Saturday, December 03, 2005

Guest Post: Tim Cox: On Tolerance

Tim Cox is a friend I met during the SDi I & II certifications in Boulder back in October. Tim is working on a master's degree at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. The following post is his reply to my post on "the war on Christmas." With his permission, I have moved his comments to the main page as a guest contributor.

I would like to take this opportunity to invite others who have thoughts they'd like to share to send them to me at Integral Options Cafe. I want this to become a true "ideas cafe," where multiple viewpoints can co-exist, learning and growing from each other.

I have been working on a term paper for a cultural diversity class in my master's program and chose the topic of religious tolerance for my exploration, so I have lots of thoughts running around in my head at the moment. Forgive me if this presents itself as somewhat jumbled and long winded, as I am sort of just throwing my response together. I'll do my best to make a coherent argument representative of my opinions.

First off, I have to say that I agree with you on most aspects of your post but have a hard time with some of the other points. In my view, this whole debate over deciding the most PC term for the big, green, needle-leafed tree upon which multi-millions of people hang decorations during the holiday festivities has become an utter media-driven fiasco representing the depravity into which our country has fallen. The difficulty I have with the controversy is that I can see both sides of the argument.

I can see how some individuals would be offended by the use of the word Christmas to describe a tree symbolic of the religious holiday that the majority of the U.S. celebrates. On the other hand, I can see how many are outraged in feeling as though they are being forced to strip away the established symbolism from the second most important holiday (Easter being the first) in their view. Despite these facts, I think that this entire argument is built on shaky ground, with a multitude of scattered eggshells and land mines.

What is truly at the heart of this debate is not the dialogue about what the damn tree should be called, but rather it is about the core values and beliefs that define those individuals who are having the debate in the first place.

"Values, in the general sense of what is important to people and what standards guide their behavior," according to Matthew Oordt (From: Value Change, Authority, and Religious Tolerance) "are extremely essential components to understanding the functioning of individuals and society. The more we are able to understand what values are, how they develop, what influences value change, and how values affect attitudes and behaviors, the better equipped we will be as a society to maintain strong values and use them consciously and beneficially in negotiating old and new challenges."

Values are not a bad thing. They are the beliefs that define our behavior and the foundation upon which we build our worldview. A world of individuals sans values would be absolute chaos. The problem we face as individuals and as a collective occurs when tolerance for an individual's or culture's values dissipates.

Brad Stetson and Joseph Conti, in their recently published book, The Truth About Tolerance, state:

Tolerance, rightly understood, is a patience toward a practice or opinion one disapproves of. This understanding may come as a surprise to many people today who imagine that tolerance is simply a synonym for the words acceptance or agreement. Why include the harsh word disaprove in the definition of tolerance, some may wonder?

The classical idea of tolerance has been marked by a clear understanding that toleration entails disagreement yet respect, that is, a difference of opinion accompanied by a firm moral commitment to the decent treatment of the person with whom one disagrees. The most famous formulation of tolerance is attributed to the eighteenth-century philosopher Voltaire: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death of your right to say it." So by technical definition, tolerance is "A policy of patient forbearance in the presence of something which is disliked or disapproved of. The English word tolerance is derived from the Latin tolerare, meaning "to bear," so the concept of forbearance or putting up with something not agreeable is inherent in the concept of tolerance. Thus logically built in to the very idea of tolerance is the presence of disagreement. It would make no sense to be tolerant of a public policy or practice we agree with. The concept of tolerance is not relevant when there is no dispute or discontent about the way things should go or the way they should be done. Toleration need only be brought to bear when there is tension, when there is a disagreement about what is fitting and proper, whether the context be public or private.

With that said, I agree with you that, "There is no reason why the winter holiday season can't be inclusive of other traditions." However, must that inclusiveness come with the intolerance of those individuals in allowing a "Christmas tree" to remain being called such? It is embedded within the Christmas holiday that the tree representative of it be known as a "Christmas Tree" and not a "holiday tree." I don't hear anyone asking Jews and those others who may celebrate Hanukkah to call a "Menorah" a "candle holder," or anyone asking those individuals who celebrate Kwanzaa to call a "Mkeka" a "straw mat upon which gifts and symbolic items are placed." Hell, if we are to truly be tolerant of all individuals, then we need to find a new word for holiday as it is derived from the words "Holy Day" or better yet, not even publicly display symbols of the celebrations, as this may be offensive to those individuals who are Jehovah's Witnesses and do not celebrate any occasions. Are you starting to see my frustration with this topic? It could continue, ad nauseam.

I am going to wrap up my discussion of this topic with a few final comments. I believe that we have become a nation of victims with individuals trying to find anything and everything to complain about. Truly, we have more pressing issues than what we should call a Christmas tree. I feel saddened for those who take personal offense to the use of the term. I know we are a nation with a predominantly white, Judaeo-Christian population that for centuries has placed unfathomable prejudices and oppressions on individuals of minority classes. Yet, we cannot undo the past. What we can do is make amends for those travesties and attempt to establish a society in which we are tolerant of all peoples and the symbolism they choose to display in celebration of their holidays, including those in the majority (millions upon millions of whom are not even Christians), who chose to celebrate Christmas with loved ones around the "Christmas tree." That is what would constitute a pluralist society.

I would like to address one further topic (which will be much briefer) that caught my attention. I think you need to be cautious in your labeling of all Christians as that of the red-Blue meme. I happen to know many individuals who would consider themselves to be quite the opposite. It is true that most Christians believe that they worship the one true god and are the one true religion. But for the most part, isn't that what defines religion? A claim to absolute truth is inherent in most major religions, and a belief that opposing absolutes can be correct and true is certainly incongruent. I'm certain that even if you were to ask Senator John Kerry (in seclusion with assurances of complete confidentiality, of course, for he wouldn't want to be condemned for "flip-flopping") if he believes, based upon his publicly stated faith of Christianity, that his god is the one true God, he would say yes. If he were to say otherwise, he would be going against the very nature of what it means to be a Christian. Yet, on the surface, he is very much orange-Green.

Does this make him a bad person or suggest that he doesn't hold Christian values? Absolutely not. It is just part of his value system and serves as an example that not all Christians have a center of gravity at the Blue meme. Yet at the core of their faith are strong undertones of Blue. This would be the same whether we are talking about Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, or any other of the major religions. With that said, it would follow that most of the world's citizens have a major portion of their meme stack in a Blue orientation. But even so, we must be careful to remember that religion is only a manifestation of the Blue meme. The Blue meme is more accurately defined by its focus on absolutism, authority, sacrifice, order, ideology, and obedience to rules, just to name a few. These characteristic values can be seen in individuals with a COG of Blue yet who are far from being religious.

For me, the irony of the Green meme lies in that there is such a strong push against the ideals of the Blue meme, yet many of these "Green" individuals continue to uphold such beliefs that a life of egalitarianism, pluralism, and relativism is the one and only "true" way. In doing so, they are acting more "Blue" in their thinking than they could ever imagine or would ever admit. Furthermore, as you stated, they are expressing intolerance of those individuals whose worldviews are different than their own and are only propagating the decay of the very tolerance they fight for. Many of these individuals are the ones who, as stated above, are fighting against the very notion of calling a tree a "Christmas tree" because the terminology is so embedded in a religious social system which they perceive to be erroneous, obsolete, and persecutory. If only they could see the idiocy in their plight, perhaps we would be a nation of greater tolerance.

Friday, December 02, 2005

"The War on Christmas": Fundamentalist Christianity vs. Postmodern Relativism

Faux News host John Gibson has been ceaselessly promoting his moronic book, The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought (Sentinel, October 2005), anyplace that will let him talk about it. Media Matters for America has a snippet of his appearance on Janet Parshall's nationally syndicated radio program.

From the November 17 edition of Salem Radio Network's Janet Parshall's America:

GIBSON: The whole point of this is that the tradition, the religious tradition of this country is tolerance, and that the same sense of tolerance that's been granted by the majority to the minority over the years ought to go the other way too. Minorities ought to have the same sense of tolerance about the majority religion -- Christianity -- that they've been granted about their religions over the years.

PARSHALL: Exactly. John, I have to tell you, let me linger for a minute on that word "tolerance." Because first of all, the people who like to promulgate that concept are the worst violators. They cannot tolerate Christianity, as an example.

GIBSON: Absolutely. I know -- I know that.

PARSHALL: And number two, I have to tell you, I don't know when they held this election and decided that tolerance was a transcendent value. I serve a god who, with a finger of fire, wrote, he will have no other gods before him. And he doesn't tolerate sin, which is why he sent his son to the cross, but all of a sudden now, we jump up and down and celebrate the idea of tolerance. I think tolerance means accommodation, but it doesn't necessarily mean acquiescence or wholehearted acceptance.

GIBSON: No, no, no. If you figure that -- listen, we get a little theological here, and it's probably a bit over my head, but I would think if somebody is going to be -- have to answer for following the wrong religion, they're not going to have to answer to me. We know who they're going to have to answer to.


GIBSON: And that's fine. Let 'em. But in the meantime, as long as they're civil and behave, we tolerate the presence of other religions around us without causing trouble, and I think most Americans are fine with that tradition.

That is about as clear a red-Blue statement of its position as you're likely to hear. Tolerance, which is one of the most crucial aspects of the Green Meme's worldview (multiculturalism, pluralism, relativism, egalitarianism), is something to be put up with, but not embraced as a "transcendent value."

The view of God depicted here is of one who is judgmental, jealous, and angry--a very Old Testament view, certainly not a Christ-based view. Christ taught love and tolerance of all people, no matter their race, gender, religion, or place in life. These are not the views expressed by these fundamentalists.

Gibson's book and his appearances on various Faux News shows is just another part of the "culture war" that is raging in this country. Faux News and its talking heads are actually creating the war as much as reporting it, which seems a rather new function for news reporters. Anyway, the fundamentalist red-Blue Christian Meme is convinced that it has the one true god and the one true religion, and that relativists and secularists are out to destroy them and their worldview.

To be fair, they are partly correct, which makes their most extreme claims (such as the supposed war on Christmas) that much more difficult to refute. The orange-Green Meme (progressives in Westernized countries) really has no tolerance for organized religion, seeing in it the oppression of women, minorities, and anyone who is not a believer. With that view, this more "tolerant" Meme sets out to dismantle Blue structures, such as organized religion, authoritarian political systems, and oppressive social values, for example, apartheid and segregation.

The Green Meme loves to hold up all religions as equally relevant--everything from Wicca and paganism to Buddhism and Islam. This infuriates the fundamentalist Christians as well as the Islamic fundamentalists. ALL fundamentalist variations of the world's major religions (you can add communism to this list as well) believe they hold the one true religion and that all others are the enemy.

Here is the irony: the Green Meme (what Wilber calls the Mean Green Meme--repressive collectivism) can also act from a fundamentalist stance when it works to dismantle systems that is doesn't like.

Each worldview in the first tier of the Spiral Dynamics model believes it has the only "true" version of reality. However, this does not make them fundamentalist in that most people expressing these worldviews do not feel a need to destroy those who hold opposing worldviews. Those who do feel the need to destroy opposing worldviews are the fundamentalists, no matter which worldview they are expressing.

In the case of the supposed war on Christmas, pluralist Green wants to make the winter holiday season all inclusive, and to that end it wants people to say happy holidays rather than Merry Christmas. It wants a holiday tree rather than a Christmas tree. In 2005, Christmas falls on December 25, as usual, but Hanukkah begins, along with Kwanzaa, on December 26. There is no reason why the winter holiday season can't be inclusive of other traditions. We are a pluralist society, not a Christian society.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The "Ouch" Teaching

In his essay "The Test of Truth" (Best Buddhist Writing, 2004, originally published in the Fall 2003 issue of Tricycle), Larry Rosenberg offers this Chinese teaching story.

People came from far and wide to hear the dharma talks of a young teacher. Apparently he had some depth. And one day, an old master came to hear him. He sat in the back of the meditation hall while the young teacher was giving a dharma talk. But the young teacher saw him, and out of respect, knowing that he was a renowned teacher and also much older, said, "Please, come up here, sit next to me while I give my talk." So the old master rose and sat next to him. The young teacher resumed his talk, and every other word was a quotation from a different sutra or Zen master. The old master started to nod off in front of everyone. And the young teacher could see this out of the corner of his eye, but he just continued. The more authorities he cited, the sleepier the old master became. Finally, the young teacher couldn't stand it anymore, so he asked, "What's wrong? Is my teaching so boring, so awful, so totally off?" At that point, the old master leaned over and gave him a very hard pinch and the young teacher screamed, "Ouch!" The old master said, "Ah! That's what I've come all this way for. This pure teaching. This 'ouch' teaching."

Rosenberg offers this story within the context of his article focusing on the Kalama Sutta, which details a conversation between the Kalamas and the Buddha. The Kalamas ask tough questions about claims of various teachings to be the one true teaching. The Buddha responds that self-knowledge is the only valid test of a teaching's truth.

Rosenberg's argument, and the teaching story he offers, are relevant in my life right now, and maybe for other readers, as well. I love books, and I have a tendency to rely on reading as my primary means of acquiring knowledge. The Buddha would likely permit such study as a viable means of practice, but he would surely argue that the teachings I read must be confirmed or rejected through experience.

The mind tends to think it can study its way to enlightenment. Perhaps this is just another manifestation of ego. By definition, however, formlessness and nondual awareness transcend the capabilities of the rational mind.

I rely far too much on my rational mind. I need an old master sitting beside me to pinch me and remind me that direct experience is the only path to truth. I want to live in the moment of direct experience as much as humanly possible. I won't give up my studies, but I will make a greater effort to meditate regularly.

Being with the breath is one of the basic mind-training techniques, and also one of the most effective. I am going to make an effort to work on simply being with the breath in my practice. No more mantras or visualizations--nothing other than bringing awareness back to the breath over and over and over again.

But meditation is only a small part of daily life. I am also going to focus on being more present in everything I do during the day. If I am eating, I will eat as though nothing else exists. When I am training clients, my clients will be the only reality. When I am with my girlfriend, she will be the focus of my attention. This is a lofty goal, I know. However, it is the intent and the practice of bringing consciousness back into the moment that matters the most. I will seldom be as present as I want to be, but I am going to hold the intent.

We all spend so much time in our head. The truth does not reside in our head alone. We must cultivate the "ouch" teaching--a direct, unmediated experience of reality.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Sunday Poem: Mirabai

The Heat of Midnight Tears

Listen, my friend, this road is the heart opening,
kissing his feet, resistance broken, tears all night.

If we could reach the Lord through immersion in water,
I would have asked to be born a fish in this life.
If we could reach Him through nothing but berries and wild nuts
then surely the saints would have been monkeys when they came from the womb!
If we could reach Him by munching lettuce and dry leaves
then the goats would surely get to the Holy One before us!

If the worship of stone statues could bring us all the way,
I would have adored a granite mountain years ago.

Mirabai says: "The heat of midnight tears will bring you to God."

[Translation by Robert Bly. Holy Fire: Nine Visionary Poets and the Quest for Enlightenment; Harper Perennial, 1994.]

Mirabai (also sometimes called Meera; 1498-1550, dates uncertain) is believed to have been born to a well-to-do Rajput family in the village of Merta (200 miles from New Dehli) in a region now known as Rajastan. Being a princess, she married Bhoj Raj, the crown prince of Mewar, in 1516. He died in battle five years later, at which time Mirabai began to spend more and more time worshipping Krishna and visiting sadhus (holy men).

Mirabai openly rebelled against all things conventional and rejected her affluent background and the restrictions that allowed only those from lower castes to become bhakti (ecstatic religious poets). She devoted her life to a profound and passionate pursuit of Krishna, eventually adopting the sadhu lifestyle (constant travel, poverty).

Much of her poetry (there are nearly 5,000 poems attributed to her, though only about 200 are believed to be authentic) is erotic and expresses a subtle sexual longing for Krishna, who is often described as her husband, lover, lord, or beloved. The erotic component of her verse speaks to her intense and deeply personal desire to experience union with Krishna, expressed in a most intimate manner. A popular belief in India holds that Mirabai finally achieved that union with Krishna and disappeared from his temple, leaving only her sari wrapped around his statue.

For more information, try the following sources:
"Mirabai: The Rebellious Rajput Rani," by Bill Garlington
"Viraha in Bhakta Meera's Songs," by Vasanti Mataji
A 2002 bibliography (partially annotated) of Mirabai translations and studies