Sunday, July 25, 2010


I’ve been thinking about anthropology a lot lately, ever since my 17 year old daughter decided that this is the discipline that interests her the most. Rebecca’s greatest fascination is formally known as “biological anthropology,” which is a fancy way of saying that she wishes to study the OTHER primates and the great apes in particular. Personally, I love monkeys and apes, and wish Rebecca all the success in the world in pursuing that passion, but my primary anthropological interest involves the study of human beings. In that regard, this past week was quite a fertile one.

I spent this week, as I have for the previous three years, at the Southeastern Unitarian Universalist Summer Institute, or SUUSI. My ostensible “role” at SUUSI is to teach the philosophy of Spinoza, the 17th century sage who came to develop a perspective on theological-political issues that largely harmonizes with the central teachings of the modern UU movement. But whether I’m teaching about Spinoza or simply hanging out, my real job at SUUSI is to serve as a student. For a non-UU, and especially someone with a great interest in religion, SUUSI is an amazing classroom. Here we have a community of roughly 1,000 people who come from churches in which there is essentially NO communal prayer, NO Scripture, and for most of the members, not even a God. Still, the facts cannot be denied: despite all that non-religion, these are some of the kindest, warmest, most thoughtful people you’ll meet.

Don’t get me wrong – when I’m attending one of the SUUSI “worship” services, I find myself missing some of the very things that keep me coming back to my own synagogue. As a Jew, I feel compelled to join together with others and express our love for a common beloved known as “God.” In fact, as a Jew who is interfaith-oriented, the men and women with whom I enjoy joining in prayer could be Jews, Christians, Muslims, or come from an Eastern tradition – as long as they’re human, I’m satisfied. Notably, however, when I’m at SUUSI, prayer or worship as I know it is altogether absent. Moreover, while at SUUSI, I also get frustrated by the fact that the same Scriptural stories that I find so emotionally compelling fail to generate the same degree of interest among the UU adults. Apparently, their children are similarly not being steeped in Scripture, and they are taught to elevate the status of all of our species’ masterpieces such that our finest secular works are viewed as equally holy as the Torah, New Testament, Qur’an, or the Vedas. It’s certainly not the way I was raised, and it’s not the way I raised my children. The ape lover – and her sister the Jewish Studies major – were taught that there is something uniquely sacred about the books that their ancestors have revered and studied, over century after century, to explicate the distinctions between right from wrong, good from bad, and sacred from mundane.

And yet, from what I can see, the parade of horribles that is supposed to flow from raising Scripture-less children is nowhere to be found in the UU community – or at least it is not to be found at SUUSI. People in this community appear to go out of their way to be kind and empathetic – to practice, and not merely preach, the same ethic that Rabbi Hillel used to summarize the whole of Judaism while standing on one foot. This isn’t to say that these UUs refuse to argue with each other, or that they are equally tolerant of all things. Racism and homophobia, for example, are treated within this community as simply intolerable. But even when it comes to the UU’s ideological opponents, there seems to be an effort to show compassion for the “other” that I do not find equaled by my fellow Peoples of the Book. Given all the time I’ve heard preachers, particularly Christian preachers, say that we “need” the Bible in order to treat one another civilly and ethically, spending time at SUUSI shoots that argument straight to Hell. We might WANT God and religion, we might feel incredibly inspired by them, and we might even feel that the love of God is the foundation of meaning in our life … but do we NEED God and Scripture in order to live ethical lives? Each year, in anthropology class, I learn very clearly that the answer to that question is an unequivocal No!

When I reflect on my week at SUUSI, it makes me wish one thing above all else: that every person in the world could spend one week every year in a retreat sponsored by a religious or spiritual community OTHER than the one in which he or she is affiliated. (This would apply also to those who are unaffiliated with any organization – they would get to choose among any community.) Think of how much unity, understanding and compassion this would bring. I can only shake my head in disgust at the realization that such a seemingly obvious and wholesome idea would be so impossible to implement in the modern world. What does that say about the state of our species?

And speaking of the state of our species, when I got home from my retreat at SUUSI, I was disgusted to see that the United States Senate gave up on the notion of meaningful climate-change legislation. Effectively, the message that is coming from Capitol Hill is that the threat allegedly posed by greenhouse gasses is a hoax, and we don’t have to worry about the global warming, increased storm severity, or other ecological outgrowths of such a “threat.” There’s no other way to interpret Congress’s inaction; if they thought the threat was real but ignored it, they are guilty of the most rank abdication of their duties to the American people – present and future.

Perhaps, in the spirit of charity we should assume that the politicians who fought the energy bill, while arguably ignorant, at least were pure in their motives. Still, they must explain one very stubborn fact: the vast majority of scientists seem to think that the threat from greenhouse gasses is real and will ultimately be devastating unless substantial steps are taken to address this threat. Anthropologically, what would it say about our 21st century civilization if our politicians could simply ignore the teachings of science? And what would it say about us as a society that we could elect these kinds of politicians? Indeed, if we don’t feel tied to the teachings of science about … matters of science … what would that say about our commitment to the voice of reason generally?

At SUUSI, I was not focusing solely on the environment, but I did ask myself plenty of questions about our society’s level of commitment to the voice of reason. After all, I was surrounded by the members of one of the few communities that proclaims that commitment to be central to their path in life – meaning that they must follow reason’s teachings wherever and whenever they lead, unencumbered by loyalties to Scriptures, ancestors, traditions, or other Sacred Cows. Little did I know that when I got back from SUUSI, I would be hit in the face with yet another tragic example of how our society invariably ignores the voice of reason whenever it conflicts with that other much louder, and yet coarser, voice that speaks from the standpoint of short-term economic temptations.

In this case, the environment found itself mano a mano with the corporations that generate money from the geometric increases of greenhouse gasses. With the recent help of the Supreme Court, those corporations are poised to wield more and more power when it comes to our politicians. So really, in the battle we’re describing, mother nature doesn’t have much a chance.

Anthropologically, it would appear that our society – and, indeed, the critical mass of our species – is determined to grow the size of our economic pie by all means necessary. And if one of those means is by ignoring ecological disasters until the threat they pose is noticed by more than just scientists but rather by millions upon millions of widows, widowers, and orphans, so be it. Anthropology isn’t always enjoyable to study, but sometimes even its tragic teachings are too obvious for the disciple of reason to doubt.

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