Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Thou Shalt Not . . . Um . . . Wait a minute . . .

I did another SKS meeting at NCSU with the religious traditions quiz: write down as many of the Ten Commandments, Five Pillars of Islam, and Four Noble Truths that you can remember. (They actually did a little better on the Commandments than the UNC kids, but they totally wiped out on Islam and Buddhism.) Things I noticed:
  • On more than one occasion, I've had students put "Love thy neighbor as thyself" with absolute confidence on their list of the Ten Commandments. I suppose Jesus would be glad that his summation of the Law is sticking in their heads better than the nitty-gritty details of the actual Commandments, but it also shows that they have no idea how revolutionary Jesus was in his universalist approach.
  • We had an argument early on about how to divide up the commandments: some people thought "No god before me" and "No graven images" were one commandment, and broke out "Thou shalt not covet" into two pieces, while others did the opposite. It turns out that we were replicating an old argument: whole churches have disagreed on that point. Some people started to get a little heated on the point, until it became clear that everyone was merely repeating what they had gathered from what they assumed to be an unquestioned authority. It only served to emphasize the point that even when you've talking about the same set of rules, differences of opinion will erupt immediately.
  • We talked a lot about the nature of the positive versus negative framing of the commandments. Lots of people have carped about the Law being a bunch of "thou shalt nots," just authoritarian dictums instead of real wisdom. But the more we talked about it, the more apparent it became that you need to avoid a lot of evil in order to make room for the good. Most of the commandments could be seen as just the beginning of the spiritual work, the establishment of a life and society within which the real work could begin.
  • One of the students had a good spin on the Tenth Commandment. "Not coveting" is something most people can understand, but he went on to reframe it in an affirmative statement: "Be content." I had always thought of simplicity, contentment and gratitude to be spiritually wholesome states, but I had never considered them as Biblical commandments.
  • We did have the usual argument about generalities versus specifics. Most people wanted to believe that it was more important to have internalized the core message or attitude of the law (love God, love thy neighbor) and to let that manifest in the specifics, rather than adhering to a very specific set of rules. But at the end of the meeting, they reported in on how they were doing on their "Zen Challenges" (an SKS tradition of making public resolutions to improve oneself), and many people reported missing their goals, largely because they had defined their goals somewhat vaguely and then started rationalizing about it. (E.g. "I said I would exercise every day; gee, I walked to class really fast, that counts.") They found out through experience that you need hard-and-fast, detailed rules in order to live according to your abstract ideals.



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