Aug  2017 29
Wanted, Maybe: Defense Against the Dark Arts Professor

Ever since my then 10-year-old son introduced me to Harry Potter, I’ve been a fan. The most hapless teaching position at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is the Defense Against the Dark Arts professor.

Over the years of the Potter series, that position was occupied by Professors Quirrell, Lockhart, Lupin, Crouch (posing as Moody), Umbridge, Snape, and Carrow. Only two of those characters were both competent and fought on the side of good (Lupin and Snape).

Yet, in JK Rowlings’ fabulous world, in which dark magic is so real and powerful, Defense Against the Dark Arts (DADA) is an essential position.

How might we think about a DADA professorship at a progressive Protestant seminary?

I can hear the snickering. “Liberals don’t believe in sin or the devil. What would a DADA professor equip students to fight against?”

Well, OK. Protestant religious progressives aren’t known for our doctrine of sin, a topic I’ve written on before.

And, there are a secret few of us who felt a little less secure in our “Satan came into Judaism through encounter with Zoroastrianism and as a solution for dealing with the issue of theodicy” stance after respected psychiatrist M. Scott Peck (the author of The Road Less Traveled) concluded in The People of the Lie that is evil is real.

But we don’t talk about That Which Shall Not Be Named. So, no, Protestant progressive seminaries do not teach exorcism or how to defend a community against the wiles of the Evil One.

However.

I nominate lying as one of the destructive, deeply-rooted behaviors in human life. Lying is the distortion of Word and words and meaning. Lying is the predominant subject matter for a seminary DADA position.

There is one name given to Satan that rings really, really true for me. Satan is “the Father of Lies.” The older I get, and the more I experience other persons and come to re-examine myself, I view the work of coming to see and deal meaningfully with truth as among the most difficult of all tasks in our complicated and conflicted world.

If a seminary had a DADA professorship, that instructor would have to deal with the art and practice of lying.

Lying creates a vicious, self-destructive circle. Lying breeds distrust. Distrust fosters cynicism and self-protective militia-ism (“no one can defend me so I have to defend myself”).

Cynicism is an acid to civility and all forms of community. Acid-eaten fragments of true community lower the aspirations for human life and produce in-bred, self-justifying narratives. And, lying becomes a way of being.

I read Peck’s The People of the Lie when it was published in 1998. Peck differentiates between persons who are fearful or ignorant or mentally ill, on the one hand (and who are not evil), from those persons who spin words in order to disrupt, disorder, discourage, and disintegrate life. Peck believed there are, on rare occasions, evil-possessed persons whose lie-related behavior is bent simply on creating hell on earth.

A few years later I read Al Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. Franken’s book was the first time I heard the strategy of “tell a lie, repeat it often, and eventually even decent people will believe it and repeat it.” Oh, what a business that has become!

There are so many ways lies manifest. Dividing humankind into “races” creates a terrible lie. People born with good genes who think of themselves as morally superior to persons who struggle with health deceive themselves. The person “born with a silver spoon in his mouth” who trumpets himself as an American success story tells a lie.

Then there are the deeply personal ways of lying, all of which elevate oneself and denigrate the other.

  • Tell enough of the truth to make a story believable but mix in a few fictitious allegations, and the allegations are more likely to stick.
  • Blame a co-worker for an assignment being late when you gave the co-worker the assignment too late for the task to be completed.
  • Keep saying “then something happened” rather than “then I did this…”
  • Blame technology rather than your knowledge of the technology.
  • Relate an event by intermingling what the other person actually said with what you WISH you had said in response.
  • Always impute the best motives to yourself and the worst motives to others.
  • (This sage warning came from a counselor friend of mine; one of the most truthful pieces of advice I’ve ever received.) In a conflict-laden situation, when one party is being as transparent and truthful as they know how to be, watch for someone else who is listening with the intent of making up the best story they can, that fits their purposes.

Let’s say that a seminary had a DADA position. What would a DADA professor teach? A few ideas:

  • Skills in self-examination and developing habits of honesty woven with compassion both for ourselves and for others.
  • How to love one’s neighbor as oneself.
  • How to “speak the truth in love.”
  • Intercultural and interreligious competency and humility (knowing oneself in the context of others not like oneself is an excellent way to become more honest).
  • A spiritual discipline such as mindfulness (I like the work of Richard Rohr, a Franciscan, and of Tara Bennett-Goleman who wrote Emotional Alchemy.)
  • How to counter one’s own moral bias. I highly recommend the TED talk by Julia Galef on the limitations of “motivated reasoning.” Motivated reasoning means seeing only that which confirms one’s emotional narrative. Such distorted reasoning can ruin someone else’s life, such as the famous case of the Dreyfus Affair (Galef recounts that story), and the need to be trained in how to balance the warrior mindset (“I must defeat this alternative point of view and defend my own.”) with a scout mindset (“Let’s look from other angles and see if there is something we are overlooking when we hold this position.”).

I can imagine individual and communal versions of these practices. And I can imagine stronger persons and stronger communities.

But, as I imagine a DADA professor and what that person might teach, I remember the Hogwarts experience of how many persons failed in that position.

The failures might be simply because their failures served the author’s plot! And, it might be that a person dealing with the dark parts of our psyches and the possibility of facing real evil is just too challenging and draining of a place to stay for long.

Even in a workplace full of decent people, as any Christian institution should be, taking up the mantle of a “Defense Against the Dark Art of Lying” teacher would be a dangerous undertaking.



Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips President
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