SITTING TOGETHER WHEN THE CHIPS ARE DOWN
“The last function of reason is to recognize that there are an infinity of things
which surpass it.”
Pascal, Pensees, 1670
We’re living now within a split society that may need some awesome new institutions to humanize our citizens that will call for empathy on a grand scale. There is anger and hate on both sides with hardly any help to address those feelings.
Nicholas Kristof ends his New York Times column by stating that “The humanities do not immunize a society from cruelty and overreaction; early-20th-century Germany proves that. But in balance, the arts humanize us and promote empathy. We need that now more than ever.”
The google team claims “Humanities are academic disciples that study human culture, using primarily analytical, critical, or speculative, and having a significant historical element and include languages, religion and philosophy.”
That means our humanity courses are mainly based on learning through reasoning, an intellectual process that leaves out a whole lot of what humans experience in their lives. I had graduate and post graduate courses in language, sociology and philosophy, and found little if any deep feelings within those courses. Why not? Would it water down the intellectuals sitting next to us? Did the Greeks, who modeled for us our intellectual prowess, manage to overlook our subterranean sentiments?
There was one earthy occasion in my seminary class when my brilliant philosophy professor asked me to give a brief synopsis of the book “Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History” by Eric Erikson. I said “Well, for starters we learn that young Luther wrote most of his 90 theses he nailed to that door while close to a toilet because he suffered from chronic constipation. So he might have claimed ‘Here I sit I can do no other’ rather than ‘Here I stand; I can do no other.’”
Dead silence in class at that point. The professor held back a grin and told me to step out of class for a while. That to me was the real world of human learning. Perhaps it was a smart aleck gesture but it felt good to know in those moments that Martin Luther was one of us when it came to surviving.
What if the humanities courses were to allow for students to reveal deeply with their fear, anger, compassion and sex? We learn about those sentiments but we don’t experience them in classrooms. Why not? Perhaps it can complete the fullness of human beings.
While teaching at a university the Dean of Academics declared that clergy can only teach about religions but not promote them. In the last week of a course a student asked if she could wash the feet of her classmates on the last day. She was not religious but she thought it might be kind of fun and provide some bonding with a send-off, and make it a surprise. I was a little nervous about the gesture but we did it.
She stepped out after our session and came in with a towel around her waist and a small tub of water. “How would you like to get your feet washed?” She was very attractive so the guys put up their hands immediately. Everyone seemed to be for it. When she got to the last student he said he could not do it. I figured he was a deeply committed faith member.
He asked if he could reveal why he did not want to participate. I said “Of course you can.”
“My new wife and I wash our feet occasionally as a tender gesture in our marriage.” He paused and relented, “OK, please wash my feet here.”
I often think about that event and I learned from a few students in recent years who claimed it was the best part of the class. I was bummed out on that response but got over it.