Sunday, May 23, 2010

Now and Then

Be here now!   Ram Dass, the psychedelic guru of sixties, gave that advice decades ago, and it’s never really gone out of style.  So a more recent spiritual guidebook is called The Power of Now.  Then there’s Simple Zen: A Guide to Living Moment By Moment.  Another author preaches The Naked Now: Learning to See As the Mystics See.  Enlightenment, judging by the book titles at least, means not living in the past or getting tangled in worries about the future. 

With no sense of the past, however, there would be no real reason to experience remorse or feel regret for mistakes made, no real incentive to atone or make restitution for misdeeds.  Moral categories of guilt and forgiveness fall by the wayside. 

Sometimes we should feel sorry for things we’ve said and done, in my opinion—and try to behave better in the future than we acted previously.

Wallowing in the past can be unhealthy.  But amnesia about our personal and collective history can also be debilitating.  Should America forget its history of slavery, or Germans just drop Auschwitz down the memory hole?  As William Faulkner said of the South, where the shadow of the Confederacy and Jim Crow still lingers, “the past isn’t over; it’s not even the past.”

Whatever enlightenment means, it must imply more than living in a perpetually sunny present moment   It must entail being able to see the Big Picture—where our lives unfold through good times and bad, where nations err, tragedies occur and crimes are committed, but where failures need not be endlessly repeated, not at least if we remember what needs to be changed and resolve to reform.

“One day at a time” may be a helpful philosophy for some.  But I think it takes three days to make us fully human: yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Together they give the present instant—this brief interlude between eons gone by and endless years to come—its fullest savor.


Friday, May 14, 2010

Arizona the New Mississippi?

Is Arizona trying to whitewash history?

This week Arizona’s Governor Jan Brewer signed a law forbidding the teaching of ethnic studies in the state’s public schools. The law would dismantle popular programs in Tucson classrooms that expose students to Mexican American history and culture.

The Tucson Unified School District’s website states the curriculum’s goal is to instill “respect, understanding, appreciation, inclusion, and love” among its students. But Tom Horne, the state’s Republican superintendent of schools who pushed the law and is running for office to become Attorney General, says letting blacks learn about African American history or offering Latino studies to Spanish-speaking youth fosters “ethnic chauvinism.”

By the same logic, learning about the Holocaust promotes anti-semitism.

Frankly, I wish I’d learned more non-European history back when I was in the public schools. Lately, I’ve been reading a book titled Latinos: A Biography of the People by Earl Shorris, which has filled in some big gaps in my appreciation of the Hispanic contribution to America’s present and past.

For instance, did you know Santa Fe was settled in 1598 by Juan de Onate, before Jamestown in Virginia or the Pilgrims reached Plymouth? (Reminding me of Will Roger’s quip that, while his ancestors didn’t come over on the Mayflower, they were on the shore to greet the ship’s passengers as they disembarked.)

Did you know that California passed a statute in 1856 that was actually called “the Greaser law” aimed at unsettling the already-established Spanish-speaking population?

Were you aware that a demand for “English only” education would eliminate hundreds of Spanish words from the North American vocabulary that are in daily use, words like tomato, cigar, hurricane, coyote, and plaza?

Ethnic studies don’t propagate hate. Racism does. And unfortunately, Arizona (which was first explored by Spanish Franciscans in 1539 but didn’t join the United States until 1912) is rapidly becoming the new Mississippi.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Baby Gandhis

Where does morality come from?  Nature or nurture?

Do we acquire our notions about fairness, kindness and decency from our culture and upbringing, or are we born with some inherent sense of right and wrong?

Religious teachings have traditionally affirmed the Nature view.  Morality is implanted in the soul. The knowledge of good and evil is intrinsically human, inherited from Eve and Adam as far back as Eden.

Scientists, in contrast, have mostly been of the Nurture school.  As Freud had it, babies as born with  a cauldron of selfish desires guided by the pleasure principle, in conflict with the demands of civilized society, which strives mightily to impose a Superego of “thou-shalt-nots” upon the infant’s raging Id.

But new research from Yale University, reported in the New York Times this week, suggests both may be right.

Surprisingly, even very young babies seem to have a well-developed sense of what it means to be naughty and nice.  Watching a puppet show with two characters, one of whom is obviously cooperative and another who doesn’t play well with others, one-year-olds when given a choice will almost always reach for the good puppet and avoid the one with the mean streak.

Or the babies at Yale’s Infant Cognition Center watch three geometrical shapes act out a modern morality play.  A yellow circle tries to climb a hill.  The red square attempts to help it up the hump, while a green triangle pushes it back down.  Results show babies prefers shapes that help to those that hinder.

The experiments remind me of a story from the autobiography of the well known 19th center preacher Theodore Parker.  Parker became a moral beacon to his generation, a leader of the abolition movement.  But his ethical education, he recalled, stemmed from an experience he had a four-year-old.  Walking in a field, swinging a stick, he spied a tortoise sunning on a log.  He raised the stick to hit the animal, but an inner voice told him “no.”  Relating the incident to his mother later, she told the boy that the voice was Conscience, and that if he followed it faithfully, it would never lead him astray. 

Science seems to indicate she was right.  We may not all be Baby Einsteins, but  babies do appear to have an inborn idea of good and bad behavior. We're Baby Gandhis, if you like.

What infants lack, the research shows, is a sense of impartial regard for strangers.  They prefer those who speak a familiar language.  They are more comfortable with people of the same skin color.  They seem to have an innate prejudice that favors their own in-group.

So while “being nice” comes naturally to most people, becoming unbiased is apparently a lifelong endeavor requiring learning and the acquired ability to empathize beyond your own immediate clan or tribe.

The conclusion?  Even the “good people”  (which includes most of us) need to work hard to act ethically in our diverse, religiously variegated world.

Friday, May 7, 2010

National Day of Posturing

The Washington Post reported that about one hundred people gathered near the U.S. Capitol today to protest a federal district judge’s ruling that the “National Day of Prayer” violates the U.S. Constitution.  Justice Barbara Crabb of Wisconsin decided last month that the annual observance is “an inherently religious exercise that serves no secular function.”

About 1000 Evangelicals were present yesterday, when Rev. Michael Hall of the International Bible Reading Association proclaimed that “as Christians we don't need a political strategy, we just need God's word.”

The protesters said they were just there to commune with God. “"No personalities. Just prayer. No party divisions. Just prayer,” according to Nancy Sharman of the National Day of Prayer Task Force.

But if there is no political strategy and no partisanship involved, why orchestrate the event on the Capitol steps? Why demand that Congress validate the National Day of Prayer, or that the President endorse it? Presumably Christians (and others) can offer their supplications with or without an official act of government.

If the motive is not political, what is it?  Jesus, after all, warned in the Gospel of Matthew not to parade your piety before men.

The National Day of Prayer was enacted by a resolution of Congress in 1952, amid the McCarthyite hysteria that “atheistic Communism” was taking over the world. Today it’s become a narrow, sectarian expression of the Religious Right.

In a Bible-thumping worship service held in the Cannon House Office Building (owned b y U.S. taxpayers), Franklin Graham, son of the famous Rev. Billy Graham, told an audience filled with Congressmen and Pentagon brass that, "My prayer is that America once again will worship the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Where does that leave Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, pagans, atheists, or the millions of honest Christians who are loyal, patriotic citizens but don’t buy Graham’s fundamentalist fervor?

Graham is free, under the Bill of Rights, to pray whatever he likes. But he shouldn’t expect the U.S. government to say “Amen.”