Beyond Seeing, to Beholding

5 Feb

In the King James Bible, Jesus’ words are, “Behold, the lilies of the field…” Joe Sittler reminded us that it could have been “Look at the flowers.” But that wasn’t what Jesus meant. “Behold” points deeper; it means to take in the image we see, inwardly meditate on it, and let it resonate.

My last posting–about killing and transformation–is about seeing and beholding. It was a hard message–focusing on the epidemic of killings today in our own nation, in my city, and beyond our borders. I closed with the words of local journalist Jamie Kalven that we must keep the images of killing in our minds–not let them go, because in an unexpected way they open up a possibility for transforming our killing culture. Kalven is saying that we must behold the killings, as difficult as that might be.

A reader responded “I found this one distressing! It’s a truth that digs but does it transform?” I don’t claim to have the final answer, but it’s a question that must be explored.

What do we behold when we see people being killed? When we look at the bodies–or the faces–of the victims? When marchers protesting the shooting of Black men appeared on Chicago’s elite Magnificent Mile, journalists interviewed shoppers. One woman said: “Why don’t they stay on the South Side–that’s where the violence is!” From another: “Are these people lost? Don’t they know where Englewood (a south side neighborhood that is wracked with shootings) is?”

These comments are a clue as to what we behold far too often when we look at people being killed. We behold someone we have no relation to–somebody “other” from us.

No relationship–that is the key.

Jesus told a story: A man from the wrong side of the tracks crosses social boundaries to care for a man who has been mugged in the street and left for dead. If we read the story in its full New Testament context–Luke 10: 29-37–we see that Jesus told this story as the answer to a question. He was asked,”The law says, Love your neighbor as yourself, but how do you define the “neighbor”? The courageous man and the mugging victim provide the definition.

I am referring, of course, to the New Testament Parable of the Good Samaritan. The victim was a Jew; his rescuer was a Samaritan, a member of a group despised and marginalized by Jews. To make the point even clearer, the story has two respectable Jewish figures, a priest and a Levite, look past the victim and leave him behind.

A look at the language of the story helps us probe more deeply. “Neighbor” translates the Greek, plesion, which means the “one who is next to us.” The German Bible mirrors the Greek, in using the term, “der Naechste,” the one who is next to us. A German dictionary defines the term as “Mitmensch,” literally, a “with-person,” a fellow human. The Mitmensch involves community–all of us are in community with all our fellow humans.

We begin to see how radical Jesus’ story is. The shoppers on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile do not recognize the black victims of shooting as members of their community–and these shoppers reflect all of us. Every nation has a clear sense of who does not belong: from the Japanese gaijin to the “you’re not really American” that is heard so often in the U. S. The many refugees from the Middle East hear this in nearly country to which they flee. Hostility and violence toward those from another group are ancient, going back to prehistoric times.

In his story, Jesus is asking us to rewrite the script of human history. The protestors on North Michigan Avenue, representing the Black Lives Matter movement, are asking for the same thing. They are asking us to reverse thousands of years of human evolution–little wonder it is so difficult.

Some of the most moving and beautiful stories of recent weeks have been about those ordinary people who left their every day tasks to care for the refugees who crossed into their countries and who were in very great need. One friend of mine, a pastor originally from Hungary, took leave to spend several weeks there to aid the refugees. She had expected that she would offer them spiritual consolation, but when she got there, she spent most of her time giving shoes and socks and dry clothes to the desperate people who came across. She and her coworkers went against the tide in a country that has since erected a border fence to keep refugees out.

Transformation is our focus–it happens when we truly behold, when we take into ourselves what we see and let it resonate, reverberate within our souls. We must not relegate the killings of Chicago and Columbine and San Bernardino and Aleppo to the fading drift of the news cycle. Only when we behold these dead as Mitmenschen–members of our own community–only then, will we be able to purify our culture of killing and redirect the vicious substrate of our long human history.
(c) Phil Hefner. 2/4/2016

A moment of killing and transformation

13 Jan

For the past two weeks a number of images have been jostling in my mind, in search of a thread that ties them together. Instead of forcing a connection, I will set the images side by side to see whether links develop. Perhaps you will see what I’ve missed

Image 1–
It’s something of a jolt when each year, just three days after Christmas, the church year brings up the images of the slaughter of the holy innocents. Thus we remember King Herod’s killing of Bethlehem’s infants and babes in a vain attempt to ensure that King Jesus could never challenge King Herod. Several prayers and hymns in the Christmas season also refer to Jesus’ journey to Golgotha’s cross. They are precursors of the Lenten season, which begins five weeks after the Feast of the Holy Innocents–the season that culminates in The Three Days–from the cross on Friday to the empty tomb on Sunday. The Christian liturgical year brings these events before us every year–they never go away.

Image 2–
Violence and killing are all around us, it seems–the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and the United States. Here in Chicago, we are swamped by waves of killing–four fatal shootings over the New Year’s weekend and one hundred gunshot victims during the first ten days of 2016. Marchers in the streets protest the killing of black men at the hands of the police; others lie prostrate on the ground to portray the bodies that have been gunned down.

Image 3–
We don’t really see those who have been killed, because we protect ourselves with euphemisms and abstractions: casualties in war are referred to as “body counts”; civilian deaths are “collateral damage”; the wife of a man who is serving in Afghanistan recently objected to the term “boots on the ground”–her husband is a person, she said, not a boot. At home, the term is “victims.” Our language blocks our view.

In 1955, fourteen year-old Emmet Till was murdered in Mississippi, his body horribly disfigured. HIs mother insisted that his body be returned home to Chicago for a public funeral where the open coffin would reveal to all the condition of his body. She knew that no description in words could convey the effects of the beating and torture he had endured.

In December of 2009, photojournalist Lynsey Addario was embedded with a medevac team in Afghanistan. One night they got the call–a gravely wounded marine, his face macerated. Despite frenzied work by doctors and nurses at a field hospital, he died. Addario took photos of the soldier and the medical staff as they worked to keep him alive, and contacted his family. When he saw the photos, the father cherished them, almost tenderly. Two older sisters, in their late teens, said they did not want to see the photos, because they wanted to remember their brother in his happier times. The youngest sister declared that she definitely wanted to see the photos–“I want it to be real,” she said. “I want my brother to be real for me.” See–

We know instinctively that killing is not impersonal and abstract. That is why, when the bodies of fallen soldiers are returned to the United States, loved ones are on hand to receive them at Dover Air Force Base, and why the President of the United States visits privately with them. There were widespread protests in earlier years when the government banned photographers and reporters from covering the return of bodies from the Iraq war.

The current uproar in Chicago was occasioned by the release of the videos that show the unspeakable agony of the killing of Laquan McDonald and Philip Coleman. A picture is neither abstract nor impersonal. The picture tells us something profound about the situations in which seeing–with the eyes–takes primacy over words and hearing.

Image 4–
I’ve read recently about Wes Craven, who died last August. I never paid much attention to him, and I don’t know whether this blog reaches any of his devotees. He was the premiere director and writer of horror movies in the last half century. His legacy includesThe Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, A Nightmare on Elm on Street, and Scream. Although horror movies have never much appealed to me–since I was scared out of my mind by The Spiral Staircase when I was 13 years old–I’m brought to the realization that, in Craven’s hands, there are profound dimensions to these films.

When he was interviewed in 1980, Craven reflected on his work. Here is an excerpt:
“In my own mind were the mass of media inputs from the Vietnam War so that we were seeing reality of violence on our television sets, going into our theaters and seeing distorted, filtered reality. I set out to say simply, let’s not cut away and let’s not do violence that is entertaining. And I didn’t, you know, I simply did not cut away. And one stab did not do it and one shot did not do it. Once the violence began, the violence was treated as absolutely real. The audiences were, in a sense, tricked. They went in to a movie expecting to be entertained in the pure action or horror sense, where the blood is ketchup and the violence is simple and cartoonish. And instead we said, now that we’ve got you here, by the way, this is what violence is really like.”

Image 5–
Jamie Kalven, a freelance Chicago journalist, successfully pressed for release of the Laquan McDonald video. It was this video that resulted in the dismissal of our superintendent of police and calls for the state’s attorney and the mayor to resign. Kalven spoke here at Montgomery Place last Friday. He urged us to remember the current killings, not to forget as we move on to the next news cycle. “If we keep them before us, this moment of crisis can be a moment of transformation for the culture that allowed these deaths.”

I believe there is a linkage between these images–a truth to be acknowledged and a moral mandate to be acted upon. I’ll appreciate your comments.

(c) Phil Hefner 12 January 2016

Three cheers for Mrs. Hay-zen–in a time of troubles

5 Dec


There are many tumultuous and disturbing topics to reflect on these days. For the past month, each day has brought more bad news. But in this installment, I choose to focus on Marcella Hazan. To those who do not know this name, she is to Italian cooking what Julia Childs is to the French. Neva gave me a copy of Hazan’s, The Classic Italian Cook Book, on my fifty-first birthday, 1983. For the next twenty-eight years, until we moved into a retirement community, that book was next to the Bible as the most important book in my life, and Marcella Hazan was in the top five of my favorite people. I was the chief cook in our house in those days, and this book opened up a wonderful world for me. She was “Mrs. HAY-zen” to me for most of those years; I did encounter a few put-downs by those who corrected me–it’s Mrs. “Ha-ZON,” they said.

Her name nevertheless remains HAY-zen to me. But then, I still refer to the Saint as AW-gus-STEEN, as I learned it in college, rather than the recently more “correct” Aw-GUS-tin. Some things remain so deeply engrained that correction never takes hold.

Marcella’s name came to the fore recently in conversation (over dinner) with a new resident, for whom The Classic Italian Cook Book was equally significant. Who would have imagined!

Since Marcella explained everything in meticulous detail, she was a perfect mentor to this neophyte cook. Take her recipe for risi e bisi (rice and peas), which is a favorite of mine. She realized that there are three possibilities for the peas–fresh, canned, and frozen–so she included recipe variations for each. Doing homemade pasta was made less daunting by her detailed instructions (which were translated into English by husband Victor) and line drawings (by George Kazumi). She rejected the “chef” title–a chef is a manager, she wrote, while the “cook” actually prepares food lovingly for the family.

Her philosophical–or we might say “theological”–commentary on cooking won my heart from the beginning. A few excerpts:

Italy’s food “is the product of two arts, the art of cooking and the art of eating. The art of cooking produces the dishes, but it is the art of eating that transforms them into a meal.” (xv)

“An Italian meal is a story told from nature, taking its rhythms, its humors, its bounty and turning them into episodes for the senses. As nature is not a one-act play, so an Italian meal cannot rest on a single dish. It is instead a lively sequence of events, alternating the crisp with soft and yielding, the pungent with the bland, the variable with the staple, the elaborate with the simple.” (7-8)

“What we find in the cooking of Italy is a long-established intimacy between the human and the natural orders. The Italian comes to his table with the same open heart with which a child falls into his mother’s arms, with the same easy feeling of being in the right place.” (459)

How can you resist this woman? That thought occurred to me last evening at dinner. During the meal, someone decided to hold a fire drill, with buzzers and an announcement over the PA system that we should not let the interminable noises interrupt our meal. The art of cooking might have produced a tasty meal, but the art of eating was rendered impossible. Surely Marcella Hazan was frowning. The child in its mother’s arms needed ear plugs.

Hazan made vegetables irresistible to both children and adults. She taught me to place both sweet (lettuce, cabbage, spinach) and bitter (collard and mustard, kale) greens in the steamer, remove them to be sautéed lightly with olive oil and garlic, form them into rolls, if you like–and enjoy.

And then there’s risotto. Arborio rice with Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and whatever other ingredient you wish–perhaps bacon, chopped escarole, asparagus, or shellfish. Need I say more?

If you know the book, The Classic Italian Cook Book, or one of its successors, I advise you to spend a pleasant hour leafing through it. Or, if you are also a Hazan fan, respond with your favorite recipes.

Is it appropriate to indulge in the hedonism of Italian cooking when the news is filled with the killings in San Bernardino and Paris, and the corrupt tricks being played out by the moment in Chicago, where I’m writing this blog?

Food is a key part of our lives in good times and bad. Of the arts, cooking and eating are the most everyday, the most down-to-earth, crossing borders of race, gender, nationality, and social class. Italian cooking is an especially earthy and accessible art. It’s food of the people, in contrast to the French and Chinese, who have raised their cuisine to high culture–haute cuisine. High culture cooking is best served in restaurants, while Italian food flourishes in the home or in a neighborhood trattoria.

The social class differences between the elaborate meals in a fine Chinese restaurant and the diners bent over their bowls in a noodle parlor are striking, as are the contrasts between the neighborhood French bistro and the richly starred Michelin restaurant. The excellence of haute cuisine seems be measured by how many bizarre manipulations the chef can impose on nature’s bounty. I fear that the United States is on the slippery slide toward haute cuisine.

But, as Marcella exemplifies, Italian cooking puts to the fore our relation to the good things of nature. It puts food over cuisine and cooks over chefs.
These values of Italian cooking and eating are life-affirming in good times and in bad. I hereby elevate Mrs. HAY-zen to my personal calendar of saints.
(c) Phil Hefner 12/4/2015

What comes after humility?

4 Nov
    In his recent book, The Road to Character (Random House 2015), David Brooks has made a contribution to my thinking and vocabulary–his contrast between eulogy virtues and resume virtues. Brooks thinks that prior to the 1940s-50s, we honored eulogy virtues, marked by humility. But after 16 years of deprivation–Great Depression and World War II, the existing moral ecology was too restrictive, especially for women and marginalized groups. There was a legitimate reason for many people to move from an attitude of Little Me to Big Me. Resume virtues made their appearance, gradually replacing eulogy virtues. This change was wholesome in itself, but it went too far.

    Resume virtues, however, may nurture pride in achievement, but they are not the seed bed for character–so goes Brooks’ argument. Humility is the prerequisite.
    He believes character is best taught by examples; the book is comprised of eight biographical chapters: Frances Perkins, Dwight Eisenhower, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans), Dr. Johnson, St. Augustine, Dorothy Day, and George C. Marshall. These persons were not at all alike–some introspective, others not at all; some grew up poor, others in wealth. All of them acknowledged that they were “crooked timber,” deeply flawed for the life-purposes they pursued. Each experienced suffering that was rooted in the flaws.

    To look at two of her exemplars: Saint Augustine (who lived in the early 5th century) was introspective–ceaselessly exploring the depths of self and tearing himself away from the high position and fame that he had attained. Dorothy Day (1898-1980) was extraordinarily sensitive to the situation of the poor in New York in the 1920s. She wanted to help them, but she also believed that working with the poor was the pathway of holiness. Her quest for holiness compelled her to live and suffer with the people she was helping.

    The early lives of both Augustine and Day were both distinguished and dissolute; he was a leading rhetorician, she, a published novelist, both were sexually promiscuous. Both converted to Catholicism in their early 30s. In the years after his conversion, Augustine was baptized, ordained a priest and still later became bishop of what is now Annaba, Tunisia (Hippo in his time). He wrote hundreds of volumes of sermons, Biblical studies, and theological works. At age 35, in 1933, Dorothy Day founded The Catholic Worker–not only a newspaper circulated to 500 parishes, but a movement with food kitchens, homeless shelters, and farms–centered in her New York City home and then expanded to other cities. She founded it “to mobilize the proletariat and apply Catholic social teaching toward the goal of creating a society in which it is easier for people to be good.” (Brooks 89-90)

    Augustine’s suffering lay in redirecting his loves. His loves were tearing him apart–“I poured myself out, was made to flow away in all directions and boiled off.” (191) He was torn between his sense of transcendence on the one hand, and his base desires, on the other hand. Augustine came to see that God accepted him as he was, and that faith released enormous amount energies to please God and serve his fellow human beings.

    Dorothy Day doubted and criticized her own life and faith in a constant struggle to become purer and holier in her activism. She identified with the poor and sacrificed for them. She believed that it was not enough simply to serve the poor; one had to live with them and love them personally. She spent hours every day just being with the poor people who came to her shelter and her food kitchen. Many of them were alcoholic, mentally disabled, rude, smelly, foul-mouthed, but she respected them and listened to them. She was hard on herself, because she was not satisfied with doing good, she wanted to be good.

    This book’s accomplishment–throwing light on what makes for character–is appealing and impressive. But the question is: can a humility-centered model, forged in the 1930s and 40s, work for shaping character today? Is humility so deeply rooted in an older moral ecology that it cannot grow deep roots today? Talking to one friend about the book, I was struck by her comment, “What can a straight, neocon, middle-aged white man teach me about character?” When I led a discussion of the book, one participant came with Valerie Saiving’s classic article from the 1960s arguing that while pride is a male sin, which may indeed benefit from a dose of humility, women’s sin is self-abnegation, for which curtailing their selves is destructive, while pride may well be a relevant virtue. (See Saiving’s article–

    Since the 60s, our thinking has developed, giving more detail to Saiving’s argument. Too often, it is the dominators–men, whites, the economic “one-per centers”–who demand humility (and frequently obedience) from those they dominate–women, people of color, and the lower income groups. The context for shaping character is not what it used to be. Humility is a very hard sell, and its value is not transparently clear.

    Perhaps humility need not take the leading role on the road to character. Even in Brooks’ discussion, other considerations are just as important: (1) the route charted by the resume is a moral drama; (2) the goal of the journey is holiness–not only to do good, but to be a good person; (3) we are crooked timber, as well as splendidly endowed; (4) humility enters in our awareness that we cannot straighten our crooked timber by ourselves–we need help; (5) our struggle is not only with the world outside us, but with ourselves–a struggle that never goes away, it is a major source of the suffering that marks the road to character.

    Does this work for us as we walk the road to character?

    What does your road look like?
    Phil Hefner 11/4/2015

Identity is slippery

1 Oct

Identity is slippery

I heard an interview a few days ago that keeps buzzing in my head. The central figure is a second-generation Turkish German, whose parents migrated to Germany in a program for guest-workers. He is a writer, living in Berlin. One exchange is especially vivid in my memory:

“Do you identify as a German?”


“Do you identify as a Turk?”

“No, definitely not!”

“How do you identify?”

“As me–a person who has learned to cope and a person of worth and capabilities.”

“You have a daughter–do you wish for her to identify as German?”

“No. I wish for her to identify as I have–with her intrinsic worth and capabilities.”

“Do you wish for her to live a life of hope?”

“No. Living in hope means that you don’t appreciate your own intrinsic worth, you’re living always in the expectation that something will come to you from the outside, to make your life better. I want my daughter to take satisfaction in what she is now and the capabilities she has already has that enable her to cope with change.”

The writer’s statements are not fully coherent–for example, I would say that emphasis on one’s capabilities entails some hope for the future. Nevertheless, the man’s confession is a clear and stunning perspective on personal identity.

His position is extraordinarily individualistic. But look at the man’s situation. Biologically and culturally he came into this world Turkish, but he has no desire to live in that world now or allow it to define him. He has grown up acculturated in a German world that has historically not been very welcoming to immigrants. There are many restrictions on persons of non-German lineage becoming full-fledged citizens. After all, comparable with many nations around the world, Germany belongs to the descendants of the peoples that have lived on German territory for millennia. Only in the 1990s, culminating with a new law in 2000, could the writer–as a German-born child of Turkish parents who lived in Germany for at least eight years–become a German citizen.

Many people identify themselves through their nationality. The public discussions of who is American (meaning a citizen of the United States) are as tortured as those in Germany. We do not say that the U. S. belongs to the historic settlers and their descendants, to be sure. The truth is that four hundred years ago, the European immigrants began a long struggle to seize the land from the historic settlers–the Native American Indians through military force that continued until the late 19th century, the Hispanics through the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, as well as through the Spanish-American War and the Mexican-American War, both in the 1840s. Our national consciousness is largely ignorant of this history–that vast areas of the Midwest have belonged to the U. S. for only 212 years and that California, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado for only 175 years. “The greatest nation that God ever created” has a checkered history, and not all of that history is easily related to God.

If a person’s identity is bound up with America, just what is that identity? Every political speech ends with the words,”God bless America”–but just what is being attributed to God? It is not surprising that many people choose to find their identity in other ways. Pico Iyer was born in England of Indian parents, lived in the U.S. for several years, and now resides in Japan. His identity, he says, is formed not by place or ethnicity, but by certain values and by interacting with other people who share those values.

Some find their identity in their ethnicity. Or should we say that our society defines them by their ethnicity–or by the color of their skin. African-Americans hold tenaciously that their claim to be American is more deeply rooted than most whites, since blacks have been here 400 years, far longer than most others. Women may identify with their gender–again pressured by the societal forces them into gender stereotypes. Jews are in a different situation–their ethnicity is also religious, whether or not they practice it. And again their societal context defines them as Jews. We may choose an identity, but our social context bestows an identity on is, too. Which is our “true” identity? Or is identity forged in the interplay between our self-chosen and our socially bestowed identities?

During the Vietnam war protests, I was impressed by the Roman Catholic protesters–exemplified by the Berrigan brothers, both priests–who testified to a religious identity that transcends nation and ethnicity, and in many cases, gender, as well.

Whatever forms the center of identity must be reformed and purified. As a Christian who wishes to identify with the Christ-community and its traditions, it is crucial that my community be open to all, because Christ is infinitely open to the creation and its people. But I feel similarly about my national identity. I do not want to be identified with a racist America or an America that forgets and pushes aside the poor, the weak, and the handicapped. I do not want to identify with an America whose goal is to become a military colossus astride the globe.

I do want to reform and purify all the sources of my identity. I gladly endorse the Jewish tenet, Tikkun Olam–reform or heal the world. Of course, this means that I am a creature of hope and my God is the source of hope.

When I reflect on the issues of identity, I empathize with the Turkish-German writer. Identifying fully with who I am now and my capabilities may not be an adequate identity, but it’s not a bad place to start. Whatever my identity, it must acknowledge this starting-point. The starting-point changes rapidly, however. When I retired, my internal sense of self did not change immediately, but others perceived me in quite different ways. This changed drastically when I entered the camp of the “elderly” and even more when I became confined to a wheelchair. Before, I was a classroom teacher, a preacher, a public lecturer, and a traveler. Now I am reader and a writer, and I try to be a positive factor in the lives of those around me. And I am much more dependent on the goodwill of others. There is a constant dialogue, even a conflict, between the identity I feel in myself and the identity bestowed on me by others, especially those outside my retirement community. I am playing catch-up much of the time–but so are those I meet.

Much more can be said, but I’ll leave this where I began: Identity is slippery.

(c) Phil Hefner 10/1/2015

Our ambivalent witness to moral urgency

8 Sep

Note: my last installment and this one are the most academic segments of my blog. I will continue to cast my light on themes that interest me–most of them will not be academically oriented. It all depends on what the theme requires. Thanks for bearing with me.

I consider J. Robert Oppenheimer a classic example of ambivalence towards science and technology. Oppenheimer, a brilliant physicist and director of the Los Alamo lab that produced the first atom bomb, is one of the most important scientists of the 20th century. He is also iconic in his ambivalence toward science. Clearly, he loved his scientific work–it was his very life, until the day he died in 1967–he said he needed it more than he needed friends. At the same time, the use of the bomb troubled him greatly. After the first atomic test, he said, “I’m not clear whether science is good for humanity or bad.” He also said “the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.” He was ostracized in both the scientific and political communities. President Harry Truman called him a crybaby, while Edward Teller, a fellow nuclear physicist, and Lewis Strauss, head of the Atomic a Energy Commission, called him a communist, and took away his security clearance.

What is ambivalence? We need to be clear that it refers to the fact that we sometimes hold two differing values at the same time–it’s the love/hate relationship. Oppenheimer loved physics more than life itself, and yet he was horrified by what physics had produced. It is important that we recognize Oppenheimer as a figure of ambivalence, because too often negativity towards science is dismissed as ignorance and stupidity. Scientists and scientific organizations are frequently in the lead dismissing ambivalence–it is often associated with Creationism. This is unfortunate on two counts: most of those people who are ambivalent about science and technology are equally averse to creationism; and ironically, more than a few creationists are working scientists.

Ambivalence toward science and technology is deeply rooted in our culture, both our high sophisticated culture and popular culture, carried across generations in stories and images. Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749-1832), himself a distinguished scientist–especially for his theories of color and the evolution of plants and insects–certainly represents high culture. Two of his stories, however–Faust and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice–are based on centuries-old traditions and have entered the popular mind. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice goes back two thousand years and has been retold by Walt Disney in his two Fantasia films. Faust as mad scientist has been portrayed in many films, including Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 satire, Dr. Strangelove.

There are many other stories and images that convey the same ambivalence–for example, The Monkey’s Paw (whose point is the same as The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) and the Jewish tales of the Golem. The Golem is especially striking–defined in Jewish folklore as an artificial figure constructed to represent a human being and endowed with life. In some versions, the Golem is inscribed with the Hebrew word “truth” written on its forehead. It could be deactivated by removing the first letter of the word, changing it from “truth” to “death.” If you want the fascinating details, see My last blog piece suggested that in our culture, popular sci-fi movies frequently carry the stories and images of ambivalence.

These traditions are old, and they run very deep in our cultural psyche. In an important sense, they are the “people’s culture.” They will not allow themselves to be erased; they may go underground, only to pop up unexpectedly. Today we see them alive and well in the Western societies that are also the most sophisticated scientific and technological societies in history. We are excited about the future possibilities that science and technology can bring us, but at the same time, we fear them.

How should we respond? Some suggestions:

1–I take as given that today science and technology are essential for human well-being and survival. “Anti-science” and “anti-technology” positions are profoundly absurd. Nevertheless, we remain ambivalent, and our best strategy is to channel that ambivalence into the formulation of goals and holding ourselves accountable to them.

Toward what goals should our science and technology be directed? There is no more important issue facing us today, and both strategic and moral/ethical questions are involved in goal-setting. A laundry list of issues makes the point: medicine, manipulating life, extending life, manipulating the environment, plant and animal engineering, military applications, wider use of robots. Enough said–the scope is obvious.

There are vigorous discussions today among scientists about goals and ethical issues in their work. These efforts are important and salutary; they need to be intensified and, the public should be kept more aware of the issues and possibilities. The scientific discussions should also focus on large scale issues, not only on specific techniques and procedures. We need public consideration of proposals like that of Francis Fukuyama for establishing a governing agency for biogenetic sciences comparable to the Atomic Energy Commission in its field. See: Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002.

2–Religious communities should not let themselves be captured by negativity and condemnation of scientific advance, as they have frequently in the past. Nor should they seek some tepid “middle way”–for example, praising the science that saves lives and the technology that restores wetlands, while condemning out of hand various forms of genetic engineering, including genetically modified foods. Furthermore, it is salutary that seminaries are including the relevant scientific education in their curricula. At the same time, religionists should embrace ambivalence towards science and technology and never retreat from the public discussion of how science and technology can best serve human welfare. They should enter into free and open discussion of the most difficult areas scientific and technological impact on society.
The ambivalence toward science and technology that we find in popular culture is a gut level reminder that the moral agenda remains an urgent challenge for us. That agenda must be pursued–it won’t go away.
(c) Phil Hefner 9/8/2015

Loving and hating science in the Jurassic World

30 Aug

The final scene of the movie Jurassic World has received no attention in the reviews–in fact, it is not mentioned in the film’s synopses that I’ve read. For those who haven’t seen the film, or whose recollection is faded, let me set the scene: The dinosaur theme park, under the supervision of Dr. Henry Wu (of Jurassic Park fame) features genetically engineered super-dinos–“bigger, faster, crueler.” They are the next generation of dinosaur, developed from the T. Rex raptors in Jurassic Park that the good doctor cloned from prehistoric DNA that was preserved in Amber. Jurassic Park engaged in what is now called de-extinction; Jurassic World goes a step further to create a new breed of dinosaur. JPark’s dinos are “more natural,” and that’s the key to the final scene. The crueler and bigger “modern” reptiles have been vanquished by the T. Rex–that’s what the story line is all about. The movie’s final shot is of the victorious animal raising its head triumphantly above the trees.

Natural is better–that is a frequent theme in movies, even in sci-fi movies. Back in 1936, Charlie Chaplin’s classic, Modern Times, ended with Chaplin and Paulette Godard walking down the road, away from the world of technology and into a more natural future. More recently, Bladerunner (1992) portrays the conflict between natural humans and genetically engineered “replicants, who were designed to work in extraterrestrial environments that are unfriendly for humans. The replicants are superior in some respects; their grievance is that they have been engineered with a life span of only four years. The outcome of the conflict is ambiguous–two different versions of the film were released, each with a different ending.

In Gattaca (the letters are an anagram of the ACGT nucleotides of the DNA molecule), 1997, the plot focuses directly on the competition of two brothers, Vincent, a natural “love child” with a normal number of genetic defects, and Anton, who was screened at the embryo stage and found to be “perfect.” Through several contests, the natural brother surpasses his flawless sibling.

The message could not be clearer, Jurassic World being the latest installment. Dr. Wu might even be seen as a Faust figure, the mad scientist, who trades his soul for unlimited knowledge. The Faust story, which has its beginnings at least eight hundred years ago, has taken on many forms (for example, Wikipedia lists more than twenty-five films based on the Faust story. It has been intertwined with Frankenstein and the figure of the Mad Scientist, perhaps most vividly in recent decades as Dr. Strangelove, in the 1964 film. The very old story of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice (think of more recent portrayals in Disney’s Fantasia in 1940 and its 2000 sequel) focuses on the technological dimension of knowledge. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), who created highly influential versions of both Faust and the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, was himself an important scientist.

Jurassic World draws upon these deep roots of popular culture as it combines the mad scientist with the horrific hybrid dinosaurs and adds a scheming capitalist who owns the Dino park and controls Dr. Wu. The film ends with the mad scientist and his capitalist patron escaping to live another day, while the “most natural” dinosaur wins a temporary victory over the scientist’s evil creations. The dinos have already killed the security guard who planned to steal embryos, to breed dinos as weapons of war.

What interests me especially are the attitudes towards science and technology expressed in this film. Jurassic World is sci-fi, as are several of the films I’ve mentioned. Sci-fi in which there is embedded a deep ambivalence about science, a not-so-hidden critique of science. This is not unusual–although the common view of sci-if is that it glorifies science and technology, in fact it expresses ambivalence–awe, to be sure, but also uncertainty and deep doubt about science. The Faust stream adds the fear that awesome knowledge has come by suppressing an essential side of life, whose loss we grieve–ambivalence that was given classic expression in the 1933 sci-fi film, Invisible Man, where H.G. Wells’ mad scientist hero says on his death bed, “I have tampered with things man should never touch.”

What are are we to make of this sci-fi expression of doubt about science? Occurring in the most highly advanced science-based society in history? It is not of recent origin, it is an enduring thread in the tapestry of America’s soul. Sometimes critics seem to think that ambivalence about science is a matter of poor education, or they link it to conservative Christianity. I’ve heard the epithet, “stupid and ignorant” used–as if that explained anything. Nobel laureate physicist Steven Weinberg has argued that creationists are responsible for congress de-funding the supercollider. But it goes much deeper, and it crosses lines of religion, social class, and education. Well-educated upper middle-class parents are defying medical advice to inoculate their children against childhood diseases. Ivy League-educated members of congress are reluctant to acknowledge the scientific theory of evolution.

Several questions come to mind in connection with the popular culture of ambivalence about science and technology:

1–Is it possible to counteract deep-lying cultural dimensions, such as the ambivalence to science? Or will they endure forever, even below the threshold of our awareness, waiting to capture our public life at any moment?

2–Is this culture of ambivalence in any way responsible for the scientific illiteracy that bedevils our society?

3–How do religion and science figure in the culture of ambivalence. Although has been popular to speak of a “warfare” between science and religion, today historians mainly debunk the idea. On the one hand, many scientists are actively religious, while on the other hand, the culture of science itself harbors ambivalence. It was the Father of the Atom Bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, who questioned physics itself, saying after Hiroshima, “We have known Original Sin.” The filmmakers who gave us Bladerunner and the Jurassic Park franchise are not necessarily anti-science. But they do have their fingers on the pulse of popular culture. After all, the Faust and Mad Scientist traditions have lasted at least 800 years.

4–Is there a kernel of truth carried by popular culture–that unbridled scientific and technological advance can lead to destructive consequences, alongside the blessings they bring? A truth that calls for deeper reflection and nuance?

I’ll elaborate on these themes in my next blog.

Phil Hefner 8/29/2015




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