The Newsletter of the Northwest Branch of the Theosophical Society
June 2014 – Vol. 17 Issue 4
What is the common good, and how do you decide what is most important in trying to bring it about? These questions were addressed at the third Fostering Interfaith Relationships on the Eastside Dialogue potluck, held April 27 at Northlake Unitarian Universalist Church in Kirkland, WA. People of many religions and none came together to get to know each other better. After dinner a panel presentation led to discussion around the tables. Here are a few highlights:
For Catholics, the common good is providing the conditions that help groups and individuals fulfill themselves, said Fr. Jim Dalton, and this comes about through cooperation. Equal access exists only when everyone has access to the common good. Can it be achieved in a pluralistic society with relative values? While there are problems, such as free riders and the unequal sharing of burdens, fundamentally it comes down to the question, “What is the loving thing to do?”
Muslim Wagas Malik pointed out that the Qur’an is about two things: the individual’s relationship with God and the individual’s relationship with creation, both being of equal importance. There has been a continuity of divine guidance for humanity that emphasizes justice, morality, and helping one another in goodness. The Qur’an says to do as much good as you can and to keep up a constant struggle to do good. When confronted with injustice, Muhammad said to: 1) stop it if you can; 2) if you can’t, then voice your concern; and 3) if you can’t even do that, at least know in your heart that it is wrong. Indeed, “One who does not show mercy will not be shown mercy.” There is a fine line, however, between religion and politics, with the danger of the political majority defining religion in such a way that the minority is persecuted.
Lavanya Reddy, the Hindu representative, explained that we are all souls and children of God who have chosen our personalities. Action or karma may be neutral, positive, or negative. Each deed sows a seed of a certain quality and will lead to consequences of the same type. The way to promote goodness and the common good is by being a model of what you wish to see in the world. We must first strive to manifest something in ourselves if we want it to change in others.
For Methodist Pastor Rich Lang, the bedrock of Christianity is that the earth belongs to God alone and that Jesus is the image of God who was crucified for his political acts by the religious and secular powers of his day. It will always be a struggle to bring about the common good. Churches are therapeutic but ignore their political responsibilities, refusing to admit society’s corruption. Most people think they are benevolent but in fact don’t or won’t imagine themselves in the position of those who are worse off, suffering from poverty or injustice. Justice in society needs to be fought for because most people act in their own self-interest.
How do you address the common good when your people have experienced a cultural apocalypse? asked Kate Elliott, a member of the Chinook Tribal Council. Culture is carried on by passing down shared knowledge and teaching to future generations. She described various ways that Pacific Northwest tribes were working to maintain and reclaim their environmental and cultural heritage.
Tsukina Blessing of the Universalist Sufi lineage told how, when the Muslim Indian founder of this line came to the West, he realized he couldn’t spread Islam with Christianity already established, but he could share the heart of the Sufi teaching. The common good is the good of all, the flourishing of each human, each creature, and the world. Not only illuminated souls, such as Jesus, Buddha and Muhammad, but all humans are called on to hold aloft truth in the face of human ignorance and darkness. There is One divine creator, it doesn’t matter what you call it. Each one may make themselves a fountain of love and then, as a Sufi poet wrote, every other person is a customer for you. Each person is a community of many small lives. A friend recovering from dysentery said that she felt different with a different gut flora: “And all the time I thought it was just me in charge!” she said. In the same way, the world is a living being, moving toward harmony and beauty. Goodness in the public square looks like justice, so see, hear and love those you meet.
Pramijit Chawla from the Sikh community said that as a Sikh his duty was to seek the truth of the universe and of himself. Guru Nanak, the religion’s founder, incorporated all religions in his teachings, pointing out that a child is not born with a religion but adopts one. Any living being is more important that whatever religion we may come up with. He felt there were three main principles he strove for in his life: 1) to pray and be thankful, remembering God at all times; 2) remembering God, you will share with all; 3) personal and social integrity, that is, equality and justice for all. Each person needs to be an example of integrity, and good comes from doing what you can do. Sometimes everyone feels lost, not realizing who they are or where they want to go. But if we seek truth and try to find God within us and in others, we will be able to move forward. God is present in the love between us, whatever we may believe about divinity.
As many aspects of the common good were discussed around the tables, people discovered unexpected commonalities as well as goodwill residing within differing viewpoints.
When is someone dead? What is personhood, where does it reside, and when does it leave the body? In The Undead (2012) science journalist Dick Teresi explores many aspects of these questions in light of brain death, organ transplants and the consequent need for organs from people in comas.
People have always grappled with how to determine if death has occurred. Mr. Teresi explores the means used by several ancient Mediterranean, African, Asian, Melanesian and American cultures. For several, a still heart was primary, as in Egypt where the heart was the locus of the soul, pictured as weighed after death to decide the postmortem fate. In Greece and Rome the absence of breath was key, and words for the essential self (Latin spiritus, Greek pneuma and psyche, like the Sanskrit atman) all mean breath. He then covers Western death criteria from medieval times to the middle of the 20th century. Stopping of the heart and breath, discoloration, stiffness and putrefaction – the last being the surest – formed a complex of signs, but irreversibility was the gold standard.
In 1968, however, an ad hoc committee of thirteen colleagues at Harvard Medical School overthrew 5,000 years of empirical findings to propose a new criterion: brain death. Their short but influential paper stated that its aim was (1) “to define irreversible coma as a criterion of death”; and (2) to address “obsolete criteria for the definition of death [that] can lead to controversy in obtaining organs for transplantation.” Prior to 1968 doctors could not take organs from someone with a heartbeat or who was breathing. Now short tests for the absence of certain brainstem reflexes, if failed a set number of hours apart, are the criteria for pronouncing a comatose person dead. Rather than determining that a person is already dead, brain death predicts that a person will die within a week. This change means that the patient’s organs can be retrieved for transplant without deterioration. Today the legal definition of death is that it occurs when the physician declares the patient brain-dead, though it’s estimated that 65% of brain-death exams are done incorrectly.
Mr. Teresi noticed on his visits to hospitals that medical personnel would say of the brain dead, with their healthy-colored skin and beating hearts, that “whatever made her her is gone.” Doctors defended brain death on the grounds that “the person was missing from such bodies.” One contended that the brain was the person and consciousness was ultimate, making humans have a higher standard of personhood than other animals and therefore requiring a lower standard of death. The author comments, “The idea of a hierarchical natural world, deterministic and purposeful, with man at the top, is essential to our system of separate death criteria for humans as opposed to all other animals.” The new standard assumes that “brain = mind = person” but “the location of the seat of ‘personhood’ or ‘soul’ or ‘the self’ or whatever has been debated without closure for thousands of years. And there is ample evidence that the ‘person’ is not contained wholly in the brain.” By resting death on an absence of personhood doctors are making moral, not medical, judgments about who lives or dies. Dr. Alan Shewmon, former brain-death supporter, has complied 150 cases of brain-dead patients whose hearts continued to beat and whose bodies did not disintegrate after a week’s time, one living 20 years.
Another sign of life occurring among the brain dead is near-death experience (NDE). However explained, it takes place after the patient has been declared dead. Are NDEs “evidence that consciousness can exist apart from a working brain? If so, if our neurological machinery is unnecessary to mentation, we may have to admit we don’t know what death is, or personhood, and we should certainly reexamine our standards of brain death.” NDEers often see and hear what is going on around their legally dead body. In one well-documented case, the patient had a NDE that included such awareness after her body temperature had been lowered to 60°, her heart had been stopped, and all the blood had been drained out of her brain. So whatever the explanation, brain processes were not involved in consciousness or recording of sense perceptions. Dutch NDE researcher Pim van Lommel has concluded “that the brain neither produces consciousness nor stores memories. Think of a television set: when it is broken or damaged, programs may no longer come through it, but the source is not inside the set. In the same way, consciousness may not be a product of the brain.” So far, possible explanations advanced by NDE skeptics – hallucination (but what, then, is hallucinating if the brain is dead and the person gone?), seizures, the amount of oxygen in the brain, etc. – have not been borne out. So the phenomenon remains mysterious and indicative of our current ignorance.