Follow by Email

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Qualities of the Secular Saint

Simone Weil, Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa resided in three distinct and different places not only in their physical being but in their specific concerns as well.  At first glance these differences would appear to create a definitive rift in comparisons between the three but at a second glance, these differences become small and the overall message of each of their lives becomes nearly inseparable as one way of being that defines the secular saint.
            According to Dr. Ambrosio, the secular saint is a person who lives the question of meaning fully while at the same time they are committed to searching for meaning along both the paths of hero and saint.  It is common for the secular saint to work toward mastering their vision.  In the case of Simone Weil, she not only lived but also died her life in search of meaning.  She died of tuberculosis that was aggravated by lack of food.  This lack of food was self imposed as she was avoiding food in an effort to show solidarity with her countrymen in Nazi occupied France.  This act alone provides us with insight into what makes Simone Weil and how she defines the secular saint.  As someone who is trying to live a life that is meaningful at least to themselves, to die by this meaning would be to fulfill the meaning in its entirety.  Simone Weil, in her spiritual zeal, felt it was necessary to show solidarity with her countrymen as a way of finding meaning for herself.  She had lived her short life in such a way that this death comes as little surprise.  She had tried to identify with others through the course of her life, in other ways as well.  She had taken a year off from teaching to live as a factory worker, a way to better understand the challenges of such a life.  Through these examples from the life of Simone Weil, we can see how she did toe the line between the path of the saint and the path of the hero.  Through her spirituality and love of humanity as a whole, she exemplified the life of the saint while her commitment to living her life out in such a way as to find herself at death’s door while in the midst of living out the meaning of her life, she exemplified the life of the hero.
            Much of the same can be said for Martin Luther King as well.  He died as a result of following and living out the life he believed was necessary in order to bring justice to African Americans during the civil rights movement.  Mother Teresa, on the other hand, died a natural death without a direct correlation to the life of justice she required for herself and those around her, however, she did die in the midst of living out the example of the type of justice she fought for.  It is, for both Martin Luther King as well as Mother Teresa, this idea of justice that resounds so deeply within the heart of the hero that it becomes obvious that both, despite their religious affiliations, were living the life of the hero.  Yet, it is precisely because of their religious affiliations, with King being a reverend and Mother Teresa being a nun that the life of the saint for each of them is evident.  Just as Simone Weil had done as well, they lived out their vision of life fully, to the end. 
Mother Teresa ached for the recognition of the human being as well as the recognition of their suffering.  Though one may not be able to alleviate said suffering, one must try to be respectful of the whole human person and at least acknowledge it.  Martin Luther King believed that everyone deserved the same rights, despite the differences in skin color.  Simone Weil believed that while people may not be able to alleviate all suffering, no harm should be done either.  People should attempt, in Weil’s opinion, to alleviate any suffering they can, at any cost but if this cannot be done, one must at least live their life in a way that sees to it that all avoidable harm is, in fact, avoided.  In these stances in their lives, there is an overwhelming sense of the justice they were each seeking while an obvious love of humanity is also evident.  For Weil, it is in her sense of justice where we can see the life of the Greek citizen hero has been of particular influence on her; the way that she focuses her vision on all, not just some.
In this modern age, we have many examples of the secular saint.  These examples are a backbone of our society that people may not always recognize or consciously see as a “secular saint” but they do exist as a model for many.  Secular saints, whether real or imagined, such as in the movies are everywhere.  Whether looking on the news and seeing Mother Teresa serving the poor so diligently or watching the main character George in the holiday movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, there are examples of people who are trying to live their life not only in the spiritual realm but also in the very human realm, trying to find for themselves as well as others, a life of meaning.   
Ambrosio, F.  Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Life (The Great Courses Series).                          Lecture 30.
Ambrosio, F.  Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Life (The Great Courses Series).                          Lecture 31
Ambrosio, F.  Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Life (The Great Courses Series).                          Lecture 32.
Ambrosio, F.  Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Life (The Great Courses Series).                          Lecture 33. 

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Experience of Meaning: Through the Eyes of Buber, Levinas, Wiesel and Frankl

When evil abounds and challenges to the individual are at their utmost, is it possible to still find meaning in life and is it even a time to consider such a question?  For Buber, Levinas, Wiesel and Frankl, this question was not only a reality but also the precise place where the answer can and would be found.  After World War II and specifically after the Holocaust, Jewish philosophers had a new framework to work within.  Questions of God, man and humanity as a whole cannot help but come to the forefront of the mind after such events.  For these men, there was a need to look for some sort of answer and meaning within the answer to the questions that arose after having seen, and for some lived, through such horror. 
            In a time when the question of God’s covenant relationship to the individual as well as humanity as a whole was necessary for those with faith, particularly the Jewish faith, Buber saw a specific need; the need to rediscover this relationship.  In his view, there was only one place where this rediscovery and reawakening could take place, in the center of the relationship itself.  In Buber’s teachings in I and Thou, it is only in the midst of such a relationship between two persons or one person and nature, that the depth of experiencing meaning is possible.
            Emmanuel Levinas, a Russian born philosopher, taught that one’s responsibility is not solely in the midst of relationship but that which precedes the relationship as well.  He believed that meaning was not found in the way of the hero or self knowledge but within the love that exists between people.  Within this mutual love relationship one can find true wisdom, as opposed to the wisdom of the heroic tradition, which centers on the self.  For Levinas, it is the responsibility that we have toward one another that precedes the relationship and it is at this point where meaning can be found.  In Buber’s view it is within the relationship that meaning is found, within the dialogue and communication that takes place therein.  In Levinas’s view, such meaning does not need the face to face encounter that Buber’s view requires.
            Elie Wiesel, having survived the Holocaust in a concentration camp, raised the question of God’s covenant relationship with the Jewish people.  It is certainly understandable that such questioning would take place when God’s chosen people were so violently and inexplicably being exterminated as if they were nothing.  When Elie first arrived in the camp, his own mother and sister were immediately shipped off to die while he and his father were permitted to live.  This type of trauma, along with the countless other atrocities that took place within the camp, helped shape Wiesel’s viewpoint on the nature of the covenant relationship that he had been taught he and his people had with God.  The very questioning of where God was when a young boy was left hanging, unable to die quickly because of his light weight, was raised by another in the camp.  The only response was that He was hanging there with the boy, which begs the further inquiry of whether or not there is a God at all and if so, where is the responsibility being lived up to that such a relationship inherently brings with it.  It is within this second follow-up question that Wiesel rejects the notion of the I and thou dialog with God.  Wiesel therefore, according to Professor Ambrosio, began his quest to find a more humanly proportioned responsibility than the total responsibility that Levinas found to be necessary in his teachings about the search for meaning. 
            Viktor Frankl, in his search for meaning, which would become one of the most important books in modern times, Man’s Search for Meaning, takes into account three elements: freedom, responsibility and suffering.  For Frankl, as opposed to Buber, Levinas and Wiesel, who believed that meaning was found in relationship, freedom is where meaning is found.  Each person, despite their circumstances, always has at least some form of freedom.  Frankl, like Wiesel, survived a concentration camp.  However, Frankl found that within the confines of such a terrible situation, he still had freedom enough to determine how he would react to the situation at hand.  His reaction, whether negative or ultimately positive, depended largely upon himself, as it does for all people in whatever situation they find themselves.  One’s values and who the person decides to be in the midst of their struggle is a decision made by the individual.  Within this type of freedom is where the real responsibility and its function exist.  For each individual, the suffering or struggle that the person faces is unique and cannot be replicated because each individual and their reactions to their given situation are also unique.  For Frankl, the individual is responsible for finding their suffering, also spoken of as passion, and to make what they will of it.  It is within this suffering and finding personal meaning as such that man has the opportunity to find meaning at all.
            Looking at the experiences of Frankl and Wiesel, it is hard to imagine what they not only faced but lived through.  It is in these experiences that the depth of who they were when they came out the other side, resonates deeply within their teachings.  For the individual who faces their suffering in such a way that they find meaning in asking whether or not there can be meaning found in such awful circumstances, there is a strength to the argument that may not be as easily found in those who have not faced such a direct challenge to who they are and their beliefs.
Ambrosio, F.  Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Life (The Great Courses Series).                          Lecture 27.
Ambrosio, F.  Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Life (The Great Courses Series).                          Lecture 29.