A letter about learning and salvation

Dear Mark,

You ask us to write a “Letter to Mark,” in which we are to talk about what we learned during the week-long course at Ferry Beach. You also invite us to post this on some public forum — Facebook, a congregational newsletter, a blog, etc. — and so I am posting this to my blog before I even send it to you. But before I address the issues you ask about, I have to begin by talking about one or two big problems that overshadow liberal religion right now, in this moment in history; those problems will require some theology; and after doing some theology I will finally address the issues you ask about, what I learned at Ferry Beach and how what I learned is shaping my own praxis and my own spiritual journey.

A big problem that we religious liberals face right now is whether science has made religion outdated. Science and technology hold out great promise for improving human life, and indeed they have accomplished many things already: science and technology have cured many diseases, extended our life spans, made it possible to feed many more people so that fewer need to go hungry, and so on. Perhaps liberal religion is now outdated, for what could religion offer to compare with the accomplishments of science and technology? On the other hand, science and technology have also created some horrors: atomic bombs, chemicals that have caused damage to us and other organisms, and a massive miasma of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that threatens the long-term survival of large mammals (including human beings). Perhaps science and technology are not an unmitigated good; in which case, does religion have something to offer a world that is both enriched by scientific wonders and technological marvels, and endangered by scientific and technological horrors?

To put all this another way: science and technology investigate the world and make things, but they don’t judge what they learn or make. Richard Feynman, a physicist who worked at Los Alamos during the Second World War, made this clear when he talked about his excitement at helping design and build the first atomic bomb: “You see, what happened to me — what happened to the rest of us — is we started for a good reason, and then you’re working very hard to accomplish something and it’s a pleasure, it’s excitement. And you stop thinking [about the consequences of what you’re doing], you know; you just stop.” (1) If scientists have stopped thinking, then who is thinking, who’s calling the shots, who or what is determining what is right and what is wrong?

Who, indeed, is calling the shots? Cultural critic Curtis White points out that “from its inception, science has been comfortably situated within and dependent upon the oligarchs.” (2) Scientists and technologists, says White, receive a comfortable upper middle class lifestyle and access to grant money, in exchange for following the priorities of state and corporation. That is to say, in this historic moment, scientists and technologists are ruled by, and take their moral guidance from, entrepreneurial consumer capitalism in the form of the oligarchy of Corporation and State. Entrepreneurial consumer capitalism, like science and technology, has accomplished many good things, but it has also in recent years served to increase inequality among people and to increasingly divide people into demographics based on race, age, nationality, religion, etc.

Yet rather than acknowledge that religion might offer a different way of knowing, which can offer quite nuanced analysis of moral and ethical choices, some scientists and technologists want to assert that religion, and indeed most of the rest of the humanities, have been superseded by science. (Curtis White names Richard Dawkins as the paradigmatic example of such a scientist.) Look no longer to religion for salvation, say these scientists; look to science and technology; for it is science and technology that can get to the real root of truth and knowledge.

But dow we in fact want to get at the root of truth and knowledge — and if we do, will we actually find only one root, or many, or something else entirely? Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guatarri, in their monumental work of critical theory titled A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, point out that much of Western thinking is dominated by the image of the tree: the trunk of the tree ramifies, or branches out, into smaller and smaller branches and then twigs and finally leaves; while in the other direction, the trunk is rooted in the ground, with a big tap root, and many smaller rootlets branching out from that. (3) Notice that with the tree-metaphor, there is a single trunk: “binary logic is the spirit of the root-tree,” the choice of either/or. (4) Science and technology, and even more so, consumer capitalism, buy into this either/or mode of thinking: either science or religion is correct, but not both; either technology or the arts is useful, but not both.

Deleuze and Guatarri describe a different botanical metaphor: the rhizome, which “assumes very diverse forms, from ramified surface extension in all directions to concretion into bulbs and tubers.” Rhizomes have several characteristics that differ from the root-tree metaphor: “any point of a rhizome can be connected to any other, and must be”; “a rhizome may be broken, shattered at a given spot, but it will start up again on one of its old lines, or on new lines”; “a rhizome is not amenable to any structural or generative model.” (5) We don’t need to adopt the rhizome as a new metaphor, replacing the old root-tree metaphor — this is not a case where we have to choose either one or the other — but rather, as Deleuze and Guatarri put it: “A new rhizome may form in the heart of a tree, the hollow of a root, the crook of a branch.” And while we don’t have to choose the rhizome in binary opposition to the root-tree, perhaps we might agree with Deleuze and Guatarri when they say, “We’re tired of trees. We should stop believing in trees, roots, and radicules. They’ve made us suffer too much.” (6) I think of this whenever I think of the physicists’ quest for the one unified theory to explain everything.

With this thought in mind, I’d like to make a connection (a rhizomatic connection?) with Jesus of Nazareth. One of his most important intellectual contributions to the world, says theologian Bernard Loomer, was his conception of the Kingdom of Heaven as connections between all persons, and between persons and all other beings and non-sentient things like rocks and air. Loomer prefers to call Jesus’s Kingdom of Heaven by another name, the Web of Life; (7) and this name helps us understand that Jesus is not using the root-tree metaphor.

So the Web of Life is made up of interconnections. And this web of interconnections implies a theology of salvation: in order to be saved, we must become aware of our place in the Web of Life, and act so as not to endanger our connections with other beings and non-beings. For example, according to Jesus wealth can damage the Web of Life. A rich young man comes to Jesus and says that he follows all the rules of religion, so what else must he do to get to the Kingdom of Heaven? Jesus tells him to go an sell everything he has, and give it to the poor. This makes the rich young man sad, and he goes away with grief. (Mark 10.17-23) The rich man’s wealth has separated him from the Web of Life; his wealth has him seeing things in binary terms: the rest of the world is an Object, over which he as a Subject has increasing control insofar as he has increasing wealth.

In this story, there is no indication that the Kingdom of Heaven will come at some future time; indeed, Jesus seems to indicate that we could have access to it here and now. Jesus tells many other stories about the Kingdom of Heaven, and in every story (at least, in my reading of the accounts of Jesus), the Kingdom of Heaven is all around us, right here and now. The Kingdom of Heaven is trying to burst in upon us, and we turn away from it. Or to put it another way, the Kingdom of Heaven, the Web of Life, is rhizomatic; as rhizomorphous beings we (including the rich young man) are connected to all other rhizomes; but a rhizome can be broken or shattered at any point, upon which it will take up again on its old lines, or begin a new line. The wealth of the rich young man had broken a connection with the rhizome, by imposing the binary opposition of himself as subject and everything else as object to be owned. Global climate change has shattered many rhizomes on the Web of Life, but those broken or shattered connections can start up again, either along old lines or along new lines (which is to say that humans may not survive global climate change, except as compost). Salvation is not an end state of a linear progression, something which happens at the end of time; salvation happens when a node of the rhizome reconnects with the rhizomatic network. Salvation, the Kingdom of God, the Web of Life, is happening all around us, all the time.

Now that I have outlined a theory of salvation, I can get to the real purpose of my letter to you — which is to talk about religious education. You already knew that, Mark, but since I am posting this letter in public forums, I wanted to hide my real purpose. Perhaps not many people want to read about theology, but even fewer want to hear about religious education. You and I know that lack of interest is silly, because one of the primary ways we express our theology is through education, the means by which we raise up our children, and the way we help adults towards greater spiritual maturity. If you want to know someone’s ethical theology, I say you should pay attention to the way he or she treats children and adults; and if you want to know about their theology of salvation, watch how they do religious education.

You had said you only wanted to hear a little bit about theology, and you wanted to hear about it in the context of how theology is lived out. I have pretty much ignored this request of yours. I felt I needed to talk at some length about theology. Science and technology and consumer capitalism are claiming to offer us salvation — but their salvation comes with the strong suggestion that we should stop thinking except in their approved scientific fashion. And then, along with their proffered salvation comes global climate change and social inequality. So I find I cannot talk about religious education without first talking a little bit about science and capitalism’s theologies of salvation.

This letter has gotten quite long enough for now. I’ll write another letter soon, and tell you more about what I have learned about religious education during my week at Ferry Beach, and what I’m doing with what I’ve learned in my own congregation.

Yours,
Dan

On to part two, “A letter about learning and experience”….

———

Notes:

(1) Richard Feynman, “Los Alamos from Below,” in Reminiscences of Loa Alamos, 1943-1945, ed. Lawrence Baldash, Joseph O. Hirshchfelder, and Herbert P. Broida, vol. 5 of Studies in the History of Modern Science (Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel Publishing, 1980), p. 132

(2) Curtis White, The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions in a Culture of Easy Answers (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Melville House, 2013), p. 98.

(3) Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guatarri, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987, orig. French 1980), p. 18.

(4) Ibid., p. 5.

(5) Ibid., pp. 7 ff.

(6) Ibid., p. 15.

(7) Bernard Loomer, Unfoldings (Berkeley, Calif.: First Unitarian Church, 1985), pp. 1-2.

One thought on “A letter about learning and salvation”

  1. What a striking analogy and contrast! Having returned recently from a family vacation in Northern CA redwood country, your imagery sparked some thoughts about redwood forests. We extol large redwoods as individual giants: tallest tree, the drive-through tree, the oldest redwood tree, etc…Yet what makes for a successful redwood ecosystem is the network of ramifying underground roots. Each tree’s root system extends for hundreds of feet laterally and is interlaced with the root systems of all the neighboring trees. After a fire or a logging cutting down, the roots will immediately sprout up a circle of new redwoods around the regal fallen giant. So the hidden and communal root system supports the surface individuality. Maybe our American culture is little like this–we promote, almost narcissistic excellence, while our communal web of interconnections undergirds our survival.

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