Wednesday, June 13, 2007

On Being a Body

An essay by a friend of mine recently appeared in “The Daily Episcopalian.” It was a beautifully reasoned plea in the midst of our conflicted times that we stop applying labels to one another and engage in the real work of our life-long journey into God’s grace. He began his exploration with a gay couple in his parish who were tired of being reduced to a sexual orientation. They wanted to be “post gay.” After reviewing a number of other divisive labels, the author concluded by suggesting that perhaps we should be “post everything.”

All true. For the past hundred years and more we have hurled labels at one another like javelins and it has resulted in genocide, war, institutional rape and slavery. But I am not sure that any reasoned plea is going to help us get over it, because, alas, I am coming to fear that reason itself may be the culprit.

For the past three hundred years, Western Culture has lived with the idea that what makes us most truly human is our intellect. It is mental acuity, not, say hairlessness, or the ability to play baseball, that best sets humanity apart from all other forms of life. Intellect has made possible a network of human dominance, from the wonders of science and medicine, to the rise of wealth, of leisure and travel, to the information revolution that allows people in India to work in real time for American corporations. Even deeper than that, reason, or so we believe, has given rise to democracy, to the open society, to the free exchange of ideas. The current curricula of “No Child Left Behind” are entirely dedicated to “academic learning,” i.e. “hard reason,” as opposed to the “soft” skills of creativity, service and community. Reason is a sharp sword. One cannot argue with the diagnosis of fact.

Now I happen to like intellectual life. I am absolutely motivated by ideas and I am reasonably well educated. I take the life of the mind so seriously that I have dedicated most of my life to it. Living thus in my head, I have discovered both the strengths and the limitations of the path of reason. Reason tends to learn by dividing wholes into more workable parts. If I am a thorough scholar, I make careful attributions through footnotes, it can even have the unintended effect of allowing me to detachment from my own mind. In this way, at minimal cost to myself, my reason unlocks the mysteries of nature, classifies, measures, assesses. Reason looks at things in relation to other things. Untempered reason lets me skip over the hard work of integration and instead use relatedness as a tool of distinguishing one from the other: animate from inanimate, plant from animal, animal from human, male from female, adult from child, civilized from indigenous, light skinned from dark skinned. The primary sense organ of the "head trip" is the eye, the objectifier. The archetypal symbol of intellect is the sword.

Western humanity, that most literal of the human tribes, embraced reason as a way of bridling and controlling passions that in an explosive climate of reason-as-doctrine were tearing it apart. No one bothered, it seemed, to notice that the great religious wars were not about spirituality but about bad philosophy. After a century of bloodshed, people were just exhausted. It seemed a comforting thing at the beginning of the eighteenth century to turn God into a clockmaker who set the universe in motion and retired, giving daily control of it to humanity. Giving up our cosmic trantrums against God allowed us to imagine life on a purely human scale. As some witty Frenchman said, “The gods came down from the heavens and entered the boudoir.” Like the elegant salons and boudoirs of the Rococo, the Enlightenment intellect was a graceful construction. It was also a powerful one. It allowed me to work on myself one part at a time. Had we in the West been less relentlessly literal, less fearful and had we been able to treat the Enlightenment as a prayer, as a small symbol of the great Enlightenment that is Union with the Divine, the wisdom teachers among us could have built an interior castle, room by room to keep pace with the other one. And I have no doubt that prayerful women and men of the west did precisely that because there is always truth, even if the world does not hear of it. But in the outer world of history and fact, faith was sundered from reason. The interior castle became the interior of the smoking factory. The work of learning my soul one room at a time was too much bother when the sword of reason allowed me to project my undesirable qualities, my sins, or, in the language of suburban housewives my “guilt trips” upon the dark skinned slave, the reproductive female, the Native American savage, the Russian, the Muslim and in Germany, the Jew, and turn these rich and complex human beings into problems that I became duty bound to domesticate, bind and eradicate.

To sever the brain from the rest of the human creature is to wake up one morning in a dying world choking on its own pollution. To sever the brain from intuition, from feeling, from heart consciousness, from faith is to find only fear. And when I fear someone I soon come to hate them. And I will gather up my authority, my wealth and my power to hide in the structure of myself and to make sure that the feared object is kept always at bay.

I do not care whether you are liberal or conservative; whether you flaunt your inclusivity or flaunt your exclusivity. They are one and the same. To flaunt is not to welcome. To flaunt is to wave your sword and say “If you are not with me you are against me.” This is blasphemy.

In the Buddhist tradition the flame tipped sword is the attribute of the the Bodhisattva Manjushri’s discriminating wisdom. The sword is to be used on no one but myself. It is there to cut away the illusion of duality and projection of myself upon others and to awaken compassion and equanimity, the fires transforming my delusions as completely as fire reduces wood to ash. This may be the most deeply intellectual of all acts. If I am able to work from intellect, through reason, to wisdom, I have the chance to discover God’s great compassion for the whole sentient world. If, however, I use my sword in any kind of literal way, my reason will become a weapon and kill people. Make no mistake: the age of total war in which we now live is a direct consequence of the Age of Reason taken literally. Even the reasoned cadences of a democratic constitution will be, in the end, about power.

And so to return to the couple in my friend's essay. You are human! I am human! We are mammals in the image of God! All the other name calling in the Church and in political life is simply that: a brandishing of the sword of infantile reason. Name calling of any sort is wrong. Children call each other names. Children flaunt their cliquey pride and humiliate the other. Adulthood is about getting over that. We are one body: human, animal, plant, earth. That body has been sanctified by God. It is not mine to manage, analyze, classify or judge. If I do these things, God calls me to do so not to awaken control, but to awaken compassion. This world is mine to love with all the wisdom God gave me. It does not matter whether I approve of your lifestyle or not. If, in the name of reason, I allow my disapproval to become policy, I join those who crucified the Christ.

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