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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Lake Michigan Sunsets

Only I a few days ago, I found myself sitting atop a sand dune, I was looking down onto the beach of Lake Michigan, then up and out at the horizon as the sun set. For some reason, the sun was pushing its orange glow upward, not down. Only ten minutes ago, however, the lake reflected the sun all the way across, like a laser beam.

I was wondering, as I sat watching the sun set: how do cultures develop in relation to the natural environment. I admire how the Native Americans, as a collective whole, developed a cultural philosophy and way of life that sought to live in harmony with nature. They respected the environment and lived as a part of it, as one species in the ecosystem, so to speak.

I suppose that one never knows how a sunset is going to go down. As the sun was sinking, the clouds hid the bottom half, leaving an orange half-circle visible.

In contrast to the Native Americans, Europeans who "settled" the Americas sought to dominate nature, to "subdue" her and extract as much of her resources as possible. With increasingly sophisticated and more powerful technology, it became possible to take more and more. We hunted with a religious fervor, with a fanatical energy. Each generation seeking to better the prior generation. Each new generation seeking to produce more, build more wealth, to become more prosperous, where "prosperity" is measured in terms of profitability.

I suppose that as a theologian, I'm tempted to say that ideas have consequences, then to trace the theological threads that hold together the fabric of a particular cultural zeitgeist. Usually this is my approach--it's the way I'm wired. But to hell with that for now. I think there is more to it, there certainly is; but I don't know how to describe it. (Perhaps that's why it's easier to stick with ideology.) Yet more and more I'm thinking in terms of a "spirit," a more general term that I think does more to capture the holistic sense in which a group of people "live and move and have their being."

What developments led the Native peoples to view their world as a dynamic, interconnected whole? what forces conspired such that the white man became obsessed with domination and control of the natural world? What is the inherited spirit of those who feel the innate drive to consume, whose identity is success-driven and defined within the marketplace? And perhaps we could discuss yet another group of peoples, the Tibetans, who dedicated their culture to spiritual pursuits, to understand the quiet mind, to grow peaceful and serene, to cultivate compassion.

What's the motion of it all? It's all a dynamic movement, because culture is always changing, evolving. I think that from the divine perspective, each cultural era must appear as diverse--and also as fleeting and ephemeral--as a sunset over Lake Michigan.

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