Interview: Bazaar Mind, Cathedral Mind

Kwok Pui Lan is professor of Christian theology and spirituality at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA. She is a scholar in postcolonial theology and Asian feminist theology and is an active blogger. She was a visiting professor at YDS in 2007. 

REFLECTIONS: You have stirred interest in the metaphors “bazaar mind” and “cathedral mind.” How do these challenge society today? 

K W O K : I have blogged about how my students got excited when I talked about the “bazaar mind” of our networked society. A bazaar is a marketplace where you shop from place to place. You have no obligation to stay long and no commitment to buy. You are constantly on the go. I borrow the term the “bazaar mind” from author Clay Shirky, and it seems to describe our condition: constantly moving and connected. People surf the web and check Facebook at the same time they do homework. It’s not just the volume of information we face but the way it affects brain function – the clicking from page to page, the new habit of linking knowledge so quickly.

In contrast, the cathedral mind takes patience, learning, concentration, years of training. This metaphor recognizes that the mind is complex, multilayered, with immense depths. We associate someone like Thomas Aquinas with the cathedral mind.

REFLECTIONS: Does cathedral mind have a chance today?

K W O K : It is very difficult, and totally counter-cultural, in our age to produce people with a cathedral mind. It’s more than a style of thought. It’s a humanistic ideal. We want students to see connections between their theological studies and the broader world of humanistic knowledge – literature, art, music, and many other fields. The worry is that people now lack the time and the quiet space to cultivate this ideal. Students are more pragmatic today. They are focused on acquiring professional skills, specialized knowledge. This is partly a matter of the financial pressure they feel in this economic downturn. Twenty-five years ago, we were not under so much pressure. So our question as teachers is, do we give up the cathedral ideal, or do we still aspire to urge it upon students? I do know some students who continue to be very attracted in this “architecture of ideas.” The question is whether they can devote the time needed to cultivate it.

REFLECTIONS: Can the two styles live together?

K W O K : I am reminded that Buddhism has very different images of the mind. The mind that is untrained and wanders around is called the monkey mind. The aim of meditation is to tame the monkey mind and become conscious of one’s thoughts. After much practice, the mind can become empty and no longer attached to things. I notice that many young people today are attracted to Zen-like meditation or practices of mindfulness. Perhaps this is a way of un- loading their minds. I once attended a dharma talk by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh in Boston. Almost 3,000 were present, and many were young people. When Thich asked us to meditate, all were quiet. Perhaps the bazaar mind needs the empty mind.

REFLECTIONS: The internet is credited and blamed for disrupting traditional hierarchies and powers. Is the internet a reflection of the postcolonial world?

K W O K : In postcolonial studies we have been talking about the fragmentation of the self and hybrid identity for a long time. The bazaar mind will accelerate that. Every day we are instantly exposed to multiple perspectives, alternative voices. In the future, an education must be defined to include the ability to synthesize these perspectives and information so that students can arrive at their own integration.

REFLECTIONS: Are theologians confronting the ramifications of new media?

K W O K : The challenge is to understand the new age we find ourselves in. What I hear mostly in my field is discussion about the pedagogical use of new media – the use of online tools for teaching. Less discussed is how the internet is affecting our imaginations. How does this instant access to immense information affect what it means to be an educated person? What new theological re-imagining – what new metaphors for God – will emerge from the digital imagination? Tradition gave us the analogical imagination – God as King of Kings, God as omnipotent. What digital metaphors for God will arise? I don’t have the answers. At this point I am trying to ask the questions.

REFLECTIONS: Are you hopeful about the digital future?

K W O K : As theological educators, we are all digital immigrants. We are learning a language that was not our native tongue. Students today are digital natives. They have grown up with it. It’s their language. This generation is more hopeful and globally connected than any before. Their awareness of events beyond their own lives – in Africa, Asia, the Mideast – is unprecedented. We should not underestimate that. I want to meet them halfway so we can learn to speak a common language.