Monday, May 20, 2013

The wood for the trees

Exploring Religious Ethics 2013, which finished this afternoon, ended with some serious fun. In lieu of a final paper, I'd set up a piratepad (a website I learned about during the Religion-Fashion workshop last year), a wiki which marks each contributor's work in a different color. I listed several questions from the syllabus; each student was charged with adding a question, and pitching in to the answering of at least a dozen.
The students were as surprised at I at how seriously they took it, many, it emerged, agonizing over finding a perfect question; the nine students contributed over 9000 words in all! The piratepad functioned as the conclusion and coda to our "Ethics Diaries" discussions, in which students had posed questions to each other on anything they found ethically interesting or troubling, in a variety of formats (including speed dating). We agreed that it captured the feel of our live discussions.

The remainder of the last class was given over to Final Reflections, each student sharing some or all of what they had written. I always do a Final Reflection, too, but this time mine took the form of these bonzais, which I drew on the board while the class was filling in an evaluation.
(The labels actually came later.) I wanted them to understand that there is no neutral way of representing the history of a religious tradition, and so offered these. Can you see what's going on? In the Vajrayana tree, first in the top row, Buddhism produces two big branches, Theravada and Mahayana, which converge again around the Vajrayana. Next to it, a Hindu view of Buddhism - only one of many outcroppings of a larger tree. Next, a Theravada picture, with Buddhism a tree with a swelling trunk, and insignificant twigs representing Mahayana and other schools on the top. Similar, the Roman Catholic tree, which shows Christianity as a single strong trunk, with a few insignificant branches deviating along the way - Monophysites, Orthodox, Protestants... The Zen tree, finally, dispenses with the tree - through the mist one can almost make out a branch, which might connect the root to the single flower appearing at top, all that matters.

Bottom row: A banyan tree, a better model of the kind of tree traditions might actually resemble, with new branches putting out new roots to support themselves. Next to it the supremely gnarled Protestant tree, a tree which won't ever grow straight, but some offshoots of which eventually if only for a time recapture the vertical. Next is the tree of American interreligious comity, all religions equal and entwined, producing a single canopy of religious options. The Jewish tree is a burning bush, surrounded and nearly overshadowed by monstrous trees which have grown from its branches - but which are not themselves on fire. And the last one: do you recognize it? It's the planet of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Little Prince, alone in the vastness of space.

It may be easier to swing around among the branches of great traditions like the Buddhist and Christian than to represent them as wholes. To some extent each branch invents or imagines its own tree. As scholars, this is part of what we must understand and, as teachers, convey. But, especially in a course on ethics, we are also the monkeys swinging in the trees, each of us coming from somewhere, and perhaps in search of something different. We don't seek a natural historical depiction of the tree as seen from a distance, but a branch or branches to support us, connecting us to the earth and to the sky, as we move through our lives. The "Ethics Diaries" have made clear that an opportunity to discuss ethics in connection to their own lives, struggles and questions is something at least these students sought.

My somewhat maudlin ending, evoking Hamann's epigraph to Fear and Trembling: As a teacher I may be like the messenger in the story of Tarquin the Proud, who reported that he had received no answer to his question, just noticed that Tarquin was cutting off the tall poppies. Sometimes one is the carrier of a message one doesn't know one is carrying. The reason we do what we do as teachers is that students take what we give them and go places we wouldn't or can't go. Go well!

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