I am now blogging at a new blog: erdman31.com

If you post comments here at Theos Project, please know that I will respond and engage your thoughts in a timely manner.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Hermeneutic of Doubt

I finally had a chance to see Doubt last night with my good friend Tamie, and I was quite intrigued.

The plot: A strict, curmudgeon principal at a Catholic elementary and middle school (Meryl Streep, in a role I think she was born to play!) confronts the priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) with an allegation of an inappropriate relationship with one of the boys. The principal is tough and persistent, and in the end the priest resigns his position and leaves the church/school.

But here's the thing: the film leaves us with no indication as to who is right and who is wrong. That is, there is no resolution as to whether or not the priest had an inappropriate relationship with the boy. We are only left with...well.....doubt.

The priest affirms his innocence and never wavers. The principal never gives an inch, she has an iron will. There is never hard evidence to suggest which person's interpretation is correct. There is no scene of the film that would suggest whether or not the priest is guilty.

The film is something of a "Rorschach test." That is, the response of the interpreter is more significant than the film. The film has no "true meaning," in itself, and doesn't press an interpretation on the audience.

Take note, friends. It is not just another "open" film, in good postmodern style. Rather, the individual (or collective) viewer's response at each stage in the film is telling for their particular disposition to the themes, controversies, subjects, and characters of the film. While this is certainly true of all films, literature, works of art, etc., Doubt seems to deliberately set itself up in a Rorschchian style. In this way, I found it more psychologically interesting than most postmodern films that play on differences of perspective: Doubt seems to lend itself to both analysis of perspective but also one's own psychological disposition.

For example, how we interpret and psychologically relate to child abuse is a critical influence on how we will interpret the plot and characters, potentially surfacing issues related to how we posture ourselves toward predators or alleged predators. Also, one's perception of change and the rule of law influences our interpretation of which character is more sympathetic.

Additionally, and perhaps most interesting to me, there is the very intriguing question of how we process events and how we look for truth. The principal is operating solely on the certainty that she generates from her will. There is a certain kinesthetic energy that she forces into her process of determining what is true and false. She believes that the priest is guilty. There is no doubt. This will certainly be viewed with suspicion by most Westerners, who (like myself) tend to look at "evidence" as being a greater support for processing the world and determining truth and falsity. I imagine that the principal's "certainty of the will" will be viewed with suspicion by most, but certainly not all.

The hermeneutic of Doubt intrigued me. I look forward to multiple viewings in the future. The religious themes of faith and doubt are also woven into the narrative in a thoughtful and intelligent manner, providing plenty of food for thought and topics for discussion.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Tea Party

I think these tea parties are idiotic.

In short, it gives people the illusion that they are doing something, when in fact they are just being ignored.

This whole idea that people should protest and shout about how unhappy they are just seems like a completely ineffective way to bring about substantial change. I apply this to protests of all kinds that happen these days. It's nothing like the civil rights protests of the 1960's, for example, where the violence perpetrated on the protesters made the nation take stock of itself. Today's protests are a way to avoid any intellectual or moral responsibility by substituting dialog and real action with a "protest march" that is little more than a gripefest with other malcontents who feel equally unhappy. It isn't revolutionary and it does nothing to reform.

I left a similar comment at our local Tea Party website:

If you want to see it, you should probably hurry, b/c I'm sure it will be pulled soon.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Freedom and community

"...I think the majority of musicians are interested in truth....There is never any end. There are always new sounds to imagine; new feelings to get at. And always, there is the need to keep purifying these feelings and sounds so that we can really see what we've discovered in its pure state. So that we can see more and more clearly what we are. In that way, we can give to those who listen the essence, the best of what we are. But to do that at each stage, we have to keep on cleaning the mirror...." - John Coltrane

One of the current topics of discussion here at Theos Project is freedom. As heirs to the Enlightenment and various popular versions of existentialism, we tend to think of freedom as the brute freedom of the individual: “I can do whatever-the-hell I want.” In the political sense, modern ideas of freedom emphasize emancipation--to be
free to self-govern, emancipation is tied to individual liberty. In the moral realm, modern freedom means autonomy--the ability to freely choose as a responsible moral being. Implicit in this free moral choice is that one makes their own ethical decisions. Contrary to popular belief, moral relativism is something of a uniquely modern idea, it was on the scene long before the so-called postmodern era. Kant's moral imperative ("act only according to that maxim that you would at the same time will that it would become a moral law") attempted to bring together our individual moral autonomy and some sense of moral law, but moral autonomy was still at the core of Kant's ethics.

However, on the heels of modernity, we still have inherited a prejudice to conceive of freedom as autonomy or emancipation. Even in this "post" modern era, we still have this rather modern sense of freedom.

The result of this belief is that we have a ridiculously difficult time bringing together a robust idea of personal/individual freedom together with a strong sense of community and interdependence. This develops within us a spiritual split between freedom and community. For example, freedom is what I want and community is what the others want. If the desires line up, then the two can co-exist; but if I desire one thing and the others desire another, then we feel the tension.

But is it possible to conceive of freedom and community in terms that avoid the dichotomy, that avoid pitting individual and community against each other?

This is our discussion question for the day. It is quite probable, I believe, that this is a question with many different answers.

A good start to the discussion, I think, is to recognize from the beginning that all things are interconnected in a way that is much deeper than many of us realize.

Philosophical Interlude......A few hundred years ago, Rene Descartes believed he could sit around in a room by himself and strip away all of his inherited "prejudices" and get at some foundational truths. Philosophers who followed suit worked under the assumption that we pursue truth in our minds--that we are basically brains/minds who sort through the data of experience to find truth. A few hundred years after Descartes, philosophers like Martin Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein suggested that the reverse is true: as human beings we are first and foremost embedded in a given context. That is, our context is not something to strip away in order to find truth; in fact, truth is always only possible within context. This is not merely the tabula rasa, or "black slate" idea--that we our minds are a blank slate onto which our experiences are inscribed and then our rational capacity sorts it all out. For John Locke, we are still self-determining, autonomous beings because our rational capacities allow us to organize the experiences written on our tabula rasa. Even though Locke recognized a greater role for experience, he remained convinced that the rational capacity within the mind was foundational, in some sense, for determining our self-hood. This rational capacity allowed us to get at the truth and to then make free decisions. However, "freedom" remained an activity of the self, and as such the tension remained between self and others, the individual and the community.

For Heidegger/Wittgenstein and many other philosophers since, there is something more basic, more primordial, than mind and reason. To be human is to be contextual, in a more holistic way. Every sense of who I am is in relation to other people around me, my social context, and even the physical nature of the world I inhabit. Hence, there is not "pure truth" that transcends our contextual-ness. There is no "self" of the mind. There is no I without a relation to my context.

There are many ways to make the same point: we cannot exist without others--the others are a part of me and I am a part of the others. Interdependence is a matter of survival and brute autonomy, complete independence, and pure emancipation is an illusion. (For a well-written perspective on this see Tamie's Freedom in Light of Interdependence post.)

Freedom and interconnectedness, by way of illustration

So, what does it look like to actually hold together freedom and community? What does it look like to think in new ways about freedom? Does our nature as contextual beings prove that "freedom" is just an illusion? Are there ways to think about freedom that take into account our radical interconnectedness and interdependence?

Rather than describe how freedom and interconnectedness might relate to each other, perhaps it is most illuminating to show it in action. And for this, I turn to John Coltrane.

Permalink: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x59u3_john-coltrane-my-favorite-things-19_music

In the Coltrane Quartet, each musician is attempting to express his own unique gifts and individuality. We might say that each person is pursuing personal creativity and individual freedom. And yet at the same time, the context for freedom and creativity occurs within the group. All personal creativity must reference the whole sound. As such, there is no such thing as autonomous creativity, and yet at the same time there is not sense of conformity, no rule of law that confines an individual to perform a certain way. Each musician free, but the exercise of freedom occurs in response to the sound that the group produces.

To be present………Notice that the deep presence of each musician results in different forms of emotion--serenity and calm, intensity to the point of pain, and sometimes just joy. Each musician expresses his freedom in his own way, yet all are interconnected. Sometimes the group plays together, while at other times individuals solo while the rest of the group just listens and learns. Each musician is “saying something” about themselves and also expressing themselves as a group. They are present to the moment and bring their whole selves.

To believe……What if we said that each member of the ensemble is a "believer": that is, they believe in the truth and potentiality of the group. They believe in the whole and they believe in themselves as creative and free individuals. Each believer is committed to producing something true. Thus, the commitment of each believer is critical, because each believer makes a critical difference to the sound of the whole. The ensemble can only be truthful and creative in the whole if each believer believes in their own creativity. Each musician in the Coltrane ensemble has dedicated hours of solitary practice, not to "master" the instrument or to learn a part, but to learn to listen to the instrument and to understand their own sound, to cultivate the truth of their art.

To listen……..Each believer is not only listening to their own voice and expressing their own freedom, but they also realize that their personal freedom is the result of an ensemble that is free. As such, each believer sets the others free, and they seek to cultivate and open up a space for free play. To do this, they must listen attentively to the sounds of the others. Even more, they must listen to the sound that the group creates as a collective whole. There must be freedom to create, to develop a uniqueness of sound, as an individual and as a collective. Without uniqueness of sound, there is no ensemble.

To develop a symbiotic relationship…….I can NOT be a believer who contributes to the ensemble, unless I am free and truthful. Conversely, I can NOT be free to play, unless I have other members of the ensemble. (I can play, but I am limited.) As such, there is risk: we are talking in a very real (and life-threatening) way of the possibility of failing to discover and cultivate extreme potentiality. If a group of musicians is playing a written score, then each musician learns the part and fills in a role. This is perhaps an illustration of organized religion or law-based spirituality: one only fits into the group if one is willing to play a particular designated part. But this is not the case for Coltrane. The melody only provides a starting point for improvisation. As such, the sound is unique, but this unique creativity is dependent on interdependence. The relationship is symbiotic, the success of each is dependent on the others.

To engage new potentiality…...When the musicians play as a collective whole, they must reference each other, and if the commitment of each musician is to creativity and freedom, the results are non predictable. Each references the others. And as such, there are new possibilities that open up to each individual. Playing without the others is certainly a context for freedom, but the possibilities are limited….limited, and actually can be a bit boring. When the ensemble plays, each musician—each believer—can encounter new sounds and engage new possibilities.

This is the point, I think, at which we begin to see how freedom and interdependence might relate in a way that actually cultivates and grows itself. Each musician or believer must be free and truthful with themselves, but this freedom is only made possible because other believers are equally committed to freedom. As such, interdependence is no longer a barrier to freedom, it can actually become the basis and foundation for a freedom that cannot be known by the autonomous individual. A musician playing on his own has freedom, but this freedom is limited. When the ensemble begins to play, new possibilities open up.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, when the collective whole of the ensemble is committed to creativity, the end result is unexpected. No one can predict, in advance, what will be created when individual creativity expresses itself in the collective of the ensemble.

In relation to the quest for truth or spiritual freedom, I suggest that no one can know in advance what will be created when individual freedom expresses itself in the collective freedom of the life of the community. Like the ensemble, they just have to start playing. Each believer expresses herself in relation to the whole, using the community as the starting point for freedom of expression. Interdependence becomes the possibility for reaching truth and potentiality that would remain impossible to those who construe freedom as individual autonomy.

It is impossible to quantify "how" it happens or to predict in advance what will be.....for Coltrane, his music was always deeply spiritual...spiritual, joyful, troubled, complex, dark, loving, simple, and beautiful. The pursuit of truth was ongoing. Creativity and freedom was found within community and interdependence, not in spite of it.

It is rare that we truly push ourselves to be both truthful and free, rare that we open up these spaces where the collective of believers—those who seek to be open and truthful—can express something.

The world needs more jazz ensembles. The faithful who play together with the faithless. The atheist, the theist, and the a/theist. All together as believers. Believers in truth and freedom, creativity and righteousness.