms.  Repetition dulls the senses.  Bored teachers are, well… boring. 

Most teachers enjoy new challenges.  We are thrilled by each year’s fresh crop of students.  Even though we’ve walked these trails before, new students help us see old terrain with fresh eyes.  Each step takes us somewhere else.

The idea of education as adventure is an old one.  Plato described education as a journey.  It leads us out of darkness and toward the light.  To learn is to wander beyond the familiar.  It takes patience and tenacity to explore, invent, and discover.  It takes courage to leave old habits behind and blaze new trails. 

Alfred North Whitehead celebrated education as adventure.  In his book, The Aims of Education, he insisted that educators embrace the fresh and the new.  He said, “knowledge does not keep any better than fish.”  He described education as an act of the contagious imagination.  The metaphor of passing a torch shows how this works.  Civilization depends upon the torch passers who spread the light.  We also need better torches and new ways to enlighten. 

This process occurs in the service of life.  Whitehead said, “Education is discipline for the adventure of life.”  We might simply say, education is adventure and life. He describes the history of the world as an adventure motivated by “zest.”  Zest can mean both energy and flavor.  A life without zest is dull and tasteless.

Each human culture is a unique adventure of the human spirit.  Art, science, and religion are so many different ways of making meaning and finding flavor.  Whitehead warned that when a civilization loses its taste for adventure, it begins to decay.

There is danger in any journey.  Adventures are unpredictable.  Sometimes we fail to arrive at our anticipated destination.  But even failure can be enlightening.  After all, Columbus got lost on his way to India.

The word “adventure” is related to a word that means to happen or occur.  Philosophers use the word “adventitious” to mean accidental or unintentional.  And for Christians “advent” signifies a time of hope for the birth of something new and wonderful.  Education as adventure is open to the unintended.  It is hopeful about the future.  It courageously embraces the birthing process.

This brings us back to the current transformation.  No one could have imagined the strange birth of online learning from out of a pandemic. Difficulties remain, especially the digital divide. But problems are opportunities.  Let’s set our creative imaginations free.  Let’s stop dreaming of the way things used to be.  Stop complaining about the need to get back to normal. 

The old normal wasn’t perfect.  Why go back, when we can move forward? Let’s cook up something zesty and nutritious.  Learn to bend with the wind.  Find joy in transformation.  And embrace the fact that history will view us as pioneers who explored the great frontier of virtual education.

Wisdom and Courage, Hygiene and Hope

Fresno Bee, August 16, 2020

This is a frustrating fall.

The back-to-school season is usually an optimistic time full of new ideas, new projects and new friends. But this year students are stuck at home. Football is canceled. There is unemployment and social unrest. Our leaders fail to inspire. And the pandemic rages on.

We need courage and wisdom to persevere. In times of crisis, philosophical insight provides consolation. The world’s wisdom traditions share a common message of moderation and self-control.

It helps to have a realistic view of the universe and our place within it. The Buddha taught that life is full of suffering. The Greeks said, “all men are mortal.” This means we should abandon wishful thinking. There is no miracle cure for the human condition. Even the best of us has feet of clay. Great empires collapse. Life includes loss. And nothing lasts forever.

Our current troubles are not unique. History shows that corruption and incompetence are commonplace. Thousands of years ago, Plato described the social and political world as a ship of fools. Selfish and ignorant people struggle for power. Virtuous people are thrown overboard. This has always been true. Our present struggles are par for the course.

But some stability can be found, even in a storm. Hygiene provides a key. The word “hygiene” comes from a Greek word linked to health, harmony, and balance.

The pandemic has given us a simple recipe for staying healthy. Keep your hands clean. Keep your face covered. And stay away from other people. This routine is also a useful metaphor for living well.

Physical health matters. Wash your hands, get some exercise, and eat a balanced diet. But “keeping your hands clean” is also a moral idea. The Bible links cleans hands to a pure heart. The Stoics said that it’s better to have clean hands than full ones.

Masking is another moral metaphor. A mask is a sign of modesty. Modest people keep themselves appropriately concealed. It is especially important to cover your mouth. Don’t chew with your mouth open. Don’t let your lips flap and your tongue wag. In fact, it is best to keep your mouth shut most of the time. In the Taoist tradition, a sage is pictured as someone who speaks without moving her lips.

Social distancing is also healthy and wise. A virus can infect you. But so too can dumb ideas and bad habits. Solitude is a source of enlightenment. Solitude is not loneliness. Lonely people remain obsessed with other people. But you are not alone when you are one with the universe. You don’t have to be a monk to understand that it is often better to mind your own business.

Wisdom involves knowing who and what to ignore. It also demands that we pay attention. Compassion, love, and justice are crucial. But human beings have limited capacities and even love must be balanced with self-preservation. Be kind to strangers. But you can’t save everyone. And the world won’t change overnight.

Sometimes, when things are really going badly, it is wise to abandon ship. Loyalty is important. But it can be an anchor that holds you down.

Speaking of anchors, another lesson must be considered — the lesson of hope. Anchors are symbols of hope. Wisdom reminds us that the present crisis won’t last forever. But it’s not clear that we’ll ever return to “normal.” Hope is not an anchor that preserves the normal. It is also a sail that leads beyond the horizon.

A wise hope recognizes that the future is up to us. There are no utopias. But you can improve your own life. The Stoics teach you to focus on mastering your own attitude and effort. Progress depends upon energy and intention. No one else can live your life. To excel at anything, you have to practice. So stop blaming others and cursing the wind. In order to get anywhere you have to get to work.

These kinds of lessons are not taught in the formal school curriculum. But these are the kinds of lessons we need these days. The crisis in our republic is real. The ship of fools is foundering. We all need wisdom to help us ride this storm.

Progress is possible and hope sheds light

Fresno Bee, July 19, 2020

This may seem an odd time to accentuate the positive. The nation is struggling with a pandemic, protests against racism, political dysfunction, and economic woes. Things could get worse. But when things look dark, it is important to take stock of progress that has occurred.

Science, economics, and the law have created improvements. There are many reasons to believe that things are better today — not perfect, but better.

Our lives are easier today thanks to technologies such as the internal combustion engine, refrigeration, telecommunication, personal computers, and the internet. There are downsides. Fossil fuel use causes climate change. And the Internet is awash in porn and fake news. But life is easier, healthier, and smarter thanks to applied science.

The coronavirus is scary. But experts are learning how to prevent and treat this disease. We’ve already eliminated smallpox, polio, cholera, and other devastating diseases. Many countries have made progress controlling COVID-19. The U.S. needs to get things under control. But medical science is better now than it was 100 years ago when the Spanish flu killed millions.

Protests against police brutality and racism indicate there is more work to be done. Terrorism and mass shootings cause anxiety. The U.S. exceeds other countries in gun violence. The U.S. imprisons more people than other countries. But crime is down from a high point in the 1990s and Americans are safer today than we were just a few decades ago.

The pandemic has exposed a digital divide in virtual learning. But a hundred years ago, girls and nonwhite people were woefully undereducated. Today we understand the ethical demand to provide quality education for all children. We teach science, math, and history to more kids in more sophisticated ways than in the one-room schoolhouses of yesteryear.

Wage gaps and wealth gaps remain. Rich people live longer and have more political power. But progress has been made for racial minorities, disabled people, homosexuals, women, and religious minorities since the 1950s when the Supreme Court abolished the farce of “separate but equal.” Things are not perfect. But discrimination is illegal and voting rights have been secured for members of previously excluded groups.

Threats to the American constitutional system exist, along with corruption in the halls of power. The free press has been attacked. Unjustified force has been employed against peaceful protesters. But the five freedoms of the First Amendment remain as beacons. The courts continue to defend our rights. And there is more vigorous political debate today than in previous decades.

Much of this debate overlooks the good news. The loudest voices on both sides of the political spectrum dwell on a sense of crisis. The conservative motto “Make America great again” begins with the premise that things have gotten worse. In response, progressives focus on remaining racism, sexism, and homophobia as well as Trumpian malfunction.

I’m not saying things are perfect today. There is substantial room for improvement. But hope for improvement depends upon the sense that progress has been made and can be made.

It is easy to lose sight of this. The news focuses on crime, disease, and corruption. Movies feature murder, malice, and mayhem. We like stories about bad guys and action heroes. A story about decent people who love their families and go to work every day would be boring.

Good news is also a political dud. Political energy grows from the sense of crisis that rallies the base. Change-makers are elected to shake things up. A campaign focused on moderate and incremental improvement would be uninspiring.

Incremental change is tedious. It takes persistent effort. The good it produces is slow in arriving and unexciting once it gets here. But lasting improvement occurs through painstaking effort.

In a crisis, despair can set in quickly. When things appear to be falling apart, it is easy to throw in the towel. That’s why it is important to recall the progress we have made. When we understand that smart, creative effort improves the world, it is easier to roll up our sleeves and get to work.

The world will never be perfect. But it won’t get better unless we believe that through our efforts it can be improved.

The Blame Game

When bad stuff happens, we want someone to blame.  But blame assumes a kind of agency that most of us lack.  Luck is as important as intention.  And culture and nature matter more than the choices of individuals.

Recent events show us how the blame game works.  The White House has blamed the Covid-19 pandemic on China.  White House trade adviser Peter Navarro recently claimed that China “spawned” the virus and deliberately spread the disease. Meanwhile, Trump’s critics blame him.  One recent article carried the headline, “It Really Is Trump’s Fault.”  Another said, “Covid 19: Blame Trump.” 

All of this oversimplifies the causal reality of the pandemic, which involves the complexities of microbiology, economics, and the daily choices of billions of people.  Policy and law can have some influence.  But there are more fundamental forces at play in the pandemic.

If we want to blame something for the explosion of the pandemic in the U.S., we might blame American individualism, libertarianism, and consumerism.  Trump did not invent these forces.  Nor did he (or China) cause the pandemic to blow up here. 

That explosion involved the choices of governors, mayors, businesses, and ordinary citizens.  Lots of people ignored the need for social distancing.  The virus did the rest, moving according to its own logic.

Trump cannot save us from the pandemic, by the way. That’s up to us.  To be critical of the blame game is also to be critical of hero-worship and the cult of leadership.  A leader can only take people in a direction they are willing to go.

When we understand the power of culture and nature, the blame game fades in importance.  For example, some blame the victims of hurricanes, wildfires, and earthquakes for building their homes in danger zones.  But economic forces create conditions in which some people have no other viable places to live.  And destruction or survival in a storm or an earthquake is often a matter of luck.

A fuller account of causality offers a more convoluted picture of our choices.  Blame (or praise) assumes a myth about free choice in these matters that hearkens back to the myth of original sin. A more scientific account of causality makes that myth seem silly.

At the level of leadership, the blame game assumes that leaders are free to create policies independently of the parties, systems, and circumstances in which they operate.  In reality, human beings—including leaders—are buffeted by cultural and natural forces that are beyond our control.

And yet, when things feel out of control, we search for someone to blame.  This can lead to scapegoating.  In heaping blame upon a scapegoat, we seek a semblance of power in the face of powerlessness.  It feels good to blame bad things on some person, party, race, or nation.  In older times, the need to blame a malicious agent escalated into claims about witches, demons, and devils.  These days, it manifests as absurd conspiracy theories that imagine some secret cabal of evil geniuses pulling strings behind the scenes. 

A further problem is that blame is retrospective and retributive.  To focus on blame is to dwell in the past and to look for someone to punish.  But this can prevent us from moving forward.  We should learn from the past and avoid previous mistakes.  But the goal should be to study the past in order to build the future.  Rather than focusing on whom to blame, we ought to think about what we need to do next time.  John F. Kennedy once said, “Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past.  Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.” 

To avoid the blame game is not to give up on accountability.  Leadership matters.  Incompetent and malicious leaders should be replaced.  And indeed, a larger point of view makes it easier to move on.  If there are no evil geniuses, there are also no saviors or superheroes.  No leader is indispensable. 

Knowledge, expertise, and experience can help us ride through bad times.  But bad stuff is often a matter of bad luck and the larger forces of culture, institutions, and nature.  And often we really have no one to blame but ourselves.  Once we realize this, it is easier to leave the blame game behind and get to work on preparing for tomorrow.