27 July 2011

Eddie and the LongFellows

In light of the newest accusations against Bishop Eddie Long, I thought it would be timely to re-post a prior Decatur News Online column of mine from back when news first broke of Bishop Long's alleged offenses. To wit:

I’ve been out of town this week, so I’ve missed all the Sturm und Drang about the accusations swirling around Bishop Eddie Long and his alleged harem of young men from his youth group known as the LongFellows (puns abound, but I’ll refrain).

My faithful readers know I’ve written about Bishop Long previously, criticizing the prosperity gospel and his mansion and his fleet of limousines. But now there’s a new potential blot on his flowing robes. Now there are four young men accusing him of sexual impropriety. And I’m very intentional about saying “potential” and “accusing”, because as an attorney I’m very conscious of our sacred concept of the accused being innocent until proven guilty. Much as I’d like to see Bishop Long (or any hypocrite) knocked off of his high pulpit, I’m doing my best to resist that while he’s still innocent.

And why is it that I want to see him knocked off of his pedestal? Is it simply because I’m so pure that I can delight in the downfall of hypocrites? Somehow I doubt that. That would imply that I myself am not a hypocrite, that I’m not someone who calls for a high moral tone and a grand degree of enlightenment all the while wallowing in moral mediocrity and fuzzy perceptions.

There’s a fancy German word (is there any other kind?) for this concept: Schadenfreude. Basically, Schadenfreude refers to pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others. And isn’t is pleasurable to see people on their high horses knocked off their mounts, especially when you don’t think they have any right to be up there?

Mind you, when it comes to preachers who rail against homosexuality only to be found guilty of their own purported sin, it’s quite easy to rejoice in their downfall. And when said preachers organize retreats and conferences to “cure” people of their homosexuality, and when they stage marches and invoke the name of great civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in support of their discrimination in the name of God, it’s very hard not to root against them.

I really want Bishop Long to fail in his endeavors, because I believe them to be ill advised and contrary to the path of enlightenment. But if I am to be a true practitioner who walks in the light, I should refrain from rejoicing in his possible downfall. I should not take pleasure in his pain. But I really want to!

Why? Why is it so satisfying to me to revel in the flaws of self-proclaimed, self-aggrandizing holy men?

I think it’s probably because I like to project everything I can conceive of as evil onto a shadow figure, which makes me no better than those who rail against homosexuality. I believe that many religious ultra-conservatives who are upset about homosexuality are motivated by fear of the unknown, or fear of something different, or simply fear of the Other. I see the Shadow as a solid explanatory archetype: In brief, it’s essentially that part of a person’s psyche that is repressed, denied, and is home to many of our darker tendencies.

We like to project our own Shadows onto other people or groups of people. This usually manifests itself in our establishing of dualities in the world, often in some sort of we/they grouping wherein we assign all undesired traits to “they”. Note that the Shadow isn’t necessarily limited to an individual person – it can also be applied by one group of folks to another group. In other words, we thrive on enemies, because they allow us to project our own darkness onto some other group of people (‘the Other”).

For the religious ultra-conservatives who deplore homosexuality, the LGBTQ community is their current hot-topic “Other”. I’m not suggesting that all homophobes are repressed closeted homosexuals (but there definitely are a few, and perhaps Bishop Long is one of them). I am suggesting that for whatever reason, these religious folks have decided that much of what’s wrong with today’s society can be ascribed to the growing tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality.

In order to escape from this cycle of repression and projection, consciousness, self-awareness, and self-knowledge are key. As Jung himself put it:

The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge.

Would that Bishop Long and his ilk could come to that same sense of enlightenment, that they would realize that repressing their own Shadow only forces it to emerge in damaging ways. And would that we would all do so likewise.

20 July 2011

Religion and Politics Roundup

As the Presidential campaign starts up, it’s time for the silly season of the confluence of religion and politics to begin. I might try to keep up with this throughout the campaign, but I fear it could be a full-time job, and until someone starts paying me to do so I won’t be able to devote the time necessary to cover the religion-and-politics silliness in full detail. Thus, I’ll be relying on the good reporting of others in this article.

Let’s start with Michele Bachmann, whose husband, Dr. Marcus Bachmann, runs a counseling center in Minnesota that has received criticisms regarding its practice of “reparative therapy.” For those of you unfamiliar with the term, reparative therapy is a Christian counseling approach to homosexuality in which the therapist attempts to “cure” homosexuals of their same-sex attraction. In short, it’s the “pray the gay away” therapy.

Thanks to some nice undercover reporting by John Becker, it’s pretty clear that despite Dr. Bachmann’s prevarications on the topic, his clinic definitely practices reparative therapy. This approach is, of course, rejected by all the leading psychological organizations, including the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the American Counseling Association.

So Dr. Bachmann, husband of Presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, has some religious beliefs that are contradictory to all current scientific research. That’s enough in itself, but here’s the real kicker, as noted by Mr. Becker in his article:

Based on my experiences at Bachmann & Associates, there can no longer be any doubt that Marcus Bachmann’s state- and federally-funded clinic endorses and practices reparative therapy aimed at changing a gay person’s sexual orientation, despite the fact that such “therapy” is widely discredited by the scientific and medical communities.

That’s right, the loudly anti-government Michele Bachmann personally profits (via her husband’s clinic) from state and federal government funds that flow to his clinic with its flawed, religious-based nonsense. To put it another way, your and my tax dollars support this nonsense.

Next up: Herman Cain. Mr. Cain, another GOP Presidential candidate, is all about freedom and liberty, at least until it comes to Muslims, as he has sided with opponents of the construction of a new mosque in Murfreesboro, TN. From a recent interview on Fox News Sunday:

Chris Wallace (host): "So, you're saying that any community, if they want to ban a mosque..."

Herman Cain: "Yes, they have the right to do that.”

Why does Cain believe it’s OK to ban mosques? Because "Islam is both a religion and a set of laws -- Sharia laws. That's the difference between any one of our traditional religions where it's just about religious purposes." For Cain, it’s a matter of the separation of church and state. I wonder if he applies this same separation of church and state to Christians who want to impose their religious beliefs and moral codes on the entire country? Let’s see, where could we go to find out more about that? How about Cain’s campaign website:

Our Founding Fathers recognized a higher power in the formation of this nation…
It was no accident that in some of our earlier years as a free and independent nation that our leaders added “In God We Trust” to all of our currency.
We are free because “In God Is Our Trust.”

So according to Herman Cain, we shouldn’t allow religion to influence the laws of our nation, except when we should.

Next: Rick Perry, Governor of Texas and undeclared (at least for another day or two) Presidential candidate. This guy is scary, because if he does enter the race he’ll stand a decent chance of winning the nomination. Governor Perry is organizing a “gathering of prayer and fasting” for the nation on August 6. According to Perry’s own words from the event’s website:

Right now, America is in crisis: we have been besieged by financial debt, terrorism, and a multitude of natural disasters. As a nation, we must come together and call upon Jesus to guide us through unprecedented struggles, and thank Him for the blessings of freedom we so richly enjoy.
Some problems are beyond our power to solve, and according to the Book of Joel, Chapter 2, this historic hour demands a historic response…There is hope for America. It lies in heaven, and we will find it on our knees.

Now, if you want to pray for our country, I’m fine with that. What troubles me is that an elected official wants to direct and lead us in prayer, and in specific types of prayer with a specific religious focus and devotion. There’s also a hint of some more troubling beliefs in Perry’s reference to the Book of Joel. That’s a touchstone for a group known as the New Apostolic Reformation. For some great background on this group, I’d recommend this fine article in the Texas Observer, or if you’d rather, you can watch Rachel Maddow’s take on it.

Among the members of the New Apostolic Reformation and endorsers of Perry’s Response gathering (and implicitly of his impending bid for the Presidency) are:

·      John Hagee, whose endorsement John McCain explicitly renounced in 2008 after some of Hagee’s sermons came to light in which he referred to Hitler as an instrument of God chosen to gather the Jews in Israel.
·      Peter Wagner, who blames Japan’s economic doldrums on the Emperor’s consorting with the Sun Goddess. Seriously. “The Sun Goddess visits him in person and has sexual intercourse with the Emperor. It's a very, very powerful thing…Since the night that the present emperor slept with the Sun Goddess, the stock market in Japan has gone down. It's never come up since.”

I don’t know how you even begin to wrap your head around such beliefs, but apparently Rick Perry manages to do so. This is one potential President who might force me to emigrate to Sweden in 2012.

Here’s my punch line (borrowed from my spouse’s thoughts): It’s a really bad sign when the Mormon Presidential candidates seem like the normal fellows in the race.

07 July 2011

Why People Pray

Editor's Note: As some have already pointed out, I was not clear enough in this article about what kind of prayer I was referring to (see Michael's insightful comment below). Here I'm examining only the petitionary or supplicatory prayer, the one that asks the Divine for specific things. There are entire realms of meditative practices (including "relational" prayer, intended to bring one closer to one's deity) that aren't the subject of this post. Apologies for not dealing with that better initially.

I'm occasionally bewildered about why people pray, in the face of so much evidence that prayers are often unanswered. And yes, I know all the standard orthodox responses to such a statement, including “God always answers prayers, but sometimes His answer is 'No,'” or, “God's wisdom is beyond human understanding,” or even “God gives us what we need, not what we want.”

These responses would be less lame if they weren't often used in the context of horrible events. Whether it's prayers for the cure of someone's terminal illness, or prayers for someone's safety, or prayers for the end of wars, devotees will fall on their knees (or click on their Facebook and Twitter pages) and pray for a positive outcome of a particular situation. As often as not, these devotees will ultimately be disappointed.

You might expect that after being disappointed time and again by their deities, the devotees would either lose faith or perhaps consider the possibility that divine intervention is not a genuine phenomenon of life. And yet they persist. Adherents of numerous religious traditions around the world supplicate their chosen deity/deities, hoping for divine favor in their hour of need.

So why do they do it? Because sometimes it works, or at least sometimes it appears to work.

Mind you, I'm not interested (at the moment) in rendering judgment on whether divine intervention does occur, or whether the prayers of the faithful really are answered by their divinity, or even whether one can change the structure of water molecules by directing certain energy or music toward them. What I find more interesting in this context is the motivation behind the faithful's supplications. If your god answers your prayers on a seemingly random basis, intuitively that seems a reason to stop praying and just allow your god to work on his own whims.

Surprisingly enough, however, the seeming randomness of answered prayers is exactly the motivation for the devotees' behavior. In behavioral psychology, this is known as variable (or random) intermittent reinforcement. Of all the types of reinforcement schedules, it is by far the most potent.

In experiments with lab rats, researchers demonstrated that providing reinforcement to the rats' behaviors (usually dispensing food pellets in response to pressing a lever) on a random schedule was much more successful in training the rats to perform said behavior than was merely providing reinforcement for each instance of the behavior, or even reinforcing the behavior on a regular schedule (every 5th or 10th, e.g.).

This explains why gambling is such an addictive behavior for some. Imagine yourself watching a room full of people playing slot machines. Eventually, someone is going to hit a big jackpot. There's really no way of knowing which person, or which machine, is going to have the next payout. But you know that one will, eventually. So people keep putting coin after coin in the machines, pulling that lever again and again in hopes that they'll receive a big jackpot (the human equivalent of food pellets).

Gamblers also tend to exhibit superstitious behavior. They'll often wear “lucky” clothes, or use a particular slot machine, or say or do something out of the ordinary in hopes of bolstering their good fortune. They engage in these rituals based on the belief (spoken or not) that they might have some effect on their desired outcomes.

Am I calling God a celestial slot machine? Perhaps. But again, that's a discussion for another time. I really am simply interested in what motivates these supplicants, why it is that they can continue to have faith in the face of such a mountain of evidence to the contrary.

Yes, they believe because they want to believe, because facing the universe with a benevolent, omnipotent deity on your side is a lot more reassuring than facing the universe alone. It's a cold hard world out there, and it's not for the existentially timid. But they also believe because of how we're all neurologically hard-wired.

And so religion goes on. Devotees pray and pray and pray, and every once in a while, one of those prayers yields what appears to be a miraculous (or at least highly unlikely) outcome. Word of this miracle spreads like wildfire among the faithful. Others are motivated to pray even more devoutly, hoping that if their god answered one prayer, he just might look down with favor upon their requests also, hoping that they too can hit the prayer jackpot.

09 June 2011

Human Flourishing - What Is It?

If I’m going to talk about human flourishing and even offer myself up as a “Human Flourishing Consultant,” I suppose I should start with some thoughts on what exactly this concept of human flourishing is. As with so many things philosophical, we can turn to the ancient Greeks for a bit of initial guidance.

Eudaimonia is an ancient Greek word commonly mistranslated as “happiness,” but a more accurate translation would be this term I’m considering, "human flourishing." Etymologically, the word consists of the words eu ("good") and daim┼Źn ("spirit"). Thus, another way to approach the definition is that to exhibit eudaimonia is to have a good spirit.

Eudaimonia was a central concept in ancient Greek ethics, along with the terms arete, most often translated as "virtue," and phronesis, often translated as "practical or moral wisdom." According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, it refers to:

those who understand what is truly worthwhile, truly important, and thereby truly advantageous in life, who know, in short, how to live well. In the Aristotelian eudaimonist tradition, this is expressed in the claim that they have a true grasp of eudaimonia.

This is more than just living a happy life, which to me connotes a hedonic lifestyle, one devoted to maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. At the same time, it’s also about more than just living morally. One can lead a very moral and upright life without genuinely flourishing in most realms (unless, of course, you assume that not fully utilizing one’s gifts is a moral affront to a divine creator or the universe, an argument that has some merit).

I find it to be a particularly American phenomenon that our society is split between two polar opposites on this spectrum. On the one hand are the ultra-hedonists, who believe that the pursuit of pleasure is indeed the highest end of one’s life. On the other hand are the ultra-moralists, usually but not always of the religious variety (militant liberals can fall in this category also), who believe that pleasure is inherently evil and thus a stumbling block to the best life. Per the latter category, remember that America was settled by a group of people (the Puritans) who were too uptight for the English to put up with.

Another fallacy is that one must have an abundance of material wealth to live well. It’s true that it’s hard to enjoy life when you’re constantly stressed about having enough food, or constantly searching for shelter, or living as a refugee from a war-torn region. But once you have the basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter met, you don’t really have to travel much further up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to reach the place where eudaimonia can kick in. In fact, eudaimonia may not even be that dependent on material security. I would assert that the extent to which one lives well flows more from how one reacts to one’s circumstances rather than the circumstances themselves.

But there are some “things” that do lead to human flourishing. Chief among those are the attachments we form to other people. As Jonathan Haidt wrote in The Happiness Hypothesis, a primary external condition of life that can make a person enduringly happier is relatedness, the bonds we form with each other. People live longer, healthier, and happier lives if they have a strong social network, a great group of friends, and a loving partner. As I’ve written before, the one who lives well is the one who loves well.

When it comes to more tangible things, there are also some guidelines to enable our lives to reach their full flourishing potential. As an avid epicure, I’ll use food as an example, beginning again with a quick swipe at American societal trends. Too often we consider food to be at its best when served in enormous and inexpensive portions, without regard to the impact of mega-agri-business on the environment, human workers, or animals. Obviously, anyone seeking to live a life of genuine flourishing must take an ethical approach to his or her food.

Along with food selection, flourishing also requires a mindful approach to food preparation and consumption. You can buy the most humanely and locally raised grass-fed beef available and pair it with heirloom tomatoes harvested by workers paid a living wage, but if you cook the steak until it’s shoe leather and proceed to swallow it down in three minutes flat, trust me, you’re not raising your flourishing quotient.

And that gets back to much of what eudaimonia is about. It’s not only what you do (although that’s part of it), it’s also how you do what you do. You may be familiar with the Buddhist proverb:

                Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.
                After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.

Sometimes our ability to change our external circumstances is constrained by forces beyond our control. That’s not to excuse inaction where we can make a positive change; that’s simply an acknowledgement that we can’t make everything perfect. Our responses to the circumstances in which we find ourselves, however, are always within our control, and that’s another key to human flourishing.

Obviously, there’s a lot more to say about this topic, and I plan to do so in subsequent articles. Hopefully these initial thoughts will give you something to ponder for now, and start you on the road to enhancing your own human flourishing.

10 May 2011

An Open Letter To Rev. Jim Wallis and Sojourners

There has been a great deal of controversy in the past few days over the progressive evangelical Christian magazine Sojourners' refusal to run a video advertisement from the interfaith group Believe Out Loud. In the video, a young child is shown walking down the aisle of a small church, holding the hands of his two parents while receiving stares and awkward looks from those seated in the pews. The reason for the awkward looks is revealed when the camera pans back to show his two parents are two Moms.

In an article in Religions Dispatches, Rev. Robert Chase of Believe Out Loud decried Sojourners' refusal to run the ad. He noted that Sojourners officials wrote back to him, “I’m afraid we’ll have to decline. Sojourners position is to avoid taking sides on this issue.” Rev. Chase wondered what “sides” of the “issue” they were talking about. He asserted that the ad wasn't about same-sex marriage or the ordination of homosexuals, but rather was simply about welcoming everyone into a congregation regardless of sexual orientation.

In a printed response dated May 9, 2011, Jim Wallis (the CEO of Sojourners) stated that it's Sojourners' official policy to be welcoming of all persons, regardless of sexual orientation, and that he and the organization have strived to encourage acceptance and combat bullying and prejudice. He went on to say, however:

“We have also suggested that the major differences of theology and biblical interpretation in the church with regard to issues such as the nature of homosexuality, gay marriage, and ordination are not issues that should be allowed to divide the churches – that local churches should lead the way here, and that an honest, open, respectful, and, hopefully, loving dialogue should characterize the church on these very controversial questions.”

With that background, here's my response to Jim Wallis and Sojourners. If you are also supportive of full LGBTQ inclusion in the Church, please consider taking three simple actions:

READ my letter below
SIGN this letter (as a comment on this post)
SHARE this letter as widely as you can (via Facebook sharing or direct messages, emails, in your own faith community, or wherever you feel the call to circulate the word)

If I can accumulate a decent amount of “signatures,” I'll forward this on to Sojourners and Rev. Wallis.


Rev. Wallis,

I have read the various articles discussing Sojourners' refusal to run the video ad from the group Believe Out Loud, as well as your response on May 9.

First, I take some issue with the characterization of the matter by Rev. Chase. Yes, the ad itself did not explicitly discuss same-sex marriage or the ordination of homosexuals, but both of those issues are very much in the forefront of the debate in so many Christian churches today, and the ad clearly hints at them.

More importantly, however, I take issue with your characterization of the debate and your assertion, “[T]hese debates have not been at the core of our calling.” Sojourners' own mission statement reads, “Our mission is to articulate the biblical call to social justice, inspiring hope and building a movement to transform individuals, communities, the church, and the world.” How the full inclusion of the LGBTQ community in the life and ministry of the Church doesn't fit into the core of social justice, hope, and transformation baffles me. And yet, in your own extensive Diversity Statement, Sojourners manages to completely avoid any mention of sexual orientation or gender identity.

There are genuine differences of opinion within the Christian community regarding same-sex marriage and the ordination of homosexuals. However, differences of opinion, no matter how genuine, cannot be the basis for a prophetic response to an issue of such critical importance in today's Church.

I know you are familiar with the arguments, pro and con, from Scriptural authority and Church tradition. The provisions from the Hebrew Scriptures characterizing homosexual behavior as an “abomination” are on the same page (literally) as those condemning the weaving of clothing from two kinds of fabric or the eating of shrimp. The Pauline condemnations of homosexual behavior come from the same author who also wrote, “Slaves, be obedient to your masters,” and, “I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over men.”

We are long since past the time when it was acceptable in the Church to cite Scriptural authority or Church tradition for the practice of slavery, and most of us have moved beyond barring women from pulpits or positions of authority in the Church. Likewise, it is now time to move beyond our outdated notions of Scripture and tradition on LBGTQ issues, and time for us to proclaim the prophetic message of full inclusion, full marriage rights, and full ordination rights for all of God's children.

Yes, there are two sides to this issue, just as there were two sides to the debate over slavery and the debate over women's rights. Those two sides are Right v. Wrong. Please, consider taking a prophetic stance for right, for justice, for inclusion on this issue also, just as you and Sojourners do on so many other issues we face as a society and as a Church.

Dan Browning

01 May 2011

Courage and Risk

This piece is the result of a rather mundane inspiration. I was updating my Facebook profile recently and I re-read some of my “favorite quotations” I had listed there. I found a couple that particularly struck me, and I realized that I had written a column about a year ago featuring those two quotes. They say it’s good to revisit previous teachings to see how you’re measuring up, so here goes.

The first quote was from J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series: "It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default." The second was from Richard Blais, recent winner of the TV reality show Top Chef All-Stars: "Risk failure for greatness at all cost."

What both of these people were saying, and what they’ve demonstrated in their own lives, is that you shortchange yourself when you go through life too cautiously, never taking risks, never daring to succeed because you’re too afraid of failure.

But that’s not what really set me off in re-reading these. No, not with the “you” pronoun, that wasn’t it. What set me off was reflecting on my own life, what I’ve accomplished and how I’ve lived and what I’ve risked to date. Too often I have shortchanged myself because I’ve gone through life too cautiously, not taking enough risks, and not daring to succeed because I’m constantly on guard against failure. Basically put, I suck at being a courageous person.

Turning to a more traditional source of spiritual quotes, Jesus put it this way: “Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, but he who loses his own life will save it.” It’s one of those wonderful koan-like sayings of Jesus that get folks all tied up in knots. How can someone find his life by losing it? And shouldn’t we want to save our own lives? That’s just basic self-preservation, isn’t it?

I like the idea of saving my life. I don’t want to voluntarily lose it. I’d much rather stick around here another 50 or 60 or 70 years or something approaching an eternity (see previous post for thoughts on that). But that’s not what any of these people are talking about. None of these risk-embracing quotes, not even the one about losing one’s life, is saying that I need to actually, physically die in order to be alive.

In fact, most of us never actually face a life-or-death choice. (Well, unless we consume a standard American dosage of high fructose corn syrup, but that’s another matter.) Almost none of the risks we encounter and consciously make a choice about are the kind that could kill us. And maybe that’s one way to look at risk to make it less formidable.

What if I asked myself, when confronting some decision that worries me and keeps me up at night, “What’s really the worst that could happen if I took a risk here and it didn’t work out?” In almost every situation I face, the answer is something short of, “I’ll die.” It’s also usually short of, “I’ll lose my house, and my spouse and my cat and I will have to live on the streets.” Most of the time, the worst thing that could happen tends to be along the lines of “I’ll have expended a few hours of my time with no fruitful outcome to show for it,” although sometimes it’s more than a few hours and sometimes it would involve actual monetary loss (though not necessarily a devastating one).

So if I’m not facing tangible physical or material threats, what does keep me from taking risks, from acting courageously in the face of life’s challenges? I think that goes back to Rowling and Blais. I fear failure, and the imagined emotional and psychic humiliation that would accompany it. What if I tried some big bold undertaking and I fell completely flat on my face? What would my friends think of me then? What would I think? Wouldn’t I be such a fool for having tried something so outlandish?

But you know what? If my friends would really scorn me for trying something bold and failing, then I need new friends. I need friends who will encourage me – and yes, the etymology of encourage (from Middle English and Anglo-French) is en + courage. Thus, the one who encourages is the one who helps you cultivate and practice your own courage. And if I need friends who encourage me, I need at least twice as much a me who encourages me.

Here’s a suggestion for an existential/spiritual exercise for the coming week, and I’ll keep it in the first person – but feel free to try this at home. Over the next week, anytime I face a choice or decision, if there’s a choice that has more risk or chance of failure to it, but it also has a greater chance for reward or success (assuming that risk isn’t truly life-threatening), I will choose the riskier, the more courageous path.

No one’s born courageous. Courage is something I must cultivate and grow within me, and the way to grow courage is to act courageously.

22 April 2011

Growing Older – It's Not For Girly Men!

I recently read an amusing interview with outgoing California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in which he bemoaned growing older. In his own words (add your own best Ah-nuld accent):

"I feel terrific about where I am in my life, when I look back at what I've accomplished, but I feel shitty when I look at myself in the mirror...I'm not competing, I'm not ripping off my shirt and trying to sell the body, but when I stand in front of the mirror and really look, I wonder: What the fuck happened here? Jesus Christ. What a beating!"

Now, you have to realize that although Der Arnold is 63, he still has a physique that most of us 40-somethings would envy. But that's not the relevant comparison. Arnold's not comparing himself to mere mortals like you and me, he's comparing himself to his own idealized self, which when you were a world bodybuilding champion for several years is a pretty high standard.

As we move through the season of Spring toward Easter, we encounter a panoply of themes related to new life, life being born out of death, or life overcoming death. In the Christian tradition, Easter has co-opted a bunch of pagan themes – not only fertility symbols like bunnies and eggs, but also even the name Easter, which derives from a ancient northern European goddess named Eostre or Ostara. The story of the resurrection of Jesus also parallels several contemporaneous Near Eastern myths of a dying and reborn god-man, including Attis, Dionysus/Bacchus, and Mithra.

Despite these pagan trappings, however, the Christian Easter celebration is clearly focused on the basic messages of life overcoming death, of our inherent mortality not being the final answer, and of the promise of eternal life in some hereafter existence.

None of us likes to contemplate his or her own mortality. Fortunately for practitioners of the Christian faith, there's a way out of the depressing awareness of mortality. Easter promises that all Christians (or possibly all persons, depending on your variety of Christianity – without digressing too far into Rob Bell's latest book) will gain a resurrection in the same manner that Jesus did, and thus will ultimately triumph over their own mortality.

And yet, is this a fully satisfying answer? Or is it just another in the long line of humanity's attempts to deny the ultimate truth of our mortality, the inevitability of our death and thus our non-existence, our non-being? If you're interested in pondering these questions in much greater depth than I could possibly go into here, I'd encourage you to pick up a copy of the 1973 classic The Denial of Death by the analytical psychology scholar Ernest Becker. The very short version of Becker's hypothesis is that nearly everything we humans do is an attempt to deny our mortality, either through denying our animal nature, or by creating “immortality projects” that allow us to live on vicariously, or by finding some scheme that grants us eternal life. I suppose the classic existential guidance akin to Becker would be to face our mortality courageously, acknowledging our eventual non-being and acting bravely in the face of it.

In this way, Western existentialism has something in common with Buddhism. The latter teaches an acceptance of human mortality rather than an ultimate triumph over it. Devout Buddhist practitioners will, on occasion, meditate in the presence of a corpse in order to remind themselves of the inevitability of death. For Buddhists, death is simply another aspect of life – but then again, some Buddhists also believe in reincarnation, in which your soul gets another chance at life, and another and another until you get it right.

Honestly, I don't find any of these alternatives particularly satisfying. And I say that with a measure of regret, especially in this season. Along with Spring and Easter, this is also the time of year of my birthday (in case you were wondering what got me musing about mortality in the first place). And it doesn't help matters that my high school class has just scheduled our 30th reunion (ouch!).

At the moment, I'm not at all confident in any sort of conscious existence in the hereafter, nor am I keen on the notion of repeating the cycle of birth, life, and death until I perfect my soul. My least objectionable option is to live as well as I can right now, take better care of my body and my mind (e.g., shedding nearly 20 pounds in the last three months), and try to hold out for technological breakthroughs that will allow me to upload my entire consciousness onto a supercomputer where, barring the destruction of the planet, I can continue to “live” for something approaching eternity.

And if that's too maudlin (or simply crazy) of a note to end on, let's try one other insight, this time from my favorite calypso-pirate-poet-philosopher Jimmy Buffett:

I'm growing older but not up
My metabolic rate is pleasantly stuck
So let the winds of change blow over my head
I'd rather die while I'm living than live while I'm dead

12 April 2011

Dolphins Are People, Too

The recent opening of the Georgia Aquarium's AT&T Dolphin Tales show has raised accompanying concerns about the captivity of dolphins and other cetaceans (marine mammals such as dolphins and whales). Defenders of the exhibit tout its educational benefits, while opponents cite studies demonstrating minimal educational results for attendees and argue that such exhibits are blatant exploitations of the captive dolphins for profit motives.

Research has shown the negative effects of captivity on dolphins, including higher incidents of many stress-related diseases, and there is at least one documented death of a captive dolphin while attempting to perform an aerial maneuver and colliding with another dolphin.

However, one critical element is missing from all of these arguments, that being the status of dolphins themselves. By “status” I'm referring to the concept of “personhood” in philosophy and law, a status that we previously reserved for human beings.

“But wait,” you object, “dolphins are just animals.” True enough, but so are we all animals by nature. What distinguishes us from other animals is not a distinction of kind, but of degree.

We consider our species to be “persons” because of our superior intelligence, our self-awareness, our ability to communicate using symbolic language, and our capacities for moral responsibility and empathy. “Mere” animals, we believe, don't meet these high standards for personhood. But let's take a minute to evaluate dolphins on these criteria.

·       Dolphins have an incredibly high encephalization quotient (EQ - a ratio of brain mass to overall body mass), roughly 4.0-4.5. This is twice as high as chimpanzees and is second only to humans (roughly 7.0).
·       Dolphins have shown the ability to understand symbolic language and syntax.
·       Dolphins have met many tests of self-awareness (including the classic “mirror self-recognition” test), and some research suggests that they even call each other by name (via “signature whistles”). They also have complex societal structures.
·       Dolphins have often assisted other marine mammals and humans in distress, even at peril to themselves, demonstrating the moral capacity for selfless and altruistic behavior.

In short, dolphins have shown almost all of the characteristics we ascribe to our own species to defend our uniqueness. If they lived on land and had arms and legs instead of fins (none of which is an essential element of personhood from either an ethical or a legal perspective), would we feel justified in locking them up in captive displays for our entertainment and education?

Or imagine this scenario: A race of extraterrestrial aliens visits Earth. We can't understand their language, but we know they're intelligent and have observable emotions and morality. They also happen to be very cute and have the ability to perform great feats of physical agility. Would it really be acceptable to lock them up in cages and say we're doing so for their own benefit?

Of course not. But that's what we do with dolphins, who in effect are non-terrestrial (living, as they do, in our planet's oceans rather than on land) alien intelligent beings among us.

The only remaining basis for the distinct personhood of humans over and above dolphins is an appeal to outdated, inaccurate, and indefensible theological claims that we humans are a special creation, separate and apart from the rest of the natural world and at the pinnacle of some preconceived scale of nature.

It is time to end this fallacy, time for we humans to evolve beyond those outmoded concepts, and time to end the ethical travesty of dolphin captivity.

To close with a lighter touch, consider these insightful words from the late science fiction writer Douglas Adams:

“[M]an had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much - the wheel, New York, wars and so on - whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man - for precisely the same reasons.”

© Dan Browning 2011. All rights reserved. Permission granted to link to this post.