Monthly Archives: August 2020

Some Random Thoughts

  1. As I get older and reflect back on my life it sometimes astonishes me how really right I was about certain things, about certain decisions, about certain ideas….  Then again I inevitably have to face the many mistakes, the many times I was miserably wrong in my understanding of something or someone or in this or that decision or choice.  Alas, those times very much outnumber the former!    For better or worse, both resonate through one’s life with various consequences.  But such is life….
  1. In the Gospel of Matthew (11: 28-30) we find the following saying of Jesus:  “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Very simple words but very profound stuff is being conveyed.  Sadly these words are too often made into pious sentiments…their depths concealed under “holy thoughts.” 

 We are called upon to lay down one kind of “burden,” one which makes life itself a burden of sorts; and we are called to pick up another kind of “burden,” one which is unspeakably light, which actually frees us.   What is this “labor” and what is this “burden”?  And what about that “rest”  (makes you think of the “quies,” and “hesychia” of the Desert Fathers)?  How do we lay down “our burden” and “take up that yoke” which is so easy and light?  May I suggest that we are here at the doorway of a kind of Christian Rinzai Zen…meaning that these questions are not solvable as rational, conceptual puzzles.  With their koan-like challenge we stand at the gateway to the mystery of our very identity.

  1. Stalin said, “It’s not who votes that matters; it’s who counts the votes.”  This made me nostalgic for my childhood home in Chicago, where I grew up way back when in the Mayor Daley era.  I swear Stalin must have gotten his training as a precinct captain in old Chicago!!  Those guys pioneered  “counting votes.”

Speaking of elections, this is going to be a very, very messy affair in November.  There is a very real potential of a lot of turmoil.

  1. One candidate, President Trump, had and still has the overwhelming support of evangelical Christians.  Anyone puzzled by that needs to read this clarifying (and depressing) story from the New York Times.

What’s equally dismaying is that in 2016 about 50% of the Catholic vote also went to Trump.  Perhaps not this time….  The pollsters say these are the key points for the Trump Base:  MAGA, abortion, 2nd amendment, stopping socialism, country on edge of chaos (meaning Blacks are getting “uppity” again), and illegal immigrants taking over the country.  I think I might want to check out the “how to” page on moving to Canada….not that it is any paradise either.

What else to say about this mess?  Well, I am not thrilled by the Biden-Harris ticket, but the other choice of the sociopath president is simply not possible as even a consideration.  Both Joe and Kamala have a lot of baggage from their past that makes me worried about them.  Also, they pretty much represent the “great center” of the Dem party though they have moved to what seems like leftward due to the pressure of the movement generated by Bernie, AOC, Warren, and others.  It is really funny that these folks are labeled as the “radical left” by the Republicans, by the media, and even by many Dems; but by European standards they would be considered “centrists!  It is also interesting how AOC, a real possible future leader of progressive Dems, got only a bit more than a minute speaking time at the convention whereas someone like billionaire Michael Bloomberg got a big chunk of time.  

Alas, even as I vote for this crew of Dems, I am with Chris Hedges in believing that elections will not solve our real problems.  They are much, much deeper than what any party has to offer.  It will relieve us of the immediate insanity of the present situation, and simply give us a “kinder and gentler” corruption  and a miasma of competing self-interests where we get a few crumbs off the table while corporate interests and the 1% flourish.  Also, given the past record of the Dems, don’t count out some egregious sell-outs like the Bankruptcy Reform Act under Clinton (brainchild of Biden), and the Criminal Reform Act also under Clinton.  I won’t bother with Obama Care.  By the way, none of these people spoke out against the Iraq/Afghan war; in fact endorsed it.  

But I would also disagree with Chris Hedges in his belief that what is needed is a revolution of sorts.  Nothing totally external, nothing that is just an external rearrangement of social/economic parts will be adequate to the task of tackling our real problems.  Only insofar as the “revolution” will be in the heart will we be able to deal with the challenges ahead.   Yes, I can abstractly name the social programs that would make us a more decent, humane society….things like Medicare for All, a universal basic income, forgiveness of all college debt, free education for all who want it, etc….but none of these programs can be implemented in a social fabric so divided as we are, so riddled with delusions about each other and hatreds for each other, so dysfunctional, so mesmerized by the pursuit of narrow superficial goals, so ready to reach for the gun, meaning violence of any kind….   Alas, I am not very hopeful about the future of this country.  I wonder if the people who vote for Trump see what’s coming down the road toward all of us….   A lot of them are simple people who are afraid and confused and don’t know where to turn; a lot of others are much more troubled, and with these we have a lot to worry about….

  1. And now for a bit of classic philosophy:  Here is a quote from Aristotle:

Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.” 

This line of thought was followed by Thomas Aquinas and most of the West until modern times.  The idea gets expanded like this:

Some goods are subordinate to others

The highest goods are intrinsically good –not subordinate to anything.

If something is the highest good, then it is good in itself, and not merely because it leads to something else.

Good in itself  is called an intrinsic good. 

Good because it leads to something else is then an extrinsic good.

Now, what is good for X depends on the function of X

The function of a knife is to cut.   Thus, a “good” knife cuts well.

The function of an eye is to see.   Thus, a “good” eye sees well.

The function of a tree is to grow and flourish.  

A good tree grows and flourishes.

Any living thing can be said to “flourish,” which is to say that it is living well.  But living well for a tree and living well for a human being  are different things, because they have different natures.

Ok, this is where it gets interesting. 

  This whole tradition tells us that the true and ultimate human good is our ultimate happiness.    So, we are built as it were to aim for our good.  And we aim for our good in everything we do, in everything we reach for, in everything we think, etc.  All the “little goods” we reach for are a kind of sign of that total, absolute good that our whole being reaches out to in everything we do and want.

And in everything we do and in everything we aim for, etc., we are then reaching for our happiness.   And in every “small,” relative, contingent happiness, what we are really reaching for is our ultimate, absolute happiness.  But this is where we leave philosophy and turn to religion in its deepest and truest sense.  Both Buddhism and Christianity, for example, would say that this dynamic gets frustrated and fouled up because we do not clearly see what leads to happiness and mistakenly choose only that what appears to be a good.  There’s a kind of metaphysical “sleight of hand” that takes place in the depths of our being, and so we begin to act against our very nature.  We are fooled in a profound way.  And this is a total and comprehensive problem.  Granted, there are degrees of affliction; a person could be extremely warped  and have a totally distorted sense of their “good,”  but really that person is still acting/seeking their happiness but in a completely blind way, totally distorting the nature of their “good,” and so causing themselves and others much harm.  But we need to emphasize that everyone is afflcted to one degree or another; the human condition.  Our seeking of happiness gets lost in trivialities, in hedonism, in egoism, in wealth,  even in religion, etc., etc.  In the Gospels the devil is called the ‘father of lies,” the “deceiver,” and Jesus is tempted by Satan precisely in this way:  What is your good, your happiness, Jesus of Nazareth?  And Buddha is tempted by the demonic Mara right at his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree.  These mythologies are extremely deep and important for our consideration.  Now Buddhism and Christianity both provide a diagnosis of the problem, but of course with some degree of difference; and both point us in the direction of a “cure” or better, a “liberation” from this condition.  May I suggest at this point that the reference to the Gospel pericope about the “burden” and the “rest” has a lot to do with this issue?  Jesus’ invitation to lay down that burden is an invitation to this liberation, because we are truly weighed down in life by the illusory nature of what seems like our good.  The “burden” of a kind of falseness deep down in us is an enormous burden and weight which we carry.  We labor like Sisyphus in the Greek myth, who is condemned to roll that stone up the hill but it gets heavier and heavier as he seems to get higher until it rolls down again and again and he tries again and again.  Or like a thirsty man drinking salt water to quench his thirst.   Or again in Gospel language, we seek “treasure” which moth and rust devour; we build our house on sand.  

  1. I have ranted here before about how much I dislike the Catholic practice of canonization, how I think it badly misleads people about the nature of religion in general, and even how it just adds to the ambiguity of the institutional church itself.  Not too long ago Pope Francis canonized Junipero Serra, not one of my favorites for sure.  But who am I to say what this is all about.  It is interesting, though, to see the varied responses this produced.  A balanced, thoughtful op-ed piece appeared in the New York Times. This is the Link.
  1. The conquistador Cortez said to the Aztec chief, “We have a disease of the heart, and only gold can cure it.”   After this the Europeans proceeded to massacre, rape, and pillage (and yes, enslave), but one suspects that this “disease” was not cured.  In any case, Cortez was partially correct…he and his men did suffer from a “disease,” and some would say that it was pathological greed or something awful sounding like that.   But just think of this in terms of what we said above…..  These men are just like all human beings seeking happiness in seeking what is the good….the only problem is that they are pathologically deluded in what constitutes their good and so they are hopelessly incapable of achieving real happiness.  What transpires in their lust and greed and murderous rapacity is a brief mirage of  a superficial satisfaction.  They are merely an awful blow-up of the enslavement to maya in all human hearts one way or another.  Buddha and Jesus and some others seek to liberate us from the “hell” that these delusions lock us in.  Buddha even uses the imagery of fire: the imagery for a person lost in his desires, seeking his/her happiness in that which can only produce more unhappiness…..he portrayed it as a man whose house is on fire but he won’t/can’t leave.  Recall Gandhi’s words to the Hindu who was all devoured by a murderous rage toward the Muslims, “I know a way out of hell.”  Indeed, there is a way.
  1. Two books written almost 60 years ago are very timely these days:  Thomas Merton’s Seeds of Destruction and Faith and Violence.  Readers of these works in the last few years have posted some reviews that expressed surprise and shock how timely and prophetic the essays were.  

Here is one reviewer’s observation:

“We no longer communicate,” Merton said. “We abandon communication in order to celebrate our own favorite group-myths in a ritual pseudo-event.” He wrote that in the Sixties, but he could have been describing a Trump rally, which, in the absence of substantive content, is mostly a ritual acting out of a group-myth, reaching its crescendo in the anticipated expulsion of protesters. As Rachel Maddow showed in a recent montage of those expulsions, Trump repeatedly asks the crowd, “Isn’t this exciting?” Roughing up protesters may express anything from personal rage to fascist methodology, but it is also entertainment. As Neil Postman has noted, Americans like “amusing ourselves to death.” When the anti-Trump signs come out, the crowd gets happy, knowing the real fun is about to begin.

This is all contemptible and sad. But I wonder: how do protestors avoid becoming unwitting collaborators in Trump’s entertainments? Even if they don’t hit back or give the crowd the finger, how do they escape complicity in a political Punch and Judy show? How do they avoid getting their own group-myths stuck in the futility of an endless ritualized dualism of “us versus them”?

From this blog site:

  1. Saw this on a t-shirt:  You can’t change stupid.  Maybe you can quarantine it.   

Reminds me of my all-time favorite worn by a Native American:  Resisting Illegal Immigration Since 1492.    I almost offered him $20 for the shirt off his back!

  1. Eliot Deutsch, a philosopher who was very conversant with Asian thought, commenting on a famous rock garden at Ryoanji, a Zen temple in Kyoto:

“The concept of yugen teaches us that in aesthetic experience it is not that ‘I see the work of art,’ but that by ‘seeing’ the ‘I’ is transformed.  It is not that ‘I enter into the work,’ but that by ‘entering’ the ‘I’ is altered in the intensity of a pristine immediacy.”

We in the West have very little sense of the “why” and the “how” of the “I” needing to be transformed.  Even in our various religious traditions somehow this “I” gets put on a pedestal of sorts.  Even when we “punish” ourselves for our “sins,” it is the “I” behind the mask of a superficial humility, another badge that it wears proudly!  What is needed is a kind of transformation, which is, in Gospel language, an unburdening.  What we don’t realize is the “heaviness” of this “I” that we bear through our daily lives, a sense of identity that constantly needs to be worked, maintained. (The best of the Desert Father tradition knew this well.)  Sometimes you can even see this “burden” in peoples’ faces, and I don’t mean the suffering that life sometimes brings but rather the “heaviness of life” felt in upholding some identity based on fleeting credentials.   

 Of course a radical “unburdening” takes place when we die; death comes like the ultimate thief to steal everything that is stealable, including even the sense of who you seem to be.  We invent various myths to console ourselves…portrayals of the afterlife…, or else live in total denial of “the end.”    An icon of this “unburdening” is sannyasa…the initiate plunges totally under the water, symbolically and actually dying to all social identity.  You would think our Baptism would have the same meaning—our identity now is uncovered “in Christ” and it should have the same sense as the Zen person of “no-rank,” of “no-account”—meaning it is not just another credential to wave at people to tell them who we are.  (The Gospel does say, ‘Not everyone who shouts ‘Lord, Lord……’) 

But even sannyasa is a kind of credential.   There is something beyond that, but this is not on any map.  And so our identity is always transcendent to what we can point to….because it ultimately is in the One we call God.   Let us end with the prayer from the Upanishads:  From the unreal, Lead us to the Real.