Archive for the ‘Political and Civic Life’ Category

We are at war.

And not just in Afghanistan.

Today’s horrific events in Newtown, CT are just the latest in what seems like an endless parade of gun deaths in the United States. But they seem even more shocking because they were mostly children between the ages of 5 and 10. Children, who were in the middle of their school day in a town people describe as “friendly.”

President Obama’s remarks today included these words:

As a country, we have been through this too many times. Whether it’s an elementary school in Newtown, or a shopping mall in Oregon, or a temple in Wisconsin, or a movie theater in Aurora, or a street corner in Chicago – these neighborhoods are our neighborhoods, and these children are our children. And we’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.

In recent years, we have seen,

  • 28 dead in Newtown.
  • 6 dead in Oak Creek.
  • 13 dead in Aurora.
  • 13 dead in Columbine.
  • And so far in 2012, 400 – many of them children – dead in Chicago – more than the total U.S. troop deaths this year in Afghanistan!

In the United States alone we have 87 gun deaths every day.

What will it take to stop the madness?

What will it take for us to take madness  and mental health seriously?

Why has the United States become a culture of death?

A feminist writer named Kimberly George made these comments today:

We grieve today an absolute tragedy in Connecticut. It is particular in its horror, but it is simultaneously not disconnected from the violence harming teenagers on the streets of New Haven, the Atlanta Child murders, the domestic violence in our homes, the children killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nor do I think it is disconnected from the children on whose backs this country was built, and the children killed in the colonization of the Americas. I think all of this horrific violence is interconnected…all of it needs profound healing. And we desperately need poets, prophets, artists, those who can lead lamentation, those who can help lead us in imagining and building a much different world in which every child is valued.

Fifty years ago, poet-prophet-songwriter Pete Seeger wrote an anti-war song that included these verses:

Where have all the young men gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the young men gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the young men gone?
Gone for soldiers every one
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

Where have all the soldiers gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Gone to graveyards every one
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn? 

I ask today – what will it take for us to foster a culture of life, where every creature is seen as sacred?

When will we reform our policies around gun access and types of weapons and ammunition that are available to anyone with the funds to buy them?

When will we begin to stop letting parents treat their children as property that they can abuse, sowing the seeds of violence in these precious souls?

When will we begin to take mental illness seriously and approach mentally ill people with compassion and effective treatment?

When will we ever learn?


Note: Here’s a nice post on what to say and what not to say to people who are experiencing these kinds of losses.

You also might enjoy reading my previous post on “Abstractions and Illusions.”


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Earlier this week, the state of California defeated Proposition 37, a law that would have required the labeling of any foods that contain ingredients which have been genetically modified. Powerful corporate entities in the food industry poured money into the fight against this “Right to Know,” frightened consumers with the boogeymen of outrageous costs, and dismissed any health concerns as pseudo-science.

Yet in my opinion, genetically modifying any organism violates what I think of as the “sanctity of species” and is therefore unethical and immoral. I do not want to support such permanent alterations of species in any way and I consider it an infringement of my religious freedom to prevent me from making an educated decision about such things. But it’s not just my personal preference that matters here. It all comes down to whether or not we will foster technological, scientific, and economic models that are in direct conflict with what we are discovering about the nature of reality.


Once ours scientists learned how to split atoms, what they found there is that,

Matter is no longer material; the atom is formed of protons, neutrons, electrons, and twenty or more other particles. We cannot ask what these particles are ‘made of’, since they are not ‘substances.’ We may speak of energy, waves, particles, but we are actually dealing with fleeting episodes in the microcosm that are not permanent. Our picture of reality, then, is not yesterday’s matter but today’s relationships, processes, and events. Instead of an edifice of hard building blocks, ultimate reality is relational. (Levi A. Olan in “The Prophetic Faith in a Secular Age,” in Jewish Theology and Process Thought, ed. David Ray Griffin and Sandra Lubarsky, 27)

Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy of organism or “process philosophy” is grounded in this awareness that reality is made up of experiences and that everything that exists is relational and interconnected. Reasons why his thought is seen as “ecological” include that in his system of thought, every organism has some degree of experience or subjectivity, and has intrinsic value not just instrumental value. Ecological science points to this same awareness, and sees organisms and their ecosystems as being interconnected, relational, interdependent, and wholistic.

Olan describes reality as one of “self-enfolding creatures as well as the infinite whole in which we are, somehow, included as One…Whitehead implies that reality is comprised of ourselves, others, and the whole is the sense of deity, or, as he describes it, ‘the intuition of holiness,’ which is the foundation of religion.” (28) Reality, then, and every organism in it, has a ‘holiness’ or ‘sanctity’ of its own.

On the other hand, the modern technology of genetic modification is based on an outmoded world view – basically, scientific materialism – in which organisms (and, to some degree, even humans) can be reduced to merely machines with interchangeable parts – so who cares if the gene of a toxic plant is spliced into the DNA of a type of corn we will later eat or if the gene of an insect is injected into the DNA of a pig? But if we see each species as a whole, as something with intrinsic value and integrity, with patterns of wisdom that guide its functioning and life experience, then genetic modification violates this sanctity of species.

As Olan writes,

Western civilization today, it seems, is not in harmony with the basic character of the universe as the new science describes it. Materialism dominates our culture at a time when the universe is disclosed to be non-material. Fragmentation is increasingly the mode of human organization, while the universe is revealed to be an integrative unity. The major drive of western culture aims at separating the part from the whole. (32)

But the parts cannot be ethically or morally separated from a whole in which everything is interrelated and interdependent, and we shouldn’t act – or eat – as if they can be.



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I was too young to really be aware of what was happening the year that Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were both assassinated. In the spring and summer of 1968, I was not yet eight years old, and my concerns had more to do with school, friends, and AM radio than the civil rights movement and national politics.

But reading The Metaphor Maker by Patricia Adams Farmer has allowed me to experience as an adult that era when the U.S. was embroiled in the Vietnam War and hopes were high that Bobby Kennedy would be the one to rescue the country from the insanity we were living.

In the book, Madeline’s world was turned upside down with the death of her brother in the war, but the solace she found working in Eve’s tea shop was the respite she needed to heal from this devastating wound. Being surrounded by loving friends and reconnecting with her former counselor Ben in southern California fueled her to once again work for change in the world by campaigning for Kennedy.

As Kennedy’s motorcade wove through Los Angeles earlier in the day he was killed, we were right there with Madeline as she reached for his hand, palpably feeling the surge of excitement and energy that he brought to the presidential race. But in a split second, all of her hopes and dreams – and the dreams of much of the country – collapsed under fire from Sirhan Sirhan’s gun.

Think about it. In less than five years Americans watched as JFK’s “Camelot” crumbled; then Malcom X, Martin Luther King, Jr, and, finally, Bobby. If we listen closely we may still hear the lid slam down on the coffin of hopes carried by people who were hungry for an America without racism, without poverty, and without war. Bobby Kennedy’s body hit the floor of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles and so began America’s plunge into national despair. Just a few years later, with “Tricky Dick” Nixon’s Watergate scandal, that despair became partnered with a cynicism that I think we’re still mired in.

How do we recover from such despair? How do we keep moving forward under the weight of such devastating realities, especially when those realities never seem to change in any real way? What can one individual do?

A helpful perspective may come, I think, from Joseph Campbell, best known for his PBS interview series with Bill Moyers entitled “The Power of Myth.” Campbell’s work in comparative mythology focused on the “hero’s journey” archetype.  He felt that we must all take that journey, both men and women, so as to become people with vitality, with what Patricia Adams Farmer calls fat souls, if you will. Campbell said,

The influence of a vital person vitalizes, there’s no doubt about it. The world without spirit is a wasteland. People have the notion of saving the world by shifting things around, changing the rules, who’s on top, and so forth. No, no! Any world is a valid world if it’s alive. The thing to do is to bring life to it, and the only way to do that is to find in your own case where the life is and become alive yourself.

He felt that the best response one could have to the heart-wrenching realities of life was to “participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world.” He wasn’t naïve; he knew exactly the struggles and pain we face right alongside the joys and love we experience. But he also knew that, as Jesus said, “the poor would be with us always,” there would always be pain and sorrow walking right alongside the love and joy, and so we may as well go full-bodied, and full-hearted right into the fray.



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My transistor AM radio in 1970 was always tuned to WABC where I especially loved hearing Cousin Brucie. I’d carry it with me as I walked back and forth to Grace Wilday School in Roselle, NJ, the first community to be lit by electric lights and overhead wires in 1883. One of my favorite songs of that era was “Spirit in the Sky,”

When I die and they lay me to rest
Gonna go to the place that’s the best
When I lay me down to die
Goin’ up to the Spirit in the sky

Goin’ up to the Spirit in the sky
That’s where I’m gonna go when I die
When I die and they lay me to rest
Gonna go to the place that’s the best.
(© 1969 Norman Greenbaum)

At the time, I thought it was quite cool for a pop song to mention Jesus and I still think it’s a really catchy song. But I no longer believe in the Spirit in the Sky.

That is, I no longer believe in a Spirit that’s just in the sky.

I believe that God’s Spirit is present everywhere, in everything, and in every being, human and non-human.

Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University, where I am a doctoral student, recently hosted an event featuring Brian McLaren as one of the speakers. McLaren serves on our Board and is a known figure in the emerging church. His books include A New Kind of Christianity and his most recent, Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? During the presentation, he told us a very compelling story.

Seems an economist friend and McLaren were discussing our current environmental crisis and what might be done about it. The economist had written that he believes we have been operating under two narratives in the U.S., both of which are “ecologically devastating”:

  • The first is the story of the “Grand Machine” that undergirds naturalistic science. In this story, the world and all of its non-human components are just machines or machine parts that have only instrumental value, and no intrinsic value or subjectivity of their own. According to the economist, this story is “bankrupt” and “cannot catalyze human energy” for addressing our very present crisis.
  • The second is the story of the “Distant Patriarch” that undergirds Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. In this story, there is “a dangerous and threatening divine being” and all of our human energy must be focused on appeasing this being. This story also has little power to mobilize us to take action even while the crisis worsens before our eyes.

What’s needed now, said the economist to McLaren, is a new narrative, the story of the “Integral Spirit.” This story says [in as close a paraphrase as I can offer],

The world is not just math and physics. There is a Spirit here that is involved in the processes of the universe, a present Spirit working within the universe that can help us deal with our problems. Everything has value and is a manifestation of this Spirit, and we’re all connected. Only this story can offer hope and has the power to heal, but this story – embraced by many – has no institutional home.

No institutional home. Is the Church listening?

This story of the “Integral Spirit” has been told by process theology for decades. As Bruce Epperly has written in Emerging Process,

In contrast to Enlightenment deism and conservative supernaturalism, both of which are grounded in the belief that God operates from “outside” the world, intruding occasionally in ways that subvert nature’s regularity, process theology affirms that God’s Spirit moves within all things, inviting us and them to be ‘more’ than they or we can imagine…Imagine a spirit-filled world! Imagine God’s spirit, breathing in and through all things, giving them life, energy, chi, ki, prana, ruach, and inviting them to evolve toward the wholeness in God’s realm of shalom, beauty, and love. (p. 88-89, 91)

Imagine how much could change if we embraced this story, if we really believed that God’s wondrous, grace-giving, enlivening Spirit was right here, right now. I think even Norman Greenbaum could tap his toes to that tune.

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In one chapter of his book Religion in the Making, created from lectures delivered in Boston in 1926, Alfred North Whitehead explores the historical effect on religion of travel beyond what he calls “the tribe.” He suggests that when people were exposed to “others”, strangers, outside the tribal boundaries in a way that was kindly, those extra-tribal explorers could think more “dispassionately” (and with less hostility) about others than before their travels. The result of empires and trade was that “everyone traveled and found the world fresh and new. A world-consciousness was produced.” (p. 29) Whitehead felt the “disengagement” from one’s social location that came with travel led to a change in how people perceived their relationship to God. In the old way of thinking, he writes,

Alfred North Whitehead

Conduct is right which will lead some god to protect you; and it is wrong if it stirs some irascible being to compass your destruction. Such religion is a branch of diplomacy. But a world-consciousness is more disengaged. It rises to the conception of an essential rightness of things…The new, and almost profane, concept of the goodness of God replaces the older emphasis on the will of God. In a communal religion, you study the will of God in order that [God] may preserve you; in a purified religion, rationalized under the influence of the world-concept, you study [God’s] goodness in order to be like [God]. It is the difference between the enemy you conciliate and the companion whom you imitate.  (p. 30)

Too many religious people these days talk about God as if God were an enemy to “conciliate” or placate. According to a 2010 article written by Amanda Terkel on thinkprogress.org, Virginia State Delegate Bob Marshall (R) suggested that year that women who had had abortions were punished by God through being given disabled children in subsequent births. Who could even worship such an evil and immoral god? Shouldn’t we at least be able to assume that God has the level of morality of the best human beings we know?

One of my greatest email pleasures is reading Fr. Richard Rohr’s brief meditations that arrive in my inbox bright and early each day. A recent entry touched as well on the idea that God and Jesus might best be thought of as those we should imitate due to their goodness. He writes,

 It seems to me that it is a minority that ever gets the true and full Gospel. We just keep worshiping Jesus and arguing over the exact right way to do it. The amazing thing is that Jesus never once says, ‘worship me!’, but he often says, ‘follow me’ (e.g., Matthew 4:19).  Christianity is a lifestyle—a way of being in the world that is simple, non-violent, shared, inclusive, and loving. We made it, however, into a formal established religion, in order to avoid the demanding lifestyle itself. One could then be warlike, greedy, racist, selfish, and vain at the highest levels of the church, and still easily believe that Jesus is ‘my personal Lord and Savior.’ The world has no time for such silliness anymore. The suffering on Earth is too great.

The suffering on Earth is great, indeed. Does it lessen that suffering or increase it if we pummel others with an image of a God who is not worth worshiping or following? It seems pretty simple. If your God tells you to kill an ambassador, or to kill an abortionist, you’re listening to a false god.

Update:  As I can hear the distant hoof beats of accusations of heresies such as Arianism on the horizon,  I just want to clarify a line of thought in this post. First of all, Fr. Rohr does not use the word “imitate” and it’s really not the exact word I’m looking for here.  Nor am I saying that we should not worship and be filled with praise over the grace that flows to us from Christ. What I believe, though, is that those who worship Christ but who are not willing to walk his path are merely projecting their healing onto Jesus as an outer figure, but that those who follow Jesus, walking the Way he walked, will experience the inner transformation of the Christ, and realize the Reign of God that Jesus realized as present right here, right now. In Spiritual Traditions for the Contemporary Church, Boniface Ramsey, O.P. writes of the spirituality of the early Church: “Christ was the measure, the model, and the goal of the spiritual life.” This is still true for Christians.

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I awoke this morning crafting this thought:

The true art of being human is to marry the spirit of growth and highest potential to the soul of depth and limitation, through the bonds of reverence, compassion, and empathy for oneself and all beings.

We have yet to master this art.

Oh, we humans have a lot of spirit. That spirit – the one that reaches for the heights – is the reason we’ve landed men on the moon and built towers of glass and steel that seem to go on forever. But it’s also the reason capitalistic societies have an economic system based on the falsehood of unlimited growth. It’s also partly why the world rips resources from the Earth at the rate of the equivalent of 112 Empire State Buildings every day. (Source:  The Worldwatch Institute, 2010 State of the World)

Photo: Sheri Kling, Aran Islands, Ireland

It’s not spirit that we lack. What we lack is soul. Soul is about depth. It’s about embodiment and the limitations that come with that. It’s about the limits of a real life lived on the ground with real relationships and deep roots. It’s about community and valuing what will last over fleeting intoxications.

To be truly human, we must have both spirit and soul, heights and depths, freedom and necessity, novelty and sameness. This is the marriage that must take place within each human in order for us to become as Real as the Velveteen Rabbit, to make peace with the tensions between spirit and matter, the pull toward the heavens and the force of gravity.

But don’t we all find this difficult?

We want endless choices – in everything from jobs and sexual partners to the number of jars of jam in the refrigerator. For me, this has been made manifest in a sense of restlessness, of never being able to be in the present tense in my own life, but always believing I’ll be happy when something else happens – when I find a romantic partner, when I achieve the right career, when I live in the right geography. It’s not that I don’t recognize the good things in my current life, it’s just that it’s always felt like there’s a hole at the center of me and I’d only feel better when it was filled by something.

Yet what if that something is just being willing to come home to myself? What if that tension between heights and depths, between spirit and soul, is the true human condition, after all – not something to concretize in one or the other, but a dynamic flowing union of yin and yang energies?

I heard an interview on National Public Radio the other day where a libertarian named environmental regulations as a stifling limit on innovation. Yet it seems to me that saying we can’t innovate within those limits is like a comic saying he can’t be funny without profanity. Both reflect a failure of imagination.

Ethan and Sarah Hughes have no such failure of imagination. Some years ago, they embarked on an adventure called The Possibility Alliance based out of their homestead in Missouri, where they have a constant flow of visitors learning about permaculture. They use no electricity or fossil fuel and live on $3,000 per year.  Ethan and Sarah Hughes may seem poor in cash yet they are rich in life.  And they live out more spirit and creativity within those difficult limits than most of us can even fathom.

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Earlier this morning, I moderated a session at the National Student Conference at Claremont Lincoln University, where I’m a PhD student in process theology/philosophy. The theme of the session was Religion & Politics, and three students talked about the Occupy movement; Kafka, Marx, and economics; and native Hawaiian land rights.

A post-session discussion sparked some thoughts about what I think is troubling America.

The threads I want to weave together on this include comments Phyllis Tickle made in a recent address to Claremont about the “Great Emergence,” as well as an article I read online that made a good case for the argument that all this fighting about access to birth control coverage was really just a fight about sex. So let me see if I can bring this all together in a way that makes sense.

When I read the article about sex (and I really wish I’d kept the link), the author talked about how birth control loosened the power grip that men had over women and their bodies and who they had sex with, and how all this hoopla about health care coverage of birth control was all a struggle to keep women disempowered. I think there’s a lot of truth to that – as there’s been a long history of men controlling their daughters and their wives in this way in centuries of patriarchy. But I think the problem is deeper than that, and it’s one we’ve not been willing to face in the U.S.

I think it’s about the fact that everywhere we look, the foundations of life as we once knew it are crumbling and people are overwhelmed and very frightened deep down. There’s a lot of talk in religious circles these days about the “emergent church” but Phyllis Tickle thinks it’s not just the traditional structures of organized religion that are crumbling but that we are currently going through an epochal upheaval of the kind that seems to happen every 500 years or so.

Here are just a few of the foundations that have been crumbling around us (from a non-historian’s perspective):

Gender roles – women entering the work force during WWII, the feminist movement, and access to birth control have certainly played a part, and men, who were used to being the locus of power in the marriage, in the family, in the workplace, and in their communities are being asked to learn a different way of being (as are women).

Family relationships – this goes back even farther, to the start of the Industrial Revolution when people became much more mobile in order to follow the jobs and extended families no longer stayed near to each other. Moreover, whereas people who farmed or crafted things used to own their own means of production, industrial capitalism meant that the means of production became concentrated in the hands of a few capitalists and the laborers traded their labor for cash, losing more and more control over their economics but gaining what they thought was security. And for a while that was true, but that security has proved to be elusive, and workers now have less and less cash for their efforts while the capitalists take all the flow of profit that is earned by their workers’ increases in productivity.

Faith in an absolute, transcendent and powerful God – the Enlightenment and the rise of science tore assumptions about the existence of God right out from under us, and the predominance of scientific materialism – along with the horrendous genocide of WWII and the Holocaust – caused philosophers to proclaim the “death of God.” We’ve lost this access to the sacred – both in an outer way and in the inner way of soul – which is something humans cannot live without, and so we try to substitute sex, drugs, rock and roll, and other transient things that don’t deliver any lasting sense of meaning to life.

The illusion that we have control over anything – though humans have never really been in control, we’ve always thought we were, but economic collapse, the perception of increasing violence, constant war, unemployment, and a host of other chaotic realities have shaken us to the core.

Neither our religious leaders nor our political leaders seem to have a clue about the degree to which people feel shaken and crushed by the ever-increasing upheavals and changes that predominate. Though maybe it’s long overdue for those who’ve always been the recipients of status and privilege (white people in America) to experience their own dose of disempowerment, it’s still traumatic.

And so – I think – when we hear people yell “Let him die!” regarding lack of healthcare, or when people seem to care less and less about the poor, or about racism, or about sexism, or about homophobia, or about indigenous rights, or about the environment, or about the myriad of other looming problems that we face, and run for the hills into the safety of “Dancing with the Stars,” I think these are just symptoms that point to a much deeper loss of soul and a loss of center that has us feeling like we’re in the perpetual “spin cycle.”

I will write more about this as time goes on, but let me just say for starters that I think the only way we’ll survive this upheaval is for us to change the way we view embodied life on planet Earth. We must be willing to let go of the idea that there are bedrock and eternal doctrines and structures from which we must never deviate, and instead understand that life is inherently chaotic and riddled with change and that the only way to survive is to learn to ride the waves. We must learn how to release the anchors that were never really securing us anyway, and learn how to open to the flow of Life that comes to us every day with a mixture of novelty and order, beauty and terror, but which is girded underneath all surface appearances by the power and energy of Grace.

I welcome your thoughts; let’s have a conversation.


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