Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Ethical Culture Society

The sermon this week at the Ethical Culture Society (ECS) is entitled, A Return to Wanton Heathenism.

I’m encouraged by the title, even though I think they meant to write “hedonism” (pleasure-seeking). It reveals the fact that the speaker is seeing the same problems I am seeing – some common ground.

Our entire media establishment is in competition to see who is the most indulgent of our hedonistic, pleasure-seeking society. CNN just ran an article celebrating the 10 top alcohol-consuming nations. I wonder if the media would also celebrate heroin or cocaine consumption. However, if we are to celebrate alcohol, there is no reason in the world to discriminate against street drugs.

I’d love to go to the ECS this Sunday, but I can’t. So I’m left to muse about it from their advertisement:

  • Despite our advances in meditation, pragmatism, or psycho-therapy few people have mastered the skill of "presence," perhaps because that's the wrong approach. This talk will focus on what keeps us blind to the world around us and why sometimes life is best understood with a poet's heart rather than an analysts mind. 
  • Learning to see the world as it truly exists, rather than as we deem it to be, has been the subject of debate for philosophers, scientists, and poets for centuries.
Some more common ground! The ECS is willing to acknowledge that we are surrounded by escalating problems – whether they be crime, warfare, substance abuse, abortion, suicide, depression, inflation, global warming and even moral fatigue and uncertainty. This is in contrast to the rosy predictions of New Age practitioners, who have put their faith in what they see as the new emergent consciousness that will save the planet.

Nevertheless, the ECS also seems to be reaching beyond themselves for understanding and hope, quoting the artist Georgia O'Keeffe:

  • "Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things."
This represents a desperate attempt to make sense out of this world. I have nothing against art, metaphor or hyperbole. However, they have their appropriate place. Everything does. Hammers are for hammering nails and not screwing screws. “Elimination” is important when you want to de-clutter your NYC apartment.

“Emphasis” is also important, but there first must be something to emphasize – something or some truth that is worth highlighting. However, emphasis without truth is a window-pane without a window or even a place for one.

There is nothing the matter with Georgia O'Keeffe, but she can’t take the place of Einstein or even a window. There is no replacement for a coherent worldview.

If our spectacles only make the world appear fuzzier, it’s time for a new set of lenses, rather than “elimination” or an escape into metaphor. Instead, when we resort to metaphor instead of precise thinking and calculations, it might betray a form of intellectual escapism.

Using a worldview that fails to accurately mirror reality is like using an inaccurate roadmap. Eventually, we will despair of using it and even give up trying to travel to Chicago.

However, an accurate roadmap promotes confidence and allows us to marshal our energies in the right direction.

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