Archive for the ‘morality’ Category

In the New York Times:

Granted, every religion has a sense of exclusivity as part of its core identity. Even so, I believe there is genuine potential for mutual understanding. While preserving faith toward one’s own tradition, one can respect, admire and appreciate other traditions.

An early eye-opener for me was my meeting with the Trappist monk Thomas Merton in India shortly before his untimely death in 1968. Merton told me he could be perfectly faithful to Christianity, yet learn in depth from other religions like Buddhism. The same is true for me as an ardent Buddhist learning from the world’s other great religions.

He goes on to note the central message of compassion in Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam.

I grew up in a church very, very tied to an exclusivist message that said that Christianity was the only true religion and it was our sacred duty to proselytize the world’s people, out of compassion for their eternal souls and their ability to live an abundant life on earth. I was trying to explain to my folks a couple of weeks ago that I no longer find it necessary to believe the Bible is True to understand how important it is to people. My dad tried to argue with me that it must be true, or there is no reason to believe it. I presume my philosopher brother would argue something similar (he’s built his career on writing about the evidence of God in general revelation–but don’t ask me too much, cause I don’t retain his argument).

Do you think similar morality and ethical ideas unite the different faiths, or that there are essential logical ways that different religions clash? I recognize the logical differences, but think the ways that religions shape lives are more important. I am currently in a place where I just simply don’t understand anymore twisting our lives and minds to fit closely to a 2000+ year old document. I do understand gaining inspiration from that document (and many others) to live a moral life. I also understand why some people find so much joy and guidance from the Bible, but wonder if I am not one of those why I need to continue to shape my life to its dictates (if I ever really have).

I asked two people on my recent trip why they believed the Bible should shape their lives and found their two very different answers interesting and compelling. I’m thinking about asking a bunch more people that question and maybe write up an essay.


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Such a radical thought for me:

You certainly have to be ready for meditation. You have to come to it at the right time in your life, at a point where you are ready to listen carefully to your own voice, to your own heart, to your own breathing–to just be present for them and with them, without having to go anywhere or make anything better or different. This is hard work.

Hard work to spiral inward? Not to progress forward? Not to make life better for me and my friends and the world in general. Very interesting.

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update to the update:

And then of course there’s the 10 dollar t-shirt sale TOMORROW cause of their anniversary! (actually today, Thurs, since most of you will read it on Thurs)

Been living with the same four basic t-shirts for about four months now and thinking about shopping. Got all excited by this cool website with t-shirts designed by artists and folks. I found a couple I think I might get, if I get over freaking out about money enough (some are only 12 bucks!). I was very excited by this Globe Trotter design, till I realized, well, it looks like a celebration of Britain’s worldwide empire.

Sometimes it sucks to be aware of the past. Well, that and not wanting to be a poster child for imperialism. Kinda ruins a whole lotta romantic ship imagery too, ya know? Like can’t get over the fact that those ships might be carrying slaves? (Grandpa gave us an awesome tapestry for our wedding of a ship getting ready to sail. I tacked it up happily in all our apartments till this last one…cause…well, I keep thinking there are slaves on that ship, or there is cotton from the new world picked by slaves, or guns ready to go to Africa to pick up more slaves…)

All the past is screwy and varied and awful stuff happened. That’s the problem with romanticized images. So, you know, I’m gonna get this t-shirt cause it’s not a romanticized version of the Renaissance at all:

I love trees and I love cities, so I also thought of getting this one, which is sort of a modern riff on the one above:

Other t-shirts on the site are the very opposite of romanticism, but it’s hard for me to imagine wandering around with skulls on my chest. Why not the excessively geeky puns, then? And do I really have the money? And I dearly adore many of them so how do I choose?

Best not to press purchase tonight, methinks. Cause after all it’s really just a way to escape writing my conclusion, which is actually going quite well, thank you one of my folks who provided a nice neat outline with a quote from her dissertation’s conclusion, but my brain is on vacation in t-shirt land.


I could totally wear this skeleton around and about town. Ladies and gents and folks who haven’t made up their minds, we have a new candidate:

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It’s a good thing I didn’t sleep through church today (Grandma had to wake me two times). The sermon today was pretty much directed right at me. (He said later that it wasn’t “just for me” and the texts were the ones on the liturgical calendar). Still, it was fairly clear that some of our conversations had spurred his thinking.

The Bible texts were about prophets being shunned in their own country. He talked about civil rights leaders, finding support even in times of struggle, and we sang the two most famous African American hymns (We Shall Overcome and Lift Every Voice and Sing–I tried to sing out so that the earnest little old ladies might know where we were going). He shared some of the times when he spoke the truth to people and they weren’t ready to hear–namely three times he realized during pre-marital counseling that two people weren’t suited, but they got married and then divorced. He also mentioned some things about why history is important, and suggested that “someone” do a study on the faith basis of the Civil Rights Movement. And indeed, “we” the congregation might have the resources to do just that (and looking right at me). Afterwards he asked if I would be interested in leading a couple of sessions on the faith of the CRM. I said I probably could in April.

I really appreciated it. I like it when people talk about living through suffering, and finding God there in the midst of it, rather than talking just about overcoming it. God doesn’t promise good people blessings for a life of faith, in my opinion (I know there are many Christians who think God does just that.)

Before we left, I started reading Acedia and Me by Kathleen Norris. Acedia is an ancient word for a kind of temptation that monks in particular suffered (and by monks, I mean the desert fathers–about whom I’ve heard much lately and know very little). It was a kind of torpor, boredom, spiritual depression that people who work by themselves are particularly liable to. I think it may be an accurate description of the spiritual malaise that accompanies my depression, but I’m not sure. I’ve talked often here about how I feel like I do not give back enough–that I am too settled in a comfortable life. According to the amazon.com page on the book, Norris talks about how acedia can mean the paralyzing despair that liberals find themselves in when they discover all the world’s problems and how little mark we as individuals actually make on them. But there’s something off about my reaction to the book. It’s like Norris is speaking in a parallel universe, where I recognize that her words should mean something to me, but when I think about them, they actually don’t.

My spiritual despair has very little to do with boredom (though now as I say that, I do realize that I express a need to pursue new things quite often, and get bored when church is too repetitive). Well, repetitive in a way that I don’t agree with. At the end of every methodist service here, we hold hands in a circle and sing a song of blessing. When we give the offering, we sing the doxology. Those are things I don’t get tired of.

I have lots of other books sitting around waiting to be read in my time off–a novel by Carrie Fisher about a woman bi-polar whose husband leaves her for another man (which I may have lost patience with), the book on Women writing about the Bible that I mentioned before, the memoir Eat Pray Love because it’s been coming up a lot lately in my podcasts and I feel out of touch, a Terry Pratchett novel I started on the plane and never finished, Your God is Too Small by J.B. Phillips per my mom, an article on Marilyn Robinson in Christianity Today and a pile of New Yorkers. Oh, and a book on interfaith dialogue I got for Christmas. Then there’s the stack of half research, half keeping up in my field books that I’ve collected or brought with me–the new, and depressingly boring, history of the NAACP, a nicely written history of the Urban League, collected writings of Randolph Bourne, and on and on it goes. Then there is my art and the gym and the crossword puzzle (which is helping my google injured brain remember names and words without that look of pain that often crosses my too young face for those kind of memory lapses).

And then there is the always distracting internet. What to do with my bit of rest time on Sunday afternoon before trying, desperately, to get Chapter 3 done? Amazingly enough, it’s actually going fairly smoothly (given how many dozens of times I’ve edited the pieces of this, I am glad for that at least). I figured out the larger point of the chapter and just have to weave that through the rest of the text, write a new intro, a few mini intros/conclusion and a new conclusion. Plus I received a new bit of information after putting the chapter to bed that I need to make a bigger deal of. And evidently, I need to spend almost an hour typing away at my blog.

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modern morality

Hotel Babylon is driving me crazy. I started watching this BBC dramedy about the staff at a five star British hotel because John Barrowman is in one episode and it was free to stream on netflix. It’s pretty entertaining, too. But a couple of episodes have this strange morality. They want to make their characters complex, but also likeable, while exploring the idea that anything can happen at a hotel.

To whit:

One episode explores the reality of illegal immigrant employment in hotels. The head of the maids (a regular character) is threatened by the immigrant police with getting sent back to Australia on a outdated visa or else give up someone else and get five more months to sort it out. She is one of the more “moral” characters and plans to give up herself until she sees an African immigrant (who works in the back area as a doctor and otherwise as a janitor) beating his 17 year old daughter. So she ends up giving up the father b/c he is abusive. basically separating him and his underage daughter. It seems like this is going to be a good exploration of a complicated moral situation, except that the last scene is of the daughter hugging the head maid, making it alllll ok.

Then the last episode I watched, a whole lot of maids got fired for making extra money stripping and cleaning rooms, while high end call girls regularly walk through the front doors. And there was absolutely no discussion of this discrepancy. Just obvious moral disgust with the maids and acceptance of the call girls. We’re a society in flux and don’t know what our morals are, I suppose.

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A story in the Oct 26, 2009 New Yorker, “Chinese Barbizon: Painting the Outside World” by Peter Hessler, about Chinese workers (particularly a group of painters who are commissioned to paint scenes of Europe and America that they don’t understand).

Together with her boyfriend, Chen earned about a thousand dollars every month, which is excellent in a small city. To me, her story was amazing: I couldn’t imagine coming from a poor Chinese farm, learning to paint, and finding success with scenes that were entirely foreign. But Chen took no particular pride in her accomplishment. These endeavors were so technical and specific that, at least for the workers involved, they essentially had no larger context. People who had grown up without any link to the outside world suddenly developed an extremely specialized role in the export economy; it was like taking their first view of another country through a microscope.

The Lishui experience seemed to contradict one of the supposed benefits of globalization: the notion that economic exchanges naturally led to greater understanding. But Lishui also contradicted the critics who believe that globalized links are disorienting and damaging to the workers at the far end fo teh chain. The more time I spent in the city, the more I was impressed with how comfortable people were with their jobs. They didn’t worry about who consumed their products, and very little of their self-worth seemed to be tied up in these trades. There were no illusions of control–in a place like Lishui, which combined remoteness with the immediacy of world-market demands, people accepted an element of irrationality. If a job disappeared or an opportunity dried up, workers didn’t waste time wondering why, and they moved on. Their humility helped, because they never perceived themselves as being the center of the world. When Chen Meizi had chosen her specialty, she didn’t expect to find a job that matched her abilities; she expected to find new abilities that matched the available jobs. The fact that her vocation was completely removed from her personality and her past was no more disorienting than the scenes she painted–if anything it simplified things. She couldn’t tell the difference between a foreign factory and a farm, but it didn’t matter. The mirror’s reflection allowed her to focus on details; she never lost herself in the larger scene.

The author also quotes a fascinating story about Jesus as a Taoist figure. The moral of the story is that we should not try to change the world. So different from my own personality and understanding of the world and yet so fascinating.

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If I had written this post last night when I wanted to, it would have come out much more freaked out. So for the authentic emotional experience, imagine my voice progressively rising in pitch and volume throughout this piece.

I had a marathon play experience yesterday. The Theater Department put on Palmer Park, a play about integration in Detroit following the Detroit Race Riots written semi-autobiographically by a white Canadian woman. She gave a pre-play talk, which I attended with my advisor, then we broke for dinner, then the play, then a post play discussion which included two black professors from the history department, one of the black actors, and the white director and dramaturg.

Part of the reason I was interested in the play was because I had picked up a copy of it last year at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (where it was first performed). I thought then, and to some extent still think, that it is an interesting, complex discussion of race relations. Certainly more so than the play I lambasted here a few months back. Unlike that one, which truly seemed to a rise just from a liberal guilt sense of including a black person for the pure sake of diversity (read tokenism), this play arose out of the playwright’s own experiences, one of which was this clash between the middle class blacks of her neighborhood and lower class blacks across the street. The play centers around a group of parents trying to keep their school integrated because integration of the middle class kept resources in the school. And this is a moral question I perennially think about…parents make moral decisions based on the best circumstances for their own children which in aggregate often create many social problems (like the incredible re-segregation now present in our country). But even as I write that, I need to emphasize–segregation isn’t necessarily a problem unless it is accompanied by discriminatory social services.

So like I sometimes do, I was listening for the interesting portions of the playwright’s pre-play talk. I heard her equate integration with good education (the heavy implication being than an all black school was necessarily a failing school). She mentioned the economic differences between many of these communities, where, for example, in one school district of Chicago they spend $800 a year on a student and in another they spend $17,000. But that’s not the first thing I mentioned when I turned to my advisor after the talk (I mentioned the interesting class discussion). He did mention the way she equated good with integrated, and I felt like an idiot. One of the legacies of the way we teach and discuss Brown v. Board of Education in this country is the assumption of many whites that “integration” is necessarily a moral good and that segregated schools (read the black schools under segregation) were necessarily horrible b/c they were filled with black students. Part of this is because of the way the psychologists testifying at the hearing used the black and white dolls. But part of it is also the hubris of being white. Well, of course, blacks would want to be in our schools. And of course black schools are failing. It ignores the many incredible efforts blacks have made over the years to become educated.

So then the play. I sat near the black professors, so we could chat, but once there was more than one, I was pretty much ignored. I did get to talk with one a bit before the performance and I knew the play had upset him. During the intermission, two moved down the row, so they were no longer near me. I tried not to take it personally. They had purposefully put themselves in the limited view seats, perhaps because they found it that painful.

Watching it rather than reading it, I realized that the play is sort of a litany of things that the white woman learned while living next to and befriending black neighbors. What do I do with the little girl’s hair when she sleeps over? Why do the neighbors get dressed to the nines to go on a car trip? Why do they spend way more time making their homes sparkling? Is there color preferences within black communities for lighter skinned folk? Why do black folks seem to know so much about whites when whites don’t know very much about blacks? (The playwright mentioned several times that the whites in the neighborhood where something like sheep, so innocent were they of race relations). These are things I think many whites go through when first learning about race relations. I know I had a ton of questions about black culture when I started and a lot of mis-understandings. So I think it is a good thing that she explored these things in her play, and did it in an effective way.

The problems arise in a few different places…The black characters in the play come across as “more white than the whites” (taking that from the phrase “more British than the British”). They have little to distinguish them as blacks other than their heightened pursuit of cleanliness and education so as not to fall into stereotypes. Furthermore, they all bewailed the responsibilities expected of them as educated blacks. They felt responsible, in a burdensome way, for all the blacks not becoming successful. On some level, I think this is the way some whites understand the spirit of responsibility in black communities–through the gaze of its a burden. Because if a white person had to feel responsible for every white criminal in the papers, it would seem like a burden. And most whites don’t necessarily have to take on the responsibilities of an entire race.

But here we’re getting close to something that so disturbed me last night. I had wanted to mention during the discussion time that most of the black middle class folks I knew through my studies enjoyed various aspects of black culture. They did identify as having this specific culture, even while also striving for a middle class lifestyle that necessitated putting on a double consciousness to live in a semi-white world (much less white, on some level, during Jim Crow; and then again, more white too). One of the black professors raised the problem during his comments that the playwright categorized the sense of responsibility as unilaterally a burden, when in fact many, many black middle class folks took it up eagerly and faithfully.

And here is something I’m petrified about my dissertation. I recognized that sense of responsibility early on, because I think I was raised with something similar in the Christian church. But lately, I’ve been stressing in my diss the ways in which blacks lived with that “burden.” And some of my folks did find it a burden, though certainly not all. And some found it a burden one day while finding it a meaningful pursuit the next day. I am also emphasizing in my work the individuality and “lives lived” of my folks…i.e. that blacks had a right not to be activists. Sometimes it feels like all of African American history is searching for the activists, searching for proof that blacks did fight the conditions they were given. But sometimes that feels like it sets up too many expectations, and ignores certain things in the search for activism. One of the things I find most interesting is relationships between individual intellectuals (black to white, but also importantly black to black).

But now I am scared shitless that I am just pressing my own expectations down onto the data of my dissertation. I mean, certainly, I am going to choose the data that I chose based on my own understanding of its importance. But what if I am just as simplistic and uninformed as the white playwright? What if I, too, only see the public face of the double consciousness? What if I have mistakenly painted the sense of responsibility as a burden, because that is the way a white person would interpret things? (on the upside, I thought of this myself during the play, rather than only realizing it after the black professor spoke).

This is the problem with such a massively huge dissertation. The thought of editing it freaks the hell out of me. Particularly in these undercurrent thematic type things. Those are things you work on after getting all the ducks lined up in a row–what is the overall sense that the document is giving off, based on the particular emphases you give line by line. I have a hard enough time working on the themes of a 30 page document, let alone a 700. I try to keep telling myself that it doesn’t have to all happen Right Now, but that doesn’t really help. If I get a call from a job, they’ll want to see my dissertation and will judge my abilities based on it (granted, if it’s a mostly white search committee, they might feel more comfortable with the way I express things, but I would absolutely not want to alienate any potential black colleagues off the bat). And, that black professor most vocal last night will be reading it and commenting on it at my defense. I need to come up with a better justification for it than that given by the white playwright last night (my one black friend liked it!)

Part of the reason I’m rambling on at this length here is that I’m thinking about taking on some of these undercurrents of race relations in a conference paper I need to finish this weekend (unless I give up and use the one from earlier in the semester).

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