Which Is the Better Story @Image Journal’s Good Letters blog

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox Studios.

“There’s a scene early in Ang Lee’s majestic Life of Pi film in which the main character watches everything he loves die. Pi is floating in a vast, murky sea as the ship carrying his family and their zoo animals recedes into the distance and sinks. His arms are stretched out wide and his whole body seems to reach for them as they slip away.

This is the moment when I forgot I was wearing 3-D glasses and felt as if I was in the water with Pi, losing everything I love. I’m not sure I would have reacted as viscerally as I did to the scene if it had not been produced in 3-D. As it was, I sat in my seat and wept.”

Read my whole [spoiler alert!] review at Good Letters. It’s my first appearance at the Image blog and I’m honored to see my byline there.

Recapturing Innocence With Ang Lee @TheHighCalling

NYC Life of Pi Press Junket

Director Ang Lee in New York City, courtesy Explorations Media, L.L.C.

The sound of a baby’s laughter. A six year old’s wide-eyed wonder on Christmas morning. The moment you first believed. Who doesn’t want to relive innocence like that?
For Academy Award-winning director Ang Lee, recapturing innocence in life, in filmmaking, in the cinematic experience is at the heart of his film adaptation of Yann Martel’s best-selling novel, Life of Pi. Speaking to a group of journalists in New York City last month, Lee said the film is about what happens to a young boy’s innocence after the ship carrying his zoo-keeping family sinks and he’s set adrift on a lifeboat with a dangerous tiger.

The ocean becomes like a desert, Lee said. “It’s a test of his faith, his strength.” …

Read the whole thing at The High Calling.

A Funky Retirement: Celebrating Cornel West @UrbanFaith

Cornel West enjoying his retirement party

In this audio clip, Lupe Fiasco dedicates a song to the well educated women of Princeton and talks about West’s influence. And, in these videos he, George Clinton & P-Funk jam.

In this audio clip, comedian Bill Maher talks about how he’ll use Cornel West to get into heaven if there is one.

In this audio clip, actor Harry Belefonte talks about how Cornel West inspires him.

Princeton University Gospel Ensemble

In this audio clip, the Princeton University Gospel Ensemble, who opened the show, gives praise to Jesus.

Terence Blanchard

In this audio clip, jazz musician Terrence Blanchard talks about Cornel West’s influence on him and then he and his band jam.

13the Cornel West Theory

In these two audio clips, you’ll hear the Cornel West Theory perform. You have to see them live though. Really you do.

Video Tribute to Cornel West

Finally, in this audio clip, Dr. Cornel West gives thanks.

To read my reflections on Cornel West, go to UrbanFaith.com.

You’ll find my full photo set at Flickr.

Who knew the Ivy League gem offered a wealth of free public religion events?

As a girl growing up in Point Pleasant Beach, I didn’t give much thought to Princeton University. It was the 1970s and I was, shall we say, distracted. If I thought about our state’s Ivy League jewel at all, I saw it as an inaccessable, dusty treasure chest full of academic stuffiness and snobbery.

If we’re lucky, we grow up and find out the world’s gems are much more accessable than we ever imagined. What a delight it was then, a few years ago, to learn that Princeton has a thriving faith community and offers a bounty of free public religion events.

It’s a pleasant 45 minute drive west on Route 33 and across Route 1 to the university from coastal Monmouth County and a great way to spend an afternoon or evening while enriching one’s understanding of the religious landscape. …

Read about some upcoming events here. Plus, where to park, eat, and shop in Princeton.

Thinking about Religion, Belief & Politics @ Princeton

The inaugural Danforth Lecture at Princeton University was a lucky little feast for the brain Thursday afternoon. CUNY anthropologist Talal Asad gave a breathtaking talk on “Thinking About Religion, Belief and Politics.” I hadn’t expected Charles Taylor to be the subject of Asad’s elegant dissection, but there it was: A Secular Age fileted and served on ice. 

This eminent scholar/author said Taylor’s seminal work deals with personal crisis of belief that are insufficient to the global crisis of our time. He argued that beliefs formed through external acts of devotion and training are not inherently coercive, but can lead to authentic faith and the formation of a moral personality. Asad appeared to be making a case for non-Judeo-Christian, or, at least non-Protestant, religious influence in the public square. He spent precious little time talking directly about politics, but instead drew an entertaining connection between the development of public ventilation systems and narcissistic notions of belief.

Asad objected to an audience member’s suggestion that he dismiss religion outright as a dangerous force that wants to control other people’s bodies. He said the secular/religious debate is tired and suggested that market forces can be at least as coercive as religion. He cited coercion of women’s bodies as an insightful example. 

Although the lecturer expressed faith in liberal democratic values, he has comparatively little faith that states can effectively implement those values. He concluded by confessing doubt that mankind will see the next century. With such apocolyptic vision, one wonders where he gets off saying personal faith is insufficient to the times. Perhaps he thinks no other kind will hold sway in coming decades.

Ah well. My momentary USC advisor Diane Winston tipped me off to Princeton Religion Department public offerings. I had been lamenting the loss of such local events at USC and UCI, but found this first lecture a more than adequate substitute. Thanks to Ed Gilbreath, I’ve also been reading the blog of two Princeton professors lately. Check it out; it’s called The Kitchen Table.

The Princeton University Art Museum is likewise a lovely place to spend an afternoon. The museum is free and contains a good deal of compelling Christian art and iconography. There are also a couple witty architectural exhibits right now and a nice collection of ancient art, including Roman floor and wall mosaics. Strolling the campus, parts of which date back to 1756, is itself an exercise in art appreciation.

My husband’s handicapped tag came in handy on this trip. A quick phone call to the PU parking office and we were waved in to park on campus. Between the museum and the lecture, I dragged him to the Whole Earth Natural Grocery, which has been selling bulk health foods on Nassau Street since the 1970s. The last time I was there, it was a warm, earthy place. A low VOC renovation has left the store feeling sterile, cold and utterly suburban. Still, I stocked up on brown rice, Kombu seaweed (which is supposed to reduce the gassiness of beans when a couple 1-inch chunks are thrown in the pot) and other vegan staples. 

On the drive to Princeton, I was struck once again by the subtle beauty of my state. We passed quaint farms, small towns and mile after mile of hearty pine. A gas station on Rte. 33 was simultaneously selling Chicken Parmesan sandwiches and gas for under $2-a-gallon. Can’t beat that.

At dinner on the same road in Hightstown (half way between home and Princeton), a high school classmate of my husband’s was working as a waitress. Dinner was lousy. We should have eaten down the road at Jack Baker’s Lobster Shanty instead. Baker’s original Lobster Shanty is a landmark in my home town of Point Pleasant Beach. I went to high school with his children, one of whom is a longtime friend.

We were at a delightful party together last night. There was plenty of good wine, lots of laughter and a passionate debate amongst old friends the likes of which I imagine taking place in Republican living rooms from coast to heretical coast. The topic? What does it mean to be a Conservative? What went wrong in ’08? And since when did disagreement mean one’s conservative and/or spiritual credentials are suspect?

Have I mentioned lately how glad I am to be home?

I have a job interview Tuesday. Send up a prayer for me if you’re so inclined. I’ve been told to prepare for a two-hour introduction.

Cheers to hESCs@CHOC

It’s been many, many years since I’ve sipped a cocktail like the one above, but this was the celebratory drink ordered for us by I don’t know whom on the last night of the NIH hESC training course. The tray of drinks reminded me of a plate of cell cultures so I snapped a photo. It was a fun evening and by the time it arrived, the scientists were generally at ease with this “religious woman.” I really liked them, as was the case last time I attended.

Two interesting conversations stuck with me from the final evening. First, a Brazilian woman asked me if I’m able to separate my personal beliefs about hESC research from my reporting. It’s a fair question, but one nobody asked of Gary Robbins … and he wasn’t shy about sharing his beliefs, religious or otherwise.

Every day of the week, journalists must set aside their personal convictions and report the news. Non-journalists sometimes think this doesn’t happen; they see bias everywhere. In fact, my first introduction to the notion of postmodernism came not from any discussion of pop-philosophy, but from the Walter Lippman classic Public Opinion. In it, one of the founding editors of The New Republic argued that we all see life through the limiting lens of culture and language. The best we can strive for is fairness. Read Lippman’s Wikipedia bio; it provides a compelling look at the interplay of democracy, philosophy and the news.

Gary reports differently about hESC research than I would, but not only because we have different beliefs about the ethics of this work. He is under daily news deadline pressure and I’m an occasional, long form writer with a bent for investigation. I look for what’s not being said or reported. In this case, what’s not being reported with any regularity or conviction in major news outlets is that hESCs are not likely to be the great therapeutic hope they have been pumped up to be.

This is not my opinion, but the somewhat reluctant opinion elicited from 10 prominent scientists who were asked some challenging questions at yesterday’s concluding symposium. The first question was: What are the long-term cancer risks of hESC therapies? Jeanne Loring, whose extensive credentials include work on the Human Genome Project and collaboration on the WARF patent challenge, did not let any of her peers off the hook as moderator of the Q&A. One by one the Oxford guy, the Stem Cell Inc. guy, the Stanford guy et. al. admitted that they have no idea and no answer for this concern.

That’s big news in and of itself, but not for this venue. …

The other significant conversation I had on our final evening together was with the scientist who asked me about The Secret. She did foundational work in the hESC field … as a born-again Christian. The work kept her out of church for ten years, until one day she was looking at hESCs differentiating into various cell types under her microscope. They reminded her of the human race in all its diverse beauty. She imagined God looking down upon humanity through his lens and desiring us to sing hymns and praise songs to him in unison (hESCs have a biological imperative to congregate). She decided it was time to go back to church.

This gracious Christian who was admired by everyone shared her story freely. However … however. She is still not entirely comfortable with her hESC work … and she won’t be telling her story on the record any time soon.

There is much, much more that can be said about the past ten days, but I came away from them with three strong convictions:

  1. Nearly as important as the ethics of hESC research is the lack of regulation in the IVF industry. The United States is far behind many European nations in its concern for 1) the well-being of women receiving IVF therapies, 2) children born of egg/sperm donation and multiple births, and 3) both the exploitation of egg donors and the fate of their eggs.
  2. The best hope for therapeutic uses of stem cells lies in iPSCs that originate in one’s own body. Not only do potential hESC therapies pose significant risks, but adult stem cell therapies from donor sources do as well. Arlene Chiu asked the representative from Stem Cell Inc. if the stem cells in their inaugural FDA-approved human trial had been tested for diseases like neurofibromatosis (NF). Chiu had heard a talk by an NF1 researcher who found that neural stem cells transplanted into a mouse brain resulted in a proliferation of NF tumors in the brain. The Stem Cell Inc. representative said that some screening had taken place, but it was not comprehensive. Chiu was incredulous.
  3. The hype over hESCs has done considerable harm. During the panel discussion, the eminent panelists were confronted by an Autism advocate who wanted to know what can be done about desperate parents taking their sick children outside the United States for non-FDA approved stem cell treatments. One MD commiserated with the woman’s experience, saying it mirrored his own; another panelist noted that a scientist who had investigated charges against a Chinese clinic had been subjected to an “investigative review” of his own by the scientist whose advertised results he found spurious. No suggestions were offered … nor was any responsibility taken for pumping hESC research up and selling it as THE great hope for all manner of human suffering.

UPDATE 3/19: Clarification on this post.

Monday Notes on hESCs@CHOC



Michael Kalichman, director of the Research Ethics Program at UC San Diego, spoke this morning about hESC ethics. His was a probing Q&A format as he tried to get the scientists to think through the pertinent issues. They didn’t say much, but I believe his questions got them thinking. The discussion wasn’t really an “Is hESC research right or wrong?” discussion, but one about reasoning out inconsistencies in logic. It was a fair discussion, except that he said the opposition equates leftover IVF embryos with live children. I’m not sure that’s accurate. Of more concern to me than the fate of a finite number of leftover IVF embryos is who we become as a society if we don’t do the hard work of thoroughly hashing out the ethics. This is where religious voices are vital to the discussion. Unlike Sidney Golub who said he doesn’t like slippery slope arguments, Kalichman gave weight to concerns about where hESC research might lead. I think it is fair to say that proponents invoke their own brand of slippery slopism when they resist all constraints, regulations and/or oversight.

I won’t say much more about Kalichman’s lecture here, except that the ethics discussion once again appears to have progressed in both tone and content. Early in the talk, he warned that what happened in Korea could happen here and he advised the budding hESC researchers to abide by whatever rules govern their work.

Three important points:

  1. In light of advances with iPSCs (induced pluripotent [adult] stem cells), he thinks it is not unreasonable for ethics committees to require that research proposals include a defense of the use of hESCs over iPSCs.
  2. It is too early to conclude that hESCs and iPSCs will be therapeutically interchangable; therefore all types of stem cell research should proceed.
  3. As a proponent of hESC research, he advised students to treat human embryos with respect because they are more than ordinary cells.

A discussion comparing the ethical constraints on hESC researchers to those on journalists ensued. It was kind of funny, as I realized that journalists may be less popular than hESC researchers. Many hESC researchers are interested in curing disease after all … as are many journalists, only our work is focused on curing (or, at least exposing for treatment) societal ills rather than physical ones.

Kalichman mentioned something about journalists not identifying themselves appropriately. This got me thinking more about blogging conferences. I don’t believe it is my responsibility to tell each lecturer at a public or semi-public event that I will be blogging their session from a particular point of view. They should assume that a lecture (especially one sponsored by the National Institutes of Health) delivered to an undefined audience is fair game to be reported on. As a courtesy, a conference host might wish to alert speakers to the presence of media, but I don’t believe it is required of them either. Additionally, in this situation, I introduced myself to the students as a journalist on day one. I have not named any of them, and will not in this or any other venue without their permission. If I request any formal interviews, only then will I discuss with sources the parameters and possible consequences of an interview.

Two side notes:

  1. This morning, I also attended a lecture on Aneuploidies (chromosomal abnormalities) in hESC culture. The significant development from 3 years ago is that there appear to be two types of aneuploidy: one potentially carcinogenic and one that may be a normal and harmless feature of stem cell culture.
  2. Speaking of new developments, I heard on Friday that Hans Keirstead’s technique for culturing highly undifferentiated oligodendrocytes has been replicated. I’ll have to check into it.
[photo hESC cultures, ©cas 2008, Orange, CA]

On “Democratic Faith”

Another worthy bit of reading as you think about your vote … from Eric Miller’s review of Patrick J. Deneen’s Democratic Faith at Books and Culture:

The whole point of faith is to enlighten, but “democratic faith” diminishes sight. Tested where all faiths are tested, in history’s unsparing crucible, it has proven unable to grasp our disabled condition and so is powerless to provide the succor we need. Deneen traces these failings to its roots in “Pelagian dualism, Gnostic optimism, and humanistic messianism,” and in the book’s last section seeks to present not the final damnation of democracy but a way to salvage it.

He calls it, simply enough, “democratic realism.” It’s a realism that denies the hope for perfectibility the democratic faithful, in their quest to transcend this world, are so tempted by. It’s a realism that begins with the premise—resonant with the one Alasdair MacIntyre powerfully advances in Rationally Dependent Animals—that to be human is to be weak, to be dependent, and to suffer. On this view, we turn to democracy not because of the grand social prospects such governance holds but because it is the form of government “imperfect humans” require, people “who must, by dint of their equal insufficiency and the permanency of need, inhabit, and govern together, cities of men.”

In propounding this stance Deneen undertakes a close, critical reading of texts and figures in the “realist” lineage, ranging from ancient Greece to contemporary America and including surprises like Plato as well as stalwarts like Tocqueville. The presence of the late American social critic Christopher Lasch as one of his heroes should serve notice that Deneen, unlike many of today’s political conservatives, is using a classically Christian anthropology to call into question—rather than bless—the political economy of late capitalism. Lasch’s fiercely insistent claim that corporate capitalism and democracy are at odds held firm throughout his life. In line with Jefferson, Chesterton, Roepke, and others whose experience of the modern world turned them into decentralists, Lasch judged massive concentrations of power, whether political or economic, to be at odds with, as Deneen nicely puts it, “the local ecology in which democratic life flourishes”: the small economies, thick kinship ties, meaningful work, and common submission that help to form “independent yet engaged citizens,” folk dedicated to creating and preserving what Lasch simply called “a decent society. …

Read the whole article here.

The Moral Instinct

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker’s piece, “The Moral Instinct”  from last week’s NY Times Magazine is a nice compliment to Audi’s lecture. It’s a long and interesting, if sometimes predictable, read. In it you’ll learn why Bill Gates may be morally superior to Mother Theresa. That’s just the hook though. Here’s a clip from the conclusion:

“Moral realism, as this idea is called, is too rich for many philosophers’ blood. Yet a diluted version of the idea — if not a list of cosmically inscribed Thou-Shalts, then at least a few If-Thens — is not crazy. Two features of reality point any rational, self-preserving social agent in a moral direction. And they could provide a benchmark for determining when the judgments of our moral sense are aligned with morality itself.

One is the prevalence of nonzero-sum games. In many arenas of life, two parties are objectively better off if they both act in a nonselfish way than if each of them acts selfishly. You and I are both better off if we share our surpluses, rescue each other’s children in danger and refrain from shooting at each other, compared with hoarding our surpluses while they rot, letting the other’s child drown while we file our nails or feuding like the Hatfields and McCoys. Granted, I might be a bit better off if I acted selfishly at your expense and you played the sucker, but the same is true for you with me, so if each of us tried for these advantages, we’d both end up worse off. Any neutral observer, and you and I if we could talk it over rationally, would have to conclude that the state we should aim for is the one in which we both are unselfish. These spreadsheet projections are not quirks of brain wiring, nor are they dictated by a supernatural power; they are in the nature of things.

The other external support for morality is a feature of rationality itself: that it cannot depend on the egocentric vantage point of the reasoner. If I appeal to you to do anything that affects me — to get off my foot, or tell me the time or not run me over with your car — then I can’t do it in a way that privileges my interests over yours (say, retaining my right to run you over with my car) if I want you to take me seriously. Unless I am Galactic Overlord, I have to state my case in a way that would force me to treat you in kind. I can’t act as if my interests are special just because I’m me and you’re not, any more than I can persuade you that the spot I am standing on is a special place in the universe just because I happen to be standing on it. …”

Religious Considerations and Democratic Pluralism

How does a religious person behave in the public square? Does one do cartwheels across the intersection in order to draw attention to one’s convictions–perhaps knocking people over in the process? Or, does an ethical religious person stand shyly on a corner watching others shape discussion? Or park under a tree and advertise? Perhaps James Dobson speaks your language? According to Time magazine Dobson said Mitt Romney’s “Mormonism” speech was a “magnificent reminder of the role religious faith must play in government and public policy.”

Think about Dobson’s words. Religious faith MUST play a role in government and public policy. Whose religious faith? Yours, mine, ours, a mulitplicity of faiths, mine today, someone else’s (Mitt’s) tomorrow? What exactly does he mean and, more importantly, what constitutes religious faith anyway?

Last Friday, I attended a  lecture at UC Irvine in which University of Notre Dame philosopher Robert Audi argued that a conscientious religious person ought to shed their faith commitments in the public square. Well, maybe he wasn’t as stark as all that, but he does believe secular reasoning is the only kind appropriate to public discourse.

Audi surprised me on a variety of levels. First, his eloquence was impressive. Second, his thesis was persuasive, if limited. Third, his repeated reference to assisted suicide as an example was either a simple coincidence or confirmation of reports I’ve heard that this topic dominates Ethics discussions at UCI.

Audi set aside church/state and corporate questions, limiting his topic to what individual ethical citizens should bring to public conversation in a pluralistic society. Here’s his outline, with my notes and commentary:

I. Background Assumptions

A. Liberty, equality and neutrality principles.  (Implicit in these assumptions is that religious and non-religious persons and institutions will be treated equally. Religious persons will not be preferred over non-religious [try telling that to the current crop of presidential candidates]).

B. A moral right to “maximal” liberty. (A free democracy should allow as much liberty as possible. For example, it might prohibit child sacrifice, but allow many behaviors that make a majority of citizens uncomfortable.)

II. Standards for Free Expression vs. Standards for Advocacy of Laws and Public Policies

A. Advocacy and voting as subject to stronger ethical constraints than free expression. (He said advocacy, and voting as a kind of advocacy, can be coercive if done on religious grounds. During the Q&A, an attendee offered the teaching of Intelligent Design/Creationsim in public schools as an example of coercive advocacy. Audi agreed without reference to significant differences between the two. Another audience member asked if he was equating coercion with exposure. He didn’t believe so. For example, he said students on a school bus are a captive audience to whatever advertising is displayed there [Planned Parenthood and/or crisis pregnancy center ads]. His argument seems to imply that it would be wrong to vote for a political candidate on religious grounds, but perhaps right to reject a candidate who “advocates” from his or her religion.)

B. Oughts contrasted with rights (Rights don’t exhaust morality. Ethics calls on us to do more than any one has a right to ask us to do. So, while nobody can forbid me from rejecting a presidential candidate because he or she might wear “holy” underwear, or be a closet Muslim, or a theological liberal or a guy who wants Jesus as his vice-president, the ethical thing for me to do would be to vote on non-religious grounds … unless of course I’m voting against a coercive candidate.)

III. Some Major Principles Governing Advocacy of Laws and Public Policies

A. The principle of secular rationale also called the principle of natural reason: citizens in a free democracy have a prima facie obligation not to advocate or support any law or public policy that restricts human conduct, unless they have, and are willing to offer, adequate secular reason for this advocacy or support (e.g., for a vote). (It would be wrong, however, for a citizen to use a secular argument as a cover for a religious one. An ethical person should give the reason they have and act on the reason they give.)

B. Qualifications and basis for the principle

  1. The defeasibility of prima facie obligations (The reason for acting must be sufficient.)
  2. Prima facie obligations are compatible with rights to act otherwise
  3. Secular reasons: not anti-religious, but having independent justificatory power (For example, opposing assisted suicided because “only God has the right to take life” would be inadequate, but opposing it because legalizing assisted suicide would exploit the poor is an adequate reason.)
  4. An adequate reason: one that objectively justifies its object (Sufficient reason doesn’t have to be conclusive, just adequate.)
  5. Excusability: being unjustified is compatible with being excusable (Some people can’t think outside a theological context.)
  6. Non-exclusivity: the principle accomodates religious reasons; allows having only those for expanding liberty; and does not require “privatizing” religion
  7. Basis of the principle of religious rationale: Religious citizens in a free democracy have a prima facie obligation not to advocate or support any law or public policy that restricts human conduct, unless they have, and are willing to offer, adequate religious reason for this advocacy or support.

C. The principle of religious rationale: Religious citizens in a free democracy have a prima facie obligation not to advocate   or support any law or public policy that restricts human conduct, unless they have, and are willing to offer, adequate religious reason for this advocacy or support. (Audi suggested challenging a religious individual’s interpretation of their own religion. For example, if a religious citizen really believes in the sovereignty of God, wouldn’t he or she trust that God ordered the world with men and women who can reason through problems together. He believes his two principles are complimentary. [Time did not permit him to go into detail about this principle. He either did not adequately discuss points 5&6 about excusibility and non-exclusivity or my notes don’t reflect his explanation. As a result, I find it difficult to comprehend exactly what role he thinks a person’s ontological and/or religious beliefs should have on their citizenship. Nonetheless, I do find the next section helpful.])

IV. The Wider Question of the Place of Religious Considerations in Public Discourse

A. Judiciousness: ethical sensitivity, prudence, consensus-building, etc.

B. Reciprocity: universalizability and the search for common ground

C. Theo-ethical equilibrium: a reflective equilibrium between religious and secular considerations (The search for equilibrium can refine both one’s theology and one’s perspective.)

D. Civic Voice (The voice we use can be more important than what we say.)

Exploring the Intersections

During the Q&A, one audience member went into a long-winded diatribe that included a salient point about religion as a subclass of ideologies and philosophies. He mentioned Marxism as another. I had been wondering what Audi’s definition of religion encompassed? I asked him. He said that to include such things as Marxism and Scientific Naturalism in the definition is not advisable because, although adherents to these ideologies can be religiously devoted to them, broadening the term too much would extinguish any avenue for discourse. He did, however, agree that non-religious ideologies can be as coercive as religious ones.

I am left to wonder what principles ought to guide non-religious citizens? Do unto others? A Bible verse? Isn’t that fundamentally illogical from his point of view? I wish I had stayed behind to press him on this, but … I was wearing sweat pants and grungy sneakers, and little make-up on the way to a jog. Not exactly the best public face for debating a scholar of superior intellect. 

When I began homeschooling my children some years ago, it was, in part, because of coercion in their public school system. Integral to the “Whole Language” curriculum that had come to us from California was a strong multicultural component. As Thanksgiving neared in my son’s third grade class, readings in Native American literature increased. Included among this reading was a Native American creation story. Additionally, a Native American came in and talked about her religious beliefs and rituals. I was okay with this. Our school system generally did a good job of respecting the varieties of religions that were represented in our community.

But then, as part of the Thanksgiving celebration, the children put on a play, which I attended. In it, the Pilgrims thanked the “Indians” and the “Indians” thanked the Pilgrims. Nobody thanked the Pilgrim’s God. What I witnessed was not a story I recognized. I went to the library and confirmed for myself that the Pilgrim’s faith and clear motive for celebrating Thanksgiving had been edited from this history lesson. I complained to the school principal and was told that it was a separation of church and state issue. The superintendent of schools wisely disagreed. I’m not sure what happened as a result because this situation, along with other academic and social issues that were shaped by dogmatic political ideology, convinced me to withdraw my children from the public school system for several years.

Here is an example of coercion that prioritized a minority religion over the majority one. The example demonstrates the merit in Audi’s principle of natural reason.

Yesterday I attended the afternoon sessions of another seminar at UCI, titled “Politics, Psychology and Ethics.” I heard two European scholars talk about religion and public life. Orla Muldoon, head of the department of Psychology at the University of Limerick, Ireland, talked about identity and social change in Northern Ireland.

She mentioned the “Good Friday Agreement,” but quickly corrected herself, saying the terminology gave her away as a Catholic. Protestants call it the “Belfast Agreement.” Either way, Muldoon said the agreement codified division by creating two political parties based on conflicting religious indentities. While moderate third parties flourished for a while, these have disappeared and given way to a zero-sum game. Political negotiation is about minimizing loss for self and gain for the opponent. Even those who hold no real religious conviction are shaped by the divisions. They may not identify fully with one side, but are quite sure they don’t want to be identified with the other. Sounds familiar.

Muldoon talked about emotionally charged signifiers. For example, a lily is a Catholic symbol and a poppy is a Protestant one. The symbols are so potent that a Catholic television journalist who refused to wear a poppy on Remembrance Day forfeited her career as a result. For Muldoon, leaving Northern Ireland brought immense relief in that she no longer had to worry about such signifiers. She mentioned the development of a unique Northern Irish identity that rejects polarizing labels, but said that for those who have been traumatized by violence, traditional identities are difficult to abandon. However, the absense of violence is helpful in creating space to negotiate new identities.

I did not take notes on the other speaker, Catarina Kinnvall, a political scientist from Lund University in Sweden. Her talk was titled “Being too (in) tolerant? Radical Islam and the ethics of multiculturalism in Scandanavia.” Kinnvall focused solely on the rise of radical Islam among the youth of Denmark and Sweden. She said Sweden has relied on pluralistic means of accomodating its Muslim immigrants, which marginalizes in its own way, while Denmark has chosen an assimilationist, and some might say annihilationist, approach. Kindvall said it is difficult for her to even find appropriate language to discuss her topic without inflaming passions of both Muslims and those prejudiced against them. She reminded us that most Muslims are not radicals.

I mention these two talks because they highlight where I think we don’t want to go as a nation. And yet, listen to the heightened discourse over religious identity in our own presidential race. Obama claims that there has been a concerted effort to label him a Muslim. This fact alone is deeply troubling. First someone surmises, correctly I’m sure, that our fear of Islam is so great that if he were a Muslim, and a closet one at that, he would be instantly discredited as a candidate. Second, a candidate for the presidency of the United States is willing to inflame religious strife in order to get elected. Third, religious identity is so vital to getting elected that nearly every candidate has to defend (or fake) their own faith commitment. Finally, the non-religious have so demonized people of faith (and we them) that everyone is on the defensive. Do we really want to keep playing a zero-sum game?

I like what Audi said about the sovereignty of God. If people of faith really believe that God is in charge, shouldn’t that belief temper our public discourse? As a writer who sometimes advocates a position, I don’t really think in terms of winning. I think about contributing to a public conversation. Sometimes a rebuttal spurs my thinking further, or changes my mind entirely. Sometimes, my own convictions are reinforced.

Still, I’m left to wonder if Audi wants a better deal for the non-religious or nominally religious. I wonder how and why he limited both his discussion and his definition. That he did reinforces mistrust.

[©cas 208, all rights reserved]

The Science of Contemplation

That B. Alan Wallace is a scholar and not just some new agey spiritual guru was quickly obvious as he began his UC Irvine Psychiatry and Spirituality Forum lecture entitled Principles of a Contemplative Science of the Mind. Wallace, who is based at the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, began his talk with a reverential bow. He spent a number of years in the 1970s under the tutelage of the Dalai Lama in Tibet and cited William James as a more recent influence. He claims James’s time has not yet come.

The lecture began with definitions of contemplation and science, definitions that revealed a clear intersection in these fields. Definitions that I was unable to record before they disappeared from the massive screen at the front of the auditorium.

Wallace said that mysticism got a “bad rap” 100 years ago and described the historical forces responsible for this unfortunate circumstance. He traced the cause back to the fall of the “epistemological hierarchy of medeival scholasticism.” In that paradigm, Spiritual Revelation was superior to Reason and Reason superior to Experience. With the work of Copernicus, Galileo and others, scientists upended this hierarchy, saying, in essence, to the Church, “You can’t have all of reality. You can have the nature of God, salvation, hell and all of that, but the natural world is ours.”

With their bold rebellion [rebellion some suggest began with the Protestant Reformation] came the advent of Scientific Naturalism as the overarching worldview in the West. It is a worldview that says the nature of reality is known only through natural revelation. Natural Revelation is superior to Reason, which remains superior to Experience. In this paradigm:

  1. Science is the ONLY source of genuine knowledge.
  2. Science is the ONLY way to understand humanity’s place in the world
  3. Science provides the ONLY credible view of the world as a whole.

Instead of Aristotle and the Bible as ruling authorities, Darwin and Newton are now entrenched. According to Scientific Naturalism, the natural world consists only of physical phenomena that can be explained according to the laws of physics and biology. There are no nonphysical influences in the physical world. For example, Wallace, who did his undergraduate work in physics, quoted Lord Kelvin, who apparently said (before Einstein blew the doors off), “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now.” Those interested in the field were advised to direct their energies elsewhere.

How did this epistemological reversal unfold? Wallace briefly described the Evolution of Science:

  1. Galileo rigorously observing material phenomena launched a revolution in the physical sciences. He said this revolution was threatening to those who liked the “closure” of the 16th century world, but aimed responsibility for this resistance not at the church primarily, but at philosophers. Yes, it was the church that punished Galileo and others, but, according to Wallace, philosophers were the instigators of his persecution, while he enjoyed a significant following among the monks.
  2. Darwin, rigorously observing biological phenomena, launched a revolution in the life sciences, but …
  3. William James’s proposal, rigorously observing mental phenomena, has been thwarted by a theology of Scientism. James proposed using the principle of psychology to understand the nature of the mind—observing it through introspection. His challenge was not carried through because it didn’t conform to the principles of Naturalism.

Next came an argument for the Limitations of the Naturalist Hierarchy.

  • First, Wallace said, mathematical theories alone do not define, predict or explain the emergence of a physical universe.
  • Second, physical theories alone do not define, predict or explain the emergence of life in the universe.
  • Third, biological theories alone do not define, predict or explain the emergence of consciousness in living organisms.
  • Fourth, psychological theories alone do not define, predict or explain the emergence of spirituality in concious beings.

Wallace sees no way of testing these “uncorroborated” theories. For example, how does one test for the emergence of consciousness or spirituality in a human fetus? Wouldn’t it help in the discussion of abortion to know at exactly what point spiritual, conscious life begins?

He described the Blind Spot in the Naturalist Vision of Reality (which he says began 130 years ago) as follows:

  • No scientific definition of consciousness.
  • No objective means of detecting consciousness.
  • Ignorance of neural correlates of consciousness.
  • Ignorance of necessary and sufficient causes of consciousness (eg.  Is consciousness more than response to sitmuli, akin to iron filings drawn to a magnet? Surely it is, according to Wallace.)
  • Ignorance of how the brain generates, or even influences, mental phenomena.

Next Wallace asked Why is there No Revolution in the Cognitive Sciences? (He conceded that there have been insights, but no revolution, as in the life and physical sciences.)

He cited James here as having said, “Psychology, indeed, is today hardly more than what physics was before Galileo.” He also cited John Searle. I only wrote down the last, problem-defining, portion of the quote, ” … Ontology of the mental is an irreducibly first person ontology.” It appears to be subjective. He provided a historical parallel in Galileo, saying some of Galileo’s detractors refused to look through a telescope because they didn’t want to see something that contradicted their commitment to “folk astronomy.” Likewise, William James’s detractors focus on behavior and neural correlates of mental phenomena and “folk introspection,” while refusing to refine and utilize introspection to study them.

A discussion of research into cognition followed:

Wallace decried the practice of using inexperienced, underpaid grad students in such research rather than experienced contemplatives, who would know what to do when, for example, given instructions to focus on a zebra for 30 minutes inside an MRI machine. Wallace says research indicates that most people can only focus on one object for an average of 7 seconds, while experienced contemplatives can do so for extended lengths of time. He himself has led retreats that involve 8 hr. meditations. He also mentioned a year-long meditation retreat. In his view, experts like himself should be utlilized by scientists in the study of the mind. This is not done, he suggests, because of an ontological commitment to expanding Naturalism. He mentioned Dawkins here, saying atheists tend to reject anything remotely supernatural. He noted, however, that the very definition of physical is debatable, in which case, the Materialists’ commitment is to exactly what?

Here he quoted Occam’s Razor: “It is vain to do with more assumptions what can be done with fewer assumptions.” He suggested applying Occam’s Razor to the insistence that mental phenomena are physical, and asked, What is lost in doing so? [Presumably a lot. A narrowing of life and a marginalizing of the mind and experience, both of which have much to offer science.]

Next he talked about perhaps his most controversial point: The Primacy of IntrospectionHe defined introspection from two perspectives (note: both terms are missing their accents):

  1. noetos — cognitive faculty that directly apprehends non-sensuous phenomena and discloses their intelligible meaning.
  2. samadhi — stable focused attention which may be focused on the space of the mind and its contents.

Next, he described a Contemplative Method, which, he said, transcends religious traditions:

  1. Ethics (social and environmental focus) — Spirituality begins with ethics; where and how we are living. Is our life supportive of our own and others’ well-being? This is the only grounds for a religious metaphysics, in his view; all that is left without it is utilitarianism. [Conversely, philosopher Charles Taylor has reportedly said, “Ethics names what was left of Christianity after Modernism did its work.”]
  2. Mental Balance (psychological flourishing) — He described this as focus, clarity, affective balance and noted that we are able to envision physical excellence, even if it is out of reach to the average person, eg. the olympic athlete. He said we ought to envision such excellence for the mind, imagining extraordinary psychological well-being rather than neurosis management as “normal.”  For example, he noted a Chinese concentration camp prisoner that the Dalai Lama had told him about. The man had been held captive 17 years. Asked afterwards if he had been afraid, the man said yes, he was afraid he would lose compassion for his captors. Wow!
  3. Wisdom (spiritual flourishing) — Deeper sense of flourishing beyond social, environmental and psychological.

Next Wallace described 2 Faculties for Defining Attention.

  1. Mindfulness is the faculty of sustaining voluntary attention continuously upon a familiar object, without forgetfulness or distraction. (This is the Buddhist rather than psychological definition.)
  2. Introspection is the faculty of monitoring the mind, recognizing the occurance of excitation and laxity.

He suggested 3 Goals of Attentional Training:

  1. Relaxation — the sense of bodily and mental ease.
  2. Stability — stillness and coherence of attention on an object.
  3. Vividness — brightness, resolution and focus of attention.

Wallace discussed contemplation apart from metaphysics. He advised any atheists in the room to set aside their atheism for the moment, and then delved into instruction on Settling the Mind in its Natural State:

  • Rest the attention in a field of mental events and observe whatever arises in that domain, without distraction and without groping. (He suggested focusing on a thought rather than its reference.)
  • Examine the degree of subject/object participancy in this endeavor. (To what extent are thoughts and emotions “yours”?
  • Bring awareness to a broad band of previously unconscious mental processes. (Make that which was unconscious conscious.)

His conclusion is that thoughts matter. They have causal efficacy.

Next came another quote from James: “No subjective state, whilst present, is its own object; its object is always something else … The act of naming them has momentarily detracted from their force.”

There was a bit here that doesn’t seem noteworthy, and then his conclusion …

Problems of Introspection, (or, Reasons apart from Social, Economic, etc. that James’s Revolution Failed):

  1. Communicability of “private” language re. mental experiences. (Wallace suggested utilizing the expertise of skilled contemplatives to discern these experiences.)
  2. The tendency of unconscious mental processes and unconscious motivations to conceal or misrepresent.
  3. Possible differences between mental appearances and mental realities.
  4. Observer participancy in the process of introspection (resulting in interference with data; he suggested an approach similar to eavesdropping on one’s own thoughts as a solution here.)

Potential Revolution in Cognitive Sciences:

The success of science was so good that it pushed everything else aside. As a result, it turned outward rather than inward and became dogmatic and elitist. Now, Wallace says, it is time to turn to that which made science possible, our own minds. He suggested:

  • Synthesis of rigorous 1st person and 3rd person means of empirically investigating a wide range of mental phenomena and their relation to the physical world.
  • Collaboration between cognitive scientists, philosophers and contemplatives with exceptional mental skills and insights resulting from rigorous, sustained contemplative training.

He believes such synthesis and collaboration could revolutionize our notion of mental health, replacing a low view of “normal” with a vision of excellence defined as sublime mental health and function.

During the Q&A, Wallace was both praised and challenged. Forum director Dr. Aaron Kheriaty noted that he too had become a fan of William James (not to be confused with his brother Henry) and suggested James’s Varieties of Religious Experience as a place to begin reading. Wallace added Talks to Teachers and a couple other titles to this suggestion.

In one dialogue, Wallace acknowledged that some practitioners of meditation can become more emotionally unbalanced by the practice rather than less so. I believe this is the context in which he mentioned a year-long meditation retreat, saying that it aggravated some neurosis rather than curing them.

Kheriaty challenged the primacy of introspection, asking if we need “something beyond introspection to orient us in terms of ethics.” Wallace conceded that introspection is not a panacea, but a useful tool within a broader context. He said science has a backdrop of metaphysics and that backdrop is Scientific Materialism. He said that in the late 19th century, the existence of atoms was a metaphysical discussion. Buddhists would say many things in metaphysics become phsyics. He noted the excellent mental health of Tibetan Buddhist survivors of genocide early in the last century and said metaphysics is a domain of belief that transcends what can be known. However, the metaphysics for one culture may not fit another.

[© cas 2007, all rights reserved.]