Sunday, January 23, 2011

Religion and Social Consciousness

I'm participating in a book study of Kevin Roose's book "The Unlikely Disciple". So far, I have only read the first two chapters, so there is no need for any spoiler alerts. However, if you've read the book before, please don't tell me what happens! I want to keep a fresh perspective.

During discussion in our study group today, I heard two rather broad, very compelling questions which I would like to discuss further on this blog.

1. Agnostic college student Kevin Roose transfers from east-coast, secular Brown University to Jerry Falwell's evangelical proving grounds at Liberty University for a semester to discover a greater understanding of evangelical Christianity. However, to fit in without giving himself away as an outsider, Kevin adopts a double persona as a fellow evangelical Christian. Is this double life justified?

I believe Roose had no other choice but to adopt the character of an evangelical Christian if he really wanted to obtain an insider's understanding. Was this choice a duplicitous one, a charade, a fraud? Maybe, to some extent - but I accept that his choice was no more a lie than the choices most people make every day. Why are any of us Christian, Muslim, Jewish, agnostic, liberal, libertarian, conservative, socialist, etc? Can we honestly embrace our own ideas as superior without honestly trying to understand all of the other alternatives which surround us?

Most individuals adopt convenient labels and narratives to use in their everyday lives with less thought than Roose puts into his pseudo-identity. How we do know that we are not defrauding ourselves? How do we know that when call ourselves something, that we are being true to ourselves, and whether we can really accept what we claim to be true?

Further, I think the only good way to understand someone else's ideas or values is to understand their experiences - or, even better, share some of their experiences. It really is futile to ponder someone's arguments or points without understanding why and how the person arrived at that place. Roose is doing the best he can to genuinely understand evangelicalism - he walks in their path and sees with their own eyes, instead of merely tracing their footsteps and following the breadcrumbs left in their wake, as so many other people content themselves to do and believe that they have a good understanding when they most assuredly do not.

2. Do you believe that Roose's beliefs will change during his time at Liberty University? Will he convert to evangelical Christianity, or even modify some of his beliefs to those of his peers? Why or why not?

To me, after reading just the first two chapters of "The Unlikely Disciple", it's inevitable that Roose will change many of his ideas as a result of spending a semester at Liberty.

But why should he change? Doesn't he already have many of his own well-established ideas, honed over the course of his entire life thus far?


However, there is a key observation I must make to establish why I believe change is inevitable for Kevin Roose: that consciousness is a social product, evolving constantly with changes in one's environment and interpersonal interaction.

I'm currently enrolled in a philosophy course called "Persons and Selves". The last two weeks we've been discussing at various points how an individual's consciousness is shaped by a person's relationships with other people - that a person who is isolated eventually will begin to lose his or her personality, and that individuals gain much of their consciousness and sense of personhood as a reflection of the acknowledgement which they receive from other people.

I predict that by immersing himself in an environment dominated by evangelical Christianity, that Roose will experience a changing consciousness as he is recognized by other Liberty students for his actions as an evangelical, and that over time, he will slowly feel more and more attuned to those forms of recognition, so that his beliefs will shift in a way which accords with his social environment.

The consciousness of a human being is not a static product. You are not who you were as a young child or as an adolescent. You're not who you were a year ago, or a week ago. You're not even who you were yesterday.

I'm not on the record as someone who is very religious. But maybe there is a possibility that there is some kind of divine force in or behind our Universe. I believe that if there is a sort of animating force, akin to what is understood widely as God, that this God-like force most likely is a Process, which works through other things in the world.

Look around us: everything is in flux, and nothing is ever the same. Heck, that's what it says in Ecclesiastes (and on classic rock stations, if you like The Byrds). There is a season...for everything under the Sun, for agnosticism at Brown, for who knows what at Liberty, for hoping the Jets win so you can laugh at the New England Patriots, to ruing the day one said that because the Jets have just demolished one's favorite football team in the playoffs...

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Return of the Journal-i: the Literati Strikes Back

Who has two thumbs and hasn't written a post on this blog in two calendar years?


Okay, since that awkwardness is out of the way for now, here's something I wrote on Facebook that I would like to re-post here.

"Thoughts on Comedy, Grief, and Human Existence"

I'm taken with the idea of grief as a sacrament, something through which the sacred passes; a vessel for humans to connect with something deeper which can be found within each individual.

I have long felt the same way about humor: that almost all absurdity in life is in extension a commiseration, an empathy, which springs from somewhere deep within us all - that the catharsis of laughter and comedy itself is really a transformation of our isolated, personal pain into a shared, expanded empathy that radically connects us to other beings in a profoundly new and meaningful way each time it occurs.

We encounter a new understanding of each others' experiences, a new relationship of shared joy and wonder at the vast depths of empathy which can be found in any of us, summoned against the potential agony of deep suffering and trauma.

In these ways, comedy and grief are identical: each brings from the deepest wounds of life, astonishment at our shared journeys and our shared perspectives. They produce a sympathy internal to us which directs us externally, to a shared life which is common to us all. They produce a shared transcendence of suffering, where a dramatically altered and expanded understanding of human love and human experience is possible.

Humor and grief at their best are the shared sufferings of other people, reflected and redirected through the prism of human compassion. They are expressed as exceedingly passionate and raw realizations of our shared human predicament. These revelations of grief and humor are both somewhat profane and somewhat sacred. But most thoroughly of all, they bear witness as a fulfillment of the highest which can be expected from the human condition. They are a positive and enduring testament to the power of the most decent and kind stirrings within the human soul: empathy, sympathy, compassion, and understanding.