Capacious Inclusion

I’ve got a question for the child in you before it leaves Are you tough enough to be kind? Do you know your heart has its own mind? Darkness gathers around the light Hold on, hold on — U2, 13 (There is a Light)

I glanced through the window of the classroom door and took a deep breath. I was just out of graduate school and this was my first day of teaching. Inside were 60 students tightly crammed into a room that comfortably held 40. The course was Jesus and the Gospels, standard religious education fare at Adventist colleges, but still my favorite of all the classes I have taught in the intervening 37 years.

I did not have a detailed lesson plan for the day beyond talking about the requirements of the course. I hoped that we could open up together about who Jesus was for us and what the Gospels meant to us. So I drew an inverted pyramid on the board with the widest side above and the narrowest point below.

“What is the most general category you could identify with as a person?” I asked. “Where would you begin?”

If we teach as we were taught, then I was channeling teachers who had radically challenged my worldview since middle school. They assumed a wideness to the intellectual horizon before us that lifted my imagination and tilted my perspective. While I could not equal their breadth of knowledge I could at least match their enthusiasm for the subject.

And so I asked again, sensing how difficult it would be for someone to break that first-day silence. “Who are we, really?” I was realizing that posing good questions is harder than it seems. “This is not a trick question.”

At last one person raised his hand. “We are humans?” It was more a question than a statement, but it would do. It seemed a good place to start a religion class, with that which unites us in the most general and inclusive way possible. From there we stair-stepped our way down, from general to particular, from inclusive to exclusive, shifting categories up and down the column as we fine-tuned our choices.

We were playing out in practice the theory that S. I. Hayakawa, former semanticist and English professor at San Francisco State University — and later a U.S. senator from California — had proposed for understanding how words and labels affect our thinking and speaking. In public speaking, suggested Hayakawa, the specific is preferred to the general. His “ladder of abstraction” had, as its lowest rung, the general (Human) and its highest rung the particular (Annie). Abstractions can confuse and bore our audiences, he said, details focus their attention and imaginations.

True enough in a certain context, but turning the ladder upside down gave us a whole new perspective. As the students worked it out, we are humans first, male and female second, and from there the discussion flared out with many possibilities. Ethnicity next? Language? Citizenship?

At this point I suggested a swerve: what about religion? Where does that fit in? After some sifting and defining and a lot of back and forth, the class arrived at a line of descent that ran in Western history from the apostolic community to the Catholic Church through the Protestant Reformation, and then to the fracturing into denominational and sectarian fragments, of which Adventism, whose origin in 19th-century American millenarianism, was one. Adventism, then, was inserted at the bottom, the sharpest point, the narrowest passage to anything that might follow.

S. I. Hayakawa and his “ladder of abstraction” helps us understand the gradations of meaning between abstract and specific terms as part of clear communication. I was interested in how our moral and theological vision would change if we turned the ladder of abstraction upside down, began with the most inclusive category, and thought of ourselves first as members of the human race.

This may seem obvious to many, especially those who regard the human race to have evolved from simple life forms, a la Darwinism and evolutionary theory. But growing up in a religious community with a distinctive form of creationism, we were taught that humans were created in the image of God, fell into sin through a tragic error, and are now living with the consequences of that original willful misstep. It takes an act of God, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, to restore humanity to the crowning act of creation, and the shortest route to that goal is to belong to a religious tradition with clear and certain beliefs that are founded on Scriptural and theological truth. Believing the right ideas and behaving according to the rules is how one proceeds through life. Thus, it is a matter of supreme importance, one that has eternal consequences, to belong to the right religious body. If you grow up in this way you identify as an Adventist first and everything else after that.

Or an orthodox Jew or a deeply observant Muslim or, for that matter, a political ideologue committed to the Party above all. What all these religious and political bodies offer is a framework within which our personal identities can be developed — nurtured even — and ultimately compressed into similar forms. There is stability, consistency, a reliable level of expectation, and a sense of belonging to a movement that can put things right. But resentment and envy can grow where contractual obligations stand in the place of the risk of faith.

Our identity is built up over a lifetime, but begins with an irritant like a grain of sand: Who am I? What am I to do? Whether it becomes a pearl or a festering sore is largely the result of myriad decisions, some imposed upon us as children and others carved out of our own experience as we gauge the distance from where we are to the sunlit clearing up ahead where we think we want to be.

Of the many quotes from Ellen White that my generation took in as youth, the one that moved me the most and has remained a touchstone for me as a teacher is, “It is the work of true education to develop this power, to train the youth to be thinkers, and not mere reflectors of other men’s thoughts,” from the book Education.

Adopted as a general principle of education this idea has a quietly revolutionary power to it. It suggests first, that thinking is not incidental, but is the goal of true education; that no matter what the content of the course, the primary outcome should be the training of the mind for independent thinking. Second, that thoughtful reflection within a religious context is not an adjunct to religious rules and practices but is the grammar and language of one’s spiritual expression. And finally, that for all the knowledge one might gain from others, there is no substitute for personal experience.

At no other time in history have we had the capacity to know so much about other religions, cultures, mindsets, and philosophies of life. Yet, on all sides we see not openness and capaciousness, but fearfulness and divisiveness and retreat. This is not the first time in history for such a reaction, and it most certainly will not be the last, but neither is it the worst expression of this debilitating exclusivity. But we must take responsibility for our own ignorance and fear. A good start is to think of ourselves as belonging to the human family.

I remember an afternoon spent in an open-air market in Bali, when two young Balinese men and I began a conversation near a memorial to the bombing in 2002 which took the lives of over 200 people from 22 nations and injured hundreds more. A granite slab with the names of the victims now stands where the pub that was the initial target was incinerated in the blast. The two had been teenagers when the bombing occurred and knew some of the Balinese victims. They taught me some Indonesian words and I taught them some English. We talked about Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity. They talked about their families; I talked about mine. They spoke of their hopes for a university education and I shared my love of teaching with them. Nothing earthshaking, no headlines, but simply three people overcoming numerous barriers to communication for the joy of understanding another person, another culture.

Looking back over a lifetime of teaching and learning, my willingness to be open to different ideas and experiences has varied in proportion to my confidence that I am always on the road to Emmaus, and whoever my companion of the moment may be there is, as Eliot wrote, ”a third who walks always beside” us.

Having begun my teaching life in an Adventist college, with every intention of staying there, I smile to find myself through circumstance, temperament, and opportunity, one semester from completing that trajectory in a Catholic women’s college serving students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“What you must realize, what you must even come to praise, is the fact that there is no right way that is going to become apparent to you once and for all…Wisdom is accepting the truth of this. Courage is persisting with life in spite of it. And faith is finding yourself, in the deepest part of your soul, in the very heart of who you are, moved to praise it.” — Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss.

Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, and communications for 28 years at Columbia Union College, now Washington Adventist University, and business communication at Stevenson University for 7 years. He continues as adjunct professor in ethics and philosophy at Trinity Washington University, D.C. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods.

Photo by Ben White / Unsplash.com

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8885

I like this article. I guess by the time a student is sitting in your “Jesus and the Gospels” class they can start with “the most general category”. But, of course, we don’t develop that way. We begin with the specific - “my mom” and “my dad”. From there the world grows bigger and broader. Maybe that’s why Jesus wants us to pray, “Our Father, which are in heaven…” This sets our identity as the child of God with whatever number of siblings (OUR), It also gives us our world view as being a large family; and since Jesus bids us “whoever, come”, our connection to all humanity is familial. So, as a spiritual identity, the most general would also be the most specific (child of God) with all other designations irrelevant.

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My dean in graduate school loved to say a specialist is a very broad person honed to a very sharp edge. Howthen could Adventism go from the keen edge of Paul to the confusion of a disappointed unlearned ego centric minority?

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Awesome article. Asking the correct questions… is a big indicator of the context upon which we ask the most important questions regarding God. This article provides hope for individuals to “engage” in open discovery of God within the structure/life experience in which they find themselves…

@tjzwemer provides a “very sharp edge” focus, which brings to mind the thought that unless we as individuals test and verify truth for ourselves…we really cannot “properly context” our reality.

Another thought about the inverted pyramid comes to mind… as we take away the layers of definition… the final realization becomes the self awareness that God resides in us and that he is the ultimate definition of who we are…

with kind regards,

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My favorite line from Barry’s article was:
“Nothing earthshaking, no headlines, but simply three people overcoming numerous barriers to communication for the joy of understanding another person, another culture.”
Barry, your excellent article should remind us to examine our communication. When engaged in conversation, as we prepare to speak, we should ask ourselves these questions: it is true Exodus 20:16? Is it kind Titus 3:2? Is it necessary Proverbs 3:22? We should consider the tone of newer forms of communication such as email and text messaging. We should never allow the safety of a computer screen to lead us to harsh or ungodly words toward others. We need to remember that communication is the transfer of meaning and that transfer depends on our willingness to “…overcoming numerous barriers to communication for the joy of understanding another person, another culture.”
Thank you!

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Why was this article written? To me it is like a stream of consciousness. The title means “lots of room or plenty of room for inclusion,” Inclusion to being open minded to how we think? What is the theme or main idea?

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Ed, you got it. The theme is being open-minded, especially about how we learn. I’m somewhat reticent, perhaps even an introvert, but as a teacher and a writer I’ve found I can learn and experience so much more if I open my horizons. Being open to new experiences and ideas does not mean, of course, that I don’t have convictions. If you follow the essay carefully from start to finish you’ll notice that it opens with an experiment in inclusiveness and closes with my personal experience in inclusiveness.

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So well said, Grace!

@bearcee, I recently learned my father has terminal cancer (last few days). While waiting at the hospital in the (state of reflection) I wrote this poem and thought about the father son post (other thread) then read your “personal experience in inclusiveness”…

We sometimes view others as whether or not they are “saved/lost”… then I remembered a sage gentlemen from my academy days… told me the following statement… "a tree bears fruit because it is a fruit tree… not in order to be a fruit tree… " I wrote the following to honor the opportunity to care for my father and remember the “golden threads” of “his fruit” in my life.

The Gospel Pyramid

A golden strand ran through the experience of a person, not of worth. Their journey not defined.
But in their wanderings, they met several strangers… by God’s providence inclined.
Many trees bearing evidence, gathered fruit, on hills quite rocky and steep…
To partake of each in turn, as they traveled, while trusting, theirs to keep…

Perspective gained, trees of value, under which they did find solace…
Drawing strength, ever increasing… content and did not notice…
Each season in turn, passing, fading in and out of view…
God’s breadth of rest and assurance… ever more clear and new.

Dark times, depression, obscured life choices adrift and without meaning,
Each trial in turn brings objective thought, deeper ponder of life’s true leaning.
When at last in reflection of a life lived and almost past…
The knowledge of unknown branches from trees planted, where their journey did stand fast.

Rest from labours bourn, perspective, glimpses of truth and grace.
Realization that they are now planted, trees in time and space.
Evidence that God planted them in His vineyard, shaped by His caring hand.
Trees that remain of His providence… willing fruits per His command…

Living to see in others, glimpses of truth from the vine…
A legacy of faith and love, with heaven’s view entwined.
Perspective obtained, with faith assured firmly locked in place.
A glorious sunset of praise, waiting to see God… face to face.

with kind regards,

Beautifully written, Grace. Our perspective is limited and the fuller picture is often obscured by our own prejudice–either positively or negatively. My prayer for you and your father in this is for endurance and strength and assurance. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and poem with us.

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Grace, I am so sorry you and your family are going through such a difficult and painful experience. May the God of the Universe comfort everyone with the assurance of the resurrection and the hope of an encounter not far from now.

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