Prophets and Sages as Curators

Paul of Tarsus, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Last night I watched Peter Sellers in Being There (1979), one of my favorite films. The thought occurred to me: that movie anticipated the digital age by roughly a generation. 

Even back then, people were overwhelmed by information. Gardener, an illiterate simpleton, was perceived as a sort of curator of complexity who cut through the dense informational fog to offer brilliantly incisive, even transformational truths.

I spent a reasonably big chunk of the latter years of my Cooperative Extension career as a social media coordinator talking to fellow employees about how the digital age was challenging them, as educators, to organize dense amounts of information in less complex and more accessible ways – in other words, to curate, much as a museum curator organizes artifacts in a manner that affords visitors with a good working knowledge of a historical epoch. 

And I wonder: Haven’t many of history’s most memorable sages, even religious and spiritual leaders, essentially functioned as curators? Didn’t their success stem from organizing  complex and often irreconcilable chunks of information into accessible, compelling and even comforting  narratives? 

That is arguably what the Jewish scribes and prophets did on behalf of their faith and people during the Babylonian captivity.

Jesus arguably undertook a very similar task as a curator: He forged a compelling apocalyptic narrative from the teachings of the Jewish prophets during the particularly trying period of Roman captivity. 

Following Christ’s trial and execution, Paul reworked this narrative significantly to conform with the demands and expectations of the Greek world as the Jesus movement’s center of gravity shifted into into this region of the Roman Empire.

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Sympathy for Those with Good Intentions

office-spaceI’ve felt a strong sense of kinship with Winston Churchill since reading William Manchester’s magisterial account of the late British prime minister and statesman.

Churchill is remembered among most historians as the greatest national leader of the 20th century.  Yet, he was a remarkable anomaly:  Despite his vast powers of  discernment and foresight, he remained largely an anachronism, certainly throughout his advanced years, failing to let go of many of the things he cherished most, namely, Britain’s unrivaled superpower status and his diminutive island’s vast global empire.

While I lack Churchill’s genius, I readily relate to his sense of anachronism. With each passing day, I feel like a duck out of the increasingly turbulent waters of American cultural life – and, granted, that’s a good thing.  With each passing day, I regard myself more and more as a cultural anachronism.

I was raised to appreciate certain social boundaries and proprieties.  I always operated under the assumption that these conventions, which evolved and were refined over centuries, went a long way toward keeping the world on an even keel.  And what baffles me is the fact that a growing number younger people not only regard these proprieties as stodgy and retrograde but even as discriminatory, if not downright evil.

Vice President Mike Pence obviously was raised with a similar sense of propriety.  Apparently inspired by the evangelist Billy Graham,  he practices a set of safeguards to avoid any hint of sexual impropriety.  He has made it a standard practice not to dine alone with any woman, even within a professional context, or to attend a party where alcohol is served unless his wife is present.

Remarkably, though, far from lauding Pence for his sense of propriety, some feminists are opposed to it.   Writing in a column that appeared in Vox, attorney Joanna L. Grossman opined that this strategy not only lacked honor but was also likely illegal.

In the view of some feminists, this practice not only implies that women are temptresses but also essentially prohibits half the work force from getting ahead through building a strong working relationship with the boss.

“Wow!” is all I know to say in response to this.

The 21st century work environment seems so complex and fraught with risk now days.  I’m glad that I’m retired and out of it.

Like many anachronistic retired men in their fifties, I’ve spent a lot of time lately reflecting on life’s good fortune.

One of the things for which I feel profoundly thankful is that my parents raised me with the values associated with good, old-fashioned Protestant propriety and rectitude. I am encumbered with many personal faults and failings, but I can honestly say that I have never pressed my advantages – that is to say, physical advantages – with a date or other female acquaintance. I was raised to regard such behavior as deeply repugnant – the worst form of boorish behavior. And as a teenager I knew that my folks would come down on me fast and furiously if I evinced any such behavior.

I always thought that establishing boundaries was a critical facet of good behavior.

In the course of my upbringing, my folks helped me acquire another invaluable skill: an awareness of the complexities of all social contexts. I learned how to be conscious of nonverbal cues. And I really think that this skill was of critical importance in helping me understand what was at stake when I entered the workplace as a freshly minted 23-year-old communications professional on a university campus in the summer of 1985. Fairly early in the game I realized that the racial and sexual complexities of that particular work environment constituted a veritable minefield and that as a white male, I needed to act accordingly.
Frankly, I was surprised at the number of white male colleagues who never understood this.
And in this day and age, such critical discernment is desperately needed.  I know that in the view of millions of women, men carry an ignoble legacy.  And, granted, there is arguably an element of truth to that.  But I can’t help but harbor a measure of sympathy for the decent, well-meaning ones – the ones who regarded gauche behavior in the workplace as execrable as I did – and still do.
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Among the World’s Great, but Unwitting Innovators

Martin-Luther-Elderly

Martin Luther

I’ve mentioned before how fascinating it is to consider how religious mystics, leaders and reformers have unwittingly contributed to innovation – entire platforms, in many cases – that have transformed the world in ways that they scarcely could have imagined.

Mormon founder Joseph Smith’s idiosyncratic theological cosmology contributed directly to genealogy and to the genealogical industry that grew up around the church’s massive database in Salt Lake City and, ultimately, to the use of DNA testing as a kind of genealogical enhancer.

And long before Smith, Martin Luther’s lonely and bleak struggle with faith produced a bountiful harvest, thanks to the value he placed on believers acquiring biblical literacy and,  with it, a command of sacred scripture to gain a clearer understanding of God.

The uptick in literacy that followed transformed the world in the centuries that followed.  Indeed, the strong case could be made that the disproportionate influence that the Northeast wields in American culture and politics stems from the fact that the earliest settlers to the region were “people of the book” – Calvinists who placed great emphasis on debating and exegeting scripture and who, in the course of which, established what was believe to be the most concentrated area of literacy in the world by the late 17th century.

This region’s high rates of literacy, in turn, ultimately spawned three of the most influential research universities in the world – Harvard, Yale and, later, MIT – which have transformed all facets of human knowledge. And, of course, this has also contributed immensely to culture, politics and even spirituality not only in the United States but also throughout the world.

And let’s reconsider for a moment Luther’s sole mission: to strengthen each human being’s relationship with God through his emphasis on grace through faith. Yet, this simple emphasis on faith – and his insistence on the practical value of literacy to augment this faith – transformed the world in ways he could not have imagined while he was translating the Bible into German while in hiding.

And, quite ironically, this emphasis on literacy has led much of the world away from faith rather than toward it – needless to say, a prospect Luther would have found deeply troubling.

But that is the nature of innovation, even the sort of unwitting innovation that characterized Luther’s life and work.

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A Threat to Human Scaffolding

Catholic-blessingAccording to research conducted by the universities of Oxford and Coventry, religious beliefs are linked neither to intuition nor to rational thinking.

Previous studies indicated that people who hold strong religious beliefs are more intuitive and less analytical.  Moreover when they thought more analytically, their religious beliefs declined.

But the new research, conducted by Coventry University’s Centre for Advances in Behavioural Science and neuroscientists and philosophers at Oxford University, indicates that people are not natural-born believers.

This led the researchers to conclude that other factors, such as upbringing and socio-cultural processes, likely play a greater role the formation of religious beliefs.

For me, this research raises some fascinating questions. We humans have always hungered for knowledge of what lies beyond ourselves.  Evolution seems to have hardwired us with a thirst for transcendence. But I wonder: Do we believe in God simply because our forebears, until comparatively recently, lacked an adequate knowledge of science?

Much of what we’ve learned within the last few decades arguably relates directly to the insights we have garnered through networking via the Internet Age. Religion – at least, arguably – is a platform within a vast network that I’ve come to call the Non-Corporeal Human Exoskeleton. We build conceptual scaffolding around the things we know – at least, the things we think we know.

As I’ve argued before, this exoskeleton has sustained our species for eons, and much of its success lies in its adaptability. But over the course of eons, the scaffolding that comprises and supports our exoskeleton has undergone constant renovation. Yet, this has occurred so subtly that most of us are scarcely aware of what has happened until years later when we have had time to reflect on it.

In the 19th century, Western civilization was beset by two major crises to which humans – and, for that matter, our exoskeletal saffolding – have not fully adjusted: Darwinian evolution and textual studies of biblical origins. It has forced millions of us to look at transcendence in an entirely different way. As a result of these discoveries, much of the West’s scaffolding has undergone immense renovation within the last 200 years, and it appears more renovation will occur at a furiously faster clip in the future.

But all of this renovating – all of this adjusting – within the last 200 years has proven wrenching and has taken its toll. The scaffolding we constructed around God over the course of centuries proved especially durable and beneficial in may notable respects. And, to be sure, the scaffolding that we are putting in its place to adjust to new discoveries about ourselves and our place in the universe undoubtedly will serve us well and in ways we cannot fully anticipate. But I wonder sometimes if it will bind us in the same way that previous scaffolding did. When one considers all of this, it’s small wonder why the West’s loss of faith in a transcendent God presented Westerners with profound shock, one from which we will likely require centuries more to recover fully.

Incidentally, I was struck by one passage in the article I posted earlier about China’s search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Our discovery of an advanced ET species my very well force us to undergo a radical renovation of our scaffolding – one considerably more far reaching than any other time in human history. We may even be forced to construct a wholly new ethical systems as a result of this new scaffolding as we discover that our place in the universe, compared with older and far more advanced species, is pitifully minuscule.

And who knows? Perhaps we will even be forced to consider how to merge our exoskeleton with our extraterrestrial counterpart. And, of course, if these ETs arrive as conquerors rather than as benevolent messengers, such a question will be left primarily with them – that is, if they choose to allow some of us to carry on.

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Airport (1970) and Its Legacy

Airport-FilmA few days ago, my wife had  Arthur Hailey’s Airport on an old retro movie channel. That movie began a lifelong aversion to plane travel. My parents took me to every one of those air disaster films throughout the Seventies and to this day they can’t understand why I detest any form of plane travel.

All joking aside, though, Airport is interesting to me not only in terms of how it reflected prevailing social views of the era but also how it pointed toward toward the future of screenwriting.

First, the movie’s (and, I presume, the novel’s) plot still embraced modern as opposed to post-modern views – interesting, considering that many movies that were coming out at roughly the same time exhibited discernible post-modern traits. At the top of the list of these emerging post-modern films: The dystopian Planet of the Apes, which was released a couple of years earlier and that took a very dim view of where science and technology were taking humanity.

Interestingly, Airport foreshadowed the release some 25 years later of Apollo 13 – equally remarkable when one considers that the move was released the same year as the Apollo 13 incident which could have easily ended up as one of history’s most conspicuous scientific disasters. Yet, Airport, much like Apollo 13, released a quarter century later, affirmed the blessings of modernity – not only how science and technology enhanced the quality of life but also the role that specialists (in this case, airport administrators, pilots and mechanics) played in ensuring this success. The staff at Lincoln International Airport played as integral a part in guiding the damaged plane back to safety as the specialists at Mission Control served in bringing the shattered Apollo 13 command module safely back from the Moon.

The movie is also interesting in the way it unintentionally foreshadowed profiling. One conspicuous achievements of the film was the casting of renowned stage actress Helen Hayes, who subsequently won an Oscar for her portrayal of the endearing septuagenarian Ada Quonsett, an unusually resourceful stowaway who had eluded the airport security system countless times in her quest to visit her daughter and family. She obviously got away with it because people seldom suspected an elderly lady capable of such wrong doing.

In one scene a young, perceptive airport employee fascinated with Quonsett’s success, questions her about the ruses she has developed in the course of eluding airport security – an amusing foreshadowing of the 2002 biographical crime film “Catch Me If You Can,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio.  In a post-9/11 world, a successful petty criminal such as Quonsett undoubtedly would be regarded as a goldmine of insights among airport security professionals.  But we are talking about an era long ago when a disturbed man like D.O. Guerrero, portrayed by Van Heflin, could walk onto a plane with a bomb completely undetected – small wonder why ingenious criminal innovators like Quonsett were considered little more than quaint oddities.

The film also wove seven stories into one – a device frequently used in films today but still considered a bit of a novelty in the early 1970’s.

And, of course, there are the depictions of ancient sexual relationships – notably the extramarital affair of pilot Vernon Demerest (portrayed by Dean Martin) and Chief Stewardess Gwen Meighen (played by Jacquelin Bisset).  In one scene Meighen explains to Demerest that her unplanned pregnancy is entirely her fault, having quit taking birth control pills to ensure that she remained suitably svelte.  She then ensures her philandering fly boy that she would soon be paying a visit to a doctor in Sweden to make all things right.

Almost fifty years later, such a flagrant depiction of white male privilege would never be written into a film, unless the heartless male malefactor were consigned to a fiery death later in the plot.

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A Largely Secular Journey

Robert-Wright

Robert Wright. Photo: Courtesy of CardsPlayer4Life

I feel a bit of a kinship with Robert Wright, the author of the recently published book “Why Buddhism is True.”

Roughly a decade or so ago, Wright also published a book titled “The Evolution of God,” which complemented another superb book published at roughly the same time: “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation” by Steven Berlin Johnson.

The two books helped me gain a keen insight into how human experiences and insights have been networked through language, writing and, more recently, digital technology, and uploaded into a kind of cloud that I’ve come to call the “Noncorporeal Human Exoskeleton.”

But I feel a special bond with Mr. Wright, having experienced a religious upbringing and pilgrimage quite similar to his. As a teenager, he was converted by a fiery but charismatic Southern Baptist evangelist named Homer Martinez, who also passed through my boyhood church in the late 70’s.

Wright and I seem to have undergone similar epiphanies.  Wright abandoned his Southern Baptist religious legacy long ago for a largely secular  worldview that has taken on discernibly Buddhist hues.

As he sees it, human beings have been hardwired by evolution not to be satisfied.  Excuse me if I’m mangling the teachings of Darwin, but evolution, in a manner of speaking, strives to keep us unsatisfied so that, in the course of which, we continue to, well, strive. And amidst all this perpetual striving, happiness remains elusive.   Many of us spend a lifetime never seeming to achieve happiness or anything approaching it.

We crave things, but once we attain them, our happiness seems fleeing, and we’re left striving to acquire or achieve the next thing.

Wright contends in his book that the ancient teachings and practices of Buddha can provide a healing balm for this restiveness.

As Wright observes in a recent NPR interview:  “I think of mindfulness meditation as almost a rebellion against natural selection,” he says. “Natural selection is the process that created us. It gave us our values. It sets our agenda, and Buddhism says, ‘We don’t have to play this game.’ ”

My own journey, which I would describe as a secular rather than a spiritual one, involved reconciling my Christian cultural inheritance with the cognitive behavioral techniques I developed in my late 20’s to rewire my brain to cope with the effects of a rather debilitating anxiety disorder. And much of this involved coming to terms with the reality that many of the things in life that can’t be resolved simply must be endured.

I owe my insights to three teachers:  Dr. Claire Weekes, an Australian physician and general practitioner who wrote a series of books that emphasized the value of cognitive techniques in overcoming nervous illness; Dr. M. Scott Peck, a psychiatrist who is best known for his bestselling book The Road Less Traveled; and finally but certainly not least, Dr. Viktor Frankl,  the founder of logotherapy and author of Man’s Search for Meaning.

I suppose my exposure to these three individuals and their teachings amounted to something akin to an epiphany, resembling in some respects the insights that Wright has acquired in the course of his own pilgrimage.

They helped me understand that life was a difficult and often heart-rending journey, as Peck relates in this first sentence of The Road Less Traveled.  In a real sense, my Southern Baptist upbringing had insulated me from this vital truth.  My exposure to these three people helped me understand that religion, particularly fundamentalist religion, often blinded people to life’s hard, incontrovertible truth.

I had come to regard my conservative Christian faith as a sort of lucky rabbit’s foot. Instead of coming to term with the hard truths of life – a hallmark of adulthood –  I always assumed that a close, personalized relationship with a deity would somehow cordon off all the sadness, disappointment and random tragedy bound up with human existence. To put it bluntly, I practiced a form of faith that was inherently neurotic.

I finally became an adult when I was able not only to view life but also to embrace it in all of its damnable complexity – all of its sublime beauty inextricably bound up in its random, unfathomable injustice and ugliness.

Somewhere along this journey, I, like Wright, also learned that something approaching happiness was achieved by learning how not to be spooked by the emotional reactions to stimuli that we have acquired through eons of evolutionary hard wiring.

I can’t say that my life journey took a Buddhist turn, as Wright’s apparently has. Mine has assumed a form that, while respectful of its Christian influences, is largely secular,  though it remains open to and respectful of the potential for spirituality.

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Some Disparate Thoughts on Language Learning

ludwik-Zamenhof

Ludwik Zamenhof, Father of Esperanto.

Aeon an digital magazine committed to spreading knowledge and a cosmopolitan world view, recently carried a piece about the struggle under way throughout the world to preserve so-called minority languages.  In some cases, the term minority is applied generously.   Many of these languages have declined to only a handful of speakers.

Boa Senior is mentioned.  She was the last member of an Andaman tribe believed to be one of the oldest cultures on earth.  She was also the last speaker of Aka-Bo, her tribal language.  She was forced to learn an Andamanese version of Hindi simply to converse with others.

The writer, Rebecca Roache, a lecturer in philosophy at the University of London, asks whether it’s really worth spending immense amounts of money to preserve these languages. Wouldn’t it be better for language learners, especially young ones, to invest their time  learning global languages (e.g., English, French and Mandarin) that not only will enhance their lives and, but also, perhaps, their prospects for employment?

Roache is right to stress that the extinction of a language is a sad thing. It marks not only the passing of a language but also of a cultural ecosystem of which this language once served as the cultural wellspring.

Yet, even the cultural changes that overtake more viable language also strike me as sad. As someone – Foucault, I think – once said, we live in language. And any significant change associated with language implies equally significant change within the cultural ecosystem from which it sprang.

The Evolution of Gaelic (Irish)

Gaelic (Irish) has undergone a sweeping transformation now that it has become a language spoken predominantly by educated Irish citizens who learn it in the classroom rather than from daily discourse with family members and other native speakers. In a very real sense, Gaelic no longer is a peasant language, and, consequently, it no longer is quite the indigenous language it once was. One additional complicating factor: Now that it is more of a book language than one rooted in an indigenous culture, Gaelic arguably lacks much of the nuance that characterized it a century ago.

Reading the article prompted another observation: It will be interesting to see how AI will be used to preserve languages in the future. More than decade ago, linguists, aided by computers, extrapolated Virginia Algonquian, a dead language, from other extant Algonquin languages to create part of the dialogue in The New World, a 2005 movie about Pocahontas and the English settlement at Jamestown.

We are likely to see more of these sorts of computer-aided revivals of ancient languages. But this raises the question: How close do these languages come to the originally spoken languages? In the vast majority of cases, we will be dealing with resurrected languages that provide only imperfect insight into the original language and the cultural context in which it was spoken.

The Exaptation of Experanto

What we have learned about language within the last century has driven home other vital lessons, too.

Language usage has lent fascinating insight into a phenomenon known as exaptation. Throughout history, we humans have taken things that were originally conceived or that had evolved for one purpose and adapted it to another – hence the term exaptation.

In the 19th century, a Jewish-Polish oculist (glasses maker) and amateur linguist named Ludwik Zamenhof developed an artificial language known as Esperanto with the hope of its becoming humanity’s universal language. (Incidentally, Esperanto literally translates as “one who hopes.”)

Shortly after its establishment, the League of Nations seriously considered adopting Esperanto its official language.

Esperanto is a cleverly designed artificial language that combines a very simplified grammar with a vocabulary constructed from many European languages – German, Polish, English and the Romance languages. It is still spoken by a million or so language enthusiasts around the world. Many of these speakers still hold out the hope that it will someday be accepted as the universal language. George Soros, incidentally, is one of a handful of people on the planet who grew up in an Esperanto-speaking household.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Esperanto in the 21st century is not its viability as a universal language but rather how it’s being “exapted” by linguists for an entirely different purpose: To provide elementary school children with a rudimentary foundation in language to enable them learn living languages, such as Spanish, French and Italian.

Watch this interesting TED lecture below by Esperantist Tim Morley, who contends that Esperanto should be adapted to language instruction in the same way that the recorder is used in music education to provide a basis for mastering many musical instruments.

 

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