The Avoidance of Becoming Human Lemmings

One of the important learnings of life is that problems are blessings...if addressed. Look at any famous person in sports, the arts, or life in general. That person's success is not due so much to luck as much as dealing with some sort of pain in his or her life. The type of pain isn't the issue; the issue is dealing with the pain. The famous greats of life are merely observable examples of that truth. However, I want all my students to look at the pain that they are facing whether it is racism, sexism, educational or financial needs, etc. The type of pain isn't the point or the issue...the pain will vary from one person to the next. However, the point is whether the pain is addressed or not. Therein lies the issue of one's personal greatness.

One of the classes that I teach is philosophy and have for decades. We talk about loads of differing issues. This is a painting of Plato and Aristotle doing precisely what we do in class. They are discussing the value of living in a world with or without art, emotions, and feelings.

Plato and Aristotle talking about art, emotions, and feelings

Plato and Aristotle talking about art, emotions, and feelings

Aristotle and Plato had a good discussion and so do we. However, we morph into theology, which is a subsection of philosophy on one week during the semester. I have a personal problem with this blending of the two. One of the main reasons for having trouble with this branch of philosophy is that students often have problems separating their personal religious views from doing philosophy. A secular and objective basis for thinking about philosophical questions is critical when we attempt to find truth on our philosophical journey. We question with the hope of finding something that approaches some sort of truth about a topic. When we deal with non-personal issues, it is easier to discuss, debate, argue, and disagree with one another. The students and I love even a heated discussion. In this philosophical pain, learning occurs during that process.

However, when we get to the chapter on theology, I cringe. There will always be some in the class that will want to defend their personal religious beliefs in the process of thinking objectively. Anything that differs or contradicts their belief system in a philosophy class is seen with negativity and challenging their personal belief system. I attempt to push them to suspend personal beliefs all semester and to look at each week's topic as objectively as possible. I don't care what they believe after the semester is over; that isn't any of my business. However, it is my business to help them to think philosophically. I take that very seriously.

For example, students will talk about miracles in their lives with the same reverence as if they were reading from a biblical text. They will tell about miracles that saved their lives or the lives of loved ones. Any attempt to question or debate is taken as an affront to their religious beliefs. When issues are raised about other places where miracles are missing like the 100s of thousands of children suffering from starvation or disease, they won't address that question. It is almost as if they are oblivious to how more than half the world lives daily.

I have been aware of this dilemma for years and have added several years ago the requirement to read an interview that my daughter did with me after I had danced with death. In one of my dances, I fell off a ladder, hit my head causing a subdural hematoma, and 4-weeks in ICU. I don't recall the anything just prior to the fall until a week after getting out of ICU. After going to a rehab hospital for another 3-weeks, I started to get back to my normal life. Within 3-months after the fall, I was back to teaching and my regular life. The only negative effect of the fall is some impaired hearing.

While discussing theology, I will allude to my fall. Even though the neurosurgeon said to my wife as he went into surgery on me that I had a 50-50 chance of living through the operation, I don't see any divine hand protecting me from death. It was merely a matter of the draw or rather the fall, the skill of my surgeon, and the medical team. If it was a miracle that I lived, why would God have spared my life and not spared hundreds of kids on the streets of Chicago from getting shot and killed each year? Students will respond that I had some sort of divine purpose in life...a yet unknown reason to me. If I were a parent of some young child in Chicago, I would wonder why Campbell was spared and not my kid. How was I more important than their child?

In addition, did God have a purpose for my life and what is it? However, several students each semester will tell how God has singled them out for some yet unknown reason while the saved student is oblivious to a world where 2/3 live in either starvation or near starvation conditions or exposed to all sorts of life threatening diseases. Apparently, all the billions didn't have a divine purpose to live. That is nonsense.

When we personalize theology, we run the very distinct risk of hubris and egotism. In addition, a few students don't see this as their manipulating God to their mindset. In addition, the student's theological view of God is universalized...meaning that what they believe, all people will believe. We are in a philosophy class where we are attempting to understand something can be universally accepted. Therefore, some particular Christian notion probably won't be seen as applicable to all other religions. My personal view of God is not the theological gold standard for truth. However, several of my students think their theological mindset is. What they believe is seen by them as a universal truth. That mindset is a death knell to learning to do philosophy or any learning in general.

When one questions this universality notion, it is difficult for some students to understand. When you ask about how they came to that conclusion about theology and God, their response is that is what they were taught. Acting like a 21st century Socrates, I will ask about what they would believe if they had been born in Baghdad, New Delhi, or Tokyo? We sometimes think in a very insular way. Of course, ask a student in Baghdad, New Delhi, or Tokyo, they will tell you the same thing about their theological truth acquired by the happenstance of their birthplace.

In some way, the philosophical questions about all things including God is a splendid pain producing situation. It causes discomfort in the minds of thinking students. If the pain is significant enough, it will cause them to think...about this issue and all the other issues that will confront them in life. Therein lies the blessing. Pain will cause us to think outside our comfort box.

I have learned that truth. Next semester, a link to this article on my webpage will be provided my class. It will be given to them before they begin to think philosophically about the question of God, miracles, and control over our lives.

We are the ones that have control. The question is whether we recognize it or not. Even though we have control, if we don't use it, it is as if we don't have control. When that occurs, we cease being humans and become like the folklore about lemmings following the one in front of them. As the story goes, the lemmings will march into rivers and drown en masse as they follow those before them. If students do the same, they will drown intellectually.

A drowned lemming

A drowned lemming

I don't teach lemmings, but I do teach students. Perhaps, this is a better picture of what can happen in a philosophy class.

A caution to following human lemmings

A caution to following human lemmings