An Inverted Spirituality

guruWhat do we seek when we seek spirituality or a religious community? It’s a difficult question because the terms “spiritual” and “religious” are so vague and broad; many people mean many very different things with each term. But if we don’t even know what spirituality is, then how can we seek it? How do we know if we’ve found it?

Now I certainly won’t propose to dictate the definition for such an old and complex term, but I think that a historical comparison can shed some light on this question and help us understand what we may mean by “spirituality”. In short, like many terms, I think this one’s meaning has shifted and changed over the centuries. And that shift itself can tell us a lot about ourselves and what we may be seeking when we seek the spiritual.

If one reads a traditional religious text, whether its an account of the life of Siddhartha Guatama the Buddha, or one of the gospels describing the ministry of Jesus Christ, one will find a common theme: strangers come up to the teacher seeking knowledge, truth, or peace. They assume the teacher has some kind of special wisdom, and they want to learn that wisdom. The student tends to assume that they will need to submit to a certain kind of discipline in order to access or attain to this wisdom, and they also tend to put real trust and authority in the teacher.

Consider, for example, Matthew 19:16-22:

Then someone came to him and said, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’ And he said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.’ He said to him, ‘Which ones?’ And Jesus said, ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ The young man said to him, ‘I have kept all these; what do I still lack?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

This young man comes to Jesus to ask him how to attain eternal life–a spiritual question if ever there was one! And he clearly thinks that Jesus has some kind of information or wisdom that he, the young man, lacks. Jesus has authority, and this young man recognizes it, and seeks to learn from it. Notice too that when Jesus gives him the answer to his question, the young man grieves because he doesn’t like it–but he doesn’t argue with Jesus. He seems to accept the strength of Jesus’s authority, even if he isn’t pleased by the outcome.

Now, how easily could we imagine this scene in a 21st century church, synagogue, temple, or other religious community? Do we expect people today to approach spiritual communities or teachers with this same attitude? I don’t think so. Spirituality today, generally speaking, has a rather different quality. It’s not marked by this student-teacher relationship, but is rather generally presented as a personal quest that an individual engages in more or less on their own. Indeed, if spirituality in the past was more or less equivalent to seeking wisdom, spirituality today might be summarized as equivalent to “self-actualization”.

Obviously this is a generalization, and it therefore won’t apply to every spiritual “seeker”. But I think it’s accurate enough to apply to many and indeed perhaps most seekers in the West. If this is so, two questions arise: first, why has this happened? And secondly, is it good or bad?

The first question is as important as it is complicated, and I won’t endeavor here to try and give some exhaustive social explanation for why spiritual and religious life has changed over the last few centuries. Needless to say, spirituality is not the only thing that has changed over this timespan, and so we might guess that spirituality has changed precisely because society has changed so much overall. Political, technological, cultural, economic, and other aspects of our lives have been transformed since the 17th century. So it stands to reason that our understanding of spirituality, the problems that spirituality is meant to solve, and the means by which it might to do so will also have changed. If spirituality is always a human response to questions of meaning, then as human lives change, then it makes sense that human means of interpreting meaning and purpose will adjust as well.

The second question–Is this change good, or not?–is complicated as well. Answering this question will ultimately involve us taking a closer look at what each of us really thinks spirituality is all about. Before we go there, however, let’s survey the ground we want to cover:

First off, if we reflect on this question for a moment, we should see that we are unlikely to have a straightforward answer. We might–and, I think, should–expect to find that this change in spirituality is good in some ways, and not so good in others. We should resist simplistic and polarized answers to such a serious question.

In particular, we might say that this change in spirituality is good for one of the historical reasons it probably arose–the corruption, hypocrisy, and abuse of power by religious authorities. Many people today, quite understandably, have little trust for clergy or other religious teachers, and so what I have presented as the old model of student-teacher spirituality might immediately appear to them as inherently problematic. Furthermore, many people are suspicious of anyone who seems to take spirituality or religious faith too seriously, and assumes that they are up to something devious. This speaks, to some extent, to the cynicism of our age, but it can’t be denied that that cynicism has its root in real, and tragic, experience. Stories of sexual abuse, financial corruption, and egoism among religious leaders are all too common to deny. So, perhaps spirituality has changed because the old approach was inherently broken? Perhaps the authority entrusted to religious leaders was always a mistake?

Doubtless this lack of trust and the reality of religious hypocrisy has played its role. Yet we might just as easily turn the tables around, and ask about the social and material basis for the rise in individual-centered self-help spirituality. First, as a general observation, we might point out that such spirituality seems self-centered and even selfish at its core; spirituality in this form often looks like little more than an effort by an individual to cover their own opinions and interests with the mantle of the numinous. Secondly, we might go further and argue that this mode of spirituality actually reflects a very specific set of economic and cultural values and perspectives: that it arose from, and reinforces, a certain kind of middle-class or bourgeois attitude towards society and reality. If this is true, then modern spirituality is not an inherently liberatory or postive thing, a progress in response to changing circumstances, but actually an effort to shape individuals and society in particular ways. We might ask who wins and who loses under such a model of the spiritual or religious.

Thirdly and finally, we might ask whether the individually-focused spirituality actually solves the problems it seems targeted at solving. Does it really challenge religious hypocrisy, corruption, and abuse? When we think of such modes of spirituality, movements like the Prosperity Gospel or pseudo-Eastern self-help communities come to mind–and such communities are actually rife with deception, egomania, and hero-worship. And even when such a spirituality seems to work as advertised, it seems to replace an out-sized authority and respect for an elder with an even more out-sized authority and respect for ones own self. It’s not immediately clear that this is necessarily an improvement.

Nonetheless, even if one is fundamentally opposed to the changes in the way spirituality is conceived of and sought, it would be foolish to simply dismiss the changes as bad across-the-board, or as having no value. Ultimately, to address the question of whether this change in spirituality is basically good or not, I think we need to address what, at root, we really mean by spirituality in the first place.

In seeking to answer this question for ourselves, we might find that the two models of spirituality we explored above: the old and the new, the traditional-authority model and the self-actualizing model, actually reflect not just differing historical and social contexts, but actually differing sets of values. Do we fundamentally believe that human life is a search for Truth (with a capital “T”!) or do we fundamentally believe that human life should be centered on personal fulfillment, pleasure, and comfort?

Such questions should be taken seriously, for they reveal ever deeper layers of philosophical concern. Some people today, for example, might deny, right off the bat, there there really is any Truth to seek in the first place. For such people, the above questions will have been answered before they were even asked. To recognize this level of the question about spirituality is to address topics like postmodern thought and what, exactly, is the modernism to which postmodernism is responding to and critiquing. In the interest of brevity, I will not attempt to address such a thorny topic here and now, but I want to conclude both by promising to address this question in a future post (or posts) and also by encouraging you, the reader, to reflect on your own values and assumptions when it comes to these big-ticket questions. What do we value, at a foundational level? What do we really care about? I think our questions about the nature of spirituality in the 21st century will be answered by these more fundamental questions.

Learning vs. Learning: Transforming Piles

learningWe live in a culture obsessed with learning. We are told that learning is the answer to our problems: we have to learn to love ourselves. We have to learn new skills to meet the needs of the New Economy. We have to learn how to find romance and friends in the digital era. We have to learn to live with the realities of global warming. To live, we must learn. And of course in the 21st century, the list of things to learn has grown and grown, and continue to grow exponentially. We’ll never even learn all the things we need to learn.

But like so many words that are used with frequency and enthusiasm–like, say, democracy–it seems to me that “learning” has become a superficial and vague term. What do we really mean when we talk about learning? And do we all mean the same thing all the time? If not, then all our talk about learning might just be a lot of heat generating little light. So what is learning?

Of course, a broad term like learning has many meanings, as it should. Our goal here is not to narrow it down to one “correct” one, but rather to identify some of the different meanings. Because if one person intends one meaning while another understands a different one, then they aren’t really communicating. It’s that kind of scenario, where two people are using the same word in different ways, but without realizing this, that we need to avoid. As I have said before, if I say “dog” and you understand that to mean a furry, four-footed mammal that barks, we are probably on the same page. But if you understand “dog” to mean a thing with feathers on two feet, then we probably won’t communicate well. Such a misunderstanding around the word “dog” is, of course, rather unlikely. Unfortunately, I think the word “learning” is more vulnerable to vagueness.

As I said above, “learning” has a wide diversity of meanings, connotations, and specific nuances in various contexts. One could no doubt write a book on them. Today I want to just focus on the two meanings that I think are most common, and explore the importance of the gap between them.

On the one hand, learning very often means simply adding a new bit of information to one’s memory. “Dogs are mammals.” “Ice is frozen water.” “Canada is in North America.” To learn, in this sense, is to come across a new statement that one basically just adds to the “pile” of one’s knowledge. Much of our time in school, perhaps, is spent simply adding to this pile. And it’s worth pointing out that to be considered a relatively educated person today, we have to know quite a lot. The pile has to be pretty big. We expect schoolchildren to know all kinds of facts about history, about astronomy, chemistry, physics, about music. There’s a lot to know, and so it makes sense that we spend much of our educational time adding to the pile.

So this understanding of learning is important. But I think it’s a bit limited. I’m not sure this captures everything we mean when we talk about learning.

First off, if we take a moment to really explore any of the example facts above about dogs, ice, and Canada, we will see something curious. I can’t actually add any fact to my pile. Each new fact has to already have a connection to my pile in order for me to place it there. For example, if I tell you that “Canada is in North America” but you don’t know what “Canada” or “North America” are, then this statement is meaningless to you. Likewise, if you aren’t familiar with dogs or mammals, then telling you that “dogs are mammals” doesn’t help you in the slightest. You have to already be familiar with at least one of the terms in order to really learn anything from the statement.

New information, then, always builds on old information. That may seem obvious, but it’s important, because the “pile” model of learning presented above tends to assume that learning happens simply by presenting lots of facts to students. Certain education systems prioritize funneling huge amounts of information to their students as quickly as possible. This is especially true in certain cultures or disciplines; many are aware of the high-pressure, memorization-focused education systems in places like South Korea and Japan. Interestingly, they share a lot in common with the post-graduate education of lawyers and physicians here in the US: the focus is on memorizing a huge bank of facts that can be drawn on later.

But if it’s true that each new fact can only be learned to the extent that it connects to the facts already known, such a funnel-the-facts education model may be problematic. For one thing, the order the facts are presented in would end up making a big difference. For another, unless each individual student has the same pile of facts on day one, then the facts that each student can learn will actually be different. And yet curricula are not (and, realistically, could not) be tailored to meet each individual student. It could be the case that the conditions for good learning are just too subtle for any large educational institution to meet.

But this recognition that new facts can only be learnt when they can connect to the pile of already received and recognized facts should, upon some reflection, lead to a deeper point. How does the pile begin to be formed in the first place? And is the pile really a “pile”–that is, a more or less disorganized mess of facts? Is that really how our brains keep and access memories?

These questions should lead us from considering the object of learning–new facts–to the subject or agent of learning–the student. And this shift brings us to the second major understanding of the very term “learning”, I think. Here we are not concerned with each individual fact, but rather the structure or system in which all these facts are placed–that is, the mind that knows, recalls, and uses the facts.

We already touched above on how a new fact can only be learned if at least one of its terms is familiar to the learner. But this isn’t all. If we compare two learners, one who knows each term in a sentence, but not well, and another who knows at least one of the terms very well, their learning will actually look rather different. Imagine one student who knows that North America is the continent that the US is on, but not much else about its geography, history, geology, etc. Imagine another learner who knows a lot about the human history of the continent–knows about slavery, about colonization, about the diverse cultures of Native Americans, etc. For this second person, learning that Canada is also on this continent will mean much more to them than for the first learner. Immediately, the second learner will make connections and form new questions that the first learner could not: did Canada have slavery? How did Canadian settlers interact with Native Americans? When did colonization of Canada begin? They can ask these questions because they are already familiar enough with the term “North America” to know that these questions make sense to ask. To see this point more clearly, just consider whether you would ask the same kind of questions–about slavery, colonization, etc.–if you were talking about dogs or ice. Would it make sense to ask if frozen water had human slaves, or ask about dogs’ policies on colonization? Having a deeper knowledge about a subject makes one’s learning more about that subject easier and richer.

What I think this shows us is that our “pile” of facts isn’t a pile at all. It’s a complex system of connections. We don’t really keep a sort of mental rolodex filled with trillions of abstracted and separate factual statements. Instead, we organize our knowledge around concepts, and we integrate new facts according to the concepts we already have. Instead of a long list, our concepts are like a big cloud, with each concept able to be connected to dozens of others either directly or indirectly. So if I learn that Canada is in North America, and I already have the concept “North America”, I do not simply remember the sentence “Canada is in North America.” Instead, I relate this new concept of “Canada” to my previously-received concept “North America”, and I enrich this latter concept with new meaning. I have a complex system of concepts and their connections, and new learning is integrated into this system.

So far, so good, you might say. Perhaps we now have a better way of understanding how to “funnel facts” onto the “pile”. Seeing the facts as opportunities for new conceptual connections to be made within the “pile”–which is actually not a pile but a complex system–may allow educators to better hone their techniques for delivering as many of these opportunities to connect concepts. But there’s more here. Once we see that knowledge, that thinking, is a complex system of conceptual connections, we can begin to ask questions about its shape, its structure. When we thought of our knowledge as just a “pile”, then such questions made no sense. The pile simply needed to be bigger. But once we see that knowledge is a sophisticated structure, then we have come to understand it better.

Now seeing students not as piles of facts, but rather complex systems of conceptual interrelation, we might ask whether all such structures are equally effective or healthy. We might come to see that sometimes, what we want a student to gain is not a new fact to add to the pile–er, system–but rather we may want the structure itself to change. This is learning as transformation.

If we picture concepts again, and we bring to mind a vast three-dimensional cloud of concepts which can connect to many dozens of nearby concepts, and through those connections connect to even more distant concepts, we can imagine different ways of arranging those concepts. Depending on how many connections each concept has, and which other concepts are closest to it, and the overall shape of the whole cloud, different kinds of learning might be easier or harder. For example, if each of our concepts only connects to one or two other concepts, then new learning will be more difficult. Most new facts will involve a long chain of concepts connecting and connecting. So a new statement will be murky and difficult to articulate. On the other hand, if each of our concepts has a direct connection to a dozen, or two dozen, other concepts, then new learning will be comparatively easy. The number of connections we would have to follow to arrive at new learning will be fewer, and thereby quicker, easier, and clearer.

Likewise, if we imagine our cloud as a long sort of line, perhaps only a few dozen concepts across, but thousands of concepts long, we can see that trying to move from one end to the other would take many thousands of connections. So concepts on either end of our “cloud” will be hard to connect. On the other hand, if our cloud is more spherical, than all the concepts will be relatively close to one another, and so, again, connections will be quicker and more direct.

Of course such a discussion of “shape” is basically metaphorical (whatever relationship it may have to neuroscience is completely beyond the scope of my knowledge). But I hope that this discussion captures something crucial: the way our system of concepts is arranged, organized, and connected will greatly affect how well, quickly, and clearly we can think. If the first kind of learning is simply tacking on new concepts–perhaps to the outside or periphery of the cloud–then the second kind of learning is more radical. It involves reworking, remapping the cloud so that its member concepts are closer together and more densely, richly connected. This is what we might mean by the second kind of learning, learning as transformation: sometimes, we want to teach students not what to think, but how to think better.

Of course, doing so is no easy task. But I think it’s important to keep this distinction in mind when debating K-12 educational policy, for example, or the role of colleges and universities. It is common today for many to talk about education as only worthwhile to the extent that it gives students information or skills they need to find work. But while this is no doubt very important, it may miss the second kind of learning, transformational learning. It may be the case that to tackle some of the issues that will be most pressing for us in the 21st century, we humans will have to not just add facts to the pile, but rather learn new ways to think. It may be also be the case that we will have to re-learn older ways of thinking that have been lost over the past few centuries if we want to discuss certain topics–ethics and theology come to mind.

In any event, my goal is not to necessarily privilege one kind of learning over the other–both are important–but to stress that if we are going to discuss or debate something as important as learning, we need to make sure we are really talking about the same thing. Trying to talk with unclear terms is like measuring in inches and then building in centimeters: a confusing mess, and sometimes even a disaster.


Defining Democracy

democracyWhenever we talk to one another, we use words. And for those words to communicate what we intend, they have to have a more-or-less agreed upon meaning. If I say “dog” and you picture a furry creature with four legs that barks, then we can move forward with our conversation. But if instead you picture a two-footed, winged creature covered in feathers, our conversation will quickly break down. To use a language is to participate in a community of meaning.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that words each have some complete, narrow definition. The word “dog” covers a nearly infinite number of possible creatures, from wolves to chihuahuas, and is also used figuratively to refer to anything from pained feet (“my dogs are really barking!”) to untrustworthy men (“he’s such a dog!”). Even so, the word can’t just mean anything, because in that case it would actually mean nothing at all. The boundaries that contain a word’s possible meanings are the very structure upon which our meaningful speech and writing are based.

This means that an ambiguous word is not very helpful to us. Indeed, most of us know immediately that vagueness is the enemy of clear communication. And yet, to the extent that we recognize vagueness, it isn’t much of a threat. If, for example, I say “so then I told him to leave me alone”, and we aren’t sure who “him” refers to, we know to ask, and thereby clarify the meaning of the sentence. Having recognized this vagueness, we can resolve it, and clarify our communication. So it is unrecognized vagueness that is the true enemy of clear communication. If two people are using the same word to mean different things–and neither of them realizes it–then no real communication will happen. Indeed, both people will simply be speaking past each other, rather than to each other.

This kind of hidden vagueness afflicts more of our communication than I think we’d like to admit, but today I’d like to just focus on how this vagueness afflicts one word in particular: Democracy. This is a word whose meaning we need to hunt down because it is both ubiquitous and powerful. It’s a keystone in much of our political, social, and cultural life. And yet I think it often means very different things to different people.

Although I am sure there are many different ways of understanding democracy, for now I’d like to focus on the two meanings that I think are most common, and most formative to our political culture.

The first meaning is something like this: democracy means a system of government in which the government interferes with individual life as little as possible (“The best government is that government which governs least.”) In this understanding, democracy is about removing the barriers that impede individuals from living autonomously. Most notably, advocates of this kind of democracy tend to focus on ensuring that individuals can make decisions about their private property with as little interference as possible. Indeed, this vision of the democratic, which is historically linked to small-“r” republicanism, we might call “libertarian democracy” (though of course this adjective introduces its own vagueness). This approach understands democracy as simply releasing the power of property-owners to maximize their own welfare.

It’s important to see that while advocates for this understanding of democracy definitely want to limit the control the government has over them–i.e. kings are seen as very bad–they are at the same time generally very interested in maintaining their control over other people. Profiting off of private property always involves efficiently using the labor of other people. Much of the freedom that advocates of libertarian democracy want is the freedom to employ labor as cheaply as possible. This is how one gains the economic means to live prosperously. This is why, seemingly paradoxically, this vision of democracy frequently come hand-in-hand with slavery. This relationship is evident both in ancient examples of this mode of democracy (e.g. Athens and Republican Rome) but of course, also in democracy as it was envisioned by the founders of the United States.

In short, libertarian democracy seeks to limit the control the government has over property owners in order to give those property owners maximum ability to exercise control over others–that is, labor. This vision of democracy is probably the more dominant in American culture; the fetish for constantly minimizing taxes, even among working-class people, speaks to the power of this vision. As John Steinbeck (maybe) said, “…the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” We all seem to want to limit government’s control over us, so that we can use our skills, power, and connections to exploit each other. Because so many of us understand democracy in this way, we have a hard time imagining what else it might mean. But in truth, there is at least one other major tradition of understanding what it means to believe in democracy.

The libertarian vision of democracy is focused on releasing the individual (or at least some individuals) from any kind of control, restriction, or oversight from the state. The logic of this vision of democracy is perhaps best glimpsed in the work of Ayn Rand, whose political philosophy amounts to a fetishization of the individual’s will. Upon a moment of reflection, though, this might seem odd. Doesn’t the very term “democracy” come from two Greek words, demos, meaning “people”, and the root kratia, meaning “to rule”? If so, then at first glance, democracy seems as if it should be focused not on the arbitrary autonomy of any individual, but rather on the will of the people more or less as a whole.

Indeed, this understanding of democracy is not absent from American political life. It is perhaps most clearly seen in two examples: first, whenever we talk about the importance of majority rule, and second, in the fact that the motto of the United States originally was the Latin phrase E pluribuis unum: “Out of the many, one.” These elements of our political thought point to this different, second conception of democracy. Instead of understanding democracy negatively as a set of limitations on government, meant to free individual (property owners) from any interference, this vision of democracy understands the democratic impulse as the desire to create a prosperous, harmonious, and just community. Understood this way, an individual may actually believe that it is his or her belief in democracy that should lead them to accept restrictions or discipline by the community and government. This is at the heart of the celebration of majority rule: if someone feels the need to uphold a law, value, or goal that they do not personally hold, but which the community has decided upon according to a democratic process, then this community-focused vision of democracy is in action.

We might call this second understanding of democracy “social democracy”, though like the term “libertarian democracy”, this term comes with its own vagueness, as well as a set of assumptions and biases that may cloud, rather than clarify, our meaning. This vision of democracy may not always be mutually exclusive with its libertarian counterpart, but there will often be tension between them. To cite just one example, the libertarian understanding of democracy will likely lead to one rejecting the idea of single payer healthcare as a violation of democratic principles, because it will involve taxing property owners to provide healthcare for others. However, someone who asserts a social democratic understanding will draw the exact opposite conclusion: since government guarantees for healthcare are not only hugely popular, but also help to ensure a prosperous, harmonious, and just community, support for such a measure will be seen as necessary for anyone committed to democratic principles.

What’s crucial to see here is that our public discussions and debates are not enriched by arguments in which each side simply asserts “democracy” at each other. Since each side actually means something rather different when they utter this word, no real communication is happening in this case. It is only once we explore what this word means for each of the groups using it that we can see the real divide.  Once we can see this, we are armed against overly simplistic debates in which two sides simply denounce each other as insufficiently democratic. Exploring the details of what each of us means by the word “democracy” allows us to get the fundamental values that are really motivating us. For any real political discussion to happen, this is essential.

Contained within discussions and debates about democracy is a deeper conflict between conflicting priorities: individual autonomy, on the one hand, and the general welfare, on the other. The point is not that one of these is wholly good and the other wholly bad, but that each of them is good in some way and to some extent. Crafting a political system is about weighing the relatively value of each, and admitting that we may have to make trade-offs in balancing which value we are pursuing. Seeing this allows us to perceive the difficult complexity of our political and economic life, and allows us to bring to the surface the real conflicts, while avoiding long-winded debates about the purely superficial.