Homepage Features

Spiritual Exercises in a Humanistic Register (I): Pierre Hadot

Posted by on Jul 2, 2018 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 2 comments

Spiritual Exercises in a Humanistic Register (I): Pierre Hadot

A few years ago, I became invested in spirituality as a humanistic subject. By “humanistic” I mean a category that pertains to the humanities more than to the history of humanism per se, but also something irreducible to religion or theology, which is where one typically finds attention to spirituality. Or so one used to. While one still finds extraordinary scholarship on the meaning of spirituality within religious traditions (e.g., the robust scholarship on mysticism), spirituality in the “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) era has widely come to represent a turn away from the definitions associated with organized religion to those that are more personal and self-willed, earthier (whether imagined in terms of ecological consciousness or New Age hipsterism), eclectic and idiosyncratic, more responsive to changes of mood and life circumstance, less implicated in belief than in modalities of belonging. As the sociologist Robert Wuthnow puts it, spirituality in our present era is more one of “seeking” than of “dwelling,” of negotiation than of covenant, of ephemeral flow than of steady cultivation. This is, in short, a spirituality fitted to the sensibilities of a modern (better said, perhaps, a postmodern) age. And yet, for all its pop cultural cachet, many scholars in the humanities are still loath to speak its name given its historical associations with the inner life of religion. One scholar who recently invoked it in the context of literary studies acknowledges that she did so with trepidation: “Spirituality is a charged word, one I use gingerly.” And yet, she continues, she appeals to it “deliberately, in hopes that it might give [her peers] a way of thinking broadly about the intellectual, moral, ethical, personal, and political resources that literature affords in a secular age.” She appeals to spirituality, that is, because of its holistic agglomeration of meanings: it’s intellectual but not of the intellect only; it’s ethical but not of ethics only; and so on. Hence, what this scholar implies is that spirituality, perhaps better than any other word, captures the inner life of her discipline, or of what she wishes it were: an engrossing and even transformative practice, one that truly matters. This conviction implicitly conjures a fascinating book I read recently: Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life, a compilation of Hadot’s lectures, mostly from the 1980s and early 1990s. Ordained to the Catholic priesthood as a young man, Hadot gave up the prospects of life as a priest to teach philosophy, and he eventually became renowned for his insights into the ancient Greco-Roman philosophies of “Socratism, Platonism, Aristotelianism, Epicureanism, Stoicism, Cynicism, [and] Skepticism.” Borrowing from his theological training, Hadot identified within these schools a set of “spiritual exercises,” a term more widely identified with the religious regimen formulated in the mid-sixteenth century by Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. But for Hadot, the term bears wider circulation: “Spiritual exercises.” The expression is a bit disconcerting for the contemporary reader. In the first place, it is no longer quite fashionable these days to use the word “spiritual.” It is nevertheless necessary to use this term, I believe, because none of the other adjectives we could use—“psychic,” “moral,” “ethical,” “intellectual,” “of thought,” “of the soul”—covers all the aspects of the reality we want to describe…. [T]hese exercises in fact correspond to a transformation of our vision of the world, and to a metamorphosis of our personality. [81-82] The purpose of ancient philosophy, Hadot contends, was not to teach us concepts, but to inculcate a way of life. As he explains, these spiritual exercises drew—again, holistically: a hallmark of spirituality—on logic, ethics, and...

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On Being Vulnerable, as Experience and Symposium

Posted by on May 12, 2018 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 2 comments

On Being Vulnerable, as Experience and Symposium

When I was eighteen and a freshman at UC Irvine, I was deeply unsure of what I wanted for my short- and long-term future. Of one thing I was certain: I did not wish to be a college student. Symptomatic of that wish to be elsewhere and otherwise, I made a weekly trip up to Burbank, where I enrolled in a class for aspiring actors. (Feel free to insert joke here. Sometimes, when I think I’m doing poorly at being an academic, I think of how bad I might have been in my job had I actually tried to become a professional actor. That thought gives me a strange, self-flagellating form of comfort.) One day, the instructor had us discuss qualities we appreciated about successful Hollywood actors. The observations were fairly typical. Meryl Streep? Chameleon-like ability to get into character. Robert DeNiro? Riveting intensity. Robert Redford? Here I offered my two cents: “He always appears to be in control.” The instructor turned toward me – and, it seemed, turned on me. “Control is a dangerous word for an actor!” As he explained it – and he was right – the desire for control prevents an actor from channeling certain emotions and from opening herself or himself to fellow actors onstage or in front of the camera. Control destroys scenes, productions, and eventually careers. If you wish to nail a scene or a part, you have to be willing to open yourself, render yourself vulnerable; to find your life as an actor, you must be willing to lose it, to lose control. Right, so I never became an actor, though I did, for a few short breaths, get an agent. But then, instead of taking parts in industrial films and reading for roles in soap operas, I decided to pursue a drama of a different order by serving an LDS mission. That experience changed me. Among other things, it awakened a fascination in humanity, an appreciation of its inscrutable depths (of culture, of history, of sublime goodness and/or depravity, and of its capacity for transformation) that I had never previously imagined. It planted the seed that would eventually compel me to pursue higher education and a life in the humanities. And it made me acutely aware of my vulnerability – as a “dumb American” in a foreign country and as an inept kid tasked with divine things. When I wasn’t overwhelmed I was simply unconscious; the experience was equivalent to a low-grade trauma born in small doses, bit by bit, day by day. As I say, it changed me. And while it didn’t make me less instinctively desirous of control, it’s made me less satisfied when I realize I’ve obtained some measure of it, for that’s always a sign that something is missing, that the world has grown too insular. Those conflicting impulses to achieve and risk losing control are pervasive in my life, including my professional life: they help explain the trajectory of my scholarly work and my evolution as a teacher. Doubtlessly, they also inform the symposium our BYU Humanities Center is organizing this coming September. Not that they are that symposium’s impetus; not at all, in fact. I attended a conference last summer and found myself in conversation with people who in varying ways expressed dissatisfaction with the tenor of academic culture and discourse. One grad student in particular spoke of feeling so much more alive to ideas before she entered her PhD program. She missed feeling vulnerable and open to life, she said, amid the endless posturing and striving for the appearance of indomitability. This sat...

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On Teaching Postsecular Theory as Postsecular Practice

Posted by on Apr 9, 2018 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

On Teaching Postsecular Theory as Postsecular Practice

“Do you consider yourself postsecular?” That was the last writing prompt I crafted for students of my graduate course on postsecular theory this semester. The responses were creative and frequently moving, as I expected they would be. More on those responses, including my own, below. First, let me provide some backdrop for those who may be less familiar with postsecularism or its contexts. Postsecularity broadly names a renewed interest in religion, spirituality, or some combination thereof. This is an academic field, and it designates a body of theory – a field defined by a densely secular history – so it should surprise no one to learn that postsecularity is characterized by wide diversity of opinion and approach, much of it ambivalent. Some scholars in the field are devoutly religious and welcome the prospect of addressing religion and religious experience – in language that is, or is almost, religious – in academic work. A greater number are not religious, at least not overtly so, but express fatigue with the hegemonic “hermeneutics of suspicion” and delight in a resurgent cultural poetics of wonder. Still others embrace the postsecular as part of an unfolding, global project of enlightenment, contending that “we moderns” must make a space for religious cultures in the public sphere lest we betray our secular ideals by becoming as dogmatic as they. And then there are those who, affecting a kind of world-weary wisdom, argue that it might be nice if we could actually invest faith in religious nonsense, given how important it is to our history and all that, but alas … pass the vodka. The end of that last paragraph grows a bit glib, but actually, I empathize with the skeptics, at least to a degree. Religion is all around us, whether we like it or not – and often in forms we don’t like. I’ve heard Church leaders express dismay over the findings of the Pew Research Center that Westerners seem to be less and less religious but more and more spiritual – SBNR: spiritual but not religious – because spirituality is so notoriously individualized and individualizing. There’s great irony in this, to be sure: in his landmark 1902 study The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James concluded that spirituality connects us to each other and to things beyond ourselves: “the visible world is part of a more spiritual universe from which it draws its chief significance,” and “union or harmonious relation with that higher universe is our true end.”1 And yet, in practical terms, spirituality is often “eclectic, practicing outside or on the margins of institutionalized religions,” thus devolving into something “self-authorizing and idiosyncratic … [and] commercialized.”2 Religious fervor, meanwhile, if not downright intoxication, seems more evident in social movements than in traditional faith communities: witness the tribalism infecting American politics, where even ethical causes toward which many of us are sympathetic mobilize gatherings that take on the quality of secular revivalist meetings. In short, religion and spirituality in the modern age are subjects that often emit more heat than light. The postsecular thus represents not so much a “return” to these topics as an exploration of what they mean in our contemporary moment. My class on postsecular theory addressed this question by mapping broad territories of the field. We read Charles Taylor’s massive intellectual history, A Secular Age, which charts the complex course of religious belief in modernity. We took up debates – Jürgen Habermas vs. William Connolly – about whether religion could be accommodated within the rational mores of civil society or, by contrast, whether the depth of religious attachments might help us...

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Why Experiential Learning?

Posted by on Apr 1, 2018 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

Why Experiential Learning?

This post was written by Greg Thompson, Spanish and Portuguese, HC Faculty Fellow A lab coat, a lab coat! My kingdom for a lab coat! When President Worthen first announced the university’s new focus on inspiring learning, I was initially slightly saddened by the fact that our teaching had not been “inspiring” during BYU’s 140 years+ history and required an initiative in order to get faculty and students inspired. However, I was relieved and quite elated to realize that President Worthen was not referring to some lack in focus by students and faculty but to an increase in the incorporation of experiential learning into our classes and programs. The reason for my elation is that I have studied, researched, and published extensively on service learning, a sub-field of experiential learning, and I was pleased to see that BYU was prompting this type of instruction and learning. This announcement and subsequent announcements have been accompanied by a video of a wide range of students and faculty working together through different types of experiential learning. I was made aware in a Humanities Center Colloquium titled, “Test Tubes, Book Spines, and Broken Contracts” by Brian Croxall of Digital Humanities, that it seemed that this inspiring learning necessitated either a fishing boat on a distant body of water, travel to some exotic tropical location, or a white lab coat. Giving my slightly sensitive stomach to travels on large bodies of distant water and my lack of affinity for the dissection of marine life as well as limited travel funds, I, like my colleague in Digital Humanities, will focus on white lab coats (available in the BYU Store for only $19.95). I have thought that maybe the lack of inclusion of the College of Humanities in these BYU videos is due to the obvious lack of lab coats in our classrooms and that possibly purchasing them for our students, might lead to our inclusion in subsequent promotional videos about inspiring learning. Picture this: a scene where a group of English 317R-Writing Creative Nonfiction students are seated in the JFSB basement all wearing their labs coats while discussing theories and methodologies related to creative writing in non-fiction and then a cutaway shot to these same students, still adorned in their lab coats, assisting a local non-profit in revising and developing promotional material about the resources and services of this organization to the local community members. The video would then cut away again, but this time to a group of Spanish translation students. Again they would be outfitted in lab coats, working and collaborating together to translate said promotional material into Spanish, and thus making it accessible to the Hispanic population that represents the largest minority population in Utah County. The final scene of this moving video would show digital humanities students, robed in their lab coats, in DIGHT 350-Web Information Technologies helping to develop a website for the local non-profit organization that includes the work of the other lab coat equipped students thus allowing them to reach more people and better serve the community in and around BYU. Imagine the value of this type of service and the learning that would take place as students and local community members worked together to better help those around us all the while applying what they are learning in class. Envision these different classrooms as our lab-coat-garlanded students returned to reflect on some of the struggles and challenges they faced while carrying out this project, and this led to guided discussions about the implementation of the ideas discussed in previous classes. Contemplate the connections that students would make...

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The Fruits of Failure

Posted by on Mar 26, 2018 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

The Fruits of Failure

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all—in which case, you fail by default” J.K. Rowling, Harvard Commencement address (2008) My friend shared her experience in a small town piano recital. Most of the judges felt that giving a child anything less than a perfect grade (superior) was going to be detrimental to that child’s self-esteem. “But they worked so hard,” “She is shy,” “He did his best,” etc. As a result, all except one judge (my friend’s mom, a Piano Guild-certified instructor), gave superior ratings despite the child’s actual performance, which was often times subpar. My friend’s mom, however, wasn’t afraid to give lower ratings, and she received a lot of flak for it around the community. I think the “everyone is a winner” mentality encourages an unhealthy perception of success and self-worth. When we tell anyone, especially children, that they win even when they lose, or that they performed well on a musical number that they bombed, are we not teaching them that failure is shameful, something to be avoided? But how can we possibly avoid failure? The truth of the matter is that failure is the best teacher. Failure will be the best thing that ever happened to you because it forces you to clarify what you want and then to work harder/more efficiently for that thing. Failure is what pushes you to be better, to improve, and to change. I think we need to be more honest about failure and to allow it into our lives as a teacher—not as a disciplinarian or as a form of punishment—but a stepping stone to future success. This concept really hit home for me when I read J.K. Rowling’s Harvard Commencement address for the first time. I have returned to it time and again as a reminder of the benefits of failure. Rowling shares a bit of her life story before Harry Potter. She had graduated with a degree in Classics, had moved to a different country, got married and had a child only to have her short marriage fall apart. She ended up a single parent, jobless and well below the poverty line. She shared that “Failure gave me an inner security I had never attained by passing examinations. … I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.” She knows what it feels like to pursue the thing you love and to fall flat on your face time and again. But what came out of that was a sense of confidence that she was “secure in [her] ability to survive.” I just love that. Rowling said, “so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life,” and it can be that way for us, too. The difference, I think, in our perception of failure comes really in the form of what Carol Dweck calls fixed or growth mindsets. If we allow ourselves to believe that when we fail at something that then defines who we are—we tell ourselves “you are a failure”—we are feeding the pernicious and self-deprecating lie. Failure doesn’t mean that you are a failure. A growth mindset would think “ok, you failed. What can I learn? How can I improve?” It seems like such a small thing to change our self-talk, but it makes a world of difference. We so often only see the final product of months or years of...

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The Human Contradiction

Posted by on Mar 19, 2018 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 1 comment

The Human Contradiction

This post was written by Hannah Leavitt, HC Student Fellow The first time I read Anna Karenina, I was quick to pick sides. As I continued to read, I recognized that despite their major flaws and mistakes, each character acted authentically. Reflecting on this experience, I realized that, like each of Tolstoy’s characters, I am similarly contradictory. While sometimes I am objective in my decisions, other times, I knowingly make biased decisions. In one way or another, we all are contradictory.   Contradiction is one trait that all humans share. Despite our best intentions, none of us can escape conflict in our feelings, beliefs, and desires. Though mainstream media often creates stories focused around a “good guy” battling against a “bad guy,” it is hard for anyone to actually be completely good or completely bad. Doesn’t the “good guy” also make poor decisions and choices that hurt the people they love? Often, isn’t the “bad guy” someone we would, in a different setting, try to understand? In contemplating the many ways in which I am contradictory, I cannot help but feel that allowing others their contradictions would enable me to also accept others. Maybe, by recognizing the opposites that exist in each of us, we can realize the similarities we have with those who seem foreign to us. In the end, we all are just humans making choices. Accepting our own contradictions gives each of us an added measure of power. Maya Angelou expresses this thought eloquently in her poem “A Brave and Startling Truth:” We, this people, on this small and drifting planet  Whose hands can strike with such abandon  That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living  Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness  That the haughty neck is happy to bow  And the proud back is glad to bend  Out of such chaos, of such contradiction  We learn that we are neither devils nor divines Realizing that I, like you (and everyone else), am full of contradictory potentials and realities affords me the ability to truly choose between them. Humans have the unique ability to both harm and heal. We can love, and we can hate. We can acquiesce, and we can refuse. In the process of sifting through our own contradictions, choosing the sides we will take, and learning how our choices affect those around us, we can discover the type of people we want to be and what we want to stand for. There are times when we should happily bow our necks. There are times when we should refuse to concede. “Out of such chaos, of such contradiction” which is life, we learn that we are truly “neither devils nor divines.” Rather, we are free to...

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