As reported by James Carroll in a Boston Globe editorial, a new Islamic Sunni extremist group in Iraq has as its motto, “God shall torture them by your hands.” This is cellar religion– devoid of reason, devoid of ethics, devoid of morality, devoid of spirituality. Throughout the Near East, in Africa and in Asia, most recently in Myanmar (formerly Burma), where rampaging Buddhists attacked minority Muslims, cellar religion predominates. The mission of religion is to serve as an elevator, lifting people from the cellar of emotional religious enthusiasm and zeal, which needs to be purified, to a higher level. It is at the mezzanine level of reason, ethics and morality and at the top floor of spirituality and mysticism that primal religious emotion and zeal are purified. Each level is necessary for the evolved religious personality. But in a secular age, the top floor of spirituality and mysticism is often ridiculed as only for kooks. Then, the genuine search for authentic religious emotion has no place to go but back to the cellar. Much of our world is victimized by these stuck elevators.
A Boston College philosophy professor; who teaches a class that examines spirituality, relationships and personal development, gives extra credit to any student who will go on a date. Contemporary students gravitate to group activities that give them a feeling of security and minimize rejection. Personal relationships take place through texting and a hookup culture that consists of anything on the spectrum of sexual activity with strangers or acquaintances rather than with committed partners.
While social media, particularly texting, gives the illusion of connection to another person, the digital bursts of 140-250 characters from a “virtual self” builds habits of ADD connections. They cannot possibly have the depth of face to face conversations and relationships.
Windows of Opportunity
We all know what chaos is. It carries the popular meaning of a massive and dangerous breakdown of order or consensus. We see it all around us in the world: dysfunctional individuals, dysfunctional families, dysfunctional businesses and economies, dysfunctional governments, dysfunctional societies and failed states. The causes range from wars to natural disasters to the unpredictable behavior of human beings and the unpredictable behavior of nature. The initial emotional reaction of people is one of fear, denial and aggressive assault against the disorder.
One of the fathers of modern Zionism, the Hebrew essayist and thinker, Asher Ginsberg (1856-1927), who wrote under the pen name Ahad Ha-Am, has an essay called “Slavery in Freedom.” In it he described assimilated West European Jews who gave up their inner Jewish values and identity to conform to the non-Jewish secular values of the countries in which they lived. Though living in external freedom, in comparison to their persecuted East European co-religionists, they were internally enslaved.
R. Buckminster Fuller, father of the geodesic dome and one of the great geniuses of the 20th century, was walking along the ocean toward sundown. He met a student and asked him: “What is happening when the sun turns from yellow to orange to red and then slips below the horizon as darkness ensues?” “Why it’s a sunset,” replied the student. Fuller sighed and said, “That is the trouble with this society. No, the sun is not setting, the earth is revolving.” Fuller was decrying conventional wisdom as did Socrates and Plato among the philosophers, Galileo, Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein among the scientists and Isaiah, the Buddha and LaoTse among the prophets and mystics.
. Kabbalists speak of a passageway, a channel, that connects the mind to the heart. This channel enables the heart to feel what the mind is thinking. Through this passageway our thoughts travel on the way to becoming emotions. Thus a cold, distant, objective observation becomes a warm feeling on passing through the connecting bridge. As Dov Ber Pinson, in his book Meditation and Judaism, points out, the structure of the human body resembles in some ways the spiritual form of the soul. Spiritually, the neck represents the passageway through which our thoughts are channeled into emotions. But sometimes the grossness of our thoughts, our false values, our smugness and arrogance clog the passageway. On a physical level, when food gets stuck in the esophagus and we begin to choke, it takes the pressure and shock of the Heimlich maneuver to dislodge the morsel of food. In the realm of the spirit, a personal crisis, marital, familial, financial, health or simply the search for meaning in life is the spiritual Heimlich maneuver. It jolts our misguided thoughts out of us and opens up the passageway from head to heart.
A young woman I know, at my suggestion, enrolled in a mind-body course organized by a leading expert in mind-body medicine. The people in the course suffered from a wide spectrum of ailments, physical, psychological and spiritual. Some were in pain. Some were depressed and anxious. Others suffered from hypertension, and still others could not sleep at night. There were people who had destructive marriages and family entanglements.
Psychologists have long pointed out that religious and political beliefs, cultural conditioning, unconscious expectations, higher awareness, needs, biases and intents all form our view of reality, what we see and don’t see. Even in the hard sciences, quantum physicists have determined that mind in all its facets, determines the outcomes of nature’s behavior. Detachment and objectivity work only up to a point. The great wisdom traditions of the world’s religions all are profoundly aware of it and insist on careful study of all our motivations.
There is something much deeper in Arendt’s conscious and unconscious motivation that is responsible for her cluelessness to the public reaction to her articles and book. I believe that the explanation for Hannah Arendt’s conscious and unconscious intent is to be found in her rootedness in the methods, attitudes and values of the modern research university originating in the 19th century in Germany. The evolution of this orientation has enormous consequences for our time. It has been brilliantly analyzed by Anthony T. Kronman, Sterling Professor of Law at Yale and former dean of Yale Law School, in his book, Education’s End:Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life. According to Kronman, the German research university ideal, transferred to this country by American graduate students studying in Germany, emphasized scholarly detachment and scholarly specialization. Detachment meant complete objectivity. It meant excluding emotional, political, social, and most certainly, religious-spiritual inputs which 19th century Enlightenment scholars categorically rejected. As the detective in a TV crime drama says to a witness: “Only the facts please.”
Part I: The Movie
The movie, Hannah Arendt, focuses on the scholar’s coverage of the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem and the public reaction to the articles she wrote about it in The New Yorker and in a subsequent book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Arendt emerges as a fascinating woman who is completely taken aback by the antagonism her articles and book have aroused in the Jewish community and the subsequent confusion of her non-Jewish colleagues. Even her dear friends in Israel and in the United States react with consternation.