Monday, January 11, 2010

Strategies to Live Successfully: Transforming Self, Others, and Our Common World

Faculty of Religious Studies; McGill University

I studied at McGill University in Montreal. Here’s how I got there.

We were living in Ottawa when I decided I wanted to be a UU minister. The first requirement was a theological degree. I considered either the University of Toronto or McGill. So, one weekday, Ellie, Katie (who was two), and I took the train to Montreal. I showed up at McGill’s Faculty of Religious Studies unannounced. The professor who headed the program I was interested in graciously gave me his time and walked me through the venerable Faculty building at the edge of the campus. At the end of the interview he said, rather casually, “And, oh, if you enroll, you can become a member of my College of the United Church of Canada and we will pick up your tuition.” (The United Church, the Presbyterians, and the Anglicans who’d once owned the Building, had given the property to the University and in exchange had so many “free” enrollments in perpetuity.) Talk about the kindness of strangers! It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

Religious Studies at McGill, was rich with, of course, world-class Christian scholars. It also had relationship with a Hindu Institute as well as an Islamic Institute whose founding director was an important scholar of comparative religions: Wilfred Cantwell Smith. He was unassuming in appearance (very professorial in a tweedy way) but a radical scholar, and something of a post-modernist before that descriptive was devised, who emphasized how Western biases skewed scholarship. (Incidentally, his most influential successor in comparative religion studies is Karen Armstrong, whom I featured last Sunday.)

It was in his Introductory courses on Islam, attended by a host of Muslims from around the world, that I slipped the surly bonds of my own cultural background and became freely, gladly eclectic and relatively cosmopolitan. I began to acquire and assimilate bits and pieces of what I now call “natural religion:” a religion of realities, tested by reason and experience, open to all the disciplines, not merely theology. In fact, I found theology relatively poor. (Dr. Smith once said, "Interdisciplinary studies are a ladder to get out of a hole into which the true scholar never falls.")

The Science of Satyagraha

It was during my McGill years that I encountered Gandhi’s notion of satyagraha: truth force, meaning the strategy of non-resistance to overcome oppressors.

The McGill neighborhood had wonderful restaurants and shops, including two major department stores. It was spring, and a storefront bookstore had a table of discounted books on the sidewalk. I bought a small volume with flecked, brown fragile pages, published in India, quotations by Gandhi about satyagraha. Many of the quotations spoke of the science of truth or the science of love.

Now the word science intrigued me, because it implied that satyagraha, as developed by Gandhi, had been tried out and found successful—first in South Africa at the turn of the century and at mid century in India. It also recommended, as with hard science, that the strategy be tried and tried and tried—generally, that any life strategy, or ethic, was up for constant experiment.

As a true committed Unitarian, I follow the piece of Scripture attached to Channing’s 1819 sermon that announced Unitarianism to the world: “Prove all things, hold fast to the good.” This isn’t science in the purest empirical sense, but it is a science of ideas, knowledge, truth. The proof is in the testing.

My McGill years took place in the early ‘70s. For nearly forty years, thirty-one as a practicing UU minister, I’ve devised a coherent and meaningful understanding of how to navigate through life. I’ve framed this understanding in terms of Religion—a Religion open to and accountable to all disciplines. Regarding Religion I like what my long ago mentor Wilfred Cantwell Smith said at the end of his distinguished career: "I'm not saying that religion is a good thing. I'm saying that it's a great thing. It can make you better or it can make you much worse. But it means that you take the question of how to live seriously." And I add, Religion should take seriously meaning as well and be reasonable, resulting in a satisfying, successful life.

So, I began with Gandhi and satyagraha. Gandhi established strict attitudes and actions that the practitioner of the science of truth needs to embody. One of the guiding principles maintains that the means and the ends must be compatible, that is, the ends never justify destructive means. Satyagraha seeks to break the cycle of violence begetting violence. Indeed, in human relations, as well as in international relations, I have long seen that violence, in every manifestation—verbal, emotional, physical—has as a reflexive response of commensurate violence from the opposite party.

The Tao Te Ching

Now, about the same time I encountered Gandhi and his science of satyagraha, I began to read the Tao Te Ching, an ancient and brief Chinese text attributed to the philosopher Lao Tse, the mythical founder of philosophical Taoism. (When Buddhism met Taoism, Zen Buddhism resulted, so you can better appreciate the enigmatic, mystical nature of Taoism.) The Tao Te Ching was written to advise a ruler how to rule, yet survive in office and keep his life. (It is the polar opposite of Machiavelli’s The Prince, with its ruthless self-interest.) The Tao Te Ching often translates as The Way and Its Power. In The Tao Te Ching, the ideal for the ruler is not to be recognized as the ruler. Metaphor illustrates such a counterintuitive strategy. For example, a wheel has many spokes, but it is the space where there is nothing on which the wheel turns. The TaoTe Ching speaks often of water that always seeks the lowest level but over time wears down the most adamant of courses. In private affairs if you seek to safe from thieves, don’t acquire possessions that others may covet. These and other metaphors are more or less absurd yet they have an underlying, intuitive truth, especially when it comes to breaking the cycles of oppression, violence, and retaliation/revenge. Through the years, I’ve returned to reflect on the enigmatic advice of the Tao Te Ching and in an idealistic way, it has seemed increasingly true. It tangentially confirms Gandhi’s assertions about how to break the circle of violence.

Gandhi also declared that the satyagrahi (as a practitioner of satyaygraha is known) must search her or his intentions, first to affirm that the goal is honorable and truthful. However, the satyagrahi never acts out of disdain, hatred, anger or similar negative emotions/motive. Truth and love are the criteria by which to judge one’s motivations and intentions. The force of truth and love result in respect, yes, but even more they set in motion a power that transforms the oppressor.

Through the decades, I’ve come across various texts asserting the transformative power of truth or love. Gandhi drew on the Bhagavad Gita from his Hindu tradition, the teaching of Jesus, Thoreau, and Tolstoy. Martin Luther King was explicit about what he called the soul force that he derived from his Christian roots. Dr. King was indebted to Gandhi, once saying: “Like most people, I had heard of Gandhi, but I had never studied him seriously. As I read, I became deeply fascinated by his campaigns of nonviolent resistance. I was particularly moved by his Salt March to the Sea and his numerous fasts. The whole concept of Satyagraha (Satya is truth which equals love, and agraha is force; Satyagraha, therefore, means truth force or love force) was profoundly significant to me. As I delved deeper into the philosophy of Gandhi, my skepticism concerning the power of love gradually diminished, and I came to see for the first time its potency in the area of social reform. ... It was in this Gandhian emphasis on love and nonviolence that I discovered the method for social reform that I had been seeking.”

The Power of Love: A Parable

Dr. King harnessed the power of love in most remarkable transformation of America, politically and socially, the Civil Rights reformation of the 1960s. In the Science of Truth or Love this is for me a lesson—call it a proof—that always fills me with awe when I look at it in context.

One of my favorite expressions about the power of love is a parable penned by the founder of the Ethical Culture movement, Felix Adler, in his 1905 classic Essentials of Spirituality: It’s often called a parable of how to deal with oppressors:

“There is a story told of two brothers, sons of the same father, who grew up in the same home and were deeply attached to each other. It happened that the older wandered away and fell into the power of an evil magician, who changed him into a ravening wolf. The younger mourned his loss, and treasured in his heart the image of the brother as he had been in the days before the wicked spell fell upon him. Impelled by his longing, he at last went out into the world to find his brother, and if possible to redeem him. One day as he passed through a lonely forest, a hungry wolf set upon him. The horrid, brutal face was near to his, the hot breath breathed upon him, and the fierce eyes flamed into his own. But by the might of his love, the younger brother was able to detect beneath the wolfish disguise the faint outlines of the brother whom he had long ago lost, and by the strength of his gaze, which saw only the brother and refused to see the wolf, he was able to give shape and substance to that faint outline. The outer frame of brutishness gradually melted away, and the human brother was restored to his senses and to his home. This is a parable of the spiritual attitude toward oppressors, toward those who oppress the people in public, as well as toward those who oppress us in our private lives. We must liberate them from the brutal frame in which they are inclosed; we must give them back their human shape!”

Truth and Reconciliation

In this vein, I’ve recently become attracted to the process known as “truth and reconciliation.” It's a process that was used in South Africa following the fall of apartheid and the establishment of a new republic with Nelson Mandela as president. Bishop Desmond Tutu was also a significant influence. Reconciliation is a theological term associated with the Christian notion of sin and forgiveness. (In the Catholic tradition, the sacrament of reconciliation involves confession, repentance, and communion.) In the South African experience, the concern by the leaders was how to break an ugly cycle of violence—how might those who suffered at the hand of oppressors get justice and lead to a lasting peace?

The final report provided the narrative of the testimony (truth telling) of some 20,000 witnesses who had suffered under apartheid’s brutalities of body and spirit since 1960. In some instances the perpetrators/oppressors sought forgiveness, no matter how many sought forgiveness (the number was relatively small, but all were given the opportunity to confess.

The truth telling had good effect, perhaps of a therapeutic or cathartic nature, or perhaps it was a consequence of a “truth force” that operates through human nature and transforms self and others.

Bishop Tutu who chaired the commission wrote this in the preface to the commission’s final report: “We have been privileged to help to heal a wounded people, though we ourselves have been, in Henri Nouwen's profound and felicitous phrase, ‘wounded healers’. When we look around us at some of the conflict areas of the world, it becomes increasingly clear that there is not much of a future for them without forgiveness, without reconciliation. God has blessed us richly so that we might be a blessing to others. Quite improbably, we as South Africans have become a beacon of hope to others locked in deadly conflict that peace, that a just resolution is possible. If it could happen in South Africa, then it can certainly happen anywhere else. Such is the exquisite divine sense of humour.”

To a truly remarkable degree, as credited by Bishop Tutu, the Truth and Reconciliation process undermined retaliation—a bloodletting.

This morning I’ve introduced you to what I’ve found throughout my four decades of looking into the human spirit and human nature—that includes the way of individuals and the way of nations. It involves the way of what Gandhi called Truth or Love—they are in this use synonymous. I recommend each of you reflect on and experiment with Power/Force of Truth/Love. It is a transformative strategy. It will change you and it will change where you touch our common world.

I maintain this is the deepest current within what we commonly call Religion.