Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Lecture

A Return Home Through Old Florida

I just returned yesterday from an overnight trip to Tallahassee. I had taken my 87 year old Dad up to see his 92 year old sister, Aunt Delphine. It was a good visit with lots of stories, trips to a seafood restaurant they both like and a late brunch (during which my aunt sneaked most of her food onto my plate) before we left Saturday afternoon. It was good to spend time with one of only two remaining siblings of my parents. And it was good to spend time alone with my Dad.

We had taken the monotonous, heavily traveled interstate route (75 north to 10 west) going up. It is probably the fastest route to Tallahassee even when closed down by accidents as it was Friday afternoon just east of Live Oak. Coming home we took the more leisurely route from pre-interstate days following US 27 to Perry and then US 19 south. We crossed the Suwanee River at Fanning Springs continuing south through Cross City, Chiefland, Gulf Hammock and finally swerved eastward across the back road through tiny Morriston to Ocala and the interstate.

It was a beautiful drive through an as yet unspoiled part of Florida. It still looks much like the state I knew as a boy which no longer exists much of anywhere else. The undeveloped hammock lands along the northern Gulf Coast are vibrantly green and full of wildlife. Outside the towns, there are very few houses or businesses. Occasionally you see an unfortunate coyote and armadillo who met their ends on the highway there. But for long stretches you don’t even see billboards or any other signs that humans had been there other than the highway.

It was good to spend time with my Dad, talking about family history, about his hopes for us children and about what he wants to happen once he has left us. I always come away with a greater sense of who I am and how I got to be the way I am after these long trips with my father.   

Dream Lecturer

Apparently this time together stirred up a lot more than I realized. This morning, I awoke from a dream about a lecture of sorts. It was unclear who the lecturer was but I found myself listening intently. The points are not terribly profound, indeed they are somewhat reductionist as you will see, but I think they are worth considering. Undoubtedly, they reflect my conscious understandings of this subject quite well.

To wit:

The lecturer said, ”There is no human evil which cannot be redeemed. There is no human goodness which cannot be corrupted. Human beings lie at the Big Bend of those two potentials.”

And then I awoke.

It is my habit to record my dreams upon waking. Carl Jung believed that our unconscious mind speaks to us in our dreams and has important things to tell us if we are willing to listen. My dreams have always been vibrant, active (so much so that I sometimes awake exhausted from the activity in my dream) and vivid. I almost always remember at least one of the dreams from the night before when I awake in the morning. I guess my unconscious mind tends to be as communicative as its conscious portion.

Interestingly, in my dream, the junction of these two potentials was referred to as “the Big Bend” of humanity. The Big Bend is a geographical designation of the curving coastline on the northern Gulf Coast where the Floridian peninsula attaches to the North American mainland and the state takes a 90 degree westward turn to form its boomerang shape. This was the very region my father and I had crossed the day before.

A Mixed Bag on a Good Day

As I lay in bed this morning mulling over my dream with its lecture on the mixed nature of human beings, gradually coming to full consciousness, the following considerations occurred to me:

Human nature is a mixed bag on a good day. This is why theologies of depravity always have the potential to reinforce, exacerbate, even insure the very evil they most fear. It is also why theologies of human goodness always have the potential to be disappointed and to cause unintended harm in their naiveté.

Years ago in graduate school at FSU I encountered William James and his work on the varieties of religious experience. I found his descriptions of the sin-sick souls in search of conversion and the sanguine souls seeking to develop their positive visions of the divine helpful in understanding the religions I was studying. In all honesty, I found much more to like in the sanguine soul than the sin-sick alternative which I really have never understood. But increasingly, I find these constructs too reductionist to be terribly helpful, especially when seen as dichotomous choices.

The reality is that most of us experience ourselves as having aspects of both tendencies. While depravity theologies emphasize human sinfulness and their Freudian versions emphasize our destructive tendencies, the reality is that the potential for depravity has never been exhaustive of the subject of human nature. On the other hand, the innate goodness theologies that often developed in response to the brooding Augustinian visions which unfortunately became dominant in the west have often proven incapable of dealing with the evil that does arise regularly in our world.

Murder, war and theft are considered news by most human beings because they are the exception to the human experience, not the rule. But they do happen. And any vision of humanity that fails to take into account those possibilities is bound to be ambushed by its destructive potential. Such possibilities are not simply remediated by education as post-Enlightenment thinkers wished to believe. Rather they reside in the shadow of the human psyche and erupt when we least expect them. Indeed, some of humanity’s worst behaviors have occurred in the name of good intentions carried out with a blind eye to their actual impacts on others.

On the other hand, if you anticipate depravity you won’t have much trouble finding it. Indeed, there is something to be said for the power of self-fulfilling prophecies. In the American Bible Belt, the area of the country most prone to see the world through depravity lenses, the social pathologies from divorce and abuse to murder and addictions tend to be the highest in the country. Conversely, the areas of the country with the lowest religious participation rates generally tend to have among the lowest incidence of social pathologies. Might it be that we humans simply live into others’ expectations of us?

But Are We Willing?

As I lay in bed this morning, trying to convince myself I should get up, make coffee and get ready to go to church, a last stray thought ran through my mind:

Becoming more fully human requires two things: one, the ongoing willingness to work at becoming conscious and two, the ongoing willingness to work at overcoming our tendencies to be selfish, tribal and anthropocentric. We are inevitably works in progress. We are learning how to hold in tension all of our potentialities, all of who we are. All of us can become ever more fully human. The question is never about capacity; rather, it is always about whether we are willing.

Perhaps I ought to go on road trips with my Dad more often.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Asst. Lecturer: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
Osceola Campus, University of Central Florida, Kissimmee

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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