All posts by worldsmany2

I'm passionately engaged in exploring the great questions of life. These questions encompass all the humanities, arts and science, as well as all the vital domains of life, including personal wholeness, human relationships, cultural literacy and civil society.

Exposition & Confession: Speaking & Writing in Both the Objective & Subjective Voice

One of the benefits of keeping a personal journal or diary for many years is that one is enabled to “overhear” one’s own thoughts and feelings and to learn from them. I’ve noticed that in my own journals I alternate unpredictably between impersonal exposition and personal confession, that is, between the archetypally masculine detached “objective voice” and the archetypally feminine participatory “subjective voice.”

There seems to be both an advantage and disadvantage to speaking and writing in each of these voices:

The advantages of adopting the objective thinking and judging voice is that one can thereby set forth one’s ideas as a set of coherent and consistent principles and observations about life. This is the voice we expect to hear in reading philosophy, history, mathematics and science. It is the language of ideas, theories, observations and discoveries. The disadvantage is that we may try to hide from ourselves, and also from others, our hidden assumptions and biases, our blind spots, our vulnerabilities, limitations, confusing what is only partial truth for total reality.

The advantage of adopting the subjective feeling and perceiving voice is that we allow ourselves to be human, vulnerable, transparent, conditioned, admitting to ourselves and to others the qualified nature and contingency of our insights and observations. The disadvantage is that we may be tempted to “wallow” in and indulge our subjectivity in a way that is unhinged from any attempt to achieve critical distance from what we feel, perceive and simply want to be true.

Fortunately as human beings we are endowed with both an objective and subjective voice, the ability to think with critical detachment and to feel with participatory engagement. It is the dialectical tension and creative balance between these two modes of awareness and expression that round out our humanity. So with my mind I will continue to set forth ideas and principles such as the ones I have recently written on the great ends of education, including the competing agendas of these educational traditions. And with my  heart I will continue to inwardly feel and openly express my own existential needs, hopes, fears and longings in every realm of existence.

When it comes to the subject of education this means seeking to comprehend and expound upon the big picture through detached observation of multiple traditions. It also means revealing what it means to me personally to make connections between each of the educational traditions, and in so doing to live a more fully human, intelligence, effective and creative life. It is my hope that the artful blending of the objective and subjective voices would result in greater wisdom and compassion, awareness and empathy, critical reflection and intimate communion.

 

 

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Right-Wing or Left-Wing: Where Do Our Political Identities Come From?

Have you ever wondered where our adult social, economic and political identities, ideas and ideals come from? There are at least four major sources that are worth taking into consideration. They are psychological temperament, family-of-origin, cultural values and social interests. Let’s examine each of these in turn:

One: Psychological Temperament cannot be ignored as a factor in the formation of one’s social, economic and political ideas, ideals and identity. However we look at temperament, there are clearly psychological differences between those who habitually describe themselves as “right-wing” and “left wing.” Generally speaking, those in the “right-wing” tend to have more archetypally “masculine” personality structures. They naturally value and are drawn to hierarchy, strictness, individualism, competition, tradition, ethnic purity and certitude. By contrast, those in the “left-wing” naturally value and are drawn to egalitarianism, permissiveness, collectivism, cooperation, progress, multi-cultural diversity, and ambiguity. These are not only psychological orientations but cultural values as well.

If we drawn from the Jungian temperament polarities we can recognize the right-wing as predominantly extraverted, sensing, thinking and judging (ESTJ). Again, by contrast, we can recognize the left-wing as predominantly introverted, intuitive, feeling and perceptive (INFP). Of course this model is not meant to be merely dualist and either-or but rather modeled on a bell-curve with perhaps even a majority people (the true silent majority of moderates) in the middle between the extreme right and left wings.

Two: Family-of-Origin cannot be ignored in understanding how we arrive at our adult political identities. It should not surprise us that most people adopt the political ideologies of the families in which they were raised. Socialization and indoctrination occur quite naturally around the family dinner table and in conversations of friends of the family. Birds of a feather flock together. As we grow up we tend to hear half of the conversation, the side with which our family-of-origin agrees. The other side is often distorted and satirized, and sometimes demonized with name-calling and labeling. We learn to respond predictably to the family dog-whistle. Words like “liberal” and “conservative” become fighting words, never mind that we don’t have any historical context for understanding the merits of these social traditions.

If and when we marry we often adopt the same political party and ideology as our partner. Sometimes one member of the partnership has stronger and more fully shaped political views than the other. He or she will tend to influence the other to “come around” to his or her way of thinking. Life is easier if a couple share the same political views, even if political identify is more important to one member than the other.

Three: Cultural-Moral Values are constellations of connected ideas that form a gestalt. We speak of the right-wing as the law-and-order party and the left-wing as the peace-and-freedom party. These ideals and principles mirror our psychological temperaments. All of us grow up in a cultural milieu whether we know it or not. It is influenced not only by our family-of-origin but also by our peer-group, intellectual aptitudes, educational fields, academic pursuits and work-place environment. We know that by conducting value surveys of different demographic regions we can predict which political parties a majority of those citizens will belong to. It seems we are herd animals and like to be among our own. For example, If I drive a few miles south to Ashland, Oregon I will find myself in a community that is overwhelmingly liberal, progressive, bohemian, artistic, esoteric, expressive, permissive, Democratic, left-wing. If I drive a few miles north to Medford, Oregon or west to Jacksonville I will find myself in communities that are relatively conservative, traditional, bourgeois, practical, exoteric, restrained, strict, Republican, right-wing. People move to Ashland who want to be among other liberal, progressive people. Sometimes people move away from Ashland because they want to be around more conservative and traditional types.

Four: Social-Economic Interests also play an important role in political identities. It is no secret that the libertarian and conservative right-wing party appeals more strongly than the left-wing to the white, male, working-class and to the white, rich upper-class and oligarchs who want to get rid of what they regard as wasteful and anti-free-market government regulation. By contrast, the communitarian and liberal left-wing appeals more strongly to a diverse multi-cultural and multi-ethnic citizenry, including women, gays, Blacks and Hispanics.

Economic employment is a major factor in social interests. Those who earn their living in the private enterprise, banking and commerce sector tend to be right-wing, while those who earn their living in public health, education and welfare sector tend to be left-wing.

All of this is to say that the process whereby we form our divergent political identities is a complex and many-sided process, but that its is not entirely an enigma. Our psychological temperament, our family-of-origin and peer group, our collectively reinforced cultural values and our social-economic interests all play a part.

One final comment: Whether its a bird or a plane, both the right-wing and the left-wing are required for the bird or plane to fly. In the Taoist Wisdom Tradition the Yang and the Yin are necessary to the creative dialectic which is the Integral Tao. If either the Masculine Yang or the feminine Yin were to make Total War on the Other, the health and integrity of the Tao would be undermined and destroyed. When a society rushes to the polar extremes where either or both sides can no longer listen to and truly hear each other, where each holds the other in mutual contempt, that society is in a state of fragmentation and alienation. Sanity involves a recovery of critical reflection and constructive dialogue where both sides, actually multiple sides, can meaningfully and respectfully engage the others. As E.M. Forster put it, “Only Connect.”

 

Six Educational Traditions: The Tensions Within and Between Them

In my most recent blog I outlined five educational traditions that alternately compete with and complement each other in our academic institutions today. These are (1) the utilitarian (or instrumental), (2) individuating (or developmental), (3) transcendental (or existential, (4) classical (or canonical), and (5) progressive (or pragmatic) tradition. Now in response to the insightful analysis of my daughter Christy Lang Hearlson, who is completing her Ph.D. from Princeton in a related field of scholarship, I am adding a sixth tradition, (6) the Critical Justice (or prophetic) tradition.

In addition to these we can include the strictly individualistic and opportunistic tradition that is singularly focused on materialistic, commercial and consumer values, on money, status and success, or getting ahead in the rat race. For many this had become the new default purpose of education.

What I want to point out in this blog is that there are fissures, tensions and divides not only between these educational traditions but also within them. Here are some of the internal tensions between each of the six educational traditions. Sometimes these differences are viewed as compatible and complementary. Sometimes they are viewed and competitive and incompatible. And sometimes they are simply viewed as incomparable, like comparing apples and oranges, or better, bananas and elephants.

One: Within the utilitarian (or instrumental) tradition we can differentiate between these who emphasize basic life skills and basic work skills. We can also differentiate between those who emphasize proficiency in math and those who emphasize proficiency in reading.

Two: Within the individuating (or developmental) tradition we can differentiate between those who emphasize different aspects of the whole person and those who emphasize the development of all the vital life systems. The elements of the whole person include the physical, emotional, social, aesthetic, rational, volitional, ethical and spiritual dimensions. The various life systems include the self, partner, family, friends, work, leisure, culture and society. Obviously these can all work together, but there are whole schools of counseling and psychotherapy that tend to fixate on one or several of these elements while largely ignoring or minimizing the importance of the others.

Three: Within the transcendental (or existential) tradition we can differentiate between those whose worldview includes some kind of spiritual, metaphysical or transcendental dimension that is at work either beyond the natural physical world or more complexly both beyond and within it, and those who reject all metaphysical truth-claims with the conviction that “nature is enough.”

Moreover, we can differentiate between various “theological worlds” such as the existential, intercessory, redemptive, humanistic, prophetic and mystical options. The existential option views the divine mystery, however conceived, as “suffering with us.” The intercessory option views the divine mystery as that to which we pray for the provision of protection, healing and our daily bread. The redemptive option views the divine mystery as the source of forgiveness and adoption. The humanistic option views the divine mystery as concerned with the realization and fulfillment of our true humanity. The prophetic tradition views the divine mystery as engaged in the human struggle for social justice and compassion. The mystical tradition views the divine mystery inviting us to participle in or to become one with the divine life.

 Four: Within the classical  (or canonical) tradition we can distinguish between those who emphasize the primacy of the humanities and the arts on the one side and mathematics and the sciences of the other. We can also distinguish between those who emphasize the ancient Judeo-Christian tradition, the classical Greco-Roman tradition, the European philosophical tradition, the American constitutional tradition, or some other tradition, whether religious or secular, ancient or modern.

Five: Within the progressive (or pragmatic) tradition we can distinguish between the classical American pragmatists like William James and John Dewey and the so-called neo-pragmatic ironists like Richard Rorty and the post-modern tradition. Classical pragmatism emphasizes relational pluralism and the practical consequences of different beliefs, values and practices. Neo-Pragmatism moves further in the direction of post-modern relativism, irony, contingency. It seeks to live with not only competing but also an ironic and perhaps absurd plurality of incomparable narratives. There is no “grand narrative,” just local stories and myths deluding themselves that they constitute grand narratives. “Theories of everything” are viewed as the last delusions of rationalistic modernity.

Six: And finally, within the critical justice (or prophetic) tradition we can distinguish between those who emphasize either social class, gender, sexual orientation, race, tribe or nation as the primary power-struggle and political divide. Within the social class approach we can distinguish between those who identify primarily with the under-class, working class, middle class or upper class, along with the various educational and occupational levels and pursuits that correlate with the American social class system.

In any case the distinctions between our various educational traditions are far more complex and nuanced than any simple classification would suggest. Once people decide which of the six major educational traditions that most strongly identify with, a new argument breaks out among those who inhabit different “tribes” and “camps” within the same tradition. We continue to parse our differences to make finer and finer points until it appears to those outside the particular tradition that we are all make much ado about nothing. Some of the fiercest debates are not between the six educational traditions but between those who inhabit the same tradition but see it from a slightly different perspective. Of course if one is comfortable with mystery, ambiguity, plurality and paradox these debates, whether within or between educational traditions, or for that matter religious and political traditions, can be a critically constructive dialogical process. Those who are committed exclusively to the zero-sum logic of absolute dualism will succumb to the temptation to engage in a war of one against all.

 

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The Great Ends of Education: And Why We Are Dumbing Down

From time to time the Chronicle of Higher Education publishes an article on “the great ends of education.” When I was engaged in campus ministry in higher education at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington in the 1080s this was a lively topic of academic discussion. When I served in campus ministry in higher education at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Oregon the topic once again become one of lively interest, with the president of the university at the time addressing this question to parents and alum.

I would like to propose that there are five central purposes of education as embodied in five different educational theories and practices. There seems to be no universal consensus either within academic or the general American public as to which of these, if any, deserves to be regarded as of the greatest importance. Different educational institutions weigh these five central purposes and educational visions differently. Stated quite simply, they are the utilitarian, individuating, transcendental, classical and progressive traditions.

Allow me to elucidate what is meant by each of these five traditions.

One: The utilitarian or instrumental tradition holds that the central purpose of education should be to equip young people to manage their practical life and work in effective and efficient ways. For this they need proficiency in reading, writing, and arithmetic. They need to know how to manage their time and money, how to work with their hands, how to build things, clean things, fix things, organize things. They need to know how to work, earn, save, and invest wisely. They need to know how to pay their bills and manage their credit cards wisely, to stay out of debt. They need to know how to purchase a car, buy a house, plan a trip, shop for bargains, manage a household. They need to now how to type and use a computer. This is also sometimes called the realistic and conventional tradition. For some people this is the extent of their educational achievement. But for others it is only the beginning of an educated life.

Two: The individuating or psycho-social development tradition holds that what matters most is psychological and social intelligence, maturity in knowing oneself and getting along with other people. Personal introspection and interpersonal relationships are what really matter. So does the ability to express oneself through creative endeavors, whether in music, art, dance, acting, handcraft, sculpture or painting. The prime directive is to know and express oneself in authentic and creative ways, and to collaborate with others in creative and productive projects.

Three: The transcendental or existential tradition holds that what matters as our greatest good is to contemplate our relationship to the highest order of reality, however we envision and conceive it, whether as God, Spirit, Being, Essence, Process, Consciousness, Nature, Matter/Energy, Particles/Waves or the Expanding Universe. And it is also to consider the existential contingency of our natal and moral  lives that are suspended between the miracle of birth and the mystery of death. It will consider our perplexing and ambiguous existence as suspended between the paradox of being and nothingness, fullness and emptiness, realization and negation, emergence and dissolution. For this religious-philosophical-scientific tradition, the great debate between the competing worldviews of theism and atheism, pantheism and polytheism, idealism and materialism, dualism and panpsychism are matters of consequence. This tradition is preoccupied with the ultimate questions of existence and the meaning of life, and approaches them in a concentrated and direct way. It may assume the primacy of either spirit or matter. It may assume that spirit and matter constitute two orders of reality, as in metaphysical dualism. Or it may assume that what we call spirit and matter are two aspects of a single binary yet inseparable reality as in “neutral monism.” Fundamental metaphysical and naturalistic worldview commitments depend upon our existential choices in response to the questions, “What is the nature of reality and what is man’s relationship to the absolute?”

Four: The classical or canonical tradition holds that a truly educated person will possess a broad and deep appreciation for the liberal domains of knowledge and the shape of the past. This will include intellectual inquiry into the liberal disciplines of philosophy, religion, history, languages, mythology, poetry, literature, music, arts, psychology, sociology, as well as mathematics and all the physical and life sciences – physics, chemistry, geology, geography, botany, biology, anthropology, paleontology, anatomy and physiology. It will cultivate an appreciation for the multi-disciplinary language games of symbols, myths, ideas, principles, narratives, poetics, creations, discoveries, theories and practices.

Moreover, it is centered in the ideal of encounters with the best that has been thought and written, created and discovered by the best minds across the ages in the world’s many cultures. It aspires for not only specialties in the various humanities, arts and sciences, but for a general knowledge of everything that his common to our general humanity. It is the classical tradition that cares about “the great books” and about the importance of libraries, book stores, museums, dictionaries and encyclopedias that contain the general knowledge of the world. It is the classical tradition that cares about keeping alive the great ideas and narratives of Greek and Roman antiquity, as well as the  classical knowledge and wisdom of all the other world civilizations. While such knowledge is often regarded as in intrinsic good that needs no further justification, sometimes the classical tradition will reach out to join hands with the instrumental, individuating, existential and social-civic educational traditions. It will make common cause with other traditions to strengthen its own hand.

Five: The progressive or civic-minded tradition, often identified with John Dewey’s progressive pragmatism, holds that the highest purpose of education is to develop and raise up disciplined “professionals” in every walk of life and to groom competent leaders with character and courage who will serve our democratic republic for the greater good of all.

Of course there is another hidden purpose of education that I have not mentioned. And yet it is the proverbial elephant in the living room. This is a view of education that sees it as nothing other than a ticket to making money and getting ahead, to looking out for Number One and grasping the brass ring. It is highly individualistic, acquisitive, commercial and competitive  without being “individuating” in the sense of cultivating emotional and social intelligence, much less philosophical reflection, cultural literacy or civic engagement. To a great extent it seems to me that much of our educational enterprise today as succumbed to the temptation to abandon the greater ends of education, especially the individuating-creative, transcendental-existential, classical-canonical and progressive-civic.

This failure of education has serious social consequences. The result is a society of uneducated and misinformed yahoos and philistines whose lowered intellectual IQ and educational vacuity inclines them to rally in mass to the raging, insulting, narcissistic and obscene voice of a racist, xenophobic, sexist, bigoted demagogue. It is time for our society and academic institutions at all levels to revisit the essential questions: What are the great ends of education? What is the relation between life-work management, self-cultivation, spiritual/existential reflection, cultural literacy and civil society? What is the meaning of an authentic, whole and fully human way of life?

Heterogeneous Temperament, Multidisciplinary Intelligence

It has long occurred to me that some people are endowed with homogeneous temperaments while others are endowed with heterogeneous ones. Those with the former tend to become specialists in one field of intellectual field of enquiry and to reflect a singular point of view. By contrast, the latter tends to become generalists in many fields of intellectual inquiry and to reflect a plurality of points of view.

Our society tends to recognize and reward the specialists, whether the field is science or spirituality, philosophy or poetry, history or literature, politics or psychology. But what do we do with those relatively rare individuals who develop their multifarious humanity as “passionate amateurs” throughout their lives in many disparate fields of intellectual inquiry and cultural experience? What do we do with our multidisciplinary learners who may or may not achieve the status of “polymaths” through a lifetime of broad reflections, diverse encounters, inclusive empathy and voracious reading across the entire liberal arts curriculum?

Some multidisciplinary thinkers with heterogeneous temperaments may initially establish themselves as authorities in one specialized field of knowledge, but eventually expand from that base to include an ever widening circle of interests that encompass all the humanities, arts and sciences, as well as the social, economic and political realms of our common life. Some of them make their start as nature writers and scientists like Loren Eiseley and Michael Polanyi, or literary essayists and cultural critics like Lionel Trilling and Joseph Epstein. But soon enough it becomes clear that their minds are inwardly compelled to roam as freely across the Serengeti of existence as the lions and antelope roam in the boundless wild. There seems to be little that they do not think about and imaginatively consider in one way or another. They do not belong to one sectarian party or ideological camp, though they have their considered preferences and are not without sober convictions. They seem to defy the ready made categories by which we conventionally pigeon-hole individuals as “this or that.” They seem to be “a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and a whole lot more” that defies our reality-fixing labels.

We need such free spirits today whose minds roam across wider territories than most of us in our modern, specialized and technocratic society allow ourselves to consider. They retain a sense of the sacred and a sacramental reverence for life but without the trappings and dogmas of any established religion that would capture and contain them. They have become “lights unto themselves,” illumined by the torches of ten thousand wise souls from many traditions who have come before them. They have a kind of native wanderlust, a gypsy spirit that is on a perpetual caravan to find out more without reducing the mystery of being to the categories we have invented to explain it, capture, predict and control it. They have not been domesticated but retain some of their original wildness.

They continue to retain “beginner’s mind” while expanding appreciation for the rich diversity of experience and their knowledge of many disciplines. They are able to look at life from many points of view are resist the tendency toward dualistic either-or thinking. They value both the introspective and the observational, the intuitive and the sensory, the emotive and rational, the perceptive and the judicious. They care about the individual and the community, they care about tradition and progress, the past and the future. They respect the rights of the insiders and outsiders, the majority and the minority.  One could say they have ecological minds that always consider the relation of the parts to the whole, seeking the interconnectedness and relation of all things.

Whatever the case may be, it is my contention that these temperamentally heterodox and intellectually multidisciplinary seekers and sojourners embody a many-sided philosophical, poetic, artistic and scientific approach to life, learning, knowledge and experience. I believe they may serve to ground us in our common humanity and the spirit of civility in the midst of today’s society and world that have become increasingly polarized and polemical. We need wise souls who  can help us to see the world through more than one lens lets we be blinded to everything outside our preferred method of insight, analysis, inquiry and investigation.

 

Science and Spirituality

I wrote this letter in correspondence with a friend whose favorite authors include “the New Atheists” — Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, and of an earlier generation, Carl Sagan. Below is a quote by Richard Dawkins that my friend shared with me, and my rather lengthy response which is part of a larger conversation we have been having for many years:

“Spirituality can mean something that I’m very sympathetic to, which is, a sort of sense of wonder at the beauty of the universe, the complexity of life, the magnitude of space, the magnitude of geological time. All those things create a sort of frisson in the breast, which you could call spirituality. But, I would be very concerned that it shouldn’t be confused with supernaturalism. — Richard Dawkins
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The following is my response. It will be apparent that I think “spirituality” is a very slippery word with multiple possible subjective meanings; that I am a friend of science and a lover of nature; that I am a multi-disciplinary humanist with an appreciation for all the vital domains of liberal knowledge; that I am an epistemological pluralist in the pragmatic spirit of William James; that I regard something like “mind-body” (neutral monism) as possibly pervasive in the universe and human consciousness as probably irreducible, non-local and resistant to reductive neuroscience; and I am a harsh critic of reductive scientism that reduces the universe, life, consciousness and culture to mere illusionary epiphenomena that materialistic science can explain away:
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It seems to me that “spirituality” is popular a “weasel word” that can mean just about anything wants it to mean, a kind of cipher where one fills in the blank. When I taught a course at SOU in the philosophy departments some years ago on “spirituality in higher education,” that is what I observed as I asked students to right their definitions of “spirituality.” Their definitions went everywhere and no where. I’m not saying we can’t use the word, but it has become unhinged and unhitched from its root word “spirit” as some higher, transcendent, numinous or meta-physical source of life, meaning and purpose. We still speak of “school spirit” as an enthusiasm for a team we like and cheer for, or even of certain persons being “spirited,” by which we mean they have enthusiasm for life.

I wonder if you may be confusing and conflating “science” with “nature.” One can a sense of wonder at the beauty of the universe, the complexity of life, the magnitude of space, the magnitude of geological time, and much else besides, and yet not necessarily be either an amateur scientist or a professionally paid scientist. These are given or tacit “human”, “emotional” and “aesthetic” responses to the grandeur and delicacy of the natural world. Millions of humans across the ages and in all cultures, scientists or not, have felt a sense of wonder before the wonder and splendor, and we might also add terror and horror of the natural world, whether they could assign astronomically huge numbers to the size of the universe or the age of the earth or not.

When scientists materialists who have just praised the wonders of the universe, of life, of human beings, of human consciousness, moral awareness, aesthetic appreciation, philosophical inquiry, literary narrative, relational empathy, etc. go on to reductively “explain away” our innate or tacit sense of wonder in the presence of nature and human nature as mere illusions or epiphenomenon of an essentially meaningless, mindless, soulless and unconscious universe, are they not taking away with the right hand (rational explicit reductive left brain) what they have just appeared to grant with their left hand (intuitive tacit holistic right brain)? Why do you suppose so many people around the world have the strong impression that scientists are just number counters who like to measure and count everything, to notice quantities but to overlook qualities? This all traces back to Descartes’ disastrous distinction between what he called quantifiable primary properties and non-quantifiable (or qualitative) secondary properties. That itself is an arbitrary and misleading distinction. In time it gave birth to the philosophical error of scientific reductionism. We are still suffering from Descartes’ error which he adopted from Galileo. But that’s a longer conversation that authors have taken books to unravel.

Further, to suggest that “spirituality” – defined as a sense of wonder in the midst of grandeur of nature and life – is the special domain of science and of scientists, is to overlook the importance of the sense of wonder and grandeur in the domains of philosophy, history, poetry, literature, music and the arts, and especially in every day life for billions of human beings have no special interest in raising up the totem of “science” as a kind of secular god. It is another example of some scientists, certainly not all, indulging in self-important overreaching. I’m always happy when I read scientists, science writers and nature writers who are also poets, artists, literati and philosophers with an acute sense of beauty and wonder, writers like Loren Eiseley whose books I love. And I appreciate science writers who love nature, life, and the marvels of consciousness and culture, who celebrate the achievements and gains of scientific work, and at the same time respect the limits of science in the search for meaning (The Island of Knowledge, by Marcelo Gleiser).

I think some people became scientists artists, poets, literati, historians or philosophers in the first place because of their primal and prior sense of wonder, whether expressed through the languages of artistic performance, poetic diction, imaginative narratives, philosophical ideas or scientific investigations. “spirituality” as a sense of wonder in the presence of nature, life and human intelligence and creativity is a given or tacit capacity of all human beings who have not been damaged, traumatized or stunted in some serious way. It is hardly the private reserve or unique domain of scientists who want to be “first among equals,” or more, the universal authoritative arbiters of the broad and pluralistic life of the mind. I don’t hear our great writers and creators in the humanities and the arts needing to defend their hospitality toward “spirituality.” Science is a special case precisely because many reductive scientists have such a bad reputation to science as a breeding ground for presumptive cynics, skeptics and debunkers of everything that gives sanctity, value, nobility and transcendence to the universe and human life. Science has many friends throughout the world but scientism will always be a party of few.

On Appeals to “God” in American Presidental Politics and Professional Sports

Have you ever noticed how often some reference to “God” or “the Big Man Upstairs” is referred to in American presidential politics and professional sports?

Yesterday after winning the Super Bowl Payton Manning thanked “the Big Man Upstairs” for helping his team to win. Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks believes that “God” cares who wins the Super Bowl. Other athletes have said they are not so sure. And some have said that God either doesn’t exist or has “He” (God is always a single male in sports and politics) has no interest at all in our American past-times and sports teams.

Nearly all political candidates – whether liberal or conservative, communitarian or libertarian – involve the name of “God” as their supreme source of spiritual guidance and moral strength. This obscure gnostic deity is invoked as a cipher that can mean pretty much anything one want’s it to mean. It is a “contentless banner.” The main thing is that this presumed deity — the highest order of reality — is on our side authorizing the legitimacy and ascendency of our team, party, cause, agenda, policies, campaign, crusade.

Of course some purists would insist that the important this is that we are on God’s side rather than that God is on our side, as if there is any real difference when human rhetoric, semantics, preaching and propaganda are concerned. We can find biblical proof-texts for any position on any issue we wish to take.

Throughout the ages man has continued to “re-imagine and re-invent God” as a transcendent, immanent and/or relational spirit, power, essence or entity; a pervasive presence, an eternal being, an emergent process, a universal mind, a righteous will, a compassionate heart, a suffering servant, a strict parent, and beloved friend, a passionate lover, a creative soul, the ineffable Tao, the unnamable Source “in which we live and move and have our being.” Man continually constructs and deconstructs the cipher and chimera we call God. One can appreciate why some religious communities prefer not to write the name of God, but rather to refer to god as “GXD” to emphasis the mysterious and unknowable, the inscrutable and bewildering.

I am not interested in settling for others the question as to whether this mysterious (some would say paradoxically hidden and self-revealing) GXD actually exists in any meaningful sense of the word, but only to notice how we “use” this weasel word in popular culture, especially in presidential politics and in professional sports. The word “God” continues to be a part of our popular American lexicon, however obscure, evasive, polyvalent and protean its meaning. For a majority of Americans it continues to be a touchstone, a talisman, a vague reference to something higher, spiritual, moral uplifting, but what that “something” is and what principles and values it stands for is anybody’s guess. In the American Civil War both the Union and Confederate soldiers believed they were killing their estranged brothers for a righteous cause and that God was on their side. Eisenhower said, “I think Americans should believe in God, and I don’t care which one.”

Some people foolishly think the lesson here is that if people no longer believe in God that all the conflict, cruelty, hatred and killing around the world will stop. But when men stop fighting and killing “for God” they find something else, some other highest value and belief, to take God’s place, whether blood and soul, nation and race. In so far as God is a projection of our plurality of human values and interests, man will always fight for these when they appear to be threatened by competing values and interests. Whether he fights in the name of God or Man, Religion or Science, Aristocracy or Democracy, Tribalism or Nationalism, man will attempt to justify his fear, hatred, arrogance and violence under the name of one abstract reified cipher or another. Today in the secular west when appeals to God are in decline, man will continue to call upon various other ciphers such as honor, courage, freedom and patriotism to make war on the enemies of the homeland. Whether God or no God, man will always find some cipher under which he is more than eager to fight to the death and create more killing fields.