Monday, January 4, 2016

Some Soul For Thought

Human Beings

“I went away and cried to the Master of the Universe, ‘What have you done to me? A mind like this I need for a son? A heart I need for a son, a soul I need for a son, compassion I want from my son, righteousness, mercy, strength to suffer and carry pain, that I want from my son, not a mind without a soul!’ ” 
Chaim Potok, The Chosen, 1967


Selma Civil Rights March (March 21, 1965): Dartmouth College’s Department of Religion writes: “The march led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in July 1965. From far left: U.S. Representative John Lewis (D-GA), who had been severely beaten on March 7, 1965, while leading the "Bloody Sunday" march; an unidentified nun; Ralph Abernathy; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Ralph Bunche, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations; Rabbi Heschel; the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth.” The Hawaiian leis were provided by Rev. Abraham Akaka, Kahu of the Kawaiaha’o Church in Honolulu and a friend of Dr. King.
Photo Credit: Dartmouth College

One of the strengths of religion is that it has a cohesive, authoritative and consistent narrative on how to humanly derive meaning and purpose, which is what large sections of modern society sorely lacks. Continual change requires continual adaption to meet the norms of society. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing; in multiple cases for multiple reasons, notably when it comes to the advances of medical science and technology it can be a good thing. One could add that it is a wonderful and exciting thing with increased understanding of the rules of Nature, bringing with it prospects of a better, more healthier life. Yet, this can also be unnerving.

With so much of the world in a state of flux, many find it necessary and comforting to seek the stability and tradition found in religion and its overarching narratives. Thus, this is one of religion’s appeals—its longevity suggests the stability that many desire in what many contend is a sea of confusion.

For example, the story of Judaism is almost 4,000 years old; the story of modern society, on the other hand, is a few hundred years at most. Technological society much less. That man has lived with the need for religion during this time cannot be dismissed by making claims of modern society’s superiority, using scientific, technological and medical advances as proof. While these are laudable and are achievements worth applauding (as I often do in my periodical postings), they are in no way a replacement for religious or spiritual needs—the seeking of the numinous or the transcendent.

Moreover, one can say with a high degree of certainty that it is in the nature of humans to look for unity, and unity of ideas is found in the great religious narratives of many ancient religions, including in the monotheist faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is in these faiths, among others, that are found the stories of righteousness, mercy and compassion, and of course justice. Where mercy and justice meet at some perfect point of a quantum singularity, to use a mathematical term. It is not a justice that modern man might necessarily agree with or find comforting, but yet modern man still views justice as a necessary counterweight to injustice and evil.

Society is not always just, but it has to always aim to act so, admitting and correcting itself when it makes mistakes. A lack of justice in a society cannot be easily dismissed or ignored for long; it eventually leads to the erosion of social order and cohesion. We are seeing this take place today in many places in the world. The seeking of a transcendent universal justice by applying ancient biblical laws is often a result of “a lack of faith” in current secular laws; many have been swept aside by a current of modernity that has not included them. They have been left out; they have not been included; they have been made redundant and voiceless. When the present is viewed as unjust and the future holds no promise for social and economic improvement, people will look to the past for answers.

There are many ironies present in the modern state. For example, the modern state still relies on ancient punitive measures in its criminal-justice system. Yet, a system of justice without mercy—common to most nations, whether western or non-western—leads to the kind of social tensions. inequalities and high levels of imprisonments that we are witnessing today. Whether punishment and fear of punishment reduces crime is not the only question nations ought to ask, but, rather, whether these measures represent the best and highest values of a nation. Such values are often drawn from the past, even as they are often misapplied in the present. Even as nations progress socially, they often retain ancient codes of punishment; and today people might be surprised to know that we have more laws and statutes rather than less.

Some of these laws, however well-intentioned or well-reasoned, stifle the voices of dissent and conscience. While such laws seem to make some people feel more safe and secure, they also have the opposite effect, notably when applied without sufficient thought or discretion, or when applied in a less than judicious way. If the people who hold the seats of legislative and judicial power have the might but not the right motivations for justice and social order or cohesion the result is an authoritarian society based solely on the rule of law and the caprices of those in power. These voices of discontent become louder when the injustices become greater, when the laws silencing dissent reach a point close to suffocation. Often, what follows is that those in power enact harsher laws and more punitive penalties, a tragic mistake of hubris leading to their downfall and an erosion of law and order.

It is not that such legislators are necessarily vicious or stupid (but they can be!), but they likely lack something else altogether of a more intangible nature—an imagination and a breadth of spirit that was evident in such individuals as Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Abraham Joshua Heschel. While each came from different religious backgrounds, all were leaders influenced to a great degree by religion. An understanding and a deep reading of religious thought is always helpful to human understanding. One does not have to agree with all of the ideas expressed to find something of great value within its pages. One is that it is necessary to confront injustice in order to gain justice. Heschel wrote: “When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.”

In The Chosen, Chaim Potok’s 1967 novel, the authorial voice intimates about the weakness, so to speak of a mind, a great intellect, that is bereft of an operational and warm soul—a Force of Nature. The soul, not at all quantifiable or measurable in any scientific sense of the word, and thus easily dismissed by scientists, is one of those intangibles that mark the great human beings. “What is soul? It’s like electricity—we don’t really know what it is, but it’s a force that can light a room, said Ray Charles, the American soul singer.

Even if we can’t measure the soul, we know by some human instinct the people who have a great one, “a force that can light a room.” In such individuals, the soul and the mind do not act separately, but are united toward a common action of good. This might be one reason why these individuals had a great and positive influence on humankind. They were individuals acting for not only the Self, but also for their people, which is one of the primary definitions of leadership.

Understandably, the non-religious or those with a superficial understanding of religion, tend to devalue acts of nonviolent purpose-directed selflessness, seeing in these acts of altruism and kindness a danger or threat to the existing system of human biological behaviour, which chiefly operates on the assumption of competitiveness. Such mischarcterization might also reflect a fear or, rather, an inability to see themselves acting in similar manner. What one does not understand, one initially fears, which often leads to ridicule. Such is the case with the soul.

Even so, modern culture and the soul are not rivals. In the movie, 2 Days in New York (2012), a comedy, Marion, a photographer, sells her soul for $5,000 to an anonymous buyer. Although she says that she has no belief in a soul, shortly after the deal is made, she wants the return of her soul, saying its absence has changed her. She arranges to meet with the anonymous buyer (Vincent Gallo), and despite a nasty confrontation fails to gain back her soul. She returns home soulless.

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