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A big problem that we religious liberals face right now is whether science has made religion outdated.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 Perhaps liberal religion is now outdated, for what could religion offer to compare with the accomplishments of science and technology?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? Continue reading “A letter about learning and salvation”

Rhizomes

I took a week of vacation last week, which I mostly spent in historic downtown San Mateo — Carol was working this week — but I did take a day trip in to San Francisco to visit City Lights Bookstore, where I got A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guatarri (trans. Brian Massumi [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1987]; originally Mille Plateaux, 1980]). I got interested in A Thousand Plateaus through reading a chapter on Deleuze in Biblical Interpretation and Philosophical Hermeneutics by B. H. McLean (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University, 2012).

What particularly fascinates me about A Thousand Plateaus is the way Delueze and Guatarri contrast “aroborescent” or tree-like thinking with rhizomatic thinking. In the Western tradition, we often structure our thoughts like trees: there are roots and branches, and a central trunk linking the two. Our thoughts have ramifications, just as branches ramify from the central trunk out to the twigs. However, as Deleuze and Guatarri point out: “Arborescent systems are hierarchical systems with centers of significance and subjectification, central automata like organized memories.” [Dleuze and Guatarria, p. 16] Thus, arboresecent thinking is related to distinctions between subject and object, to hierarchical thinking, and even to power structures like dictatorships.

Deleuze and Guatarri comment: “It is odd how the tree has dominated Western reality and all of Western thought, from botany to biology and anatomy, but also gnosiology, theology, ontology, all of philosophy…: the root foundation, Grund, racine, fondement. The West has a special relation to the forest, and deforestation; the fields carved from the forest are populated with seed plants produced by cultivation based on species lineages of the arborescent type” [p. 18, ellipsis in the original]

Another image that can be used to understand thinking is the rhizome. In describing the rhizome, and rhizomatic thinking, Deleuze and Guatarri are not trying to set up a dichotomy, a dualism between rhizome (good) and tree (bad); they make it clear that rhizomatic thinking can lead to its own forms of despotism. Instead of creating another dualism, they are employing “a dualism of models only in order to arrive at a process that challenges all models.” And they summarize the principal characteristics of a rhizome as follows:

“Unlike trees or their roots, the rhizome connects any point to any other point, and it traits are not necessarily linked to traits of the same nature; it brings into play very different regimes of signs, and even nonsign states. The rhizome is reducible neither to the One nor the multiple. It is not the One that becomes Two or even directly three, for five, etc. … It constitutes linear multiplicities with n dimensions having neither subject nor object, which can be laid out on a plane of consistency, and from which the One is always subtracted (n – 1)….” [pp. 20-21]

Why should any of this be of interest to you? B. H. McLean points out that “our arborified minds have been trained to essentialize things as isolated entities, rather than as mobile entities that enter into dynamic interconnection with other entities. Thinking ecologically does not come easy to us.” [p. 282] Rhizomes have no beginning nor end, only middles. Bernard Loomer says the great intellectual achievement of Jesus of Nazareth is his articulation of the Kingdom of God, what we would call the Web of Life; I think Jesus’s thought is an example of rhizomatic thought, a non-Western idea which sidesteps subject and object, which sidesteps isolated entities; and like the Kingdom of God or the Web of Life, “a rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo. The tree is filiation, but the rhizome is alliance, uniquely alliance. The tree imposes the verb ‘to be,’ but the fabric of the rhizome is the conjunction, ‘and…and…and…'” [Deleuze and Guatarri, p. 25, ellipsis in the original] And so if we come to an impasse, it may help that a rhizome has multiple entryways.

How to take your Sunday school back to the year 29

Every couple of years, we run a five-week Sunday school program called “Judean Village,” in which we travel back to the year 29 to be in a predominantly Jewish village in the Roman-controlled territory of Judea.

The Judean Village program has us travel back in time during Sunday school. We gather in the village square, where the artisans and shopkeepers of the village (i.e., the Sunday school teachers) exchange gossip and rumors — gossip about what the hated tax collector has been up to this week, what the Roman overlords are doing, etc. — and rumors about the wandering rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth who is rumored to actually sit down to share meals with tax collectors (horrors!), who is rumored to be healing people and even raising them from the dead, and who may or may not be planning a revolution that will drive the Romans out of Judea and reestablish Jewish rule. The artisans and shopkeepers are all wearing long tunics with rope belts and head cloths (available from www.christiancostumes.com). We supplemented the costumes we purchased with ones made by volunteers in the program.

The village song leader comes by, and teaches the villagers a song: Continue reading “How to take your Sunday school back to the year 29”

Theological unity — a conversation

On Thursday, January 31, Amy, the senior minister at our church, and I are going give a class on theological unity within Unitarian Universalism. We’re starting our class with an online conversation about the topic. And I’m going to begin my side of the conversation by listing five areas where I think Unitarian Universalists already have some degree of theological unity:

(1) Women and girls are as good as men and boys: During the 1970s and 1980s, Unitarian Universalism, like many liberal religious groups in the U.S., went through the feminist revolution in theology. We came out of those decades with a very clear theological consensus: when it comes to religion, women and girls are just as good as men and boys.

(2) Human beings must take responsibility for the state of the world: The Unitarian Universalist theologian William R. Jones has argued that humanists and liberal theists have come to resemble each other in that both affirm the radical freedom and autonomy of human beings (“Theism and Religious Humanism: The Chasm Narrows,” Christian Century, May 21, 1975, pp. 520-525). Today, we have a wide consensus that, whether or not we believe in God, none of us believes some larger power is going to come fix up our problems for us — if humans made the mess, it’s up to us to fix it.

Continue reading “Theological unity — a conversation”

Decomposition theology

Jack sent Carol and me a link to a wonderful article titled “What if God were a maggot?” which outlines a theology of decomposers:

You can choose who seems holy to you, godlike, a god even, but I’ll take the bacteria and other decomposers. I’ll take the vultures standing on rooftops and fences, raising their angular wings as if in some unchoreographed tribute to Martha Graham. I’ll take the dung beetle. I’ll even take the maggot. Anybody can celebrate a monkey or a panda; they are easy gods, worthy of a simple sort of worship, one of fences and nature reserves. The decomposers are harder. They are everywhere and they need to be, without them nothing would be reborn. Without them we would all be, like the Australians of yore, knee deep in feces and bodies. Without decomposers even the plants would eventually stop growing. Some gods are clever, some gods are beautiful, some gods—it has been said but not proven—are even merciful. You can have those if you want. As for me, I’ll take the maggot and the vulture. I’ll take the bacteria. I’ll even take the catfish rolling in the shallow stink of Techiman’s market, the catfish whose groping mouth reaches up like the afterlife, that tunnel through which, as the poet Yusef Komunyakaa reminds us, we must pass to get to some other side. (You can read the complete article here.)

Back in October, I mentioned Carol’s notion of “compost theology” in this blog post. Decomposition theology is compost theology as seen from a biologist’s point of view, where you look at specific species or clades; by contrast, compost theology takes an ecologist’s point of view, where you look at processes, cycles, and interrelationships.

Whichever point of view you take, I see all this as related to Universalist theology. Classic Universalist theology asserts that every human will be saved, i.e., every human will got to heaven after death. Compost theology asserts that every organism gets saved, i.e., every organism will decompose after death and its constituent elements reabsorbed into the Web of Life — and, according to theologian Bernard Loomer, the Web of Life was what Jesus intended when he said “Kingdom of Heaven.”

This, by the way, argues against the theology of Richard Dawkins, who says that immortality is achieved by an organism’s genes (The Selfish Gene). Dawkins takes a taxonomist’s narrow point of view, in which clades or species are most important. Compost theology, by contrast, argues that cycles and ecological relationships are of equal or greater importance to genes. Dawkins is a fundamentalist: it’s all about genes! Whereas we compost theologians are mystics: all is one, everything is part of an ecological unity.

Raised from being dead

Recently, I read a feminist interpretation of one of those stories in which Jesus goes and heals someone; alas, I can’t remember where I read it, so I’m going to have to reconstruct it on my own.

These healing stories tend to annoy me. I’m not friendly to supernatural explanations; I’m a religious naturalist; so I tend to dismiss those stories where a prophet brings someone back from the dead, because I know it’s just not possible. Obviously, however, I don’t have to think of these healing stories as literal truth; they can be considered as metaphorical.

So here’s the story: A man named Jairus, a ruler of the local synagogue, come up to Jesus, and says, “My twelve year old daughter lies at the point of death. Won’t you please come and lay hands on her that she may be healed?” Jesus goes to the man’s house, but when they get there, someone tells Jairus that his daughter is dead, so he should stop bugging Jesus. Jesus tells him not to be afraid, and goes into the house. He takes the girl’s hand, and says, “Talitha, cumi,” which means, “Girl, I tell you, arise.” And the girl gets up and walks around, and everyone is astonished.

Who knows what the original storytellers meant by this story? There are plenty of Christians today who will tell you that they are quite sure they know what the story means, and they will tell you that the story means that Jesus Christ can perform miracles and raise people from the dead. Well, this story comes from the book of Mark (5.25 ff.), and nowhere in the story is Jesus called “Jesus Christ,” and nowhere does the story say that the story has to be interpreted so literally as that.

Here’s another interpretation. Anyone who has hung out with twelve year old girls these days knows that it is a vulnerable age. Sometimes the alive, interesting, assertive girl of childhood seems to die at around age twelve. It’s like the girl that used to be so alive has died, or at least become this passive being that (metaphorically speaking) just seems to lie there; Mary Pipher wrote about this phenomenon in her book Reviving Ophelia.

Perhaps what those girls need is some adult who believes in them. That adult might say to the other adults in that girl’s life, “Be not afraid, only believe. The girl is not dead, only sleeping.” That adult might then say to the girl, “Girl, I say to thee, arise.” And perhaps it’s not a bad idea to have a respected male figure say this to the girl, someone who’s not her father, at least once in the girl’s life.

That interpretation makes this a story that’s not about physical healing, but instead about adults recognizing girl power when they see it.

Occupying the kingdom of God

We’re in Boston right now visiting family, and to day I read this on the front page of today’s Boston Globe:

When Occupy Boston protesters complain about greedy bankers, corporate jets, and the wealthiest Americans, Henry Hegelson feels as if he is one of the prime targets.

Hegelson, 37, said he is not only in the top 1 percent of American earners, but also founded a financial company and an airplane charter business. He said the protesters don’t seem to care that he built his wealth from scratch….

In that last sentence we see the chasm that lies between the understanding of the occupiers and the wealthy: Hegelson believes that he created all his wealth completely “from scratch,” while the occupiers believe that the financial system is basically rigged in such a way that the vast majority of people simply cannot build their wealth “from scratch.”

I come at it from a third perspective. Theologian Bernard Loomer pointed out the intellectual accomplishments of Jesus of Nazareth, and in particular Loomer’s intellectual conception of the “Kingdom of Heaven,” which Loomer himself prefers to call the “web of life.”

Based on this intellectual conception of the way the world works — that we are all inter-related in a web of life — Jesus pointed out the damaging effects of wealth. Too much wealth cuts you off from other persons, and indeed from all living and non-living things, in destructive ways. If you want to be fully supported by and participating in the Kingdom of Heaven, you must get rid of wealth. Too much wealth leads you to exploit other human beings, other living things, and non-living things — to live counter to the Web of Life.

Thus, when the rich young man comes to Jesus and says that he follows all the rules of religion, wand wants to know what else he must do to have access to the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus tells him (as translated in the King James Version): “Go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thous shat have treasure in heaven.” The rich young man is “sad at that saying,” and wanders off and out of the story.

We never learn if the rich young man in the story actually sold everything he had and gave the proceeds to the poor. But we can be pretty sure that Henry Hegelson has no intention of doing anything of the kind; and so Hegelson has shut himself out of the Kingdom of Heaven. Unlike the rich young man, Hegelson isn’t even “sad at that saying”; he’s just baffled why anyone doesn’t think he is a hero.

“Domesticated eristic debate”

There’s an interesting post with a long comment thread at the blog Warp, Weft, and Way that touches on the differences between Chinese and Western philosophical traditions. The opening paragraphs captured my attention, but then I found myself questioning whether Western philosophy is defined too narrowly:

A core feature of philosophical culture in the Western tradition is the supposition that debating about abstract matters is productive of insight, and that it encourages (or at least comports with) the attainment of appealing moral and religious goals. The canonical thinkers of classical Greece and China all deplore eristic debate, where the point of articulating and defending theses is simply to gain victory over the opponent. Plato and Aristotle, however, domesticate the procedures of eristic debate, yoking precise definition and dogged discussion of entailments and justification to ideals of friendship and inquiry.

I think this kind of domestication never took place in classical China: the moralists with lasting influence (Confucians and Daoists) were not inclined to think friendship and inquiry well-served by prolonged argumentative discussion….

From my perspective as a former student of philosophy who now does theology, the cases of Plato and Aristotle are interesting and foundational to Western thought — but these two philosophers do not adequately represent the full spectrum of Western thought.

Western theology, which has been understood as both a subset and a superset of Western philosophy, includes several mystical traditions that tend more towards enigmatical pronouncements than towards reasoned debate (or domesticated eristic debate). For example, in the American intellectual tradition, Emerson tends towards mysticism; and it can be very hard to try to engage in reasoned debate with Emerson, since he tends to transrational and aphoristic pronouncements that depend more on intuition than reason. Another example from ancient times might be Jesus of Nazareth’s parables, as reported by later followers.

The Western theological tradition draws not just on Greek philosophy, but also on the deep reservoir of the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish intellectual tradition. This expands the Western theological repertoire well beyond reasoned debate. Neither Ecclesiastes nor the parables of Jesus can be characterized as reasoned debate, yet both have serious intellectual content. None of this is to deny that there is a distinct difference between Chinese and Western intellectual traditions, but whether theology is a subset or superset of Western philosophy, I’m not convinced Western philosophy can be reduced to domesticated eristic debate.

Visiting a Judean village, and “Act out the story!”

A couple of interesting things came up while I was teaching Sunday school yesterday.

1. At the 9:30 service, we’re doing a program based on the old Marketplace 29 A.D. curriculum by Betty Goetz; we’re calling our version “Judean Village 29 C.E.” The idea is that we have gone back in time to a Judean village in the year 29. The adult leaders are mostly “shopkeepers,” or artisans: we have a potter, a scribe, a candymaker, a baker, a musical instrument maker, a spice and herb shop, a maker of fishing nets, and a trainer of athletes. Not all shopkeepers are present each week; sometimes they’re off visiting another village, or visiting the nearby city of Jerusalem. There’s also a tax collector and a Roman soldier who roam around our village, shaking down the villagers for taxes. All the adults are in costume, which makes it a little easier to pretend we’re actually back in the year 29. Continue reading “Visiting a Judean village, and “Act out the story!””

Just to state the obvious

When confronted with a twelve year old girl who had just died, the story about that radical rabble-rouser and rabbi Jesus of Nazareth does not have him saying: “Your daughter is in heaven now because God needed another angel”; nor is he reported as saying, “I know just how you feel, but your daughter is in a better place now.” Nope, the way the story runs is that Jesus walks into where the girl is lying, takes her hand, and says, “Girl, get up!” and she does. (For you Bible geeks, this is in Mark 5.35-43.)

Mind you, I’m not someone who believes in the literal factual truth of the stories in the Bible, nor do I believe in the literal truth of the stories told by Shakespeare, and in fact I have a limited amount of trust in the literal factual truth of stories in the New York Times or on Fox News. Stories have their own narrative logic that is different from, but no less true than, literal factual truth.

So reading this story is not going to make me go out and try to do some faith healing — no more than reading King Lear is going to make me say to my sweetheart, “I love you according to my bond; no more nor less.” (For you Shakespeare geeks, that’s act 1, scene 1, lines 94-95.) However, reading this story in the Jesus saga is going to make me think twice before uttering platitudes to the parents of a dead child. Jesus did not try to placate them by saying, “Your twelve year old is one of God’s angels now.” Instead, he showed up. He didn’t weep and wail. He was matter-of-fact. He paid attention to the parents, and paid attention to what they really wanted.

Just to state the obvious, this story is not a literal story about a dead girl that came back to life, but it is about a different kind of miracle: showing up, not freaking out, and paying attention to someone who needs it.

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