Step One in My Own Escape from Plato’s Cave (7th in a series on critical thinking)

altar boys

Let me put some flesh on the abstractions I’ve shared so far in this series on critical thinking. I include this autobiographical material to explain the origins of the conclusions and principles I intend to share later on. They all came to me quite gradually and despite my sometimes fierce resistance.

I also present this segment to raise questions for the reader about issues connected with the Global South and its relationship to the United States and its policies. Questions similar to your own, I’m guessing, arose for me in the course of my travels. Hopefully, the rules for critical thinking to be elaborated later on will suggest answers about colonialism, capitalism and socialism, poverty, U.S. policy itself, violence, terrorism, and war. In the contemporary world, those, after all, constitute the topics worthiest of critical thought.

The odyssey I’ll describe has taken me across five continents – from Chicago to Delhi. My journeys had me gathering wisdom from my earliest school teachers, and later from world-renowned philosophers and theologians, as well as from revolutionary fighters, community organizers, gurus, teachers of meditation, and as-yet-to-be-canonized saints. As the story unfolds, I hope you can witness my horizons expand. There is nothing like language study, travel, and challenges from outside one’s cultural cave to stimulate critical thinking. Watching my process may make you aware of your own.

Like everyone else’s, my horizons were highly constricted at first. To be perfectly honest, I did not start thinking in truly critical ways till perhaps the age of 25. Yet before then, I was extremely concerned with thinking and truth. As a candidate for the Catholic priesthood from the age of 14, I studied Catholic “apologetics” and took it all quite seriously. Apologetics meant rational, logical “defense of the faith.” Later as a philosophy major in the Catholic seminary, my whole academic orientation dealt with rational approaches to subjects such as metaphysics, cosmology, and logic itself.

Yet despite such emphasis on rationality, I was not really thinking critically. Instead, my thought processes remained limited by what philosopher, Ken Wilber and others describe as those early stages of consciousness through which every human being must pass. As previously noted, they begin with ego-centrism, pass through ethnocentrism, and finally (for some) arrive at global and possibly even cosmic-centrism.[1]

Reflection has shown me how each stage of my own growth along those lines suggested to me one or more of the ten rules for critical thinking that I mentioned in previous postings.

Egocentrism

I was always a very religious boy. Living on Chicago’s northwest side, my working class parents (my father was a truck driver) had sent me to St. Viator’s Catholic Grammar School from kindergarten through 8th grade. Every grade there was taught by a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet. I have nothing but fond memories of them. They enhanced my spiritual sensitivities. Under their tutelage, I attended Mass every day, went to confession each Saturday, and became a “Knight of the Altar” (altar boy) advancing to the rank of “Vice Supreme Grand Knight.” I prided myself in learning the associated and complex Latin prayers perfectly. I loved all of that and wanted to be like Father Burke, the young but strict disciplinarian who was in charge St. Viator’s School.

With that sort of background, it comes as no surprise that my first worries in life were about the salvation of my eternal soul. That’s the form my egocentrism took. I needed to secure heaven and avoid hell at all costs. Nothing else mattered.

So seriously did I take the task that I found myself afflicted early on with a case of scruples that recurred for me periodically till my early 20s. Scruples meant that I worried about and feared as sinful what other saner people would not – especially anything that might be associated with sex.

So I became obsessed with confessing my “sins,” lest I die in mortal sin and lose my eternal soul forever. That form of obsessive-compulsive behavior was very painful for me. But with help from various spiritual directors, I gradually gained the courage to think for myself (even about God and sin). I remember thinking: “I can’t go on like this. If I’m going to hell, I’m going to hell. But I’m trusting that God is not that fearful Being “up there” looking for the least excuse to condemn me. I’ll take my chances.”

That in itself was a step away from ego-centrism and a nascent expression of critical thinking, at least in the religious sphere. I was somehow unconsciously employing the principle, “Connect with your deepest self.”

(Next week: Ethnocentrism expands my egocentric concerns)

[1] It should be noted that I am about to describe my development of intellectual, spiritual, and political awareness. Wilber refers to such dimensions as “lines” of development. Other lines include physical=kinetic, psychological, artistic, emotional, etc. One might be well-developed in some of these lines, and less advanced in others. For example, a person might be quite advanced intellectually, but less so emotionally and artistically.

My First Steps towards Internationalism (Personal Reflections Pt. V)

Silver Creek

In this series, I’ve been trying to explain (mainly to my children) the origin of their father’s “crazy ideas.” And, looking back, I can see that they’ve been shaped by at first unconsciously and later consciously looking at the world through the eyes of non-Americans. In retrospect I see that I’ve been an internationalist most of my life.

It all started at the age of 5 or 6, when I thought I wanted to be a priest. I guess I admired Fr. Burke and wanted to be like him. (When my Aunt Marge heard or my aspirations, she remarked something like, “Yeah, right. Wait till he discovers girls!”)

A little later I started a subscription to Fields Afar magazine published by the Maryknoll Mission Society.  I was thinking of becoming a Maryknoll missionary. But then in my 7th or 8th grade, Fr. Stan Walzac of the Society of St. Columban visited our classroom at St. Viator’s. He told us of the Columbans – a group of about 1000 missionary priests – mostly Irish. The organization had been founded in Ireland in 1918 as the Maynooth Mission to China. “Maynooth” was the name of the Irish national seminary.  After 1949, when the Chinese communists expelled foreign missionaries, the Columbans moved their focus to the Philippines, Korea, Japan, Burma and eventually to Latin America, and Pakistan.

I filled out a card-of-interest.  Fr. Walzac was soon in our living room giving us his pitch. Next thing I knew, I was preparing to enter the high school seminary in Silver Creek, New York. That was 1954; I had just turned 14.

“The Creek” was a big medieval-looking building (pictured above) on a 50 acre campus on the shores of Lake Erie.  It had everything you’d expect:  dormitories, classrooms, library, chapel, gym, a beautiful cloister with a pond at its center with big gold carp swimming in it. We had a football field, baseball diamond, tennis courts, and outdoor Stations of the Cross placed on a bluff overlooking the lake. Everyone was required to play intra-mural sports in season – baseball, football, and basketball. I loved all of that, so I was happy. I felt sorry for the friends who had no interest, but were still required to play.

My four years at Silver Creek seemed never-ending. We were in the Buffalo snow-belt and the winters were hard. The food wasn’t great. We spent so much time shoveling snow that accumulated by the ton. My freshman class had 32 members; four of us from Chicago. Three of those Chicagoans persevered till ordination in 1966. We (and a classmate from Iowa) were the only ones from the original group who made it that far. Of course, others joined us along the 13 year journey to our goal. My ordination class had 10 members.

Studies at Silver Creek were demanding. It was the usual high school curriculum. But there was a lot of emphasis on languages – Latin, Greek, and French. Failure to “get” Latin caused so many students to fail out. Others were “bounced” (that’s what we called it) for disciplinary reasons, still others because in their cases, my Aunt Marge’s prediction came true.

And speaking of “bouncing,” I remember once when three of my classmates hot-wired one of faculty’s cars and drove to Buffalo for a night on the town. All three were gone within a couple of days.

The language emphasis at the Creek and being taught by those Irishmen played strong (though completely unconscious) roles in making me the internationalist I referenced earlier. As everyone says, language study does something to one’s mind – causes thinking from other perspectives – especially if the languages are studied on site.

So while French, Latin, Greek (and later, Hebrew) were studied on U.S. soil, my other languages – Italian, German, Portuguese, and Spanish were studied abroad. I picked up Italian in Rome, and then studied German for two summers at the University of Vienna, Portuguese came in Brazil, and Spanish in Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to speak more than one of those tongues at a time. Right now, for instance, all my efforts are directed towards Spanish. So if I try to speak Italian, I become tongue-tied.  I hate that.

The reading ability however remains. That’s enabled me to think outside the dominant culture here. For many years I found myself reading almost nothing but Portuguese and Spanish – the languages of liberation theology which over the last 40 years has influenced me so profoundly. Besides theology, I concentrated on history and economics. Those perspectives, I found, were far different from what we take for granted in the U.S.

None of this is to say that in my early years I didn’t think of myself as “American.” As a matter of fact, growing up with the Irish like that made me feel like an outsider and all the more American. It seemed that all of my classmates had parents from the Old Sod. Many were more Irish than the Irish. Some of them could step-dance, knew all the Irish songs, and wore genuine shamrocks on St. Patrick’s Day. Meanwhile (as far as I knew) I had not a drop of Irish blood in my veins. As I said, I felt a bit of an outsider in those respects – and all the more “American.”

That Americanism was deeply offended when I was perhaps a freshman or sophomore at Silver Creek. For some reason our whole student body (about 100 of us) traveled to another seminary in nearby Dunkirk for a day of recollection or something. I remember an elderly priest (he might have been 60!) gave us a talk after lunch. And in its course he spoke about the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. (Remember this was just 10 years or so after the event.) The priest referred to bombing as “the worst international crime in the history of the world.” The remark took my breath away. I wondered, how could a priest say such a thing?

I took me many years to answer that question. But I mark the event as the beginning of my critical political consciousness – which was very slow in developing. . .

Next Week: More on this story . . .