Sunday, August 25, 2013

Funding the Humanities

I won't bother claim to be a dispassionate or disinterested proponent of the humanities. A program of religious studies, like the one in which am I enrolled, is about as humanistic as it gets. Not everyone would agree with the characterization, of course, but the inference is a sound one. Faculties of religious studies got their start as programs in the secular or scientific study of religion. They were supposed to be non-confessional; and so were much less concerned with in the nature of divinity than they were in what this or that belief in divinity said about the human beings who held them. Focus was on the one thing about human beings that is difficult to explain away on other terms: why we believe what we think to be the case about X (where X can anything under or over the sun), rather than merely what we think about X.

So my numbness to the fact we in our collective wisdom have decided the humanities simply aren't valuable in the broad scheme of things thaws a little when the economist Christina Paxson offers 'The Economic Case for Saving the Humanities' over at the New Republic. The piece is an effort to turn the table on the standard arguments against funding the humanities. If we in our collective wisdom deemed the humanities valuable, some of the monies pouring into faculties of science and medicine would be reassigned to history, philosophy, and the fine arts. The federal government would apportion a lot more money to research grants in African literature or Asian antiquities. And employers would eagerly hire persons demonstrating a capacity to learn, critical analyze, and achieve research and/or other goals. 

But money isn't pouring in. Paxson points out the rationale for governments to invest in the so-called S.T.E.M. subjects--science, technology, engineering, and mathematics--is a simple matter of connecting the dots. The payout is calculably predictable, much like the sort of stuff dealt with in the subjects themselves. The same cannot be said of the humanities. Figuring out the monetary value of a study of the relationship between the two parts of Miguel Cervantes' Don Quixote, for example, is like tilting at windmills. A post-structuralist reading of Xenophon's portrait of Socrates suffers from similar pecuniary under-determination. These cannot be quantified in the same way the matter of the S.T.E.M subjects can be quantified. The consequence is that public servants, who must give an account of their funding decisions to their respective political constituencies, err on the side of caution and control for those variables which can be measured. And for the time being, the humanities live off a dwindling institutional memory of better days.

So we need to learn how to argue, Paxson says, 'there are real, tangible benefits to the humanistic disciplines—to the study of history, literature, art, theater, music, and languages.' No doubt she is right. We do need to learn to argue for the tangible benefits of humanistic study. Obviously we, especially those of us in the humanities, have forgotten how to make such an argument.

The 'economic' character of Parson's are problematic. Their weakness may be seen in how they haphazardly circle around the point. Here's a sampling:
'[I]t is evident that many of the men and women who were exposed to that curriculum went on to positions of genuine leadership in the public and private sectors.'
'[W]e do not always know the future benefits of what we study and therefore should not rush to reject some forms of research as less deserving than others.'
'We should be prepared to accept that the value of certain studies may be difficult to measure and may not be clear for decades or even centuries.'
The first argument appeals to anecdotal evidence, to contingent circumstances, not necessary conditions. The second and third argument brings in epistemic considerations about the inability of our metrics to predict the shape of the future. Most notable, these aren't peculiarly economic arguments. All three appeal to a rough and ready practicality. Well aware of the reasons offered for why the humanity ought not to be funded, Paxson skirts around the question why we ought to fund them.

Let me take a stab at answering the question. The strongest argument to be made for increasing funding to the humanities is that they, like so many of the other things we value in our lives, have no obvious, measurable, practical purpose. As paradoxical as this may seem, it gets at something essential to being human. The immediate payout from reading a good novel is almost non-existent. More likely, you spent money in order to purchase the novel. The same goes for conversations in coffee shops, reading the newspaper, or watching the news. The list goes on. We do these things because we want to, because, for whatever reason, we enjoy doing them, not because doing so has an obvious dollar value attached to them.

The idea of an entire human life ought to be subject to market discipline revolts even the most hard-nosed of capitalists. (Hence they spend extravagantly on the so-called superfluous aspects of their own lives.) For that reason, and that reason alone, the humanities needs a humanistic defense grounded in what it means to be human, not an economic one pegged to balance sheets and bottom lines. The proof is near and dear to every single one of us. The latter concerns cannot be ignored, of course, but they have their particular place in well-lived human life, rather than the other way around.

Where do you look for the basic inspiration behind such a reordering of priorities? Usually in religious texts, among other places. The first chapter of the Book of Genesis describes the creation of the world, and the creation of human being's in God's image. No reason is offered for why God created the world. The only thing the reader can make out is that God did. The consequence is that human life, existence itself, is best understood as the product of a supremely pointless divine act. Not to despair, though. Things don't end badly for the human race. The text of Genesis finds a reflection of God's supremely pointless act in the human being, a creature created in the image of its Creator.

The creation of humanity in God's image is one of those catch-phrases, like other ones insisting every human being is possesses an intrinsic dignity invested with certain rights merely by virtue of being human,which illuminate the rest of the world. We reason from them towards some conclusion, not towards them from other premises. Like so much of human life that cannot be rationalized on the strict terms of the hard sciences, things are because they are--or, more precisely, because we want them to be.

The image of the humanities as a beleaguered bastion of light holding out against an assault of bankers and bean-counters won't pass a smell test. The problems facing studies in the humanities are much bigger than mere institutional arrangements the immediate problems of funding allocation. Fiddling while the humanities slowly burn to the ground is something we have collectively determined to do, including persons claiming to work in the humanities. Stanely Fish comes immediately to mind. The malaise of a modern education is subtle and pervasive; it goes much deeper than individual figures, deep down into our basic assumptions about the way things are.

The demise of the humanities follows upon our collective failure to see human life as anything more than an individual can make of it. We live in communities, of course, but we have forgotten how to think about life as if it is lived in the community of others. So we fiddle while Rome burns, and pretend not to understand those things each of us individually desire for ourselves--a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs, food on the table, the company of family and friends, and a modicum of freedom explore this short life's possibilities--aren't also collectively desirable.

In the end, the demise of the humanities isn't merely about a small number of academic disciplines. 

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Interfaith Identity Crisis

About a week ago, the Washington Post argued the nature of interfaith endeavours has shifted with demographics. A more diverse population means interaction between religious groups is no longer restricted to the clergy. In fact, a typical practitioner can now be expected to have some sort of contact with persons of different faiths.

Children who grow up and go to college or university today have very different experiences than their parents. Interfaith used to be something people did. Now it is something people live daily. Though there now exist twice as many interfaith groups in the United States than a decade ago, making the generational transition has been difficult for many. Old assumptions are being challenged, and questions of new priorities must be raised.

In a Huffington Post article, Rev. Donald Heckman, Executive Director of Religions for Peace USA, suggests the interfaith movement must rebrand itself. The term means too many things to too many people to convey anything definite to the wider public. In response to a growing number of persons who do not identify with any particular religious tradition, he says,
'I think we may need to cede the term "interfaith" to the small but growing number of people who see faith, religion and spirituality as boundary-less enterprises of exploration and who allow for multiple affiliations. And the more narrow technical term "interreligious" needs to be co-opted to cover the broad arc of things that are multi-, inter- and intra- for -faith, -religious and - spiritual.'
But is problem really just about branding? If it's about religion, doesn't it go a whole lot deeper than the question of what a person calls themselves?

Heckman is asking the right questions. The way he is asking them, however, leaves something to be desired. The deepest motivation of the interfaith movement has always been to bring people together. And that makes the wisdom of more carefully parsing the names we apply to ourselves doubtful.

The problems the interfaith movement presently faces are perennial problems, which have taken on new forms in a new context. Seen in that light, answers to questions about how to move forward should become more obvious.

The basic problem has always been how one engages persons of other faiths while remaining true to one's own faith. How can I both be a Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jew, Muslim, etc. and engage constructively with persons of other faiths?

There seems an assumption, especially in certain Evangelical Christian communities, the logic of religious identity is ironclad: one can be either this or that, but not both. And the only reason to talk to members of other faiths is to convert them.

Rather than rebranding, the interfaith movement should be retooling. Since more and more people are living the interfaith movement on a daily basis, what is needed more than ever is to equip and teach people to find inspiration for interfaith engagement within their particular religious traditions.

I don't mean glossy presentations of the things religions share in common, though that must be a part of it. I mean encouraging Christians to think on what it means to see everyone as being created in the image of God, Muslims what it means to be Allah's representatives on earth, Hindus as jivas, and so on.

Our religious traditions, without exception, classically wrestled with the dignity and misery of being human. They set out to achieve the impossible goal of reconciling the entire human race to each other. They also cautioned against presuming too much about one's own abilities to accomplish that goal. The labels we gave ourselves, in this picture, matter a whole lot less than actual flesh and blood.

The interfaith movement needs to see itself not as a solution to a problem everyone else has. If that were the case, then rebranding is all that's needed. The interfaith movement needs rather to see itself as taking part in the very thing people have been working at for many millenia. Only then will it catch up to the truth that people are living interfaith lives every single day.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

A Review of Arvind Sharma's Gandhi: A Spiritual Biography

Here is a question worth pondering. Has a biographer really done his subject justice when God appears in a life’s story as an actual actor, and not just as a literary device, inspirational thought, or private conceit?  At stake in the question’s answer is truth. Not THE TRUTH, mind you. Not what truth is; but much more importantly how truth is told.  Has a biographer told the truth of his subject if the divine majesty is allowed to skulk between every line of every page?

The truth is, or ought to be, it seems, much more mundane.  In truth’s unvarnished form, readers confront the cold, hard stuff of the real world. Right?

The question’s answer cannot be so simple, however, when a biographer sets out to write a spiritual biography.  The Yale University Press has just published Gandhi: A Spiritual Biography (2013) by Arvind Sharma of McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. With the opening lines, Sharma warns, ‘History is more than the biography of those who make it’, and immediately counters, ‘Nevertheless, some people leave their mark on history in such an elusive way that historiography perpetually fails to capture it.’

Gandhi was such a person, Sharma suggests, along with Moses, Jesus, and the Buddha, and a small number of others. Most biographies on Gandhi are written about Mohandas Gandhi. They refer to Mohandas with the honorific Mahatma, or ‘Great Soul’, but are concerned with events and people, politics and social processes. A spiritual biography of the man takes Mahatma Gandhi as its subject, and looks what it means to be a mahatma.

Sharma’s credentials certainly qualify him to write such a book. The Birks Professor of Comparative Religion at McGill’s Faculty of Religious Studies, Sharma uses his specialization in Hinduism as a bridge to much more general topics, including religion and feminism and religion and human rights. He is the author of One Religion Too Many: The Religiously Comparative Reflections of a Comparatively Religious Hindu (2011). The book is Sharma’s spiritual autobiography, a chalk full of wry observations about growing up a Hindu and encountering other religious traditions along life’s way. After the Gandhian fashion of marrying faith to social activism, Sharma has also convened two international conferences looking at religion and human rights: World’s Religion after September 11 in 2006 and the Second Global Conference on World’s Religion after September 11 in 2011. A third and final conference is now in the works for the second half of 2016.

Every one of Gandhi’s biographers must confront the question about the source of his power to inspire. The ends of spiritual biography, Sharma’s argument runs, are much more appropriate to Gandhi’s fundamental motivations than are other sorts of biography. It goes to the heart of the matter, so to speak, to the place where word intersects with deed. ‘Gandhi’s claim was made upon our conscience; he demonstrated that spirituality is to be found at the core of our humanity.’

Sharma’s discussion is lively. At points, even if a little dialectical and didactic, the prose dances off the page into the reader’s imagination. Spiritual biographers risk falling into hagiography, but Sharma demythologizes Gandhi in order to preserve his saintliness. Gandhi demythologized himself, Sharma points out, by attributing his larger-than-life accomplishments to God. If he was a saint, his saintliness was in part due to his willingness to own the flaws of his character. Sharma examines a number of them in the course of the book.

Which God did Gandhi serve precisely? Good Aristotelians the lot of us, we may argue over the specific nature and attributes of the divine majesty—or whether it makes sense to speak of God existing or as existent. Whether, in our intensely analytic moments, we master our language or it masters us remains to be seen. We also stand to miss the point, was the point I took away from the Sharma’s book. Gandhi died with three bullets in his chest and the name Rama on his lips. He identified Rama with Truth, wherever it may be found, but especially through introspection and selfless service.

God as Rama as Truth could never be a mere propositional statement. The reality of God must be lived in order to be known. The insistence on identifying word and deed, Sharma points out, led Gandhi to his death. He was assassinated because he insisted India fulfill promises of a third payment to Pakistan because India had given its word. The fact the two countries were then at war could not change his mind. Gandhi took it upon himself to see the promise fulfilled; the name Rama on his lips, his final gesture was one of forgiveness to his executioner.

Gandhi: A Spiritual Biography divides neatly in half. The first half treats significant episodes in Gandhi’s life. The second looks at significant themes in his thought. The book does not propose to be an exhaustive study, though it most certainly qualifies as an illuminating and instructive one. The author may be forgiven, therefore, if readers find themselves wondering how Gandhi got from a point A to a point B, or what motivated him to make the move. The scarcity of this sort of information is easily compensated by the depth of Sharma’s treatment of Gandhi’s psyche: his thoughts on sex and celibacy, British imperialism, his own spiritual heritage, and the caste system are just a few of the topics he covers.

The book draws me to one conclusion: other modes of biographical writing aside, a spiritual biography on the life of Mahatma Gandhi cannot fail to testify to God. Absent the divine majesty, Gandhi’s intentions no purpose, his actions had no end, his thoughts and no object. Absent God there could be no Mahatma.