Archive for November 2009
My childhood memories of American Thanksgiving still give me stomach cramps. It was a day of serious overeating, usually in the company of relatives, who gathered around the table in the early afternoon and stayed there for hours, talking and laughing and eating. Rarely did I have the sense to stop eating when I had had enough. There were too many flavors to sample, almost all of them far too rich. Sometimes the menfolk would excuse themselves from the table and go watch a football game on the television while the womenfolk retired to the kitchen and washed dishes for several hours. The men, forgetting that they had already eaten as much in one meal as a healthy person comsumes in a few days, would devour snacks washed down with beverages (brought to them by the women, of course). Thanksgiving in my home was a secular feast. Secular feasts, unlike most religious feasts, are rarely preceded by a period of fasting, and rarely accompanied by a spirit of giving thanks (even for the women who did all the work while the men did the important service of complaining about the decisions of quarterbacks). Rather, they are celebrations of overindulgence.
It was not until I moved to Canada as an adult and began celebrating Thanksgiving with Canadians in early October of every year that I realized what an atmosphere of patriotism was present in American Thanksgiving. I noticed its presence in American Thanksgiving because of its absence in Canadian Thanksgiving. Canadian Thanksgiving was not simply a scaled-down version of American Thanksgiving in which the menfolk watched hockey instead of football; it had an entirely different feeling about it. For one thing, I had the impression that Canadian children did not prepare for their Thanksgiving Day by studying the prehistory of their country for several weeks and retelling all the myths upon which patriotism is based. When I was a child in school, it was routine to draw pictures of Pilgrims wearing tall hats and buckled shoes and shooting turkeys with blunderbusses and sitting around with Indians and learning all about how important it is to plant fish in the soil to fertilize the newly planted kernels of maize, in exchange for which useful information the Pilgrims shared the useful information that it was only through the sacrificial blood of Jesus Christ that human beings (even savages) could be saved. The religio-patriotic dimension was altogether missing in the Canadian Thanksgiving environment—something for which I was deeply grateful. Never having been one for patriotic sentimentality, I find it very easy to spontaneously give thanks for its absence.
When I was young and secular, patriotism seemed merely silly to me. I had not yet learned of any country on the earth that was worth feeling grateful for. (Ironically, that changed when I discovered Canada and found myself loving a country that was completely indifferent to my, or anyone else’s, affections. I loved Canada precisely because I was not constantly being reminded that I ought to do so.) As I became older and less secular, I began to see patriotism as diametrically opposed to spirituality. Love of country came to feel like a terrible distraction from the truly important things in life. It came to feel like a kind of collective ego-mania, a way to fool oneself into thinking that one had concerns for something bigger than oneself through celebrating a country for no good reason than that the country was one’s own. As a critic of all forms of war conducted for whatever reasons, I found I could not feel anything but shame for the country in which I had been born and nurtured, for that country was constantly involving itself unnecessarily and without provocation or justification in war after. The incessant preparedness for war that my native land was engaged in, the building of nuclear stockpiles, the use of napalm against innocent non-combatants, the use of cluster bombs, the stockpiling of chemical and biological weapons, the history of slavery and of genocidal wars against native Americans—all this managed to kill any feelings of gratitutde I might have had to be associated with such a dark and confused land.
I am more mellow now than I was when I was half as old as I am now. I am no less a pacifist. I am no less convinced that patriotism is a terrible distraction from things of real importance. It still strikes me as obscene to practice gluttony when a fifth of the world’s population is underfed. But I have learned to lighten up, to eat more lightly, and to be more grateful for being nourished by the inner light than angry at the outer darkness. While I still feel profoundly saddened by the thought of all the turkeys who are sacrificed every year to feed American thanksgivers, I am no longer angered by it.
Celebrating Thanksgiving by myself in the Netherlands today (a country that takes credit for having taught the English pilgrims to give thanks every year while they lived in Leiden for a decade before heading for Massachusetts), I heated up some bok choi and ate it with some aged Gouda cheese on an Italian ciabattina and a glass of Belgian beer. And now I shall curl up with a good article on Buddhism written an Arab. And I shall give thanks for the rich diversity of humanity, a richness that knows no national boundaries.
It is said that
Sri Ramakrishna Swami Vivekananda used to tell his disciples that devoting time to healing the world is like trying to straighten a dog’s curly tail. No matter how much one may try to straighten a dog’s tail, it will always revert back to being curly.
There are times when Ramakrishna’s words sound to me like an invitation just to let the world go on its own course and not to wear myself out striving to do the impossible. I hear the words as advice to take care of my own spiritual well-being, let others take care of theirs, and hope for the best. At other times it sounds more like an invitation to keep tirelessly at the task of trying to make things a little better and never to wipe the dust off my hands and congratulate myself for having completed the task. After all, the fewer people there are who make an effort to make a positive difference in the world, the less the chances the world will spontaneously straighten up and follow a course of wisdom and justice. On the other hand, a great deal of what has gone wrong in the world has come about precisely because of some people zealously applying their solutions and trying to save a world whether the world wanted to be saved or not. The pendulum of my attitudes toward activism sway slowly back and forth, showing no signs of finding a stable resting point.
There are profoundly discouraging signs that the dog’s curly tail will yield to no efforts at all to straighten it. Senator Dodd proposed a bill in the US Senate that would put limits on how high the interest rates on credit cards can be until such time as new regulations take effect. The bill died before it could even be debated, reportedly blocked by Republicans. No spiritual tradition in the world recommends usury; most prohets and philosophers throughout history have condemned it in no uncertain terms. And yet Senators, probably fearing a loss of campaign funds from banks and other financial giants, side with the wealthy and powerful rather than with those who are suffering from the usurious rates the giants are charging.
Cardinals, bishops, priests, ministers, rabbis, imams, swamis and lamas should be making it abundantly clear that the inaction of the senators is a shameful betrayal of every religious tradition in the world, and the followers of those religious leaders should be informing their representatives in no uncertain terms that politicians will not be getting the vote of sincere Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists until they liberate themselves from their addiction to the backing of major corporations and return to the business of providing legislation designed to promote the welfare of the people.
That the politicians are not being denounced by religious leaders for betraying their promise to serve the people is a sign that religious leaders themselves ae betraying their promises to care for their flocks of believers. A silent pulpit in a time of injustice becomes part of what makes that injustice possible. There are, to be sure, people making themselves heard. But there is nothing like the quantum mass of outraged voters filling the streets that it takes to bring about change in a country the size of the United States. There are nothing like numbers it took some decades ago to bring an end to racial segregation and the unconscionable war in Vietnam. The hounds of heaven, those who afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, are sleeping on the porch. Perhaps they have themselves become dogs with curly tails.
It times like the ones we are going through now, it is mighty tempting to become a quietist, to retreat into the comfort of isolation and solitary prayer and meditation. It is tempting to focus on another world, a better world to come along when one has been released from active duty in this one. It is tempting to visualize heavenly realms and pure lands and distant paradises while the world outside rots and stinks. It is even tempting to retreat to a peaceful valley somewhere and to wait until the times have changed, thinking “When the parade comes along, I will join it.”
If no one marches now, then when and where will there be a parade to join?
Those who would continue robbing little people by tempting them into debt, and then by charging exhorbitant rates to enslave them, and then by forcing them into bankruptcythose robbers are counting on you and me to give up the struggle for achieving a fair and just world. They are counting on us to shrug and say “Oh well, I guess some dogs just have curly tails, and I should just learn to love curly-tailed dogs.”
Can they count on your support?
In the first of his lectures on Pragmatism, delivered in Boston in 1907, William James suggests that there are two kinds of philosophical temperament, which he calls the tender-minded and the tough-minded. The tough-minded are those who have a tendency toward empiricism. They trust their senses. They are content with a variety of sensations and with a plurality of fields of inquiry, each with its own questions and theories. The tough-minded feel no strong urge to arrive at a single “theory of everything.” The tender-minded, in contrast, gravitate to the intellect rather than the senses, and they seek unifying theories and a single metaphysical principle that unites all the varieties of beings and sensations. The tender-minded are also inclined to dogmatism and to a sense of discomfort with what cannot easily be fit within their unifying frameworks.
In the final of the eight lectures on Pragmatism, James turns his attention to Pragmatism and religion. Again, he notes two prevaliing trends in religion: a tendency to absolutism in some contrasted with a tendnecy to religious and moral pluralism in others:
So we see concretely two types of religion in sharp contrast. Using our old terms of comparison, we may say that the absolutistic scheme appeals to the tender-minded while the pluralistic scheme appeals to the tough. Many persons would refuse to call the pluralistic scheme religious at all. They would call it moralistic, and would apply the word religious to the monistic scheme alone.
It is not merely that the tender-minded prefer absolutism and dogmatic certainty, says James. The very idea of pluralism is repugnant to the tender-minded.
There can be no doubt that when men are reduced to their last sick extremity absolutism is the only saving scheme. Pluralistic moralism simply makes their teeth chatter, it refrigerates the very heart within their breast.
Pluralism is closely associated with Pragmatism. The heart of Pragmatism is the notion that true differences in opinion must result in differences in action. If two people have a disagreement on some issue but would act the same way no matter how the dispute might be resolved, then the dispute is merely a logomachy—a war of words only. Rather than using the words “true” and “false,” Pragmatists prefer to speak of propositions as having or failing to have agreement with reality. What it means for a blief or proposition to be in agreement with reality is just that if the belief is acted upon, then it will have expected results. If I am thirsty and drink the contents of a cup and my thirst is slaked, then the belief that the contents would slake my thirst were in agreement with my sense of reality. Beliefs, propositions are instruments by which a person gets from one experience to another. Given that there are often several beliefs that have the capacity to serve as instruments for successfully getting to an expected experience, it would make no sense to say that there is only one belief in agreement with reality; it makes little sense, in other words, to say that there is only one truth.
When Pragmatism is applied to religious doctrines, it turns out that not only are there many paths to salvation, but there are also many goals that can be described as salvation. So while it may be the case that many religious traditions promise some kind of salvation, it does not at all follow that all religions are promising the same salvation. The beatific vision described as the salvation for which Roman Catholics strive may not at all appeal to the Buddhist striving for nrivāṇa, and one Buddhist’s nirvāṇa may not appeal at all to another Buddhist. The religious pluralist is not in the least bothered by this, for he has no expectation that all people should have the same ultimate goal.
I am both a religious and a moral pluralist. It is probably this fact that makes me quite comfortable with both Quakers and with Buddhists, and with several varieties of each of these. It is my pluralism that makes it possible to call myself both a Quaker and a Buddhist.I have no wish or need to convince others that this approach to life makes sense. Given one’s temperament, religious and moral plurlism either makes sense or it doesn’t. James was probably right in saying that for some the very idea refrigerates the hearts within their breast. Perhaps the most one can ask of such people is that they at least recognize that they are sharing a planet with people whose mentalities are constructed other than theirs and that there is no evidence that this fact is plunging the human race into disaster. If anything is proving unworkable and disastrous, it is the conflict that comes about when those whose dispositions incline them more toward absolutism and dogmatism attempt either to impose their wills on others or to rid the world of those who have other absolutes or those who have no absolutist tendencies at all.