These thoughts were triggered this morning by a Ross Douthat column, Heaven and Nature, which I found thoughtful, though I believe it was errant in is conclusion. The piece begins with a critique of the new film Avatar, in large part because its not so subliminal message is a pantheism found in other juggernaut films like Dances with Wolves and Star Wars. Douthat's piece is interesting in large part because of its main thesis, that in spite of our professed religions (or lack thereof) pantheism has an appeal, particularly to Americans, where it appears to be a way to views about nature, religion, and democracy. May the Force be with you.
Apart from films with "Passion of the..." in the title or Dan Brown novels brought to the big screen, I normally don't think about religion when watching movies or commenting on them. Douthat's piece was something of an eye opener for me. It suggests that as much as we might want to cordon off religion from public life, with the First Amendment serving as our guide in that pursuit, the two are inextricably tied and can't really be decoupled. What then should we make of it?
After 29 years of teaching, this past semester I had my first taste of religion in the classroom (really mostly in the online writing that students did and only a tiny bit in my office hours or our ensemble class discussion). My instinct was to ignore it, though I couldn't completely do that. I wanted students to use experience from their own living situations to reflect on class themes. Little did I know that many resided in faith-based living environments. That was a surprise for me. Until writing this post I hadn't considered why such a living arrangement might have appeal. One reason might simply be for comfort. Our campus is very large and it is quite easy to feel lost in the crowd. Another reason, however, is that faith may be a large way that these students define themselves and what I was seeing was a Beyond the Melting Pot argument applied to the U of I, with faith replacing national identity as the main group identifier.
That in itself was fine but two issues did crop up that I really didn't know how to deal with and I managed poorly as a result. For both of these, think of sports stars who after having big success in some contest and being interviewed on TV thank the Lord for their success. On why the athletes do this, I can envision at least two distinct reasons. One is as ritual or habit, developed in large part to block out pernicious influences in the players' lives - gambling, drugs, violence. In this way it has become almost a non-thinking act, akin to putting on a warm coat when going outside in cold weather. The habit provides warmth and comfort.
In my class however, I wanted the students to struggle with some concepts related to the writing so the students could take these ideas for their own. I particularly wanted them to come to grips with whom they were trying to please in the pieces they created. Many of the students, high academic achievers all, had completely bought into the idea that they were to please the teacher. I wanted them to develop their own sense of taste. First and foremost, they had to please themselves. This was difficult for them. Many took a very long time to get there. I didn't want them to have an easy answer - God is my audience would be a cop out in this case. A bit of the students writing was in this category. I didn't know how to respond to it.
Then there is the other point, closer in line with the article I linked to, whether the public utterances about points specific to a particular religion impinges on the space of students who are of other faiths. The related question, more to the point in my class, is whether the student of faith is sensitive to the point that he might so impinge through his own action. If he is evidently sensitive but has chosen to make his faith-based point, he must feel he hasn't crossed the line. Others might disagree. Who then becomes the arbiter? What rules need to be in place in the class beforehand to make such questions lead to a good conclusion. My own "mental model," jargon from Peter Senge's The Fifth Discipline, is that all discussion of religious matter should be cordoned off. There's nothing like the teacher painting himself into a corner.
Of course there was the other possibility, that the student might not be aware at all that such comments could impinge on other students' space or impinge on mine. We had Islamic students in the class and I, somewhere in the agnostic-doubter-finding God through the memory of my father, was brought up Jewish though it was a very Reform form of Judaism. Here my mental model going into the course is that nobody could be unaware in that way. But it turned out that in other dimensions, really having nothing to do with religion but which did have to do with the sort of experience people had, the students didn't seem as clued in as I had expected them to be. Why should the faith-based students be sensitive to the space needs of their classmates if nobody had ever educated them on the point? I didn't see it as my role to show them the light. I wanted them to figure it out on their own.
This brings me back to Douthat and a confession that I need to make. There are probably many more movies I have watched that have religion, at least as a subtext, than I care to admit. Among my favorites is Inherit the Wind. In the last scene of the movie, Spencer Tracy as Henry Drummond (Clarence Darrow) is quoting Scripture to the chagrin of Gene Kelly as E.K. Hornbeck (H.L. Mencken). Drummond does this as eulogy to his old friend, Matthew Harrison Brady (William Jennings Bryan) played by Frederick March. Drummond says there was much greatness in Brady. His failing was that he looked for God too high. I have taken that line for my own. Can we find God in the elements of our own humble existence?
Traditional theism has to wrestle with the problem of evil: if God is good, why does he allow suffering and death?
My personal answer to this is to view the good and evil struggle as internal. Both are inside each of us and this is where to look. Sometimes good wins, other times good loses, and there is always a next game to be played where the outcome is in doubt. Douthat, however, looks for evil to be external. If we are for good then evil is to be fought, a battle between peoples, not a battle within. Pantheism is a threat to Douthat because it challenges the commitment to the struggle, even such a benign pantheism as expressed in the movies.
This may be the basic point on which liberals and conservatives disagree. It may also be the reason I can watch movies like The Matrix or TV series like 24 , enjoy them for the fantasy that they are and not let them affect my moral compass, except with the guilt feelings that maybe I should have read a book instead.