All Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing

The mid-day plenary today at the American Academy of Religion National Conference was a conversation between Kelly Brown Douglas and Michelle Alexander, and the work in their respective books Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God and The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In the Age of Colorblindness.

Michelle Alexander told a moving personal story about the first few years following the release of The New Jim Crow, before it was widely read and transforming perceptions across the United States. She described presenting the material from her research, and after each presentation she heard an internal voice say, “All sound and fury, signifying nothing.” She found this extremely jarring, and it followed her as she continued to speak nationally.

It changed for her when, while visiting the University of Denver, Professor Vincent Harding (1) told her, “I read your book, and I hear what you’re saying. But I feel like what you’re really saying here is, ‘What you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me.'” For Alexander, this changed everything.

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Michelle Alexander (2)

She told of how she realized that railing against the institutions and systems contributing to mass incarceration was all sound and fury, signifying nothing, when it was not spiritually grounded and directed toward action. She spoke of needing to honor and remember the divinity of every person.

Alexander’s experiences reveal, I think, a turn toward practice. She clearly cared about the work she was doing, fighting for racial justice against police departments in California and then digging into the prison industrial complex. But what was it rooted in? I ask the same question when I think about scholarship than is not rooted in practice. If I engage in study that I deem important, what is determining for me that it is important? Desire for acceptance? Prestige? Love?

I am not suggesting that Michelle Alexander was motivated by any of these things, nor do I pretend that I could uncover her motivation. Rather I want to turn a light upon the change that occurred for her once the divinity of every person became a foundation, a grounding rod for her work. Did her words at that point of change then signify everything, rather than nothing? Did it radically transform the important work she was already doing? Did people start turning en masse toward her work and her message once her words carried the new meaning of her spiritual orientation?

So I wonder: is scholarship that is not grounded in spiritual practice and spiritual perspectives all sound and fury? I am not so sure, but I sure am wondering.

I would like to thank Kelly Brown Douglas and Michelle Alexander for inviting me, and many others here at the conference, into their important and insightful conversation.

Notes

(1) I began my studies at Iliff School of Theology, where Dr. Harding taught for 33 years, in 2014, the same year that he died. I feel his legacy around me through the many people he touched and transformed, though I never met him.

(2) Image from http://dy00k1db5oznd.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/M-Alexander-0410_021_bw_r.jpg

“I’ve never thought of myself as a scholar” – thoughts from the American Academy of Religion National Conference

I am in San Antonio, Texas, for the national conference of the American Academy of Religion, and had the pleasure to listen to Cornel West speak on a panel this morning. When a question was asked about the academy and the role of scholars of religion, West had this to say:

I’ve never thought of myself as a religious scholar. I’ve been fundamentally called to be a lover of truth, love, goodness, beauty, holy. I engage with ideas and scholars to do this, but the fundamental question for me is the kind of witness you bear. (1)

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Cornel West is sitting second from the left.

As I sat listening to this engaging panel, I was struck by West’s response, especially within the context of my wonderings on this blog about what it means to be a scholar who is rooted in practice. Rather than a scholar, West is a “lover of truth, love, goodness, beauty, holy.” This language reminds me of philosophers as lovers of wisdom and mystics as lovers of God. I also think of the school formed by Claudio Naranjo called the Seekers After Truth, which began in the 1970s with an influential group of spiritual teachers.

The love of truth, love, goodness, beauty, holy leads Cornel West to engage in ideas and with scholars. Scholarship here appears to be a vehicle for witness, for the living out of a love of truth. The identity of scholar is not important. Perhaps more of a role to play, or a hat to wear, than an identification to take into one’s personality. I do not take him to mean that the identification or role of scholar should be discarded, but rather that it has not been part of his paradigm, merely a sphere he inhabits while he lives out his love and witness.

Surrounded by almost 10,000 people this weekend who generally call themselves scholars, this is an important shift, I think. It begs the question: are “scholar” and “monk” merely spheres we inhabit while we live out a love for truth? A loyalty to truth? Also, West described himself as a lover of truth, not of knowledge. Is the love for truth inherently practice-based, whereas the love for knowledge is not? What role does the love of love/goodness/beauty/holy play for the scholar?

I’ll be checking in with more as the weekend unfolds and I continue to learn from my colleagues in this rich setting.

Notes

(1) I have not captured the precise wording of what Cornel West said, but I have done my best to retain its original structure and essence. For this reason, I have not put it in quotation marks.

Scholar Monks: Xuanzang

This is part of the ongoing Scholar Monks series, which explores the lives and works of people who have chosen to further knowledge while grounded in practice.

Xuanzang (loosely pronounced shwen-zahng) lived in Tang Dynasty China during the 7th century (1). The tale of this scholar monk’s life is nothing short of epic. At 26, he had studied the most advanced Buddhist theories and philosophies available to him in China, and found that there were questions that couldn’t be answered. So he decided to break the imperial decree against international travel and set off for India in search of the true teachings.

It took three years of travel before arriving at the Buddhist university of Nalanda in northern India. During his trek, he dodged an attempted stabbing by his guide, traversed deserts and high mountain passes, and refused numerous offers from kings to stay and hold positions in their royal courts, once fasting for three days to convince a particularly stubborn ruler. He was dedicated to moving forward with his quest.

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An image of Xuanzang from the Dunhuang Caves, China (2)

Once arriving at Nalanda, a tremendous center for Buddhist study at the time, Xuanzang studied under the abbot for five years, reading Buddhist texts, studying math, logic, and Sankrit, and writing treatises. On his way back to China he lost some scriptures in a river crossing and waited months for replacements. He continued through Dunhuang, in Western China where this image is from, and arrived back in his homeland after being gone for 16 years.

Back in China, Xuanzang became a topic of interest of the emperor, who endorsed a giant translation project, led by Xuanzang, to convert the nearly 700 sutras and relics Xuanzang brought back from India. Xuanzang trained many in the imperial court in Buddhism, including the crown prince, although he declined an official position, stating that his life’s work was to clarify Buddha’s teaching. Interestingly, he did not write any commentaries on the texts, he translated.

Xuanzang’s legacy is vast. He greatly influenced the development of Buddhism in China, contributing to the founding of numerous new schools of thought and introducing Chinese Buddhisms to hundreds of new texts. The Heart Sutra, a brief and profound text that is considered by Zen to capture the essence of Buddhism, was translated by Xuanzang. It is the most widely chanted Zen text in the world. The Journey West, a 16th century Chinese epic tale involving a monk protected by a monkey king and other fantastic creatures, is based on the life and writings of Xuanzang. For any fans of the anime series Dragonball, a number of the themes of The Journey West would look very familiar.

Some key points, as I see them: Xuanzang was persistent in his single-minded focus to clarify spiritual teachings. He refused multiple offers from many kings and an emperor to take positions of power within their governments. That didn’t keep him from benefitting from the patronage of those governments, though. He went to great lengths to study, gather materials of study, and translate those materials, though not to comment on them. His writings were concentrated on theoretical issues and one exposition of the geographies he traversed in his travels.

What can we learn from this scholar monk? Perhaps, don’t get sucked in by power, but rather direct it for the benefit of many. Don’t lose track of what’s important to you, what drives you forward in your learning and practice. Maintain focus. Seek truth. Study with people you admire.

What are some of your takeaways? Please share any thoughts in the comments.

Notes

(1) All of my information on Xuanzang I take from the fantastic book by Kazuaki Tanahashi, The Heart Sutra: A Comprehensive Guide to the Classic of Mahayana Buddhism. Boston: Shambhala, 2014.

(2) The image of Xuanzang is from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Xuan_ Zang.jpg