Back in time…

This Sunday, during our congregation’s online service, we’re going to go back in time…

…using the congregation’s time machine…

…to the year 29 C.E., to a small town in the land of Judea. There we will meet a fellow named Ishmael, who’s the kind of person who loves to spread rumors.

“They say,” says Ishmael, “that….”

If Ishamael lived today, he’d be the kind of fellow who emails you the latest internet conspiracy theory. But since he lives in the year 29 in Judea, he spreads his rumors face-to-face in the town’s marketplace. He meets up with a woman named Martha. When he learns that Martha’s brother Peter has joined the entourage of the famous rabbi Jesus of Nazareth, not surprisingly he has a few conspiracy-theory-type rumors to tell Martha. This causes Martha to wonder if her brother is going to be OK….

“Now you’ve got me wondering,” says Martha….

Our trip to the past will take less than three minutes, allowing us plenty of time for the usual singing, music, preaching, etc. The whole thing will be livestreamed on the Facebook page of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, this Sunday at 9:30 and 11.

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A big problem that we religious liberals face right now is whether science has made religion outdated.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 Perhaps liberal religion is now outdated, for what could religion offer to compare with the accomplishments of science and technology?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