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Pessimism, politics and joy: Q&A with Hans Tiefel

Hans Tiefel Between his last class as a member of the faculty at the College and his scheduled presentation of the baccalaureate address, Hans Tiefel spoke about teaching, joy and a source of pessimism in his own life. —Ed.

Q: Is your baccalaureate address related to your teaching?
Tiefel: I teach ethics, so whatever I say is going to be laden with ethical ideas, and, in a sense, what I'm going to do is what I do in my teaching. I contrast thinking and action based on cultural themes with religious themes. I think they can overlap in many ways, but they're also different in many ways. Many believers don't realize that. They just think like Americans, and they think that's also Christian, or Jewish or biblical. They never see the problem.

I'd like for them to have a dual vision. Their identity is not just American. If they are believers, they will have a religious identity. I think it is important to recognize the differences, lest they become confused and you begin to have God and country together. Then you say patriotic things in the name of God, and that tends to be very dangerous.

Q: What do you mean by believer?
I think everybody believes in something, but by believers, I mean religious believers, and specifically I mean people who come out of Western biblical traditions. Jews and Christians, and maybe Abrahamic Muslims, too, I think, all are members of our cultures, and we look at our religious traditions as contemporaries. As Americans, we tend to read American values into religious traditions, and I think that is insidious.

Evangelical Christians, for example, will underwrite a really gung-ho foreign policy in regard to the Middle East supporting Israel uncritically because they think that the vindication of Israel to its rightful place is somehow going to bring the Messiah, the end of the age. They think the return of Christ will be precipitated by certain political events, and so they forget all about what Jesus really taught. They have a notion of the end of the age and, somehow, I think, of forcing God's hand into the end time, into the establishment of the Kingdom of God. That can take a very military form and become a very harmful expression to other nations and cultures.

Q: For a believer, are not God and politics always connected?
The reason that [politics and the religion] are connected is that the God of Israel and the God of the Bible is lord of everything. Everything has to be connected to God. It is just how you do it that makes a difference, and you must do it more carefully than the fundamentalists.

Q: Isn't America the shining city on a hill?
It aspires to be, but I'm afraid right now it is not a shining light to anybody.

Q: Are things getting worse?
I've gotten a little bit more pessimistic of late, but, I hope, not sour. I am a patriot. I served in the U.S. Army. I love my country. I chose it deliberately with an oath and a pledge. I just think our country is in bad hands at the moment politically—economically, too.

Q: Do you blame President Bush?
I blame not just President Bush but our whole political and economic system. The influence of money, of special interests, of powerful lobbyists is worrisome. For example, I teach a course on ecology, and I think the country currently is heading in the wrong direction. We have no sense of global warming and of the dangers to our future and to our descendants—if there are any. We have no sense of the limits of our own powers. We want other nations, whom we call rogue states, to have no access to weapons of mass destruction. Our own weapons of mass destruction have been used—we are the only nation ever to have done so, and we have more and better weapons than anybody else. But we refer to them in terms of national defense. We have a different language for them, so people do not even see the kinds of self-contradictions that we are involved in.

Q: Do you believe all wars are unjust?
We should not be in the Middle East with our troops. We are occupiers. I was pessimistic over Vietnam and most of the military engagements in which we have indulged. [The ability to assert] is a very tempting kind of position to be in.

I think there are some just wars. I think the Second World war probably was a just war—even though I was on the wrong side. What we are involved in now is totally unjustified and inexcusable. We are just causing so much grief and suffering in the world—so much death. Our military might is so awesome, our reach so wide, our domination so pervasive that we impose our will on others. Historically we have done so before. But now we are the only Superpower. I am pessimistic in that sense.

Q: How will these things figure into your speech?
My speech will be about trying to get a perspective on our future. These are young people beginning their professional and vocational lives. I think one needs to pause before one jumps in, and I want to do some of that pausing with them. Perhaps I can help them think ahead 50 years. I haven't quite figured it out yet. That may sound pessimistic. God willing, they'll all live 50 years from now, and then, looking back, can ask themselves, What am I glad about? What am I not glad about? Because frankly, I think, a life is to be shown to God. And so it is not just our own looking, for believers, at least. And this is a religious service. I would not do that at commencement, but at a religious occasion like baccalaureate, it's a different ballgame with different assumptions. You take God seriously.

Q: Are most of your students believers?
I don't ask my students whether or not they are believers. Sometimes they tell me. I don't ask them. All I ask of them is to recognize what defines a believer and what defines a member of our culture. I never ask them what they believe. I get too depressed.

People believe in many things. We can have lots of ultimate concerns, and most of those things are idols, so that would be idolatry. I've seen people devote themselves to a pure racial society—racism. They'll devote themselves to power, and bring off any sacrifice. I guess there are people who bring sacrifices to beauty, which is for us a losing battle because even Cher gets old, no matter how many cosmetic surgeries. There are all kinds of good things that are of a limited good, and to devote ultimate concern to them is really sad.

Q: How do you talk about God in your classrooms?
In religion, you simply assume the reality of God, or the religious tradition. If we were doing it in philosophy, we'd simply leave God out of it. I've been in both departments. If you leave God out of it, you have human reason, you have human dignity, you have rights traditions, you have notions of justice that can be a very rich kind of ethics without God.

I don't bring God into these classrooms. I just say, "We're looking at a text and a tradition, and we want to understand what they think about God and what they think about themselves."

Q: Can we be ethically good?
I think we have some splendid people around. They devote themselves to all kinds of good causes. They are generous. They take years of their lives to devote to the Peace Corps, Americorps, etc. I think one of the great things about teaching at a place like this is that you run into some really good human beings. We're not all exceptionally smart, but we can be good. There is a difference between being smart and being good. Sometimes at William and Mary they occur together, and that is really splendid.

Q: Why do you have a reputation for being such a demanding instructor?
I am trying to teach students how to think, and since they have very little experience, they find it very demanding. Mostly they're expected to memorize, to get what's in the book, to get what's in the lecture and to give it back. As they come here, mostly their model for learning has been as if they've had a funnel on top of their head—information is poured in and they're expected to spit some of it back out. I think of learning as acquiring skills. These are difficult skills. I can compare it to mountain climbing, such as I've seen in Colorado, where people were working together to scale a vertical wall. The wall was not very high at all. They were just practicing how to go up it. The discipline itself is learning how to do it so they can go to any mountain and make some progress.

We can learn on our own, and we can learn in groups. I find that there are things that happen in learning together that don't seem to happen by myself. When you work together on a problem, the fact that you have another to rely on—it's cooperative, just like that mountain thing—means that both can get somewhere. I've noticed that when the students ask the best, most-discerning kinds of questions, it brings out the best in me. Things I haven't really focused on are impressed upon me, and I'll have to come up with something. So it is good for me, and I hope it is good for them.

Q: What have you learned from students?
Working together is what I've learned—thinking together. That's what I think education needs to be more than anything else. It needs to be learning how to think together and how to be careful about words.

Q: Is there a common thread to the multiple courses you've taught in ethics—that is business ethics, Christian ethics, medical ethics, environmental ethics etc.
I have taught applied ethics. There is an ethical method. You try to figure out where people are coming from. Once you figure out where they are coming from, then you can almost predict where they're going to go. There are patterns that repeat themselves. For example, in our own culture, we tend to be focused on individuals—individualism. And so the U.S. Army advertises itself by saying, "Be all you can be." That is a dumb thing, if you think about it, but it sells. The whole notion is that you're serving your country, but in order to sell that, it's "Be all you can be," or it is self-glorification as an "army of one." It is absolutely absurd because the first thing you learn in the army is how to be a unit. The strength of a military force is, in a large part, the loyalty of soldiers to one another. We are forced into this strange individualism. It is apparent even when we do the wave at sporting events. You've seen the wave. If you're an individualist, you don't do that sort of thing. You just sit on your hands or something. We keep saying that we're such individualists, and then we do the wave. We celebrate for decades after the U.S. hockey team beats the Russians. At certain points, we identify ourselves as communities, but we never sort of figure it out.

In medical ethics, for example, the notion that someone would become really sick is terribly hard when you're an individualist, because even the most loving parents would want to prevent their becoming a burden on their children. The worst thing is to be imposing on someone. But if you have a sense of community, you know we always depend on one another. We always need each other. That's why we get screwed up by this kind of cultural path. It screws up when we give CEOs hundreds of times more money than any worker, and yet, we ask workers to be members of teams. We say teamwork is what it's all about, as if we were all there for each other, but the way we reimburse CEOs really undermines the notion.

So, you see the patterns in ethics. They crop up all over the place. They crop up in language. Language is kind of a key to how people see the world. And so we have "reduction in force" in business. I have a dimmer switch in my dining room; it's sort of like that. You turn down the energy. But these are human beings. There is collateral damage in the army. There's lots of suffering and death going on. But we don't really want to pay much attention to it, so it's what we call collateral damage. We didn't mean it, so it doesn't count.

Jews speak of themselves as the people of God. The church says it is the body of Christ. But we try to make belonging into individual enterprises, as if we were playing one-on-one basketball with God.

Q: As we seek peace in the Middle East, religion seems to be an obstacle. Should we discard the religious language?
Believers do not have a choice about being religious. For the God of Abraham is Lord of everything. At least de jure, if not de facto. In our secular culture, some religionists prefer to remain anonymous. That is the other extreme to those who in God's name pronounce judgment and destruction on our enemies in the Middle East. But Jewish traditions have it right when they insist on the imitation of God—except for the judgment and wrath of God. We are not called to be agents of God's anger. The point is to let God do his or her own judging. There must be a better alternative to these extremes and to the secular charge that religionists "impose" their faith on the rest of society. If that were the case, then only the godless would be allowed a public voice iin our democracy. The clue lies in finding a language we all share. And religious stories tend to be easier to understand than philosophical abstractions.

Q: As we seek peace in our own lives, is belief necessary?
Everybody comes from somewhere. Everybody makes some assumptions about values and what is important. There is nobody who is looking at us from Mars totally uninvolved.

I think reason can give us clear thinking but reason cannot tell us what is ultimately important. I think for that we need to rely on the experiences of the things that really count in our lives—what we find to be supportive, constructive, really good—such as getting married, or having children or enjoying the work that you do or having friends. For believers, especially, worshiping God.

Q:You repeatedly express pessimism. What brings you joy?
My pessimism might be called realism about the worst in us. The axis of evil goes through every human heart. Sin is universal and is often most frightening in its communal and nationalistic versions. But there is also a better self and a better us: what we aspire to be. It's thhe vision of us individually that our mother has. The true me? It's the vision of the writers of the U.S. Constitution—to form a more perfect union. The true us? It is aspirational.

What brings me joy? Waking up in the morning with my wife. Worship. Sharing the Peace. Exploring an issue with a reflective student or class. Learning. Seeing a wall come down. Irises blooming. Hearing our choir and chorus sing. Witnessing our nation as a helper and peace maker.