Krista Tippett interviews neurosurgeon James Doty on the intersection of physiology, compassion, heroism, and courage. Doty is on the cutting edge of our knowledge of the brain and the heart: how they talk to each other; what compassion means in the body and in action; and how we can reshape our lives and perhaps our species through the scientific and human understanding we are now gaining.
There’s nothing saying Eden stayed perfect after the Fall. Genesis says God placed a couple of angels with flaming swords outside the gates to protect the Tree of Life, and presumably bar our return, and many assume that the Garden was destroyed in Noah’s Flood, never to be seen again. There’s a small town near the junction of the Tigris and Euphrates today where they have a Tree of Knowledge, now dead, standing in a little cement park. And that’s pretty much how I picture the aftermath of Eden.
Ms. Tippett: Where does the body come in to all of this? Where does the body come in to happiness? It can sound like we’re having a discussion about happiness. It’s very cerebral, very mental. You, for example, Bishop Schori, have spoken about running as body meditation. Let’s talk a little bit about our physical selves in this condition of happiness.
Lord Sacks: Well, obviously, Judaism has a certain approach to the physical dimension of the spiritual life. It’s called food. [laugh] In fact, somebody once said, you know, if you want a crash course in understanding all the Jewish festivals, they can all be summed up in three sentences: They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat. [laugh] But I think that is part of our faith that God is to be found down here in this world that God created and seven times pronounced good. And I find one of the most striking sentences in Judaism — it is in the Jerusalem Talmud — is the statement of Rav that in the world to come, a person will have to give an account of every legitimate pleasure he or she deprived themselves of in this life. Because God gave us this world to enjoy.
I must say that quite apart — and I mean, absolutely, Judaism has taken — I think we share this, but Judaism has said there are three approaches to physical pleasure. Number one is hedonism, the worship of pleasure. The number two is asceticism, the denial of pleasure. And number three is the biblical way for sanctification of pleasure. And that, I think, is important and very profound. And I must say that, you know, sometimes the best kind of interfaith gatherance — I mean, theology is extremely wonderful. It’s very cognitive. That is a very polite English way of saying boring. [laugh] And sometimes the best form of interfaith is you just sit together, you eat together, you drink together, you share one another’s songs. You listen to one another’s stories and just enjoy the pleasures of this world with people of another faith. That is beautiful.
I would add just one other thing. If there is one thing I find beautiful beyond measures — there in my own tradition in what we call hakhnasat orhim, hospitality, very real element of Christianity and Islam and Buddhism — it’s a super element in Sikhism, what’s called langar. You know, it’s not just my physical pleasures. It’s giving physical pleasure to those who have all too little. One very great Hasidic teacher once said, “Somebody else’s material needs are my spiritual duties.” And that, I think, is where we join in sharing our pleasures with others.
Ms. Tippett: … I wonder — and I pose this to you, Rabbi Sacks, it seems to me that the Hebrew Bible, let’s say the Psalms, really wallow in sadness and suffering and anger as a way through those human experiences. So I wonder how do you respond to this idea [pursuing happiness] and how might you see it differently or what might you add to that approach to sadness? And, Rabbi Sacks, I know that you have just finished sitting shiva at the death of your mother. So you’ve been in a period of grief and mourning, which is very much lived and embodied.
Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks: Yeah. It is true that if you read the Jewish literature and you read Jewish history, happiness is not the first word that comes to mind [laugh]. We do degrees in misery, post-graduate angst, and advanced guilt, and we do all this stuff, you know. And yet somehow or other when all of that is at an end, we get together and we celebrate. And where I love what His Holiness has just said, how he himself has lived a story that I resonate with, the story of suffering and exile, and yet he has come through it still smiling. And that to me is how I have always defined my faith as a Jew. The definition of a Jew, Israel is at it says in Genesis 34, one who struggles, wrestles, with God and with humanity and prevails. And Jacob says something very profound to the angel. He says, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” And that I feel about suffering. When something bad happens, I will not let go of that bad thing until I have discovered the blessing that lies within it.
When my late father died — now I’m in mourning for my late mother — that sense of grief and bereavement suddenly taught me that so many things that I thought were important, externals, etc., all of that is irrelevant. You lose a parent, you suddenly realize what a slender thing life is, how easily you can lose those you love. Then out of that comes a new simplicity and that is why sometimes all the pain and the tears lift you to a much higher and deeper joy when you say to the bad times, “I will not let you go until you bless me.”
I especially appreciate Mouw’s invitation to see other people as an exercise in art appreciation.
Ms. Tippett: So here’s another statement from you about just an essential Christian truth, which is, “In affirming the stranger, we are honoring the image of God.”
Mr. Mouw: Yeah, yeah. That’s right. I mean, going back to that Aristotle idea that, you know, we all understand kinship and then we understand friendship, but then there’s this person who is neither kin nor friend, but we have encountered them. And what is it that links me to them if it isn’t just a lot of good feelings that I have about people like that? What the Bible teaches is that every human being is created in a divine image. And this means that every human being is — you know, this is where I’ve been thinking more about this lately — is a work of art.
Seeing other people is a kind of exercise in art appreciation. I find that very powerful. I come across a person who isn’t just a stranger, but maybe represents a strangeness to me that initially I might feel very alienated from that person, and then to think this is a work of art by the God whom I worship, that God created that person. And it doesn’t come easy. I’m kind of aesthetically deprived, so I have to work at it, but it’s a very important exercise to engage in.
October 14, 2010
Richard Mouw challenges his fellow conservative Christians to civility in public discourse. He offers historical as well as spiritual perspective on American Evangelicals’ navigation of disagreement, fear, and truth.