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The View from Here: The appropriate role of art and religion

Mike Gangwer Published on 11 October 2011

In the nearly 20 years of writing this column, I often have written about science and art: what they are to me and how we might describe their role in our public space.

For instance, I have written that science is a methodological approach of testing ideas or premises. We start with little knowledge and use inductive reasoning and empirical evidence to arrive at understanding.

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Or, we begin with a set of known laws, the domain of physics and chemistry and thermodynamic principles, coupled with deductive reasoning, to test our models and also arrive at understanding.

As scientists, we are guided by accepted procedures and doctrine. We improve our understanding with additional testing, thereby increasing the reliability of our understanding.

Yet what is the role of art?

Simply, the role of art is everything else. In a recent column by David Brooks in the New York Times (September 13, 2011), he writes of a survey of young people’s ability to make moral choices. The results were discouraging.

The survey shows a lack of group or collective moral focus, pointing toward one of individual feeling. In other words, as individuals we can choose our own moral life, and thereby lead a self-centered life.

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Certainly in our civilized society we have laws and regulations that keep the individual moral focus within the domain of the collective good. That is, we may bring no harm to our fellow human beings unless there is a compelling reason to do so.

The rationale for this reason or justification is, however, a collective one. We chose to root out and destroy the network of terrorists who changed our world so suddenly 10 years ago with four airplanes.

How are we as individuals to reckon with these collective moral choices? How do we understand the manifestations of anger, revenge, war and the taking of a life?

I suggest it is through an early introduction into the realm of the arts. In this realm is religion. I find the great value of religion, in bringing together a society, collectively and yet individually, is as we leave the steeple.

It is the lessons of empathy and compassion. I consider these two attributes the most important moral signatures of our lives. These begat the sacrifice of the self towards the greater good, the commonality of all life and the understanding of our role in the community.

These are the domain of religion, and not just one or two religions, but all of them. Empathy and compassion are the cornerstones of all religions.

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These qualities in the individual do not depart us from the need for selfness … the work ethic of a life, the struggle of our day-to-day existence to gain something better and the purposeful life that is found by bringing meaning to it.

The art of the individual life, having lived with authenticity and robustness, is coupled with the giving of ourselves into the domain of the civil society. We may make individual moral choices, but many more are made collectively by our participation in civil society.

Where do we learn empathy and compassion? By example. Our parents teach us. Our teachers mentor us.

Our pastors bring evidence of such qualities from the pulpit; our professors of science tell us to find the halls of humanities, enter them and soak up poetry, philosophy, literature and the essays of the pilgrims, saints and sinners of our current and past world.

Our morals are not gained by nature … I do not believe we can view the natural world and find the answers we seek. Our morals are taught to us. We sit in the kitchen while Mom or Dad teach by example … the life they compose is the life we copy.

We sit in the pew or chamber and listen to a pastor … he or she cannot demand anything, so we must reconcile the stories and metaphors found in the great religions of the world and incorporate them into our life.

Our teachers of art and the humanities guide us toward the discovery of ordinary lives having been composed of meager means but transformed into the giving of one’s self to another.

The great stories of moral war, for instance, are not told by the general officer, but rather the infantryman stuck in a muddy hole or a platoon leader having found his men in the jungle or urban city with armaments ranging through colors of brown to orange.

The great stories of moral discovery are told by one having been cast into the abyss, but he climbs out and discovers that which he did not know possible.

The great stories of moral sacrifice are done in far-away lands, the decision to depart the comforts of our western world and enter the desert of Africa or the tundra of Finland or the waters of the Pacific and give oneself over to the greater good.

The moral focus of one’s life is an inner choice made at the depths of one’s aloneness. Then, in deliberate manner, that life is made manifestly whole by committing to a manner of living that is not self-centered, but community-centered and society-centered.

Yes, we all have an individual ethos that supports our decisions in how we may compose this authentic life, one made up of empathy and compassion, but the self-centered life is a core attribute of many young people; it is the wasteland that we must avoid.

What to do?

In some manner we must rein in this self-centered approach. Exposure to the arts, especially religion, and especially, within religion, the artcraft of empathy and compassion must be provided to our young people.

Of course we cannot demand or force them to adopt these ideas of community and civil society … that is the inner journey we all have had to make and continue to make every day. But we can manifest these ideas by our own action.

Yes, too often those whom we choose to follow let us down; they fail, and thus we question our leaders and mentors and teachers. Yet most do not.

Think back to the people in your life having mentored you for qualities of reserving the self and elevating the community of man. We follow their example because of their actions. They truly compose a life by bringing meaning to it and thus lead an authentic life of giving oneself to others through empathy and compassion.

I am not sure that our young people are getting these lessons today. What do we, as parents, tell our children? What are teachers and pastors and professors telling our children? What lessons are they learning in today’s world of information overload?

The moral focus or code of a society is a reflection of the individual morals we all bring as part of that community.

We must be grounded in some moral understanding, through exposure to the arts, the discovery of the collective good and the diminishment of a completely self-centered life at the expense of our greater good. It is not about me. It is about us.

Entering the authentic life of empathy and compassion is reward enough. Regardless of our station and of our status, these attributes fulfill our manifest destiny as human beings, sentient and satisfied men and women having given ourselves to something greater than we are as individuals.

This is the art of our life. Unlike the scientific method of procedure and doctrine, art is found in the pew of a great cathedral, the vast grass field of the plains, the gaze into the eyes of a newborn and the path in a forest that has no markers.

Art is found in the great literature, the stories of our grandfather, the whispers of our mother and the muddy pit of despair.

Indeed, art is manifest when our moral focus is empathy and compassion. This, then, is the appropriate role of art. PD

  • Mike Gangwer

  • Agricultural Scientist
  • USDA-NRCS
  • Email Mike Gangwer

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