Monday, April 24, 2017

WITH - 10

For the past six months I have been working on a personal project of spiritual growth and theological understanding.  It has been my sojourn to try and unlock some of the secrets of how we are made as human beings, the exact nature of God's relationship with us, some of the problems with what is going on in our American political context right now.  More broadly, what I am interested in, is what is critically wrong with Christianity as we know it in the North American context today.  And so, I have been writing a book.

The book is entitled, "With: The Transformative Power of Going With People Rather Than Against Them".  Over the next several weeks, I will be writing blog posts that will flesh-out aspects of this book.  I want to invite you into the conversation.  I want to get your help in writing this book.  If anything I write over the next several weeks strikes a chord with you in any way, please let me know.  If you, like me, are as interested in unlocking the secrets of God's relationship with us, then perhaps we can embark on this journey together.  What I am after is nothing short of, as Hemingway once said; "writing something true".  And so now, if you are still WITH is installment #10


Education And Philosophical Thought
As a way of thinking about how radical and basically counter-cultural the notion of “Going With” someone else actually is, think for a moment about the number of things in our society which are based around the opposite notion – of Going Against.  When we vote for something we Go Against.  When children develop intellectually, the first word they often learn to say is – “NO!”.  Our Protestant roots come to us because a handful of people in the 1500’s decided to “Go Against” to protest the status quo of the religious establishment.  Our American identity is formulated around the notion of dissent and private and individual decisions (rights). 

One of the best examples of this is the way we learn to think.   It would not be an exaggeration to say that the entire basis of learning, education, thinking and philosophical thought itself has its basis in critique -  in “Going Against”, something or someone else.  Consider for a moment what happens when you are trying to develop an argument for something.  Let’s say you want to make a decision about whether to go to school A (Cranberry College) or school B (University of Spottsvlvania)[1].  The way most people decide such questions is to find all of the reasons why they should and more importantly - should not - go to Cranberry.  Then all of the reasons they should and - should not  - go to Spottsylvania.  This is often called a list of “pros and cons”.  Then, the smart person usually adds up which column has more reasons for why they go to one college and why they should not go to the other college.  If the “Going Against” column outweighs the “Going With” column, a decision is made.  In other words, most people come up with as many reasons why they should “Go Against” something in order to decide ultimately what they should do.

One of the classical ways that people develop answers to tough questions is to pit ideas against each other in a forum.  This is known as a debate.  We have lots of examples of both formal and informal debates in our lives.  When we are trying to get to the bottom of a notion, or we are trying to come up with the truth, we enter into a dialogue, or a process of determining the veracity of an idea or a concept.  We usually approach all ideas from the standpoint of determining “what’s wrong” with them.  When he hand in homework to a teacher or professor, we are counting on them giving us constructive feedback, which is a nice way of saying we want to know if we have made any mistakes.  One professor put it this way in a book she has written about how to do good academic research:

                        “As I read critically, I need to query the content.  What
                        exactly is the author saying?  Is it the same thing throughout
                        the piece I am reading?  Is the author consistent with himself
                        throughout the piece?  How does this compare with other items
                        she has written?”[i]

Critique and “Going Against” is how we determine the veracity of a thing or not.  Even image and notion of the molding young minds comes from the idea of a sculptor, cutting away bits of clay or rock to reveal the beauty of the object that is being attempted and rendered. 

            Many people don’t realize that the very term “intellectual” itself has its roots in a culture of dissent – of going against.  The term, “intellectual” was originally invented by those in the country of France in the late 1800’s to refer to those who believed in the guilt of Captain Alfred Dreyfus.  Captain Dreyfus, you may remember (the one for whom the Dreyfus Affair was later named), was falsely thought to have sold secrets to the German Embassy in 1894.[ii]  Dreyfus, who also happened to be of Jewish cultural and religious origin, was thought to belong to a group of people who critically looked at society, and how it worked and was structured.  Intellectuals were, in a sense, dissenters, they were counter-cultural.  Intellectuals were – “Go Againstsers”.  The derisive term “intellectual” was invented and applied to Dreyfus because he was thought to have belonged to a group of people who were against the normal order of society.[2] 

            The very origin of formal education (pedagogy) itself relies heavily on the give and take of ideas, of the back and forth of argument, of the pro and con positions on any given subject.  In other words, in order to train people in critical thought, two people are pitted AGAINST each other.   The best examples come from the ancient Greeks who employed a way to teach the act of thinking by way of pitting two people against each other in an intellectual battle.  One of the oldest, and most ancient forms of education is the Socratic Method of teaching (also known as Maieutics or the Elenctic Method).  Though the term was not actually coined by Socrates, and it is doubtful that he ever employed it, at least in the form that think of it, The Socratic Method still remains as the most famous means of educating young students in the art of critical thinking and philosophical thought.  The Socratic Method, in short, is an argumentative dialogue that takes place between two individuals.  It is two people who pair off AGAINST one another as a way of teaching young pupils that there are many sides to every issue, and truth is sometimes elusive.  Here is an example of the Socratic Method, as it is used for children;

Person 1: Who is the best person to do good to his friends and evil to his enemies when they are sick?
Person 2: A Doctor
Person 1: What about when a person is on the sea, who is the best person to have around?
Person 2: A Sailor
Person 1: Here’s a different question; In what situation is an ethical person best able to do harm to his enemies and do good to his friends?
Person 2: In going to war as an answer to question one, and in negotiating a treaty as an answer to two
Person 1: But when a person is well, they don’t need a physician
Person 2: No
Person 1: And if they are not on the ocean then there is no need for a sailor
Person 2: No
Person 1: So, in peacetime, there is no need for justice?
Person 2: I really don’t think so
Person 1: So, justice may actually be of use in peacetime as well as in war?

This type of conversational debate is also known as the field of formal and classical logic.  Notice how the subtle differences in the questions from person one, lead person two to see that that their original proposition wasn’t as truthful, or didn’t hold as much water as they had hoped.  But again, it is this back and forth, argumentative style which has been thought of as the best way to sharpen a young mind, through thousands of years of history.  Today, we might sign up such a student for the High School Debate club.  Did I mention that I was my own High School Debate President?

Some of the most luminary minds in our world are also minds that are intellectually critical of others.  In other words, they “Go Against”.  In a book that is aptly named, Letters To a Young Contrarian, philosopher and social commentator Christopher Hitchens, just before he died observed that; “In life we make progress by conflict and in mental life by argument and disputation…there must be confrontation and opposition, in order that sparks may be kindled.”  Hitchens, who was known for a kind of acerbic and biting wit, knew that what brought energy to his conversations was give and take, going with and going against, being contrarian. 

            Why is all of this important?  It is important because the radical nature of the notion of “Going With” someone or something else begins to emerge, only when it is pitted against almost the entire swath of intellectual accomplishment and human development heretofore.  So, to cut right to the theme of this book, when Jesus said, “Behold, I am WITH you always, even until the end of time,” He really was saying something earth shattering.  Jesus was saying that we should be different than all that has come before us. 

[1] I’ve picked two totally imaginary schools so nobody gets upset
[2] As an aside note, it is fascinating to note the number of labels in our society that were originally meant to be terms of derision.  Like the word “intellectual” that was originally meant to be a pejorative term, so were the terms Methodist, Quaker, queer, impressionist, and suffragette. 

[i] Vyhmeister, Nancy Jean, Quality Research Papers: For Students of Religion and Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan), p. 106
[ii] Hitchens, Christopher, Letters To A Young Contrarian, (New York: Persus Books Group, 2001), p. 3

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