I am now blogging at a new blog: erdman31.com

If you post comments here at Theos Project, please know that I will respond and engage your thoughts in a timely manner.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Sermon: Life Without Limits

Sermon from 11/7/2010 at the Unitarian Universalist fellowship in Kodiak, Alaska.

We have always strived to be immortal, haven’t we? We have always struggled with our mortality. This struggle is central to any religion, and it is written into the myths of the Greeks, where the boundary between “god” and “human” is oftentimes blurred.

For a group who calls themselves “Transhumanists,” immortality is not an ancient speculation but a modern reality. Transhumanists anticipate a day in the not-too distant future when the contents of our minds—our memories, intelligence, emotions, and consciousness—can be uploaded into a new, machine-body, something that could extend our lives indefinitely.

It is a riveting idea—incredible and unbelievable really. The stuff that excites the imaginations of novelitsts and filmmakers. Yet this group of Transhumanists are credible philosophers and technology experts. They are MIT grads and university professors, not comic book writers.

Our rate of technological advance is so profound and exponential, that what was once a fantasy is now a credible theory and movement. For example, one dedicated and convinced Transhumanist, Ray Kurzweil, takes 250 supplements a day and undergoes six intravenous therapies a week. Other like-minded intellectuals possess Alcor cryogenic-suspension contracts. For the price of $120,000, one can have one’s body cryogenically frozen. It’s a bit of a gamble, a bet that at some point in the future, when human mind can merge with machine, their minds can be revived and transferred into a machine.

We hear a good deal these days about “growing our economy.” Few stop to ask if we can continue such “growth” indefinitely.

As a culture and society, we seem to be intent on limitless growth and eternal progress. We want to push to push the boundaries of possibility and pursue not only a life without limits, but a life without end.

** **

They were one in their purpose and plan. Their vision was to build a tower that would reach high, into the heavens. Their desire was to “make a name” for themselves, to a leave a legacy.
This is the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, found in the eleventh chapter of Genesis. It is the last of what is called the “primeval passages,” the old stories, like the creation of the world, life in the Garden of Eden, the strife of Cain and Abel, and the Flood narrative. After the Tower of Babel story, the book of Genesis shifts the focus to the life of Abraham and his descendents.
The desire of the people in Babel was that their tower would “reach the heavens” (sh¹mayim). This was likely a divine aspiration. In ancient cosmology, within the ancient worldview, the heavens and the underworld were the homes of the gods. To reach these heavens would, indeed, make a name for them; and what a name it would be!?
So, the people are united in their language with a common goal: build a great city with a tower to the heavens. At this point in the story, the biblical narrative pokes fun at the project. God says, essentially, “Let us go down and see what they are up to.” The implication is that their tower to the heavens wasn’t quite high enough for God (who lived in the heavens) to notice. So, God had to come down from heaven to see about the progress.
After surveying the situation, God says, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” (NRS) There is a shift here: God expresses a concern. Now, presumably there is no sense of threat. The ancient Hebrew God had no rival. My interpretation is that the Tower, itself, is not a problem. On my reading, the text is teaching that there is a danger in a collective spirit to pursue a project without limits. The residents of Babel are pursuing a society of unlimited expansion. Put simply: growth is their primary objective, expansion for the sake of expansion.

** **

For a few days this week, I enjoyed a personal getaway. I spent some time in front of a wood stove in a cabin some forty miles or so away from Kodiak. The first day I was fortunate to have some good weather and great hiking, and I’ll tell you something, it was gorgeous and inspiring. The next day it rained. As such, I spend a good deal of time indoors, working on this very sermon, and watching the fire burn in the wood stove.
Speaking of fire…In Greek mythology, the wily Prometheus tricked Zeus into allowing humans to keep sacrificial meat for themselves, only offering the fat and bones to the gods. Not happy about this turn of events, Zeus took fire away from human beings. Prometheus responded by stealing fire and giving it back to mortals. Having reached his limit with Prometheus, Zeus chained him to a rock and vultures ate out his insides every day. Every night Prometheus grew them back, and the next day the vultures returned.
Mary Shelly wrote her classic gothic novel Frankenstein as part of a summer contest. Shelly and friends were spending the summer in the country, and they found themselves surrounded by an exceptionally rainy and cold summer. (Sound familiar?!)
Frankenstein was written as a warning against tampering with nature. Victor Frankenstein is a young, gifted scientist who learns to create life. Yet he is incapable of caring for this new life, of nurturing its soft and gentle heart. In fact, Dr. Frankenstein abandons his creation, horrified by the appearance. Eventually, the creature becomes vengeful and wreaks havoc on Dr. Frankenstein’s loved ones.
The novel is instructive, I think, in this way: it takes more than ingenuity and scientific acumen to nourish the human spirit. Life is fragile, and the soul is delicate.

** **

I think that we tend to think, to presume, that technology is neutral. We can use it for good or for evil. Is this really so?
My friend Bob Doede is a philosopher at Trinity Western University in Langely, British Columbia. What he says on this count is insightful, if not a bit provocative: “…technologies not only do things for us, they also do things to us. Moreover, they not only do things for us and to us, they also and at the same time undo things; they give and take away, often giving us something we desire (ease, efficiency, convenience, etc.) and taking away something we need (friction, concrete contact with nature, a sense of our limitations, etc.). For example, as they enable us to do more without as much physical exertion, they at the same time weaken our bodies.” DISCUSS A FEW EXAMPLES
This is not a sermon bashing technology. I like technology. And technology has done good things for our world, and it can do many more good things. The point is that our technological progress has extracted a price, it has changed us radically both in positive and negative ways, and my suggestion is that we be brave and wise enough to discern the impact of our “progress.”
Well, all of this—Prometheus and Zeus, Frankenstein and technology—it all brings me back to the cabin and the wood burning stove: Fire may be a gift of the gods, but it is only a gift if we respect and fear its capacity to destroy us.

** **

The story of the Tower of Babel ends by God “confusing the language” of the residents of Babel. With this confusion of the language, the community is unable to continue with their plans for expansion, and they abandon their lofty aspirations for the Tower as well as their city-building, scattering across the face of the earth.
“Look, they are one people,” God had said, “and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” (NRS) This was God’s appraisal of the situation, and I find it to be a fascinating assessment of the potential of human beings: united by language and a common goal, we are unstoppable, nothing is impossible.

Certainly human history testifies to this capacity to accomplish extraordinary feats. Sometimes humanity has united to advance evil and oppressive ends, while at other times we have come together to advance justice and equality, stand up for human dignity, give relief to the poor and oppressed, and usher in times of peace and harmony.

“Nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” (NRS) The question, then, is this: what are the ends to which we aspire?

I recently read an article in the local paper, the Kodiak Daily Mirror, stating that there are 6,910 documented languages in our world. I would add one more: the language of consumerism. This is a shared language of advertising, of image and sounds, designed to motivate us to buy more products and services and to continually “upgrade” our lives. This motivation most often comes by a subtle (or not so subtle) method of making us discontent with what we have, to create within us a sense that we need something more in our lives.

A recent Disney Pixar film, Wall-E, has a humorous take on our consumeristic, disposable society. Set in the future, all of the human beings have left because there is too much trash. Wall-E, the little robot who is the hero of the movie, has a job: compressing and stacking the trash in piles as high as small sky scrappers. So, there are these massive monuments of trash. Perhaps our culture’s Tower of Babel might be the massive amounts of waste we are collecting in the dumps and landfills.
What are the ends to which we aspire? Have technology, progress, and consumerism become ends in themselves? Jon Kabat-Zinn is a medical professor Emeritus who has spent a good bit of his career merging eastern spirituality with medical science. Recently I heard him interview with Krista Tippett on the NPR radio show Speaking of Faith. He says that our technology is in some sense getting more sophisticated than our understanding of ourselves as human beings. (Speaking of Faith) “I'm not saying,” says Kabat-Zinn, “sort of like we should go back — I'm not taking a Luddite position on this. I think that technology is incredibly beautiful, and it's going to get more and more and more powerful and more and more beautiful. But there are issues associated with it…”
He continues: “You know, we're moving towards a very strange world in some ways, at least so far that we don't know what it's going to be. But one piece of it hasn't developed yet and that is our intimacy, our deep understanding of what it means to be human. We're still in our infancy as a human species. And before we start to talk about wet/dry interfaces where you start putting chips inside of the skull..to regulate certain things or upgrade our memory or whatever it is that might seem so attractive, that we really in the next few generations need to reclaim the full dimensionality of our humanity.”
I think this is a nuanced and instructive position. I would only add this: whatever it is that we call technological or economic “progress,” it must run a distant second to religious, moral, and humanistic concerns, because progress is only progress if it is life-giving and increases the fullness of our human experience: caring for each other, deepening our appreciation for the sacred and mysterious, and developing our awareness of ourselves.
I recently read through Herman Melville’s great classic novel, Moby Dick. It is not small feat! =) Melville narrates a grand and epic tale in an equally magnanimous prose. One of my favorite lines speaks of the growing insanity of Captain Ahab, who has long harbored anger and maddening malice against the whale, Moby Dick, who left him with a peg leg the last time they met on the high seas. The narrator of the tale, who is also a crewman, says this, “God help thee old man, thy thoughts have created a creature within thee; and he whose intense thinking thus makes him a Prometheus; a vulture feeds upon that heart forever; that vulture the very creature he creates.”
Ahab has built a tower of anger in his soul, he has created a creature of bitterness, and this creature will feed on him.

What creatures do our egos create? What towers do we seek to build within ourselves? Henry David Thoreau said, “only that day dawns to which we are awake.” Whatever inner towers we construct, whatever creatures our egos create, their primary limitation is that they keep us asleep to the beauty and possibility of the present moment. That is to say, there is something profound, indescribable really, about being able to fully engage each moment of our existence.
We so often become so caught up in every thing except what is happening around us. Consequently we fail to appreciate the limiteless beauty that our limited moments bring.
Thomas Merton, a monk and Roman Catholic spiritual writer said, “Most growth in religious understanding is the deepening of the experience of what we already know.” [cited by James Finley in Merton’s Path to the Palace of Nowhere, audio CDs]
James Finley, an author, psychotherapist, and spiritual teacher who was also a monk for a period of time, at the same monastery as Merton asks, “What would it mean to walk into a room and instantly become aware of the inherent holiness of everything that’s there, and to inherently reverence it and to honor it and to be faithful to it?”
There is a paradox here: By being faithful and awake to the limited nature of ourselves, the world, and others, we discover something truly unlimited, infinite.

** **

We feel all around us the impulse to add more and more, to live a life without limits or boundaries. This impulse is a part of the air we breath, it has been the primary motivation of our American society since Europeans first walked on the soil. But it isn’t just an American impulse. Perhaps we magnify it and make it into a central psychological and spiritual motivator; but it didn’t start with us. It is written in our oldest religious texts, in the Greek myths, and in our recorded histories. We want to build towers that reach the heavens, to have unlimited potential.
We could walk the path of the Transhumanists who look forward to a merger of human and machine, shedding our mortal, physical bodies. We could go the way of those who push to make more money, to eternally expand the economy. We could seek to make ourselves gods, limited by nothing.
Or we could seek to understand what it truly means to be human before we seek to become superhuman, deepening our understanding of living with limits before we live without limits.
And isn’t this the impulse of the artist? The artist begins by limiting herself to modest tools—a canvass and brush, a camera, paper and pen, or clay. The artist then attunes herself to something beautiful, or something true, or something profound. She expands herself, she learns from her art, and she deepens her understanding. When she is finished, her creation fixes our attention to something important about human life. Paradoxically, through a finite and limited creation of an artist, we can catch a glimpse of something infinite.
This glimpse of the infinite goes through the finite, not around it. It does not seek to circumvent our mortal humanity but is content and grateful simply for what is. We can only “reach the heavens” by being grounded on this earth, through a humble bow of thanksgiving.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Sermon: Blessed are the Poor

This is a copy of the sermon that I preached this morning. It is an exploration of my time teaching creative writing (with Tamie) in the Kosciusko County Jail.

It was a surreal sensation. The first time I walked through the cell blocks of the Kosciusko County Jail in the small town of Warsaw, Indiana, I felt like I was walking through the film, The Shawshank Redemption. I was immersed by concrete and steel, surrounded by walls that were ugly and unforgiving. The walk through the blocks was short, and before I knew it I was at the center, the small room where the watchman sits. In this space every cell is visible, the camera transmits all of the movements and behaviors of the incarcerated and projects them upon screens: to monitor, to regulate the jail and its inmates.

Walking by the cells, I can see through the glass, into the cells. I can see in, but they cannot see out, except if they come really close.

The inmates wear stripes. For some reason, I was anticipating orange jumpsuits. But here, stripes. Black and white for the men, pink and white for the women.

All of the men wear ink on their skin and hardened expressions on their faces, especially the younger ones. They want you to know that on no uncertain terms they are not ones to be trifled with. Their situation is ironic, of course, because they are almost completely powerless, trapped behind walls, stripped of their civil rights, subjected to a schedule, and subjugated to the orders of the guards. So, perhaps, this is all the more reason for some to assert their manhood.

There are exceptions to this machismo, this harder-than-nails exterior shell. Some are broken and haggard. These are the ones that have nothing to prove, who are resigned to a system that has beaten them. The name they have for this system is "life." It takes me a while to see these men. It is the tough guys who most often make their way to the glass, who assert themselves, make themselves visible. It is their broad shoulders and prominent tattoos that greet me on this my first visit to the Kosciusko County Jail.

It's a funny thing. After living in this small Indiana town most of my life, it is only at the age of 31 that I first make my way through these cell blocks. I have been to countless suburban homes and visited many respectable places of business. I have darkened the doors of the churches hundreds of times and listened to as many sermons. I am thoroughly familiar with the ins and outs of the local college, the grocery stores, and I am intimately familiar with all of the spaces in the natural world where one can retreat to in order to enjoy a bit of quiet reading time.

But these cell blocks? They are another world to me.


They were seated on a sloping hill, most scholars say. This is the setting for The Sermon on the Mount. Of all of Jesus' teachings, this homily is his most well-known. It is both instructive and poetic. It is somehow both familiar and simple, yet at the same time provocative and perhaps even revolutionary.

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
6Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
7Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
9Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called sons of God.
10Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Most of what Jesus says is directed toward the future: "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth." It is a future hope and a promise to come. Yet Jesus begins his sermon by saying "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." This is no promise delayed for a day to come. Jesus speaks in the present tense: "theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

For Jesus, the kingdom of heaven, if it is anywhere here on earth, is to be found with those who are spiritually poor, those impoverished souls.

But can it really be this way? Who builds a kingdom of the poor, made up of poor spirits and broken souls?

Who does this?


Within a few months of moving to my small, Indiana town, Tamie, now my fiancĂ©, was restless, ready to do something significant and to give. She decided that she wanted to volunteer for the local literacy council, maybe teach English as a second language to local Hispanic people. She called the local director, who in turn asked Tamie if she would like to start a literacy class at the jail. That literacy class quickly evolved into a creative writing class that we taught together. Our incarcerated students were soon composing poetry, writing their life stories, even crafting persuasive essays. We taught two classes each week—one for women and one for men. The women came in wearing their pink stripes, the men in black and white.

Each week they would write. They would process their lives through words. Almost to a person, our class was made up entirely of people from the lower class, the poor. We encouraged them to push the boundaries, the boundaries of their social class and the boundaries that they set up within themselves. Be creative, use your imagination. Don't settle for words and sentences that you've heard before, create your own.

We knew that they already were creative. They tear out threads of their clothing and other material, use dye made of crushed pencils to color the threads, then weave the threads together and create necklaces. One of our students fashioned a necklace complete with a Christian cross pendant. With nothing but time on their hands, they could create these beautiful things. Some of our students were incarcerated for their creativity, like creating a clever or smarter way to cook methamphetamine (or just "meth" for short). For those who grow up with an expectation for failure and live their lives in poverty and violence, creating meth is a way to kill that reality, to escape and live high. Meth only promises death, and it delivers every time: death to pain and poverty, and a deteriorating but inevitable death to the body and the spirit.

It occurs to me to ask: what do we do with this incredible gift, this gift we have to create? Is it possible that one of the most fundamental human characteristics is our imagination?

Our students could imagine and they could create. Last Christmas they assembled a collection of their poetry in a small journal. We printed a few hundred copies or so and sold them, using the proceeds to purchase books for the jail. The poetry was raw and it was well-formed. It was free of pretense, simple but at the same time complex because of this simple pain that they were exploring.

Together, our classes discussed a name for the poetry collection. They eventually settled on "the guilty's innocence." They all really liked this title. For them guilt is one of the most fundamental powers of the soul, a force to be reckoned with. That they were guilty was the given. What they wanted to do with their poetry is let the reader see into their innocence. Looking back now, I think that it's their innocence that surprised me more than anything. There was a certain guilelessness that permeated each class and every written assignment. For example, Tamie and I quickly learned that our postmodern irony was lost on the class. For all of the ways in which they were wise to the world—much wiser than ourselves—for all of their soul-numbing experiences of abuse, violence, and oppression, oddly, they were too sincere for irony.


From my observations, I've found that many Christians these days prefer the version of the Sermon on the Mount found in the Gospel of Matthew. There is, however, another lesser-read version of the Sermon found in the Gospel of Luke. Matthew's account is what we might call a more "spiritual" interpretation. Luke's version isn't so lofty. It's raw and more prophetic, a bit more blue collar. It is also more compact. My earlier reading was from Matthew, which pronounces nine blessings. Luke slims down and gets to the point with only four.

There is certainly much to learn from Matthew's version. For example, I want to think about how the kingdom of heaven is to be found with those whose spirituality is poor. These days, there's money to be made in the business of promoting spiritual richness, and there are churches to be filled with congregants ready to hear a message about becoming spiritually wealthy. What might it mean to flip this paradigm? I want to learn how to identify with this poverty of the soul and see what it is that Jesus saw.

Turning to Luke, however, I can see that the interpretation and application of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount opens up….with a bit of a bite you might say.

woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
25Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
26Woe to you when all men speak well of you,
for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets

These are the words that follow right on the heels of Jesus' blessings. It has all the fight of the ancient Hebrew prophets who denounced oppression and injustice in the land. The emphasis here is almost "economic." The blessing is not for the "poor in spirit," but for "the poor." Period. The version in the Gospel of Luke omits the term "in spirit" and simply states,

Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.

When Jesus speaks in this prophetic tone, he is tapping into his Jewish roots. These are deep roots. The Jewish holy writings overwhelmingly speak for the poor.

That these scriptures advocated for the poor was something I knew, but in preparing for this sermon, in reviewing again the writings, I was surprised when I read again the uncompromising emphasis of this message.

For example, the law made explicit provisions for the poor and vigorously forbade taking advantage of the weak and powerless:

For six years you are to sow your fields and harvest the crops, 11 but during the seventh year let the land lie unplowed and unused. Then the poor among your people may get food from it…ex23:10-11

Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. 23 If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry…. If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not be like a moneylender; charge him no interest….ex. 22:22-27

Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits. 7 Have nothing to do with a false charge… "Do not oppress an alien…ex. 23:6-9

The poetry of the Psalms also speaks on behalf of the poor, saying in no uncertain terms:

He will defend the afflicted among the people
and save the children of the needy;
he will crush the oppressor… For he will deliver the needy who cry out,
the afflicted who have no one to help.
ps. 72:4, 12

Lastly, there are the Prophets. They are aflame with righteous indignation on behalf of the poor and against those who oppress the poor and do not provide for them:

You trample on the poor
and force him to give you grain.
Therefore, though you have built stone mansions,
you will not live in them;
though you have planted lush vineyards,
you will not drink their wine.
Amos 5:11

The LORD enters into judgment
against the elders and leaders of his people:
"It is you who have ruined my vineyard;
the plunder from the poor is in your houses.

15 What do you mean by crushing my people
and grinding the faces of the poor?"
declares the Lord, the LORD Almighty.
Isaiah 3:14-15

Woe to those who make unjust laws,
to those who issue oppressive decrees,

2 to deprive the poor of their rights
and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey
and robbing the fatherless.

3 What will you do on the day of reckoning,
when disaster comes from afar?
To whom will you run for help?
Where will you leave your riches?
Isa. 10:1-3

Now, my objective this morning is not to preach a hell-fire-and-brimstone sermon against the rich, but to simply draw attention to the way in which the ancient Hebrew faith aligns love for God and love for neighbor. There is no "love of God" without compassion and care for one's fellow human soul. Love for God cannot exist without love for the neighbor. It cannot. This religion has deep roots in the real world of caring for others, and Jesus, the orator of the Sermon on the Mount, practiced what he preached.

Jesus was poor. Jesus was homeless. Jesus was also a prisoner, a prisoner who died on death row.


As we read through our student's writings each week, we started to see definite trends. One thing in particular was that there were certain ways in which they wrote about themselves that revealed a very low sense of self-worth, particularly amongst the women. Many of our students had done things to cause themselves and others great suffering, and they had to live with that. As convicts and soon-to-be ex-convicts, they also had to live with highly negative (and often unforgiving) societal stigmas.

In light of this, Tamie came up with an assignment for the women's class: write something about yourself that is both true and kind. Only two, simple requirements: it has to be true and it has to be kind.

The next week the women had nothing to turn in. A misunderstanding? "Okay class, it's simple: a writing about yourself that is kind and true. Any questions? Alrighty then, try it again this next week."

The next week came, and still nothing. What then began to sink in, for us, was the fact that after two weeks, the women in our class could not conceive of a true kind thing to say about themselves. Not a one of the ten women could do it. After dialoging a bit with the class, Tamie responded by saying, "You think that you have nothing kind or good to write about yourselves, but I've read your writings…." She then went on to tell the class how as a young teenager, one of our students found herself with a child and in the midst a difficult marriage, and yet in the midst of all of the turbulence and chaos of her life, she was trying to make her house a home: cleaning, lighting candles, and scrubbing the kitchen floor until after a long while she realized it was in fact a dirt floor. In the middle of abuse and violence, fear and uncertainty, she was lighting candles.

After Tamie shared her story, the women in the class all had tears in their eyes, their homemade mascara running down their faces.

This story reminds me of another passage in the Christian scriptures, a rhetorical question really, with a certain echo: "Has not God chosen the world's poor to be rich in faith and heirs to the kingdom?" (James 2)


I think that much of the reason why we do not align ourselves with the poor is because we don't see the poor. Poverty, both material and spiritual, is so difficult to look at; it is unsettling and disturbing to the eyes and to the spirit. We fear poverty, we run from poverty, we protect ourselves against poverty. It was a difficult thing, even for a few hours each week, to go into the Kosciusko County Jail, to enter this new world where everything is so hard and yet so fragile. In our class, we saw the concrete dissolve into a fine powder, and we saw souls of steel become as breakable as dried twigs.

That's a scary thing to see. It makes me want to ask: who builds a kingdom with sticks and dust?

A rich young ruler once came to Jesus asking about eternal life. Had he kept all of the commandments, Jesus asked? Check. Okay, then sell all of your possessions. This was too much for the young man, and he left saddened in his heart.


In all of this, somehow I feel like we are talking about inverting the paradigm, turning common-sense on its head. To deepen the soul and widen the spirit, become humble. For humility, go to the poor, those impoverished hearts. Jesus puts it this way, "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

It's like the spiritually and materially rich must go to the poor to seek deliverance and salvation from their riches. Like any religion that is authentic has to be a poor one. That sounds strange to my ears, I admit, and it certainly doesn't sound like any kingdom I've ever heard of. These are also teachings that are very disturbing, because to identify with the poor in spirit is to identify with heartbreak, violence, and brokenness in such a way that one weeps the tears of desperation.

There were many times when being teachers in the jail took its toll on us. Over the course of the one year we taught in the jail, we saw students create spaces for joy, hope, and truth, but we also saw students descend into depression, spiral into cynicism, and even one who was found dead in a ditch only weeks after being released. The unsettling nature of the poor in spirit leads to a good deal of questioning and speculation about one's religion.

For myself, the answers to these questions are often found wanting. There is one thing that seems true, however; and it is that suffering, pain, and poverty are one of the most fundamental realities I know; it's so fundamental to our economic, spiritual, emotional, mental, and societal existence. Therefore, any religion or view of life that does not confront suffering, pain, and poverty only becomes "an opiate for the masses," as Karl Marx put it. What is religion, or what is life for that matter, if it does not align itself with the poor.


I would like to close by sharing a poem written by one of our students, the same woman I mentioned above earlier who lit candles and scrubbed the dirt floor as a young, abused teenager. She was transferred from the Kosciusko County Jail to a maximum security prison, where she still resides up to this very morning.

I'm sitten here at Rockville Prison looking out the bars thinking to myself, "When will this end?" "Will I learn my lesson and never get into trouble again?" This is not somewhere I would want to stay longer than I have to. "Girls!" Not women! They are so rude & loud & disrespectful. I don't want to say nothing because I don't want to get into trouble this is very hard for me "to shut my mouth." I daydream a lot. I think of all the memories I have or I sleep so I can dream. The dreams take me in to a different world, a better place than this.

Some of the girls date each other, most of the time all this means is girls write love letters to other girls. I think it helps them cope with this place. Maybe they need love or just want to fit in. I don't do this, it's not in my world to be something I'm not.

I know one girl who pulls her hair out just because this other girl cuts her arms. Yes, this is not a place I want to be. But here I sit.

None of my friends write me anymore. They all forgot about me months ago. My family don't care. They know I will survive. It's very lonely here. I miss my kids, I miss my life. When will this end? I'm in a fog, drifting by, I'm numb but I hurt on the inside at the same time. This is a nightmare. Someday I will wake up and it will all be over but for now I have to stay in hell until God blesses me. Here I wait.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Love and the natural world

“No doubt a particular beautiful landscape supports by its peculiar charm a particular moment of love, as do the particular brilliance of a picture, a particular moment of music, a particular elegance of dress or dwelling; but these marvels only frame: if no love had by chance turned them into a momentary resting place, their gathered splendors never would have been able to produce the least movement of love….Venice becomes beautiful only because one loves there, and not the inverse, despite appearances.” Jean-Luc Marion, God without Being

Recent days have found me contemplating the beauty of landscapes. Currently I find myself in Alaska, which certainly lends itself to a greater awareness of the marvels that confront the soul in wild spaces. I feel at times as though my soul has had a certain spaciousness that awaits to be filled by the natural world in its peculiar beauty.

Jean-Luc Marion is a French philosopher, a phenomenologist who has been accused of pushing the boundaries of phenomenology too far. I have been reading his God without Being as I have continued to research grace and the gift. Marion has a good deal to say, theologically, about the gift.

I find that this quote shifts my paradigm: “Venice becomes beautiful only because one loves there, and not the inverse, despite appearances.” Love of the natural world is what fills it with its particular wonder and awe, although it certainly feels as though the natural world fills us with awe. In reality, “these marvels only frame,” they only support the moment of love.


Quick blog explaining my whereabouts....well, a blog that links to a blog that explains my whereabouts....

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Capitalism in financial crisis

Check out this video by David Harvey. It is a provocative analysis of capitalism in crisis by a Marxist theorist. However, I think you will be intrigued by the presentation style. I love it. I think it is a fabulous way to take in information. I will refrain from commenting on the style of the video and just allow you to view it. But please do leave me a comment and let me know what you think.

Two of his main points (for those who wish to discuss the substance of the presentation):

"Capitalism never solves its crisis problems, it moves them around geographically."

History of capitalism is about financial ingenuity and innovation. "Financial innovation has the effect of empowering the financiers."

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Future of Advertising - The Game of Life

This video is a short, ten minute lecture on the future of advertising if gaming merges with marketing. I tend not to pay attention to gaming all that much, but there is reason to pay attention to this industry and the way in which it could influence human behavior.

This excited lecturer reflects on how our entire lives could become a gaming module, where we score points based on our behavior, particularly in relation to what we purchase. He concludes by saying, "I do know that this stuff is coming. Man, it's gotta' come. What's gonna stop it?!"

This discussion reminded me of Spielberg's 2002 film, Minority Report. Here is a short, 45 second video. "John Anderton, you could use a Guinness about now!"

Monday, July 26, 2010

Fire and Desire, Madness and the Spirit

"We do not wake up in this world calm and serene, having the luxury of choosing to act or not act. We wake up crying, on fire with desire, with madness. What we do with that madness is our spirituality." -Ronald Rolheiser

(Continuing to borrow from Tamie's posts.)

Conservation, Eugenics, and Reconciliation

I love Orion magazine. To those who classify and categorize, Orion would likely be labeled as "environmentalist" or "conservationist." However, it is concerned with broader questions of existence that have to do with place, the space that we inhabit and the ethical and philosophical questions surrounding it. It jives well with me because it places environmental concerns within the question of "what kind of human beings do we want to be?"

My interest in environmentalism and conservation of the natural world stem from my concern for the heart and soul of a consumeristic culture. I wonder what kind of damage we do to ourselves if the primary force behind most of our lives (from the big decisions to the little decisions) is an impulse to consume, to have more and more stuff. I also have fallen in love with natural beauty and with the kind of "silence" that only things like trees, streams, mountains, chipmunks, moose, lakes and oceans can provide.

I also appreciate Orion even more after this article by Charles Wohlforth in the July|August issue. It is an honest evaluation of the connection between conservation efforts and eugenics. Check it out.

"The American environmental movement remains predominantly white and middle class, detached from minorities, immigrants, and the poor along the same lines of class and color that existed a century ago....More broadly, our political language for protecting the environment is about conflict between forces of good and evil, the fear of annihilation, and the exaltation of purity. It's the language of war, with dark undertones of racism we've inherited but no longer recognize."


The article traces the dark side of the history of environmentalism. For some, conservation of the natural world was rooted in a belief in the dream of early twentieth century eugenics: that Americans should breed a strong race of rugged, hard-working individualists, "oddly, the improvement of the dominant race meshed with the New Nationalism's utopia for a merit-based society." For Progressives like Teddy Roosevelt, it meant sticking up for the average guy, uh, white guy of course. So, preserving the average, strong working (white) man from the dominance of government and corporate powers that might impose on his freedom and destroy the land.

"Roosevelt was worried about the loss of a special American quality of strength and ingenuity that supposedly had evolved among whites on the frontier."

Said Roosevelt: "If our nation cares to make any provision for its grandchildren and its grandchildren's grandchildren, this provision must include conservation in all its branches--but above all, the conservation of the racial stock itself."

It gets worse, not better.

"Roosevelt wrote, 'I wish very much that the wrong people could be prevented entirely from breeding; and when the evil nature of these people is sufficiently flagrant, this should be done. Criminals should be sterilized, and feebleminded persons forbidden to leave offspring behind them. But as yet there is no way possible to devise which could prevent all undesirable people from breeding. The emphasis should be laid on getting desirable people to breed.'"

Well, that's one approach. It's the eugenics way, of course. And, actually, there was someone who tried to devise a way for a eugenics vision. Heir Hitler and the Nazis....which brings up more oddity, absurdity, and downright idiocracy, because "Nazi officials who slaughtered human beings in death camps also passed some of the world's most advanced legislation to protect the environment and endangered species, even outlawing cruelty to animals, including the sort of medical experimentation they performed on their human victims."

Weird. Very weird. But back to Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressives, whose perspective on the environment was couched within an overall worldview of superiority. It begs the question: "How could progressives who world for conservation, national insurance, and the rights of the workers adapt an ideology of hatred against the weak?"

Indeed. What is clear is that imperialistic thinking thoroughly permeated the heart and soul of the white race, even amongst reformers like T.R. and other Progressives.

The article has an interesting conclusion. "Power won't help us....This is a better job for the weak, who often have more at stake in the loss of nature, a closer relationship to its gifts, and a greater capacity to recognize when a certain level of material wealth is enough." This conclusion is intriguing because the article begins by suggesting that the environmental movement is a project of the white middle class, presumably those who want to protect nature (and the ecosystem) for their enjoyment (and safety). It is a movement detached from the marginalized, the poor, minority races, or immigrants. In this sense, it can become another "cause" that benefits the existing benefits of those who are higher in the power structure.

"Understanding the history of racism in the conservation movement is important, not to assign blame, but to diagnose our unhealthy relationships with each other and with nature, learn from our mistakes, and begin cooperating in the ways that we must in order to reverse our destruction of the Earth's ecosystems."

Agreed. But in order to cooperate with the marginalized, there must be something at stake for them, some benefit to their cooperation. These divisions between us are deep in the United States, and it is important to our power structure that we maintain them. As such, I imagine that the conservation movement will continue to be a project of the white middle class. In order to enlist the marginalized, they have to receive something in return, a greater share in the power and wealth of the nation, and a breakdown of the stigmas that make them marginalized. Cooperation means that the marginalized are no longer perceived as less than. Enlisting their cooperation means that the white power structure has to give something, something economic in return.

Knowing that this is the case, I doubt that such a cooperation will occur. More than likely, the environmental movement will continue to be a project of the white middle class. I will support it, of course. But these days, I am more inclined to think in wider terms; specifically, I want to ask about reconciliation in the broadest sense, the type of reconciliation that is at the core of the Christian faith, though it is often not recognized as such: "In Christ there is neither Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female." This passage and others suggest that the ultimate end for Christian reconciliation is the obliteration of all hard divisions based on ethnic groupings, class and social status, and gender privilege. All exist together, unified under Jesus the Christ.

Environmental and other causes often exist in isolation from greater philosophies of reconciliation. Articulating such a greater philosophy is one of the great opportunities for religion in general and Christianity in particular.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

more bumper stickers

This quirky bumper sticker had Tamie and I in stitches:

"Support your right to arm bears"

Friday, July 23, 2010

Environmental bumper stickers

An interesting bumper sticker I came across:

"Environmental bumper stickers don't mean shit when they are stuck to CARS."

(Thanks to Zach and Amy.)

Catching up with the world

Tamie and I are spending a bit of time in Vermont. One look at the handy road atlas reveals that Vermont is loaded with scenic highways and byways. It is a beautiful area of the country. Of the entire continental U.S., I would say it ranks at the top of my personal scenic charts. I also love the feel of Montana. Vermont has its own style: great cheese; Ben & Jerry's ice cream; it was green before green was cool; life moves at a slow pace; strip malls are kept to a minimum; and the Wal-martization of the world is kept at bay. So, I love the style.

Tamie has a short, humorous post on the subject:
Vermont: So beautiful it's offensive

For now, I'm trying to catch up a bit on the 'ole blogging front. So, more to come. For the moment, I've been enjoying the New England area.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Portland, Maine

No great ideas. Not even any pictures, unfortunately.

I'm just hanging out here in Portland, Maine, scoping out the possibility of Tamie and I moving here to this wonderful little coastal city. I am couchsurfing with a wonderful host, John. He's been great, and today we bicycled around the city. It's only a city of 60,000 or so folk (not including hamsters), but it has a nice, artists/creative community, and the scenery is lovely. Maine has many islands and a beautiful, rugged stone coast. Ferries (the boats, not gay men or the little enchanted girl creatures with wings) shuttle people out to some of these islands, or just take you around for a few hours or a day of taking in the salt air and the inspiring sights.

Try as I might, it's hard to find anyone give the city a negative review, or say anything disparaging about it. It's like pulling teeth. (Or, perhaps, it's a lot like answering that infamous interview question, "Tell us two or three of your weaknesses." You know the one? Where you try to say something "negative" about yourself, but it actually turns into a positive. Like, "Well, ya' know. One of my weaknesses is that I just get so wrapped up in my work that I can get burned out. Yeah. It can be a real draw back, I tell ya.")

So, I dig Portland, and I think moving here is now in the works. The price of living is a bit higher than living in the cornfields of northern Indiana; but, ya know, we expected that sort of thing.

Oh, and by way of a P.S. We camped in the Adirondacks on our way here to Maine. That was good times. And the drive through Vermont was tops. I mean tops. It was gorgeous. Right through central Vermont, through the Green Mountains. Oh yes. Vermont is tops. And New Hampshire has the absolutely best state motto you shall ever hear. "Live free or die."


Friday, July 02, 2010

Calling All Fanatics: Protecting nature should be more important than enjoying it

Derrick Jensen is a provocative environmental activist and writer. His basic point: save the planet at any cost. If it costs your integrity? Yes. If it costs your life? Check.

He has a short column with Orion magazine. In the recent July|August edition, "Calling All Fanatics" he starts by saying, "there aren't nearly enough of us working anywhere near hard enough to stop this culture from killing the planet."

Should we be enjoying our hikes, kayaking trips, and nice camping trips when our entire society is continuing to allow the destruction of the natural world, polluting the air and water, sending carbon into the atmosphere, and cutting down the forests (and other overharvesting), all to feed the need for greed--our demand for more and more stuff.

"For anyone not to devote her/his talents and energies to defending the planet is a betrayal of the worst magnitude, a gesture of contempt against life itself. It is unforgivable."

I am inclined to agree. Although I am a theologian by trade, a thinker, I want my theory to be grounded in the reality and workings of the world. From my volunteer work teaching in the local county jail it has become clear to me that there are problems that require immediate action, and words without deeds are dead. People's lives are being stolen and abused. We can sit back and pontificate on incarceration, but I know the names of people who need support because every night they get shut up in cages like animals with other desperate people. They need friends, mentors, and they need activists.

I feel the same way about the environment. I agree with Jensen that there is a "contempt against life itself" at work somewhere in all of this.

Yet as a theologian and spiritual thinker, I also want to ask the deeper questions. I want to ask, where does this "contempt against life" come from. I want to take Jensen's militarism, his do-or-die attitude, his courage, and join it with some intelligent spiritual analysis. By "spiritual" I mean that I want to ask about the "spirit" or "mood" or "attitude" that animates this culture of contempt against life. I do believe, for example, that consumerism is based on contempt. We have to first despise ourselves. Once we despise our lives, then we are vulnerable to advertising and marketing manipulation.

In the past, advertising and marketing was simple: for a content, satisfied, or self-actualized life, just purchase [insert product/service]. The sophistication of our current consumerism is such that we are well aware of our own self-content, and yet we continue to consume. This interests me. Self-contempt is celebrated, in often very subtle ways. Of course we still sell cereal by showing happy kids, but its also hip to be angsty: "yeah, I'm a jaded consumer, and to prove it I wear this jacket and these shoes." Even protests against the system necessitate that we participate in the system.

There's a market for the anti-system crowd. These are the saavy, self-aware types. The advertiser can tap into the contempt and bring it to the surface, no problem. An advertiser can use anything to sell a product or service.

How do we respond to this contempt for life? If our consuming impulse is based on contempt and a discontented consumer, how do we stop the consuming impulse before it begins? How does a person (or a society for that matter) become content, undoing our conditioning toward contempt?

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Orlando by Virginia Woolf

"At one moment we deplore our birth and state and aspire to an ascetic exaltation. The next, we are overcome by the smell of some old garden path and weep to hear the thrushes sing."

Were I to comment on the novel, in a very general sense, I would say that Virginia Woolf's Orlando was rather uncompelling. Of course, one might rightly call me to task for using the term "uncompelling," due to the fact that it is not a word--it is not a word in the sense that it cannot be found in a major dictionary. However, if you were to suggest that my word was not a word merely because it was not in the dictionary, I would say that this matters little because you get the gist of what I am attempting to communicate. Or, alternatively, in response to your criticism that my word is not a word, I might respond by saying that Woolf's novel is not a novel.

Orlando is in fact a displaced genre. It is written as a biography and intended by the author as a biography. It is shelved under "fiction," and more importantly, it is being reviewed by this writer as a novel....but not quite a novel....but when you read it, you get the gist of what Woolf is trying to say.

The novel is a biography of "Orlando." It is a loose interpretation of the life of one of Virginia Woolf's intimate friend, Vita Sackville-West, also a writer. Yet it is free and easy with the truth, very "unhistorical," if you will, "unfactual." But then again, you'll get the gist of what is going on. Woolf is taking liberty with the biography to better understand the person. It's like painting a tree that doesn't quite look like a tree but at the same time gives us a better sense of the tree than we would have if we had looked at the tree itself. Or said differently, it's like the fact that what we see in the mirror is never quite what is being mirrored.

Orlando, the one being biographied, if that's a word, which I am sure it is not...oh, but we've had that conversation before....Orlando, subject of this biography, is like Woolf's friend in that s/he is a writer. However, unlike Vita Sackville-West, Orlando is ageless and sexless. Well, not quite sexless. We are treated to a discourse on the life of Orlando, and then we find that while Orlando is in the prime of his life, he falls into a deep sleep and wakes up to be a woman. The "he" becomes a "she," but retains her (or his) prior impressions and understanding of what it is like to be a he. So she understand he, as perhaps no she has ever understood a he. And to top it all off, she sometimes acts like a she and sometimes acts like a he.

Orlando also feels out of place in his/her class. S/he is an aristocrat who can't quite give his/her heart to the life of an aristocrat, but who also on the other hand cannot quite escape the life of an aristocrat. Orlando isolates himself from his aristocratic peers, never managing to quite form any intimacy with them. Later, as a woman, Orlando finds herself living with Gypsies, but she longs for the comforts of her aristocratic lifestyle.

"For what more terrifying revelation can there be than that it is the present moment? That we survive the shock at all is only possible because the past shelters us on one side, the future on another."

Our subject also belongs to no era. As the story progresses, centuries pass and Orlando does not age. S/he is somehow lifted out of time and space, yet s/he seems at the same time to embody each era, be it the Elizabethan Era of the Victorian Age or the modern industrialized city.

In short, this novel is the story of a subject displaced from time, class, and gender. And all of this displacement occurs within a novel that is deliberately displaced as a biography by its author who (despite being a novelist) insists that we approach her novel as though it were a biography.

"How little she had changed over the years....she had remained fundamentally the same."

"I have sought happiness over many ages and have not found it, fame and missed it, love and not known it....I have known many men and many women, none have I understood."

The text is experimental. The prose is beautiful. Yet for me, the novel lacked a truly compelling element. The subject is lifted out of the world such that s/he lacks context. Orlando becomes a sexless character without any true affiliation to any particular era or even alignment with a class. Orlando, the protagonist, remains static, and as such, there is nothing to invest, emotionally or otherwise. The best the reader can do is to sympathize with this character for the extreme displacement that s/he finds his/herself living.

"Morning James," she said. "there's some things in the car. Will you bring them in?" Words of no beauty, interest, or significance in themselves it will be conceded. But now so plumped out with meaning that if they fell like ripe nuts from a tree and proved that when the shriveled skin of the ordinary is stuffed out with meaning it satisfies the senses amazingly....to see Orlando change her skirt for a pair of whip cord britches and leather jacket, which she did in less than three minutes, was to be ravished with the beauty of movement, as if Madame Lopokova were using her highest art."

The protagonist is distant and inaccessible. S/he seems to live in a sleep-like state, unable to awaken to a strong sense of identity. In the above quote, Orlando is in here eleventh hour, nearing her demise, and she experiences an awakening of sorts. The prose is beautiful, but somehow I remain unconvinced. Orlando still seems distant, as if she is experiencing a moment of fullness, when life is being experienced in all of its richness and the heart is full. Yes, she may be living a few moments of being in tune with the wonder of the world, but the reader still is somehow being kept at bay, closed out. As for myself, my sense is that Orlando is not only closed off to the reader but ultimately she is closed off to herself. And perhaps that is the point of the novel, itself, a character unable to ever quite wake up.

The world seeks to establish and settle identity: gender, era, class and social standing. Orlando is displaced in this world, and somehow his/her displacement paralyzes his/her ability to awaken. She remains trapped in a dream.

"Illusions are to the soul as atmosphere is to the earth. Roll up that tender air, and the plant dries, the color fades. The earth we walk on is a parched cinder...by the truth we are undone. Life is a dream. 'Tis waking that kills us..."

But how many of us truly wake from this dream?

Friday, June 25, 2010

Quote of the Day

"If I hadn't shot poor Delia, I'da had her for my wife."

- From the Johnny Cash song "Delia"

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Let your gentleness be evident to all

"Let your gentleness be evident to all." (Philippians 4:5)

There are several issues that press the collective spirit of the United States: A decade of war, an economic collapse and recession, an environmental catastrophe, and an inability to address immigration issues. Taken together, we have become more divisive and distrustful, more protective and territorial. As a collective, we want to insist on our rights, we feel the need to fight for what is "ours." It is a spirit of grasping and clinging, we are suspicious of others whom we believe are trying to steal from us: terrorists abroad, immigrants within our boarders, the government, or corporate powers.

"Tolerance" is a word that has been debated in our society for a while. Some mock the idea of tolerance: this isn't a tolerant world for the weak, you have to fight for what is rightfully yours. At this point, the sense of tolerance, civility, and gentleness seem only to be words devoid of substance, political rhetoric to give us a moral sense of superiority.

Paul's exhortation to the Philippians is to "let your gentleness be evident to all." The Greek word here, epieikes, is a difficult one to translate. The idea has to do with gentleness, but it has to do with the type of gentleness that yields and surrenders its right of law over others. The lexical definition is as follows (BDAG): “not insisting on every right of letter of law or custom, yielding, gentle, kind courteous, tolerant.”

The scholar R.P. Martin translates this word as magnanimity: "Aristotle contrasted it with akribodikaios 'strict justice.' For him it meant a generous treatment of others that, while demanding equity, does not insist on the letter of the law. Willing to admit limitations, it is prepared to make allowances so that justice does not injure. It is a quality, therefore, that keeps one from insisting on one’s full rights, 'where rigidity would be harsh' (Plummer, 93; cf. Aristotle, Eth. nic. 5.10 §1137b.3), or from making a rigorous and obstinate stand for what is justly due to one."

Whereas a political or cultural climate such as ours would encourage a person to insist on getting their due and asserting their rights, a spirit of magnanimity or gentleness spoken of by the Apostle Paul would be yielding, kind, tolerant, and pull back from insisting on getting one's full due. What is more, Paul's exhortation to the Philippians is that this spirit of gentleness be "evident to all." In other words, it is not merely a private disposition without public ramifications. The idea is that one's magnanimity overflow into public life such that a person is distinctly marked as a tolerant and kind individual.

I do not think this means that one defers from standing up for justice or righteousness, nor do I think that a person need not express strong opinions related to current day political issues. Nor do I even think it is out of place to discuss one's rights or what is due us. However, such ideological discussions should never turn us against another in such a way that we harshly insist on getting our due without any sense of compassion for others. In other words, "let your generosity be evident to all" ultimately means that a person does not hesitate to pull up short of demanding their rights in deference to others. It is a stance of gentleness as opposed to a harsh and inflexible insistence that right is right.

This spiritual teaching from the Apostle Paul is the mark of one who lives markedly different from the prevailing culture of violence that marks our day and age. "Let your gentleness be evident to all."

Monday, June 21, 2010

Recession, War, and Environmental Catastrophe

"For decades, we have known the days of cheap and easily accessible oil were numbered. For decades, we’ve talked and talked about the need to end America’s century-long addiction to fossil fuels. And for decades, we have failed to act with the sense of urgency that this challenge requires. Time and again, the path forward has been blocked -- not only by oil industry lobbyists, but also by a lack of political courage and candor.

The consequences of our inaction are now in plain sight. Countries like China are investing in clean energy jobs and industries that should be right here in America. Each day, we send nearly $1 billion of our wealth to foreign countries for their oil. And today, as we look to the Gulf, we see an entire way of life being threatened by a menacing cloud of black crude.

We cannot consign our children to this future. The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now." - President Obama, June 15, 2010

On this blog we have discussed the fact that in order to move our nation in a different direction, we ultimately need a change to the system--a change in the way we think and live and move about in our lives. Yet we have also noted that such a systematic change will not happen until individuals and communities are willing to sacrifice in the short term to make this happen.

It appears as though the political will may be here for the immediate future to commit to taking steps toward systematic change. Will the people be willing to make sacrifices? To change our way of being? And what specifically will be asked of them?

For me, the discussion is not just about being more energy efficient but also about the deeper spirit to consume, the consumeristic impulses that seem to motivate our behavior. It is, I think, a spiritual struggle, a battle for the way we will orient our souls and our collective national self.

President Obama began his speech by discussing a "multitude of challenges" that have faced the nation: "At home, our top priority is to recover and rebuild from a recession that has touched the lives of nearly every American. Abroad, our brave men and women in uniform are taking the fight to al Qaeda wherever it exists. And tonight, I’ve returned from a trip to the Gulf Coast to speak with you about the battle we’re waging against an oil spill that is assaulting our shores and our citizens."

He notes the three areas of disaster: economic recession, war, and environmental catastrophe. I see the consumeristic impulse causing or motivating all of these. I wonder if these three events and concerns will shape our political landscape for the next few decades. I wonder if people of faith will respond with enthusiasm.

Friday, June 18, 2010

A Quick Musing on Politics and Powers

Generally speaking, the dominant political power on the right (Republicans) tend to be suspicious of the growth and scope of governmental powers, but they turn a blind eye to any of the damages of corporate powers--environmental abuses, corporate fraud, low compensation toward workers, manipulation via advertising, and pushing out smaller businesses and sole proprietors (i.e., Walmart's destruction of our nation's downtown small businesses).

Generally speaking, the dominant political power on the left (Democrats) tend to be suspicious of the growth and scope of corporate powers, but they turn a blind eye to any of the damages of governmental powers--excessive and ineffective bureaucracy, fraud, corruption and misuse of public funds, the power of political machines, imposition on personal liberties, etc.

I'd be interested in a political movement that was suspicious of all dominant powers, be they corporate or governmental. I would be disposed to supporting a movement that empowered local governments, local communities, and individuals. Not a movement that promotes bare individualism at the expense of community, mind you.

Because bigger is not always better....and it's often worse.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Patriotism of the soil

Tamie and I have been watching the most recent Ken Burns documentary series on the National Parks of the United States. It's been quite amazing to realize just how beautiful the United States is. It is also humbling to realize that many of our most scenic locations were almost raped and ruined. If brave and steadfast souls had not stood up to some of the corporate powers-that-be, then the Grand Canyon might be invested with mines and hotels, under the control of entities trying to extract a profit from her; the grand sequoias, thousands of years old, might have been leveled; the buffalo might be completely extinct....etc.

There is a fantastic quote that I came across. It connects patriotism with the soil.

"What is it that inspires love of the flag, that tunes the ear of America to sing 'My Country 'Tis of Thee'? Is it industrial efficiency, irrigation statistics or trade output? Is it the hideous ore dumps of the sordid mining camp? Is it the blackened waste that follows the devastation of much of our forest wealth? Is it the smoking factory of the grimy mill town? Is it even the lofty metropolitan skyscraper that shuts out the sun and throws its shadow over all below? No, our devotion to the flag is inspired by love of country. Patriotism is the religion of the soil, and the national parks are our richest patrimony."

Patriotism if often cited these days. Patriotism is often placed alongside abstract ideas, like "democracy" or "equality." It is used to advance ideologies. Or it is justification for war. In extreme cases, patriotism is a reason to revoke civil liberties. But what about a patriotism of the soil? What about being patriotic to the land? "Sweet land of liberty"?

I sent the DVD back to Netflix, so I am uncertain who to attribute this quotation to. I had thought it was Stephen Mathers, but surfing the net I also see that someone credits John Wesley Hill. No matter. What I appreciate about this idea is that it questions whether patriotism can be sustained if there isn't an organic source of inspiration. Perhaps so many of the other reasons for our patriotism wind up dividing us because they are ideologically driven, they don't grow out of the earth.

Along with this is a quote (that I did not write down) regarding legislation something to the tune of: every legislator and government official in the U.S. should ask themselves if their bill or plan is worthy of the Grand Canyon. In other words, is the direction of our nation worthy of our greatest and most inspirational natural wonders? There's a certain perspective that one gets, I think, from the natural world; it's something that kind of reorients us back to what is truly important.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Church of the Blessed Life

It's all well and good to guilt people into a more sustainable lifestyle; and perhaps it is even inspiring to discuss a way of life that is fulfilling and integrated. However, the realityis that it is extraordinarily frustrating and taxing to attempt to swim against the current of U.S. consumerism; it feels impossible for one individual to do it--like swimming against the rapids. And, after all, what difference can one individual really make, in the long run? The reality is that we need community. We need local support and networks of people committed to living the blessed life.

How about the church?

It's an intriguing time in the life of the church. Most churches are having a hard time maintaining enthusiasm among the young, particularly singles. The numbers I have seen show that young folks are leaving the churches in a mass exodus, of sorts, although most still describe themselves as spiritual or religious in some way.

Hhhhmmm....what about the church....

Here's the positive thing. Churches are already set up as support groups for local individuals. This is particularly true of "neighborhood churches" that are located in densely populated areas (where people actually live!), allowing people to be within walking distance of the building.

Furthermore, if churches want to imitate their founding member (and subsequent disciples and apostles), which seems to be a common theme among churches, then they will already have an interest in creating a supportive community for living an alternative lifestyle--this could be lifestyle in alternative to the consumeristic matrix within which the greater Western world now participates.

Just imagine it, my friend. (Personally, I have a difficult time not feeling some surge of optimism in writing about the possibility.) Just think of the revolutionary possibilities if churches dedicated themselves to the path of anti-consumerism, to integrity, and to the blessed life. These churches could create new, local markets for goods, for everything from locally produced food to locally made clothes, furniture, cookware, and art. What kind of new employment opportunities might this open up? Might more people be able to quit their jobs on the assembly lines and behind desks and follow their talents and creativity? Working the soil or creating beautiful and useful products?

Such a shift would also create strong relational bonds within a faith community--striving and struggling together for a crucial mission at a critical time. It would be a shift from surviving the world to working together for a new vision. Consumeristic thinking necessarily leads to objectification. Those of us who "work jobs we hate to buy shit we don't need" end up feeling a little bit like we've sold our souls to the devil. And maybe we have, but it isn't too late to change. Such a transformation would be about the blessed life--approaching the world in a life-giving manner. This is a shift about the way we interpret ourselves, no longer as "consumers" or "human resources" but as relational and responsible human beings--with an emphasis on "being," on being dynamic and alive. This kind of life and this new relational energy could then be used to reach out a hand to those on the margins of the consumeristic society: the disabled, the poor, the addicts, prisoners, prostitutes, undocumented immigrants, and others who are considered a burden by the wider society--but those to whom that Jesus dude tended to gravitate.

Structurally the church is set up to be the catalyst for the blessed life, to turn our attention from thoughtless Walmart, fast food, and strip-mall consumers to becoming informed people of integrity. The system can be changed, we could become spiritually, relationally, and environmentally sustainable people via the church.

So, what's stopping us?

Structurally, the church is set up to be

Friday, June 11, 2010

A Mass of Impersonal Human Beings

"When men are merely submerged in a mass of impersonal human beings pushed around by automatic forces, they lose their humanity, their integrity, their ability to love, their capacity for self-determination." - Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude

This quote by Merton relates to my recent musings on the blessed life. A life of integrity means that our values and humanity are integrated into every element of our lives. When our work, recreation, religion, buying habits, addictions, or other activities of our lives cut us off from what is most human about us, then our lives become fragmented and frustrated.

Perhaps the awkward thing about our age is that we are being "pushed around by automatic forces," like advertising or other media, but many of us are okay with it. We know that advertisers are deliberately manipulating our psyche to get us to buy products, but we like it well enough that we don't protest. We understand that our favorite cable news channel program presents a very slanted spin on events, but it's what we want to hear (and after a while we forget that it's a slanted spin, and then we assume it's all more or less fact).

Merton points out the loss of humanity, integrity, ability to love, and the capacity for self-determination. I would say that these four losses are definite manifestations of a life of frustration that comes out of being objectified as a consumer within the spirit of a consumeristic society. Consumerism is the kind of "automatic force" that can drain us of very vital spiritual and human qualities.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

The Blessed Life

It is often the case that our own ill-conceived strategies for life often make us the most unhappy. The world is a chaotic place, and we develop strategies to cope. These strategies evolve into habits, many of which we are not even aware of. There are times, though, when we run into problems in our lives that confuse us, that cause us to step back and reevaluate ourselves. The idea of reaping what we sow seems to have to do with this very thing—ill-conceived strategies for life, lifestyles and habits that come back to cause us grief and pain.

Here in the U.S., we are nearing nearly a decade of war, our economy is in the midst of “the Great Recession,” and we are in the process of dealing with an ecological catastrophe. It may be a critical time in the history of our nation, a time to ask the most basic of questions regarding our way of life: is it working for us?

Clearly our choices of lifestyle have had a devastating impact on the environment. From an economic perspective, it is a matter of debate whether we can continue to push for more growth. But more to the point: our economic push for expansion and growth is coming into conflict iwht our environment’s ability to sustain it. This is due in part to the fact that our deconomy depends so heavily on iol. Eventually the supply will run out. Additionally there is the concern about global warming. Can our environment sustain the impact of all of the world’s carbon emissions? In the meantime, we deal with the oil spills and the environmental destruction from drilling on land.

But let’s bracket these concerns for a moment. Let’s assume that these natural resources are unlimited and that extracting them is not a problem. (After all, most people continue to live as though there were no problems—even those who believe that our way of life is devastating to the planet.)Let’s assume global warming is not happening and that the resources are unlimited. Let’s ask a fundamental question: are we really happy? Do we live a blessed life?

The biblical texts speak a good deal about the blessed life.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” “Blessed are the merciful.” “Blessed is the one who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers.” “Blessed are the pure in heart.” “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

As I understand them, the basic premise is that if a person or society walks with integrity, then they will be blessed; conversely, those whose ways lack integrity can expect negative consequences to come their way. This is certainly not an absolute formula for success, and those who use it as such will find themselves disappointed. For example, there are those who walk with integrity but are exploited, abused, die of disease, are pushed off their land, etc. This is historical fact. Still, there is something important about living a blessed life, about being blessed, and it isn’t about living out a formula for a successful life.

What is the standard for a blessed life? Material possessions might be our first response. Or we might perhaps associate blessings with entertainment or other sensual stimulations. Further, we might define success (and blessedness) in terms of achievement—building a career, establishing a ministry, attaining personal goals, or having an accomplished family. Perhaps also we might define a blessed life as some mix of the above.

My understanding of the biblical texts, taken as a whole—the Hebrew scriptures along with the Christian New Testament—is that the blessed life is one that is lived with integrity. The word “integrity” having to do with an “integration”: that all of the activities and relationships of one’s life work together in a harmonious, beautiful, and virtuous way.

For example, we admire a business man or woman as a “person of integrity” if this person is consistently honest in all of his or her dealings, whether professional or personal. If a person is religious at church, but they are dishonest in their work life, we say that such a person lacks integrity, that they have not integrated their values into a harmony. Similarly, if a member of the clergy has a public persona of virtue but a private life of vice, we would say that this inconsistency is evidence of a lack of integrity.

If the blessed life is seen in this way, then we realize that success, achievement, or even survival is of secondary importance. Integrity has a profit all its own.

If the blessed life is a life of integrity, then how does the U.S. fair? The outlooks is certainly bleak. I would say that the reason for this does not necessarily have to do with evil intentions by the majority of average citizens, but more to do with a way of living and a system that promotes fragmentation. Fragmentation is the opposite of integration, or the reverse of integrity. For example, if we want to own a pair of running shoes, we go to Foot Locker or some other chain store and buy a pair. We do not usually think farther than this. But what if our shoes were made in an Asian sweatshop? What if our shoes were produces with exploited labor? Even children? “Well,” we might respond, “how should I know? I’m not deliberately trying to screw Asian workers, I just want a pair of shoes.” But you see, this response presumes that our behavior (buying a pair of shoes) can be an isolated event. We isolate this event and fragment it from any other considerations and from any of our life’s values. We live in a sort of willful ignorance of where our products come from. This is a breakdown of integrity because it is a failure to integrate our values (things like fairness, goodness, kindness, etc.) with our purchase of a pair of shoes.

This kind of thing, though, is a part of life in the U.S. We purchase most of our products without knowing their source, even our food. We work for companies and corporations that isolate us into departments, cubicles, and offices, to do isolated tasks without knowledge of whether our work is contributing to a virtuous cause or causing suffering in the world.

We live in a system that encourages fragmentation, that refuses to allow us to live integrated lives, lifestyles of integrity. And more and more we are seeing the impact of our lifestyle on other people, animals, and the environment. This means that the general public is being confronted with the fact that we have not been living the blessed life.

And are we even happy? Do we live fulfilled and satisfied lives? The advertising industry, which is the force behind so much of our drive for economic expansion, by definition creates dissatisfaction in consumers. If everyone were satisfied with their life, then there would be no reason to buy the latest ipod, purchase a larger television, invest in a larger house, get that second car, or keep one’s self dressed in the latest fashions. Who in the U.S. is truly content? Who is truly satisfied with what they have? It is almost true, by definition, that we are unhappy.

It is also my belief that living a fragmented life without integrity is itself dissatisfying on a deep spiritual level. We see this in the sarcastic and bitter cynicism that many people have toward working in isolated offices and cubicles. The Dilbert cartoon satirizes this approach to life. How can one feel satisfied working in a glorified assembly line that we call an office space? We are often bored and fragmented, and our entertainment industry is so wealthy because it serves to distract us from this deep spiritual discontent.

To live with integrity. To live a contented life. This is the blessed life. This is the life that can extend itself outside of self and engage the world in a meaningful way. A person who is content and lives with integrity does not need to be another consumer in the market to find happiness or some measure of peace, for peace is found within and as a result of one’s virtues put into action. There is an abiding strength of soul and spirit, a renewed “inner person,” and this transformed individual is free to integrate their values with their lifestyle. And it works in reverse: the person who has transformed their behavior in the world can experience an inward satisfaction and freedom from being bound within the consumeristic cycle of discontentment.

There is freedom in this life. This is a pilgrimage that is not of this world, and yet so deeply engaged in the world so as to challenge its deepest darkness. This is the blessed life.