“Nothing makes us believe more than fear, the certainty of being threatened. When we feel like victims, all our actions and beliefs are legitimised, however questionable they may be. Our opponents, or simply our neighbours, stop sharing common ground with us and become our enemies. We stop being aggressors and become defenders. The envy, greed or resentment that motivates us becomes sanctified, because we tell ourselves we’re acting in self-defence. Evil, menace, those are always the preserve of the other. The first step towards believing passionately is fear. Fear of losing our identity, our life, our status or our beliefs. Fear is the gunpowder and hatred is the fuse. Dogma, the final ingredient, is only a lighted match.”
-- Zafon, Carlos Ruiz, 2010. The Angel’s Game (English trans.), Phoenix, p. 247
A very ambiguous “angel” (or perhaps a psychotic fantasy) visits an exploited Spanish writer with a commission. The writer is to write a novel that presumably will serve as a substitute holy scripture for a new generation. Ominous as this turns out to be, the “angel” tells the author the rationale that is to be used: When we feel like victims, all our actions and beliefs are legitimised … we become defenders. …The first step towards believing passionately is fear.
That passage arrested me.
“That,” I thought, reaching for my pen, “is profound.” What made it profound, in my mind, among the myriad of profundities laid before us in this time of unprecedented availability of literature and wisdom, is how it capsulizes the motivations of so many of our responses to threats. Or at least some of the motivations.
But, having reflected on the terrorist attack on the World Trade center these past few days, and thereby brooding about “America”, on September 11, 2001, I think the “angel” was over-simplifying the range of human reactions. On 9/11 anger, victimization, and alienation were NOT the first responses. At least we have chosen stories of heroism, gallant sacrifice, and patriotism to be remembered. Some of those stories are on their way to becoming legends.
But those stories also refer to fear.
The account of half a million people being moved by boats from Manhattan to New Jersey by heroic sailors operating ferry boats and pleasure craft, “the largest marine evacuation in history,” is also about 500,000 people trying to escape. The images of 9/11 are not of only brave fire-fighters going into smoking and blazing towers but of people running for their lives.
It’s complicated. But has the “angel” got it right, that the root of belief is fear?
It is possible to see the US government’s responses pretty much as the “angel” described them. “We were attacked. So we retaliated.” In fact, what was released at that time was more extensive and intense. We learned in one terrible morning that the USA is vulnerable after all. That led to: “This is not to be stood for. America needs to defend itself. The world is undependable. We need leaders who will restore us. We need to be able to defend ourselves … we need guns … we need to proud and keep out illegal, undesirable, and unnecessary foreign elements”.
Those attitudes blossomed and spread.
Zafón was describing Spain, especially his native Barcelona, after the Spanish Civil War and during the dictatorship of Franco. He is also narrating the legitimization of terror and revenge in his novels. It is state terror, but it plays out in particular incidents with indistinct chains of cause.
Zafón “divides his time between Barcelona and Los Angeles,” the dust jacket of his book tells us. He knows that the “angel” was enunciating a universal truth. It applies to Croatia, China, Cambodia, and Cuba and it threatens unity and cooperation whenever it takes hold.
Does legitimate religion adequately counter this fear? Christian theology struggles as it tries to say it does. In some way even God is to be feared. Fear is basic. Some kind of fear is fine. Buddhism is a search for serenity in eternal uncertainty and change. Some religions try appeasement … some through unspeakable sacrifices and others through metaphorical ones. Without fear that whole apparatus (some say “all religion”) would be unnecessary. So, religion does counter fear although some strategies are paradoxical.
Sadly, religion as we have it these days, does not always serve to keep fear from being transformed into defensiveness, too often manifested as counter-terror, and soon enough into a belief system. The writer in Zafon’s novel comes to believe that the “Angel’s game” was to scare the writer into writing about fear as the seed of belief so as to make it happen. It remains unclear at the novel’s end whether that would have worked on a universal scale, or whether the “angel” was only working on the writer.
If fear is the impetus for a protectionist belief system that legitimizes violent opposition and the consequences that come from that, love and compassion are the other alternative. Love and compassion are only sustainable, however, when we are not scared to death. We can only be loving and compassionate when we are not overwhelmed by fear.
Zafón knows, and we know, that some religion has surrendered to angels’ temptations to fight terror with terror. The question we need to answer before it’s too late for us is whether there is a better way that actually works.
I think the “angel” was right that if we feel threatened fear will abduct our belief system. Unless we feel protected, really taken care of despite everything, we are vulnerable to a system that turns us against our neighbor and renders us hopelessly lonely.
[Credit the New York Times, for the picture accompanying this essay.]
“The first thing that happens once you have been accused of breaking a social code … The phone stops ringing. People stop talking to you. You become toxic.” “Here is the second thing that happens, closely related to the first: Even if you have not been suspended, punished, or found guilty of anything, you cannot function in your profession.”
Back 20 years ago this is how my pastoral career ended. I was accused of breaking the social code that required me to demonstrate my cis-orientation. I was given the choice of dismissing Pramote (my same-sex spouse) and living un-controversially, or finding my way outside the church. I decided to see who would continue to contact me. The phone stopped ringing. Then I was warned not to try to re-activate my pastoral credentials but to just stay off the rolls of any pastoral or missionary list. That was clarified, “Stop doing anything as a clergyman.” I was to hang up my robe and find another job.
I reckoned it did not matter in terms of my ability to function as I had been, conducting spiritual life retreats, writing Bible studies, and teaching in seminaries. However, my ability to do those things was never counted when the time came to let me continue or let me lapse. I was never given a chance to appear and discuss this at all. Discussions about me were held without me. It was no longer my abilities that mattered, but my social misconduct.
Upon further reflection I think it is unclear that my knowledge, skill, and “call” were ever as important to my functioning as a pastor as was my social position. I seriously underestimated that all along. I was valuable to congregations and communities because of my being the pastor.
In those days (the 1960s to 80s) pastors were still valuable to congregations and communities as members of the leadership who oversaw the best interests of the people, who were leaders with various perspectives and privileged entre into private lives at critical times, and due to their collective memory. Formerly, pastors were key members of that leadership, but that was changing in the 1980s. By that time a pastor had to earn esteem. It no longer came with the title. Longevity was important, but so was a track record. Every pastor developed their own persona and standing. But it only seemed to have much to do with how good they were at their jobs as preachers or evangelists (recruiters of members), or even as chaplains to the community. Beneath it all there was a consensus about what a pastor must be that had to do with being a role-model.
The right to judge these matters was firmly held by others, especially, of course, those being ministered unto. The bottom line was not “my spiritual gifts and call,” but the approval those who would call upon me to exercise the gifts. If the phone stopped ringing the pastor was done. Decisions to pick up the phone and call a pastor were never made officially by a committee or tribunal; those meetings came much later, if needed to mitigate some catastrophe. The pastor was the first to know when the phone stopped ringing. But in those days before social media it was rare for the pastor to be told why trust had disintegrated.
This dynamic is not limited exclusively to pastors and religious leaders. Anyone whose position depends on acceptance by the public can find that eroded. Teachers, civic officials, celebrities, and even war heroes can sink without warning or recourse. Some are in a position to fight back and others are sufficiently buffered to outlast the incoming tsunami, but many are destroyed. Social conformity is demanded as the price for social acceptability. Nonconformists must have some immense skill or leverage.
The infuriating thing about this is how little facts count for anything. When a teacher is accused of racism or favoritism, if social media get wind of it, the storm may grow unstoppably. Neither circumstances nor accuracy matter. Only a counter-storm of overwhelming support has any chance, and those who could help are often hesitant to get involved and become collateral damage or targeted as co-conspirators.
Social media have made this much worse and more pervasive. Social media are invasive, relentless, unforgiving, and ruthless. They thrive on the very energies that destroy discourse and courageous inquiry. People these days feel entitled to freedom from discomfort, let alone intimidation. They presume they have the right to protect themselves by any means, even at the cost of failing to know what the world is like. This is ominous. At this rate things are going to continue toward repression, fear, and disregard for “others” as well as disdain for the very possibility that truth may exist outside one’s bubble.
[Thanks to Anne Applebaum for the quote at the top of this essay from her August 31, 2021 Atlantic article “The New Puritans”.]
Nothing recently has impressed me more that sacred space is widely misunderstood than a merit-making ceremony in our village last Tuesday morning at the cremation ground.
The merit-making was to symbolize the merit being garnered by those who had contributed to repairs on the crematorium. Ban Den Village raised 13,000 baht ($400 US) which is the last part of the funds needed to fix the facility. A chapter of Buddhist priests chanted stanzas and then food was eaten. Compared to the efforts and events connected with the reconstruction of the crematorium in 2015 this project is minor. Nevertheless, it was not to be undertaken without due care. Merit-making alone does not cover the reasons for the ceremony.
What is going on in spaces like that?
A cremation ground is associated almost exclusively with death. It could not be otherwise. Nobody would ordinarily think of using the ground for anything other than cremations. Since a cremation disintegrates a human body, so the story goes, the spirit / ghost is deprived of its accustomed place to be. If they have not gone on (into heaven or hell depending on their accumulated merit) to prepare to be reincarnated, they may be lingering in the cremation precincts. “Placidly haunting” is the least of the things these ghosts may be up to.
But the cremation ground has been repeatedly neutralized by solemn and extensive ceremonies. Buddhist monks maintain that death is merely one of the unavoidable conditions and consequences of life. In one of the Lord Buddha’s earthier sayings he posed that there are two inevitable human experiences: defecation (the translation I came upon avoided the Pali word for shit) and death. One discipline undertaken by serious monks is to contemplate the decomposition of corpses (or sometimes just skeletons). Itinerant monks sometimes seek cremation grounds for an overnight campsite. This is all about much more than desensitizing monks about death. Monks are to be masters of the specter of death; at least the more adept of them are.
Without extending this essay to include several other examples of the yin-yang nature of haunted-holy places, let’s agree that those are liminal-threshold spaces, as forests are in many cultures. Cremation grounds in Thailand are typically in wooded areas called “paa chaa” ป่าช้า (implying literally, “a forest for lingering”). The dual nature of cremation grounds could not be clearer.
What is not so obvious in our time is that all really sacred spaces are that way. Holiness is indivisible from frightfulness. To be in the presence of the Holy is to be terrified and also to be transformed beyond that immobilized and debilitated state. One is never the same after that.
Talmudic Judaism, Medieval Christianity, Vedic Hinduism, and mystical Islam all comprehend the awesome and compassionate dual-nature of the Holy. Wherever the Supreme has stood, sat, or lain is sacred, and to touch such a place is perilous as well as pious. Piety, as mystics know, is fraught with ecstatic agony. One must approach treacherous Holy places with respect; but respect is only the beginning. Indeed, one can never know what sacrifice might be required when one enters the Holy of Holies.
Christianity early on conceptualized the holy event as a sacrificial meal to recapitulate the supreme divine-human encounter. That simple meal first eaten by Jesus with his disciples was embossed with layers of ritual sanctification which Protestantism sought largely to remove in order to get back to the essential meaning of “Christ with us.” The Enlightenment castigated all mystery as superstition and began to eradicate it.
We have now come to the point where there is no longer such a thing as sacred space.
Churches are designed as refuges. They are sanctuaries. They are places to escape the confusion and conflict going on outside. They are places of serenity and community.
This downgrading of holy places (which is happening throughout most cultures in our time) has come at a price. Domesticated holiness is impotent. When we no longer value the transformation that comes from encountering the stunning and awesome Holy, and refuse to see our stricken and naked souls clearly, we succumb to the illusion that there is nothing worthy of awe.
But our friendly gathering places (or their virtual substitutes into which we can zoom or chat) lack the power we need to meet the realities that linger in the shadows to assail, betray, and beguile us. Deprived of sacred spaces we become lethargic and inept. Lulled by the deceit we have cultivated that there is nothing to fear, we succumb to the illusion that there is nothing worthy of awe.
Trapped in our naiveté we are overwhelmed when the shadows congeal.
This is a largely philosophical rumination on the transience of memory. It is an attempt to be realistic in spite of the well-established fact that one of the most powerful human motivations is the desire to make a lasting impact, or, forbidding that, to continue as a part of an eternal or sustained community. Most of the world’s largest monuments are dedicated to this proposition. Religions conceptualize it and perpetuate this as a core belief.
But down here at ground level what happens if I were simply to cease to exist? [In the following reflections “they” are various others who might be remembering us if we were to cease to exist.]
WHO WOULD BE IMPACTED
3 circles of impact:
Critical – their existence would be impossible if we suddenly ceased to exist. Most of us have no one this close or critical to us. “Siamese twins” might. Occasionally in history some personality has built a cult-following with a suicidal level of dependency on the “essential one”. But the purpose of mature parenthood is to create awareness in children of their independence. Almost none of us are so “significant” to anyone that they cannot adjust to life without us, romantic fantasies notwithstanding.
Serious – their life would be heavily changed. Grief is proof that we are connected in deeply fraught ways. We may not even be aware how deep the connections are until they are severed. But most of us will be changed if certain people in our lives were to go away. These people can be a powerful motive for us to survive “in their behalf.”
Marginal – they would need to adjust. Honestly, a majority of the people in our life would be able to get along without us. Our departure will be noticed but the impact of it would be slight in terms of their need to do things differently from now on. Indeed, it can be a great comfort for someone facing death to realize “they’ll be fine.”
WHO WOULD NOTICE
Outside of the circles of those whose lives we impact are those who merely would notice our departure.
Nearest or dearest – they would be certain and quick to notice. Some of these would be waiting to hear, or attending gatherings in anticipation of our death if it was gradual. Close family would notice immediately. In some societies neighbors would be told and would take action.
Distant – they would be certain to notice but they might not hear immediately. Our death would “register” and be remembered. It would make an impression.
Conditional – they would notice if the conditions were right. Obituaries on social media provide those conditions as never before. Disrupted or dysfunctional families tend to break those conditions down. Big funerals for “important” people are for the purpose of making sure people notice.
Random – they might eventually notice even if they were not informed of our departure at the time. Lists of deaths by associations and organizations get the word out, but it’s uncertain who will pay attention.
Doubt – they would come to wonder what has become of us. These thoughts tend to be passing, and only if there was some specific reason would they try to find out what happened to us to cause a gap in connection.
There is a general agreement over the centuries in every culture that a person’s existence is significant and that significance continues. It can be described as a ripple moving to a distant shore. It is unpredictable. Stories of people remembering the action of a teacher in the past, for example, are comforting. Heaven and reincarnation are reassuring concepts.
But it is undeniable that almost all of us will be forgotten. Even our genetic contributions (if any) to future generations will be diluted to the point of inconsequence.
There are events that remind us of the unpredictability of life. The 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center is such a reminder. There are also epochs in history in which death is a major topic. World War II was one of them. Even if the USA manages a full and complete withdrawal from Afghanistan and ends its last war for the time being, COVID has taken center stage reminding us that we are mortal. We may not like it, but mortality trumps all.
So, what are we living for? That is, why? Ah, that is the challenge, to discover the purpose of living. No one can do it for you. For every one of us the conclusion is unique and fluid. At 18 my purpose was one thing, and at 81 it is vastly different. As I have collected life stories it is obvious no two of them are the same. It is only when meaningfulness-at-this-time ceases that motivation for living begins to fade.
Today is the gift you have been given, and the people in your life and you in theirs are where meaningfulness gestates.
ENLIGHTENMENT OF A TERRORIST
The mythic story of the terrorist who wore 999 fingers of his victims as a necklace is one of the most familiar Buddhist stories, although its meaning is subject to interpretation and the story has many variations to conform it to one or the other of these interpretations.
The story has two parts. In the first part a privileged child turns into a feared terrorist intent on killing 1000 people, keeping track by cutting on a finger from each victim and wearing them on a string. He has one to collect when his mother tries to save him from being hunted down as the terrorist he is. In his demented desperation he thinks of killing his mother to complete the quest, but then he sees the Buddha and sets off after him instead. His race toward the Self-Enlightened One is unsuccessful because he can never seem to close the gap between himself and the serene One. He calls on the Buddha to stop, but Gautama replies, “I’ve already stopped, you stop, too.” This leads to a conversation in which the terrorist, Angulimala (องคุลิมาล ) realizes that his intention could be achieved by ceasing his murderous rampage. The Buddha expounds a way of release that does not accrue horrendous kharmic consequences. Thus begins the second part of the story. Angulimala accepts this advice, gives up his quest, becomes a disciple and then an arahant (an enlightened one on the threshold of Nirvana/Nibbana). In a further episode the converted terrorist, utilizing his profound experience of pain and advice from the Buddha, assists in a childbirth, leading to his being venerated in that regard.
Scholars have written extensively on how to make coherent sense out of this myth. The popular view is that the story shows that no one is totally beyond salvation. Other scholars insist that nuances are valuable to help us see how this mythic example applies to such conundrums as Buddhist justification of violence in the name of justice. I am particularly attracted to an article by Paisarn Likhitpreechakul who argues that this mythic story is a rebuttal of “karmic determinism” that “is used to rationalize inequality and justify prejudices.”*
Above all, the Buddha was a masterful teacher. Each of his lessons was precisely designed for his intended audience. To focus on aspects of narratives about him that seem to contravene natural law is to miss the point of the metaphorical action being described. Many religious narratives contain seemingly supernatural aspects that would best be thought of as parabolic.
Christians tell the story of “Jesus and the Gerasene Demoniac” (the demented man who lived among the tombs and terrorized the neighborhood). The legion of demons pleaded to be released into a flock of swine and were dispatched, setting the man free to re-enter society and be a disciple of Jesus.*
“Legion” and Angulimala have a lot in common, but it fades in comparison to what Gautama and Jesus have in common as masterful teachers of peaceful living in society.
How one gets from being an adversary to an advocate of peace, wholeness, and fulfillment depends on one’s starting point. Few of us are possessed by 5000 demons or on a quest to murder a thousand victims, but all of us have need of transformative advice before it’s too late. The best teachers are those who enter their students’ zeitgeist and discern the distorted images of God submerged within. Teachers who fail are those, like the villagers in both Gergesa and Kosala, who see no more than hopeless scoundrels causing havoc.
* Paisarn Likhitpreechakul, “Decoding Two ‘Miracles’ of the Buddha,” in Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, Vol. 2, May, 2012. And see my blog on the Demoniac named Legion: http://www.kendobson.asia/blog/John
The US Turn to Go Home
Monday, August 16, we awoke to the news that the Taliban had taken over Kabul and the leader of Afghanistan had fled to Uzbekistan. There was panic in the streets as countless thousands tried to get to the airport to leave the city. There was chaos at the airport as US troops tried to evacuate US citizens and their Afghan supporters, translators and staff. The US Embassy was burning all the sensitive documents and equipment they could. The iconic picture was of a huge US military aircraft taking off with Afghans still clinging to it.
The Taliban leaders began to try to assure the press that the panic was unwarranted, and that human rights would be respected including the rights of women. But on the streets pickup trucks of Taliban fighters patrolled and reports began of women being harassed and taken prisoner for such infractions as wearing slippers. Reporters told of streets being deserted with no women appearing anywhere. The one road to the airport was blocked by Taliban troops with foreigners allowed through but not Afghans.
Blame began to be hurled, with the media declaring the US had been caught completely by surprise at the speed with which the Taliban had regained control of the country.
President Joe Biden responded to a storm of criticism that the USA was perpetrating an atrocity, undoing and profaning the sacrifices of generations of US troops, and failing to insure any sort of orderly end to US presence in Afghanistan. He insisted that the USA had served its purpose in securing the operations of the civilian government of Afghanistan and training a generation of military security forces, equipping them, and preparing them to lead. After 4 Presidents, 2 Republicans and 2 Democrats, had sent US troops in response to a UN resolution in 2001, he was unwilling to back-off from the negotiated arrangement his predecessor, Donald Trump, had made for US troops to leave. What had happened, he said, was that when it came to the point that the Afghan government and military needed to forcefully resist the rise of the Taliban they refused to do so. It is irrelevant to say that US military in Afghanistan knew the Afghan military would not fight without the Americans fighting with them. It is irrelevant to say the US mission, costing thousands of lives and trillions of dollars, is a failure. It is simply time, Biden said, to end US attempts to build Afghan democracy.
Even a cursory reading of history shows that Afghanistan is an area where peace and order have always been in short supply. Moreover, the Afghans have constantly resisted foreign intervention, even when it was invited to come in (as in the case of the USSR in 1979). It has always been the lack of internal stability that has plagued the country.
The present unrest cannot be understood without careful study of the way Wahhabist Islamic sectarianism has arisen. Not all Islam is the same, and neither is all Wahhabism (reformist conservative Islam that adherents prefer to call Salafi.) The Taliban arose as this type of movement, determined to install radical monotheism through force if necessary. Their reform called for purification of heretical references and influences, restoration of patriarchy and subjugation of women, and installation of theocracy. The ruthless way in which the Taliban operated, assisted by conservative Pakistani military along the extensive border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, created international concern. The issues were human rights and also the obliteration of Afghan and regional cultural history, including destruction of vast collections in museums and libraries, and the dynamiting of the monumental Buddhas of Bamiyan.
After the destruction of the NY World Trade Center on 9/11 2001, President Bush demanded that Afghanistan (with Taliban in control of the area near Pakistan where bin Laden was believed to be) turn over Osama bin Laden, and that was refused. Bush launched Operation Enduring Freedom and in December the UN authorized the International Security Assistance Force. This was to back up the administration of Hamid Karzai who was made head of an Afghan Transitional Administration in July 2002. For 20 years this UN force, composed of some 33,000 US troops of a total of 150,000 international military (on average per year; with a high of 110,000 US troops there in 2011 to a low of about 4000 last year). The US “mission” evolved from making Afghanistan secure enough to develop and “getting bin Laden” (accomplished in 2011 during the presidency of Barack Obama) to preparing and equipping the Afghan military to do the job of internal security.
Public opinion has immediately decided the US failed to accomplish anything in Afghanistan. History will either concur or disagree that as with Great Britain in the 19th century and the USSR in the 20th century, the USA in the 21st century failed in its basic tasks.
Still, it is a country with a dazzling history and potential.
I, for one, hope that this generation of Taliban has improved in its ability to value people, respect differences of opinion, and build the country.
A friend sent me a video clip of a family doctor in Indiana who told his school board that COVID vaccinations are never going to work. My friend admitted he “didn’t know who to believe?”
So, I sympathized:
“Yes, it’s hard to know whom to believe. On the one hand you have this family physician in Indiana who has scientific knowledge that is superior to the US Department of Health, the United Nations, and the governments of more than a hundred countries around the world. He argues that vaccines don’t work and are actually harmful. He learned as he was preparing to be a doctor, that vaccine worked for smallpox but will not for these types of viruses such as the common cold. Masks also don’t work and are a deception in some way causing the virus to get worse. The doctor, however, bless him, has treated 15 COVID patients with 100% success using herbs that he told his audience about. Golly! It’s so confusing!”
Meanwhile, I have been monitoring the mood of my many friends in the USA and here in Thailand, and I can see a down-turn in mental welfare. I am pretty sure it comes from a combination of circumstances, including the waves of COVID. First the virus came but would be controlled, and then it got out of control but vaccines would take care of it, and then it turned out new strains were spreading despite vaccination, and then there was a need to start over with social restrictions and new rules. People hoped we’d return to normal. But that has been postponed and a “lot” of people are rebelling. Their rebellion is most dangerous when it is obstructing the vaccination movement. That is what has pushed many of my friends and family toward the brink. I am not exaggerating when I say I’m worried about how they’re doing emotionally. They don’t sound well at the moment.
This prolonged pandemic and swirling storm of bad news is getting us down.
WHAT SHOULD EDUCATION DO?
The short answer is
EDUCATION SHOULD DEVELOP PEOPLE HOLISTICALLY.
A person is made up of 4 aspects. A person is:
People are also individuals, with differing natures and different talents.
One educational model does not fit everyone.
The goal of education cannot be the same for everyone
But formal education is practical. It must be designed to do what it can do
1. Education studies COGNITIVE REALITY
The practical purpose of education is to help us acquire accurate data and develop understanding.
Education begins before we are born. Pre-natal education is important.
Then comes discovery through having needs met.
We begin cognition by acquiring bits of information and compiling them into patterns.
Then we proceed to figure out what to do with our understanding.
Education is an on-going lifelong undertaking.
Some types of education are better done at specific stages of life.
But we learn and keep learning from before we are born until we die and beyond.
· Cognitive knowledge is the main type of information that education tries to provide.
· A large part of knowledge is genetic, intuitive or imparted through socialization.
· But there comes a point at which curiosity and necessity require more intellectual input.
· Formal education starts with training about how to access knowledge and how to hold onto it (reading, recitation, writing, counting, and remembering social rules).
· Formal education gradually becomes more refined with goals about what we ought to KNOW and SUBJECT AREAS which describe and impart essential content of that knowledge.
2. Tools and skills that are educational
As human beings we are “educated” by our genetics, intuition, and perceptions. For the most part it is only our perceptions that can be developed intentionally. So education has identified traditional areas to work on.
Necessary skill areas:
A. Language and communication
B. Math and science
C. Art and music
D. Literature and culture
These skills are inter-disciplinary. That is they are useful and sometimes essential for all sorts of activities.
MUSIC: learning to play a musical instrument involves every one of those skill areas.
SPORTS: athletics are impossible without physical, mental, emotional and cognitive practice.
COOKING: all cooking is a cultural, scientific, and highly artistic endeavor.
3. Education’s basic goals are about self-actualization
Basic formal education involves knowing one’s self, one’s society, one’s world, and one’s meaning.
TO KNOW ONESELF
Two subjects that are important for knowing one’s self are:
TO KNOW ONE’S SOCIETY
Three subjects that one must study in order to know how one fits into the wider world are:
SOCIOLOGY (including cultural anthropology)
ETHICS (including law)
HISTORY (including literature)
TO KNOW ONE’S WORLD
Two areas that are often overlooked but we now know are important are:
(environment, physical geography)
TO KNOW ONE’S MEANING
1. With regard to THE SACRED
2. With regard to THE FUTURE (what we are here for, what our legacy might be)
3. With regard to THE ETERNAL
Every educated person at the bachelor’s level should know the “essentials” about self, society, the world, and religion. A master of a field can teach others what they need to know about one of those subjects and how to acquire more knowledge about it. A doctor is one who can design, conduct and supervise research into unexplored aspects of that subject.
4. Satisfactory LEVELS OF ACHIEVEMENT
How much education is enough for now?
The idea is that if a person has initiation into these skills, the person will be able to use them to acquire knowledge independently, without direct supervision. Then the person will be functionally independent.
The decision to continue or discontinue any program of education or self-development is ultimately up to the individual. Society, however, stipulates rewards and consequences for satisfactorily acquiring various levels of achievement.
The personal issue becomes how one decides to function in society.
When we move from “basic” to “specific” education we have moved from general self-improvement to vocational training.
1. Some of us resolve to function as a member of society and contribute to the welfare of your family and/or your personal fulfillment; work is how we make this happen.
2. Others resolve to provide civic service (as military; religious, political or cultural leaders; educators or health service professionals; etc.); family and personal life fit around that.
FINALLY, PLEASE REMEMBER
No matter what role you take, you are you.
When circumstances change, you are still you.
When you make good decisions, you are you and you had help.
When you make bad decisions, you are not essentially diminished.
Your core role as a human being is to infuse every encounter in your life with
GETTING THE LOOK TO MATCH THE GENDER
Granddaughter Siree McRady took a course in Berea College that considered the boundary between gender reality and gender portrayal. Having grown up in Thailand, Siree was familiar with how Thai culture impacts social manifestations. Her challenge was to create a “presentation” that was succinct and accurate. She decided on a magazine format with articles about three individuals who have taken different routes in support of gender diversity through costumes and advocacy. I think her production is superior.
Here’s how you can see it, too:
Phase One: Ignorance
I grew up in a time when being gay was intolerable. The very idea was scandalous and frightening. No academic resource or medical advice said otherwise. Whatever interests or inclinations we might have had were dismissed as something else than expressions of essential reality. Only in retrospect were my own many little incidents understood accurately.
Phase Two: Arousal
In the summer of 1956 I had a major “religious experience” that formed the very core of my identity and direction. From that experience on, nothing else mattered as much as following the “call to ministry”. Any departure from that line for my life was to be rejected. That included, of course, all moral recourses. I did, eventually (at age 22), resolve my conflict over masturbation once I began to find medical and then religious teaching that permitted it. But the “great test” came in the summer after my 27th birthday when I was a hospital patient and a male nursing assistant gave me a sponge bath that included the bold suggestion that we could go further. It scared me out of my wits. The only thoughts I had was how much I wanted him to take over, and how I was sure it would mean discovery, disgrace and dismissal from my church position and the end of my whole life path. Fear won that day.
Phase Three: Denial
I resolved to take the cure that the experts all agreed would work, and that was to get married. Sex in marriage would overcome all other interests. Within a year I was married. For a decade that was pretty fine. Then came a second decade when I knew I was struggling and losing the battle to divert my attention. I could do OK except when I was asleep. My dreams were out of control. They spurred fantasies I knew were hopes, voyeur efforts that became suspected by others, and other adventures that were out of control but I convinced even myself were just studies. The third decade is when it all fell to pieces.
Phase Four: Collapse
By 1990 medical and even religious advice was concluding that sexual diversity is not against the design of nature as had been contended for centuries, nor was sexual activity contrary to God’s will for life. I was still convinced that there was possibly a cure for my obsessive interests and impulses. I explored all of them except aversion therapy. Finally I gave up and tried one last thing. I decided to have a go at gay sex. At the time, I was convinced that I would find it so repulsive that would be the cure. For years I had been fascinated by a former student, now graduated and living with a boyfriend. I confessed my plan to get “a gay massage” to try out gay sex. He offered to be my teacher instead. One night in June 1995 we had sex. My defenses collapsed. It was the first sex of my life that was fulfilling, and not just satisfactory. I knew instantly I had discovered the best way for me to have sex. That led to 5 years of effort to accommodate my commitments to our marriage, my ordination vows and ministry, and this new reality. Eventually that did not work.
Phase five: Resolution
In 2000 things came to a head. My marriage had unraveled into a “trial separation”. I got a case of Hepatitis B as a result of unprotected sex with a tourist in the most famous gay spa in Bangkok. I nearly died, but Pramote, a Thai friend, stayed resolutely by my side night and day. It dawned on me that he loved me. When I recovered my wife announced she was going to get a divorce and I agreed to it. At that period I had another “religious experience” of call to ministry in which I “heard” Christ say to me, “Why are you not ministering to gay people as I have directed you to do?” I cannot exaggerate how liberating that experience was, although I knew nothing about how to really do ministry like that. Gay ministry in an overwhelmingly Buddhist setting would take a form I had never imagined. It was very unlike any ministry I had ever considered. I also began work away from Chiang Mai in order to have distance from my past and because the opportunity came. So Pramote and I began life together in Nakhon Pathom and Bangkok. This meant I was in a relationship. When a conservative missionary denounced this and incited the church leadership “to pray for me”, I was obliged to withdraw from church work and began a new career in higher education administration. Coming out for me included not only coming out of the closet and giving up trying to be discrete or to hide my sexual identity, but also getting out of one marriage and into a second one, and being out of institutional forms of pastoral ministry into unexplored ministerial territory.
Postscript: Pramote and I were married in a Thai ceremony twenty years ago. We were later officially married in the USA. Both of our families are reconciled to our committed relationship and so is our village community. We live on a small farm outside of Chiang Mai.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.