Saturday, November 28, 2020

More debunking of Christian fundamentalism

It is not my bias and experience only that underscores the futility and outright malignancy of fundamentalism. In fact, there are far more relevant and impactful arguments that need to have as many voices uttering them in this wave of cultural , conspiracy theories, rejection of science and truth, and the toxic power of tyranny that comes with all of that.

Given that fundamentalism itself is a “conspiracy theory” of its own, based on a ‘rapture, a division of the saved and unsaved and their respective eternal ‘sentence or reward, there is an already extant appetite among those who adhere to its tenets for conspiracy theories which rise to the dangerous, lethal and cancerous.

There has always been a tension between things we ‘know’ through our faculties and through our reason and those things we ‘dream, imagine, envision, and generate as our attempts, however legitimate, to relate to the eternal, the ephemeral. Words and concepts like the apocalypse, hell, heaven, the rapture, satan, and purgatory portend not necessarily a literal end of times, but rather a metaphor for how we conceive of our relationship to our chosen deity. And although science has been elevated to the top of a cultural and cognitive and epistemological totem pole, the literalism science embodies and upon which it depends serves only as a reduction to our concept/projection/vision/interpretation of that deity.

Previously in this space, and repeatedly, the argument against any human attempt to know and to assert and to believe and to practice an ethic and a morality, especially in the most minute weed-like details, catapults human beings into a highly treacherous position, that of playing god. There is a significant danger of hubris attached to this posture, especially when it imposes itself on those who find themselves in highly vulnerable and threatening circumstances. The parable of the good Samaritan has been deployed by agencies around the world as justification for the multiple and various acts of rescue of those in threatening situations. And while the spirit of those rescues itself, and the accounts of those rescued from fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, draughts offers hope and new life to the rescued, as well as meaning to the rescuers, there is a legitimate and somewhat controversial view of the biblical story that points to the Jew taken for dead in the ditch as the metaphor for the Christ of Christianity.

At the core of these two variant perspectives on that ‘good samaritan’ parable are two different visions of the Christian faith: one that focuses on the ‘good works’ that received prominence in the book of James in the New Testament; another that focuses on the spiritual reality of the dark night of the soul, a moment, or a series of moments, that seem to come to each and every human in which the ‘bottom falls out’ of our life, gravity seems to give way to chaos, hopelessness, alienation, ostracism, failure, shame, loss, grief and even potentially the thought and too often the plan to terminate one’s own life in suicide. At the centre of this prospect, the prospect of intense and seemingly unendurable and insufferable pain, exhaustion, desperation, depression and hopelessness, lies the profound and inscrutable belief, from the Christian point of view, as well as from the perspective of other world faiths, that there is even then, or perhaps especially then, at the moment when all of our “strength and capacity and will have seemed to evaporate” we are still being somehow sustained, upheld, supported and although we will emerge bent and different, we will see light at the end of that tunnel. This is not merely a story of scientific proportions; it is rather an account of spiritual dimensions, a belief cornerstone that is fashioned on the deepest and broadest and longest human conception of how the infinite and the finite ‘touch’. And it is not a moment that can be attributed to the strong will, the limitless imagination, the physical or mental or emotional fortitude of the ‘survivor’…but can be attributed only to something ‘other’….and for many that ‘other’ is God.

Naturally, in the course of our daily lives, we like to tell stories of the ‘rescuing’ kind, and to connect whether consciously or unconsciously those stories to something ‘larger than ourselves’ that might be ascribed to that good Samaritan. It is not to disdain that parable but rather to note that ‘good works’ while necessary and noble and honourable and worthy of note are different from the experiences of that dark night of the soul, when we are so shaken, disturbed, transformed and re-birthed however wounded, yet nevertheless more conscious and aware of the depth of the human spirit including its resilience, its strength, its universality, its ignorance of race, ethnicity, social or economic status, political ideology, academic achievement, personal genetic code or even faith membership. There really are ‘things’ far beyond our capacity (intellectual, emotional, cognitive) to grasp fully, and it the indisputable ‘ground’ of that truth that stretches and enriches and ennobles and also sustains the human family.

One of the more challenging truths of this ‘other’ truth and dynamic is that it escapes the entrapment of human words, those frail instruments by and through which we attempt to communicate. There is nevertheless a significant difference between “voodoo” spirituality and accounts from multiple and various sources of the dark night of the soul and its repercussions. Just as the mystery of birth is so infrequently captured in fiction, by even the most accomplished, talented and seasoned writers, and when attempted, there is so much left out whenever a writer ventures into that mystery. Any account of an autopsy, too, fails to represent adequately the incredible and awesome mystery of the complexity of the human body/person/existence. Public discourse ventures into the area of specific illness, symptom, including even those considered chronic, without even considering at the same time, the totality of the human being. And such is the manner by and though which we relate to some of our most challenging health issues.

There is a fortunate aspect to this ‘narrow view’ through the lens of our apprehension; we are once again, cast in the light of our own ‘resistance to the truth’. The other side of this cultural perspective “that we cannot stand too much truth” is that we project our perceptions of our humanity onto others including god. Anthropomorphism, while inevitable, does not because it cannot denote or connote the ‘wholeness’ or any deity. And one of the most obvious dangers of approaching the shadows of infinity, eternity and deity on the wall of the cave in which we all live, is that we will be overcome, overwhelmed and thereby crushed by the immensity of its power.


However, the reductionism of God that underscores the fundamentalism movement is inescapable. A cultural historian, Catherine M. Wallace, also a member of the faculty of medicine of the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern has written a series of book to confront fundamentalism. So in addition to the theological, spiritual legitimate disputes against this social and cultural disease, her words are recorded in a journalistic piece on the website, by Bill Tammeus, of the Kansas Star, November 26, 2016. From Wallace’s book, the “Controlling God”, Tammeus takes these words:

Christian fundamentalism speaks for God with breathtaking arrogance and sweeping authority, laying out in no uncertain terms what God demands and whom God condemns..and…Christian fundamentalism does not seek the just, humane, inclusive society preached by Jesus of Nazareth. It offers a religious cover to a political agenda that is sharply opposed to democratic government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Other quotes from Wallace, through Tammeus:

The theology of an ultimately controlling God legitimates—indeed requires—human political tyranny at the hands of ‘believers’. When these same believers are biblical literalists immune to arguments based on rigorously established fqacts, we are in trouble….Christian spirituality confronts Christian fundamentalism with a simple but profound insight: all God-talk is necessarily and inescapably symbolic”…it is hazardous to attempt to speak about God while remembering that God is not a topic about which we can speak. Anything anyone might say ab out God, no matter how persuasive, is ultimately contingent….The whole point of Jesus, theologically speaking, is demonstrating that God is also present to us in and as other people…Our knowledge of God is never complete nor final nor absolute, because we have no way to know what God in God’s creative fecundity will either come to be or come to reveal to us…Theological literalism is ultimately just as serious a mistake as biblical literalism. Churches that insist upon literalism are committing intellectual suicide. Irrationality is not a prerequisite for faith in God…The sanctity of gay marriage will never be widely acknowledged unless Christianity takes the lead…But Christian fundamentalism, is frankly homophobic just as , in the 1950’s, it was frankly racist and then vehemently opposed to equal rights for women….Christianity as I understand it centers itself in a God of love and compassion, not a God of command and control,. The Lord of command and control is the God of empire, the God of violence, vengeance, condemnation, and deliberately inflicted pain. The God of Jesus is someone else….The problem with religious absolutism, then, is not simply that it worships its own unquestionable interpretations. That’s bad enough, heaven knows. It’s a setup for the situation we face today: the Christian ‘brand’ has been co-opted. Its symbolic resources and its commitment to common good have been rendered invisible to most people. All of that should worry any thoughtful person, regardless of religious allegiance….I hope to convince you that the Gospels are not the story of a God whose outrage can only be mollified by brutal human sacrifice.

Wallace’s books bear these titles:

Confronting a Controlling God

Confronting Religious Denial of Gay Marriage

Confronting Religious Violence

Confronting Religious Denial of Science

Confronting Religious Judgementalism

The Confrontational Wit of Jesus

Not only does this scribe heartily endorse the spirit and the essential content of Wallace’s perspective, I also humbly suggest that her thoughts, perspective and arguments need to be read in the theological seminaries across North America. In fact, those schools of theology whose intellectual premises are based heavily on a fundamentalist foundation, especially, need to expose their students and faculty to this anti-fundamentalist critique.

There is a need also for a renewal of the fundamental importance of the teaching of reading, language development that stretches far beyond the ‘how-to manuals’ of the digital age. And that also includes the renewal of the curriculum common known as the liberal arts curriculum not merely for the sake of the restoration of those jobs for lecturers in Literature, History, culture and the grounding of poetry, the imagination, the basic difference between the various genres of literature, including the many genres incorporated into all works considered ‘scriptural’ or sacred.It says here that the sacred, by definition, cannot be captured in the finite, in the “power” agenda that has come to be identified with the colonial, the empire-building, the ‘divine right if kings’ partly underlines much of the cultural history of inordinate assumption and justification of abusive deployment of power. Ironically and paradoxically, the very sine qua non of a profound spiritual/religious/Christian life is not power over others, but rather the acknowledgement of powerlessness, vulnerability, need, and a reliance on the ‘hand of God’ that has never abandoned any of us.

Does Catherine M. Wallace accept invitations from Christian churches and theological schools and seminaries to deliver needed and cogent lectures about the Christian faith? She can be reached at Her CV reads:

She received has PhD. From the University of Michigan in 1977 and was Assistant Professor of English at Northwestern University from 1976 to 1982. She set aside her scholarly career in literary theory to stay at home full-time with newborn twins and a two-0year-old-all three of whom are now in high school. She has spent the last fifteen years reading eclectically, speaking and writing about literary approaches to spiritual issues, and working as a homemaker. Her writing has appeared in pamphlets published by Forward Movement Publications and in scholarly journals. 

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Fundamentalism is a zero-sum game

 In our last entry, the issue of private virtue in the Christian faith was placed adjacent what Gregory Baum called the gospel of social justice. Within the church community, these two “schools” of thought have been in tension for decades, if not centuries. What has, unfortunately become increasingly clear is that a theology that believes and practices private virtue, including a fundamentalist/evangelical/literalist interpretation of scripture is no longer defensible. Indeed, the impact of this form of religion is so negatively impacting contemporary North American culture as to beg for a vigorous push-back.

In Karen Armstrong’s penetrating work, A History of God, we read these words: Amos was the first of the prophets to emphasize the importance of social justice and compassion. Like the Buddha, he was acutely aware of the agony of suffering humanity. In Amos’ oracles, Yahweh was speaking of behalf of the oppressed, giving voice to the voiceless, impotent suffering of the poor. In the very first line of his prophecy as it has come down to us, Yahweh is roaring with horror from his Temple in Jerusalem as he contemplates the misery in all the countries of the Near East, including Judah and Israel. The people of Israel were just as bad as the goyim, the Gentiles: they might be able to ignore the cruelty and oppression of the poor, but Yahweh would not. He noted every instance of swindling, exploitation and breathtaking lack of compassion: ‘Yahweh swears it by the pride of Jacob: ‘Never will I forget a single thing that you have done. (Armstrong, op. cit. p.46)

And these words of insight from Armstrong: “All religion must begin with some anthropomorphism. A deity which is utterly remote from humanity, such as Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover, cannot inspire a spiritual quest. As long as this projection does not become an end in itself, it can be useful and beneficial.” (op. cit. p. 48)

Writing in the New York Times,  Matthew Sutton, professor of history at Washington State University, May 25, 2019, in an essay entitled, The Day Christian Fundamentalism was Born, writes:

For many Americans, it was thrilling to be alive in 1919. The end of World War I has brought hundreds of thousands of soldiers home. Cars were rolling off the assembly lines. New forms of music, like jazz, were driving people to dance. And science was in the ascendant, after helping the war effort. Women, having done so much on the home front, were ready to claim the vote, and African-Americans were eager to enjoy full citizenship, at long last. In a word, life was dazzlingly modern….But from many other Americans, modernity was exactly the problem. As many parts of the country were experimenting with new ideas and beliefs, a powerful counterrevolution was forming in some of the nation’s largest churches and Bible institutes. A group of Christian leaders, anxious about the chaos that seemed to be enveloping the globe, recalibrating the faith and gave it a new urgency. They knew that the time was right for a revolution in American Christianity. In its own way, this new movement—fundamentalism- was every bit as important as the modernity it seemingly resisted, with remarkable determination…,.Beginning on May 25, 1919, 6000 ministers, theologians and evangelists came together in Philadelphia for a weeklong series of meeting. They heard sermons on everything from “Christ and the Present Crisis” to “Why I Preach the Second Coming.” The men and women assembled there believed that God had chosen them to call Christians back to the “fundamentals” of the faith, and to prepare the world for one final revival before Jesus returned to earth. They called their group the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association. …Unlike more mainstream Protestants, fundamentalists did not expect to see a righteous and holy kingdom of God established on earth. Instead, they taught that the Holy Spirit would soon turn this world over to the Antichrist, a diabolical world leader who would preside over an awful holocaust in which those true believers who had not already been raptured to heaven would suffer interminable tribulations….At the conference and in the years that followed, they matched up biblical prophecy with world events. Perhaps the most significant sign was the world war. In the New Testament, Jesus had told his disciples that ‘wars and rumors of wars’ would presage the end times….The reshaping of Palestine served as another warning that the end was near. Fundamentalists believed that the return of Jews to the Holy Land must precede the second coming of Christ, and the wear seemed to make this a real possibility…Fundamentalists viewed the proposed League of Nations as another potential landmark on the road to Armageddon. They were sure that as humans moved toward the end times, governments around the world would cede their independence to a charismatic world leader who would actually be the Antichrist….Their beliefs drove them to support the Senate’s ‘irreconcilables,’ those who fought the president’s efforts to join the league….(T)hey opposed any expansion of the power of the federal government and became highly suspicious of anything that seemed to undermine their religious freedoms and longstanding privileges…..As the fundamentalist movement grew and expanded, its leaders waged war against religious modernists for control of the major Presbyterian, Baptist and Methodist churches, colleges, seminaries and missionary boards. The liberal Christian Century magazine summed up the controversy in 1924: ‘The differences between fundamentalism and modernism are not mere surface differences, which can be amiably waved aside or disregarded, but they are foundational differences, amounting in the radical dissimilarity almost to the differences between two distinct religions.’ ‘The God of the fundamentalist,’ the writer concluded, ‘is one God; the God of the modernist is another. The Christ of the fundamentalist is one Christ; the Christ of the modernist is another. The Bible of fundamentalism is one Bible; the Bible of modernism is another.’…While modernist Protestants emphasize patience, humility, willingness to compromise and tolerance on a range of important issues, at least in terms of ideals if not always practices, fundamentalists believed that they were engaged in a zero-sum game of good versus evil.

Having passed my childhood in a church dominated by a ‘fundamentalist, evangelical preacher,’ (not incidentally the fundamentalist movement morphed in the evangelical movement of Billy Graham), I witnessed the very zero-sum game of absolutism every Sunday for at least a decade. Absolute judgement that belonging to the Roman Catholic church was a sentence to “Hell” along with the more trivial evils of wearing make-up, going to dances and movies and preparing meals on Sunday spewed in one belch from a single sermon, adequate to provoke my own sixteen-year-old decision never to return. The first-year class in theology at Huron College, in 1987 was comprised of 12 students, 8 of whom were fundamentalists, while the remaining 4 were liberals. I proudly included myself in the latter group. The most prominent feature of the ‘fundies’ was that they were determined to “save” the world from evil. Opposed to this intransigence, the liberals were determined to ask questions, occasionally prompting a ‘fundie’ to demand of the professor, “Never mind those questions; just tell us what we have to know so we can get out of here and save the world!”

On the strong recommendation of the then Dean, after completing first year, I was almost directed to find training and formation at a different School of Theology. His diplomatic, formal and professional recommendation came in the form of a strong recommendation that I seek a second unit of Clinical Pastoral Education. Knowing that such a unit was unavailable for the upcoming semester at University Hospital at Western, I was advised to pursue such a training unit in Toronto. The Toronto Institute of Pastoral Relations accepted my application, providing opportunity to pursue Clinical Pastoral Counselling, as compared with Chaplaincy, in the first unit at Scarborough Centennary Hospital.

The theological training for second and third year would be provided by Trinity College, the ‘other’ Anglican seminary, (Wycliffe is the other.) Of course, Trinity hosted primarily liberal students and lecturers, where questions were at the core, as opposed to answers, in shaping the paths of ministry development. At Trinity, the primary issue of tension, conflict and real dispute focused on the issue of feminism. Fundamentalism took a back seat to the issue of how men and women were and were going to relate in the future church.

Nevertheless, in the first parish to which I was assigned as Deacon, I immediately encountered the fundamentalist movement incarnate. Resident, long-serving wardens were aghast at the sermons I preached. One demanded my instant dismissal, only a few weeks after my arrival. He was determined to show a video produced in the United States by the fundamentalist movement to complement the fundamentalist syllabus of the Christian education program. The explicit  instructions to teachers in that program went like this: Say this to those children who are saved, and say something quite different to those who are not saved! The parish had not welcomed the most recent publication of Sunday School curriculum that then bore the title, The Whole People of God, an approach very different, more integrative, welcoming, questioning, searching and much less dependent on absolutes than the fundamentalist program. Rather abruptly, and clearly not diplomatically, I requested that the latter program replace the fundamentalist program.

The church school teachers were also engaged in the operation of a Christian bookstore, also dedicated to the interests of the fundamentalist movement. And when I inquired whether they carried the works of Matthew Fox, and/or Scott
Peck, I encountered outright hate. When I arrived home later that day, I was treated to a phone message that said, “You are a heretic, the antichrist, for even suggesting works by Fax and Peck…!” Linking the phone call to the face-to-face confrontation by the warden (also a heavy financial contributor to the parish) demanding my removal, I had to ‘stand firm’ and assert that I was not leaving. Shortly thereafter, I asked a supervisor to support my formal removal of that warden from his position as warden. I delivered a letter informing him of the decision that his service would no longer be required.

The fundamentalist zero-sum game reared its ugly head later in Toronto, shortly after the June 1995 provincial election in Ontario, in which Mike Harris was elected as premier. In a homily I delivered while pinch-hitting for the rector who was in Bejing for the United Nations Womens’ Conference, I commented that the premier needed to be restrained from his proposal to cancel provincial funding for the Wheel-trans program, a primary requisite for physically and intellectually challenged persons to access training, employment and basic necessities. Upon the return of the rector, triggered by my request for a travel honorarium, a kangaroo court of parishioners was convened, to determine a parish decision on my future in the parish. By a vote of 9 in favour with 4 opposed and 2 abstentions, the secret and anonymous court agreed to extend my relationship with the parish. As in each and every ecclesial enactment, even those held ‘in camera,’ the trickle of truth often morphs into a river. What I learned later was the eventual impact of two f pointed, highly impactful statements from parishioners that seemed to have reversed the kangaroo court’s decision. The first was, “We cannot have him arguing with the premier we had just elected!” The second was (to this day I have no idea who uttered this statement, nor did I have any prior knowledge that it would be uttered): “He’s a leader and you are not a leader!” To an aspiring female clergy, determined to rise in the hierarchy of the most prominent diocese in the nation, such a statement would be anathema. Clearly, I was toast!

A similar encounter with zero-sum game fundamentalists reared a slightly different face and head in a small mission church in the Colorado to which I arrived in the fall of 1996. Barely surviving on life-support, with 6 attendees, having failed to attract a clergy after two years of national advertising (I was never officially informed of this deficit by those in charge in the diocese!) this mission open conversations on a premise of extreme scarcity, a bone-dry well of hope, and the tightly-fisted hand of the treasurer on the bank account. They never wanted a full-time clergy; they merely wanted a sacramentalist for Sunday services, the occasional funeral and wedding and the concomitant minimal expenditure. Previous clergy warned of the need ‘for a completely new and different cast of characters’ if the church was ever going to survive. The issue that dominated my forty months there was one of cultural dimensions:

Ø the rough-individualist ‘real wild west’ county that has twice voted for trump (87% in 2016 and 80% in 2020) complete with the conspiracy theories,

Ø the RNA indoctrination,

Ø the contempt for anything smacking of “the east”,

Ø a hard-wired bias of systemic racism, a border-wall that precluded acceptance of authentic invitations to other clergy to exchange services in order to “blow some different thoughts, perceptions and personalities into the spiritual desert”

Ø a ubiquitous and also hard-wired concept of maleness that borders on ‘the outlaw’ beside a small cluster of women who acquiesce to this malignancy

Ø the proliferation of booze shops and the flow of alcohol as well as the invasion of drugs on the methamphetamine drug path

Ø acknowledged abandonment by the officials of the diocese

It is no surprise that my departure was both swift and unceremonial. It will also come as no surprise to the reader to learn that my failure to reconcile with the Anglican/Episcopal institution will outlast my time on the planet. I have attempted, obviously unsuccessfully, to embody a theology of awe, of searching, of questions, and of wonder. Absolute answers, colonialism, hierarchic unappealable authority, and the elevation of private virtue above social justice and a hard-hearted, hubristic masculinity do not, indeed cannot, embody, inspire or even authenticate a ‘christian’ theology and spirituality.

Two closing anecdotes: In an interview for another urban parish also in Colorado with a parish “leader” closely attached to the bishop (by his own proud acknowledgement) I listened to these words: “I am proud to have routed the last clergy from our parish; he was not spiritual enough and neither are you!” These words came from a Motorola executive so deeply embedded in his own material, extrinsic and political conception of the Christian church and his role in protecting its ‘spirituality’ which for him meant whatever marketing techniques would attract new members, new dollars and enhance his standing in the diocese.

In an interview in a Nebraska church, I heard one male expound, “We don’t want that pinko, Canadian communist!” words uttered in front of his wife who had already expressed a sincere interest in my candidacy. Was he feeling threatened? Duh! D’ya think?

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Let's cease from finger-pointing and its underpinning rationalizations

 In each and every aphorism lies its demise…..Too much egalitarianism renders chaos. Too much authoritarianism brings on another form of chaos….and when individualism is at the root of any and all political attitudes, we know that such a root, taken to an exaggerated degree, inevitably generates a different form of tyranny.

In North America, where the domination of capitalism is so deeply established, we can trace some of the underlying causes to a kind of religion offered by some christian preachers that is based on “purely personal understanding of the biblical message. In other words, the Bible does nothing more than save individuals, one by one, from the common destruction. According to them, the Gospel generates private virtue, not social justice. The government deserves support when it promotes private virtue, but should be opposed when it tries to establish ethical norms for public affairs, such as limitation of arms production, the reduction of nuclear weapons, assistance to Third World countries, the protection for the environment, and the containment of the free market.” (Gregory Baum, Compassion and Solidarity, The Church for others, CBC Massey Lectures Series, 1987, p. 103)

If millions of individuals have consumed, digested and integrated such a theology into their lives, as we know they have, then the prospects for a different kind of Gospel interpretation and application is going to prove difficult, if not nearly impossible. An epistemological crisis, (see last entry in this space) is compounded by a faith crisis, which pits an “individualist” salvation proposition against a social justice theology. And we all know too that “for centuries and centuries, the major churches, Catholic and Protestant, have tended to side with the powerful, with the dominant sector society. In the Third World the churches have supported colonialism.” (Baum, op.cit. p 106)

And in that light, of the mainline churches siding with, in fact advocating for ‘the establishment’, the churches have both consciously and unconsciously served as mouthpieces for that establishment, increasingly dependent as they are on the cheques written both by individuals and by trust funds owned and operated by wealthy, establishment individuals and corporations. Baum articulates many of the establishment-based messages that have been delivered, supported and underscored by the mainline churches in these words:

Today we are told that we have lived beyond our means, that society has been overlyo8 generous, that we have given away money, and that, accordingly, the government deficit is the central problem of the economy. We must recognize, we are told, that we live in the tough world of competition. We must advance our economy by letting private enterprise be the locomotive that pulls us out of the present slump. We hear that the successful entrepreneurs are the creators of wealth. That is why they deserve the assistance of government, tax breaks, and subsidies, along with the riches they make for themselves. The reason that our industries are th Carolinanot competitive on the world market is that labourers ask for excessive wages. The unions have become too powerful. There are too many strikes. It is their fault that we suffer economic decline. We all will have to tighten our belts—all, one assumes, except the creators of wealth….This is not the time for free lunches. Government should no longer assume responsibility for people who cannot make it in a society that gives them every opportunity…A certain toughness has become necessary to make labour work harder, to encourage business confidence and to attract foreign investment….The neo-conservative cultural trend that I have been describing makes selfishness respectable. Am I my brother’s keeper? According to the prevailing mood, the answer is No. It is all right to let the social gap become wider. There is not need anymore even to pretend that social solidarity counts. (Baum op. cit. p 101-102)

Although Baum wrote and spoke those words 33 years ago, on the CBC national network, they are echoed today by the right-wing conservatives in Canada, and certainly by the Republican Senators who even today are refusing to engage in a negotiation that would see a COVID-19 aid package for the up to 54 million Americans who are reported to be facing food insecurity.

One American thought and faith leader is Dr. William Barber, pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina. In a report written by Jelani Cobb in The New Yorker, May 07, 2018, Barber is quoted as saying: I worry about the way that faith is cynically used by some to serve hate, fear, racism and greed. The Cobb report continues with these words from Barber, in a sermon, “The Bible says woe unto those who love the tombs of the prophets.” The duty of the living, he said, is not simply to recall the martyrs of the movement (e.g. Dr. Martin Luther King) but to continue their work. We’ve got to hold up the banner  until every person has health care, we’ve got to hold it up until every child is lifted in love, we’ve got to hold it up until every job is a living-wage job, until every person in poverty  has guaranteed subsistence.

Private virtue and social justice serve as code words for political prize-fighting, with much of the rhetoric being personalized in words like “family values” and “socialism”….as if, in order to hoodwink the electorate who might glide past the nuances, each side behaves as if it has the ‘key’ to the golden kingdom or nirvana. Let’s peel the make-up off each of these “hot-button” propaganda words (family values and socialism) and see what we are left with.

Family values has the connotation of picket fences, warm hearths, rich and captivating scents from a family kitchen in which the turkey for Thanksgiving is cooking and the pies are already warm on the counter. It also connotes marriage only between a man and a woman, profound and even lethal opposition to abortion, the right to bear arms (and the fear that any legislation to limit assault rifles is the first step in removing guns from every house), deep although preferable secretive distaste for the PRIDE movement, and in some cases even contempt for         #BlackLivesMatter. Smothered in the scents, and the smiles of a happy family celebrating Thanksgiving, these ‘family values’ are effectively political and theological and often spiritual goals to be embraced by those who deem to consider themselves “Christian”.

And for many in this category, “socialism” connotes a quick and easy slide into communism, defacto tyranny, support for Putin and the Russians, fear of the Russian cyber-invasion of whatever misleading information  ‘bots’ ‘they’ might have developed, government take-over of the health care system including dictating which doctor you can visit, contempt of any government leader’s advice to wear a mask in the pandemic, thumbing your nose at all government shut-downs and crowd control measures in the pandemic. Such a gestalt definition of socialism is not only a complete abnegation of the meaning of the word, but also demonstrates a profound seduction, likely through fear, by those seeking to uphold the “establishment” capitalist system.

It is the ‘right’ to operate a business, to make a profit, to run that business free from government regulations, and especially free from government taxation schemes that would support those struggling to feed their families, educate their children and access health care that single and collectively are attached to the opposition to ‘socialism’.

And when tyranny, of any ephemeral imaginative shape, size and political face  (especially one hung in effigy on a billboard paid for by a right-wing funding source like the Koch Brothers) is evoked, the sceptre of the original American Revolution against the British King is re-enacted, embraced by a religion that somehow, almost by accident and by inference, sanctifies a fear that evokes a fear of God, the Devil, Satan, and especially Hell. Demonizing a political opponent, for the sake of winning an election, or even of converting a neighbour to one’s political ‘side’ is so cliché that it evades even consideration as hate speech.

If a nation, like the U.S. is to embrace ‘freedom’ as its North Star, in its cultural galaxy, then those who disagree with “ME” have to be considered agents of Satan.

So, it is not implausible to link an epistemological crisis to a crisis of religion, and faith and essentially to a profound erosion of basic literacy. Eroded too in this protracted process is the capacity both to allow oneself to be seduced by con-artists, and the concomitant atrophy of what English teachers used to call ‘critical thinking’.

Starving children, seriously ill children, parents without work and the horizon that even hints at the return of once-cherished employment….these are not compactible into the slogans of “family values” or ‘socialism’ or the indifferent embrace of a political class dedicated to its hold on power (in both parties). Access to clean water, adequate numbers of health care practitioners, clean air, a rigorous, free and equal education and work with dignity also refuse to be stuffed into a metaphoric “Santa sack” of goodies, like Hallowe-en candy, in order to be trotted out like various panaceas of placebos at election time.

There is no Republican, and no Christian and no Muslim diet that needs adequate, dependable, reliable and bacteria-free fruits and vegetables and protein. There is no black or white or brown child’s need for respect and dignity….and there is no protestant, Roman Catholic, evangelical or Nazareen need for clean water, clean air, freedom from assault weapons and drug gangs and lords. There is no rich or poor segregation among those who need (not aspire to, or wish for, but need) streets that are free of racially charged law enforcement operatives, bigots, and those so insecure that their uniform and gun are their primary source of identity.

The vast majority of churches, while vigorously engaged in daily acts of ministry, like food banks, hospital visits, charity fund-raisers, even international foreign aid projects, remain silent in the face of the glaring, insidious, preventable and clearly objectionable political gridlock that finds politicians cowering from negative tweets, negative headlines, negative gossip and evaporating fund sources. Church leaders, like political puppets, cling to a politically correct silence, unless there is an opportunity to “act” in charity, while the glaring existential issues, (hunger, poverty, illiteracy, hopelessness, depression and climbing suicide rates, environmental catastrophe) go virtually unaddressed, except by small pockets of social activists. In a report on depression and suicide thoughts among college students in The Star, November 24, 2020, the life and death of Kyle Gardiner is documented by Robert Cribb, Morgan Bocknek, Charlie Buckley and Giulia Fiaoni. The report includes a December 2019 tweet from Kyle Gardiner, discovered long after his death: “Isn’t it insane that we’re facing the inevitable collapse of society in a few decades and we’re still like, ’yay we banned plastic straws?!?!?!’”

Time to document the failure to provide adequate, timely mental health support for people like Kyle in another space, although the dramatic spike in both suicides and mental health crises in the lives of young and old alike is one of the many glaring, obvious and clearly preventable symptoms/causes of distress today. Moreover, those whose hands hold the levers of power to make changes seem paralyzed by a kind of rigid fear of the impact of saying it like it is, in case the truth is so dramatically upsetting that it might inflate the numbers and severity of human tragedies beyond our capacity to cope.

This piece does not hold that only by mounting an army of Dr. William Barbers in each and every church pulpit on the continent will our social devastation disappear. However, it does suggest or more emphatically state that silence in the face of the collision of so many factors that, individually would degrade hope and optimism, collectively serve as a radioactive repeating time bomb, on generations already here and clearly, if we continue to do the “same old” will continue to generate even more tragic results.

If Barber and Buber, McKibbon and Klein, Thunborg and Malala, and Baum and Moltmann, King and Lewis, and the hundreds of thousands of thought-and-action leaders and advocates are unable to arose a public that is becoming both somnolent and slumbering as well as exhausted and dispirited, then not only do leaders have to find new and creative ways to awaken us to our own peril. The populace, too, has to come to the senses that Canadian Press reporter, Stephanie Levitz (on CTV’s Question Period, November 22), who in a voice of deep concern, pointed to the responsibility of each individual to take measures like wearing a mask, keeping social distance, washing hands and staying free from large groups. Government cannot resolve this current pandemic crisis without the serious commitment, without vengeance, reprisal, anger or contempt, from each and every citizen on the planet. And that model, perhaps, could serve us all well in the recovery from this universal dark period of our own withdrawal.

The time for finger-pointing has to come to an end, as do all of the rationalizations that support that social addiction. Religion, ideology, social class, level of literacy, political affiliation and funding puppeteers can no longer be deployed against our common needs, our common aspirations, our common secure good health, and our promised healthy future to our grandchildren.  

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

We are IN an epistemological refuses denial

“If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work. And by definition our democracy doesn’t work. We are entering into an epistemological crisis.” (Barack Obama in conversation with Jeffrey Goldberg, in The Atlantic, November 18, 2020)

Oxford defines epistemology: theory of the method or grounds of knowledge.

Dictionary defines epistemology: the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope. Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion.

In simple terms: Epistemology is the philosophy of knowledge> It seeks to answer the questions “what is knowledge? and How is knowledge acquired? Epistemologists are philosophers who are interested in questions such as whether it is possible to have knowledge, what kind of knowledge there is, and how people come to know things. Epistemology is considered one of the four main branches of philosophy along with ethics, logic and metaphysics.

From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: The Tern epistemology comes form the Greek words ‘episteme’ and ‘logos’. Episteme can be translated as ‘knowledge’ or ‘understanding’ or ‘acquaintance’ while logos can be translated as ‘account’ or ‘argument’ or ‘reason’….(E)pistemology seeks to understand one or another kind of cognitive success (or, correspondingly, cognitive failure.

The phrases “what do we know?” and “how do we know it?” come to mind, whenever the word epistemology arises. And if Obama’s observation has merit (this scribe believes it has considerable merit!), then we have to take time to reflect that “alternative facts” is an oxymoron irreconcilable with “what we know” irrespective of how we ascertain those “things” (concepts, facts, emotions, perceptions) of which we are certain.

At 2:46 p.m. on Tuesday, November 18, I pluck the keys on this laptop, in a small town in Ontario Canada. Out this window, I see some blue sky, some cumulus clouds, a few grey puffs, and the occasional snow flake.
How do I know this? My eyes confirm, with corroboration of my wrist watch, the calendar, the map of Canada and the view from the window of my study. My ears also confirm that relaxing music is rising from the Stingray music channel on our television set. This simplistic list of information seems readily available to this observer, and could slide relatively smoothly along to a reader whose confidence in the ‘source’ is adequate for acceptance and belief.

However, within the hour, I heard, also from the television news, (MSNBC) that trump has ordered a draw-down by half of American troops in both Afghanistan and Iraq, to 2,500 in both countries. And while most watchers/listeners/interpreters of American politics likely concur with the facts of the announcement, there is no doubt a wide, disparate and highly energized debate over whether or not such a decision makes “sense” at this moment in history.

The critical capacity to distinguish, rationally, and ‘epistemologically’, between the fact of the troop draw-down and the various “interpretations” is a first level of discernment between something known, and something conjectured. And those conjectures themselves, once detailed and made public, also flow into the river of facts, this time however, over the ‘name’ of the specific observer. “X” says, “whatever about the draw-down!” And for the journalists, this attribution is critical to his/her reputation as a recorder of whatever it is the interpreter says.

In elementary school, teachers stress the difference between a piece of information and an ‘inference’ (a conclusion reached on the basis of evidence and reasoning). This skill, however, does not embrace or tolerate a leap into a proximate universe in which information that is incompatible with and irreconcilable to a given fact. One historic example of this kind of ‘alternative universe’ has been perpetrated by those known as ‘holocaust deniers’. In May 2014, The Atlantic reported in a piece written by Emma Green:

“Only 54 percent of the world’s population has heard of the Holocaust…Only a third of the world’s populations believe the genocide has been accurately described in historical accounts. Some said they thought the number of people who died has been exaggerated; others said they believe it’s a myth. Thirty percent of respondents said it’s probably true that ‘Jews still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust. Seventy years after the liberation of Auschwitz, two-thirds of the world’s population don’t know the Holocaust happened—or they deny it.”

The clear divide between those who “know” the holocaust occurred, and resulted in the death of some 6 million Jews, and those who do not “know” or who deny its veracity is an obvious failure on some many levels. On the superficial level of distribution of information, through media, and more significantly through educational systems, either the message is not being delivered or, if delivered, it is not being credited as believable. A story out of Arkansas, at the time when Bill Clinton was Governor and his wife was attempting to transform the education system in that state, we learned that some teachers were teaching about World War Eleven, mistaking the Roman numerals for 2, (II) for the Western Arabic Numerals (11). Obviously, the implications of this kind of mis-perception, embedded in an epistemology in those classrooms and transferred to those students has had, and will continue to have a significant impact on the “foundational” knowledge of that generation of students.

The reservoir, or perhaps even the underground mine of what many would consider the treasure of what most consider “foundational” knowledge, (while it is subject to new research, and the discovery of amending information) is nothing less than essential for the potential of legitimate, consensual, reasoned, and reciprocal conversations even to take place. Nevertheless, embedded in what many consider ‘foundational’ knowledge, there are in each cultural demographic, a sizeable cluster of what might be termed “old wives’ tales” or cracker-barrel wisdom that challenges empirical verifiable information. (“Red sky in the morning sailor’s warning, red sky at night, sailor’s delight! is just one well-treaded example.) While repeated ‘tests’ of the validity of this maxim may tend to support its likelihood, nevertheless, it can hardly be called a ‘law of the universe’ as ‘gravity’ for example, warrants.

Those standing firmly in a religious-foundational-belief system will, hopefully, embrace the dubious, highly problematic and easily disputed basis of this conversation I had as a teen, when asking my mother to stop smoking cigarettes: Her response, “If God had not wanted us to smoke, he would not have made tobacco!” This comment in the mid 1950’s continues to rebound among many others that beg more forgiveness than cognitive and rational response. The notion of human will, human discernment and the potential of human individual (and collective) choice, through decision-making processes that balance individual desire, or pleasure with the negative risk of nicotine and tar on the lungs and circulatory system, one might have thought, would have been readily grasped by a graduate nurse. Nevertheless, just this morning, the entrance to a prominent teaching hospital was populated by professional health care workers smoking their favourite cigarette brand, while preserving the 9-meter restriction away from the building.

The facts, the truth, the scientifically indisputable “knowledge” about the dangers to human life from smoking, both for smokers and for those in the presence of smokers who inhale second-hand smoke, have been promulgated for decades. At the same time, billions of dollars have been poured into the campaign to deny the danger to human health by the tobacco companies, is a pivotal and historic example of how “interests” compete to capture the flow of ‘information’ (including self-interested propaganda). A similar conflict has also been underway for at least half a century, over the negative impact of fossil fuels and the emissions of toxic gases like carbon dioxide and methane on the environment of the planet. The corporate profits of the oil and gas companies rely directly on the recovery, refining and sale of fossil fuels, as do the mega-corporations which depend on these fuels for their manufacturing and processing facilities. A similar tension has existed between environmentalists and coal producers, although this conflict has focused on the contamination of natural streams, and drinking supplies, as well as the health impact on miners from toxins inhaled during their work in the mines.

We can all agree that loss of the capacity to function, to breathe, to speak, and even to think clearly is impacted by the collision of certain chemicals, gases and toxins with our bodies. Even those whose 401 portfolios generated while serving as executives in tobacco, oil, gas and coal companies “know” that they are engaged in an industry whose long-term prognosis is clouded. Nevertheless, along with their political surrogates, they continue to beat the drum in favour of government laissez-faire with regard to environmental regulations that would crimp their industry.

“Prophets”, armed with the new “knowledge” of impending environmental danger continue to plead their/our case through the media, in classrooms and labs, generating graduates in environmental engineering, a class of graduates not even envisioned when those of us who graduate in the early 1960’s. The word “prophet” however, is one of those words that tends, like mercury, to slide between ‘believers’ and ‘critics’, depending on the degree to which each side is committed to ‘arguing’ and ‘advocating’ for his/her side of the argument.

In the academic community, however, these debates have a kind of discipline under clearly established ‘rules’ and traditions. Both sides can and will agree to a set of facts, and then engage in the “interpretations, implications, inferences and both exaggerations and minimizations of those facts, as is suits their respective argument. However, this model of intellectual decorum and professional discipline, while rigorously defended and embodied by those academics, as well as their medical and legal graduates in the conduct of their professions, does not apply to those practicing the ‘art’ of politics. Words, when used in political campaigns, and their under-studies in the editorial pages, the opinion pages, the social media platforms, have been unhinged from both their original intended meanings and have been ‘weaponized’ in what amount to military-style campaigns that pit one set of “data” against a completely alternative set of “data”. Individual personal character of an opponent, it seems, is also a subject and a target of these scurrilous attacks, when and where even the ropes of a boxing ring and a referee have both been abandoned.

The rise of social media, along with the appetite for sensational, titillating, and paradoxically enervating headlines screaming the fall from grace of prominent people, along with the scurrilous and humiliating and captivating and seductive details of that tragedy, as a gestalt, has given rise to an industry that rakes in literally billions for its perpetrators. And it is a gullible and apparently starving public that snatches these pieces of political radioactivity, morphing what once were Roman amphitheatre duels in which the masses were spectators, to political death-duels panting for both naïve and gullible audiences, and gladiators willing to submit to the ravages of this new political landscape.

And given that not only aspects of human behaviour is or can be confined to codified law, in any attempt to restrain the worst of our tendencies, and also given that linguistic traditions of grammar, sentence structure, thematic argument through the retrieval, curation, interpretation and presentation of packets of facts as the legitimate manner by which to advance a cause, have to a large extent fallen by the roadside, and given that the pursuit of power and wealth for their own sake have shoved the public interest off the public agenda, the extermination of any agreed set of facts has resulted. Rather than truth being the first casualty in war, we have all been complicit in turning our public discourse into a war in which each micro-act and each word have become the bullets, the arrows, the spears and the cannons of our battle. And there is no boundary on the battlefield; we each hold that battlefield in our hands, in our cell phones, or our laptops, or tablets.

We are not only at war with those whose words and actions and beliefs and attitudes we dispute, and we are instantly permitted, anonymously, to ‘fire’ our verbal rifles onto any one or more of several unregulated and voraciously profitable platforms. We are also untrained in this new pseudo-military-industrial-informational-cyber-technical political warfare. There are no apprenticeship programs for political neophytes, except those operated by dark money, or those funded by internet agents which serve a national government and/or an international cartel or cabal. We are all learning through experiments for which we are ill-prepared and under-tutored.

And so we are living, not only in and through a global pandemic that has already killed more than a million and threatens to eliminate many more lives, but also in a world where we, like those toxic gases, are the erosion and the atrophy of our capacity and discipline to deploy words, not as weapons, but as hand-shakes, even with those whose ideas we oppose. We have trampled on the subtle and nuanced meanings of words, as well as on the willingness to surrender our tyrannical domination of our knowledge “framework” based on a foundation of agreed information, beliefs, attitudes, traditions and even laws. We have not merely “dominated” nature as the misinterpretation of the old Testament suggested. We have morphed into ironic, paradoxical, and mythical self-defined and self-declared super-heroes unimpeded by the traditions of those cultures on whose shoulders we have tread for centuries and whose foundational precepts, principles and prophecies have served as guiding lights. We are now verging on the tragedy of self-sabotage, through our glib and willing surrender of those boundaries that define truth, that seek decency, and that envision authentic dialogue, not without humility, but with a level of grace that extends both to our competitors and adversaries as well as to ourselves.

Having abandoned shame, and a reliance on a body of foundational premises and facts, and fallen over the cliff of mature restraint, we are all endanger of succumbing to an intellectual, biological, chemical and political chaos for which we are unprepared and potentially unwilling to prevent.

To Obama’s words, I would suggest we are already IN an epistemological crisis, one we are endanger of denying!

Monday, November 16, 2020

Leaning into disclosure and active listening

The greatest threat to our civilization is a failure to communicate in an open way, combined with an unwillingness to listen to one another. (Rabbi Michael Dolgin, Temple Sinai Congregation, Toronto, in, November 16, 2020)

The two-headed snake, failure to communicate openly, and a willful decision to refuse to listen to one another, lurks like toxic smog at the doorstep of each and every house, business, professional office, corporate boardroom, hospital operating and emergency room, and in every ecclesial sanctuary.

Why are we so concrete in our failure to communicate openly? First there is John Powell’s (S.R.) reminder that if I tell you who I am, and you reject me, that is all I have. So, we can likely agree with Powell that fear of rejection is implicit in our. We hold back open disclosure of those events, decision, statements, judgements, which lock those moments in a vault of personal secrecy. Keeping secrets, tragically, is a disease that infects and thereby affects each family, and by extension each and every institution, workplace and organization. There is neither time nor interest, in most places, to listen to those so-called personal melodramas that compound our lives, and if and when we encounter someone willing to listen, we are surprised and somewhat curious and sceptical. Private conversations with an intimate partner, perhaps, might offer space, confidentiality, trust and the chance to unlock some of those previously locked secrets.

Our memory, like an attic filled with storage boxes, suit cases and photo albums, tends to gather dust, and fade into the sepia of forgetfulness, as we attend to the duties, chores and agendas of each day. Also like that storage attic, it is rarely disturbed, only occasionally shifted, tested, and opened ever so slightly, on the occasion of an anniversary, a birth, a death, a marriage or perhaps even a search for a diploma or a baptismal or confirmation certificate. Sometimes, a single comment will strike a chord of anxiety, shame, embarrassment or even potentially of dream-like reverie, and morph into a trigger for recollecting. Lurking near the front of our consciousness, always, is a question that asks, “If I had trouble coping with that moment when it occurred, will I be able to withstand its impact if it is revisited?” And then, “If I revisit a tragic and painful moment, and I even consider whether to share it, with whom will that sharing be feasible?” “Will that person be OK with me, upon learning of my ‘bad’? Will that person keep the story confidential? And What would happen if the answer is “no”?

We have all had moments of truth-telling that went awry. And there was another layer of angst as our story served as an act of self-betrayal. What we often fail to bring forward into our thought process is that each other person has his/her own story locked securely in another safe-deposit box of memory. Conversely, I recently revisited a moment some three decades ago, through social media, in order to extend a heartfelt apology for having made utterly unacceptable comments to a supervisor in a learning session, at a time when my thoughts and emotions were running high and highly conflicted. To my grateful surprise, I received an authentic apology from that person, for his failure in offering support when, on reflection, he now deemed my need for support could have replaced his attempt to challenge. The exchange prompts a reasonable inquiry: Are more people trapped in a fear of sidisclosure that are open to the potential healing through honest apology?

Another aspect of failure to communicate hovers like a vulture over domestic/marital relationships. Pride and a determination to perform duties, both those expressed as expected by a partner and those implicit inside one of the on partners, having been deeply learned and embedded from his/her family of origin, dig trench ‘boundaries’ that lock in feelings of tension that can and will only fester without release. Those trenches, once established, have a tendency to make themselves ‘permanent’ if only through an unchallenged habit. Separated both from our connection to our underlying reasons and perceptions for doing or not doing specific things, or from saying those things we anticipate could be unsettling, we perform a security-check on ourselves that can later be summarized in words like these: “I feared rejection if I disclosed who I was and what I thought and believed, and ironically I was rejected for not showing up!”

 If it is anecdotally and experientially true that ‘showing up’ comprises most of what human existence entails, and we presumably are all cognitively conscious of the veracity of that epithet, then why is it so difficult to show up? There is an ironic twist of emotional power politics in this dynamic for which those of us who tend to be dubbed “gushers” for the obvious reason that we are far more ebullient, effervescent and perhaps even dominating need to be and to become much more conscious. We all know about physical and emotional space, especially in this time of social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19. What we do not speak of as often is what I might call, verbal space, referring to the time some of us take to express our thoughts and feelings, while inevitably and thoughtlessly depriving another of a similar and equal opportunity. If we fill the air, and the time together with our ‘emoting’ we are at the same time robbing the other of a legitimate opportunity to share his/her thoughts and feelings.

It is the discernment of appropriate ‘showing up’ both from the perspective of being too withdrawn as well as from the perspective of being too overwhelming that much of our repression can be traced. Repression, analogous to keeping secrets, although not necessarily the same, can occur without anyone actually taking conscious note of its happening. On the one hand, a rather shy person begins any encounter with unfamiliar people as an observer, keeping distance, keeping silence and gathering the ethos of the situation, in order to ascertain the mood, the tenor, the tone and the feelings of comfort or discomfort in the situation. Conversely, another person rushes into a conversation with new faces, seemingly ignorant of if and how his/her person is charging like the proverbial ‘bull in a china-shop’ into the room. Insecurity underlies both types of response to a new situation; however, how each person responds to insecurity withheld or exaggerated will have an impact on many of the responses.

In court rooms, and in diplomatic negotiations, terseness is considered professional. Discretion, in terms of protecting information, and of delivering information in manner strategically designed to influence the ‘court’ or the ‘other party’ includes a detached, unemotional and professional “friendship” encapsulated in the legal profession in the words attached to the opposing legal team, “my friend”. Rules of engagement, developed over centuries and codified in transcripts (now dubbed read-outs) guide participants in the ‘normal’ manner of professional discourse or more appropriately debate.

The world of the reporter, on the other hand, while fixed on the prize of a newsworthy quote, the accuracy of which determined by the absence of any denial or reprisal is guaranteed, nevertheless permits the contextualizing atmospherics, both in background, and in tone, and in what might be expected to ensue. Whether the ‘source’ is disclosing the whole story, or a tightly guarded miniscule crumb, poses interminable digging obligations and opportunities for the reporter. Public figures, stereotypically, have arrived in their current position through exuberant, enthusiastic and ebullient expression, often filling the air and heads of their audiences with entertaining decorative presentations of their own exemplary qualities and promises. Increasingly, ordinary people are grabbing microphones in order to pose serious and often troubling questions of those figures. And consequently, some public figures are shying away from town hall formats.

On the listening side of this equation, too, there are those whose strength and success have come from paying attention to those persons including parents, teachers, coaches, and supervisors in part-time jobs, whose mentorship they have valued, and from which they have benefitted. And then there are many more who have blocked the impact of many of the mentoring caveats, believing their own attitudes and values trumped those of their mentors. There may have been persistent experiences of debasement when persons positioned as coaches used their position to abuse, even if their motive was to challenge and to test their charges. Power, whether in the form of a quiet, private, confidential suggestion, or in the form of a public display of embarrassing demeaning, nevertheless lands in the moment it is delivered, without the coach usually taking time and care to assess the long-term impact of his/her actions and words. I deeply regret my own carelessness in not being as sensitive to the impact of my coaching volume and intensity, and my failure to consider options before losing it and embarrassing a player who could have benefited from a more humane approach.

Another cliché about listening is that it is very difficult, in fact impossible to listen while engaged in a cataract of words gushing from one’s mouth. As a long-term teacher, I bear both guilt and responsibility for having heard most of the cognitive connotations of oral responses from students, without actually having integrated the emotional connotations of those responses. My own directed intensity to ensure that the experience of the classroom never devolved into what the student would have considered boring may have been a factor in my negligence. Nevertheless, active listening, a process through which one individual hears the cognitive and the emotional and the psychic messages from another, and processes the complexities of those various layers of communication, is a process few are taught and fewer are willing to take the time and the care to consider. Naturally, those in the therapeutic professions are both trained, and hopefully adept, at the highly nuanced skill. And, occasionally, they may even have moved beyond the skill to integrating the process into their “presence” a sine qua non of the needed process of growing trust between client and therapist.

Among families, there is a deep divide between men and women, the former paying diligent attention to the factual literal meanings of whatever communication is coming from his partner. Women, on the other hand, seem to have an innate capacity, and comfort in, hearing multiple levels of meaning in the communication in which they are engaged. This is not to disqualify men, or to put women on a pedestal; it is rather to attempt to level the playing field, in the hope that women will pause to indulge our bluntness and unnuanced receipt of their messages, and to encourage men to experiment with a way of hearing that carries many of the overtones of feeling, and implication to which we previously turned a deaf ear and a blind eye and a blank mind.

The less we actually “hear” the more frustrated will our partners be; the more we disdain any notion of opening our ears and our hearts to intimate family communication, the more we will deprive ourselves and others of the potential of being fully ‘understood’ and fully ‘known’. If we can begin to clear some of the stereotypes of those identity traps that keep us wandering through our trenches, and start exploring new pathways both to disclose and to listen, while it will be frightening at first, the possibility does exist that we will become known to those who matter and they will also become known to us in ways previously out of reach.

Deception, like obfuscation, dissembling and distraction, is a defence from which we can free ourselves, if we no longer need it as part of our mask. And regardless of the professional requirements of communication etiquette and ethics, perhaps we can begin to replace its prominence with confidence and disclosure even in our diplomatic ventures. 

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Soulage's BLACK canvas depends on the play of instructive metaphor?

“Black is never the same because light changes it,” he said, in French, through an interpreter. “There are nuances between the blacks. I paint with black but I’m working with light. I’m really working with the light more than with the paint.” (Pierre Soulage, quoted in “Black is Still the Only Colour for Pierre Soulage, by Nina Siegal, The New York Times, November 29, 2019)

Featured recently in a CBS segment of 60 minutes, hosted by Elizabeth Palmer, Soulage is currently highlighted in a solo show in the Louvre. Anyone who witnessed even a single piece of his work cannot help but be struck by the strength of the ‘draw’ of the viewer into the canvas, which seems ‘alive’ as the light shimmers and emits multiple shades of colour. We look at a painting completed by the 100-year-old artist, exclusively in black, that literally and metaphorically glistens with the energy, the bounce, and the reciprocal bounce back from the ‘eyes-mind-imagination’ of the witness. Dramatically different from the ‘scenes’ depicted by various realist, naturalist, impressionist, cubist and other artists, Soulage’s canvases captivate the viewer paradoxically by penetrating the psyche to become integrated into the spirit of the viewer, rather than remaining ‘detached’ inside a frame on a wall in a gallery.

The creativity to envisage the ‘play’ of light reflecting from the various edges of black paint, ‘sculpted’ by Soulage, using often self-designed ‘devices’ of cardboard, or metal, or wood, to this lay viewer’s eye can only be minimally described as ‘black magic’ while seriously avoiding a slide into a trite cliché.

The mid-wife of these mysterious, mystical, moving, modulating and, superficially simplistic canvases, however, may have begun his career by ‘’throwing’ paint at a canvas, has morphed into nothing short of a visionary.

Even a brief glimpse of a single Soulage canvas evokes, provokes, stimulates and births visions of how our individual and collective lives, as symbols of light, constantly ‘play’ off on a foundational background of darkness. Penetrating a mystery considered so risky by millions, even after nearly a century of Jung’s depiction of the Shadow, Soulage may offer to those still resistant to the promise, an entry point into a new insight. And perhaps this new insight might just offer individuals, as well as communities, and naively even perhaps the planet, a reservoir of radiant light and hope whose energy will elevate the human mind, heart, spirit and confidence to envision a new, if not utopia, at least a century of ameliorated anxiety and fear for our grandchildren.

Those of us naïve men who, often tragically and even more often comically, find ourselves gazing at the clouds, or looking for the wind, or vicariously wandering the hedgerows around Lake Windermere, (without ever seizing the opportunity to visit the Lake District), are unconsciously painting our own pictures from the darkest walkways of the darkest coal mines, imitating the proverbial canary, in the faint and often quixotic hope that someone might hear our song, feel our heartbeat, and even pause long enough to consider some of the dangers and risks pictured.

Of course, each of us “naives” is never burdened with the pain of diving into the weeds of whether or not anyone has even read our song, let alone attempted to listen to its rhythm, melody and theme. So, naturally, painting pictures ‘in black’ is deeply congruent with our world view.

For the last several decades, while the world has endured serious pandemics, economic depressions, world wars, the holocaust, the development of nuclear, biological, chemical and more recently cyber war machines, as well as coups, revolutions, assassinations, as well as rushing and then ebbing political ‘crushes’ on evil men, we have, it seems, consistently held a detached, somewhat objective and for millions, a non-involved posture, with respect to our personal relationship, connection and thereby responsibility for any of these darknesses.

Of course, there have been and continue to be multiple signs of light, new vaccinations, new procedures, new therapies, new laws and regulations that have brought to bear new and often more compassionate and more sustaining decisions by the body politic for the people within the body.

It is, however, another persistent feature of ‘western’ culture that we are constantly preparing for another ‘attack’ from another dangerous enemy, and then beating the drum of our “accomplishments” as proof that we are making progress against the interminable, predictable and newly generated enemies that will compete with us and individuals and as communities, and nations.

Posing as “defenders and protector against evil” requires a metaphysic that is based on many religious answers to the source, location, responsibility and impact of those ‘external’ forces that are set to destroy us. Us against the world, (whomever we consider our enemy to be, or to become, or to threaten to become) is a posture that permeates our homes, our schools, our hospitals, our courts, and our governments. Churches, generally, as well as specifically, have taken on (been given, assumed, sought) much of the responsibility for outlining the relationship between humans and darkness. Those churches have defined what is evil, they have prosecuted what they considered evil, they have consecrated those liturgies, prayers, rituals and dogma they consider sacred, as insurance and as ethical and moral guidance, in the events of malfeasances against those expectations.

Churches have spent centuries debating the nuances of the variations of, for example, a ONE God versus multiple Gods, or  transubstantiation versus a symbolic embodiment in the Eucharist, as well as the incorporation of a God into the justifications of war, of changes in how humans treat each other, of the hierarchy of genders, the hierarchy of social and political status, the doctrine of the divine right of kings (to marry the spiritual/ethical/legal/political) and thereby enhance the ‘power’ of those embodying such a theory. People have revolted against what they considered abusive power, (as is currently the situation in Hong Kong, Eritrea, Belarus, and incipiently in Washington, New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere in the U.S, and formerly in Northern Ireland, on the James Pettus Bridge in Alabama, and on the Akwesasne reservation in Canada).

What if, for example, all of our historic examples of conflict, on the political scale, as well as on the individual human front, have been signs of light against what was a shimmering background of blackness, without any of us actually envisioning the light that was playing out against that background? As Morley Callaghan reminded us in his novel, A Time for Judas, (1983), Judas Iscariot was Jesus’ most trusted friend, chosen by Jesus to betray him to the authorities, according to tablets attributed to Philo on the last days of Jesus’ life. In the light of this version of the story, Judas took his own life, not for betraying Jesus, but for failing to keep the secret as he had promised.

What if, for example, revisiting our historic archives, our biographies, even those of our most sinister individuals, we were to discover that even the most heinous acts were committed by men and women whose lives, persons, psyches, spirits and minds had previously been so tortured that their actions, like that of Judas in the Callaghan novel, were very different from the judgements we (collectively and compliantly) have taken them to be?

What if, for example, our collective vision of “blackness” while it embraces the horror of witches, goblins and extra-terrestrial spirits, nevertheless also shackles us in a metaphysic in which our “evil” nature does not uphold or even object to our necessary mountain-climb out of darkness into light? (with the concurrence, and the blessing of the self-serving ecclesial institutions)

What if, for example, Soulage’s canvases embody a ‘revolutionary’ perspective on the relationship between our shadow and our conscious lives? And in this light, (pardon the pun!) our lives are constantly, repeatedly, predictably, and inevitably ‘casting us in a very different light’ than the one the religious institutions would have us bear?

Rather than weep and wail at the interminable horrific and heinous situations men and women have created, (and put us in, as interminable victims) is it possible, or might it be feasible, for us to embrace a new relationship? A relationship that warrants our imperfections, as not merely tolerable and hopefully modified through critical self-examination and even more critical atonements…Could this new relationship see the new light shining in ripples and in ever-changing colours, different each and every time our life (biography, evaluation, engagement, relationship, birth, death) is witnesses, assessed, appreciated and absorbed, playing out on the backdrop of the collective and the individual shadow.

In this perspective, every individual man, woman and child is an agent of light, as the sine qua non of his/her identity. The darkness is a shared planet on which the lights beg not only to shine but to be noticed, and evaluated and celebrated as light. And, in this new perspective, no single light can ever be judged to be ‘superior’ or ‘inferior’ to any other light, given that no one is able to discern which light represents which individual. Although all "lights" (persons) share equally in their impact on the 'canvas' there are those among us who choose not to 'turn their light on' in the sense that they are unwilling, or perhaps unable, to include the needs of the body politic, the human race, and the preservation of life and liberty around the globe. (Failure to put 'the public' needs and the 'public good' ahead of personal narcissism is a current example of this abdication.)

How would this view apply to some of the most heinous of tyrants, assassins, torturers, villains? First, the perspective would entail a social responsibility, not merely for the obvious ‘human rights’ that struggle for tolerance and application (among the Uighers, the Black and Brown in America, the indigenous in many countries including Canada, the Belarusians and others) but for the development of those processes on which the survival and enhancement of human life depend. Scholarship, rather than heavily funded to find curative or therapeutic applications, would and could shift to preventive measures, given that prevention (medical, legal, criminal, educational, and even economic) is far more effective than the crisis-management addictions we currently witness.

Earlier this morning, for example, on Brian Seltzer’s “Reliable Sources” we heard former ABC newsman, Sam Donaldson, in a conversation about how to turn the American media around from conspiracy theories to hard, factual, credible news, express serious doubt that anyone would be approaching Rupert Murdoch to ask him and his media empire to shift how they cover the news, for the benefit of the United States, in this time of political and social crisis. It might interest My Donaldson, and his CNN partners, to note that, according to the Financial Times, on November 9, 2020, (written  by Jamie Smyth) “a petition with 500,000 signatures calling for a public inquiry into Rupert Murdoch’s media empire was presented to Australia’s parliament (on Monday), amid concerns the nation was slipping into deeper political polarization and division.” The fact that Murdoch owns the whole media landscape in Australia, while significant, would indicate that any such move in the U.S. where Murdoch does not control the whole media landscape would require even less political pressure than it would in Australia.

There are a myriad of human individual and collective “lights” that have been deliberately turned off, by their namesakes, for a variety of motivations, among U.S. Republican “leaders”…and their ‘power-outage’ enhances the darkness we are all experiencing, as we continue to fret over the next traumatic and self-serving melodrama the outgoing president might explode. The power outage that currently obviates those many lights, obviously and unequivocally, renders the current canvas of the American political landscape void of the many nuanced shades and dynamism on which it depends.

And, unless and until we begin to consider the “absence of light” something more critical and thereby warranting collective attention, as opposed to an observable and willful and malignant overt act, we will continue to wander on a metaphoric canvas devoid of the required light to bring it to “life”…Legal definitions of culpability can no longer be restricted to the causative, the empirical and the measureable…There are already too many teachers going through the motions, and lawyers and accountants and politicians whose lights have suffered a self-imposed power-outage, fearful of a political storm before it even arrives, and thereby narcissistically protecting their tenure, rather than participating in the lighting of our collective work of art, that black canvas the legacy of Pierre Soulage.