Sunday, September 25, 2011

An Evolved Baptist

It always happens--"Professor, what do YOU believe?"

So I write it out on the board:

                              Evolved Baptist Blakean Buddhist Methodist.

Which leaves out the Dickinsonian part.  And complicates things maybe a bit over much.  But there it is.  And so as to start this blog off with a statement of belief--a credo, if you will--here's what I believe.

First off, I was born to Baptists who were born to Baptists in a long string that I've traced back through nearly four centuries to Northumbria and Scotland and Virginia.  More to the point, I was born to a Southern Baptist tradition.  I was raised in a string of churches in El Paso, Dallas, Richardson, and Midland and taught the basics of fundamentalist white Baptists in middle-class Texas.

In 1963 or so, at the age of 12, I agreed to be "saved" and was baptized and further indoctrinated in the preacher's four-week course in the basics of being Baptist.  And what I remember from that series is a single joke he told--with his big friendly smile.  "You know that old joke about the guy who goes to Heaven and Saint Peter's showing him around?  And they look over the fence and see the Catholics having a good old party?  And then they walk on and they see the Methodists and they're having a good old party too?  And then they walk on and Saint Peter crouches down and puts his finger to his lips--  "Shhh!  Those are the Baptists--they think they're the only ones here."

And everyone laughed!  And the preacher, he laughed too--then he said "that joke goes to show you how narrow-minded we Baptists are."  And everyone laughed again.  And then he said "I'm even more narrow-minded than that!  I don't think half the Baptists are going to make it."

And everyone laughed again, because we had all been saved!

I don't remember the indoctrination of that course beyond that, but I came to understand (whether in that course or through other instruction or through my own investigations) that the basic premise that split the Baptists off from the Catholics and the Anglicans and the Massachusetts Puritans was the belief that the Bible was the word of God; you should read it for yourself and decide what it means for yourself; and you don't need a priest to explain it to you.

I know, all these years later, that no matter how little I now have in common with Southern Baptists (it approaches zero, as near as I can tell), I started with these premises and they form the basis of who I am and what I believe and why I teach the way I teach to this very day.  But each of these basic premises have evolved:  The Bible may be the word of God, but there are lots of Bibles produced (each and every one of them) by humans in human languages.  I still believe one should read these texts and decide for oneself what they mean, but I now understand that that involves reading in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Middle English, King James English, Modern English, Spanish, Catalunian, and whatever other languages may come one's way.  And though I find I still want no priest or preacher or teacher to dictate to me what I should believe about the texts, I find that my own explorations have been greatly enhanced by the widest variety of masters of these texts.

So first, last, and always, I'm a Baptist born of Baptists born of Baptists.  But first, last, and always, I read for myself, and I decide for myself where the truth of a text lies.

As for the Blakean part, I once wrote a book on William Blake and the Welsh influences on his imagination.  In his book The Marriage of Heaven and Hell I came to read the Proverbs of Hell, and through his satire I came to see Angels as enemies and Devils as friends.  And in these proverbs, I read that "Man has no Body distinct from his Soul, for that called Body is a portion of Soul discerned by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age" (Plate 4).  And then, at the very end of the piece, Blake writes "For every thing that lives is holy."

There's a great deal more to the Blakean part, but it comes down to a firm belief that human perception is limited to its senses in this age, and that every thing that lives is holy.

The Buddhist part depends on a simple metaphor from the so-called Tibetan Book of the Dead, which is quoted in Scorsese's movie Kundun by the Dalai Lama when he was asked "Are you the Lord Buddha?"  He answered "I think I am like the reflection of the moon on water.  When you see me, and I try to be a good man, you see yourself."

It's not a direct quote, but think of the metaphor:  the reflection of the moon on water.  In this life, we are a reflection on water of the moon, which is itself a reflection of the sun.

I don't call myself Dickinsonian in this paradigm because it's long enough and complicated enough as it is, but I am with Emily Dickinson in this that she wrote to Thomas Wentworth Higginson in a letter of 1861:  "My family is religious, except me, and worship an eclipse, every day, that they call their father."

I believe that religion, a contrivance of humans, serves to block the Light.  I think that, at best, we perceive the light through reflections only.  It does not mean there is no Light.  But once it falls into language, it becomes an eclipse.

So finally I come to the Methodist part.  I was married in the Methodist church and when I attend (which is very infrequent), I attend a Methodist church that is open enough to welcome my kind of pagan.  When a Baptist preached shrugged his shoulders at my father's funeral and wondered aloud whether or not such a think-for-yourself sort of guy would be in Heaven, I swore off forever that sort of Baptist.  But the Methodists don't do that.  They welcome me and my gifts, and when I don't show up, they wonder why and ask me back.  I don't buy their creed, but I understand the nature of metaphor and language and reflections and hope and desire and community.  And I appreciate these brothers and sisters on this journey.

They put up with me, and that counts for something.

A Strange Cross-fertilization of Ideas

The latest revelation came from Michael Ruse, in his book entitled The Evolution-Creation Struggle.  Jonathan Edwards, the great New England pastor, is most famous for his fire-and-brimstone sermons following a severely Calvinist model.  But he made a very good point:  "It is out of reason's province to perceive the beauty of loveliness of any thing:  such a perception does not belong to that faculty.  Reason's work is to perceive truth and not excellence.  It is not ratiocination that gives men the perception of the beauty and amiableness of a countenance, though it may be many ways indirectly an advantage to it; yet it is no more reason that immediately perceives it, than it is reason that perceives the sweetness of honey: it depends on the sense of the heart.  --Reason may determine that a countenance is beautiful to others, it may determine that honey is sweet to others; but it will never give me a perception of its sweetness."

So it is with the perception of God.  We do not arrive there through reason--and in fact, reason dissuades us mightily from the so-called perception of the supernatural.  No--this perception is emotional.  It is psychic.  It exists at a level outside the perception of the five senses--it exists at a level that sees when the eyes are closed--what the Buddhists call "The Third Eye."  

Evolution of the rational mind involves exposure to all the ideas one can encounter.  Things change.  And I find that I'm no longer a Baptist, or an atheist, or an agnostic, or a gnostic, or a Buddhist, or anything else but an evolved human being.

Perhaps the single most useful paradigm I've encountered comes from Albert Einstein, whose essay on Science and Religion sets out an anthropomorphic religion as opposed to a cosmic religion.  The anthropomorphic religions (very nearly all of them) create God in the image of humans.  The scientist sees a vastly complex act of creation that continues, and is compelled to explore that in all its complexity.  Most people are satisfied with a god in the image of themselves.  But some of us think infinite creative complexity is beyond the model of Man.

That's where I find myself--in awe of a universe that extends infinitely into the micro and macro levels--vastly beyond my ability to do anything more than to admire the shimmering beauty of this moment's reflection of the moon on water.

The Evolved Baptist Blog

Friday, September 2, 2011

Why and How and the Fear Factor

A student wrote to his freshman comp class on the fourth day of their first semester:  "I think that most of the students just are scared because this class is not like any other English we have ever taken. It always makes people more comfortable to know where they are going and why. For most this is their first semester in college and this class can be great.  We just need to know why and how."

Fair enough.

Because there's a conversation that's been going on for many thousands of years involving the leaders of human communities and you need to learn how to participate in that conversation.  You've learned the basics that we teach our children.  We need you to step up and take our places because all the wisdom and all the problems we inherited are soon to be yours.  And it is exceedingly complicated.  There's no point in pretending it's not.  And there's no one else to pass it on to.  You're up!

You've got the language basics--I know because you passed the State of Texas entrance exam!  But you now need to be introduced into the various conversations so you have some idea what to write about. 
We start with the grounds for the discussion, which this semester turns out to be Ronald Reagan's address to the evangelicals.  Who was he?  Who were they?  How is this conversation relevant today?  What's the history behind it?  What are the psychological motivations in play?  And, most importantly, how do you enter this ancient discussion without feeling like a fool?

On being scared:
That's very normal.  Until you understand what's going on around you, you'll feel like a total stranger, if not a total idiot.  The most dangerous thing you can do, in this class or any other, is to miss any part of the conversation.  Once you lose the fox, so to speak, it's really hard to work your way in.  I'm here to be your guide, but I make every class period count and I set up online discussions so that we can practice writing to the conversation in between.  The ones who will make it will make it happen because they'll stick with it.  The ones who don't will get to come back--one of the uniquely great things about American higher education. 

So stick with it!
You're going to grow old and die, like me and my father and his fathers before him.  While you are here on earth, you can either become part of the tradition of thinking people who shape the world, or not.  Time's gonna pass anyway.  Do what you will, but if you want to succeed in college and in life, show up and do the work.  The rest will follow from what and how you do it.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

On Keeping a Journal

The Journal should be your personal exploration and synthesis of all the things we're talking about.  Think about it this way--twenty years from now you'll come across this Course Journal that includes prints of all these Coffeehouse Discussions.  You might roll your eyes and throw it away.  Or you might sit down and read it like a letter you wrote to yourself all those years ago when you still knew everything.  Think of this as something you're writing to your grandchildren....  When they get old enough, and you might be long gone when they do, they'll find it fascinating!

To a Student's Call for Action to a Sluggish Class

I couldn't agree more--and I wish I knew what would get people writing more.  But in my experience as an online teacher, what we've got is typical.  The conversation is generally carried by far less that half the class, with the rest coasting or scared to write. The good part for me is that it makes it easy to tell the A students from the C students from the F students.  A lot is riding on whether or not they respond.  But it's a free country and no one has to engage their mind, much less write in a course they paid for.  They can get out of it what they put into it.

I think there's a deep fear of this subject, and I can certainly relate, having endured many vicious arguments myself. Politics and religion get people angry, and there's a certain reserve in the classroom when students come up against something that's going to be unpleasant. But this is YOUR university experience, and one of the goals is to learn how to debate ideas without coming to blows.

Several times in the discussion we've come up against the idea of "freedom of religion" and Mr. White has even quoted the Establishment Clause. In addition to making a long study of the mythic writings and languages of the ancient world, I've made a deep study of Medieval and Renaissance history, particularly the 14th through 18th century in England. When the Establishment Clause was written (by a group including Deists as well as a variety of different kinds of Christians), it came as a transition from many bloody centuries of religious debate. There's a deep historical reason why we prohibit the establishment of a state religion, and it has to do with the millions (yes--millions!) of murders that have been committed in the names of various systems of interpretation. The Congress included descendents of Catholics, Anglicans, Baptists, Puritans, Quakers, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and others, all of which groups had suffered persecution because of some interpretational difference or other. We're not talking about different races of people, or even people who spoke different languages.  We're talking about brothers and sisters in the same families who would argue to the point of blows or even to the point of murder a point of interpretation.  Shall we drink wine with Communion or grape juice with the Lord's Supper?  Shall we sprinkle infants or emerse them when they reach a certain age?  Shall we read the Bible in Latin or in English?  Do we believe in miracles and a supernatural ordinator or insist on a natural world with natural laws?
The deep exploration of textual history is a fascinating study, but it's very complex. The simple answers one carries from childhood serve some, but they lead to crisis when one is confronted with the realities of life. Not that deep study will make you happier--it won't.  And not that we get to a place of understanding--we don't.  It's easier for those who can simply agree to a master narrative and then hold to it against all comers.  But a flat earth is not a true vision of reality, and a denial of scientific reasoning doesn't aid one in living a healthier or happier life.

The point of a course like this is to train minds in understanding the levels of complexity and the differences of discourse. Science and history do different things from parables and prophecies. Truth can be gleaned from all of these modes of literature, but none is comprehensive, working in all cases.

There is, after all, a vast divide between describing the Sun in a verse and in what actually happens within that massive ball of exploding gases.  Say what you will--the reality will always be far more complex than you can ever approach through words.

Part Two:

You asked: "Do you think age/maturity level is a factor in relation to participation in your classes?  I have seen so many students afraid to have a voice in class, but freely use it in the hallways and bathrooms and I've been wondering if it's a generation gap."

I wouldn't call it a generation gap but I DO think age and maturity is a factor.  I've long thought that every American should be required to serve the country in some capacity for a period of time following high school because they (1) aren't mature enough to make decisions regarding their future yet and (2) they haven't got the experience it takes to take education seriously.  I, of all people, would deeply resist any sort of mandatory service, and generalizations always have flaws, but it was my own personal experience and I have observed it many times as well--people benefit more from education once their brains reach a certain stage of maturity.

That said, I had lunch today with a former student.  He just got back from London, where he participated as one of twelve Fulbright Scholars in a program that selected him from among hundreds of applicants nation-wide.  At the age of almost twenty-one, he's operating at full speed.  And he's living proof that age and maturity don't have near as much to do with it as desire.  He doesn't have a lot of money. His father died when he was young. But he has a desire to engage this world of the intellect, and he's looking for ways to make it happen.  He's really young and inexperienced, and life is going to do things to him he can't imagine, but he's on the intellectual track and running.

The bottom line really has to do with you.  This is your life, wherever you are in your journey.  What are you going to do with it?  Young or old, makes no difference.  It's what you do with what you have right now that counts.

Why oh why do blogs read from bottom to top?

It's so annoying to write sequentially, to post chronologically, and then to have to start at the bottom to read posts in the proper order.  But this blog doesn't offer the option of chronological ordering, so you the Reader must go to the bottom if you wish to read this in the sequence written.  I, the Writer, would recommend that you do so, though perhaps there's something hopelessly archaic and decidedly pre-modern about that practice.  Maybe you wish to see the ending before the beginning....  It's certainly your option, though it is not the Writer's intent.

re: Religion vs Theology

This perspective on literature is particularly necessary for law enforcement people.  In order to defuse someone like David Koresh, the negotiator has to understand not only the psychotic mind, but the metanarrative within which that psychosis operates.  If a man believes himself to be Christ returned for Armageddon (as Koresh did), and the negotiators are talking US Constitution and Federal Law, there's a huge disconnect that has to be bridged.  Everyone likes to second-guess tragic events, but I doubt there's anything one can say to convince someone in the control of a daimon.  Koresh was convinced that he was Jesus returned to judge the damned--he was convinced that the literature of John's Revelation was being played out here in Texas--and I'm pretty sure he thought God ordered him to shoot and burn all those children on that last day.  I'm not at all convinced that law enforcement training can teach ATF and FBI agents what to do in the face of a religious fanatic who's intent on killing.  But watching for "crazies" in the neighborhood might be easier if you can tell reality from metaphor from myth from delusion.

re: Religion vs Theology

(In answer to another student) 

The point of all this is that the interpretation of literature is, over and over again throughout the history of our race, quite often a matter of life and death.  It's not just arguing with a friend over the nature of spirit and soul and mind--some people want to be elected to office to force their interpretations on everyone else.  Some people want to blow up buildings and shoot kids at a liberal summer camp.  Some people want to fly airplanes into buildings.  Some people want to burn others at the stake, or nail them to crosses, or cut out their hearts to feed to a stone god of the sun.

In undergraduate studies, one reads literature and learns to discuss the ideas in terms of the literature itself and scholarly analysis.  In graduate studies, one reads more deeply into the analysis along with the literature.  My path included an aunt who was hospitalized and given electroshock treatments for religious fanaticism back in the fifties and sixties.  Now we know she suffers from bi-polar disorder, but then all we knew was she would go into these rants and walk the streets preaching, scaring little children and making grown men cry.

An odd juxtaposition, this paragraph--literary criticism and a crazy aunt--but they worked together in my life because I had a desire to understand what was going on in her head and why it made my father (and everyone else!) so uncomfortable.  And of course our culture surrounds us with religious fanatics--some of whom are murderously dangerous.  It came to be that I learned multiple languages and read many theories of interpretation along with the history and the literature, and it was not only in the context of good stories and songs and poems, but of a crazy aunt who cried out to be understood. 

I had just entered my PhD studies (already had the Masters and had been teaching for a couple of years) when David Koresh and the Branch Davidian standoff began.  I was reading Middle English dream-vision literature (The Pearl, to be precise) when the news came of the fire and the 80 some-odd deaths in Waco.  How was it, I wondered, that people could be so convinced by an interpretation of literature that they would either kill children or collude with a "man of God" to do so.  It wasn't the first time this had happened. Jonestown had shocked me before.  And two years later, we'd all be blaming the Arabs for a radical follower of David Koresh who, in the name of some sort of Christianity, had blown up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. 

So my studies have focused on language and communications with the intent of understanding where things go wrong and how to fix them.  And after a quarter of a century in this quest, I've reached some conclusions:

  • Religion is like a gun--it's mostly useful and helpful, but in the wrong hands it can be deadly.  The more we understand about the mechanics and proper use of religion, the safer it is, but it's still a powerful weapon that must be handled carefully.
  • Religion is a construct of words--i.e., literature.  As such, we read its texts and think about its ideas within the realm of words.  But it's a living thing too--  Post-modernism teaches me that it's purely a construct of language, but the newspaper as recently as this week teaches me that many people can die at the hands of someone for whom these words become a compelling reality. 
  • The point of studying literature and making students think and write about these subjects is not to destroy their faith, but to put them in the tradition of intelligent discourse that stretches back through all of human history.  Not everyone participates, and not everyone even needs to, but some small percentage will engage these issues, and maybe they'll be better equipt to solve the thorny problems they'll encounter without resorting to violence. 

How do we defuse dangerous beliefs?  I'm not sure we really can.  After all of these years of studying words and ideas and theories of cognition and theology, I've learned one bottom-line truth that negates everything else:  people will hold on to their beliefs no matter what the evidence to the contrary.  We see it daily.  Information is not enough.  Theory is not enough.  In the face of really good arguments, people will shut their ears and their minds and refuse to think out of fear.  Change is very scary.  Admitting one's fundamental premises to be flawed is terrifying.  Refusal to engage is a normal mode of coping with ideas that challenge one at the core.
My crazy aunt is still crazy, in spite of 90 years of everyone working to set her straight.  I've tried to talk sense to her.  So have her daughters, her husbands, her parents, her brothers, the cops who've been called to contain her, countless psychiatrists, preachers, social workers, concerned neighbors, and on and on.  She's OK so long as she takes her meds--and we all know when she doesn't.

So literature is interesting and useful--but some things just can't be fixed by words or talk or fine and careful writing.  Sometimes there's a daimon on the loose.

re: Religion vs Theology

You ask (I wrote to a student):  "My main concern is, why dont [preachers] come clean on their congregations on the inconsistencies in the bible?"

It depends a lot on who the preacher is and where the question is being asked.  Just like with religion and theology, there are different words to describe the preacher's various roles:  pastor, minister, priest, teacher, confessor, friend.  I have friends who are preachers.  Some of them are pastors to their congregations, and when they stand before their congregations in official events, it is most definitely their job to promote the master narrative of the faith.  They may have in their flocks (did I mention "shepherds?") those who have questions, who have doubts, but the main meeting is the time to model the perfect faith for the mass of people who are there for community, and this they inevitably do.  It gets much trickier when they meet one-on-one with questioning-doubters.  Their job is still to model the perfect faith, but in a private situation one might get a bit of a preacher's own theology into the mix. 

Or not.

As for the specific question about the inconsistencies in the Bible, this depends a lot on the denomination.  I know a very vocal handful of people who will insist that the Bible is never inconsistent, but of the four preachers I know personally well enough to have had such discussions, none of them would argue this position.  Three, and perhaps all four of them, would hold the Truth of their faith as coming from a personal relationship with God, and not from the Text.  God is infinite; text is human.  We use the text to give shape to our experience, but neither Don, nor Andy, nor Denise, nor Debbie worship the text.

Yet all four will hold it high in a service and proclaim "The Word of The Lord," to which their congregations will respond the ritual response "Thanks be to God."

A very telling thing happens when one goes through the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University.  The candidate for the ministry is asked to write a "credo," a statement of belief.  This is not a short piece--it's expected to be thorough, and it's expected to touch on all of the thorny issues of faith.  While they are writing this, they are studying Hebrew and Greek, the history of Christianity, the specific history of Methodism, methods of pastoral practice, and other subjects in the graduate-level degree program that will culminate in their ordination.  The credo is a make-or-break piece.  It must be honest and it must be detailed.

A friend of mine was going through this program; at the same time we were reading The Gospel of Mary in a study group--kind of an advanced Sunday-school class for those who in the church who think about such things and like to do so in the company of others.  My friend told us about the reaction of one of her readers when she submitted her Credo.  She was accused of coming dangerously close to the Manichean Heresy.

I didn't know what that meant, so I had to go do my homework and learn for myself.  Here, very briefly, is what the Catholic Encyclopedia says:  "Manich├Žism, like Gnosticism, was an intellectual religion, it despised the simplicity of the crowd. As it professed to bring salvation through knowledge, ignorance was sin."
So I gather that the Manichean Heresy is the pursuit of intellectual wisdom above the simplicity of the crowd.  Since my friend went on to be ordained and now has her own church, I also gather that modern Methodism allows for such "heretical" behavior.  And since I learn in the Catholic Encyclopedia the details of Mani and his writings and the intellectual impact this has had over the history of Christianity, I gather that it's not an unusual perspective for one to have, and that Catholic sholars include this as public knowledge, free for those with inquiring minds.

Religion vs Theology (7/27/11)

Religion, as I've posited, is a social phenomenon involving groups of people who agree substantially to the interpretation of central texts.  Theology is different.  It is the study of the divine.  It can happen within a religion--and in fact it often does.  Or it can be an individual pursuit.

The idea of starting a religion involves either writing a sacred text or texts, or it involves writing an interpretation of sacred texts.  That's the foundation.  Then you gotta get followers, because a religion is a social group that shares a tradition of interpreting texts in a coherent way.

Theology is a different pursuit.  It seeks to understand the nature of the forces of the universe.  It goes beyond science in that it does not require demonstrable proof or replicable results or evidence perceivable to the senses.  It investigates (or at least thinks about) the metaphysical universe, the universe beyond what our senses can know.

So psychology is a big part of this. How do people perceive things? What beyond the physical forces moves things to happen the way that they do? When we witness something beyond the physical, are we in fact witnessing what we think we're witnessing?  How do you know?  And when you convert the experience to words, does it accurately reflect what happened, or is it just a construct of language that sounds good?

All of this falls under the rubric of literature.  Literature is about converting experience into language and then understanding what's been written.  It's one thing to explore characters and heros and epic events and all of that, but what drives these writers to write about these things?  Why do they, as far back as we can read, bring in supernatural characters and dreams and prophecies and gods and goddesses and the search for eternal life?  And how is it that some writings rise to the level of sacred text, with millions of people so deeply invested in them that they are willing, over centuries of time, to engage in deeply controling politics and wars and laws and dominion and ....

My personal interest is theological, not religious. We seem to be talking about religion a lot, but the real subject is the nature of the mystical powers of the universe.  We get to this through narrative and poetry and the study of literature over the ages, but the bottom line is that these things are written artifacts--the things of religion, and not of theology.

The primary tool for me is the study of languages. But the fundamental premise is this: language is metaphor.  Reality is what it is--once that is converted to language, it's no longer reality, but language.  So the experience of the divine, as recorded in literature, may be what I get to read and study, but it's not the reality that I seek.  It's someone else's version, reduced to words. 

Sometimes they are beautiful words, and sometimes these words speak what looks to be truth to me.  And sometimes they speak Truth to me.  But there's a divide between the reality of words and the reality of the real.
Post-modernism.  We live in a world of words, but we're coming to understand that words create their own reality--and don't accurately reflect reality, no matter how pretty or compelling the pictures they paint.