The errands and chores took up most of the day, and everything took more time than usual due to the traffic which got increasingly worse as the day went on, as the winter storm warnings for Wednesday grew more dire. Get your Thanksgiving shopping done today! shouted the news media. Begin your Thanksgiving travels now! But in spite of all the traffic, and in spite of the errands and chores I had to do, I did manage to get outdoors.

I got up early and drove to White Pond. I walked to the pond over the bluff on the southeastern shore, and as the pond came into view, the white sand banks stood out through the November gloom, and I was struck by how appropriate its name is. The rainbow trout were rising well within casting distance of the shore, little dimples of water appearing her and there as a fish sucked a fly underwater. But the trout didn’t like anything I cast; there was a hatch of flies going on, and I suspect they were completely absorbed by that; had I been fly fishing, perhaps I could have presented something they would have struck at.

A woman came walking down the shore, and we started chatting. “I haven’t fished here in a dozen years,” I said, “and the houses seem to keep getting bigger.” The houses on the pond started out as modest summer cottages, but now many have them have transmogrified into McMansions. “Oh, it’s terrible,” she said, “they keep expanding them. Some of them are huge now. Three, four floors.” I didn’t say it out loud, but I thought: this is what growing wealth inequality is doing to Concord, Massachusetts: changing it into an enclave of the elite. That thought dampened my mood, so I started fishing again.

After three quarters of an hour, the rainbows stopped rising, and I went off to start my errands. Sadly, I had to spend most of the rest of the day either in the car, or indoors.

But as the day turned towards dusk, I found I had just enough time to go to Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge and see what birds were there. I arrived too late to see the immature Bald Eagle that has been there for the last couple of days, but I arrived just in time for one of the most spectacular sunsets I have seen in months.


Above: Two Mallards swimming in the upper pool at Great Meadows, Concord, Mass.

The radiant life

Last week, Dad spent quite a bit of time talking with my sisters and me about World War II. I think it is very difficult for us now to understand how traumatic those war years were, and to understand how the war and trauma affected those who lived through it; they were dark years indeed.

When Dad was at college right after World War II, he took a philosophy course with Rufus Jones, the great Quaker philosopher and theologian. He still has several books by Jone on his bookshelf, and while I was looking for something to read this morning, I pulled out Jones’s The Radiant Life, published in 1944, in the middle of the war. The book represents Jones’s search for “gleams of radiance” which might be found “in spite of the darkness of the time.”

Like his contemporaries, the Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams and Reinhold Niebuhr, both of whom were also profoundly affected by the war and by the evils perpetrated by Nazi Germany, Jones felt he could no longer cling to the sunny optimism of the Progressives, nor to the even sunnier optimism of Emerson. Where, then, should we turn to find gleams of light? James Luther Adams turned towards the social structure of voluntary associations: finding light in building robust communities that could move us towards the good. Reinhold Niebuhr turned towards pragmatism and Christian realism: accepting that in a corrupt world we may not find all the light we need (this, I believe, is the origin of Neibuhr’s famous “Serenity Prayer).

Jones, Quaker that he was, found a different answer to the traumas of the mid-twentieth century Western world: he encouraged us to accept the reality around us but also to look for the light that was always there. He wrote:

“The Kennebago Mountains are visible in the far horizon of my home in Maine, but they come into sight only when the wind is north-west and has blown the sky clear of fog and mist and cloud. Then there they are, in all their distant purple glory. But we know that they are there all the time, when the wind is east or south, though we cannot see them, and we say to our visitors, wait until the wind comes round and blows from Saskatchewan, and then you will see our mountains which are over there in our far sky-line! Some persons’ lights up like that only when the wind is in the right quarter. I am pleading for a type of life that is sunlit and radiant, not only in fair weather and when the going is smooth, but from a deep inward principle and discovery which makes it lovely and beautiful in all weathers.”

I think I like Jones’s approach better than either Adams or Neibuhr — not that I think that any one of them has the final and complete truth of the matter, nor the final answer to the traumas of life; no single human being can ever know the complete truth of anything. But to know that the mountains are always there, even when you can’t see them because they are obscured — that is worth remembering. I can see why my father liked Jones so much, and continues to like him. Adams focuses on human relations, which I admire, but I sometimes wish Adams let in a little more of Emerson’s sunshine. However, Emerson is too sunny, except in his poetry, and sometimes I can’t quite believe him. Niebuhr is too dark, and I don’t want to believe him.

How do we get through the traumas of contemporary life? How do we get through the horrors of war and terror? How can we face the damage humans are doing to the rest of creation? How can we make it through the struggles of human life, of grief and death and all the rest? I like Rufus Jones’s answer: remember that the mountains are always there even when you can’t see them. Or, to put it another way, look for the gleams of light which always may be found even in the darkest of times.

Tail race from Damon Mill

Dad’s condo is across the street from Damon Mill in West Concord, a mid-nineteenth century brick mill building now converted to offices. The old outflow stream from the mill, technically a “tail race,” flows right behind Dad’s condo and thence into the Assabet River.


Above: The tail race from Damon Mill; the main current of the Assabet River is visible through the trees.

A cold front went through last night, and this morning when we got up, there was a skin of ice on the tail race; leaves and twigs that had been floating on the surface of the water got frozen into the skin of ice. It was cold enough today that the ice never melted. I took the above photo at 3 p.m., and there’s the skin of ice, still holding on to the leaves and twigs.

A week ago, Dad and I walked around the edge of the field below his condo. But today it was too cold to walk that far. We made it to Dad’s garden, which is close by his condo, before he decided he wanted to turn around. We did see, however, that there is still one last pea plant struggling to survive the cold snap. It’s supposed to get up to sixty degrees on Monday, so perhaps the pea plant will revive then.

Assabet River


Above: The Assabet River, just below the Pine Street bridge in Concord, Mass., on 15 Nov. 2014

Tonight, my father’s brother Lee, and my cousins Lynn and Steve came up to visit Dad. Uncle Lee spent his career as a chemist, but I would be more likely to call him a practical icthyologist; he knows as much about the biology of fish as anyone else I know; he raises something on the order of a hundred different species of fish in his basement, and he’s an avid fisherman of wide experience. For her part, my cousin Lynn works for MassWildlife as a habitat protection specialist, and has a wide knowledge of many different Massachusetts ecosystems, including rivers, streams, and ponds.

As we were eating our dinner (we had fish, of course), Uncle Lee and Lynn got to talking about fish. Between them, they covered the possible effects of global climate change on lake trout in Canadian lakes; invasive Asian carp in the Midwest; the reintroduction of sturgeon into the Chesapeake River; which species of fish were native in Eastern Massachusetts rivers; etc. Since the Assabet River is visible from Dad’s living room window, of course we talked about the SuAsCo (Sudbury/Assabet/Concord) river system. I tried to participate in the conversation, but it was far more interesting to listen to the two of them. At one point, I looked at Steve and said, “Isn’t it interesting to listen to two fish experts talk?” He agreed. It’s always interesting to hear people talk about something they know well.

Wetlands, Concord, Mass.


Above: Cattails in a wetlands along the abandoned Old Colony Railroad (later New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad) grade that parallels Old Marlboro Road, Concord, Mass.

This wetlands area has a substantial expanse of open water, due to beaver dams; in the photo there is open water on the far side of the cattails, and you can see the grey trunks of dead trees, trees which could not survive the flooding from the beaver activity. Beyond that, you can see hills covered mostly in white pine (Pinus strobus), with some red oak (Quercus rubra) mixed in; this mix of pine and oak is typical on upland glacial till soils in eastern Massachusetts.

These are characteristic colors of mid-November wetlands in Concord: the dull brown and white of dead cattails and their seeds and the grey of dead or leafless deciduous trees; a sky covered with dull gray clouds above; and in the background, the dark green of white pines with a few spots of dull red provided by the red oaks which still retain their leaves.

REA: Last day of the 2014 conference


(em>Above: Yes, there were arts and crafts at the Religious Education Association 2014 conference. In keeping with the more interactive approach at the 2014 conference, there were several opportunities for conferees to participate in interactive projects around the topic of unmaking violence. Here, conferees decorate a “peace pole.”


Above: REA president-elect Mai-an Tranh, professor at Eden Theological Seminary, speaking at the final plenary session: wrapping up this year’s conference, and tying this year’s conference topic to next year’s topic. Tranh used Henry A Giroux’s “disimagination machine” as a central theme in her talk.


Above: In the final plenary, Evelyn L. Parker of Perkins School of Theology led conferees in an interactive theatre exercise. She invited ten conferees to imagine with their bodies what the “disimagination machine” might look and feel like. Then she invited the rest of us “spec-actors” to disassemble the machine. In the photo above, a conferee is gently removing a piece of the machine.


Above: The close of the conference, just before the business meeting.

REA: Interrupting violence on the ground

The second plenary sessions at the Religious Education Association 2014 conference was devoted to field trips to various locations in Chicago that are working for nonviolence. One field trip was to the a href=”http://www.swopchicago.org/home.aspx”>Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP); a second trip went to the John Marshall Law School Restorative Justice Project. I chose to go to Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation (PBMR) in the Back of the Yards neighborhood of Chicago.

At PRMR, we met with Father David Kelly, a Catholic priest affiliated with the Precious Blood missionaries, and three young men who participated in PBMR programs. Father Kelly said that he had been involved with various prison and inner city ministries before helping to organize PBMR. In his experience, he had found that the criminal justice system is primarily adversarial in nature, and that it does not provide any real support to either perpetrators nor victims. And at times he found himself in situations where he had a relationship with both the victim and the perpetrator of a crime — how could he minister effectively to both?

Continue reading “REA: Interrupting violence on the ground”

REA: Teaching about Islam using a worldview framework approach

In the final breakout session at the Religious Education Association 2014 conference, I attended a presentation by Mualla Selçuk of Ankara University and John Valk of the University of New Brunswick titled “Journeying into Peaceful Islam: A Worldview Framework Approach.”

Valk and Selcuk reported on a pedagogical model they used to engage Muslims and non-Muslims in learning about “a comprehensive Islam.” The problem they are addressing with their pedagogical model is pervasive stereotyping regarding Islam. In particular, Islam is stereotyped as violent; as authoritarian, patriarchal, and rigid; as a religion that persecutes other religions; etc.

Sometimes the stereotyping of Islam is subtle, particularly in media coverage of Islam in the west. Media coverage of Islam “often confuses correlation with causation” — if an individual Muslim engages in, say, an act of violence, the act of violence will be attributed to the individual’s religion. Sometimes the stereotyping is not as subtle, as when anti-religious and anti-Islamic discourse cherry-picks elements of Islam (or religion more generally) to “prove” that religion/Islam is bad.

Religious education can be complicit in stereotyping, if it uses a passive passive pedagogical model. It’s not enough to give students information about religion, e.g., disconnected facts (e.g., Muslims pray using certain prescribed body motions), or prescribed answers (e.g., Islam as a whole believes X).

Valk asserted that an appropriate pedagogical model must include an experiential component. He mentioned site visits, meetings with spiritual leaders, human interaction, etc. He added that “personal engagement” is also necessary, i.e., engaging the questions and challenges of Islam: religious, spiritual, science, religion, etc. Valk said that they challenge the learners to think. “So instead of saying, ‘Islam believes in God’,” he said, “We ask, ‘What does it mean to believe in God?’ … Let the students explore the possibilities.”

Valk then outlined their worldview framework for an appropriate pedagogy. This worldview framework has five sub-frameworks, including: personal/group identity;
cultural dimensions;
existentialist questions; etc.
The pedagogy uses a “Socratic” approach of open-ended questions.

Mualla Selçuk, a Muslim, pointed out that Valk is a Christian. Thus the collaboration between them reflects their pedagogical approach. She referred her listeners to their recent article in the REA journal for more information about their work. “This worldview approach to Islam, or I would argue to any religious or secular worldview,” she concluded, “is a valuable resource for religious educators and teachers.”

One questioner asked, “Both your presentations had components of unlearning. Do you have a pedagogical model for this?” While unlearning was not explicitly mentioned in their model, this was something they had thought about.

REA: Ecology and RE

In a Sunday morning colloquium at the Religious Education Association 2014 conference, Miriam Martin of Saint Paul University in Ottawa spoke on the subject “Ecology, Christian Discipleship and the Role of RE.”

When considering environmental problems such as global climate change, Martin said, “We have to recognize that a situation of violence exists.” To unmake violence, she added, first we have to acknowledge “the situation of violence.”

“Violence against against nature is basically predicated on the fact that we have such a deep separation from it and a false sense of disconnect,” Martin said. Just as we justify human violence against other humans by demonizing the “other,” so too human violence against other beings is justified by thinking of other organisms as the “other.”

Therefore, Martin said, we humans must look at ourselves and ask: Who do we say we are? Citing such thinkers as Sallie McFague (A New Climate for Theology, 2008), Elizabeth Johnson (Ask the Beasts, 2014), and Francois Euve (“Humanity Reveals the World,” in Ilia Delio, ed., From Teilhard to Omega, 2014), Martin called for a new theological anthropology.

In thinking about a theological anthropology, Martin reflected on the uniqueness of humankind. The unique ability of human beings to reflect on the whole emergence of the universe story comes with a great responsibility. “Humans are the uniquely responsible animals,” she said.

She came at the issue of responsibility from another angle, turning to recent work by religious Gabriel Moran, who asks: Are humans superior? Moran asserts that we cannot understand differences at higher or lower levels. Moran says there is one place where humans are superior, and that is “we are uniquely responsible.”

In terms of specifically Christian religious education, Martin referred to Sallie McFague, who says we cannot continue to “live in a way that consumes the world’s resources and undermines its most basic systems.” Thus, said Martin, there is not a separation between the damage being done to the poor, and the damage being done to the environment.

So what do we need to do? Martin said that Elizabeth Johnsons’ recent work offers a solution: “[Theology] needs to reclaim the natural world as an essential element both theologically and in practice.” Then, Martin said, we must bring these rigorous theological conversations into wider interdisciplinary dialogue. Finally, as theology reclaims the natural world, this can be brought out through ritual and through the arts. As a partial demonstration of this, Martin closed her presentation by singing one of her songs on the relationship between humankind and the natural world.