Photo by Alejandro Groenewold/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0
When one introduces the topic of the ethics of meat eating, a debate about religion will often follow. Scriptural texts will be invoked either for or against the practice. In short order, the diets of the Buddha, Muhammad, or Jesus will be considered. Recently, the invocation of beloved environmental writers such as Aldo Leopold has joined references to the traditional sacred texts of Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. Leopold — famous for proposing the concept of "thinking like a mountain" — introduced the eco-centric view of a "land ethic."
The first-ever panel on Animals and Religion at the American Academy of Religion was held in 1994, consisting of Andrew Linzey, Catherine Keller, Paul Waldau, Jay McDaniels, and myself. While the points made by the panelists were theological, the discussions that followed ranged from the purpose of "canine" teeth in humans to the defense that eating meat is enjoyable.
An audience member suggested to the panel that "It's a dog-eat-dog world." Christian theologian Andrew Linzey responded, "Isn't that what Jesus came to change?" Paul Waldau pointed out that, in fact, it is not a dog-eat-dog world. Dogs rarely eat dogs.
The digressions that occur in such discussions — then and now — suggest that approaching the issue from the lens of religion or ethics can often become muddled and unfocused. But at least five approaches for addressing the issue of the consumption of animals arise when one studies religion:
1) Most religious traditions postulate a vegan beginning. In the religions that hold the Book of Genesis as a part of their scriptures, a vegan diet is pronounced as the appropriate food for human beings (Genesis 1:29); the much-contested "dominion" granted in Genesis 1:26 is dominion within a vegan world. Christopher Chapple suggests the possibility that one can trace religious ideas of the practice of nonviolence to an ancient renouncer tradition that later gave birth to Jainism and Buddhism and influenced aspects of Hinduism, including the classical yoga school. This is one of the reasons Rynn Berry calls Jainism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism the "four ahimsa-based 'vegetarian' religions." What do those beginnings suggest about our relationships with other created beings?
2) As mentioned above, some find it helpful to invoke what Jesus, the Buddha, or Muhammad ate. Recently, the question has shifted to "if they were alive in our time, what would they eat now? If they learned about the way animals live and die within factory farms, what would they do?" Would they agree with the winner of the recent New York Times competition that "most present-day meat production is an ecologically foolish and ethically wrong endeavor"?
3) What is the nature of creation and what is our place in it? Some religious traditions are seen as reinforcing human-centeredness because they appear to suggest that humans are the teleological fulfillment of creation. Are we removed from creation or embedded within it? If our relationship with creation is a religious issue, and since animals are a part of creation, is not our relationship with animals also a religious issue? Karen Davis suggests in response to Aldo Leopold that before she could think like a mountain, she wanted to know if that would include thinking like a chicken. In other words, we should not lose sight of the individuals within creation.
4) What are the effects of anthropormorphizing God? Does an anthropormophic God cause us to see animals as excluded from God's love or concern? Moreover, what is the effect of seeing humans as in God's image? Why is being in God's image often interpreted in view of power and manipulation and hegemony instead of compassion and mercy and emptying unconditional love? Do we anthropomorphize God out of properties that we are most likely to be using against others? We are most likely to assert the image of God when we are lording over others, and using our power. Acts of unconditional love, suspensions of judgment, mercy for the weak, kindness to animals, get associated with a picture of wishy washy ineffectualness and weakness — qualities often seen as undesirable.
5) How do we show compassion and who are our neighbors? Do animals fall within a religious call to be compassionate? Are animals our neighbors? While most religions might have what some call a "miminal treatment" ethics regarding how animals should be treated, recent writings argue for expanding that. In their Religious Vegetarianism, Kerry Walter and Lisa Portmess suggest, "Whatever the sacred and the holy are thought to be, the human slaughter of animals questions it, renders it paradoxical, demands reflection." In my own work, I have found the writings of Simone Weil illuminating. Weil writes that all our neighbor requires of us is to ask "What are you going through?" and to be willing to listen to the answer.
What are you going through chicken, cow, pig, lamb, fish? This may be a more profound and urgent question in the twenty-first century than ever before.
Carol J. Adams is the author of The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory, Woman-Battering, Prayers for Animals, and a four-book children's series of prayers for animals. In addition, she has edited and co-edited five anthologies, including Ecofeminism and the Sacred. She is working on a book on theology and animals and you can read more on her website.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
A leprosy clinic Calcutta. (Photo by Donna Todd/Flickr/cc by-nc-nd 2.0)
When the geophysicist Xavier Le Pichon was 36, he had a "major crisis" in his life. As his scientific research consumed his time and energy, he found himself alienated from others in the world. He "was not seeing the people in difficulty and suffering," he said, and that led him to resign his academic positions and stop conducting his research. He went to Calcutta, India, "to Mother Teresa's place" and spent six weeks working with people in a home for dying destitutes.
In "Ecce Homo", Dr. Le Pichon writes of the foundational experience:
"How old is the small boy lying on the pallet? Five, eight, ten? Misery and suffering are ageless. Emaciated, coiled up like a fetus, all his life has taken refuge in his eyes, immense eyes that look at me without any blink. He was picked up in the street two weeks ago. The sister thinks that he will soon die. 'Try to give him something to eat.'
This is the only task that I can fill in this home for dying destitutes of mother Teresa of Calcutta. With my children, I have learned how to spoon feed a baby. From the motions of the lips, of the tongue, I detect when it is possible to delicately introduce a tiny bit of food in the mouth. The infants are so fragile that the only food they can accept is one that is given with tenderness. The proximity of death has brought back this child to his infancy.
In the position he has taken, lying on his side, it is not easy to get the grains of rice in his mouth. He would like to help in order to please me. But he does not have this strength any more. The grains of rice fall on the napkin that I have spread below his chin. Small windows through the upper part of the walls diffuse a peaceful translucent light that envelops the rows of bodies from which groans are rising. The street noise that comes from the outside strangely appears to come from far away. Yet this peace islet is in the heart of one of the most life teeming quarters of Calcutta. Above the child, against a pillar, a statue of the Virgin Mary is presiding over the exchange between the child and me, exchange that penetrates in the deepest part of my heart.
Who is this child that the tidal wave of human misery has deposited among the dozens of other 'dying destitutes,' as announced on the board at the entrance: 'Home for dying destitutes.' Why did I have to travel over ten thousand kilometers to meet him so that he would completely reorient my life?
Suffering has suddenly swept my soul: it has washed away everything in me. How so much suffering that I had not even noticed could be present next to me? As I had been standing on the crest of the advancing wave of our scientific and technologic civilization, I did not even glance at the debris left over by its flow. I was looking ahead. And suddenly, among the debris of my civilization, this child becomes for me a person, the most important person in my life.
'My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?' In the eyes of this child, it is Jesus on his cross, in the mystery of his abandonment, who reveals himself to me. I never felt him to be so close. Jesus alive, taking upon himself the pain of the whole world, revealing to me that I had abandoned him. 'For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink. I was a stranger and you did not receive me as a guest, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' Mary, his mother, is there, also present. I now understand why she is always there, next to the cross. How is it possible without her to live this suffering without revolt? The peace that comes from this child, in the middle of his pain, I know that it comes from the presence of Mary.'"
After encountering that child in Calcutta in 1973, he realized life as he had lived it would be different:
"I could not go back to my lab and continue to live as before. The “Poor” had knocked at my door. I had opened it. He had entered and was now with me forever. Borrowing the words of Isaiah, I had recognized in this child my own flesh and I could not escape any more. I did not know his name and yet he had given me a new name that I had been expecting for years. Within his suffering, my new friend had a mysterious power of presence that had enlightened my own self. In exchange for the small amount of love that I had been manifesting in my own poor way, I had received the gift of the Spirit of God who was dwelling in him. Through this gift I had been confirmed in the depth of my living being, that is of my loving being, who needs presence and who needs at the same time to give himself and to be received fully within a unique relationship."
Dr. Le Pichon then returned to France and consulted with Father Thomas Philippe. He encouraged him to come live in the L'Arche community, and share his life with suffering people. But, the wise priest and friend also urged Dr. Le Pichon to continue his work as a geophysicist. Pursuing these dual passions of science and spiritual community, Xavier Le Pichon continued to ponder the implications of the fragility that marks human life at its beginning, its end, and at places in between.
During the decades Xavier Le Pichon spent working on his scientific theories explaining plate tectonics, he's come to see the analogies between the "rigidity" and what he calls "ductility" of the Earth and human communities he's witnessed from India to France:
"As I knew from my own scientific experience, the weaknesses, the imperfections, the faults facilitate the evolution of a system. A system, which is too perfect, is also too rigid because it does not need to evolve. This is true in politics; it is true within a society, within families, within nature.
A perfectly, smoothly running system, without any default is a close system that can only evolve through a major commotion: the evolution occurs through revolutions. An example from my own geological domain illustrates this very important point: most of the earthquakes occur within the upper fifteen to twenty kilometers of the Earth. Let us take the example of California. The western portion glides toward the northwest at about four centimeters per year along a major fracture, which is called the San Andreas Fault. Yet during about one hundred years, the two lips of the fault stay in contact and the corresponding four meters of motion are absorbed by elastic deformation over a width of about one hundred kilometers on both sides of the fault.
Then suddenly there is a break: this is the earthquake. The two sides jump back to their equilibrium position with a corresponding quasi-instantaneous relative motion of four meters (100 x 4 cm) of the two lips of the fault. Yet below fifteen to twenty kilometers, instead of these discontinuous, abrupt motions, there is a continuous creep at four centimeters per year without any earthquake. Why? This is because at this depth, the small defaults of the crystals within the rocks have been activated by the increase in temperature and relax the rigidity, allowing a continuous creep to release the plate tectonic forces and thus avoiding the necessity for periodic disasters. Above this depth, on the contrary, the defaults are 'frozen in' because of the colder temperatures. The rocks keep their rigidity until they are fractured, thus producing the earthquake. One moves from rigid and brittle rocks, within the upper layer, to ductile rocks below that can deform in a continuous fashion under the action of tectonic forces.
The same thing is true for all systems that need to evolve. Contrarily to what is often assumed, the weak and imperfect parts are often those that allow the evolution to occur without any revolution. This is true for the evolution of life, which is in great part based on the occurrence of coding errors during the duplication of the genetic information.
One can ask whether it is not also true of our societies. We tend to dissociate the individuals who are well adapted to our social life from those that have difficulties to follow the pace that is imposed on them by our life style. Yet a society that separates the producers from the others considered as dead weight, even as marginal or excluded individuals, is a hard society, characterized by conflicts and often by complete rejection of minorities. It is sad and pessimistic. On the contrary a society where all are well integrated has a much more adaptable structure, with a different, easier and more conciliatory mode of life. It is often happier and more optimistic."
"The ideas of science make it so important for humans — it’s part of what makes being human worth being human, the ideas of science,”
Dr. Lawrence Krauss said.
On July 13, Dr. Krauss sat down with radio show host and producer Krista Tippett for the final interview in her week-long series based around the theme, “Inspire, Commit, Act.”
“The ideas change our perspective of our place in the cosmos, and to me, that’s what great art, music, and literature is all about. When you see a play, or see a painting or hear a wonderful piece of music in some sense, it changes your perspective of yourself, and that’s what science does in a profoundly important way and in a way with content that matters.”
Dr. Krauss is a theoretical physicist and foundation professor at the School of Earth and Space Exploration and physics department at Arizona State University. He is a frequent contributor to publications such as The New York Times and Scientific American. He has authored many books, including, The Fifth Essence: The Search for Dark Matter in the Universe; Fear of Physics; and Atom: An Odyssey from the Big Bang to Life on Earth…and Beyond.
In his conversation with Ms. Tippett in the Hall of Philosophy, Dr. Krauss discussed his own experience with religion, the excitement and beauty of science, scientific progress and the universe, how science can provide comfort, a positive understanding of life and provided a short lesson on the recently discovered Higgs boson particle.
Dr. Krauss was reared in a Jewish household, but religion was always considered the root of tradition and social machination rather than as a source of ideas:
“I read the Bible, I read the Quran, I read a bunch of things when I was a kid and went through phases where those myths appealed to me. And then I grew out of it — just like Santa Claus.”
Early in his life, his mother, who hoped he would become a doctor, pushed Dr. Krauss toward science. Reading about scientists and science further sparked his attention. As he, he focused his scholarship on physics.
“Physics was always, by far, the sexiest of the disciplines and still is by the way."
Scientists do the work they do because it is fun and exciting, Dr. Krauss said. In our world and society, it is becoming increasingly common to view science from a narrow, utilitarian lens; essentially, people see science as the physical technologies it creates rather than the ideas it fosters.
“To me, one of the most exciting things about science is the ideas. Science has produced the most interesting ideas that humans have ever come up with."
Dr. Krauss lamented that we live in an era where it has been both common and acceptable to be science illiterate. That is dangerous, especially when everything around us that keeps us alive is fueled by scientific research. It is shocking that the presidential candidates do not have a debate centered around science, he said.
In 1996, Dr. Krauss published The Physics of Star Trek. The physicist said he liked science fiction until he realized how much more exciting the scientific ideas, discoveries, and questions behind it could be.
“People imagine science fiction as an imaginative rendering of science, when in fact science is a far more imaginative rendering of science fiction.”
In the Star Trek narrative, two very important ideas are posited.
“The Star Trek future is a better place because of science. And I can’t resist saying it here, now that I think about it. It was one of the reasons in Star Trek that basically they’ve dispensed of the quaint notions, the myopic views of the 21st century, including most of the world religions.”
Dr. Krauss is director of the Origins Project at Arizona State.
“All of the interesting questions that I can see in science, and for the most part in scholarship, are based on the topic of origins.”
In his work, Dr. Krauss asks questions about the origins of the universe, life, and consciousness. He asks questions that seem to combine both scientific and spiritual curiosities.
One vast difference, Dr. Krauss said, can be found hidden within the word “choice.” In religion, philosophy or theology, many questions and questions of origins are started with the word “why.” Dr. Krauss said he believes asking questions with the word “why” implies a presumption that there is a greater meaning, a greater significance, when in fact, no evidence points to that.
Science alters the kinds of questions we ask, because science is always progressing, pushing at the frontier and finding new knowledge so new questions must be asked, he said.
Two hundred years ago, when Darwin was studying and writing, he worked on understanding the origin of the diversity of species — he never attempted to define the origin of life, or the origin of matter, and he laughed off the notion that one ever would, Dr. Krauss said.
“But today, that’s exactly what we’re talking about,” he said.
The scientific world is full of ideas, questions, discoveries and failures. Often the information gathered by scientists challenges preconceived notions about the nature of the universe or religious beliefs.
“Being uncomfortable is a good thing, because it forces you to reassess your place in the cosmos. Being too comfortable means you’ve become complacent and you stop thinking. And so being uncomfortable should be a spiritually uplifting experience.”
One of the most important and widely discussed scientific discoveries in recent history is the Higgs boson. In his lecture, Dr. Krauss traced the recent progressions in scientific thought and understanding, which have allowed for the revolutionary finding. He discussed how that has expanded the scientific frontier and allowed for the eruption of a new set of questions and ideas.
The importance of the discovery reflects and celebrates a change in the understanding of the universe that took place approximately 50 years ago, Dr. Krauss said.
There are four basic forces of nature: electromagnetism, gravity, and strong and weak forces. At the start of the 1960s, only one of the forces — electromagnetism — was thought to be understood. By the end of that decade, scientists understood three of the four forces, Dr. Krauss said.
The realization that all forces could be understood by one mathematical formalism prompted that growth in understanding, Dr. Krauss said.
“You know you make a breakthrough in science when two things that seem very, very different suddenly are recognized as being different aspects of the same thing."
In the ’60s, scientists proposed that electromagnetism, a long-range force that works across long distances, and weak force, a force that is responsible for nuclear reactions on the sun and is prompted by short-range interactions between nuclei, were fundamentally the same.
Forces are understood in physics as the exchange of particles. Historically, it was theorized that electromagnetism was a long-range force because the particle exchanged was a photon, which was massless. It was also thought that in weak force, particles were exchanged over minute distances, because the particles were massive.
But with the realization that those particles could be explained by the same math formula, the proposal came that those particles were essentially the same and massless, Dr. Krauss said. The only way that could be possible would be if there were an invisible field with which massless particles could relate.
“If this invisible field permeates all of space, you can’t see it, but if the particles that convey the weak force interact with that field and get slowed down like swimming through molasses, get retarded because of that interaction, they act like they’re massive, whereas the photon doesn’t — it remains massless. Then everything would work.”
Scientists are not in the business of creating forces, Dr. Krauss said. So following that proposal, physicists have been at work trying to detect that invisible force. Because if something exists, it should be detectable, Dr. Krauss said. If the field exists, scientists proposed that if they hit it with enough energy in a small enough region, an observable particle should be produced. That is what Higgs scientists think they have discovered.
“What’s really beautiful is every time we make a discovery in science, we end up having more questions than answers. Having discovered the Higgs does not close the book. We still don’t understand why this Higgs field exists in the universe, and by why I mean how."
Mystery drives science, Dr. Krauss said. Though concepts such as religion, mysticism and other similar schools are based in mystery, the difference is science has changed the language of mystery and progresses with the gathering of real knowledge.
“Science has moved beyond, has taken us beyond our childhood.”
In the lecture, Ms. Tippett discussed the value of religion and spirituality for aiding, preparing, and comforting someone who is on his or her deathbed. She asked Dr. Krauss what science would be able to say to a dying person.
“Every single thing that religion provides, rationality, empiricism, and science can provide. And not only that — they can provide it better.”
People should be taught the truth about death — that it is a natural, necessary part of life and that it will happen. The meaning of life is the meaning you make of it, Dr. Krauss said. That knowledge should be instilled in people not just on their deathbeds, but throughout their lives, so they make decisions in a way that reflects that reality. Moral and ethical decisions cannot be made or decided without a basis in reality, Dr. Krauss said.
“If the stars tonight realigned themselves and said ‘I am here,’ in Greek — presumably, ancient Greek — then I’d say, ‘Maybe there’s something to all of this.’ ”
He said, though, that when there is no evidence of something, it becomes highly unlikely.
“It seems to me the knowledge that the meaning we have is the meaning we make should inspire us to do better.”
Ms. Tippett asked Dr. Krauss whether he would appreciate or understand religion more if he experienced it in a different way. She read Dr. Krauss a passage from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Jewish theologian:
“It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion — its message becomes meaningless.”
Wise people can come from any background, Dr. Krauss said. Wisdom is born of experience and knowledge, and there have been many wise thinkers and writers from religion, such as Maimonides. However, he said, he is often confused by why people who are so wise feel they still need religion.
“There’s beauty in the paintings that Leonardo da Vinci and others, Michelangelo and others, did in context of religion. That’s just a response to the culture of the time, and I don’t see why given what you know now you can’t have that same wisdom without discarding the provincial basis of it.”
In the closing minutes of the lecture hour, Ms. Tippett and Dr. Krauss discussed the scientific refutation of the historical precedent to create “us versus them” scenarios, which often lead to prejudice, violence, and inhumanity. He said:
“Science can provide a realistic basis of understanding how artificial and myopic the definitions of us versus our enemies are. We’re made of their atoms. And every atom in our body was once inside a star that exploded. One of the most poetic things I know about the universe is that we’re all stardust. These are amazing things and they have content and they’re true.”
If you're like me and finding yourself pining for the Olympic Games that are now over, take hope. Keith Loutit and Jarbas Agnelli's shot over 170,000 still images for this tilt shift video of Rio de Janeiro and Carnival. The music and photography are brilliant, and the 2016 Olympic Games can't come fast enough.
Hanan Harchol is back. In his last set of animated videos, he focused on the Jewish concepts of teshuva (repentance) and slicha (forgiveness). This time he focuses on the love, asking us to pause and think anew about what love is or can be. He turns an eye to people who are overly focused on what they can get out of a relationship, rather than the inherent rewards of giving:
"Look, it’s complicated. I’m looking for something else. My life is going in a different direction. It’s nobody’s fault. I just always had a certain picture in my mind, of what I want out of my life and what I want in a relationship, and honestly, what I think I really need, is to find myself. You know, I need to spend a little time focusing on me right now."
By Mustafa Abdelhalim, guest contributor | Tuesday, August 14, 2012 - 9:26pm
Egyptian soccer coach Hany Ramzy, a Coptic Christian, consoles defender Islam Ramadan after the London 2012 Olympic Games men's quarterfinal match between Egypt and Japan on August 4, 2012. (Photo by Andrew Yates/AFP/GettyImages)
During the 2012 Summer Olympics, each country cheered for its athletes’ success. In Egypt, this hope went beyond winning. For a country with many societal divides, sports — particularly football (American soccer) — can strengthen social cohesion and national identity.
Egypt’s participation in the Olympics could not be more symbolic of the role of sports as a means to regain national pride and social unity. Egypt’s Olympic football team is coached by Hany Ramzy, the Coptic Christian player who led Egypt to victory in the 1998 Africa Cup of Nations championship. Despite the divisions between Egyptians, evident in recent sectarian clashes in many parts of the country, there was unanimous support for the Olympic team. Although Ramzy is the only Copt on the team, Egyptians praise his work and his team, especially after Egypt qualified for the Olympic quarterfinals with a 3-1 win over Belarus.
Football clubs are spread across Egypt and the sport has the potential to help bridge the gap between Muslims and Copts. However before this unity can be achieved, Egyptians must first acknowledge the social divisions evident in the country’s sporting leagues. Only then can they realize the potential of sports as a means to come together.
Hassan Shehata, a Muslim and the former coach of the Egyptian national football team, once said that he selected his players for the Egypt team on the basis of their “religiosity and piety.” The statement caused a massive furor, and was taken as a pretext for not including a single Coptic player on the national football team. The Coptic Church, on the other hand, has its own football league, open to only members of the Coptic community. The example of religious diversity provided by the Olympic team should be replicated nationally.
Egyptians should create sporting leagues across the country in which participation is based on skill and not athletes’ religious or sectarian affiliations. By playing, watching, and supporting sports together, the two religious communities could share a mutual and healthier national spirit, rather than being divided by group affiliations.
We should think of sports as a common language to bring people together. Everyone in the country can use them to communicate, building a relationship based on shared experience.
This is not a revolutionary idea.
In June 2012, London's Wembley Stadium was the site of a “faith and football” day that united students from Muslim, Christian, and Jewish schools. This event was planned by a UK-based organization dedicated to building relationships between people of all faiths, the Three Faiths Forum (3FF), and the UK Football Association, which officially oversees the sport in the country.
Egyptians could replicate this example by creating nationwide leagues to promote intergroup and interfaith cooperation. These teams could include anyone who wants to participate, which would make Egyptians’ shared interest in sports a tool for a more inclusive society.
Sports lessons that promote intergroup unity in schools should be given priority. Everyone should be given a chance to compete to join the national teams, regardless of whether their name is Mohammad or George. Sadly, there are few examples of interfaith football teams in the country.
Though these possibilities may seem ambitious and idealistic in the current context, there are many such examples in Egypt’s history.
In 1998, Hany Ramzy, an Egyptian Copt and the current coach of Egypt’s Olympic team, scored a goal for Egypt in the Africa Cup of Nations championship game. After scoring the goal, he traced a cross on his chest, in a gesture hof prayer to thank God. When Hazem Imam, Ramzy’s Muslim teammate, scored a second goal, he knelt down in prostration, also expressing gratitude through prayer. As they celebrated their victory, with Ramzy carrying Imam on his shoulders, not a single member of the team or the audience cared at that moment who was a Muslim or a Copt.
Although the Olympics have ended, the spirit of the games should continue. Egyptians need to believe in a future that is inclusive and encompasses all citizens. That’s where sport comes in.
Mustafa Abdelhalim is an award-winning journalist who works for Al-Ahram and the BBC.
A version of this article was published by the Common Ground News Service on August 14, 2012. Copyright permission is granted for publication.
Since the 60s, whether in the Catholic or Protestant or evangelical worlds, old school catechetics have fallen out of favor. There's reasons for that, of course.
First, the Q & A catechisms with which many of us are familiar (Westminster Shorter, Baltimore, Luther's Small Catechism, etc.) were forged in the fires of the crisis of the fracturing of Western Christianity. Various confessional bodies needed to get their truth into their people's heads fast and hard, from the sixteenth century through the mid-twentieth. With the rise of the ecumenical movement in the wake of WWII, the confessional distinctives Q & A catechisms supported were downplayed.
Second, doctrine was marginalized and non- or supra-linguistic experience brought to the center, and not only in the mainline worlds. In fundamentalist-cum-evangelical circles, memorization of the Bible (in ways most of us can't even fathom today) was slowly and subtly replaced by an emphasis on good feelings.
Experiment: Think of any youth group experience you've had or known of in the past couple decades. Are youth workers having their kids memorize and really study the Bible, or is it more about games and songs? The Word abides — thinking of AWANA here — but I think it's safe to say that most youth groups are more about fellowship, community, safe spaces, and good experiences than developing serious knowledge of the Bible.
Third, even where doctrine wasn't intentionally marginalized there was a sense that simply knowing the teaching and going through the motions wasn't enough, that one's faith must be one's own faith. I'm thinking here especially of the Catholic Church in the middle of the century. Whatever Vatican II was, it was certainly a call for all Catholics to embrace the faith with their whole beings.
But I think old school catechetics are helpful, and it's good to see them making a comeback.
Consider the illustration above about the four ends of the Mass. (If you can't make it out, it says the Mass is offered for the four ends of adoration, thanksgiving, petition, and atonement.) I imagine it's the kind of thing my mom (who attended Catholic schools in the 50s and 60s) would have had to memorize at some point. It's neat, and clean, and simple, and gives you the confessional truth of the matter right out of the gate. It shouldn't be a place to end, but it is a great place to start.
The current Catechism of the Catholic Church is a phenomenal document, one of the greatest fruits of Vatican II, in my opinion. The text itself is rich beyond belief — like a side pork sundae with homemade ice cream — and then there's the footnotes. If one gets the Companion to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the texts of all the references in the footnotes are there. It's an intertextual theological bonanza.
Given the size and breadth of the Catholic Church in the twentieth century, the Catechism was simply needed to provide a point of reference holding us all together.
But it's challenging to study, even for adults with some theological training. It should be studied by all, but, like the Bible, approaching it directly can be daunting. For this reason, the Church has issued YouCat, a Q & A format catechism for youth (but adults would profit from it as well). But I think there's another reason as well, with a positive and negative aspect: doctrine is back. Positively, there's the recognition that rudimentary, Q & A presentations of Christian doctrine are effective because doctrine matters once more. Negatively, there's the recognition that the abandonment of rudimentary doctrine over two generations in favor of extralinguistic experience has had deleterious consequences. Indeed, Pope Benedict alludes to as much in the foreword to YouCat:
You need to know what you believe. You need to know your faith with that same precision with which an IT specialist knows the inner workings of a computer. You need to understand it like a good musician knows the piece he is playing. Yes, you need to be more deeply rooted in the faith than the generation of your parents so that you can engage the challenges and temptations of this time with strength and determination. You need God’s help if your faith is not going to dry up like a dewdrop in the sun, if you want to resist the blandishments of consumerism, if your love is not to drown in pornography, if you are not going to betray the weak and leave the vulnerable helpless.
One of the best things I ever did was to memorize the Westminster Shorter Catechism as a college student. (Don't think I'm all noble. It was for a scholarship, but still — a great exercise.) As a young person, it gave me a solid doctrinal framework for conceiving of the totality of Christian faith; it helped me put the pieces together in a certain way. Returning to old school catechetics doesn't mean repristinating the bad old days of ruler-wielding, knuckle-cracking nuns, nor does it mean abandoning the call to personal commitment to our faith. But it does mean recognizing that our faith and practice have a structure, a grammar, which we can conceptualize and articulate. Man remains a thinking being, and even our greatest loves and passions involve language. The return to doctrine in the form of Q & A catechetics, then, can only help us give a reason for the hope that is in us.
Dr. Leroy Huizenga is Director of the Christian Leadership Center and Assistant Professor of Theology at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota.
"These songs are poems, the bulk of them are from the 1600-1700 time period. They were a central part of Islamic piety in the Turkish context, and immensely popular in both the urban and the rural context. It was after Ataturk's forced secularization that they disappeared from the public sphere in Turkey, and went underground. People like Oruç Guvenç are central in recovering them not only as pieces of literature, but also as lived, practiced, embodied traditions." ~Omid Safi
At the end of a long day of production in Istanbul, our guide Omid Safi, a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (he specializes in Islamic mysticism and contemporary Islamic thought) led us off the beaten path. Barely a block from the tourist-filled Hippodrome and Hagia Sofia is the studio of Oreç Guvenç.
Four floors up a spiral staircase, and beyond a pile of shoes respectfully left at the door, is a modest room lit with florescent tubes.
The walls are lined with traditional stringed instruments and drums, most of which look handmade. One open window to the street below unsuccessfully attempts to offset the heat generated by the 20 people who gathered to play and sing.
We are welcomed, as usual, with hot tea and treated to a remarkable evening. For nearly 30 years, the ethnomusicologist has been a leader in preserving and advancing traditional Sufi music, focusing especially on music as a tool for healing. This is what we heard at this evening's monthly workshop:
The five interlaced rings of the Olympic flag — blue, yellow, black, green, and red — Pierre De Coubertin said in 1931, represent "the five inhabited continents of the world, united by Olympism." No continent (now region) is assigned a specific color. Perhaps that's why graphic designer Gustavo Sousa intentionally chose not to provide a legend or key for the illustrations above.
In his illustrations, Mr. Sousa assigns each color of the Olympic rings to a specific continent and then pairs it with a variety of data sets: obesity, gun ownership, McDonald's outlets, population, homicides, people living with HIV, military expenditures, Facebook users, number of Catholic priests, percentage of homes with televisions, to name a few. He requires the viewer to ponder, to reflect, to think, to make sense of the information.
As Mr. Sousa explained to Fast Company, "The rings represent healthy competition and union, but we know the world isn’t perfect. Maybe understanding the differences is the first step to try to make things more equal.”
On a Wednesday afternoon a profound stillness swept through the Hall of Philosophy at the Chautauqua Institution as Roshi Joan Halifax led the audience through a meditation that touched on death, grief, and acceptance.
In a series of conversations based on the theme “Krista Tippett and Friends Who Inspire, Commit, Act,” Roshi Halifax sat down with the radio host and producer and discussed her life, Buddhist faith, inspirations, and the vast and human concepts of death, compassion, grief — and neuroscience.
Roshi Halifax is a medical anthropologist, and founder and abbot of the Upaya Zen Center. For the past 40 years, she has helped the dying and their families comprehend and grasp the reality of death and the rituals and feelings that go with the experience of dying. She has studied and written on topics such as death and compassion. “Her wisdom about dying is informed by her wisdom about living,” Ms. Tippett said.
Roshi Halifax’s path toward Buddhism began when she was four years old. She contracted a virus that left her blind for two years. During those formative years, children are immersed in the process of discovery. Blindness forced Roshi Halifax to turn her curiosity inward.
“Another level of your life opens up when you recognize that you have a life that is inside.”
The internal sight she examined during her spell of blindness deepened as she grew older, in part because of her participation with the civil rights and antiwar movements. During the 1960s, Roshi Halifax fought for civil rights alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Later, she protested for peace during the Vietnam War.
“It was a time where we felt we really had the opportunity to engage, not only psychologically, but also socially in terms of changing the global culture — not just our national culture."
Though fighting and supporting the causes constituted doing what Roshi Halifax felt was right, it also left her feeling very polarized, she said. At that time, in her world and philosophy, right and wrong were definite, set in stone. Roshi Halifax said that sense of polarization caused her to suffer.
About the time she first became acquainted with great Zen Buddhist writers such as Alan Watts and D.T. Suzuki, she was attracted to the Buddhist emphasis on training the mind. After she attended their lectures and began reading their literature, Roshi Halifax said she felt she had found her path.
“I went, ‘You know, I’m one of these.’ It wasn’t about religion — it was about a philosophical perspective.”
Buddhism taught Roshi Halifax that she could take agency over her own mind and mold it in a direction away from feelings of suffering or desire and toward clarity and truth.
“In Buddhism, there are practices about actually stopping or cessation, about taking a backward step about coming to a place where the heart and mind are genuinely reflective, where we’re able to perceive reality in an unfiltered way.”
While in her 20s, Roshi Halifax traveled across the Sahara desert to observe the Dogon people. The Dogon are an indigenous people who participate in a rite of passage every 53 years. The actual experience of the rite of passage lasts seven years.
“What I saw was an entire society, an entire culture going through a rite of passage where they died and were reborn."
That experience prompted Roshi Halifax to question what sorts of rites of passage exist in the United States. She concluded that apart from war, there were very few such rites in the U.S that sacralized life or marked maturation of an individual or a society.
“I became very interested in the effects of rites of passage, how we actually mature ourselves and how we integrate into the various life phases — or into the transitions through loss, through death, through geographical change, moving from one place to another and so forth."
While observing the Dogon, Roshi Halifax realized the importance of ritual. Ritual allows people to transcend chronological time. Ritual can provide a sense of both sacredness and normalcy. The combination is particularly important in the experience of dying, Roshi Halifax said.
Roshi Halifax recently returned from a trip to Japan, where she was involved in a discussion regarding palliative care. Increasingly in Japan, the process for dealing with a dying person includes palliative sedation, or “putting a person to sleep,” before he or she dies. With the method, the patient is often unaware he or she is are dying, Roshi Halifax said. It impedes the spiritual and natural experience of dying that is understood in the West.
In the experience of dying, it is important that the patient and those close to him or her experience the rituals that include reconciliation, expressions of love, reflection, and forgiveness.
“The potential within the dying process to refine one’s priorities, to enter into relationality that has been turned away from and also to find meaning — to make meaning of one’s life — is really extraordinary."
Scientific and medical technologies have blossomed during the past decades. It is time to reintroduce spirituality to medicine, she said.
“As medicine has unfolded in the West, it has become kind of a technological miracle but an existential nightmare.”
Roshi Halifax has cared for the dying since 1970. Last year, she was the distinguished scholar at the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress, where she developed a lecture titled, “Inside Compassion: Edge States, Contemplative Interventions, Neuroscience.”
During her conversation with Ms. Tippett, Roshi Halifax discussed the different facets of her scholarship. “Edge states” are the psychological and emotional places to which caregivers are pushed when confronted with the overwhelming challenges of caring for the dying. There are three main edge states: pathological altruism, vital exhaustion and vicarious trauma, Roshi Halifax said.
Pathological altruism refers to when a person sacrifices his or her own well-being in the care of another.
“We harm ourselves physically or mentally when we engage in care of others. This actually affects many women whose identities are actually related to the act of giving care, and who become very self-harming in engaging in giving care, in a way that causes harm to their own lives.”
Vital exhaustion, or burnout, occurs when a caregiver is unable to create a proper separation or boundary between himself or herself and the person or institution for which he or she works. Vicarious trauma refers to when someone works with those who are suffering and begins to take on that suffering as his or her own.
“Say, you know, you’re a person who works in the end-of-life field, or a person who’s a chaplain in the military where you’re hearing these terrible stories of pain and suffering, violence and abuse, and it begins to get you, so you suffer these effects vicariously.”
In today’s day and age, where news media constantly bombard people with horrible news and images, they are often pushed in the direction of edge states. The sadness of the world’s suffering can be consuming, Roshi Halifax said.
“We enter into what we call a state of moral distress and futility, and moral distress is something where we see that something else needs to happen. We feel this profound moral conflict, yet we can’t do anything about it.”
In response to the overwhelming feelings of pain and futility, Roshi Halifax said people often choose one of three routes: moral outrage, avoidance through substance abuse or other means, or elected numbness. “A good part of the globe is going numb,” Roshi Halifax said.
We are privy to so much suffering and horror in our lives, through our own experiences and through what we see on the news, that we never have time to stabilize. Stabilization is almost like pushing a metaphorical reset button on our lives. It can be attained through various means: by going to a refuge of peace and tranquility, such as Chautauqua, or by practicing a form of contemplative meditation, Roshi Halifax said.
“When we are more stabilized, then we can face the world with more buoyancy. We have more resilience, you know. We’ve got more capacity to actually address these very profound social and environmental issues.”
Compassion is not sorrow, or pity, it is a multifaceted virtue, and it is good for us, Roshi Halifax said. People can use techniques such as contemplative intervention to train and mold their minds so that they are still sensitive, compassionate and empathetic without becoming overwhelmed, morally outraged and ultimately numb, Roshi said. Training the mind can allow people to better handle pain and sorrow, so that instead of descending into an edge state, they can remain present, compassionate and active, she said.
A neurological study of the brains of Tibetan monks, by Richard Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry, has proven that the brain changes throughout a person’s lifetime. It never stops growing and never reaches a place where it cannot be changed, if we want to train it, Roshi Halifax said.
“But you have to practice,” Ms. Tippett said.
In the study, the section of the brain that controls our sense of compassion was located. Researchers found that when Tibetan monks, who meditate for thousands of hours in their lives, encounter instances of suffering and pain that these instances elicit a compassionate response. They feel that compassion more acutely than the average person, but they are also able to let it go faster.
“It’s not like meditators are in this state of numb equanimity; in fact, they feel the deep press of suffering, but it is a much briefer impact of suffering on the individual."
When they let go of the sorrow quickly, they are able to embrace their compassion and take positive, effective action. There have been many incredible new studies about the human brain, feelings and virtues — courtesy of neuroscience, Roshi Halifax said. For example, it was recently discovered that there is a bit of the brain that holds the capacity to distinguish self from other.
“When you’re able to distinguish self from other, you can feel the resonance and sense into their suffering, but you can also simultaneously understand that you are not in reality experiencing that pain.”
Neuroscientists have discovered that the brain is constantly growing and changing, so it is important to understand that many of the traits and values human beings possess can be trained or further developed through practices like meditation. Although it is possible to further develop people’s traits that cause them to behave compassionately — traits such as focus, attention and positive affect — it is not possible to train compassion, Roshi Halifax said.
“You cannot train people in compassion, but what you can do is you can train people in the processes that prime compassion.”
During the later moments of their conversation, Ms. Tippett asked Roshi Halifax how people should consider grief. The experience of grief is universal — grief is about loss, and everyone has lost something — people, things, ideas and values. In life, we experience the feeling of loss over and over again, Roshi Halifax said.
“The experience of grief is profoundly humanizing,” she said. “We need to create conditions where we are supported to grieve and we are not told, ‘Why don’t you just get over it.’ ”
The experience of grief helps people locate their internal self and truly define their priorities. The challenges of grief highlight the value of contemplative practice, or meditation, Roshi Halifax said.
“When you are in a state of deep internal stillness, you see the truth of change, the truth of impermanence, that’s constantly in flow moment by moment. That becomes a kind of insight that liberates you from the futility of the kind of grief that disallows our own humanity to emerge.”
Sarah Kay says that listening is the better part of speaking. A spoken word poet who’s become a role model for teenagers around the world, she shares how she works with words to make connections — inside people and between them.
Are we in the matrix? Physicist James Gates reveals why string theory stretches our imaginations about the nature of reality. Also, how failure makes us more complete, and imagination makes us more knowledgeable.
You might call Tami Simon a spiritual entrepreneur. She's built a successful multimedia publishing company with a mission to disseminate "spiritual wisdom" by diverse teachers and thinkers like Pema Chödrön and Eckhart Tolle, Daniel Goleman and Brené Brown. She offers compelling lessons on joining inner life with life in the workplace — and advice on spiritual practice with a mobile device.
The poet Christian Wiman is giving voice to the hunger for faith — and the challenges of faith — for people living now. After a Texas upbringing soaked in a history of violence and a charismatic Christian culture, he was agnostic until he became actively religious again in his late 30s. Then he was diagnosed with a rare form of incurable blood cancer. He's bearing witness to something new happening in himself and in the world.
Disruption is around every corner by way of globally connected economies, inevitable superstorms, and technology’s endless reinvention. But most of us were born into a culture which aspired to solve all problems. How do we support people and create systems that know how to recover, persist, and even thrive in the face of change? Andrew Zolli introduces "resilience thinking," a new generation’s wisdom for a world of constant change.