“Terror attacks by Muslims in response to Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel”??? Those attacks are not by Muslims. They are by terror groups. They are not Muslim, any more than the Israeli solider who shot a Palestinian kid for throwing a rock is a representative of Judaism. Any more than a KKK member lynching a POC is a Christian. Any more than an Indian or Myanmari Nationalist killing a Muslim is a true Hindu or Buddhist. These religions all gave us moral codes, gave us techniques for reaching higher states of consciousness, gave stories of mythic proportions to guide us on our way. Not one of them advocates terror. These recent incidents are just the latest examples of the same old hijacking of religion by terrorists, and we in our ignorance are playing right into their hands. They want to divide and conquer people. They can only succeed if we fail to see these things for what they are.
Togetherness and Difference
A Homily for the Class of 2017
Justin C. Maaia
John 4:5-15, 19-26, 40-42:
So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’ So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.’
Good evening everyone! Please sit as you are able.
It is an honor and a pleasure to have this opportunity today. I get to take this ancient, sacred text and relate it to this wonderful, and also sacred, trailblazing Class of 2017. I promise you I am going to do that. But first, I think there is some translating to do. If you would bear with me, I want to walk you through my first few attempts to re-translate the opening lines of this story, to bring it up to date to our time and place:
1. First attempt: “A Yankees fan came into the local juice bar for a drink, and Jesus, donning his well-worn Red Sox cap, said to her, ‘Buy me a Smoothie, will ya?’”
2. Or: “Jesus, fresh from the NRA annual meeting, happened upon a delegate from the Democratic National Convention. He asked her for a sip from her Nalgene bottle…”
3. Or how about this one: “Jesus, an Israeli Jew, met a Palestinian woman at a grocery store near the Green Line in the West Bank. “Hey, could I trouble you for a drink?” he asked.
4. And one more: “A member of the rebel alliance came to Alderaan to refuel her ship. While there she was accosted by an ex-Storm Trooper named Jesus, who asked her to help him rescue his friend Po Dameron…”
Jesus is always surprising us with new ways to be in relationship, relationship with God and relationship with each other. We see that here with this interaction between Jesus, a Jewish man from Nazareth, and this person who is supposed to be radically other, a nameless Samaritan woman from Sychar.
Back in the First Century, the Jewish and Samaritan people were closely related, but diametrically opposed, groups. The Samaritans were descended from a group of Israelites in the northern part of the Kingdom of Israel who were left there while the Israelites in the south were conquered and exiled by the Babylonians. A hundred or so years later, the Persians defeated Babylon and allowed the exiles to return.
However, by that time, the two groups had diverged. The Israelites who had been exiled now called themselves “Jews” because they were mostly made up of people from the tribe of Judah. They claimed to be the true Israelites. They had endured the exile, and they had preserved the Torah, and they were the heirs of King David, who came from the southern city of Jerusalem. A group of northern Israelites, now called Samaritans, claimed that they were the more authentic Israelites, that they had remained on the land and had preserved a more original scripture, and that the Jewish people had been tainted by the influences of Babylon and Persia during their exile.
So, back in the First Century, a reference to a Jewish person and a Samaritan person would have evoked the kind of image we have of any two groups who are closely related but fight like cats and dogs. Brothers and sisters, Red Sox and Yankees, Pepsi drinkers and Coke drinkers, Vampires and Werewolves, Star Trek fans and Star Wars fans, DC comics vs. Marvel, the Washington and Dallas football teams, your high school teams and your rival high school’s teams, Democrats and Republicans, Israeli’s and Palestinian’s – have I succeeded in ruffling all of our feathers yet?
To most of us, it seems abhorrent to lump these supposedly binary opposites together. Similarly, Jewish persons and Samaritan persons would have seen each other as radically other, while to any outsider they would have appeared as close as can be. So why the division? Doesn’t this seem a bit silly? And yet, isn’t this what we ALL do, ALL THE TIME?
Think about the Protestants and Catholics in Britain and Ireland who have killed each other over the centuries. Not only are Protestants and Catholics both Christians of course, but in England and Ireland of all places, not only are these two groups both Christian, but they are both so similarly Christian. The Anglican church and the Catholic Church are barely distinguishable to an outsider. Even to an insider! How many Catholics have I met making a pilgrimage to this very Washington National (Protestant) Cathedral! My own catholic middle school was one of them.
And what about our political divisions. Liberals and Conservatives here fight like cats and dogs. And yet they both believe in first generation rights, in rights to life, liberty, and property, in democracy, in capitalism as the best economic system, in the individual as the basic political unit of humanity. They will have you believe they are as different as night and day. But if you plot American conservatives and liberals on the world spectrum of political philosophy, they are about as different as night and later that night.
And finally, since I have already opened a Pandora’s box, let’s look at men and women: Biologists, geneticists, neuroscientists will tell you we are over 99% the same. In fact, we share 50% of our DNA with bananas, 70% with slugs, and 98% with chimps! So male and female human beings are pretty darn close to one another, far less than 1% different. And yet, how much do we accentuate that 1%? We have created an entire set of social structures to accentuate this difference – clothing, hair styles, films, books, toys. Even schools, like this lauded all-girls institution.
In our story, Jesus cuts through all of these artificial differences. Jesus wants to show us what is really real. He doesn’t want to eliminate differences, mind you. He doesn’t try and get the Jews to be Samaritans or the Samaritans to be Jews. All of these superficial differences can remain, as long as we worship “in spirit and truth.” As long as we can keep ourselves centered in spirit and truth, the differences don’t matter anymore. Differences can and should still exist, but they don’t have to divide us. We can be in a relationship. Indeed, a relationship requires both of these things. Relationship requires difference and it requires togetherness. That is one of the messages this passage is revealing to us.
But I want to go against this message for a moment, so that we can think about another way this story might be relevant to us here today, as we celebrate the class of 2017. I want to accentuate the difference between men and women for a moment. And please know that I am using these terms fluidly, and in the sense in which we all have both manly and womanly aspects to us.
Let’s look at this story in the context of some of the other stories about Jesus that you may have heard here over the years. I am thankful to a friend of mine, Reverend James Lumsden, for pointing this out to me. Some of you may remember when Jesus met John the Baptist. John told one person, Andrew. And Andrew, he met Jesus and he went home and told his brother Peter—one person. And then there was Philip. Philip went home and also told one person. He brought Nathaniel into the mix. In all of these stories, the men who become the apostles, Jesus’ closest students, they all go off and tell one friend. Pretty good, right? But something special happened in the story we heard today. Jesus met a woman – a Samaritan woman no less—and what does she do? Does she go and tell some one about Jesus? NO! She goes and tells the whole village about him. And she brings Jesus to her village and, after a couple of days, her fellow Samaritans say to her “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.”
This story of a woman spreading the Good News to a whole village, this image is what gives me hope as you graduate in a couple of short days. I have seen the class of 2017 change NCS in immeasurable and invaluable ways. Particularly, you have instigated a change in the discourse we have about important issues here, both within the school and with our brother school. And there are countless ways you have influenced NCS, both big and small, individually and communally. I think you have found a lot of good news during these last four, six, or nine years here at NCS, and I know that you will all go out into the world and spread that good news to the whole village. Because like both Jesus and that nameless Samaritan woman at the well that day, you are trailblazers. Amen.
I know it’s kind of a throwback, but I want to ask…How many of you have seen the film “Freaky Friday?” If you haven’t seen it, it’s the story of a mother and daughter who don’t understand or get along with each other at all. And then, one evening while they are eating dinner at a Chinese restaurant, they open a magic fortune cookie that sets off an earthquake and causes them to switch bodies. For the rest of the film the mother and daughter have to live each other’s lives, with all of the hilarity and heartache that comes with this forced compassion.
Imagine what would happen if you had to trade places with one of your parents or guardians. Students, imagine what it would be like if you had to trade places with one of your teachers. Teachers, what would happen if you had to trade places with one of your students. Some teachers have actually done this recently, and they were horrified at how difficult the school day was! Of course, this wouldn’t shock any of you. You know what you have to go through on a daily basis.
This Freaky Friday experience helps me to understand the Christian story. Just as the mother and daughter needed to trade places in order to deepen their relationship, so does God have to trade places with us. Today we are celebrating the season of advent, which is the season of waiting for Christmas, the birth of Jesus, the person who Christians experience as the incarnation of God on earth. It is as if there was a magic fortune cookie that allowed God to switch bodies with one of us, so that God would know what we go through on a daily basis. The Christian story tells us that God came to us, became one of us. That is what the hymn we sang today is referring to. It is based on the words of the Jewish prophet Isaiah, who called Jesus “Emmanuel,” a Hebrew name which means “God with us.”
No matter what you have experienced in your life, I can almost guarantee there is a story of Jesus experiencing that same thing. The Bible tells stories of God becoming a baby, of God as a 12 year old who disobeys his parents because he thinks he knows better than they do, stories of God as a young adult who changes water into wine so that his friend’s wedding won’t be a disaster. There is a story of God anxiously waiting for a big decision to come in. One of my favorites is a story of God cooking breakfast for his friends. There are stories of God healing people, teaching people, fighting for social justice. There are stories of God suffering. Yes, the Christian story tells us, God suffers. The Christian Story, for me, is a story about how God makes the effort to reach out, to be with us, to be our ally, to suffer what we suffer and to enjoy what we enjoy. This God desperately wants to be in a relationship with us.
The story then puts the ball in our court. God has come to us, but how often do we go to God? If we’re going to have a relationship with God, it has to go both ways.
The philosopher Ken Wilber says we are stunted in our relationship with God. We have an idea of God as this being we can pray to when we need something and he will help us. Christian Smith called this the idea of God as a “divine butler.” Wilber calls this the toddler’s conception of God. Sigmund Freud saw this too: Our idea of God is like our vision of our parents when we were three years old: a parental figure who lays down the law and if we are good we will get rewarded and protected. Freud, like many atheists, rejected this conception of God. And if that is the idea of God that atheists are rejecting, then I am an atheist too. There has to be something more to God than this toddler’s idea.
How many of us have progressed past the books we read as a toddler? How many of us have progressed past the math we learned then? And the science? Is it because those books and that math and that science are wrong? No, not exactly. They’re not wrong, but they are incomplete. Thinking the sun rises and sets isn’t wrong—we see it happen every day—but we know there’s more. We see the sun rise but we also know the earth turns on its axis. The same with math. 1 +1 = 2 isn’t wrong, but there’s more. 2×2=4 isn’t wrong, but there’s more. “X equals negative-B plus-or-minus the square root of B-squared minus 4-a-c, all divided by 2a” isn’t wrong, but there’s more…
As a culture, we have progressed in our understanding of math and science and social studies and literature from our toddler days to our elementary school days to our lower and middle and upper school days, and beyond. But when it comes to God, many of us remain in that toddler stage. How are we to progress?
Fr. Thomas Keating says that we need to get past our ideas about God and have a relationship with God instead. And just like any relationship, we need to put the time in.
Many of us come to cathedral or chapel or church or synagogue or mosque every week and we say “Hi” to God. “Hi God.” The Next week: “Hi God.” And the next week: “Hi God.” But we all know what happens when we meet someone and we see them in the hall every day and we say, “Hi.” At first it’s nice. And then it becomes a little awkward. And then we just smile. And finally we stop saying “Hi” at all. This is what Keating calls an acquaintance. We need to move past the acquaintanceship stage and into a true friendship.
I have a teacher (and now friend) who used to tell me he would make a hot date with God. Think about that: When you have a hot date, you don’t miss it, for anything. And you look forward to it. You might even be a little bit nervous, but also excited. This is a relationship with God that I don’t think many of us can imagine, but it’s possible
So I would like us to use this Christmas to renew or deepen our relationship with God, or whatever is our ultimate concern. Whether your God is Jesus, or Adonai, or Allah, or Brahman, or the Bodhisattva of Compassion, or the Buddha within, or simply humanity itself, this can be a chance to connect more deeply with this person.
The question is, “How do we take this relationship with God to the next level? How do we become friends with God?” Well, the same way we become friends with anyone. We have to say “Hi,” but we also have to invite God over for dinner. To the gym. To jam with us on the drums. To go for a walk. We have to talk to God, more than just saying “Hi.” And we also have to listen. How do we do that? It’s really about making a hot date with your spiritual practice. Make a hot date with your prayer mat, your meditation cushion, your Shabbat table, your chanting beads, your community service, your chapel and cathedral services.
And this is where I think the gospel is not only a story about how God came to us; it’s a story about how we can go to God.
We can meet God by doing any of the things Jesus did:
By praying, by meditating, by chanting scriptures,
By serving each other,
Healing each other,
Listening to each other,
By protesting in righteous anger together
By celebrating weddings and funerals together
By breaking bread with our friends
And with our enemies, together.
I am thankful we get to do that spiritual practice together here, today.
I know you are not racists, bigots, sexists, misogynists, or homophobes. But I would like you to know why so many of your fellow Americans are upset with you. I don’t think most people can hear this message above the din of protest and anger, as righteous as they are, and so I am hoping you might hear it in a letter coming from a friend and family member who has always appreciated you and your views and who has spent a lot of time over the past year talking to people on both sides of the aisle.
Many of you have told me that you don’t like the president elect’s rhetoric, that you don’t approve of his sexist locker room talk, his culturally insensitive statements, or his potentially discriminatory policies. “But,” you said, “We can’t have four more years of Democrat rule. We can’t stand for Hillary’s dishonesty. We need to repeal Obamacare. We need to lower taxes. We need to dismantle business regulations.” These things are each valid in their own way. But what you need to recognize is the inherent message this line of reasoning contains for so many Americans. It may not be the message you intended, but it is the message they heard nonetheless. To women, blacks, Hispanics, gays, and their allies, this line of reasoning sounded like this: “Tax breaks, smaller government, and deregulation are more important than racism, bigotry, sexism, misogyny, and homophobia.” They heard, “Your right to be spoken to and spoken about with respect and dignity is subordinate to my economic and political preferences.” They heard, “Your human rights don’t matter as much as my political views.”
That is the message these Americans heard, and, if you were placed in such a threatened position by these issues as they were, I am certain that is the only sound you would have been able to hear, too. If I said to you, “Here is $500, you filthy pig,” I am sure you would take that $500 and shove it down my throat. You wouldn’t want it. Neither would anyone else.
So now, as you call for unity and for us to be one United States, please try to understand and be sympathetic to those Americans who had such a crushing message delivered to them by their fellow Americans. Hillary supporters are not upset because they won’t be getting Obamacare, or because they are going to miss their government handouts, or because of any of the things many of my Republican friends have attributed to them. They are upset because their human dignity was placed second.
Looking ahead, this is what you need to know if you truly want us to be one people and one nation. You need to understand what your fellow Americans heard, even if it was not what you intended. Racism, bigotry, sexism, misogyny, and homophobia are not options to be placed on a sliding scale of priorities. Human rights must be a non-negotiable underlying condition of all of the other work that we do. Can you prove to your fellow Americans that this is the condition of your hearts? That is the task our president elect’s rhetoric has set before you for the next four years.
Your Friend, Family Member, and Fellow American,
P.S. Please understand that I was not trying to represent your position as you meant it, but rather as it was heard by many minority and underprivileged persons. After all, I know you are not racists, bigots, sexists, misogynists, or homophobes…
When you go out into the world, especially the academic world, you will undoubtedly be confronted by something called “reductionism.” Reductionism is when we reduce something to some other thing. It is when we analyze a whole into its parts and then assert that the whole is equal to one of those parts.
For example, when you say you are in love, the reductionist says, “What you call love is actually the experience of endorphins and other biochemicals produced by your body in response to the physical—visual and/or auditory and/or pheromonal—presence of a possible mate.”
“But I’m in love,” you say. “I want to spend the rest of my life with this person!”
“Yes, but what you call ‘love’ is just the endorphin experience I just described, coupled with feelings of love and care that have evolved because of the evolutionary dividend of ensuring that your offspring will survive the harsh world due to the aid and protection of two parental figures.”
“I guess you’ve never been in love!” you reply, exasperated.
The problem is not that the reductionist’s accounts aren’t true, but that they are incomplete. The reductionist almost always become so excited about the fruitfulness of his reductionist theory that he forgets that it is just one aspect of the thing at hand. He becomes blind to the truth of the whole and becomes enraptured with his own little theory. This is easy to do in the case of intangible things like “love.” It is more difficult the more concrete and undeniable the thing in question is, such as when you see your reductionist friend outside after class, enjoying an apple.
“Wow, this apple is delicious!” your reductionist friend says. You decide to have some fun:
“You know, what you are calling a delicious apple is merely the mind’s integration of biochemical responses produced by the malic acid of the apple triggering taste receptors in the mouth, causing the evolutionarily developed habit of salivating, chewing, and swallowing in order to increase caloric intake proportionate to metabolism.”
“You’re a jerk,” your reductionist friend replies.
The reason for your reductionist friend’s anger is that he knows you have called him out on the pitfall of his worldview. You are exposing the fact that if we want to be reductionist in our view of the world, then we have to be reductionist in our view of the whole world. But reductionists tend to reduce only the things they want to reduce. If we saw this conversation continue, we would probably hear you say “What? Isn’t my reduction of your apple the same as your reduction of my being in love?” And we would probably here your friend reply that they are not the same, because the apple is somehow more real than love.
The problem with this reductionist view is that what are allowed to count as “real” are only those things that have objective reality. Love is not real because it is highly subjective and so we call it an epiphenomenon that can be reduced to endorphins and pheromones etc. Apples, on the other hand, are real because we can all see them and feel them and touch them and eat them. While we may all disagree on the merits of the taste of an apple, none of us can disagree that the apple exists.
This view of what counts as real and what does not is the product of what John Clayton called the “Enlightenment Project,” that collective endeavor that took place beginning in the 16th century in Europe in which intellectuals decided that what counts as knowledge is only that which can be established by a combination of firsthand experience and reason, without recourse to any kind of tradition, authority, subjectivity, or emotion. It is this narrow prescription of knowledge that presumably allowed us to break free from the intellectually repressive and human rights-oppressive bonds of religion and allowed us to study the world in such a way that has yielded us all the wonders of modern science and technology.
Unfortunately, the Enlightenment worldview reduced religion to only one aspect of itself (morality) and undermined any claim it may have had to other truths. I speak in the past tense, but this is still the position of religion in much of academia and other public intellectual spheres. I am thankful that after seeking out places to study religion in graduate school, I discovered that there are an increasing number of schools and departments who contain both reductionist and nonreductionist thinkers. These institutions, too, are largely the product of the Enlightenment, and so I don’t want to beat up on the Enlightenment too much. As Clayton once said to me, “The fact that we are able to be here critiquing the Enlightenment Project in a safe, legally protected space is due to the Enlightenment Project!”
Many post-Enlightenment thinkers critiqued religion. They saw that there were many religions with many diverse and conflicting belief and practices. This meant that religion must be subjective and therefore relative, and so not worthy as a source of knowledge or wisdom. These thinkers looked past the subjective aspects of religion and studied only what they had in common, what was objective. Initially this meant the golden rule, which is present in all the major religions. Later, theorists focused on religions’ institutionalized means of social control, and so reduced religion to that. Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud are the examples par excellence.
In this reductive view, religion was seen as the enemy of scientific knowledge and of human rights. But we have forgotten—or we never knew—that religion also made space for these same developments. Medieval Islam, for example, saw the world as the “Cosmic Qur’an” or revelation of God, and so studying it was seen as a sacred duty revealing to us aspects of God. This is why so many scientific and mathematical discoveries were made in the Islamic world during that time. On the human rights side of things, we could look back even further within Islam to Muhammad’s revolutionary elevation of the status of women and orphans in the extremely oppressive culture out of which he sprang in the sixth century CE. Or we could note the Buddha’s rejection of caste and gender differences in India way back in the sixth century BCE. Or, more recently, the inspiration toward economic and political revolution that Christianity provided in Central and South America in the twentieth century.
For all of the insights reductionists have given us into religion (for they have – their insights are not false, but only incomplete), they have mostly been unable to see religions in all their aspects. Scientifically, we have a duty to study those aspects as well. Even when someone like Jonathan Haidt studies one of the common positive outcomes of religion as he does in his illuminating book The Righteous Mind, the problem is that is it still remains a reductionist account. Religion becomes a useful adaptation that creates social cohesion and so has the evolutionary payoff of helping us to work together and survive the harsh world. Can that really be it?
You might be wondering if there is a piece of religion that resists reductionism. If scholars have studied the negative and now the positive and have found reductionist theories in both areas, then is there anything left? The answer can be found in an important book of which too many people are ignorant. It is The Two Sources of Morality and Religion by Henri Bergson. Bergson acknowledges the social-control and cohesion aspects of religion and the legitimacy of the critiques of those aspects. But he points out that there is another source of religion and morality, the individual, subjective experiences of individuals. Sure there is the Moses who hands down the 613 laws to the people. But there is also the Moses who stands dumbfounded and in awe of God’s presence at the burning bush. There is the Muhammad who provides Muslims with guidance for almost every major and minor social interaction one can think of, but there is also the Muhammad that was comforted by God’s words to him, that “wherever you experience hardship, this will be followed by ease.” And who could possibly ignore the Buddha’s tremendous introspective insights into the nature of consciousness and reduce him to merely a social reformer?
In academia, there are some who felt there was wisdom and value to be found by reaching back into religious traditions. People like Mircea Eliade and Huston Smith, while respected in academic and in popular circles, were sometimes labeled “traditionalist” or “conservative,” with all of the pejorative connotations that those terms held for those who saw progress as possible only within the confines of the secular trajectory of the Enlightenment Project. However, I would argue that these thinkers were the true progressives, the ones who first rediscovered value in beliefs, practices, and narratives other than their own, who insisted on the value of pluralism, and who saw that diversity is a prerequisite of intellectual, emotional, psychological, and spiritual growth. I use past tense here because it is my (slightly overly optimistic) view that we are beyond the narrow Enlightenment Project view of the world and of religion. I see a re-appreciation of religions and the religious in academia, in spite of the fact that our world is still plagued by the negative as well as positive experiences of this phenomenon.
Do scholars ever transcend the reductive tendency? There are many who have. There are those like Paul Tillich, who are scholars who happen to also be religious, and so they use scholarship to further their religious efforts. There are those like Carl Jung, who saw scholarship as a way of opening up deeper understandings of the spiritual truths of the universe, finding in the common themes and structures of religion a human path that transcends any one particular religion. There are natural scientists like Andrew Newberg who, while using fMRI scans to illuminate the neurological aspect of human experience, know that this is just one aspect of that experience and that we must guard against reducing any of life to this one measureable picture of it. And there are those like Ninian Smart, who emphasize the value of all studies in trying to grasp something that is too huge to ever be fully comprehended even by all lenses, let alone by any one.
And, more generally, there are the writers and poets and artists and musicians who daily do justice and reverence to the particular, the subjective, the mystical. These genres of creativity are more naturally inclined to this (someone once defined the artist as one who makes us notice the universal in the particular), but I find also that it is especially the voices of minority and underprivileged persons who have aided all of us in resisting the tyranny of reductionism (for we are all influenced by it, as it is the dominant narrative). People like Alice Walker and Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman—it is their very underprivileged positions that give them a privileged view from which to break free of the dominant trends of the mainstream. To them we are thankful, as well as to the voices of any worldview different from our own, for they can all help us to see outside of our own boxes. That is, so long as we translate and interpret them with integrity, and not just with an eye to what we want to find confirmed in them.
I should also point out that we are all reductionists in a sense. Any time we analyze a phenomenon and attempt to explain it in terms of something else—a model, or an image, or a series of concepts—we are reducing things. Basically, we are reductionists whenever we open our mouths! Whenever we say that something “is” something else. I think this reductionism is okay and even necessary. Or perhaps it is not necessary, but it is not necessarily destructive. A music scholar might analyze a John Coltrane recording to find the scales and modes and chord substitutions Trane used in his saxophone solo, but this does not mean she loses the power and magic of the experience of the music, or thinks that she can just reduce it to those notes. But so much of our discourse is reductive and analytical that we must be on guard about what the Buddhist Lankavatara Sutra describes as “mistaking the finger pointing at the moon for the moon.” The only way to avoid this is through using language in an apophatic (“speaking away”) way, insisting that your listener must experience the thing for him or herself, with no delusions that what is being said is saying something in itself or captures the experience of something else.
And so, all of you mystics—and we are all mystics according to the reductionist. At least any of you who have seen God, or felt the oneness of all things, or who have been in love, or who have enjoyed an apple—consider yourselves forewarned of the reductionist voices you will encounter in your future endeavors to make sense of the world. Recognize that they have important perspectives to offer. Finally, know that their reign has ended, and that their voice can exist only as one among many ways of seeing and being in the world.
I keep seeing this bumper sticker that says, “The last time we mixed politics with religion, people got burned at the stake.” But I am pretty sure the last time we mixed politics with religion was when Gandhi freed India from the British with his satyagraha movement. Of course, there was also the time Reverend Martin Luther King, jr., Rosa Parks, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel mixed politics with religion to fight for civil rights in the United States. But then I remember more recently Father Gustavo Gutierrez and Bishop Oscar Romero mixing politics with religion in their service to the oppressed masses in the resistance of corrupt totalitarian regimes in Central and South America. So the bumper sticker is partially right: People did get burned at the stake; the problem is that it was the time before the time before the time before the last time we mixed politics with religion.
Two of the United States’ most enduring and influential cultural products, known and respected worldwide, and yet in my experience scarcely known by our students upon graduation are:
1. The philosophical tradition know as Pragmatism
The latter’s omission is especially remiss given that it was and is created largely by minority groups and their allies. We must better represent these two traditions in our high school curricula.
(So much of this is stolen from or inspired by Steve Antil, Peg Downing, the general energy of all the St. Joseph Central High School community, and my family and friends. If you like it, thank them for the message. If not, you can blame me for the packaging!)
We are gathered here together during the season of Advent, in which Christians prepare for the coming of Jesus on the holiday known as Christmas. There is a philosophy in Christianity called “Neoplatonism” (actually, it is a philosophy found in Judaism and Islam as well) that may be helpful for understanding Christmas. I won’t get into all the details, but basically Neoplatonism holds that God is superabundant, so full of love and goodness and beauty that God overflowed God’s self and that is how the universe came to be. Some Christian thinkers used this as a way to understand the significance of Jesus, that God was so overflowing with love for the world that God spilled over into the world, becoming a person like you and me. This might be a helpful image of the Christmas story, a story of the overflowing abundance of God’s love and goodness and beauty.
I want to talk today about abundance. Not because I live this way all the time, but because I struggle to live this way. Abundance might seem like a strange thing to talk about in light of all the tragedy we are experiencing in our world. But for me, the big tragedies in the world are not special. I am not going to minimize them, but I am going to recast them in this way: The major tragedies are reminders to us of all the suffering that is going on in the world all the time. The suffering of even one starving child is unconscionable to me. Irreconcilable with my sense of what the world should be or could be. But the problem of suffering is more than that, more, even, than all the starving children of the world. What about the toddler out front of Jettie’s ice cream shop, who licked her ice cream cone and it toppled over onto the ground? She is sitting out there, wailing and screaming because her ice cream is on the side walk. This is a major tragedy, at least to that little girl. We may be tempted to compare her suffering to life’s “real” problems and then to laugh it off, but who are we to diminish the suffering of another human being? Viktor Frankl said that suffering is like a gas; it expands to fill whatever container it is in.
Something strange happened to me on the way to work today. I was driving my usual route to work and I came to a four way stop. And, in typical fashion, a person who came to the intersection after me neglected to stop and then took his turn ahead of me. I am sure all of you have witnessed something like this. That’s when something snapped in me. I was so fed up with the discourteous habits of DC drivers that I let him have it.
When I say “I let him have it,” I mean that I let him have the turn. Of course, he was going to take it anyway! But something shifted in me, and I realized that if I let him have it, then he can’t take it from me. If I stop thinking of it as “MY turn,” then it becomes impossible for him to steal it. So I said to him, in my mind, “Yes, here, you go first.”
How was this small miracle able to happen in my life? I think it was in response to a story that came out of France two weeks ago. As you know, terrorists in France killed one hundred and thirty people, injured hundreds more, and left huge holes in the lives of countless friends and relatives. A 35 year-old man named Antione Leiris lost his wife, leaving him to be a single dad to his one year old son. This is an excerpt from what he posted to Facebook, which has since gone viral:
“Friday night you took away the life of an exceptional human being, the love of my life, the mother of my son, but you will not have my hatred.”
“I saw her and I felt I had to force myself to write what I wrote — I didn’t have a choice if I wanted my son to grow up as a human being who is open to the world around him, like his mother, to grow up as a person who will love what she loved: literature, culture, music, cinema, pictures.
“If I had given in to hatred, he might grow up to do the same, and then I would have brought up a person who was just like the terrorists.
“If we stand free, if we stand here with a zest for life, with happiness … then [the terrorists] don’t win.”
Another terror survivor named Viktor Frankl exhibited this attitude as well. Frankl was a psychiatrist who survived a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. What he found there surprised both him and the other prisoners of the camp. They were emaciated, starving, trudging through the snow to do manual labor all day with no food. They had lost everything, including their family and friends. And yet, to their surprise, they would sometimes look up and see the sun shining through the trees or sparkling on the early morning snow, and they would stand there, dumbstruck, in awe of the beauty and goodness of the earth.
Frankl said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
These two people were able to separate the horror that was being done to them from the ultimate goodness and abundance of life. This is what I want us to think about today: Living out of an attitude of abundance rather than scarcity.
How are people able to make this choice, even in the worst circumstances? What makes the difference?
I believe we can see something similar in the stories we heard a moment ago. In the Book of Samuel, the ancient Hebrews were facing an unstoppable giant named Goliath. All the great Hebrew warriors said “Look at how big Goliath is! We could never hit him!” Then Little David came along and said “Look at how big he is – how could I miss?”
The same thing happened to Jesus in the Gospel. Crowds of people were hungry and tired and irritable, and the disciples wanted to turn away with their few loaves and fish. But Jesus said, “Give them to me!” and started passing them around. Before you knew it, everyone had eaten their fill and there was more to spare.
There are many miracles described here today: defeating the giant, feeding the multitudes, conquering terrorism, surviving the Nazis. And yes, maintaining sanity in rush hour traffic. We are good at telling stories about miracles. But we don’t spend so much time on how they happen. Are they just a mystery? Or can we perform them ourselves, or at least be open to them. I think we can, and I believe it has something to do with a shift in attitude, what I am calling an attitude of abundance.
This abundance has been called the power of positive thinking. But some people call it faith. I don’t think they are very different. I know people who have mastered the miracle of positive thinking without a belief in God. But I also know that it can be helpful to have that belief. It might be easier to be positive if you have this belief in a God who will ensure a positive outcome.
We are so often confronted with images and messages of the scarcity of our existence. That there isn’t enough money, food, energy, or clean water. But this is false. There is always more money, more than enough food, energy, and water. We have the potential to grow enough food to feed everyone on this earth, several times over. It has been often proven that hunger is not a problem of resources, it is a problem of will power. The same goes for water, and energy, and money. I hear a lot of talk about the growing world population. But very few people point out that that number will top off at a certain point, and then it will begin to recede.
This attitude of scarcity, of only telling half the story, affects our daily lives. When we see our friend get an “A”, we think “She took my A!” We forget that there are an abundance of A’s, and that our friend just proved to us that they can, indeed, be earned. And when our friend gets into a college, we think “She took my spot!” But we forget that sometimes a school accepts a whole cohort of students from one school, as a prestigious school did a couple of years ago here at NCS. Those five students got into their school as a team, not as individuals. The university didn’t say “We can only take one of these girls; they said “Look at how awesome these five girls are! We don’t just want to pluck the best one out of the group. We want that whole group to come here and continue their collaborative success.
I had a principal named Peg Downing who used a basketball analogy with me once, to point out our interconnectedness. She told me, “You know, it isn’t the team with the best starting five who wins the championship.” “How is that?” I said? She replied, “It is the team with the best five players on the bench.” “The benchwarmers?” I asked, “What do they have to do with the championship?” She replied, “The team with the best five players on the bench will always win, because it is against those bench warmers that the starting five play against day-in and day-out in practice. So the starting five is only as good as those they practice with.”
That is why when a team wins a championship, it is the whole team who gets to celebrate. It’s not just the Most Valuable Player, or the starting five. Even the players who never play one minute of a game are a part of that championship.
It’s the same thing here. For those of you who don’t know it yet, at the end of the year here at NCS, we take the flag off the flag pole and we award it to the student with the highest grade point average. But this flag really belongs to all of us. This is not to take away from all the hard work the flag winner did. She earned her distinction. But she also became so good within the environment of teamwork and competition here at NCS, sparring and scrimmaging with all of you who surround her.
Living out of a sense of abundance doesn’t mean we live in denial. We still acknowledge when things are sad, tragic, lousy. We need to see the sad stuff, because that is the occasion for turning it around.
Living out of a sense of abundance doesn’t mean you don’t admit when you’re beat. I know a 92 year old woman who just started attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Most people would say, “Why bother?” This woman has a different idea. She knows she is at the end of her life, but she wants to live out that end in a dignified way, free of her addiction. Positive thinking isn’t about denial of suffering or death. It’s about how we approach suffering and death. “The last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
I would like us to be defiant in our sense of abundance. We should provoke each other with our positive thinking.
So when you get a “C” in Math and your friend gets a “B,” don’t despair. Well, you can despair for one minute, but then you should smile. Smile because you know now who to go and ask for help. Ask your fellow student if you can study with her. You might even make a friend.
And teammates: when your teammate scores a goal, don’t be jealous, as if there were only so many goals to go around. Even if the enemy scores a goal, be happy for them. And then go and score two goals. There are always more goals to be scored.
I am very serious when I place these small daily moments on the same level as huge, life-changing experiences. Viktor Frankl also noted the relativity of suffering. It is all the same. He said that before the Holocaust, a toothache was the worst tragedy in his life. Then the Holocaust happened, and toothaches were the least of his problems. But then, after the holocaust, a toothache was the worst tragedy in his life again. When we triumph over any suffering, big or small, catastrophic or miniscule, it is a victory of the same magnitude.
Mel brooks said it just as well: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger; Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” It’s all about perspective.
I want to leave you with an image of abundance. Let’s close our eyes and picture ourselves at the age of three or four. You wake up before anyone else in the house. You creep downstairs to watch cartoons, and a minute later you get hungry. You run to the kitchen, your feet slapping against the floor the way little kids’ feet do. You spy the cookie jar on the counter, so you grab a chair from the table, push it all the way to the counter, climb up, pull the jar toward you, lift the lid, and then…
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” comes the booming voice from your mother, who has just come down the stairs. “You can’t have cookies for breakfast!”
Now rewind the video a minute. You wake up, you go downstairs. You spy the cookie jar, and so you drag a chair across the kitchen. You climb up, pull the jar toward you, lift the lid, and then you hear a whispering voice. It’s grandma…
“Hey kid! Grab one for me while you’re in there, will you?
Like that grandmother, let’s live our lives out of a deep abiding sense of abundance. Let’s keep our eyes peeled for ways in which we can make this shift in attitude, whether it is in school, on the playing field, in traffic, or in any part of our lives. I think the season of Advent, of preparation for an outpouring of abundance, is a perfect time to practice just that.
Nowhere in the Koran does it say that girls should not be educated;
Nowhere in the Koran does it say that a man should throw a bucket of acid on the face of his daughter if she disrespects her family’s reputation;
Nowhere in the Koran does it say that we should shoot a girl who stands up for the rights of her fellow women;
Nowhere does it say in the Koran that if you spill the blood of innocent people that you will be rewarded in heaven with forty virgins.
Yes, there are some leftover vestiges of the patriarchal society out of which the Koran came. For example, Muhammad (P.B.U.H) had more than one wife. But even facts like these can be reinterpreted by both more and less modern Muslims, as is being done so the world over.
(c.f., referenced in the Wikipedia entry on “ISIL,” Hasan, Mehdi (10 March 2015), “Mehdi Hasan: How Islamic is Islamic State?”, New Statesman, retrieved 7 July 2015, Consider the various statements of Muslim groups such as the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, representing 57 countries (Isis has “nothing to do with Islam”); the Islamic Society of North America (Isis’s actions are “in no way representative of what Islam actually teaches”); al-Azhar University in Cairo, the most prestigious seat of learning in the Sunni Muslim world (Isis is acting “under the guise of this holy religion . . . in an attempt to export their false Islam”); and even Saudi Arabia’s Salafist Grand Mufti, Abdul Aziz al ash-Sheikh (Isis is “the number-one enemy of Islam”).
Khadija, the Prophet’s first wife, is considered the first convert to Islam. She encouraged Muhammad (P.B.U.H.) to trust his spiritual experiences. Aisha, his last wife, helped to preach Muhammad’s message and was respected in her own right as a scholar, intellect, and leader. So while Islam did not wholeheartedly break free of the patriarchy of its environment, it was certainly not misogynistic. It may have been sexist in its primary voice of men speaking to other men. But the role of women, if anything, was sexist mostly for its holding of women on a pedestal. People who hold there is an essential evil within Islam simply have no ground on which to stand, as has been demonstrated countless times.
Wherever it is Christians who form the bulk of the disenfranchised masses, it is Christians who become terrorists (e.g. the KKK in the U.S., the Nazi’s in Germany);
Wherever it is Hindus who form the bulk of the disenfranchised masses, it is Hindus who become terrorists (e.g. the assassination of M. K. Gandhi in 1948);
Wherever it is atheists who form the bulk of the disenfranchised masses, it is atheists who become terrorists (e.g. Stalin’s Russia);
Wherever it is Muslims who form the bulk of the disenfranchised masses, it is Muslims who become terrorists (e.g. ISIL and the Al Queda).
We must stop this shadow-boxing. If we want to solve this problem, we must first identify it: The economic and spiritual disenfranchisement of the masses. This cause was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be the source of our woe. Three causes, actually: the disenfranchisement, the inability to correctly identify the problem, and the failure to address it.
In word and in deed, let us always address our brothers and sisters from the heart. Let us see what we can do for them. Let us cease our countlessly tried-and-failed policies of weaponization, deposement, divide-and-conquer, colonization of the mind and market, and, above all, our daily increase of ill-will toward each other through inciteful images and words throughout the media. We forget that free speech means also freedom to not speak, or to choose to speak out of love. Let see if we can choose not to repeat history yet again. As Goethe said,
He whose vision cannot cover
History’s three thousand years,
Must in outer darkness hover,
Live within the day’s frontiers
(quoted in Ken Wilbur’s Up From Eden)