January 2007

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Pope Benedict XVI has recently said that Western culture is

“unable to undertake a real dialogue with other cultures in which the religious dimension is strongly present. Nor is it able to respond to the fundamental questions about the meaning and direction of life,”

Pope Benedict states that meaning and morality are available only within religion. I respect the fact that most of those who are believers, do find meaning in their lives and act morally, inspired by their faiths.

But I think that religious claims to meaning and morality are as much looks backward, as attempts to understand these rapidly changing times: how to go about inspiring the present and future?

The Pope has much history, texts, philosophy, and prophecy on his “side.” The current rise in the import and power of religion signals a “return” to the past, as much as the desire to live in the present and future.

This tradition – Western thought – takes a narrow view of the human. Differences between our experience and historically informed descriptions and prescriptions for living are bound in ideas of the human, much less than in examining the human. It is now time to examine the human more thoroughly and thoughtfully, to see how we are and how we know.

Pope Benedict claims that only religion provides us with meaning and morality. This claim is an aspect of thinking that the human is a two-part “thing”: part body and part soul. It mostly neglects the body, and doesn’t pay any attention to the fact that we are bodies interacting with others. We live all alone, as it were, in a world in which the problems of knowing others and ourselves are removed from the human experience. Thence meaning and morality are available only through religion.

But this is not an accurate depiction of the human. We are body – and we “become” ourselves as we “emerge” from complex interactions with our m/others (the person who takes on the enormous responsibility for her infant). The born body is not the locus of the mind, soul, or self. Much happens to us: we are “transformed” in becoming our selves, the “I” who “has” a soul or mind.

Meaning develops in these relationships, leading to the further development of the self. Other persons are always “present” in our being and thoughts even as we are and grapple with the complexities of meaning in our ongoing lives.

Developmental psychologists (Alan Fogel: “Developing Through Relationships” and Alan Sroufe : “Emotional Development: The Organization of Emotional Life in the Early Years”) have recently understood that infants are “attached” to their m/others, and that the study of the infant “alone” is an error in illuminating our being: ideas derived from Behavioral Biology/Ethology of Konrad Lorenz – (“Bretherton: The Origins of Attachment Theory: Bowlby and Ainsworth” (PDF)– Developmental Psychology: 1992. 28. 759-775) joined with the insights of Pragmatist Philosopher, G. H. Mead (“Mind,
Self, and Society
”) whom I invoke in these elaborations of meaning, and morality.

Mother and child: photo by http://flickr.com/photos/tim166/

One of my works in progress, “A Meaningful Life”, attempts to frame our thinking in the widest terms, as an introduction to how “religious” or “prophetic” thinking enters many of our lives; or doesn’t. It attempts to frame the sorts of queries and questions which enter our thinking about deep and intense issues as reality, existence, ideas, change – all of which have risen in our thoughts in the past few decades.

The particularities of Western religion – including Christianity and Islam – take us into the thinking of change and permanence: an ancient and continuing battle. Why is this so powerful right now: because the world is changing so quickly that any earlier balance between change and permanence feels frantically like chaos. We seek permanence: and permanence is found in the forms of Platonic thinking which grants meaning only to the soul, only to the notions of the everlasting deity who presides outside of time and of life. Change? Life is but a dream, a chimera?

In this depiction, meaning is to be found primarily outside of our existence; from particular texts, prophets, histories, churchly organizations. And these are amazing histories, as they have become not only contemplative but also highly political in the recent battles for minds and for the concepts of meaning and morality.

What questions do we ask? About death, or about life: in which order? What directions, what solutions, whose authority will certify us; satisfy us; calm or excite us in our quests for meaning?

This will, in turn, take us into the issues surrounding morality. “The Genesis of Morality” is my attempt to note that our self, the “I” who I am, emerges from an attachment with the most moral of all persons in each of our lives: the m/other who dedicates herself to each next moment of our being.

And, as we move toward becoming more like independent selves,
m/other attempts to get us to take care of ourselves – as she would. These moments are the Genesis of Morality in each of our lives. And we move on from here and there to the present – complicated, questioning, especially in changing times, as we continue to grapple with meaning and morality.

The questions surrounding our human “agency” emerge as definitional of the present, and inspirational of the future. We shall embrace life, the present, moving and inspiring the future, even as many political and religious thinkers are looking for prophets, texts, and “truth” in the ideas and philosophers of the past.

So now we have 6 people going into a zoo in Adelaide, Australia. Going, not to look at (other) animals, but to be looked at – as if they are animals. A form of monkey, perhaps, they are there to be seen in all the places, and at all their places. Alone, sort of, with one or more of the others. Privacy…gone. They are on public display (AP video spot via USA Today). These 6 people are the zoo.

This is not all new. In the 1800’s and extending into much of the early 20th century, most aboriginal peoples were considered to be “primitives” or “savages.” And some of them were “placed on display” – as if they were “animals.” Perhaps this current display is a “return” to the old days, as new brain science seems to be raising the question of human nature as more fixed or pre-determined than we have been considered, especially since the rise of human rights.

Maybe it is a way of seeing ourselves – and gaining some new insights into the human – maybe insights into other animals, to our ways of observing other species – maybe commentary on whether we should capture and display any species in places like zoos.

From my perspective as a continuing student of the human condition and human nature, this event raises all sorts of thoughts about how to see and observe ourselves:

First, there is little that will happen with or to these persons, that we haven’t already witnessed: nakedness, in or on the toilet, eating, peeing. Nothing that we all don’t do. Maybe sex, maybe clothed. Perhaps interacting with one another, in two’s or three’s or as six.

This moves me back to the question of how we observe humans (and oneself) – to Erving Goffman’s “Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.” Lots of what and who we are is kept out of the public domains: how do we observe the human, when so much of our being remains hidden, at least private. Even more complicated: how do others see us; how do we see ourselves’ seeing?

Much of the study of the human has been done quite narrowly in fairly public domains where even the politics of our being are often masked or not obvious.

Politics are always there, and perhaps clearer or more obvious than they are usually – perhaps quite obscure in the contexts of enclosed spaces. Politics may develop or evolve: an alpha male – or female – might emerge: out of ambition, boredom, wishes to control oneself or others.

Confined to particular space – a kind of prison: a kind of deep freedom since the possibilities of movement and surrounds are so completely determined that they are driven into their own “heads” rather than finding much new or risky to explore as in the ordinary world.

It also reminds me of how I/we observe zoo behavior. I love seeing other animals – except I mourn the fact that they are captives, and in a kind of jail. Then – as an anthropologist-of-the ordinary – I begin to note who’s there (and “who isn’t” – pace Goffman). Kids, kids, kids and their parents of most ages. So much fun to watch them, the politics of different families – different ages of kids, interactions, control…

The Gorilla Viewing Area: photo by John Morton

And there, almost always, there are couples (male and female – in my notings, but then, today might be a different day). And these couples seem to be “into” the kids in a very loving and “hot” way, as if love and procreation are most imminent.

And so the idea of a group of humans (all sort of grown-up from reports so far – and not too far in age from one another, or social class, or ethnicity?) – may help cast new insights into the human condition.

For me, this situation raises many questions: a study of the “zoo,” in its own complicated terms; ways to lead us all to ask ourselves harder questions about observing, beginning with ongoing and historical observations of the observer, namely myself; to ask about the nature of the “zoos” in which all of us live. Why is this happening now: what is the nature of the human condition as it changes in a rapidly changing world?

Most important, it pushes us toward the really tough and historical questions: what ideas are already afloat in our thinking which frame or shape our questions and observations? And, the most difficult: what is the human – nature, behavior, language? The central problems of these times!?