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Lions Roar : September 2011
SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2011 78 In the medieval Christian West, for instance, people could not help but expe- rience themselves as created and deter- mined by God. In a thoroughly religious culture, theology comfortingly grounds one’s identity, authoritatively telling us who we are: the children of God who should act accordingly, obeying His laws. This suggests some of the appeal, even for many today, of religious faith and some forms of fundamentalism, despite the extensive rational critique of religion by “new atheists” such as Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. Dreyfus and Kelly identify the wide- spread illness of the contemporary world as “not just that we know the right course of action and fail to pursue it; we often seem not to have any sense for what the standards for living a good life are in the first place. Or said another way, we seem to have no ground for choosing one course of action over any other.” This is the disease of cultural nihilism, the anx- ious sense that nothing beyond our own sheer willfulness underwrites the values and choices we make every day. Most of All Things Shining is the story of how culture shifted “from the fixed cer- tainty of Dante’s world to the existential uncertainty of our own.” Dreyfus and Kelly are lively storytellers, narrating in a per- suasive fashion the decisive tipping points and transitions over the last three millen- nia. The crux of the matter seems to have been the radical diminishing of human connectedness to the natural world and sacred powers, until, after Descartes, we have come to experience our- selves as isolated, autonomous individuals, fundamentally sepa- rate from the reality of a dead world around us. I may be attracted to the beauties and wonders of my surround- ing world, but the choice to move toward someone or something is, we feel nowa- days, entirely my own. Not so in the stories of Homer’s Greeks. There is a divine force called Aphrodite that moves Helen to fall in love outside her marriage, and a martial energy called Ares that brilliantly moti- vates Achilles as a warrior in action. There are modern examples of being strongly motivated by something larger than ourselves, and Dreyfus and Kelly want us to take such moments seriously. These amazing upsurges of being moved to action manifest in inspiring political speeches, stellar achievements in sports, and the compassionate actions of contem- porary heroes like Wesley Autrey, the New York “subway hero.” In 2007, Autrey dove onto subway tracks and saved a stranger who had fallen between the rails during “Ashoka’s goal of a unifying ethic for his empire was perhaps foreordained to failure. But like all the great ethical teachers of humanity, he consciously left a message for all times.” – BRUCE RICH RÉUNIONDESMUSÉESNATIONAUX/ARTRESOURCE,NY Limestone sculpture of a Chakravartin (universal ruler) believed to depict the Indian emperor Ashoka; in the style of the Amaravati school of art, India, circa first century BCE to first century CE.