Making Memories

I’m a little suspicious of technology, as many of you no doubt know.  I don’t dislike it, and I certainly use it (case in point), but I am suspicious.  Upgrades provide more and more information to our unknown voyeurs and when the system shows off its new knowledge it can be scary.  For example, the other day a message flashed in my upper right corner that I had a new memory.  At first I was so startled by the presumption than I couldn’t click on it in time to learn what my new memory might be.  The notification had my Photos logo on it, so I went there to see.  Indeed, there was a new section—or at least one I hadn’t previously noticed—in my Photos app.  It contained a picture with today’s date from years past.

Now I don’t mind being reminded of pleasant things, but I don’t trust the algorithms of others to generate them for me.  This computer on my lap may be smart, but not that so very smart.  I know that social media, such as Facebook, have been “making memories” for years now.  I doubt, however, that the faux brains we tend to think computers are have any way of knowing what we actually feel or believe.  In conversations with colleagues over cognition and neurology it becomes clear that emotion is an essential element in our thinking.  Algorithms may indeed be logical, but can they ever be authentically emotional?  Can a machine be programmed to understand how it feels to see a sun rise, or to be embraced by a loved one, or to smell baking bread?  Those who would reduce human brains to mere logic are creating monsters, not minds.

So memories are now being made by machine.  In actuality they are simply generating reminders based on dates.  This may have happened four or five years ago, but do I want to remember it today?  Maybe yes, maybe no.  It depends on how I feel.  We really don’t have a firm grasp on what life is, although we recognize it when we see it.  We’re further even still from knowing what consciousness may be.  One thing we know for sure, however, is that it involves more than what we reason out.  We have hunches and intuition.  There’s that fudge factor we call “instinct,” which is, after all, another way of claiming that animals and newborns can’t think.  But think they can.  And if my computer wants to help with memories, maybe it can tell me where I left my car keys before I throw the pants containing them into the wash again, which is a memory I don’t particularly want to relive.

Memory from a decade ago, today.

Reasonable Religion

Part of the pushback against religion, it seems to me, is based on the fear that there might be something rational to it after all.  Sorry to get all philosophical on you on a Saturday morning, but the idea has been bothering me all week.  You see, reductionist thinking has already concluded that religion is “emotion” and science is “reason,” and only the latter has any validity.  When’s the last time you met somebody and asked “How are you thinking?” instead of “How are you feeling?”  Neurologists are finding that reason and emotion can’t be divided with a scalpel; indeed, healthy thinking involves both, not reason alone.  Funnily, this is a natural conclusion of evolution—we evolved to survive in this environment—our brains developed rational faculties to enhance emotional response, not to replace it.

I know this is abstruse; go ahead and get a cup of coffee if you need it.  What if emotion participates in reality?  How can emotion be measured outside of individual experience?  We experience it all the time without thinking about it.  From the earliest of human times we’ve had religion in the mix, in some form.  Perhaps we are evolving out of it, but perhaps neurology is telling us that there’s something to it after all.  Something immeasurable.  Chaos theory can be quite uncomfortable in that regard—every coastline is infinite, if you get down to nano-divisions.  When you measure something do you use the top of the line on the ruler or the bottom?  Or do you try to eyeball the middle?  And how do you do it with Heisenberg standing behind you saying there’s always uncertainty in every measurement?

Absolute reality is beyond the grasp of creatures evolved to survive in a specific environment.  Religion, in some form, has always been there to help us cope.  Yes, many religions mistake their mythology for fact—a very human thing to do—but that doesn’t mean that emotion has nothing to do with rational thought.  It seems that instead of warring constantly maybe science and religion should sit down at the table and talk.  Both would have to agree on the basic ground rule that both are evolved ways of coping with an uncertain environment.  And both would have to, no matter how grudgingly, admit that the other has something to bring to that table.  Rationality and emotion are entangled in brains whose functions are simple survival.  Pitting one against the other is counterproductive, even on a Saturday morning.

Beyond the Facade

Over the summer the New York Historical Society had an exhibit, now over, on Norman Rockwell, Franklin Roosevelt, and the Four Freedoms.  I think we may be down to one or two freedoms by now, but nevertheless.  One weekend my wife and I went to the exhibition.  She’d just read a biography of Rockwell, and although his Americana is my America, I suppose, his pluck is sometimes unnerving.  You see, an artist has to show emotions on people’s faces and in their gestures.  Long ago I learned that if you show what you’re feeling in real life, people will quickly take advantage of you.  I learned, even as a teen, to be subtle.  If you think you’ve got me figured out, here’s a hint—that subtlety continues even into my writing.  It’s often not what it appears to be.

Some months back I wrote a funny piece on this blog.  Some people who actually know me—or the part that I let be known—thought I was depressed.  Or angry.  Or both.  That’s a side effect of subtlety.  Episcopalians have it down to a science.  At least they used to.  The only place they showed emotion was in high mass, and that, if done right, packs a wallop.  One of my brothers comments that I seldom smile.  I might say too much about myself if I did.  What would you do with that knowledge?  In my earliest experience, you might use it to hurt me.  Walking through Manhattan to the exhibit, I noticed the stone facades.  Some buildings have solemn stonework, almost gothic is aspect.  Behind the windows, however, I can sense emotion left unshown.  It’s not very Rockwell.

I admire Rockwell’s outlook.  Indeed, I might share more of it than I want to reveal.  Rockwell, according to the exhibit, believed in America for all races and all creeds.  Strong women dominate his paintings and illustrations.  Equality was what America used to stand for.  And although I’m reluctant to admit it, when my writing’s most serious an element of humor enters in.  Like a Rockwell painting.  He wished to be taken for a serious artist, but had a difficult time suppressing the irony of life itself.  I get that.  It’s just that if other people see what’s beneath the surface—what goes on behind that stone facade?—they will find a means of extorting it.  Best to be subtle.  Words can mean the opposite of what they say or can be literally true.  The shades between the extremes are endless.

Making Believe

Sanity is always temporary. I can say that because we all know that no one acts rationally all the time. Our brains evolved (or were created, if you roll that way) for the simple purpose of survival, not reason. Reasoning, no doubt, helps with survival, but so does feeling. Emotions may be harder to control, and they often take charge despite what we know to be true. When we do something in passion that we can’t justify, our logical brains have developed rationalization to explain it. I’ve been hearing a lot about rationalization lately. Many people who disagreed with just about everything that Trump said still voted for him. Their reasons are various shades of rationalization, but they generally come down to emotion. That’s not to say Hillary supporters didn’t also vote with their feelings. Her historical win of the popular vote demonstrates that very clearly. We didn’t want a demagogue, but we can rationalize our stupidity after the fact.

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I wonder if we haven’t entered an era of international madness. Brexit was an example of what happens when emotion trumps reason. As much as I like the idea of a Pirate Party, when it wins actual Icelandic elections one has to wonder what’s in those volcanic fumes. Talks are underway elsewhere about departing the European Union. Instead of working together it’s each man (literally) for himself. We used to think about politics and leave emotions for our personal lives. Mr. Spock, I’m sure, is somewhere shaking his head. “Illogical,” I can hear him saying.

As a creative person I value the emotional response. Who can say that falling in love is ever rational? There may have been a time when procreating enough to keep the species going may have applied, but we’ve far surpassed that goal and yet we keep on going. In fact, in much of life emotion is far more important that reason. The question, however, as to whether it makes for good government is one with a clear and salient answer. We must elect with our heads, not our hearts. Some will accuse me of playing favorites—after all I’m a bleeding heart liberal. But I’m writing this with reason on my side. Did I think that Ronald Reagan with his trickle-down oppression was a better, more rational leader than Walter Mondale? Have you ever listened to any of Reagan’s speeches? There’s a time—perhaps much time—for emotions to take control. Elections, however, are not one of those times. Anything beyond that is pure rationalization.

Thinking about Feeling

There’s a scene in Shrek where Lord Farquaad tells Princess Fiona “You don’t have to waste good manners on the ogre. It’s not like it has feelings.” That scene came to mind recently as I was pondering how we often use feelings—emotions—to claim superiority over others. During a course on Howard Thurman in seminary, we watched a video where he retold a story that appears in his autobiography With Head and Heart, where a young white girl was sticking an African American with pins because she believed they didn’t have feelings. Although it may be dangerous to attribute motive—let me call it interpretation then—Shrek is a movie about prejudice. Ogres are misunderstood. It’s a parable, if you will. Unfortunately there are people who still believe those not like themselves lack feelings.

This is a particularly disturbing idea for many reasons. Not only does it keep alive the unacceptable social situation where African Americans are shot when unarmed, and frequently in non-criminal situations, it perpetuates the idea that others are different in a way that makes them less than human. We can take this even further since one of the mainstays of science has been to deny feelings to animals, claiming that you need rationality to experience pain. Or at least suffering. Ironically, it’s the “reptilian brain” that provides us with emotions, and rationalists are quick to downplay emotions as a form of thinking. It’s easier just to kill a snake and ask questions later.

We deny others feelings as an excuse to mistreat them. Then we deny that feelings are important at all. Even Mr. Spock got angry once in a while. In a society that regiments an economic system that really benefits only a very few, we daily bask in the midst of this paradox. It’s clear that all it takes to have presidential aspirations threaten reality is money. Spend enough and anyone will believe whatever lies you happen to trumpet. After all, that feeling of superiority that fascism promotes is exactly the way to win a mass following. You’ll have to excuse me if I’m feeling just a bit out of sorts. It’s only a feeling, and it will pass. Unless we pay close attention to our emotions, however, we will never realize justice. We know that Shrek does indeed have feelings. It’s just that we’ve forgotten how to interpret parables.

Think about it.

Think about it.

True Fiction

PassionMusesIn this world of rational materialism, people still turn to fiction. Some prefer it in the form of movies, television, or internet, but those of us “old school” like our fiction in print. No matter how we take it, fiction appeals to that part of us that makes us human—our range of emotions. This became clear to me in The Passionate Muse: Exploring Emotion in Stories. As a typical human, I spend a good part of my mental energy trying to make sense of things. Our social existence can be quite confusing and isn’t always rational. If you doubt this, read the headlines. Keith Oatley offers insight into psychology, or mental life in general, with this little book. We read stories because we like to find ourselves caught up in emotions. Successful writers can draw us into the fictional world not with reason, but with feeling. We seek emotional satisfaction and what we can’t do in fact, we can in fiction.

This aspect of human existence also plays into religious texts. Those of us raised to read sacred texts literally lose a lot of what they have to offer. Fact may tell us what to believe, but fiction helps us learn to feel. Thinking, as many cognitive scientists now believe, incorporates both rational and emotional information. Reality, in other words, isn’t purely reasonable. We interpret things. We interpret with our guts as much as with our heads. This combination of different ways of understanding the world—and the society—around us blends into a distinctly human milieu. We can’t reason our way out of emotions. They are who we are.

While teaching full-time I found myself turning to novels to recover from all the research I was doing. Reading only non-fiction (which, I suppose, is what The Passionate Muse might be) can lead to a lopsided view of life. I’ve had colleagues tell me that fiction is for others—non-academics, those who don’t have the weight of the intellectual world upon their shoulders all the time. Interestingly, since I’ve allowed myself to read more fiction I’ve discovered that the wisdom embedded in stories often surpasses that of erudite monographs. Scholarly literature, of course, has its place. Still, it leaves room on the plate for desert as well. Oatley builds his academic study around a fictional story he wrote to show what he wanted to tell. The rational meets the imaginative. I feel more human already.

Apostle

Apostleposter

I was teaching in a seminary when Robert Duvall’s The Apostle came out. Seeing the favorable reviews, I put it on my wish-list and somehow it never managed to rise to the top. Perhaps it was because I worked at a religious institution 24/7. Seeing a movie about church felt almost superfluous. Many years on now, my wife bought me the DVD (yes, we’re old-fashioned) and we finally sat down to watch it. I realized, as the preaching started, that I didn’t know what to expect. I assumed that Sonny would be a typical Elmer Gantry-type character, cynical and self-centered, but as I kept waiting for the sneering commentary to come, it never did. The movie didn’t valorize Sonny either—he is a flawed preacher who commits murder out of jealousy and flees the state to start a life elsewhere. Landing in rural Louisiana, he begins building a life doing what he does best—preaching. The local people benefit from his presence, so I was waiting for the cracks to appear, but they never did. The movie is amazingly respectful of Holiness, or Pentecostal religion. It left me quite thoughtful.

Having grown up in a non-denominational setting, the scene of the altar call was one that was familiar to me. Fiery sermons were also something I’d seen before. Theological education, of course, causes one to question much of this, which is why many Fundamentalist churches do not hire seminary graduates to be their clergy. Study tends to refine that ability to let go and have emotion become the substance of the service. Recalling my own childhood, steeped in the Bible and fervent fear of Hell, church was primarily an emotional catharsis for me, not an intellectual enterprise. The problem for me was that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. That’s where it often starts to crumble for those who want to understand emotion-driven religion. It doesn’t mix well with rationality.

The Apostle is made all the more powerful for its use of actual Holiness preachers in the movie. When they’re preaching, they’re not acting. They’re preaching on film. Part of the draw, I suppose, for many viewers is that this is a foreign world. Mainstream church services are often subdued, perhaps even dour, by comparison. They are, however, more rationally driven. The substance of any mainstream liturgy derives in some form from Catholicism. Pentecostalism dismisses all of that, retaining the music and the sermon and the Bible. Otherwise, they are practically different species. The storyline of the movie isn’t anything grand. Preacher commits crime, repents, gets caught. Still, there’s an authenticity to it that makes it compelling. No Jim Jones here. No David Koresh. Just a man, in many ways typical, trying to make his way in the world in the only way he knows how. And that can be inspirational.

Evolution’s Snapshots

DarwinsCameraIn America’s political climate any book about Darwin takes on a religious cast. As strange as it may seem, an odd equation exists between Darwin, evolution, creation, and the Bible. We forget that Darwin was a retiring man with many interests and a very keen intellect. Erstwhile groomed for the clergy, he lived at a time when much of the world was known really only to the local inhabitants, and observations were still mostly made by the human eye in person. So it was that as photography developed, a new avenue into science opened up. Darwin’s Camera, by Phillip Prodger, is a rare look into, as the subtitle says, Art and Photography in the Theory of Evolution. Darwin wrote several books. Among them was The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. This book was among the first scientific tomes published with photographic evidence to illustrate, if not prove, the points being made. Prodger takes us through the process by which Darwin procured and commissioned his photographs for the book and reveals some deeper truths about his life.

Interestingly, one of the sources of early photos was asylums. There was a belief, apparently, that photographs might be used diagnostically. One of the emotions that was presented to Darwin for his consideration was religious rapture. (Not that I can make any great claims here, but having experienced at least mild versions of such states—whatever their physiological cause—I know that they are powerful.) The observation comes through that religious rapture is difficult to distinguish from insanity, on the face of it. This may sound like an anti-religious slur, but it’s not. Ask around the mystics and you’ll see what I mean. Sanity has its uses, to be sure, but mysticism is all about letting go.

The only real religion in this book comes in the confrontations to Darwin’s evolutionary theory. Prodger does, however, briefly delve into Darwin’s late (and brief) concern about spirit photography. Shortly after cameras were developed, photographic tricks evolved. The Victorians, as we all know, had a very palpable sense of death’s nearness. It is no accident that Spiritualism developed during this time period when a reasonable lifespan was anything but assured. Spirit photographers claimed to capture ghosts of the dead revisiting the living. Darwin, who’d lost a beloved daughter prematurely, knew what grief was. He did not, however, allow it to interfere with his critical thinking. Photographs could be used to prove a point, but they could also be used to make a false claim. Darwin’s success in his book on emotions falls somewhere in the middle. He did have to have some staged shots to illustrate his point. Ever the gentleman, however, Darwin’s decisions were made to enlighten, not to deceive. One wonders whether creationism can even remotely make that same claim.

Real Life

WiredForStoryThe brain, it seems to me, holds all of the cards. After all, what we call “reality” is actually a perception of what’s “really” there mediated by our brains. Philosophers and scientists have long warned us that direct participation with the universe is a figment of the, um, brain. This kind of thinking may have led me to trouble in certain jobs I’ve held, but there is no escaping it, unless we posit that there is another thinking center in the body. If there is, it must be invisible. As a dabbler in the literary arts, I couldn’t therefore pass up Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story. The premise spawns one of those “aha” moments so large that you wonder why nobody had tripped upon it before: brain science can reveal what makes a good story. For example, were I smarter, I would’ve begun with that wonderfully witty story told by Uncle Frank that kept us engrossed as kids, and left us roaring with leonine laughter. Only I don’t have an Uncle Frank, and the stories I grew up with were of the written species.

Cron, however, reminds us of a very important point: if it weren’t for feeling, thought would not be possible. This isn’t telling tales out of school. Even the most Spock-like rationalists know it’s true: emotions are essential to the thought process. Even the most proficient of thinkers can be stopped by the vague, “I don’t feel like—” (fill in the blank). To think well, we must feel that we can. When we greet someone we don’t lead with “how are you thinking?” but with “how are you feeling?” (often apocopated to “how are you?”). We interpret our world through a combination of reason and emotion. Both are necessary for survival. Think about it: does the world really make sense?

In writing, emotion plays an essential role. We lay aside the story that makes us feel nothing. Reductionistic materialists often espouse that getting down to the smallest piece of the smallest particle will eventually explain it all. The more spiritually inclined will ask them how it makes them feel. Emotion is the under-appreciated of these twins. While great ideas may come through in a novel (I can’t help but mention Moby Dick again), it is the feeling of the protagonist—the spiritual (call it what you will) struggle—that draws us in and keeps us reading. It may be secular or religious, but the realm of emotion reminds us that to be human is to feel. And if by chance you’re still reading this, I have a feeling that you might agree.

Credo Universitas

DeclineSecularUniversity“I am a Christian gentleman and I teach my course as a Christian gentleman.” The quote was made to me by a colleague at a state university, regarding a former professor of Hebrew Bible, or, in this instance, “Old Testament.” The idea rankled me a bit. You see, religion departments come under pretty constant attack for such things, since in the secular university—especially one that receives state funding—the disestablishment clause looms large. How can one simply bring one’s personal beliefs into the classroom as if normative? I suppose that’s why C. John Sommerville’s The Decline of the Secular University gave me pause. Sommerville, an emeritus professor of History at the University of Florida is no crackpot. He raises some major questions that universities, of all places, should be debating.

While Sommerville is not a scholar of religion per se, he has written about religion before, and he raises some vital questions regarding the secular enterprise. It should be no surprise that secularism can become a kind of religion, especially since the definition of “religion” is anything but fixed. We still don’t relally understand what religion is, except that every human seems to have it. Some call it rationalism or science, but it is essentially belief. None of us has direct access to reality as a Ding an sich, and we all choose to believe senses, reason, and tradition, to varying degrees. Our universities should teach us to be skeptical, but can they excise belief all together? To do so would be to reduce students (and that endangered breed, faculty) to sub-human.

What is it that makes the educated so afraid of belief? I suppose it must feel like weakness to a harsh rationality. Like the implacable Romans of celluloid fame, unmoved by human emotion. Mr. Spock in charge of the nursery. Religion is quite at home in the realm of emotion, and like it or not, humans cannot survive by reason alone. We need our feelings—survival instinct, by itself, is not always rational. As a society, however, we’ve downgraded religion to the point that universities have trouble taking it seriously. I’m sure it would open a few administrators’ eyes very wide to sit in on the religion classes I’ve taught at secular schools. Although most of the students are not majors, all, in some sense of the word, are believers. Sommerville’s book contains much that is challenging, but I think his thesis is absolutely correct: any institution that claims to be human, but removes the possibility of belief, is deluding itself and all its customers.

The Problem with Apocalypses

Over on The Daily Beast, Joe McLean points out “How the Tea Party’s Apocalyptic Politics Are Destroying the Republican Party.” I say good riddance. Let me explain. It’s not that I have a problem with apocalypses. (Zombie apocalypses are especially fun.) My problem is that the mythology of one religion endangers us all. This is not some leftist-leaning rant, or at least not a leftist-leaning rant that’s uninformed. I grew up in a very conservative, apocalyptic Christianity. I was looking for the end of the world before I considered a college major. Even my (limited) choice of classes in high school were determined by a kind of eschatological laissez faire: the world’s going to end any day now, so why plan for a career? I was a true believer. In my Christian college I majored in religion. If the end is near, it pays to be ready for it. I know this doctrine inside-out. If Christ is returning any day now (can’t you hear the hoof-beats?) then we should pillage this poor old earth for all its worth. That’s what it’s here for. Do we want him coming back and saying we’re poor stewards? Besides, if we can ramp up the crisis in the Middle East far enough, Jesus will have to return. Won’t he? And these are “rational” adults thinking this way.

There was likely a naive cynicism on the part of the Republican Party when it realized that aligning itself with what was considered the religious fringe would boost their numbers. After all, the fringe surrounds the whole of the cloth. Apocalyptic Christianity is very popular because it appeals directly to the emotions. Although our society believes the study of religion is pointless, those of us who’ve persisted have noticed a few things. The religions that are really taking off are the ones that appeal to the emotions. Many Spock-like scientists intone their message of materialism only in the face of massive crowds of true believers. Who do you think is likely to win out? We have had presidents in the Oval Office who believed that triggering the apocalypse was a presidential prerogative. When society finally shook off its goofy grin and slowly pressed the electoral brakes, the Tea Party took off. Guess what? Apocalypses are all about destruction. If you invite apocalypticists to your party, the results are pretty predictable.

In the article McLean uses the word “zealot.” Rationalists might find the use of their dictionaries helpful here. Zealots do not respond to logic. Zealots are driven by emotion. Have you ever tried to argue with one? I have had years of experience teaching religion in a variety of classroom settings. Long ago I learned to lay down the sword when a zealot spoke up. Logic is not spoken here. The media, the scientific, the academic, they scratch their heads. How can any rational person believe this? The answer doesn’t require much effort to find. It might mean consulting someone who understands a bit about religion, though. Otherwise, the smart money is on stocking up on canned goods, gas masks, and a good supply of water. This could take a while.

Mary in the sky with circles, or the apocalypse?

Mary in the sky with circles, or the apocalypse?

Coexistence

Sometimes I think I’m a punching bag. Not uncommon among scholars of religion, I suppose. I have read my fair share of overt attacks on religion: Hitchens, Dawkins, and even Jillette, and sometimes limp out of the ring wondering why I even bother. Still, science doesn’t completely explain the universe I inhabit either. Thus is was with some glimmer of hope that I read a story in Monday’s Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “Does Religion Really Poison Everything?” There can be no doubt that religious behavior has a track record of some execrable atrocities—some very bad behavior has been engendered by fervent religious belief. At the same time, those who despise religion have a hard time explaining it. As the Chronicle piece points out, religion is likely an evolved trait. There is some survival value in it, otherwise it would, by natural selection, disappear. Religion is seldom a rational enterprise. That doesn’t mean that it can’t be rationally studied, but rather that religion is primarily experienced as an emotional phenomenon. We find ourselves motivated by feelings, although reason will often drive us to do things we don’t feel like (like going to work). And emotion is necessary to be truly human.

It is often difficult to respond to those who castigate religion as an evil or poison, not for lack of reason, but because of feelings. Having spent most of my life with religion, it is not surprising that attacks on it often leave me feeling ashamed. But ah, that is an emotional response! It seems rational on the surface, but really, shame and embarrassment are typical emotional responses. This is the realm of religion. Reason may indeed indicate with great accuracy the way the universe works—of this I have no doubts. At the same time, I’m not sure the entire universe is something that humans can adequately comprehend. I have a hard time remembering what’s on a short shopping list if I accidentally leave it at home. Our brains aren’t equipped to the task of comprehending universes. Feel overwhelmed when facing a physics test? That overwhelmed feeling is an emotional response. With considerable cheek, might I suggest it might even be a little bit religious?

The Chronicle is a high-profile source for academic rectitude. I am pleased to see Tom Bartlett pointing out that the line-drawing in the sand between religious Fundamentalists and pro-science New Atheists will not solve anything. Religion is often guilty as charged. It is not, however, pure evil. There is enough evidence out there to suggest that religion is a tremendous coping mechanism for billions of people. And coping is not a bad thing, all things considered. Wisdom that is often attributed to the Greeks suggests that “all things in moderation”—the golden mean as it’s known—is the way to human happiness and success. The idea is older than the Greeks, and indeed, can even be found in the Bible for those who are willing to look. One need not be religious to see that, like most human inventions, religion has both good and evil uses. Evolution gave us religion, and it gave us science. It also gave us brains divided down the middle and strong reasoning that must dance with creative emotion in a tango that frequently makes abrupt shifts of direction. Our job, as humans, is to learn the steps to the dance.

Different, but equal.

Living with Art

A day spent among art can be more spiritual than a month of Sundays. Few become rich by being artists—in fact the opposite is society’s expectation. The masterpieces artists leave behind then become among the most valuable of all human creations when their often tragic lives end and it is recognized that no more genius is forthcoming. As a lifelong dabbler in the arts, I know that nothing like a perturbed state of mind serves to bring about the pieces I like best. Seeing the art of others, however, is a deeply satisfying experience. In a pre-Mother’s Day celebration, we met friends yesterday to revisit Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, New Jersey. We’ve grown accustomed to gray skies this spring, so the fact that it was sunny and warm came almost as a divine sign that this was a day to spend outdoors among the artwork of both humans and nature.

As rational as we strive to be, emotion remains our main motive force. Psychologists and neuroscientists, approaching the human mind rationally, inevitably conclude that emotion and reason are hopelessly entangled in the psyche. Not only does this explain the persistent draw of art, but also of religion as well. If possible, pull back and try to listen to someone, anyone, describe their religion in rational terms. How quickly it breaks down! And yet, reactions against a purely scientific—and doubtlessly empirically correct—explanation of the origin and development of life on earth lead to very hostile reactions. For many such explanations are not emotionally satisfying. We need a little more magic in our imaginative diet. Art allows us to indulge without embarrassment in our need for emotional expression. In the art galleries I’ve seen, whether Edinburgh, London, Paris, New York, Milwaukee, Corning, or Hamilton, there have always been hundreds of others seeking something there as well.

What we are seeking can’t be purchased with money, and it can’t be grasped by greedy hands. It can only be held in receptive and hungry internal places—the space pre-scientific individuals called the soul. And there it will remain. The first time I saw the Mona Lisa and the statue of winged Nike will never leave me. Yesterday, wandering the acres of art called Grounds for Sculpture, once again artistic expression claimed another willing victim. In our money-fevered world where “real life” is squandered chasing material goods to outstrip everyone else, art, the spiritual quest, lies quietly awaiting the weekend. The time people value most. And those who spend that time among art will be the most blessed of all.

Random Science

Our world is defined by science. Empirical method demonstrates again and again and again that physical properties follow the same tired pattern without any divine intervention. Saturday was Rutgers Day. Instead of our usual visit to College Avenue to sample French cheeses, we went to the Busch Campus of science and engineering. There we were treated to a 90-minute physics lesson that consisted mostly of demonstrations for the kids with things blowing up, glowing, and being broken after being dipped in liquid nitrogen. Outside the building we watched a chaos pendulum which a grad student explained never followed a predictable pattern. Back in the day when I was subjected to religious rules stricter than any laws of physics at Nashotah House, I used to read about chaos theory. It is the most biblical of scientific ideas. As anyone who’s watched Jurassic Park knows, it means that ultimate predictability is futile. Well, there’s more to it than that, but I’m merely an amateur.

Returning home, I read an interview with Matthew Hutson, about his new book The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane. It is now on my wish-list, but I haven’t read it yet. Despite the fact that Hutson is an atheist, he recognizes that magical thinking is both healthy and unavoidable. A door creeps open for the scholar of religion here. We are able to see that non-rational thought is human, so very human. We don’t often think about how driven we are by our emotions. When we see a friend we ask, “what do you feel like doing today?”, not, “what do you think like doing?”. Visiting someone recovering from hard times we ask how s/he is feeling, not thinking. Emotion is, after all, built on the root of “motion”—it is our motivating factor. Seldom is it scientific.

Not to demean science. I have read science books and magazines on my own since I was a teenager. The truths that have been revealed through science are endlessly fascinating and pragmatic. They work in a way religions seldom do. Nevertheless, I became a scholar of ancient religions, studying them scientifically. In the Middle Ages it was said that philosophy was the handmaid to theology. Truth was revealed, not discovered. Reason, thankfully, began to show the way forward. The epithet Dark Ages gained currency for a reason. Science is our means of comprehending our universe, and yet, superstition is hardwired into our brains. I am glad for the scientific worldview even when the chaos pendulum still swings crazily, unpredictably before me. Seldom do those in my field get to consider themselves Renaissance women and men. The pendulum swings where it will.

George Ioannidis' chaos pendulum

Being Human

Within the first three pages, if you’re not mortally offended or inexplicably happy, you’re probably not an American.

Growing up with pets, I had a hard time understanding the hard and fast line drawn between animals and people. The failsafe fact used back then is that only people used tools. When we looked closer at animals we found that wasn’t quite true. Well then, only people have language. A large question mark has grown from that assertion too. The final fallback, the sine qua non was souls: only people have souls. It is also the safest of assertions, since it can be tested for neither people nor animals.

This way of thinking, according to Frans de Waal’s The Age of Empathy, arises from the western religious tradition—a religious tradition that grew up in relative isolation from other primates. Many world religions do not feel the necessity of making people absolutely different from our animal cousins. In Christianity at least, heaven itself rides on it. What are we so afraid of?

I posted, a couple years back, on Frans de Waal’s Our Inner Ape. Having just finished The Age of Empathy, I have reaffirmed my earlier accolades—he is one of the most sensible and important writers alive. Step by slow, evolutionary, cautious step, de Waal illustrates that one of the taboos of science—that animals don’t have emotion—is patently wrong. Not only do they experience emotion, but apes, cetaceans, and dogs at least, know empathy. Even scientists don’t like to admit this because science grew up in the shadow of the Judeo-Christian-Muslim worldview of human superiority.

But there’s even more at stake. As de Waal makes perfectly clear, the unbridled capitalism of the United States goes against nature. The unlimited acquisition of the vast majority of the resources by the few sets our primate sensibilities on end. Empathy, the ability to feel for another and take their perspective, is not only part of animals’ experience of the world, it is also a mandate of our religions. In order for society to survive, we must come to know this truth. Falsely applying Social Darwinism as factual, biological Darwinism, the few have taken more than either biology or religion permits.

The Age of Empathy should be on every school’s mandatory reading list and corporate climbers should learn that even selfishness has a very steep price tag. Not only for themselves, but for all of us.