One of the greatest gifts I received was coming back to Emory from my sojourn working in a psychiatric hospital in Louisville and having the blessing of finding a mentor.
His name was James Fowler, Jim, who had been stolen away from Harvard by our dean, and then president, Jim Laney. Fowler’s genius had intuited his theory of faith development through listening to stories told around the “campfire” by ministers who were in retreat mode at a gathering hosted by Carlyle Marney. From that experience, Fowler applied the structural developmental theory of Piaget and Kohlberg and extended it into the human phenomena of faith, that is, how we construct a world of meaning out of our lives.
I latched onto Jim and he onto me. We were both too young for a mentoring relationship. He was looking for a son to carry on the family business, and I was looking for a daddy, something I figured out in two years of psychoanalysis. We would disappoint one another profoundly, but reconcile over long neck beers at the Country Tavern in Kilgore, Texas. We transcended teacher/student relationship and forged a friendship as we went into the end of his life.
Recently, I was on a Roman Catholic website and saw the course description of a parish, entitled Faith Development, as opposed to the way most churches denote the activity, Christian Education. It was a moment of insight, nothing new for me, but a re-minder of a truth Jim taught me long ago.
Christian education typically revolves around the task of transferring knowledge to a recipient. The image of opening up the head of a person, pouring in information from a cereal box full of knowledge is what comes to mind. You learn about the Bible, Old and New Testament, Church History, Theology, and the traditions of liturgy, in some churches. There’s nothing wrong with this knowledge transfer as it builds up your familiarity with the tradition of the religion in which you find yourself. But….., there’s a big “but”.
BUT, the more important piece is the training of how to BE. How do you “faith it” in the world? In faith development, we thought of faith as a verb. How do you live your life in alignment with the world view your community of faith is founded upon and exercising? How do you make this thing real in the moments of your life? Where do you learn to live your life in faith? How might one, in reality, develop that faith?
When I took a sabbatical from the Christian religion and explored the spiritual genius of the Tibetan Buddhists, I was surprised to find their teaching and instruction advanced in terms of the pragmatics in how one lives life. They have their well developed theories and concepts about how the world is structured, how we are intended to live and flourish in it, but the main gig is how do you “live it” in the world. As the Dalai Lama is fond to say, compassion is my religion. How do I treat others?
I can’t help but think that in the world we live in today, especially in this country, we are in need of some of those basic lessons on how we treat one another with compassion. Rather than framing our world in adversarial terms, where there are only winners and losers, a world bifurcated into a duality of right and wrong, it might be time to spend some time studying how we treat one another with respect and dignity, in a word, compassion. Rather than voting people off our island, we might discover ways of inclusion and embrace. Radical idea?…..it didn’t used to be.
And where do we go to develop that faith?
Politics? Come on now. There is no more public square where dialogue is promoted, nor even allowed. Truth telling has been outlawed in certain camps.
Education? It is defined by the task of differentiation in the halls I grew up in.
Media, electronic, social, and print? It may be the most divided and isolated arena we have.
Religion? It has become all about who agrees with my biases and prejudices, not seeking the Truth. And perhaps it’s the last place to learn about how to be compassionate.
Is there any way to change this? On this particular morning, I am not feeling all that optimistic. The democracy that I was taught and trained in is in tattered pieces, flying at half mast. We barely made it through the past election, with an insurrection that was promulgated by disinformation, made virulent with social media. Our country was attacked, violently, and our democratic process threatened. And the best we can do is talk about The Big Lie, when treason is at its heart. Lies have become our way of life, shame has left the building with Elvis.
We may be at the end of our time, after all, democracy is an experiment in our world history, a great one, but an experiment. Authoritarianism has been the option that folks who get tired of the messiness of democracy default to. CONTROL had become the coin of the realm. If you listen carefully, you can hear the drumbeat of “order” brought by a “strong man” pulsing on the horizon, whereas Spirit seems the ghost of a distant time. Loyalty to party seems to trump any commitment to Truth, and yes, I know what I did. And when that happens, where you gonna turn? Who you gonna call….ghostbusters? The cynicism of Bill Murray’s character seems to be emerging in me.
Is it possible for us to use this hellacious time to learn to be compassionate? We literally seem to be living in two separate universes, where truth is up for grabs. I have grown weary with the reminder that everyone can have their own opinion….but you can not have your own facts. In our country, the facts are twisted and turned to “fit” the argument being forwarded. In such a landscape, it is hard to see how we move beyond the split we seem to be wedged between.
My friend and fellow priest, Dr. Charlie Palmgren, has pushed the notion of creative interchange that exists in this Creation. It is our ability, our vocation, to interact with one another in order to produce creative ideas that will better our common life. The creative interchange process is based on the differences we bring to the dance, and in engaging with one another, we come away with a better grasp of the reality we are in.
There’s just one thing, one problem. The creative interchange process is predicated by the trust we have in one another. My observation is that we are fresh out of that, and bananas. To take it a step further, and more plainly, we have a heaping helping full of mistrust, looking for, expecting bad things from what we deem as “the other side”.
Is there anything to be done? A wave of hope crashed onto my brain to remind me of my first principle: never give up. (Thanks, Coach Valvano!)
I was reminded a a Buddhist image of the bodhisattva, a person who has achieved enlightenment, and is committed to being compassionate to others. In that tradition, the gateway to becoming more compassionate toward others is to begin with the practical focus on generosity. By practicing the attitude of gratitude for the giftedness of life, it is believed that it will transform the lens through which one sees the world.
As opposed to the lens of scarcity, in which one grabs what you can, seeing the world as a competitive field in which the endgame is “winner take all”, one takes the radical stance that the field is a shared space, where we all share in the abundance, freedom, and energy. This practice trains one to see the world with a different slant, a perspective that fills one’s soul, not blocks others by contempt.
The person of Jesus is viewed by Christians as an icon to that way of being in the world. Jesus becomes a way to see into this radical notion of the Kingdom of God, where all persons have dignity and worth due to the immutable reality of being a child of God. Worth comes with the territory as part of being a human, not something that is earned by wealth, power, or position. Jesus shows us what living our of such a radical notion looks like in flesh and blood.
While the traditions of Buddhism, Christianity, and other religions vary in the words they use and the stories they tell, the common denominator is that of compassion. Learning to practice that compassion begins in the maternal relationship, as the mother natively sees the child as their focus of attention, moving one’s attention from self concern to the “other”, in this case, one’s child. It’s the native, biological connection that drives this ability to transcend separation, to see the self in the other who has literally emerged from one’s own body. But that is not necessarily the end of such connective capacity.
This “mother’s love” is the primary human model of care and love, but can be extended to those beyond one’s natural family, to the “other” who shares space with you, in the neighborhood, at one’s business, or in the community. With practice, one is called to extend this unconditional regard to ALL people. But let’s start where we are.
Who are the people in your inner circle? Write down their names on a sheet of paper. Then, write down some notes as to their current situation in life. What are their current challenges? Can you imagine you way into seeing what their hopes and dreams are? Allow your mind, heart, and soul to reflect on each person, bringing into one’s mind the image of their face. What images, feelings emerge? And now, write down how you might extend compassion to this particular person in the near future. And then, commit to that action.
By practicing compassion with those in your inner circle, you are intentionally exercising that compassion muscle, literally training it for the work ahead.
The Buddhist practice then asks you to extend this focus to neutral beings, those with whom you interact on a daily basis in a social exchange. When I was practicing this method, I focused on the owner of the dry cleaning shop that I would see at least twice a week. I imagined his life, how his day goes, what his concerns might be, Am I 100% accurate in my assessment? Clearly not. But I am a hell of a lot closer to having compassion for him as a fellow human being than I was before my practice of focus. I found myself treating him differently, seeing him as a human, not just a utilitarian part of my day. A lot to ask? I don’t thing so, but that’s your call.
The heavy life is the next request. One is asked to bring to mind one’s enemy. Now, for me, this part is not hard. Several names leap into my consciousness. The trick is to do the perspective-taking of this “other” that is in opposition to you. What are the internal feelings, drives, wants, fears that makes them the way they are? What’s behind their words? Can you imagine what their world is like and why they do what they do? This is hard work, but the necessary work we are going to need to do if we want to move beyond the demonization and the contempt that exists in our current world. Again, the ball is in your court as to your willingness to do this hard work of compassion.
I want to try to exercise my faith by learning to practice the art of compassion with people who differ with my view of the world. I admit that my patience wears thin at times but I am committed to keep trying, so that we might find ways to engage that is respectful and compassionate. It’s a tall order, but the alternative is literally a dead end.
Our current world holds the other in contempt, cuts them out of the herd. What is your answer?