Thursday, September 29, 2011

What is good?

What is “good”?

Literature and enlightenment
Characters in two books I read in the 1960s woke me from unconsiousness: To Kill a Mockingbird and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The characters in these books  exemplify the good that lies within human beings.

In To Kill a Mockingbird which took place in the 1930s, Atticus Finch risks his reputation to defend a black man, Tom Robinson. In doing this, he did not give in to prejudice and bigotry or fear. The townspeople taunted him and his children Scout and Jem, but no matter the consequences, Atticus treated Tom with respect and dignity and sought the truth. Also the character Boo Radley, the Finch’s neighbor and a recluse risks his fear of the outside to step out and rescue Scout.

In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, McMurphy treats patients with dignity who are being treated as subhuman. He refuses to give in to Nurse Ratched and ultimately is given a lobotomy. Because of  McMurphy the Chief has the courage to jump through a window to freedom. 

Recently, I read Cutting for Stone where Shiva gave his brother Marion part of his liver to save his life, an act of unconditional love. Also, in The Help, Skeeter interviews the colored maids in Jackson, Mississippi, at first for a story but friendship, love, and self worth develop as Skeeter and the women develop special relationships.

Sister Joan D. Chittister, O.S.B., (born April 26, 1936) is a Benedictine nun, author and speaker. She writes and speaks on women in the church and society, human rights, and peace and justice in the areas of war and poverty and religious life and spirituality. She is the foundress of “Benetvision.”

Sister Chittister: “We live in a world of knowledge and technology aplenty, but one that is clearly lacking in wisdom and spirituality. We are taught to want money, to retire as early as possible, to get ahead whatever the cost to others, to worship at the altar of self, and to be in control of everything and everyone at all times. But those values are a recipe for extinction, a blueprint for human destruction.”
How do we change the blueprint Sister Chittister is talking about?
Back to The Theology of Harry Potter
Dr. Catherine Howard, professor of religion at Columbia College, and teacher of The Theology of Harry, partnered with Dining for Women (DWF), an organization for women to empower and financially help women in underdeveloped countries <>. To give her students a way to imagine better as Rowliing said in her  2008 Harvard Commencement Speech,  Dr. Howard requires that during the semester her students do a service learning project choosing one of the twelve projects sponsored by DFW. The class is divided into the four houses of Hogwarts: Gryffindor, Slytherin, Ravenclaw, and Hufflepuff, and after many hours of  research, each house must present its project to the class and try to “sell” it as the project for the whole class. Later in this blog, you will hear from some of these students.
From A Theology of Hogwarts: The Journey of the Soul in Harry Potter by Dr. Catherine Howard: “For it is not our own souls alone that we move toward healing and wholeness, we are to extend that healing and wholeness to others and to our world. And in the words of the Jewish tradition, we come to participate then in the repairing of the world (tikkun olam). There is no more nobler, more fully human vocation in life.”
So we start this part of the journey with what is meant by good.
Question from Dr. Howard: Does Rowling show good in the Harry Potters series?
Yes, in Harry Potter, some characters show  determination, selflessness, courage, transformation, love of friends and family, truth to self, loyalty, and open-mindedness.
A class assignment was to read St. John of Damascus, Exposition on the Orthodox Faith: “He [God] creates with His own hands man of a visible nature and an invisible, after His own image and likeness: on the one hand man’s body He formed of earth, and on the other his reasoning and thinking soul He bestowed upon him by His own inbreathing, and this is what we mean by ‘after His image.’ For the phrase ‘after His image’ clearly refers to the side of nature which consists of mind and free will, whereas ‘after His likeness’ means likeness in virtue so far as that is possible.”
Humans are created in the image of God. Therefore, we are created with all the attributes that God represents: truth, beauty, goodness, love, mercy, justice. It is not sufficient just to resemble God, but humanity must participate in such goodness.
Free will
But God gave us free will. The seventh century Syriac monk Isaac of Nineveh says: “In his great love, God was unwilling to restrict our freedom, even though he had the power to do so. He has left us to come to him by the love of our heart alone. God never compels nor he never forces. By creating human persons with the liberty to exercise free will, God so honors the dignity of humanity.”
Harry exercises free will early on in the series when he refuses to shake hands with Draco Malfoy when Draco says about Ron to Harry, “You don’t want to go making friends with the wrong sort.” Harry consciously chose not to be sorted into Slytherin and this resulted in his being placed in Gryffindor.
There is no power over us making us choose. We have the right to move toward God or move away from God. An example of free will in Harry Potter is when Dobby, a house elf, risked his life to warn Harry that he must not return to Hogwarts. If Dobby’s master finds out, Dobby will have to punish himself  by shutting his ears in the oven door. Dobby did this of his own free will.
St. Gregory of Nyssa. (d.385/386). The Making of Man: “We are not in bondage to any natural power but have decision in our own power as we please; for virtue is a voluntary thing, subject to no dominion: that which is the result of compulsion and force cannot be virtue.”
Nyssa says God created us last because he was preparing creation as a “royal lodging for a future king. We were created to be royalty from the very beginning. The human person reflects the beauty of God and since God is love, the image within a person is to reflect love.
Moral determinism
Some in our society use moral determinism which simply means for everything that happens there are conditions such that, given them, nothing else could happen. For example, we may say, the reason he steals is because he was abused as a child. There are no excuses. Circumstances do not determine the person we become. We are responsible for the person we become. Rowling does not believe in moral determinism. 
From The Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes): “There must be available to all men everything necessary for leading a life truly human, such as food, clothing, and shelter; the right to choose a state of life freely and to found a family, the right to education, to employment, to a good reputation, to respect, to appropriate information, to activity in accord with the upright norm of one’s own conscience, to protection of privacy and rightful freedom, even in matters religious.”
Coming soon…What is evil? 

Friday, September 23, 2011

Commentary on The Theology of Harry Potter

J.K. Rowling

Why have people eight to 80 read Harry Potter?
Why have 450 million copies of Harry Potter been sold?
Why has Harry Potter been translated into 67 languages?
Why is the Harry Potter Brand worth $15 billion?
Why is J.K. (Joanne “Jo”) Rowling worth $1 billion?
Why are all of the Harry Potter movies on the list of the best selling movies of all times?
Perhaps there are reasons...
I decided to take Dr. Catherine Howard’s course “The Theology of Harry Potter” to find out what the fuss about Harry Potter was all about. Dr. Howard teaches religion at Columbia College in Columbia, South Carolina. The course started August 24 and meets fifty minutes three times a week. I am beginning to understand the addiction to Harry Potter.
To know more about J.K. Rowling, watch the 2008 Harvard Commencement Speech at
Alchemy and Harry Potter
Many great British authors and J.K. Rowling have used the alchemic process in their stories. I will start this commentary with a very simple explanation of how I understand alchemy, and then I will move into my most favorite part of the course: Dr. Howard’s discussions of good and evil.
Have you ever had your life pulled apart, fractured into pieces? My life as I knew it totally fell apart when I got divorced in 1981. I was a teacher, a mother, and all-of-a-sudden single. Everything changed—my family, my location, my friends, my teaching position. For several years I moved through life like a zombie. And then light began to shine for me in 1984 when Dr. Miles Friedman, a University of South Carolina professor, asked me to take his theory of problem solving and turn it into a textbook for middle school children and teachers. The way he treated me—with such dignity and respect—and the confidence he had in me that I could actually do this project made me begin to feel like a worthwhile human being again. I came back to life. These life struggles happen over and over to all of us. This to me is the alchemic process.
Authors who know the human condition and can reveal it to you through literature are the ones we read and discuss with our friends and recommend to others. The characters they write about go through struggles, polarities, and in the end perhaps are transformed to a place of ultimate human dignity. These books inspire and give us hope.
A friend asked me if I knew for sure that Rowling used the alchemic process in the series or were the examples just coincidences. According to Dr. Howard, Rowling did and in her course, “The Theology of Harry Potter,” Dr. Howard sites hundreds of examples.  John Granger, the author of several books analyzing J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels, says there is much proof that she used the alchemic process in the books.
What then is alchemy? Simply put, Alchemy is the medieval practice of creating gold from lead. Alchemy is quite different from magic. It was the alchemist’s metaphorical process of transformation: the process of the body and spirit being broken down, purified, and then reformed.

Examples of alchemy in Harry Potter
I will cite a few of the many examples of alchemy in the Harry Potter series. The philosopher’s stone (the elixir of life or immortality) is the traditional description of the end product of the alchemic process. The British edition of the Harry Potter series was first named The Philosopher’s Stone, rather than the American version: The Sorcerer’s Stone.
In The Sorcerer’s Stone Harry, discovers that the three-headed dog Fluffy is guarding the sorcerer’s stone. At this point Harry thinks Professor Snape is guarding the stone of immortality for Voldemort, the dark lord who killed Harry’s parents.
Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts, the school of wizardry, is famous for his work with Nicholas Flamel, a man who actually lived from September 28,1330–1418 and was a successful French scrivener and manuscript-seller who developed a posthumous reputation as an alchemist due to his reputed work on the philosopher's stone. Harry saw this information about Dumbledore on the chocolate frog card he got on the train ride to Hogwarts.
Harry’s father is James, also the patron saint of alchemy; his mother Lily is the symbol of the white or second stage of alchemy.
Harry’s two best friends Ron and Hermione represent the quarreling couple, sulfur and mercury. Sulfur is the male polarity and its color is red (Ron’s hair is red). Mercury represents the cool or white one. Hermione’s name comes from the Greek Hermes, the messenger god (the Roman god, Mercury). Also, her initials are HG, the chemical symbol for mercury.
The alchemic process is three distinct stages: nigredo or black, albedo or white, and the rubedo or red.  The black stage or dissolution stage is the breaking down stage (my divorce). An example in the books of this is every time Harry is with the Dursley’s, they treat him as subhuman. Sirius Black, Harry’s godfather, is named for this stage.
The white stage is purification stage (my relationship with Dr. Friedman). Albus Dumbledore is named for this stage. Albus is Latin for white. The red stage and last stage is the recongealing or the perfection (my return to life).  Rubeus Hagrid is named for this stage. Rubeus is Latin for red.

Dr. Howard: “Rowling uses literary alchemy as one of the structural, literary devices to explore the transformation of the soul. The structure of the first six books reflects the threefold alchemical process. The black or dissolution stage begins on Privet Drive and continues in Snape’s classroom or under the watchful, punitive eye of Umbridge in book five. The white work or purification while at Hogwarts is done under the masterful guidance of the master alchemist himself, Albus Dumbledore, often in combination with a painful separation from Hermione and Ron. Finally, the red work is the ‘climacztic crucible sense,’ which normally occurs underground in a graveyard or at the end of the series in the Forbidden Forest, where Harry dies a figurative death in order to be reborn.”
If you are interested in more information about alchemy, google Dr. Carl Jung and alchemy.

Next: What is meant by GOOD?