To make you feel humble

NASA is celebrating the one year anniversary of its Solar Dynamics Observatory, and they’ve been featuring this photo on their Web site: a photo of a March 30, 2010, solar eruptive prominence, taken in the extreme ultraviolet range. NASA has superimposed a photo of the Earth to provide a sense of scale.

Damn, are we tiny:

This reminds me of the extended monologue by Yhwh in the book of Job (ch. 38 ff.). Though framed in the cultural referents of the Ancient Near East, Yhwh’s monologue has the same effect on me as does this photo — both make me realize that we humans are insignificant when considered in terms of the vastness of the universe. Our essential insignificance seems to bother some people, but to be honest I find it comforting — I’m often not very impressed with humans, and it’s good to know that there is something out there which is much bigger and grander, and more permanent, than we are.

Notes from a week of study leave, pt. 1

I’m re-reading the Gospel of Mark, in preparation for developing some curriculum materials for upper elementary school. When I can break away from the over-familiarity of the text, it seems like a strange and alien book to my postmodern sensibilities. If I try to read Mark as nonfiction or history I expect plot and rich characterizations; but there is little in the way of a coherent narrative, and the characters are often flat and not entirely believable. If I try to read Mark as a book of religion, that doesn’t work either, because I have come to expect religious books to read like platitude-filled self-help books; but Mark does not sound in the least like Eckhardt Tolle, or the Dalai Lama. If I try to read Mark as a book of theology, I’m also baffled, because I’ve become accustomed to theology written in boring academic prose with lots of footnotes and bizarre quasi-Germanic grammar. So I’m trying to let go of my preconceptions (or at least not cling so tightly to my preconceptions), accept the strangeness of the book, and decide what might be appropriate to present to fourth and fifth graders.

For example, do I want to tell them the story of the dead girl and the sick woman (Mark 5.21-43)? — Jesus is prevailed upon by some grieving parents to restore their dead daughter to life; on his way to see the dead girl, a woman who has been bleeding for fourteen years touches his robe and is healed; Jesus feels the power going out of him when she touches him, and turns around to confront her; then they eventually get to see the dead girl, and she comes back to life.

On the scale of supernatural occurences, this is no stranger than Grimm’s fairy tales and Harry Potter. Certainly it would be great fun to present this story to upper elementary children, compare it to fantastic stories with which they’re familiar, and then decide in what way the story is true. Upper elementary children are still concrete thinkers, but they are able to understand the difference between journalism, myth, fantastic fiction, and other types of stories. Children in this age group would also be able to understand that the moral or message in this story is not simple: the story wants to show us that Jesus is a miracle worker, but then Jesus tells the woman that it is her faith, not him, that has healed her. There’s a purpose behind these miracles, and today’s orthodox Christians will tell us that the purpose is to prove God’s existence to an unbelieving populace, but I think children could also understand that these stories are telling us something about the nature of subjectivity. I’m not sure how the parents of the children I teach would react to this story; many of them understand religion to be something that exists entirely in a plane of objective reality that can be proved or disproved scientifically; explorations of the subjective side of religion can be very touchy in Unitarian Universalist circles.

The story of the rich man (Mark 10.17-31) offers a critique of materialism; in today’s world, it can be understood as a critique of consumer capitalism. The rich man says that he keeps all of the ethical commandments, and asks Jesus what else he needs to do. Jesus replies that he must sell everything and give it to the poor, and then he will have “treasure in heaven.” I would love to present this story to children in the context of an interpretation of Jesus’s teachings in which the “Kingdom of Heaven” is the same thing as the “Web of Life” (this is Bernard Loomer’s interpretation in his booklet Unfoldings); if you are well-to-do, you are doing damage to the interdependent web of all life (human and non-human life), because you are taking more than your share. But this could get uncomfortable if I were to take the next step, which would be to point out that most Americans are rich by world standards; we are not going to have “treasure in heaven,” that is, we are currently doing damage to the Web of Life, simply by being rich by world standards.

In short, Mark is a very challenging book. To present it honestly, so that I’m not doing violence to the text, might be more than I want to do with upper elementary children. That being the case, do I simply say that I’m not going to present stories from Mark to upper elementary children? Or do I present a watered-down version that removes the most challenging bits of the book?

Creativity vs. religion

Just thinking out loud here; no final conclusions in this post, but merely the beginnings of some thoughts….

I’ve been thinking about the role of creativity within religion. Generally speaking, religion seems to me to take on an essentially conservative role; e.g., religion conserves a set of values that a group holds dear, and passes them on to the next generation. Another way of putting this: a religious group is a community of memory, where the group conserves important memories. These memories can be greater memories — Christians conserve the memory of Jesus’ death and resurrection; Buddhists conserve the memory of Siddhartha Gautama’s decision to return to this life after achieving nirvana — or they can be lesser memories — my home church, First Parish in Concord, Massachusetts, conserves the memory that many of its members fought in the Battle of Concord and Lexington, one of the early battles in the American Revolution.

And consisting as it does of groups and organizations that conserve memories, religion does not necessarily place a high value on creativity. I found this out personally when I went for my required psychological evaluation and career counseling while pursuing fellowship as a Unitarian Universalist minister. One evaluation instrument I filled out indicated that I placed a high value on creativity, and according to the psychologist who interpreted the test results for me, this was unusual in a minister; and it has certainly been true that one of my biggest challenges at having a job in religion is that I find it difficult to find sufficient outlet for creativity; which is one of the motivations behind this blog, and behind other creative endeavors in which I engage.

However, if religion is basically conservative and non-creative, it can provide a happy home for creativity. Many of the most creative works of European art during the Renaissance were supported by the Roman Catholic church. Stephen Hawking holds religious views that seem to tend towards fundamentalist humanism — his rigid disapproval of Christianity is in its own way just as conservative as the religion he disdains — yet he is perhaps the most creative scientists of his generation. King’s Chapel in Boston is one of the most conservative Unitarian Universalist congregations, yet for decades it employed Daniel Pinkham, a prolific and creative composer.

And what about the relationship between liberal religion and creativity? Liberal religion is more likely to accommodate itself to changes in society around it than traditional religion, although generally speaking liberal religion institutions seem to lag behind societal changes by a generation or so. So compared to traditional religion, liberal religion is less conservative. Yet I sometimes feel as though liberal religion is more stifling to creativity than is conservative religion; certainly liberal religion stifles entrepreneurial creativity; as for artistic creativity, with a few exceptions (Daniel Pinkham comes to mind) liberal religion doesn’t provide much in the way of either financial or institutional support.

As I say, I’m just thinking out loud here — I’d value your comments and criticisms.

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr., Day.

All the prophets seem to get sanitized. Take, for example, the ancient Hebrew prophet Amos, whom I have recently been re-reading. It was Amos, of course, whom Martin Luther King, Jr., quoted in the famous “I Have a Dream” speech:— “let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.” Amos looked around at his society and saw that those in power trod upon the poor, and took from them “burdens of wheat”; he heard wailing in the streets; and he made violent-sounding protests against the injustice he witnessed.

Amos gets sanitized just like Martin Luther King, Jr. Orthodox Christians manage to turn Amos’s prophecies into some kind of call for personal salvation; atheists mock him for his belief in God but don’t go any further than that; and religious liberals simply ignore him. All these groups seem to ignore the fact that Amos was writing powerful protest literature that was designed to make us feel horribly uncomfortable about the way we treat other people, especially those who have less power than we do.

It’s not too far-fetched to think of Martin Luther King, Jr., as a sort of lesser Amos: someone who set out to afflict the comfortable, a troublemaker who wanted true justice for all persons, a somewhat cantankerous and definitely edgy kind of a guy. And like Amos, King gets bowdlerized: used to promote self-esteem or to keep kids from fighting; mocked for his very real character flaws; or simply ignored. In celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, it’s worth quoting some more of that famous quotation from Amos, to learn how it is that Amos thinks his God will make justice roll down like waters:

Woe unto you that desire the day of the Lord!
   to what end is it for you? the day of the Lord
   is darkness, and not light.
As if a man did flee from a lion, and a bear met
   him; or went into the house, and leaned his
   hand on the wall, and a serpent bit him.
Shall not the day of the Lord be darkness, and
   not light? even very dark, and no brightness
   in it?
I hate, I despise your feast days, and I will not
   smell in your solemn assemblies.
Though ye offer me burnt offerings and your
   meat offerings, I will not accept them: neither
   will I regard the peace offerings of your fat
   beasts.
Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs;
   for I will not hear the melody of thy viols.
But let judgment run down as waters, and
   righteousness as a mighty stream.
   — Amos 5.18-24, KJV

Happy birthday to Martin Luther King, Jr.:— a preacher, a prophet, someone who took Amos’s God very seriously.

Mental illness, civility, and violence

Buried in yesterday’s huge volume of news stories on the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, I came across an article that interviewed several experts who specialize in mental illness:

Details about Mr. Loughner are still emerging, and only an examining doctor will be able to make a definitive diagnosis. But the writings and comments attributed to him point strongly to the kind of delusional thinking that is common in schizophrenia.

“I’d say the chances are 99 percent that he has schizophrenia,” said Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, the founder of the Treatment Advocacy Center in ARlington, Va., which advocates stronger laws to require treatment for people with mental illnesses. “He was together enough to take courses, and people with untreated schizophrenia can function very well for periods. But when you see these rambling, incoherent writings and comments, there is almost no other disorder where this is a prominent symptom.”

Many of Mr. Loughner’s reported comments — about currency and government — also suggest a growing paranoia….

“Red Flags at a College, but Tied Hands,” By Benedict Carey, New York Times, 11 January 2011, pr. A18.

Did the current political climate and heated partisan rhetoric have any effect on Loughner? The experts interviewed by the New York Times disagreed. One expert said it was possible that a psychosis could pick up on “the grand themes of the day,” while Dr. Torrey argued that “It’s not political thinking, it’s psychotic thinking.”

Either way, I think that’s not what’s important. Quite a few people have been arguing that various politicians who use inflamatory rhetoric can create a climate that could incite people like Loughner to violence, but I’m not convinced that’s a productive argument to be having right now. From my perch on the far left of the American political spectrum, I’d have to say that the political rhetoric among both liberals and conservatives has been, and continues to be, uncivil, nasty, threatening, and/or mean-spirited. It’s gotten to the point where I feel like I’m in a preschool classroom filled with children who are misbehaving, and who all need a good, long time out.

I have no interest in blaming conservative politicians for Loughner’s behavior, becuase I believe we should be having two other far more productive conversations right now. The first productive conversation we should be having is how we as a society deal with people who have serious mental illness. Speaking as someone who has had relatives with serious mental illness, our society needs to talk more openly about what mental illnesses look like, who has them, and how to deal with them. The second productive conversation we should be having is how we can be a more civil society. Whether or not the inflammatory rhetoric used by today’s politicians did or didn’t incite Loughner to violence, we all need to stop acting like misbehaving preschool children, and start treating all persons the way we ourselves would like to be treated.

You could sum it all up quite simply — it’s all about the Golden Rule.

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Emerson and race

A couple of weeks ago on the Christian Century Web site, Edwin Blum reviewed a new book, The History of White People, by Nell Irvin Painter (Norton, March, 2010). In the review, Blum says:

In the United States, slavery helped define whiteness. In this case, the white race was linked to freedom, whereas blackness was tied to enslavement. Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson gravitated to the idea that Anglo-Saxons were at the top of the human pyramid. Jefferson admired the myth of Saxon love for liberty and of Americans as the true heirs of the Saxons’ political virtue. He admired it so much, in fact, that his University of Virginia had classes in the Anglo-Saxon language. Emerson, according to Painter, became the “philosopher king of American white race theory” because of his undying love for Anglo-Saxonism. Emerson saluted the Saxons for em bodying manliness, beauty, liberty and individualism.

Now Unitarian Universalists claim both Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson as our co-religionists, and we tend to claim them as thinkers who continue to inspire us, and who are central to our Unitarian intellectual heritage. Some of us have been critical of Jefferson’s actions as a slaveholder, but in general we have been content to adopt both Jefferson’s and Emerson’s theories of individual liberty and freedom without much in the way of critical reflection about what, exactly, they meant by liberty and freedom for individuals.

This is analogous to what happened in the House of Representatives recently. House Republicans, under the influence of a theory that we should follow the U.S. Constitution exactly as it was originally written, decided that they would read the U.S. Constitution in its entirety at the opening of the current session. Except that they left out all the bits about slavery and slaves being equivalent to three fifths of a human being. This is disingenuous of them, because when you read the original U.S. Constitution, you become quite clear that uncritical acceptance is not an option.

I’m not particularly well-read in Emerson, and can’t comment intelligently on his racial attitudes. But I am pretty well-read in his disciple Henry David Thoreau, and Thoreau is quite sure that white people like him are superior to, e.g., Irish, French Canadians, and working class people of the same narrow ethnic background as himself. If you indulge in an uncritical acceptance of Thoreau’s individualistic mystic theology and his philosophy of government, which is also highly individualistic, you’re going to indulge in a tendency to cover over how both his theology and philosophy are grounded in a hierarchical theory of race. And I’m pretty sure that I’d find similar problems in Emerson’s philosophy and theology.

I don’t mean to imply that we should discard Emerson and Jefferson; they are too central to our intellectual heritage to discard. But I do want to suggest that it’s past time for a serious revision of our understanding of Emersonian and Jeffersonian individualism within a Unitarian Universalist context.