Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Next-to-last

Scenes from the penultimate day of classes! Each contains a story.
Second one first: this is how "Lived Religion in New York" worked out its response to the project on religion in Shanghai with which we began. The Shanghai team had found four categories helpful for telling the story of religion in a city presumed secular: landmarks, compounds, privacy, waterways. As we started the semester we expected something similar for New York. What we've come up with instead is an interestingly contrasting story. We start in once relatively homogeneous ethnic neighborhoods, whose ways and means spill over into the public (to the surprise and consternation of those who think New York paradigmatically secular), which everyone passes through as they journey in-between places... all of which provides a context, materials and acceptance of individual religious/spiritual choice. This literally came together in the last 5 minutes of class! I'm excited to see how it plays out in our sharing of final reflections on Thursday. The lead-up to our choice of four terms will have given them a lot of material to work with.

The former needs a little more explanation. Our final class text is Hsiao-Lan Hu's This-worldly Nibbana (a text you've heard about before). Hu provides an ingenious, and profound, reading of non-Self by way of dependent co-arising, cannily using Judith Butler's ideas of "performativity" and "sedimentation" to suggest that what we take to be our Selves are in fact the congealing of contingent cultural practices of body, language and values which constitute - and are constituted by - us. People find their way to identifying with a gender because they have been taught to perform, and continue to perform, culturally specific ways of being gendered. As an example, Hu mentions the different ways little boys and little girls are taught to move their bodies in space, the former encouraged to stretch their limbs about, the latter to keep them close, with all manner of implications for how they understand and comport themselves in the future. Becoming aware of this allows one to start resisting it, but unlearning the very way we inhabit our bodies is an uphill task.

I decided to illustrate Hu's point about culturally-mediated gender embodiment by reference to my penchant for crossing my legs. This is something I've become more aware of recently as a friend I ride the subway with has pointed out I do this when sitting, blocking the passage of other riders (even as I think I'm moving my leg in anticipation of their movements). It seemed a timely example as the way men take up space in the subway has been enough of a theme in the last year to have been memorialized in the New Yorker's annual "Eustace" cover, and the subway has also kept cropping up in our Ethics Diaries discussions as an arena for ethical questions: I'd promised my friend I'd try not to do it in the subway anymore. You can probably guess what happened. Despite my intent not to do it during the rest of class, it kept happening, like Dr. Strangelove's Nazi arm salute! But I suppose the point was made.

Today's class ended unusually, too - with a prayer. Indeed, with two. Our last two course readings, Hu and, just before it, Pope Francis' encyclical letter on the environment Laudato Si', both end with prayers (Hu's is from Sulak Sivaraksa), so I thought it offered a nice sort of closure to read both of them together, especially as the scope of these readings might make the effort to lead a good life seem too great for us.

A prayer for our earth

All-powerful God,

you are present in the whole universe

and in the smallest of your creatures.

You embrace with your tenderness all that exists.
Pour out upon us the power of your love,

that we may protect life and beauty.

Fill us with peace, that we may live

as brothers and sisters, harming no one.

O God of the poor,

help us to rescue the abandoned

and forgotten of this earth,

so precious in your eyes.

Bring healing to our lives,

that we may protect the world and not prey on it,
that we may sow beauty,

not pollution and destruction.

Touch the hearts

of those who look only for gain

at the expense of the poor and the earth.

Teach us to discover the worth of each thing,

to be filled with awe and contemplation,

to recognize that we are profoundly united

with every creature

as we journey towards your infinite light.

We thank you for being with us each day.
Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle
for justice, love and peace.

Let us pray for world peace, social justice and environmental balance, which begin with our own breathing.
I breathe in calmly and breathe out mindfully.
Once I have seeds of peace and happiness within me, I try to reduce my selfish desire and reconstitute my consciousness.
With less attachment to myself, I try to understand the structural violence in the world.
Linking my heart with my head, I perceive the world holistically, a sphere full of living beings who are all related to me.
I try to expand my understanding with love to help build a more nonviolent world.
I vow to live simply and offer myself to the oppressed.
By the grace of the Compassionate Ones and with the help of good friends, may I be a partner in lessening the suffering of the world so that it may be a proper habitat for all sentient beings to live in harmony during this millennium.

(Laudato Si’, 178-79; This-Worldly Nibbana, 178)

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