Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Creation in education, creation in faith -- a paradigm shift

Our stories -- the stories we choose to tell -- make us who we are, and the way we choose to tell stories tells others who we are and who we most hope to be. The Jewish tradition has two great central foundational stories -- 1) the inspiring tale of redemption from bondage that is the Exodus from Egypt, and 2) the creation of the world (and humankind) from the formless and void. Both foundational stories have God as a central actor -- either God as redeemer or God as creator. In the Jewish tradition, we understand both of these roles as involving -- at their most fundamental level -- God's compassion for the human being.

But one of these stories can be more troubling in our globalized, technological world which features both the deadly high tech of atom bombs and the deadly low tech of suicide bombers. We hope for a world where a sense of what is in common between all of us will lead us closer to a world of peace. But the Exodus story, and the subsequent giving of the Torah at Sinai, emphasizes difference -- how God loves the people Israel in particular and how God gives them this particular book that is their own very special text.

So, while the Exodus story continues to inspire, I think that -- in the Jewish world and beyond -- it is the story of creation in the book of Genesis that is becoming a more central text for religious leaders and thinkers who are interested in peace and who are interested in battling hate. The story there tells us that all humans were created in the image of God. From this, thinkers learn not only of the infinite value of each human life, but also of the seemingly paradoxical concept that each human is unique and that each human is somehow the same as all others (as we all come from the holy mold, and we are all in some way a reflection of The Most Holy). The later paradox -- the fact that we are all each completely unique, but somehow also very much the same -- is at the heart of this Creationist paradigm shift: to embrace our commonness, we must embrace, and seek out, how different we each are from each other.

Although I know this kind of message most from the Jewish world -- I heard a wonderful lecture on the human as created in the image of God from Yitz Greenberg at a retreat a few Shavuots ago -- I was very pleased to hear it also from a Christian leader who addressed a pastoral care (and diversity) conference I was at last week. Emmanuel Y. Lartey, a professor of pastoral care and theology at Emory University, said "the Church is born diverse" in framing his keynote address at the annual ACPE conference last Thursday. That is, Dr. Lartey was holding up the image of creation in the Book of Genesis -- an image where God brings forth every kind of living creature -- as the central one, both for his theology as a whole and for his understanding of how we should cope with difference. For Lartey, difference (or diversity) is not just something to be tolerated. It is something to embraced. It is something to be moved towards with passion and energy: "It's not enough to have multiculturalism," he said. "Often we are satisfied if there are representatives of many" different types of people in a gathering we are at, he said. He continued, by saying that we might think "it's sufficient to pat ourselves on the back and say there is a person of color there." But, he went on, "we need to push beyond that . . . to a deeper sense of interaction. . . . In this struggle, we must recognize and pay attention to differences in our styles of learning and our personalities."

As an inspiration for this vision of embracing, not just tolerating, diversity, Lartey cited in particular a Jewish thinker -- Emmanuel Levinas, who presents a particularly powerful articulation of the paradox in creation (of the human in the image of God) I cited above. Levinas speaks of our alterity -- of our fundamental otherness and understands ethics as being rooted not in thought, but in relationship, in the 'face-to-face' relationship possible between two human beings.

Lartey -- in line with a lot of the relationalist thought about personality from contemporary psychoanalysis -- says that the diversity we should embrace is not just between us and others. It is also within our own selves -- "within us and not only without us is diversity," he said. "We ourselves are complex mixtures of heritage . . . this too is normative."

As educators, Lartey says, these kinds of ideas command us to do anything but form our students into our own image. "I should not try and make them me -- they should try and be the best" that they can uniquely become.

Education is at the heart of my own interests and my own hopes for contributing towards moving us to a world of peace. The two basic themes of 1) the centrality of relationship, and 2) the necessity of embracing the uniqueness and difference between us are key to everything I've been thinking about.

I have written very little on this blog since October when a long, arduous process to becoming certified as a full supervisor in the ACPE came to an end (successfully, I'm happy to say). I haven't been sure how I wanted to use it (or if I should transition to another means of publically sharing thoughts, like Twitter). But I've decided to re-embrace this blog as a kind of public journal about the reading and thinking I am doing about what I might do for my dissertation (I'm in a PhD program at NYU in Education and Jewish studies).

This week, I'm reading a bit about the Ethics of Caring as articulated by Nel Noddings, a feminist and philosopher of education who is often compared to Carol Gilligan, a groundbreaking feminist psychologist and researcher who is now a professor at NYU and who was the teacher of one of my favorite NYU professors, Niobe Way. I haven't read Noddings before, but I hope I'll find something there that speaks to me and that I can write about here.

It's good to be writing and sharing again -- now to the reading!


On this issue of creation (as opposed to the redemption from Egypt) it is interesting to note, by the way, that Jewish mysticism (Kabbalah) has always had creation as its central image. . . . It's interesting to wonder whether the growing interest in Kabbalah is connected to the trends I identified above about the pursuit of peace as creating a greater interest in the creation story as a central spiritual image.

I have been studying Kabbalah here at NYU with Elliot Wolfson. Yesterday, while studying a 16th century Lurianic text on creation, Wolfson introduced an interesting idea to me: It is not so much that the Kabbalists -- in spinning their intricate visions of the creation process -- were trying to describe creation itself. Rather, what they were really trying to do was explain the world as the saw it -- a world that is full of difference and diversity. How could such a world exist if it all came from the absolute Oneness that is God?

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Blood covered up -- a death in Cumru Township

His name was Julius Johnson. Other than the fact that he was only 16 and that he was clearly a boy in trouble we know almost nothing about him. The local newspaper has never run a picture of him. They have never talked to his mom or his friends or anyone else who might be grieving for him. They've never asked what he might have done that was good in his short life.

Every time I pass by the riverfront spot where he died on a bike trail less than a mile from my house my heart breaks. It's not that I defend what he did that day. As a not-so-young bicycle rider, it's very disturbing to me that a trio of teens would attack people like they assaulted the 65-year old bike rider who shot Johnson dead and wounded a 15-year old companion of Johnson in the neck. (A third, unwounded, teen is currently incarcerated.)

But a life was lost that day. The local paper – the Reading Eagle – has not seen fit to ask any questions about that young life. The local authorities quickly ruled the shooting justified – so quickly that they could not possibly have done any investigating besides just deciding to believe the shooter's account. And then the authorities took the very unusual step of withholding the shooter's identity. The paper – forsaking their duty to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted” – has not asked any questions about why this unusual step was taken. Was the shooter a relative or a politically connected friend of the legal authorities? Did he have a history of using deadly violence? Was there any kind of delay after the first shot was fired – a delay during which the (unarmed, by the way) teens would have had a chance to withdraw? I don't know the answer to any of these questions – because the paper not seen fit to ask them.

The only kind of questions the paper has chose to ask could be paraphrased as "how come the authorities didn't make sure those young animals were caged up that day." One columnist for the paper wrote in his column:

You live by the sword, you die by the sword. When the teens decided to attack that man, they put themselves at risk.
Maybe, but I'd like to point out that these kids were not carrying any swords that day. Or knives. Or guns. Or any weapon of any kind.

The attitude of this columnist illustrates what's most wrong with America today. It's what's indicated when the words "I don't care about the poor" can so easily roll off the tongue of a presidential candidate. It's the belief that there's a "us" and a "them", and I don't need to think about "them" very much, especially if they're poor or a different color than me. It's the opposite of thinking we're all in it together.

Julius Johnson may very well have been a dangerous criminal. But he was also a boy. He was also a son. He had a mother (one who had called the authorities on the day of his death because she was concerned he was not in school). It's not right to treat the loss of his life like it was nothing more than the disposal of some unwanted garbage.

We should, instead, understand that loss as a tragedy – one that should cause us to ask some deep and troubling questions. We should stop covering up what happened. We all need the truth.

May the Holy Blessed One comfort his mourners.