Experiential Alterity…

 

In the forward to his book, As a Man Thinketh, James Allen writes that the objective of the text is to “stimulate men and women to the discovery and perception of the truth that – ‘They themselves are the makers of themselves’ by virtue of the thoughts which they choose and encourage” (5). Allen goes on to say that ” A man literally is what he thinks, his character being the complete sum of all his thoughts” (5).  These passages are quoted not to promote the traditional dichotomy of Cartesian mind/body dualism in which the material reality of one’s outer-world is pitted against one’s psychic inner-world. Instead, they are intended to indicate the “intra-active process” of “a material-semiotic matrix” (Tuana, 57). There is a reflexivity at work in which mind/body, thought/reality, attitude/life, are “performed-and-embodied” (Tuana, 60). In this regard, ‘life’ is “always already” ‘attitude’ and attitude/thought is “always already” reality/material. Nancy Tuana makes clear that “Reality is not composed of things-in-themselves or things-behind-phenomena, but things-in-phenomena” (61). Here, “Entities are not fixed, but emergent” (Tuana, 61).
Life is, as James explains, “present and alive…On freight-trains, on the decks of vessels, in cattleyards and mines, on lumber-rafts, among the firemen and the policemen…There, every day of the year somewhere, is human nature in extremis” (James). James demonstrates that “Divinity lies all about us,…the deepest human life is everywhere,” integrally intertwined with every shift of ‘perspective’, every change of ‘attitude’, and every alteration of thought and thinking (James). Here, every single ‘experience’, no matter how profound or mundane is ‘life-altering’. Every experience is a material-semiotic matrix, in which every ‘material’ experience is a psychological experience and vice versa, there-by altering ‘life’. Whether a breeze, a book, a sunrise, falling in love, or the birth of a child, each contains within it the unimaginable capacity and potentiality for the alteration of one’s attitudes, and correspondingly one’s life. After the death of my grandfather my life was marked by a melancholy, a loneliness, and a sadness which has never left me. The first time I saw a Pollock painting I knew I would never be the same, ‘altering’ what creativity means. With the experience of each reading of Hegel I am awakened, invigorated, and forever altered and changed. Everyday with my wife brings with it the joyous rupture of love’s sting, the vulnerability of what it means to ‘need’ someone, altering what it means to be alive. Every moment with my son is the greatest moment of my life and every experience of my daughter’s affections is rapturous. Every experience of the mundane is at once the experience of the utmost profundity. Every experience of the finite is an experience of the infinite. The absolute fullness of immanence is the excess of transcendence.
Allen, James. As a Man Thinketh and Other Writings. Stilwell: Digireads.com, 2005. Print.
James, William. “What Makes a Life Significant?” Introduction to Ethical Studies: An Open Source Reader. Ed. Lee Archie and John G. Archie. Philosophy.Lander.Edu, 2003. Web. 14 Oct. 2013
Tuana, Nancy. “Fleshing Gender, Sexing the Body: Refiguring the Sex/Gender Distinction.” The Southern Journal of Philosophy, Vol. XXXV (1996): 53-71. PDF file.
Advertisements

The Womb of the Social: Nurturing the Birth of ‘Mothering’ Contractions

Gustavo Guiterrez writes that “Human history has been written by a white hand, a male hand, from the dominating social class” (1976, 6). Guiterrez goes on to say explain that “Attempts have been made to wipe from their minds the memories of their struggles” but, “This is to deprive them of a source of energy, of an historical will to rebellion” (1976, 6). Likewise, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza shows that “Historians, philosophers, and anthropologists have emphasized that current scholarly theory and research are deficient because they neglect women’s lives and contributions and construe humanity and human history as male” (1984, xvi). These sentiments exhibit the imperative behind the work of Virginia Held and why the perspective she offers is so elucidating and so integrally vital, especially in regards to political and social thought and theory.

Indeed, Held, herself, makes these precise distinctions in her assessment of societal organization and corresponding social contracts stating that
Actual societies are the results of war, exploitation, racism, far more than of social contracts. Economic and political realities are the outcomes of economic strength triumphing over economic weakness more than of a free market. And rather than a free market of ideas, we have a culture in which the loudspeakers that are the mass media drown out the soft voices of free expression (2011, 782).

In this way, Held is both critical and skeptical of social contract theory’s validity and premises, explicitly questioning its framing narratives. If we look back to our Paleolithic ancestry we will find that our ‘Original Position’ in regards to social formation and interaction is perhaps nothing resembling the civilization of independent contractors supposed necessary by social contract theorists. The necessitation of the social contract proposed by such contract theorists as Rawls, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, etc,.., seems to be rather ahistorical, in that,they are something of a Westernized reflection of post-agricultural revolution societies posited upon pre-Neolithic civilizations, cultures, and contexts. Held concludes that “To see contractual relations between self-interested or mutually disinterested individuals as constituting a paradigm of human relations is to take a certain historically specific conception of ‘economic man’ as representative of humanity” (2011, 782). From an evolutionary perspective such a posturing would lead to a diminishment rather than an advancement of a species’ evolutionary fitness, that is, it’s ability to succeed in passing it’s genes on to the next generation. What is displayed in the assessments of many social contract theorists is perhaps a fetishization of the predominating structures and institutions as an idealization (perhaps even an idol-ization) set as a welcomed alternative to a fallaciously conceived ‘state of nature’, which is far more representative of the bias implicit within the ‘contractual’ framework rather than anything historically or anthropologically sound.

Instead, what we will see in humanity’s early stages are loose confederations of close-knit, kin-based hunter/gatherer societies that are familial in orientation. Humanity, then, is primarily relational rather than contractual. This seems to give added precedence to Held’s notion of ‘mothering’. Contracts create ‘obligations’, they do not create bonds, kinship, or relationships. Within the social contract individuals are incentivized or coerced to do only their duty, that is, to do only what is required of them, pursuing self-interest above all else with the exclusion of only that which causes harm to another. In this regard, contracts thrive upon ‘volunteerism’, ‘noninterference’ and ‘inaction’. Where as, Held’s focus upon the mother/child relationship centers upon “relationships that are nonvoluntary” and responsibilities that are “noncontractual…where the primary motive is concern for another’s welfare” (Calhoun 2011, 780). Even Rawls,himself, recognizes that “No society can…be a scheme of cooperation which men enter voluntarily in a literal sense; each person finds himself placed at birth in some particular position in some particular society, and the nature of this position materially affects his life prospects” (2011, 695). Kant, too, falls short here. Kant declares the universal imperative to treat others as ends in themselves yet, even his categorical imperative is implicitly self-centered, still treating others as means to an end, in that, one only treats others a certain way as a means to achieving their own preferred treatment. In other words, one’s self remains the ultimate end. Maternality or ‘Mothering’, instead, is responsive to needs, emphasizing care, “fostering transformative growth,” leading to “trust, cooperation, loyalty, and moral concern” (Calhoun 2011, 780). Held seems to make clear that the flourishing (blooming, blossoming, growth, development) of the individual and the flourishing of the community/society will require a ‘nurturing’ cultivation. Nothing short of a mother’s love will do.
Calhoun, Cheshire. “Virginia Held: Introduction.” In Political Philosophy: The Essential Texts, 2nd ed, edited by Steven M. Cahn, 778-781. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Gutierrez, Gustavo. “Where Hunger is, God is Not.” The Witness . April 1976.
Held, Virginia. “From Non-contractual Society: A Feminist View.” In Political Philosophy: The Essential Texts 2nd ed, edited by Steve M. Cahn, 782-795. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Fiorenza, Elisabeth Schussler. In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins. New York: Crossroad Publishing co., 1984.

Is Religion Part of the Problem?

The second entry in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary (2011) defines religion as “a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices.” While this is certainly a concise, applicable, and usable definition of religion, and though it is seemingly conducive to how the text has sought surmise the basic description and functionality of the religious framework, there are, indeed, subtle and nuanced differences that are cause for a greater divergence.

R.L. Johnstone (2007), in the book Religion in Society: A Sociology of Religion, defines religion as “a set of beliefs and rituals by which a group of people seeks to understand, explain, and deal with a world of complexity, uncertainty, and mystery, by identifying a sacred canopy of explanation and reassurance under which to live” (p. 14). Though this defining statement is much more unpacked, drawn out, and detailed, the two working definitions as presented by that of Johnstone and Merriam-Webster do bear many intrinsic commonalities and one could conclude that they are each explicitly similar. However, upon a closer examination, one will have revealed and realized what this observer believes to be at least one dramatic difference that seems to be ripe with implications.

Merriam-Webster begins by asserting the “personal” orientation of this “institutionalized system.” This emphasizes what is believed to be or what is seen as a highly individualized set of “attitudes, beliefs, and practices.” This definition has the person as center and as its starting point. The individual and personal nature of religion is at the heart of this proposal, highlighting only the individual activities. Also, this definition then seems to simultaneously contain a contradiction, in that how can an institution and or a system be ultimately defines as personal. While participation of the individual religious observant is an integral component to the operation of the institute, it seems antithetical to postulate that religion as a whole and at its most basic of levels is altogether personal.

Johnstone is then quick to retort by underlining the communal base as primary for the religious systemization.  This is decidedly a group effort and a shared experience. This does seem to be the more logical of the two arguments, as a collective comprisal would present a substantiated progression towards and an inundation of the institutionalization of a religious ordering of belief and practice. Yet, while this view does explain and give light to the standardization of the group, the definition seems to be asocial in the greater surrounding context of the religion. This definitive phrasing, taken on its own, does seem to suggest that although it may recognize the religious event as a social system, it alludes to a detachment from society. Although religious sects can and have withdrawn from the greater society, this does not free them from its effects.

This is what I find to be so intriguing in regards to the theories of Georg Simmel. Simmel underscored the influence that society has upon religious institutions.  Johnstone (2007) writes of Simmel’s thoughts, “Many feelings and patterns of expression commonly termed ‘religious’ are also…basic ingredients of social interaction in general” (p. 30). He goes on to say that “the models for many, if not all, religious sentiments, expressions, and beliefs, reside originally in society at large” (p. 30). This theory supposes that rather than society forming around a religion, religion, contrarily, forms around society. Just as Jean-Paul Sartre once suggested that existence precedes essence, likewise Simmel proposed that “society precedes religion” (Johnstone, 2007, p. 30). Thus, making clear that “Before religion can develop, there must first exist general patterns of social interaction – that is, a society – that can serve as a model” (p. 30). If this is true then all the efforts of religious communities to revitalize the faith, to renew its fervor, or to make it more relevant is itself, a misguided and ineffectual endeavor as it still does not address the root of the problem but only a manifestation. This treats only the symptoms while never actually attacking the virus. If we are asking why our religious institutions are failing it is surely because we have ignored the depravity lurking beyond the doors or our churches, choosing only to concentrate on internal conductions. Thus, until the religious communities abandon their temples and evacuate their houses of worship and take up active residence in the world of this earth, seeking  to dismantle and deconstruct the sociological fabrications of Western culture, socially, politically, economically, and philosophically. We must serve the “least of these.” We must clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit those in need, not in an effort increase numbers, or as an implicit humanitarian marketing campaign, and not even as the fulfillment of some arbitrary moral imperative delivered from the pulpit or from the misinterpreted pages of a book that we have stripped of its political subversiveness, but, because the face of the other is the face of God. Until we can replace and rebuild the dilapidated frames of our culture and our society our religious institutions will forever be found in ruin.

Christian Consumerism

Annie Leonard makes clear in The Story of Stuff that “Our primary identity has become that of being consumers – not mothers, teachers, or farmers, but of consumers. We shop and shop and shop” (Leonard, Priggen, & Fox, 2007). Certainly today’s mass media, mass marketing, and mass producing endeavors of the supermarket and megastore have captivated both our focus and our funds. They have tapped into what neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp “seeking” (Glei, 2010). Emily Yoffe, in her article entitled “Seeking,” writes that this behavior is the ultimate “mammalian motivational engine that each day gets us out of bed, or den, or hole to venture forth into the world” (Yoffe, 2009). Yoffe continues,
 
For humans, this desire to search is not just about fulfilling our physical needs…[H]umans can get just as excited about abstract rewards as tangible ones…[W]hen we get thrilled about the world of ideas, about making intellectual connections, about divining meaning, it is the seeking circuits that are firing.
 
The juice that fuels the seeking system is the neurotransmitter dopamine. The dopamine circuits ‘promote states of eagerness and directed purpose…It’s a state humans love to be in. So good does it feel that we seek out activities, or substances, that keep this system aroused (Yoffe, 2009).
 
In keeping with the movements and methods of a consumeristic society, religious institutions, themselves, have begun to adopt these capacities, all too willing to provide the “world of ideas” through which to “divine meaning” in an effort to “promote eagerness and directed purpose” in both its present and potential members. In other words, in many cases, the religious experience has become just one more commodity to be sought, bought, and sold. The dominating religions, denominations, communities, and organizations have become a kind of “brand” eliciting a type of “brand-recognition” to which one will prefer over another. Membership then becomes a semblance of “brand-loyalty.” As a result religious communities have adopted similar marketing models targeting their desired demographics. This, I think, is precisely why many churches have self-titled themselves as “seeker-sensitive.”
 
One quickly thinks of the empire building efforts of many in Evangelical Christianity. In these instances the pastors of the growing number of “mega-churches” have become equal parts media mogul and corporate CEO. As a result a religious industrial machine is created; in which constant capital must be poured into in order to keep the wheels of industry continuingly moving and producing, and will seek to do so via targeted membership who will enable the means of the organization. “[T]elevangelists can fill a stadium at the same rate as a rock star and theme park can sell tickets to the Holy Land, organized religion has in many ways put a price tag on salvation” (Christman, 2011). Those heavily inundated by this type of economic ideology will see the magnitude of numbers in the way of attendance and contribution as a sign of God’s endorsement or favor.
 
However, many of lower socio-economic statuses are disenchanted by this vision of religion. They can no longer relate to these organizations, and thus, seek to form a congregation of greater similarity, and this is precisely why many sects form. The sect members will then often condemn and forbid actions or appearances reminiscent of the overindulgent system they cry out against. Yet, as increased social mobility occurs within the membership, many will become more loose or lenient with these prohibitions or will leave altogether.
 
Just as a total separation of church and state is nearly impossibly, so the separation of religion and economics is next to an unimaginable possibility. Whether a religious institution chooses to operate upon a business model more closely resembling that of a corporation or chooses to be a more socially engaging and justice orientated organization of community outreach and grassroots activity, power, water, and lights must still be paid. Even if not at the center of a religious community, economics is a necessary evil in keeping the organization in operation. It takes money to stay in motion, the most important question that remains is then will the religious community act in fiscal responsibility, maintaining a basis inclusivity and effectuality, concerning itself first and foremost with the well-being of its members over that which is monetary, or will seek to monopolize the market in an effort to sell God?
 
 
Christman, C. (2011). Selling God. [DVD]. USA: Breaking Glass Pictures.
 
 
 
Leonard, A. (Writer), Priggen, E. (Producer), & Fox, L. (Director). (2007). The story of stuff. [DVD]. USA: Free Range Studios.
 

The Economy of Justice…

In his book, T.A.Z., Hakim Bey describes the functionality of the strategic socio-political creation of temporary zones or spaces which defy all formalized and authoritative structuring. Bey calls these spaces, “Temporary Autonomous Zones,” or T.A.Z. for short. Here he suggests that the most effective way to create social relationships free from the influence of hierarchal systems is to concentrate on both the present moment and the relinquishment of one’s mind from the impositions of mechanized control.

I think this is precisely what we see in the Occupy Wall Street protest, and there may be no better place to create such a space. The critics of this protest have critiqued the event based upon the protestor’s lack of focus i.e. there is no set of standardized, unified, or identifiable demands being presented by those protesting. Yet, in many ways that is exactly the point and is the principle of its power. Its lack of definition is possibly its greatest strength in that it is the opposition of the facelessness of a systemic and systematic rigidity. The protestors are united by desire rather than demand. Peter Rollins said that “the point is not that you know what to do, the point is that you should do something.” This is what is being played out. It is the enactment of creative potentiality that is truly empowering.

In the same manner, Cornel West spoke of the Occupy Wall Street protest, “It’s impossible to translate the issue of the greed of Wall Street into one demand, or two demands. We’re talking about a democratic awakening.” I think he’s absolutely right. This is not only the democratization of the philanthropic but also, in some ways, the democratization of the prophetic tradition. Not ‘prophetic’ in the Pentecostalist capacity but, in the Judeo lineage of social criticism i.e. the Hebrew prophets who were unafraid to speak against priest and king. This is the tradition that Jesus himself was firmly rooted within. In this present form it is being transformed into a communal event. The sound resonating from the side walk is a harmonious ensemble desiring mercy and not sacrifice, longing for sentient sensitivity over systemization. The purpose is to create tension rather than resolution, to present questions rather than answers, to give criticism and critique rather than offer arbitrary solutions, and to call for return.

Aristotle asserted that human species is, in essence, homo politicus, that essentially a political being. Marx made a similar summation, suggesting that mankind is homo econmicus, an economic being. Wall Street is certainly a monument to both these proposed facets of human identity. Yet, what is being performed in the face of the brick and mortar edifice of the political/economic institution is far more organic, agrarian, and egalitarian. Perhaps, we should realize that first, foremost, and primarily homo ecologicus, that is, ultimately, an ecological being, created from the dust of the earth. There is a median in the center of the road at the traffic light where Robert J. Conlan meets US1. I pass it every morning on my way to work and I am enamored by it. It demonstrates the persistence and perseverance of nature finding a way when there seems to be no way, even when the way is blocked because there we find grass and wild flowers growing through the cracks and crannies of the pavement, breaching the barriers, protruding defiantly, reaching for daylight, and taking over the surface of the curb, ever surviving. This is what we see happening in the Occupy Wall Street protest, man rising; pushing through every crevice of Wall Street’s concretizations, refusing to be inhibited, claustrophobic from the steel girders of an unforgiving frame. The message is then the reiteration, “man shall not live by bread alone.” Humankind cannot ultimately be sustained by the unholy union of natural provisions and mechanized production, scorched by the fires of industry. Instead we shall live by “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God,” that is the divine logos, the numinous lurking throughout every aspect of the created order that has been since the beginning, the logos that was with God and the logos that was God, the divine energy of the universe. This is the word that spoke life and creation into being, the word that created in the image of the numinous, and the word that breathed into the nostrils of mankind, filling both lungs and imagination.

Perhaps this is what it looks like and what it sounds like when the rocks cry out, when the mountains tremble, when the hills break into song, and when the trees clap their hands. Mark Twain wrote that “Forgiveness is the fragrance the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it. I think this relates quite well to what is taking place upon the streets of the protest. This is not the sign of vengeance or retribution, but nor is it passivity. These are the lilies and violets of the field tread upon, broken under the weight of our own structures, perfuming the cold sterility of an arid landscape with the call for justice.

In her poem, “KitchenetteBuilding,” Gwendolyn Brooks asks to poignant and pertinent questions. “Could a dream rise up through onion fumes and yesterday’s garbage ripening in the halls?” And more importantly, “would we let it in?”

The Violence of Humility

One of the classes I’ve been taking this semester as part of my Undergraduate program in Religion is “Myth and Ritual.” This class has been positively awash with lively discussion. As part of our multicultural and multiregional exploration of the role, place, significance, and meaning of societal myth we recently read and examined an African fertility myth belonging to the Fon tribe entitled “The Quarrel between Sagbata and Sogbo.”
This myth recounts the rivalry of two sibling deities, Sagbata and Sogbo, both sons of the Great Creator Goddess Mawu. Mawu, having stepped aside from her reign, enlists her sons to be co-rulers of the Universe; yet, the relationship between the two brothers is marked by tension and tumult. As each refuses to cooperate with the other they bitterly part ways. Sagbata, the oldest brother, decides to descend to earth and live amongst humankind while Sogbo remains a tenet of the sky. Sogbo, after having gained more power and the allegiance the other sky deities and still angry with his brother, ceases all rain from falling to earth thus, inflicted a three year draught upon the land and all its inhabitants. Having seen the immense devastation caused by this draught Sagbata, decides to cede to the rule of Sogbo and Sagbata gives Sogbo his inherited portion of universal control and power, in return for rain and the restoration of life to the earth, its creatures, and its people. Sogbo accepts, sends reign, and the two brothers are then reunited in friendship.
In the classroom discussion that followed this reading I suggested that this story is illustrative of the World healing power of humility. One of my classmates rightfully refuted this claim as only one of the brothers, Sagbata, exhibited a decided enactment of humilitude.
This is an excellent point and I can certainly see where the confusion arises in the story of Sagbata and Sogbo, especially in reference to humility, being that only one of the two seems to actually learn the lesson. Yet, I think, in a way, that is part of the lesson in and of itself. Often those situations where the acts of the humble are most detrimentally necessitated, humility is neither reciprocal nor participatory. It is the willful diminishment of oneself, it is self-sacrificial. Had Sagbata waited for a mutual expression of humility the whole of the created order would have surely broken down beyond repair before either party would have budged. Thus, through the solitary act of Sagbata lowering himself, the doors to restoration, both ecologically and familial, are flung open wide, in ways that they would have never been otherwise.

This reminds me of the endeavors of figures such as Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. Each decisively “turned the other cheek” and refused to return violence with more violence. Yet, these are not acts of weakness; on the contrary, these are the most powerful acts possible. These acts do more violence to the structures of power than the most malicious acts of violence the power structures can do to others. Humility is the ultimate negating act. It turns the entire systems of power upside down.

Oppressive and vengeful acts of violence are not acts of power rather they are acts of absolute impotence. It is only through the forced subjugation of a victim that the oppressor can garner power. The oppressor is ultimately weak and displays his weakness and hunger for power through his insistence of violent pursuits, as he can only attain power by robbing the victim of power. Humility on the other hand, is the game changer; it is the wrench in the gears of this system. The would be victim denies participation in this ritual by refusing to be robbed of his power, instead he rather willfully and freely offers it to the would be oppressor. By doing this the victim refuses to play the part of the victim and the potentially oppressed does not lose his power but more fully attains and inhabits it. Thus, as there is no victim, the oppressor can no longer fulfill his role as the oppressor and is forced to more fully inhabit his weakness

For the want of another term…

I feel the hindrance of the unheard
Spilt milk
Curdled in my prime
I cry
But without rhyme or reason
Betrayed at birth
Given to the worse
The evils of two lessers
The fork in the road
What’s behind door number two?
Afraid to ask
Afraid to find out
Just another consolation prize
Take your parting gift and go
Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s
I will whisper with the fragility of a dream teetering on the edge of a canyon
Lord I beg of you
Give me the strength to burn bright
Whether at the stake
Or by candle light
Your words are mine
Let the luminosity of your passing linger
I yearn to radiate beyond the fibers spun to veil
They cannot contain
May all bushels be set ablaze
But please
Please
Stay