Category Archives: Jaime Wright

Exploring secularity and the church-state divide

Exploring secularity and the church-state divide

This last episode of “To the Best of Our Knowledge” featured what sounds like a great book on secularism. The main point for everyone from atheists to Christian fundamentalists is that secularism is in place to protect religious freedom, not to stifle it. It does this by protecting against state-level establishment of a particular religion. Interestingly, the author, Berlinerbau, also points out that an absolute separation of religion and state is also not desirable. He points to the Soviet Union as an example of the type of state it would take to attempt such absolutism. Because, at least in the interview (I haven’t read the book), he provides a balanced approach, his work seems worth checking out for those interested in matters of “church and state.”


For those interested in the study of religion … a place where academics of religion grapple and engage in “the world”

Although, sometimes, especially as a non-religious person, I wonder why I am studying at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU), every now and then it becomes clear. Yesterday was a perfect example of why I chose to pursue my doctorate there.

Sometimes I like to study at the Pacific School of Religion’s (PSR) D’Autremont Dining Hall. When I arrived yesterday for some coffee and to read, Michael Lerner’s  Beyt Tikkun synagogue-without-walls along with Occupy Bay Area Jewish Contingent were finishing up their veggie potluck after Rosh Hashanah services. After eating they walked to downtown Berkeley to Occupy Wells Fargo.

So together in one hall, on this Protestant campus, we have Jews holding services and celebrating the High Holidays, and partaking in the local activist culture of Berkeley. It’s fascinating to see the coming together and vibrancy of such cultural flows.

Later that night, I attended the “Between Militarism and Extremism: The Excluded Middle” panel discussion held at Zaytuna College. The GTU’s Center for Islamic Studies and Zaytuna College (the first Muslim Liberal Arts College in America) held discussions on violence in the Middle-East in reaction to the “Innocence of Muslims” film. The meeting was held in Zaytuna’s new location, formerly a Christian church (University Christian Church), now the home of an Islamic institution of higher education. The panel consisted of Dr. Hatem BazianZaid Shakir and Hamza Yusuf, (Zaytuna College Co-founders), President James A. Donahue (Graduate Theological Union), Dr. Munir Jiwa (Graduate Theological Union), and Sandy Tolan (University of Southern California, Annenberg School for Journalism).

The short presentations given by the panelists along with the question and answer moderated by Tolan was informative, inspiring, and even challenging. The discussion’s major topics centered on respect for multiple religions, free speech, hate speech, ethics and the internet, and the call for a civil rights-style coming together of multiple religions to advocate for respect across and between all religions.

It was an impressive meeting attended by a few hundred people with around 4,000 people watching online. Very impressive considering it was organized less than a week earlier.

Yesterday’s events–the interaction, overlap, and neighborly-ness of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism– showcased GTU’s approach to religion as exemplary. This all happened with GTU’s 50th anniversary (albeit some member colleges are much older) as a backdrop. In the last 50 years, GTU’s graduate program has grown into one of the largest religious studies programs (including theology, biblical studies, ethics, arts, social sciences, and more) in the U.S. Yesterday’s events showcased the importance and vibrancy of the GTU.

Information is not value free

If printing a gun is the equivalent to the liberation of the printing press, as Cody Wilson claims (see video), then critically thinking about information has hit hard times. Meaning: ideology and violence have become the only methods of “real” communication.

While, I understand that access to information can be empowering, I believe the philosophy behind the Defense Distributed project is oversimplified, naive, and partially paranoid. It does not take into account that we live in a world made complex by a growing population, poverty, restricted resources, and various governmental and economic systems. While I may agree that not all politicians have “the greater good” or the individual rights in mind, these concepts alone deserve greater contemplation than Hobbesian (i.e., “life is nasty, brutish, and short”), Marxian-utopian (i.e., elitist politicians are corrupt and want to only maintain the status quo), libertarian (i.e., we exist only as an aggregate of individuals and as such deserve unfettered access to anything we want, when we want it) cracker-jack platitudes.—-yet.html

My thoughts on those who rally around Chic Fil-A

My thoughts on those who rally around Chic Fil-A

We live in a world where eating unhealthy junk food is an expression of one’s Christian beliefs. Putting aside that one’s body is one’s temple, I think this sort of expression demonstrates the poverty of popular theology in the U.S. For those who believe that there was something more substantial to the overall message attributed to Jesus as depicted in biblical stories, such as service to those who are less fortunate (e.g., widows, prisoners, and others who live in the lower ranks of society), such demonstrations of piety are simultaneously laughable and pathetic. It is really no wonder that there is an increasing number of religious “nones” (or non-affiliated) in national surveys on religion.

(And don’t even get me started on the reason for this celebration of deep-fried, pink slime … people currently exalting Chic Fil-A are those who revel in throwing the first stone.)

Oh crap!

How can one resist reposting an article with the following quote: “we’re wiping our asses with 7 million eucalyptus trees.”

It’s from a provocative article from online enviro-mag “Grist.” It’s a lot to think about and conjures up images of Rodin’s “Thinker” on the toilet.

The manager and therapist styled by the “All American” Salesman

After reading and re-reading Bellah, et al.’s Habits of the Heart, it’s difficult to not see their take on individualism in American culture. One of the main points is that individualism is one of the primary languages in American culture. Two subtypes of individualism are the manager and the therapist. Both are essentially utilitarian or maximizers of preferences with the manager concerned more with the external and the therapist with the internal.

Bellah, et al. do leave the possibility open for new subtypes of individualism to emerge or build off of secondary languages in America such as biblical or republican.

After years of working in the financial world and reading Greg Smith’s piece in the NY Times about the culture of Goldman Sachs,  I think that a new individualist subtype has become prevalent: the salesman. Whereas Bellah, et al. focus more on these as languages, I think the salesman is often more of a style. It may not even have its own language, but it is an approach to life. It is one that instrumentalizes all relationships in order to maximize preferences that are monetary.

Although, Smith’s piece describes those salesman that take use the language of manager, there are also those who use the language of the therapist. I encountered the latter in working with many people from the real estate and mortgage industries. There are various educational programs for people in these industries that involve “lead generation” or the ability to bring new people in, take advantage of social networks, etc. in order to increase sales. Interestingly, however, such tactics are often wrapped in the language of self-realization, self-help, and meaningful relationships.

But such a style is not limited to the financial world. It pervades much of our culture, we are constantly encouraged to “sell ourselves” or “market ourselves” in the new economy. Such advice seems like “common sense.” Yet, it’s also often mixed with notions about “being oneself.” One only need to watch an episode of “What Not to Wear” to see how so many people “become themselves” by wearing a more marketable uniform of “who they really are.”

Maybe this is why, “Death of a Salesman” is still so popular?

Finally, the gender-specific “man” in salesman, I think is appropriate as well. Much of this type of style, especially, as expressed by Smith about Goldman Sachs fits all to well into a stereotype of patriarchal culture run amok. Although this could be nuanced, you get the point.

As it stands, this is all just thinking “out loud” or “on line,” but I believe there is something to this American style of individualism. After all, marketing and sales are part of the water we constantly swim in–how could it not shape who we are?

The Illusion of Validity vs. Phronesis

Last night I was lucky enough to catch KQED’s Forum with Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman. One of the most interesting concepts that he mentioned last night was what he calls the “illusion of validity.” The idea is that oftentimes the stories we know, tell ourselves, and interpret our experience through can be misleading (perhaps that’s really not so earth-shattering). Even in instances where we may really think we see something, interpret it, and are highly confident in our interpretation, our conclusions can be totally wrong (he points this out especially among financial advisors who often cannot predict market directions regardless of knowledge).

Yet, Kahneman differentiates this from expertise. Over long periods of time, if we are engaged in a practice that involves trial and error wherein we can learn from our mistakes and there is a regularity in the phenomenon we are looking at, we can develop a skill–something akin to Aristotle’s notion of phronesis (or practical wisdom).

I find Kahneman’s work interesting and intend to look into it further. The concept of the “illusion of validity” will be of interest, perhaps, to those also who utilize Bourdieusian theory in their work. Bourdieu’s notion of “illusio” (i.e., a socialized interest in the particular culture and social position within one lives) combined with his concept of “misrecognition” and Kahneman’s “illusion of validity” are worth comparing and maybe even integrating.

If these stories we tell ourselves or these internalized social schemas really filter and organize the internal and external stimulus we experience, there are interesting implications to explore in the realm of practical ethics and even in the study of how religious beliefs may either affect behavior or at least the interpretation of behavior.