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Ideology vs. Experience

I recently listened to an outstanding interview of Jean Vanier by Krista Tippett on the radio program “Speaking of Faith.” Jean Vanier has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and has been considered a “Living Saint” by many people in the Roman Catholic Church. Jean Vanier is mostly known for the founding of the L’Arche movement. But, what I found more interesting was how he came to the conclusion to change his life.

In our culture we don’t always think about the journey we make through life. Or, when we do, we think about all of the career moves that we make in our effort to obtain some tangible goal. We mostly think about our personal change as a matter of growth. There is nothing wrong with this perspective, but it leaves out some important changes that we as humans go through during our lifetime.

Human beings may change in linear ways, where we grow and progress. We also know, but we don’t think about it, that human beings change in linear ways as we degrade when we get older. These types of changes assume that knowledge and power are the key attributes that make human beings human. But, for the most part this assumption ignores the fact that relationship s make human beings human. We ignore the fact that people who are weak mentally and physically can have strong relationship s. And, as a culture we ignore the importance of relationship s - unless they are business relationship s.

It is also possible that a strong and knowledgeabl e person may fail at forming meaningful relationship s. But, in our society we don’t believe that failure in forming relationship s is an important aspect of our culture. This is because we are constantly exposed to what we value in our culture through the widespread marketing in our culture.

As an aside related to this I’d like to tell a story. My daughter is currently taking seventh grade history. The curriculum has changed since my son took this four years ago. My son learned about Middle East culture in one chapter. My daughter now has several chapters covering the years between 600 CE and 1500 CE that go into quite a bit of detail. Some of this detail pertains to Middle Eastern culture. She learned that the Persians brought the west the sport of Polo. They also brought the west many geometric patterns and designs. Her assignment was to explain why these things are important. Well, her first draft explained why geometric patterns and Polo were not important to the west. Somehow it has been communicated to her that things like mathematics and medicine are important, while art and entertainmen t are not. After I pointed out that without Polo we might not have had Arabian Horses, because they were bred for that sport. And, Arabian Horses were sought after throughout the world, until the automobile was invented. Similarly the widespread pattern of paisley is Persian in origin - based on the silhouette of a tall tree blowing in the wind. Maybe paisley doesn’t have a life altering influence on western society, but that doesn’t mean that it hasn’t had an effect on western society. Art in general is part of the cultural nourishment that builds social relationship s. We relate to the artist and we relate to the other people who are relating to the artist’s piece of work. Movies and video games might be the last piece of art that we have in our culture that performs this function. We are cutting ourselves off from bits of our history.

The point of this story is that our current culture interprets what we believe to be important. Currently we believe that technology is important. We are persuaded into believing this because technology saves lives, and lives are important. We can save hundreds of lives by keeping them alive on life support with technology. We can store thousands of lives in homes and hospitals. But, what Jean Vanier is saying that we need relationship s to make those lives valuable. And, he is saying that people’s relationship s with each other make both people more valuable. They become more valuable to each other. And, the relationship s help people grow more able to form relationship s with more people. This is not a generally accepted cultural value today in our society.

So, when human beings change from valuing our current societal norms to valuing relationship s a human being grows in a non-linear way. They used to call this a paradigm shift, where the way one looks at things changes completely. And when Jean Vanier changed his life he went from being a Naval commander where his life was based on getting things done in the most efficient way possible to a new life where making a couple of mentally ill people happy by helping them to live.

He made this change in part because he had recently finished his dissertation on Aristotle’ s philosophy of experience. Based on his study, he began to realize that reality was more important than ideology. And, this message echoes today through our culture.

So, what is the difference between ideology and experience?

For the engineer this is the difference between the design and the actual creation. Some very detailed designs have been built, and in the process it is eventually realized that the finished product has deviated from the design. This happens when a product is over designed for its application. Another thing that happens is that all of the possible applications could not have been predicted ahead of time. And, in the long run reality always trumps whatever the designer may have begun with, because we all live in the real world.

Aristotle is saying the same thing. He is saying that we can hypothesis all we want about how a system should work. But, until we actually put the system into practice we will never know exactly what we need to make it work.

Government is a grand example of this. A politician sees a problem and he thinks about it. Then a group discusses the problem and a solution is proposed. Another politician envisions a solution and she proposes a new law that will fix the problem. Unfortunatel y the process can never account for every possible way the new law will be used. And, often the application of the new law might be worse than the original situation. There are two ways that people react to this. In an ideology based world the law is right and the new problems are ignored, or fixed with new laws. In a reality based world the intention of the law is understood and the enforcement of the law is where the problem is corrected. We currently live in a culture where law triumphs over intention of the law.

Both extremes lead to abuse. In a law based culture the details are exploited by those who learn to work the system. It isn’t unusual to find organized crime families with lawyers that are meant to exploit the flaws in the law. Of course the exploitation would fall to the police and prosecutors if the intent of the law were to somehow triumph in another parallel culture some day.

On the local level Jean Vanier has found a way to make experience triumph over rules. The needs of the people in his home triumph over the rules. Everyone becomes a bit happier when people become more attuned to the needs of each other. Real interactions of real people with real needs informs better than that one king sitting on his throne thinking about what the people should be doing to make each other happy. Just image that. No, don’t just imagine that, instead go out and experience that by doing something to make a difference. At least that’s what Jean Vanier is trying to say.

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Don’t forget what Stephen Colbert said, “Reality has a well-known liberal bias.”

Cross Posted @ Bring It On, tblog, Blogger and BlogSpirit


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3 Responses to “Ideology vs. Experience”

  1. Vanier is great…he has one (well, two) of my favorite quotes. The first: “Growth begins when we begin to accept our own weakness.”

    The second: “Life is a succession of crises and moments when we have to rediscover who we are and what we really want.”

  2. Doc…one of our friends has spoken with great eloquence on this sugject. “but I ask you now…take the time to pause and look around…som ewhere nearby…som eone is fidgeting and feeling all alone…reac h out and bring them back.” Daniel DiRito

  3. One of the best aphorisms I ever heard from an instructor when I was in the Marine Corps: “If the map and the terrain don’t agree, believe the terrain.”

    On the one hand, we do need a government of laws rather than of personalitie s - but that argues more for applying a strict interpretati on of laws to the government and its functionarie s than for draconian enforcement of laws applied to ordinary people in everyday situations. At the moment we seem to have the worst of both worlds - strict rules are enforced when it comes to us regular peons, but the people running things and their agents can pretty much do what they want and expect no more severe consequences in almost all cases than being told to knock it off if they get caught.

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