A contributor to the Washington Post, Kara Swisher, who writes from the perspective of the business world noted the “unconscious bias” that is often made in such things as hiring practices. She described it as “a bias that kicks in automatically, with our supposedly unthinking brains making often-inaccurate snap judgments…While I am fully aware of the science behind the concept — which basically boils down to the fact that we are all beasts at heart — it’s pure laziness by some of the world’s smartest and most innovative people to pretend they are unconscious of something so glaringly clear. It both abrogates the responsibility of leaders and fobs it off on training and classes that never seem to solve the problem, no matter how much money is spent.”
The ”unconscious bias” is much related to the epistemic closure or confirmation bias that is often a focus in my blogging. There are premises that are involved which influence our decision making and these “premises” are difficult to pay attention to, primarily because we don’t want to pay attention to them. These premises are a template through which we filter our rational thinking and they are heavily laden with emotion to the point that “rationality” often eludes them. This is a human dilemma and most of us have wrestled with the issue from time to time, squirming under the painful realization that our stance on various issues in life were totally irrational and merely reflecting of what had been an “unconscious bias.” The pain of this self-awareness is often so intense that our conscious mind just will not permit the insight, opting to affirm even more passionately our biased view of the world. Furthermore, we can always find like-minded persons who will “confirm” our bias.
Our political system in the United States currently illustrates what happens when two different world views are “dug in at the heels” and refuse to budge, not realizing that the obstinacy is bad for all in the long run. The core issue is identity itself. If we take our identity to be only what and who we “think” we are, then we will not be able to back-off of our viewpoint and realize that often the other view point has more validity than we first thought. This notion takes my mind always to the domain of existence I like to describe as the spiritual, that region in the depths of our heart where we encounter and learn to live with the vulnerability that comes in realizing understanding that the essence of our being lies beneath the surface realm of rationality. Then, at times we have to agree with Swanson, “We are beasts at heart.”
The irony is that this stubborn “beastliness” is usually most conspicuous with religious beliefs. No one deliberately opts for “ignoble” beliefs in their religion. The problem comes when they subscribe to “noble” beliefs but then interpret them in such a way that the result is that other people are marginalized socially at least and sometimes politically. At times the “marginalization” has even led to violence as religious fervor has become so intense that a believer feels that his belief system must be forced on others even at the “point of sword.”
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I recently posted on one of my other blogs about a favorite subject of mine, a closed-referential system also called epistemic closure or confirmation bias. I focus on this issue because it is personally relevant given my youth in a very close-minded community and religious culture. And my knowledge about this matter is so personal that without a doubt I am revealing that my “escape” from the close-mindedness is not complete and probably never will be. In fact, it is impossible to cease to think outside of a context and that context is always larger than one is aware of. We do not have an “objective” existence and if we ever accomplish that stance we will have become God and personally, I’ve already told friends that if I ever give evidence that I think I have accomplished that, “Just come and shoot me!” I often like to use the term “god-complex” for those who are so rigid in their belief system that the uncertainty necessary for faith is not permitted to visit them.
My focus for the moment is the way in which religious thought can become self-contained so that it is self-referential, leading always to group-think and the aforementioned epistemic closure. In a spiritual context like this “god-talk” is nothing but idle chatter even though the “chatting” might be done with great solemnity and fervor. The “god-talk” I have in mind can be thought of as social grooming, amounting to nothing more than “car-talk” or banter about the local sports team. Social grooming is very important and even has value in a religious setting though not when it is an end in itself. “God-talk” might be thought of in the spiritual context I come from as the exchange of common-place notions like, “Jesus Saves” or “Praise the Lord” or “Isn’t God wonderful” or “Hallelujah” and all of these terms have value. But their value has meaning only when they are used in a group dialogue in which they are explored in terms of personal experience and not as mere grist for a social mill. When reduced to this grist, they have the value only of “sounding brass and tinkling cymbal.”
The core issue here is epistemological, the word is not the thing or as the Buddhists put it, “The finger pointing to the moon is not the moon.” But our culture has misled us, teaching us that “the word is the thing,” that it is the “thing in itself” and not the pointer that the Buddhists would have us learn. This view of the world gives us the impression that the world is one dimensional, that there is no immaterial dimension to life, and that our everyone is empowered to claim objectivity. But the problem with this “objectivity” is that it encourages everyone to claim the right to this objectivity which puts on our table at this present moment two diametrically opposing views of how the world should be seen. One view is conservative and at its root is a firm belief that “the way things are” is valid and need to be maintained, that “walls” need to be built around it to keep out the ever-encroaching peril of the other view. This other view, the liberal view, does not see reality as static but as a dynamic flow that permits us to have only a viewpoint, not an objective grasp of “the way things are.”
The “immaterial” dimension of life, i.e. the “spiritual”, could humble each of these perspectives and permit the finding of common ground. The conservative and the liberal energy is necessary in any political body but when each side is dug in at the heels conflict cannot be resolved and catastrophe can take place. But by using the term “spiritual” I have just opened a can of worms as the word means something which is not spiritual in the least but a means of social control and even tyranny.
TO BE CONTINUED
When fresh out of high school, I attended a very conservative Baptist seminary in Little Rock, Arkansas for one year. There I learned of the term “hermeneutics” for the first time, having it presented to me as interpreting the Bible with the right frame of reference. I now see that the problem I had with this seminary, and my brief effort at the ministry, was this notion of a “right frame of reference” as I now see it meant merely to “use the Bible to impose your world-view on others,” because you, and only you, knew what “right” was.
One basic precept of a more mature hermeneutics is the realization that one brings a frame of reference to anything and all things in life and that if this is not understood one will do great injustice to everything, and certainly holy writ. Understanding that one is putting a “frame of reference” on the table is recognizing that there is a subjective dimension to one’s experience of life and that this subjectivity does not permit one to be objective about anything.
Grasp of this wisdom is more than an intellectual endeavor. Coming to recognize the subjective dimension of one’s life is to cognitively and emotionally experience being alive in human form, subject to all the delights and limitations of this “fallen” state. And when one brings his attention to any literature, especially holy writ, one must approach it with more humility than I was capable of in the Little Rock seminary and more than was even permissible there.
Hermeneutics derives from the Greek mythical figure Hermes whose many responsibilities included boundaries and transitions. One dimension of the story is that property boundaries were determined by the posting of an “herm” on one side of the property, the “herm” being a pole with a man’s head upon it. This herm was very important and commanded great respect. Anyone who failed to respect the herm, and cross the boundary represented by the herm, or anyone who defaced or even pushed the herm was guilty of a capital offense. This myth recognized the establishment of boundaries, or definitions, in the birth of the Greek language and was a beautiful way of emphasizing the integrity of words, their ability to “capture” a subjective phenomena and give it verbal currency in the tribe.
BUT, Hermes was extraordinary in that he established the boundaries but, being also the god of transitions, could cross between them. He could “break” the boundaries of words, teaching us that with proper hermeneutics words can offer value and meaning when we are willing to enter the fluidity of the verbal field that is our reality. The myth teaches us how the poets do their magic, “breaking” the words and allowing their hidden riches to be apprehended by a willing and open heart.
Another dimension of his boundary fluidity was that he was the only god that could ascend to heaven and descent into hell, conveying messages between the two kingdoms. And he was the prankster god, creating mischief in his world much like talented poets can do. Poets “play” with language and allow the resulting breakage to evoke hidden riches.
Hermes demonstrated the need of nuance in language. Words must have integrity or they lose all meaning. But if their “integrity” is sacrosanct and no “mischief” can be applied to them, then they will become sterile and moribund. This myth conveys to us that words have value when they can be taken metaphorically, when “the word” is not “the thing,” which is the mistake that leads to biblical literalism. For example, in the literal world of linear thinking, the term “God” is mistaken for the subjective experience of God, an experience that lies beyond the grasp of any word.
But without doing the work of hermeneutics with holy writ, the book will become a rule book, mere dogma, and thus amenable to enslaving people to the agenda of a mindset that favors the powerful. To be more specific, “the way things are” in a tribe (aka “patriarchy”) will assert itself and the holy writ will cease to be deprived of the “Wholly Otherness,” (i.e. “God”} needed by all tribes to provide meaning to their life.
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A blogging friend of mine from Australia keeps me informed about many interesting spiritual things in the culture of her country. She sent me a Lent essay from noted Catholic priest and Benedictine Monk, Laurence Freeman, from which I clipped introductory thoughts re Shakespeare:
Shakespeare didn’t waste his energy inventing stories. The plots of his plays were already on his bookshelves. He had only to read them and by the power of his creative imagination to utterly transform them, lifting old tales and soap operas into the realm of timeless and unforgettable reflections of nature and the infinite, interactive shades of human character. In one scene he can show how a number of personalities respond differently to the same events
It is very interesting to note that it was Shakespeare’s imagination that is responsible for leaving us such a treasure trove of literary/spiritual wisdom. He took stories from his day and employed that vivid imagination of his to transform them into literary master pieces which have so deeply enriched the life of many, certainly including this bloke from the sticks of Arkansas.
He and other marvelous writers have helped awaken and energize my imagination since I “discovered” literature, and the power of metaphor three decades ago. My imagination had lain dormant since my very early years, possibly even early months, as I think being born into a linear thinking world stymies the imagination long before we learn to talk. And in recent years I have begun to use this imagination in my approach to the Bible and the Christian tradition, discovering that comedian Bill Maher is not wrong, Jesus is “our imaginary friend” in some very important way. Or at least He should be. If we don’t find the courage to employ our imagination in approaching faith, our spiritual experience will be confined to a very rigid interpretation from the cultural dictates of our early years. This will inevitably mean we re confined to “the letter of the law.” By using the imagination we bring a “personal” dimension to our interpretation to religion, “personal” in the sense of an interpretation that is influenced from that rich domain of our heart, that domain that is usually “crusted o’er” by habits of thought as Shakespeare noted in Hamlet. The “spirit” that is employed with this imaginative hermeneutical enterprise can begin to flow when our faith is no longer the “canned variety” but one that is the result of dogma being invigorated by this deep-seated “spirit”, a phenomenon described by W. H. Auden as what happens when “flesh and mind are delivered from mistrust.” I like to describe this as a work of God’s Spirit which might be described as the “enfleshment” of the Word, to use Christian terminology.
But a discourse like this is always fraught with the peril of having lapsed into Christian jargon. Words like “Bible” and “God” and “Spirit” and “enfleshment” usually mean something totally removed from human experience. That is not how I use them. Approaching Holy Writ as literature, and thus capable of being spirit infused, is about human experience and I think that is what the teachings of Jesus were about.
Racism is about an early development in the unfolding of the “original germ of being” which we are when that that “gleam in the eye of our father” suddenly bring us into this time/space continuum. (I apologize to my mother who could have had some equivalent of this “gleam in her eye” but I’m sure patriarchy had taken that capacity from her in her early youth.)
As we unfold in our neonate state, we begin the process of biological differentiation in which we separate ourselves from the maternal matrix which was our origin. This “differentiation” is the early phases of “object separateness” which will not conclude…and in some way never does…until our adulthood. This requires a biological ability to separate ourselves from the biological morass which is our origin and begin to establish ourselves as separate and distinct. This is a physical/biological/neurological process which at some point after birth becomes more a function of a separate and independent human will. Without this “separate and distinct” human will, we are fated to live our lives in the grip of unconscious impulses the knowledge of which will be banished from awareness.
Racism has its origin in this need to create an “us vs. them” paradigm starting with drawing distinctions between ourselves and our mother, and shortly thereafter our father, our siblings, and then the social world which we will find ourselves implicated within. In many, if not most cultures, a significant development is when we begin to distinguish ourselves from various social categories. In my case, being raised in the American South, one of the earliest “distinctions” that I drew was between myself, my very white family, and “those blacks”, then described as “n…..s.” This was, and still is, one of the bedrocks of my emotional/psychological/spiritual existence for in the very important socio-cultural arena I was born into the “n…..s” were so readily “them.”
Socio-economics is relevant to this matter as I was born into a “po white trash” in central Arkansas in 1952. I make that point with some reservation, for I am very proud of my origins and realize that the context in which I “discovered America” was totally happenstance. But being from an impoverished Southern family in 1950’s America, the “n….s” were a primary embodiment of difference and without this “difference” we cannot exist as a group or as an individual.
Here I have put on the table a problem which is beyond the grasp of reason–how do I escape the basic human problem of “object separateness?” How do I bridge the chasm that separates humankind from each other? How do I give up that “us” vs. “them” paradigm? A friend of mine has a bumper sticker which answers the question, “Awareness is all.” Simple awareness of the problem is the beginning of the answer. If one can hold within his mind a contradiction like this—“I am my brother’s keeper, no I’m not”—the experience of paradox can begin to unfold in one’s heart and the grace of understanding can begin to flow through one’s encrusted, linear view of the world.
I must issue a caveat re my earlier point that racism is “still” part of the bedrock of my soul. My point is that at the stage of development in which this was etched into my brain, the “recordings” are never erased though with “awareness being all,” we can learn to mitigate their influence and evolve a mind/brain/heart which allows us to see unity where we once only saw difference.
ADDENDUM—This is one of three blogs that I now have up and running. Please check the other two out sometime. The three are:
When evangelical Christians first trotted out the notion that the Lord had “raised up” Donald Trump to lead our nation I was really upset. And for good reason. Their lame justification was that God sometime chooses flawed persons to accomplish His will and that we needed to remember to “judge not that ye be not judged” or that we should, “Be patient, he is only a baby Christian.” I still think that was merely self-serving palaver but I do increasingly think that he brings to the table such profound spiritual darkness that God is giving all of us a chance to do some soul-searching and posit the question, “Now how did this ever happen?”
What these evangelical Christians did not realize was that they were facilitating a crisis for their faith, a crisis from which they will not emerge unscathed. None of us ever emerge from any crisis “unscathed” and that is why crises are often times of redemption. Now, brace yourself evangelicals, I think that “redemption” periodically is in the cards for you just as it is for all of us, regardless of our religious orientation or complete lack thereof. But for many Christians, especially evangelicals, the need of anything like “redemption” is preposterous as, according to their addictive reliance on dogma, they have been redeemed already by Jesus and His Spirit now leads them into “all truth.” Well, Jesus will do that. But I’m reminded of a bromide from my last fundamentalist pastor, in a mega-church in Springdale, Arkansas, “The Truth will set you free. But it will first make your miserable.” I don’t think that dear soul knew just how correct he was.
Well, I humbly invite them to, “guess again” the ability of their faith in Christ to keep them from all errors “of the flesh”, i.e. ego. Their whole-hearted, slavish devotion to Trump who is the antithesis to the teachings of Jesus belies the self-serving dimension of their faith, the role of “the flesh” in their approach to religion. And, I say to them, “Welcome to the world” as I have certainly had to embrace similar disillusionment and now see faith as a path of occasional disillusionment as we discover just how much we have been “seeing through a glass darkly.”
The core issue on the table here is reason. The Protestant Reformation gave rise to an inordinate, unseemly faith in rationality to the point that we came to believe that with reason alone we can rule this world, our own life, and even reduce the Ineffable to a series of rational constructs. But Paul Tillich warned us last century, “A religion confined to reason is a mutilated religion” for he saw that reason is always subservient to hidden dimensions of the heart. God has sent Trump to evangelical Christians to give them a glimpse into the baser dimensions of their spiritual impulse…and we all have those impulses! The most sinister of all these impulses is that we are immune from them.
I now realize that I grew up trying desperately to “believe in my belief” and never being able to pull it off, leaving me in great anguish about my spiritual welfare. I often took comfort in rational gymnastics only to eventually realize that the very effort of reasoning oneself to God was futile. No less of an evangelical luminary as Oswald Chambers himself in the early 20th century warned about the lunacy of “believing in our belief.”
So, what can you believe in? What, if anything, is real? “I think, therefore I am” is the way it is, isn’t it? Descartes surely said so. I no longer think so.
ADDENDUM—This is one of three blogs that I now have up and running. Please check the other two out sometime. The three are: