Posted by: dacalu | 16 November 2018

Charity for Richer and Poorer

Last Sunday, I preached at St. Stephen’s for Stewardship Sunday, when pledges are made for the coming year.  Here is the sermon I shared. (My talk from the Monday before covers the same ground in light of economics.)

 

Prayer for the 25th Sunday of Pentecost

O God, whose blessed Son came into the world that he might destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and heirs of eternal life: Grant that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves as he is pure; that, when he comes again with power and great glory, we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 

Readings

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17 (“Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin”)

Psalm 127 (“Unless the Lord builds the house, their labor is in vain who build it.”)

Hebrews 9:24-28 (Christ “has appeared once for all at the end of the age”)

Mark 12:38-44 (The Widow’s Mite)

 

Sermon

This year, we get the end of Ruth, but not the beginning.
In the first chapter, Ruth marries Elimelech and takes his family as her own.
In particular, she becomes close to her mother-in-law, Naomi.
Elimelech, dies, but the two women form a lasting friendship,
	and a lasting family.
When Naomi proposes a return to Jerusalem, Ruth goes with her.

“But Ruth said, 
‘Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; 
your people shall be my people, and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, 
if even death parts me from you!’
When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.”
(Ruth 1:16-18)

There are many troubling things about this story
	having to do with the property and place of women
	in Israelite culture.
They thought about family differently.
They thought about finance differently.
But, the story ages amazingly well.

It ages well because it is a story of two women,
	thrown together by circumstance,
	facing hardship together,
	with love and faith.

The story does not tell us if Ruth loved Elimelech, her first husband, Naomi’s son.
It does not tell us if she loved Boaz, her second husband.
It tells us she loved Naomi.

There is nothing romantic or mystical here – 
	at least no more romantic and mystical than everyday friendship,
	the love we find and make.

There is no joy so great that it cannot be increased by sharing.
And there is no pain so great that it cannot be lessened.
 
If you hear nothing else, hear this.
God is love.


There is no greater treasure than love for God and neighbor.
We aspire to love of all,
	but we work with what we have.
We love those who are easy to love,
	so that we may learn to love others.
Naomi’s family was amazing, because it grew.

You can only be so happy for yourself,
But shared happiness has no limits.


We live in strange times, in a strange country.
Perhaps all times are strange, and all countries.
I cannot say.
I do know that our culture, as wonderful as it is
	pressures us constantly to be self-sufficient,
	to think of ourselves as independent, individual, and self-controlled.
And so, when we think about giving,
	we tend to think in terms of an exchange.
I give up something and I get something.
	We buy or rent or subscribe.

But none of these ideas work well for friendship.
We do spend money on our families.
	Money is a wonderful tool for sharing
		and sharing comes very near the core of love.
	And yet, we must remember that money is not an end in and of itself.
	Money is not our worth; it is our servant.
	Money was made for humans and not humans for money.

When I read today’s Gospel – often called the widow’s mite –
	It reminds me that giving is not about exchange and it is not about abundance.
Giving is a sharing of self.

We give when we are rich, and we give when we are poor.
We give when we expect, but we also give freely.
Above all, we give to build relationship.
 
The tithe is a way of changing from a market mindset –
	all about individuals and exchange –
	to a community mindset.
Giving money to the church helps.
	As a spiritual practice, it encourages gratitude, mindful spending, and trust in God.
	But giving money is only the beginning.
We give TO the church so that we can use AS a church.
	We decide together what our priorities are.
	We decide together who we are as a community.
We learn to be friends and family with one another.
We give of ourselves, so that we can find our true selves.

That is a very counter-cultural.
	It is often scary.
But, we find our greatest good in community.
When we choose mutual faith, hope, and love.


God did this.
Strange as it may seem,
	God defined Godself in community
	as both Father and Son,
	as the breath that creates and the Spirit that proceeds.
We say that God may be known in Jesus,
	“for in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” (Colossians 1:19)
I do not think that God may only be known through humanity,
	but I do think that God may be fully known through humanity,
	in Jesus.
I cannot overstate the significance
	that God became one of us
	and lived with us
	subject to our will and whim.
In some ways, the story of Jesus is a tragedy.
	He trusted and suffered.
But, it is also a romance and a mystery,
	because he gave of himself
	to find his true self with us.

St. Stephen’s witnesses to this
	every time we give TO the church and decide as a church.
We say, and we learn
	that money is made for people and not people for money.
	
 
At the end of the service, you will have an opportunity to think
	and pray about how you give to the church.
This can be a spiritual practice, 
to encourage gratitude, mindfulness, and trust.
It can also be an opportunity to make yourself a better individual.
More than that, it can be an opportunity to commit to community,
	to say something to yourself, to your friends, and to God
	about the joy we create together.
In a world of individuals,
	we can share the good news that we need not be alone.
We are always learning to be together,
	in faith, hope, and love.




 

 

 

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Posted by: dacalu | 13 November 2018

Market Values

This fall, I worked with St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church on their stewardship (pledge drive) campaign. We followed the New Consecration Sunday Program. I shared this talk on market values and community values at a leadership dinner.

 

Matthew 19:16-26

Then someone came to him and said, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’ And he said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.’ He said to him, ‘Which ones?’ And Jesus said, ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ The young man said to him, ‘I have kept all these; what do I still lack?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.’

Talk

My message is pretty simple: we find our greatest good in community. Giving makes us better as individuals and as a group. Money helps us give, when we remember that money was made for people and not people for money.

Giving money to the church helps. As a spiritual practice, it encourages gratitude, mindful spending, and trust in God. But giving money is only the beginning. We give to the church so that we can use as a church. We decide together what our priorities are. We decide together who we are as a community.

That is a very counter-cultural. It is often scary. But, we find our greatest good in community, when we choose mutual faith, hope, and love.

Next Sunday, I will talk to the congregation about our relationship, commitment and community. I will remind people of the faith, hope, and love of St. Stephen’s. Tonight, I want to share a few thoughts on why that is so important.

American culture surrounds us. Often, that is a good thing. I’m a big fan of constitutional democracy.

Sometimes, it can be a bad thing. Right now, we are very divided.

And sometimes, it can be a little of both. I want to talk about market values, the norms that come with our economic system.

Neoclassical economics begins with the assumption that we are all perfectly rational, rather selfish, independent actors. This frequently gets simplified to “rational actors” or, recently, Homo economicus. Starting there, we can make some very strong arguments for free markets.

I must begin by saying that I favor capitalism and the power of markets. I count them among the greatest innovations of the modern world. We have used them to increase freedom, productivity, and the standard of living across the board. When I critique market values, I am not saying they are evil; I am only saying that markets were made for people and not people for markets.

Sometimes, they lead us astray.

Research over the past 20 years has challenged neoclassical assumptions. We are predictably irrational, differently selfish, and far less independent than many thought. If you want to know more, I can recommend What Money Can’t Buy by Michael Sandel and Predictably Irrational by Dan Arielly.

For our purposes, I’ll talk about a bottle of wine. Have you ever brought a bottle as a host gift for a party?

Is a bottle of wine a good gift? Perhaps the wine you chose does not pair well with the dinner. Perhaps your host doesn’t like red, or doesn’t even like wine. Perhaps your host or a guest is in recovery.

Neoclassical economic deals poorly with gifts. Theory suggests that the host would be better off with a $20 bill. But, how many of you will be willing to arrive at a dinner party with a twenty for the host?

Maximizing economic utility is not always our primary goal. In this case, social connection more important. Wine (usually) works better than a twenty. I know this, and I don’t even drink wine.

This leads to a broader problem that I call the dismal calculus. The wonderful thing about a $20 bill is that it is more flexible than a $20 bottle of wine. Wine is occasionally a good investment, but most of the time it is easier to buy wine with money than it is to get money for wine. That makes $20 more valuable than a $20 bottle.

This has an interesting effect on our thinking. Money provides a temptation. We start to hoard our buying power. We keep it to ourselves. With concrete goods, it’s fairly easy to say, “I have enough.” If you have two toasters, it’s easy to lend one to a neighbor. With money, more always sounds better.

We are very bad at judging how much money we need and how much will make us happy. That makes us bad at both giving and saving.

Returning to the church (or any community), why give a bottle of wine to the church now, when I can just keep it in my garage and give when it’s needed? Why not preserve my own power by giving for the family potluck, but not for the charity auction? Better yet, why not keep the money in bank and buy wine later?

Money encourages us to put off commitment.

Economists praise this type of thinking, but it can get in the way of holding things in common.

Most problematically, just talking about money has been shown to make us behave more selfishly and more independently. It is as though the ability to count our wealth, makes us more self-conscious about keeping it and more fearful of losing it.

This is one of the main psychological reasons that New Consecration Sunday hits so heavily on stewardship, giving, and spiritual discipline and discourages talk of budgets, need, and fairness.

The way we talk about resources shapes the way we think about them. The way we think about them shapes the way we behave.

Our culture reminds us of money all the time. Especially over the past 40 years, market values have crept into every aspect of our public life politics, the academy, and even the church. We speak of buying votes, of students as consumers, and bishops as CEOs. Those are not irrational comparisons; sometimes they are necessary tools. But speaking that way changes the way we think and the way we behave.

We need spaces that operate with spiritual values, family values, gift values, even when using money. So, it is my job to remind you that the church is in the world, but not of the world. Money was made for people, not people for money.

Jesus speaks of commitment and community, of what it means to belong and to flourish, of what it means to be together – in faith, hope, and love. Jesus speaks of grace and joy, of love and friendship, of all the things we really want for themselves.

We are a negligible corporation, but we are a precious fellowship.

We are a negligible investor, but we are a treasure beyond price.

Thank you for the concrete, counter-cultural work of loving God and neighbor.

Thank you for keeping your eyes on the prize.

 

Concluding Prayer

Almighty and merciful God, it is only by your gift that your faithful people offer you true and laudable service: Grant that we may run without stumbling to obtain your heavenly promises; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Posted by: dacalu | 26 October 2018

Interstellar Church

I was recently asked to speculate on what the church might look like for an interstellar colony. My friend, Natalia was particularly interested in a colony that was predominantly Roman Catholic. I thought others might be interested in my answers to her questions.  I’d be delighted to hear corrections and/or your own speculations on the subject. (I am not Roman Catholic and apologize if I have in any way misrepresented that church.)

Background

Hi! I’m Natalia and I’m doing research for a book. In the book, refugees from climate-impacted nations are now in off-Earth colonies. My particular book focuses on the refugees from Caribbean nations and certain Israeli folks who decided to join the party. Being off Earth poses a lot of questions but most of these nations have a history of Catholicism that runs deep and wouldn’t be set aside by a silly thing like space-travel.

1. Is the notion of God hearing you, watching you, etc. limited to Earth? Or is God the God of the universe? Does your answer change if it’s Catholicism only?

God created, and rules, Earth and heaven, so I feel comfortable saying that God sees everywhere (is “omniscient”) and has power to act everywhere (is “omnipotent”). It is also common to quote the Bible and say that God cares for the sparrow and the lily, and so cares for all humans, whatever their circumstance. If you have not read The Sparrow and Children of God by Mary Doria Russel, I can highly recommend them. They are excellent novels and spot on for your topic and questions.

As an aside, God is not a proper name, it is a title and an ontological concept. Capital ‘G’ God refers to an entity that transcends and touches all space and time. It only refers to The God of The Universe. No smaller god would be God. Christians, Jews, and Muslims believe that YHWH (proper name), the god of Israel, is God. Christians additionally believe that Jesus (proper name), the messiah (“Christ”), is God.

2. Most religions teach that they are the “one true” religion,

This is an interesting statement. Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, and Baha’i might be more inclined to say that they are each >a< true religion. Christians and Muslims certainly see themselves as belonging to the one true religion, though such a claim can be weaker, for example, among Anglican Christians and Sufi Muslims. They believe they have a unique, likely the best, insight, but are willing to look for aspects of truth in other traditions. So, they would say they are the one truest religion, but truth may be found in other religions as well.

but Catholics also say that the church is the “…continued presence of Jesus on Earth” .

I will make a popular distinction between the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant.  It imperfectly mirrors the more technical official doctrine.  The Church Militant includes members here and now, fighting the good fight. It could also include living Christians in other parts of the universe. The Church Triumphant includes the saints in light, with full knowledge of the glory of God, united with angels in God’s eternal praise.

How do you think the church would reconcile this belief with off-world populations?

Historical continuity with Christ is essential to our branch of the Church Militant. It would still be maintained with pilgrims from Earth. The status of an alien church, without this physical, historical connection, would be problematic, but it is not necessarily impossible.

2.A. If Jesus is the only way through salvation and the church is the only way through Jesus, are off-world colonists doomed to not get saved?

Personally, I would argue that salvation only comes through Jesus, but Jesus does not only come to us through the church. Still, the latter is a common belief, so let’s run with it. Vatican I (a council of the RC Church, 1869-70) was clear that salvation was only possible through the Roman Church. Vatican II (1962-65) had a much broader view, in which the Roman Church is still normative, but other churches participate. Most theologians are unwilling to exclude the possibility that God may save people by other means. So, we make the positive statement that God saves through the church, but not the “exclusive” negative statement that God cannot or will not save through other means.

I see two main possibilities for off-world colonists.

  • All you need is a single baptized Christian travelling from Earth to the colony to provide the colonists with historical, physical continuity.
    1. Two Christians would be even better (Matthew 18:20, Mark 6:7).
    2. Roman Catholic niceties call for three bishops to make the journey. This is the only way to ensure the continuation of all seven sacraments. Confirmation and ordination require a bishop. Consecration of a new bishop requires 3 bishops. If I were to speculate, I think a single bishop or even a single priest would be considered acceptable (if necessary). It has been in the past.
    3. Many Protestants would be satisfied with a Bible making the journey, though even here, the niceties call for baptism by a baptized Christian.
  • Many “astrotheologians” have speculated that God is revealed to intelligent aliens in different ways. (See John 10:16.)
    1. God may have been incarnate in an different body for every world. This interpretation runs afoul of Paul’s claims about cosmic salvation, so it’s not terribly popular. It’s usually referred to as the “little green Jesus” theory.
    2. Jesus may have travelled in the flesh to other worlds after his ascension.
    3. Jesus may have appeared to other worlds in a vision as he appeared to Paul (Acts 9).
    4. God may have spoken to other prophets as he spoke to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who did not meet Jesus until he harrowed Hell, but nonetheless met him after death and followed him to heaven.
    5. The Holy Spirit may move on alien worlds in alien ways, unknown to us.
    6. Angels may spread word of God and Jesus to other worlds (see for example, CS Lewis’ Space Trilogy).

Non-Christian colonists could then learn of God and Jesus from the natives or receive a special revelation of their own.

2.B. Can you receive the 7 sacraments if you aren’t in a church that the Vatican would consider to be “real”? Or is that a sin?

I can’t say.  I can only speak to the validity of the 7 sacraments in our context or in a church mission. God may choose to find another way. I am not aware of one. I believe it would only be sinful if someone intentionally sought a “sacrament” they knew to be counterfeit. Otherwise it would only be ineffective. Some have argued that it would be effective for the participant if they believed it valid, though sinful for the celebrant who knew it was not. (For more, you can read up on Donatism.)

3. Growing up I saw calendars of saints which were very important to our family and how we did things, named kids, planted crops, etc. It’s my understanding that these calendars are used to organize the liturgical year and commemorate Feast Days according to days of the saint’s death. How would this work in a place where time is vastly different from Earth?

A new culture would, no doubt, develop new saints in time, but also keep many of the older saints. This has happened again and again in history. Mary, Joseph, John, Peter, and Paul will always be among the most influential. New saints are continually recognized. England, for example, has George, Cuthbert, Augustine of Canterbury, and Hilda.

3.A. By time is vastly different I mean the year could be shorter (or longer), days could have different lengths (24 hours? Try 30 hours!) etc.

Basically, I don’t believe much would change. If you want to dive into the details of the calendar, you could probably make some predictions.  Holy days drift toward the equinoxes and solstices, the new year, and major harvests.  I wouldn’t wander into it too much without studying the subject for a few years unless you want to annoy the church geeks.

3.B. What about Holy Days? Easter? Lent? Ash Wednesday? Etc.

The dating of Easter and Christmas may well shift to adjust to local seasons.  If there were no clear seasons (as on a space station or tidally locked world), I suspect they would stay as close as possible to the Earth calendar.  If there were seasons, then I think the colonists would adopt “years” corresponding to the planetary orbit or some simple fraction, thereof.  Then there would be one Easter and one Christmas per “year.”  If you come up with details for a world, I’d be happy to think through possible implications, but it’s all very speculative.

4. Would prayers/shrines/etc. to Saints be different on an off-world colony? For example, in Dominican Republic there is a huge Basilica dedicated to our patron saint la Virgen de la Altagracia. Every year people make pilgrimages to the basilica in honor of the Virgen. Would they have to trek back to Earth for the pilgrimage? Could they build another one that’s equally…holy? (I don’t know the right term) in an off-Earth colony?

This depends on population and ease of transit. I suspect Jerusalem and Rome would always be pilgrimage sites, but local ones would arise as well. This, too, has many precedents.  For example, Jerusalem has always been the premier pilgrimage site for Christians, but they made the easier journey to Santiago de Campostella in Spain or the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City.

If I were imagining a well-established RC colony, I would propose a vision of the Virgin Mary on the new world with some artifact placed in a basilica as a locus for Mary veneration as well as a local patron saint.  They might even found the colony with a patron, perhaps name the starship after her. (Consider the Santa Maria coming to the New World.)

5. Do you think priests and other church leaders would have to return to Earth to get placed in their positions? Could they go to seminary in an off-world planet?

Again, this depends on population and ease of travel. England tried to discourage American independence by keeping bishops at home and requiring colonists to make the journey back for ordination to the priesthood.  This worked, sort of, but the Episcopal Church managed to get a colonist (an English loyalist, Samuel Seabury, incidentally) consecrated bishop in Scotland after the revolution. The Church of England, recognizing that and American Church would happen without them, decided to consecrate two additional bishops and establish a new Anglican church in North America. They were more willing to send bishops to later colonies. I don’t know the story for Catholic New Spain, but it would be easy enough to look up.

6. How do you think the church would handle the Bible? Just kind of a general disclosure “All of this happened on Earth, but it doesn’t impact what you’re learning, just think of it as history and it’s cool.” ß I think this would impact children more than adults. As successive generations are born off-world and are introduced to the religion, do you think they would feel like “This doesn’t really apply to me, this is only an Earth religion”?

Most Christians have never been to Israel.  I don’t see this as a major problem.  One of the benefits of a universal God is that God can be found anywhere. The most important question will be whether the church (as idea, institution, and society) serves the physical, mental, and spiritual needs of the colony.

 

Posted by: dacalu | 19 October 2018

Communication and Harassment

A nuance seems to be missing in much of the conversation around sexual harassment: communication. It is not an action that makes something harassment. Sexual behaviors (including physical contact and suggestive language) may be harassing or not, depending on the context. The difference comes from whether you communicate.

Compassionate interaction means beginning with gentle and light contact and seeing how someone responds. It’s not about sex; it’s about power. It applies to all interactions, but especially physical contact. It matters whether you care enough about the person to interact with them instead of simply acting on them.

“I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”

Donald Trump gets in trouble here, but not for kissing. Kissing is fine. He gets in trouble, because he admits that consent doesn’t concern him. Kissing is fine, but it is not how we start a conversation with someone new.

We have no problem with this when it comes to volume. Someone who starts shouting at you as soon as you meet is harassing you. It’s mild, but clearly unkind. If you become uncomfortable and they ignore you – if they fail to pick up on the signs of your discomfort – and continue shouting, that is harassment.

We have no problem when it comes to houses. Someone who walks into my house without permission is harassing me. Most of the time, it’s fine. It’s fine, if they seek me out as soon as they come in and make sure they have my permission. And here is the key. We presume that I don’t want them inside my house unless they’ve been asked. It’s true that most of the time it doesn’t matter. It’s true that little harm is done – assuming they don’t break anything. That’s beside the point. It’s my house. They don’t get to be there without my consent.

We need to talk more about listening and less about what is and is not appropriate in and of itself. True, some things really are off limits as conversation starters. You don’t start with a kiss, just like you don’t start by singing heavy metal or taking stuff out of someone’s fridge.

If you need those rules, we can provide them. But that’s just communication 101. We need to be teaching people how to really listen to one another, how to start conversations, and how to discover what other people want.

It’s not unreasonable to expect that level of skill from one another. Caring cannot be legislated and enforced, but it can be expected. Let us start having real conversations about how to communicate.

Posted by: dacalu | 3 October 2018

Kavanaugh and the Triple Standard

The recent confirmation hearings have generated a great deal of emotion. We share a common concern for justice, particularly when it comes to our government and the highest court in the land. This commitment leads many of us to speak incautiously, both in defending our own position and critiquing others. (Search for “attribution bias” if you want to know more.) With that in mind, I wanted to say a few words about three related issues of justice and how they fit together.

 

The Legal Standard

I take pride in a US commitment to the rule of law. This includes such principles as “due process” and “innocent until proven guilty.” Both exist as checks on government power. Both provide us with protections against the government taking things away from citizens.

Many supporters of Brett Kavanaugh worry about government overreach. They want to be sure that due process does not go away. They are right to point out that Judge Kavanaugh has not been convicted of any crime and that it would be unfair to label him a sexual predator.

I do not want to see a time when people are deprived of liberty or property solely on the testimony of another person.

I doubt that there will ever be sufficient evidence to prosecute or even open a legal investigation into charges by Dr. Christine Ford and Deborah Ramirez. (I do note that there is no statute of limitations in Maryland. There is in Connecticut.)

To the best of my knowledge, no such legal proceedings are under way. The US Senate is not considering whether to deprive Judge Kavanaugh of liberty or property. They are considering whether to elevate him to a lifetime seat on the Supreme Court. Concern over the legal standard is valid, but not applicable.

 

The Political Standard

What standard should the Senate use? This presents a more difficult question. The simplest answer involves trust. To whom should we entrust defense of the Constitution?

As the core document and final authority in our republic, the Constitution forms the heart of our identity. The Supreme Court interprets it for us. That is a noble, dangerous, and difficult job.

The President and Senate, rightly, take great care in deciding who will exercise this power. Living in a republic, they look for people trusted not only in political circles, but by the nation.

While the legal standard leans toward the accused, the political standard errs toward the country. 

For most of our history, Justices have been chosen to stand above party politics. At best they aspire to be impartial; at least they aspire to rule impartially. Their job – as argued vehemently by Republicans – is not to decide what is just, but to impartially apply justice as set forth in the constitution, law, and precedent. This is their key responsibility and must be part of the job requirements. It is critical, then, that we find Justices who are extraordinarily calm and thoughtful.

 

The Judicial Standard

The most common statement of the judicial standard is that judges should be above “the appearance of impropriety.” To preserve the public trust, they must avoid not only actual trespass but apparent trespass. They must appear unmoved by anything but the law and reason. From this, we get the idea of judicial temperament.

A judge must be a thoughtful advocate of the law, when everyone else is caught up in partisanship and moral wrangling.

Anyone can advocate for justice; a judge must do justice.

A citizen may get excited about anything and their excitement should not be held against them by the government. Their feelings and opinions cannot be used as grounds for depriving them of liberty or property.

For exactly the same reason, government officials face the opposite standard. Their feelings and opinions must be weighed before they are handed power over others. They must be trusted to wield their power impartially.

Judges face the highest standard of all because they the arbiters of partiality in others. They are the protectors of liberty and property. They are agents of the rule of law. If they will not defend it, no one else can.

Brett Kavanaugh has made it clear that he feels entitled to a seat on the Supreme Court. He believes that the Democrats (and mysteriously the Clintons) are conspiring to deprive him of that seat. This gives me profound doubts about his ability to represent everyone impartially.

It may not be good for Brett Kavanaugh. It may not be fair.

It is far more important for the process to be good for the country. If he cannot place country above self, reason above emotion, law above desire – even when attacked – especially when attacked – he is not the man for the job.

 

A Note on Investigations

Our country has a terrible track record when it comes to taking accusations of sexual assault seriously. Because so many victims have not been heard, we must err on the side of listening. We must learn to hear, question, and investigate allegations.

This does not entail legal, political, or judicial consequences. It does require taking the time to learn before making legal, political, and judicial decisions.

It is also important that the most public deliberations be the most thorough. The Supreme Court nomination sets the standard for all lesser appointments.

I believe that the Republican majority has been wise in scheduling a hearing and calling for an investigation. I also think it took strong public pressure.

 

A Note on Partisan Politics

Republicans currently control the White House and both houses of Congress. They deserve all credit or blame for the nomination and approval (or not) of Brett Kavanaugh. Democrats simply do not have the leverage to stop approval. Public opinion has caused Republican senators to slow the process.

Personally, I would like to return to non-partisan nominees. That means that the party in power will have to show restraint. Just like a good judge, a good party, when given power, yields for the good of the whole.

I think we would be better off with a Democrat nominated and Republican confirmed nominee (e.g., Merrick Garland) or a Republican nominated and Democrat confirmed nominee. I hope we can return to the US norm of building a court from the best, brightest, most rational and least partisan among us.

 

A Note on the History of Nominations

The vast majority of Supreme Court nominees have passed Senate confirmation without comment. Of 113 Justices to date, 68 passed by acclamation, 6 by unanimous approval, and 11 more with an overwhelming majority (> 9/10 approval).  That means three out of four Justices were chosen by the whole for the whole.

Very few Justices stand out for contentious votes (< 2/3). Andrew Jackson pushed through three Justices. The first, Roger Taney (1836, 29-15), wrote the decision in the Dred Scott case, arguably the worst decision in court history. It ruled that persons of African descent were inferior, cannot be, and were never intended to be US citizens. Buchanan appointed Nathan Clifford (1858, 26-23); Garfield appointed Stanley Matthews (1881, 24-23); Grover Cleveland appointed Lucius Lamar II (1888, 32-28); Taft appointed Mahlon Pitney (1912, 50-26).

In this context, the modern era of partisan nominations appears to be an aberration. It started when the elder George Bush appointed Clarence Thomas (1991, 52-48). Ginsburg, Breyer, and Roberts passed with large majorities, but subsequent Justice were less popular. George W. Bush appointed Samuel Alito (2006, 58-42). Barack Obama appointed Sonia Sotomayor (2009, 68-31). [Elena Kegan (2010, 63-37) came recommended by Justice Scalia and received more than 2/3 approval.] Donald Trump appointed Neil Gorsuch (2017, 54-45).

Posted by: dacalu | 17 September 2018

What are Humans?

I had the honor of preaching at Church of the Apostles today. We remembered Saint Hildegard of Bingen and reflected on the place of humanity in creation. The image below comes from a 13th century copy of her Book of Divine Works. (I have listed other resources on the same topic at the end of the post.)

Hildegard-World

Prayer for Hildegard’s Day

O God, by whose grace your servant Hildegard, kindled with the Fire of your love, became a burning and shining light in your Church: Grant that we also may be aflame with the spirit of love and discipline, and walk before you as children of light; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Readings on Humanity

Genesis 1:26-28     AND     Genesis 2:15-17

Psalm 8:4-8     AND     Job 7:17-21

Philippians 2:1-8

Mark 10:41-45

Sermon

I pray at least twice a day.
I ask all sorts of questions and, I’ll be honest: I never get a straight answer.
	I get clear suggestions, pointed remarks, even the occasional suggestive silence.
	The brief, but excellent television show, Joan of Arcadia summed it up well.
		Our protagonist, a suburban teenager, has just met God, 
who is trying to explain the whole prophet thing.

Joan: "Are you — Are you being snippy with me? God is snippy?" 
God: "Let me explain something to you, Joan. It goes like this: I don't look like this. I don't look like anything you'd recognize. You can't see me. I don't sound like this, I don't sound like anything you'd recognize. You see, I'm beyond your experience. I take this form because you're comfortable with it, it makes sense to you. And if I'm "snippy”, it's because you understand snippy." 

For a slightly darker version, we can turn to Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman,
	who, in a footnote on page four of Good Omens say this.

“God does not play dice with the universe; He plays an ineffable game of His own devising, which might be compared, from the perspective of the players (i.e., everybody), to being involved in an obscure and complex version of poker in a pitch-dark room, with blank cards, for infinite stakes, with a Dealer who won’t tell you the rules, and who smiles all the time.

God can be obscure, even about the most important topics.

So, we turn to scripture, which – it must be admitted – can be equally challenging.
It’s not that we don’t get clear answers,
	but that we get multiple answers to the same question – 
	multiple answers that don’t always agree.
This can be…frustrating.

After many years of this,
	I have come to the conclusion
	that there is something fundamentally askew in my way of thinking.
I must be asking the wrong questions, or, more to the point,
	I must be thinking along the wrong lines.
God is encouraging me to shift my perspective,
	to go deeper.

I genuinely believe that God redirects us from the questions we ask
	to the questions we really need answered.
And, as with any good teacher, this move is,
	in roughly equal parts, wondrous and infuriating.
 
With that in mind, I’d like to dive into the question of human significance.
How do we fit into the grand scheme of things?
Are we important?
Are we unique?
Are we good?

The bible addresses human significance multiple times in different ways.
To my frustration, many Christians use the bible like a reference book.
	They read from the beginning, find an answer, and then stop.
This often provides a decent, but simplistic answer.
In the case of human significance, it can be misleading.

I have a reasonably high view of God’s action in the inspiration of scripture.
	I don’t think there are a few good bits, 
with the begats and proverbs and lesser prophets
thrown in as padding.
If God answers the same question multiple times,
	there must be a reason.

Bible Quiz.
I know, I’m an Episcopalian, but I figure I can get away with it in this crowd.

How many creation accounts are there in bible?

Interact

In his book, Seven Pillars of Creation, Bill Brown explores seven different creation accounts:
	Genesis 1, Genesis 2, the end of Job, Psalm 104, 
Proverbs 8, Ecclesiastes, and Second Isaiah.
All seven place humans within a broader creation,
	but they do so in different ways.

Genesis 1 describes a hierarchical universe,
	with us at the apex of the physical world.
	We were given dominion over all the other animals,
		and God found it very good.
Genesis 2, on the other hand, claims that we were made for the earth,
	to till it and watch it.
	We are gardeners, who failed in our task,
		and all the evils of the world stem from
		our inability to care properly for a single tree.
 
I don’t think one account is right and the other wrong.
I don’t think that one account is a summary 
or an expansion or a commentary on the other.
And I don’t think it was an accident
	that both versions appear at the start of the bible.

I think the truth is complicated,
	and the world is complicated,
	and we are complicated.
And that God is inviting us into a deeper understanding.
From the very beginning – the first two chapters of scripture –
	God is telling us to pay attention
	because the truth is beyond our experience.
We are fundamentally good, in the image and likeness of God.
	We are unique among the animals and miraculously wise.
AND we are also, from our birth, in a state of trespass.
	We live on someone else’s land, but act like we own it.
		We don’t even treat it well.
	We live in the midst of unbelievable, intricate and wonderous variety,
		but act as though we were in a mall,
		with things carefully placed to catch our attention
		and serve our needs.

Job and Psalms remind us that we are not the sole end of God in creation.
	The wide wild world exists without us:
		lions and tigers and bears;
		goats, horses, and deer;
		ostriches, hyenas, and crocodiles.
	Countless lives begin, continue, and end, oblivious to human concerns.
	The laws of nature go on without the slightest concern
		for human well-being.
	The titanic creatures, Behemoth and Leviathan have become bywords
		for everything God does
		that has nothing to do with humanity.

Proverbs 8 reminds us of God’s Spirit,
bringing order to the cosmos from eternity to eternity.
Ecclesiastes and Isaiah tell us of our final dependence on God.
	We are nothing without God’s spirit moving in us.
	Our lives are fleeting like the grass,
		that lives for a day and then disappears.
 
And so, we are both rulers and trespassers,
	mighty and weak,
	special to God, and one among many.
When people ask me if humans are special, I usually make a comparison.
	Many of you have more than one child.
	What would you say if one of your children asked you, “Am I your favorite?”
	I would say, “Of course you are my favorite…
just like your sister, or brother.”
This is how I feel when people ask about human uniqueness.
	It is enough to say that God loves us
		and wants our love.


Second question:
What are humans, that you are mindful of them?

Most of you will be familiar with Psalm 8.
	I know that I have heard it many times. 
“What are human beings that you are mindful of them, 
mortals that you care for them?
you have made them a little lower than God,
 and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.”

But, did you know that this same question comes up four more times in the bible?
“What are human beings that you are mindful of them?”

We heard the passage from Job.
“What are human beings, that you make so much of them, 
that you set your mind on them, 
visit them every morning, test them every moment? 
Will you not look away from me for a while, 
let me alone until I swallow my spittle?”	
In other words,
O God, why are you picking on me?
	Why do my actions matter?
	Why can’t you just leave me alone?
 
Psalm 144:
“O Lord, what are human beings that you regard them,
or mortals that you think of them?
They are like a breath; their days are like a passing shadow.”
Ecclesiasticus 18 makes the same point,
	praising God for his care,
	much as God cares for the lilies and the sparrows in Matthew’s Gospel.

Hebrews suggests that our lowliness is temporary.
	We have been made mortal and powerless,
		but may regain our place 
by participating in the suffering and death of Christ.

What are humans?
	Rulers of creation, 
God’s special project, 
underfoot and fleeting as grass,
and a work in progress.
We are nothing in ourselves
	and everything in God’s eyes.


So much for the Bible Quiz
	What’s the good news?
	What are we to make of God and scripture being snippy about humanity?

Here, I think we can turn the gospel.
And I must admit, Mark may be the snippiest of the gospels.
	Jesus shows little hesitation 
telling the disciples that they just don’t get it.
And yet, Matthew tells the story as well.
James and John ask to be the favored disciples,
		to sit at Jesus right and left hand in the coming kingdom.
	“We want to be special.”
	“We want to be your favorites.”

And Jesus tells them that the kingdom doesn’t really work that way.
	They must change their perspective.
	Among the nations, 
people strive to be better than their neighbors,
more special, more powerful, more famous.
	“But it is not so among you; 
whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 
and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 
For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, 
and to give his life a ransom for many.”
Paul puts it much the same way in his letter to the Philippians,
	“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God, 
did not regard equality with God 
as something to be exploited, 
but emptied himself, 
taking the form of a slave, 
being born in human likeness.”
The language is uncompromising.
	We cannot be special alone.
	We cannot even be special in comparison: better, greater, more.
	We can only be special in community
		and in service to others.

A king is no king without a kingdom.
And a gardener is no gardener without a garden.

Our lives have no meaning in isolation.
And our species has no meaning by itself.
To be fully human is to be serving.
	As individuals we serve our neighbors.
	As a species we serve creation,
		in its unbelievable, intricate and wonderous variety.

Darwin complained about parasitoid wasps.
Modern skeptics worry about viruses, selfish genes, suffering, and selection.
I make no claim that these are good or understandable.
But I do claim that they are our neighbors,
	neither more nor less than the Samaritan, the sinner, or the eunuch.

God calls us into community
	because I alone am never enough.
	I am never solely to blame for my offenses.
	I am never solely responsible for my success.
I am complicated.
Humanity is complicated.
The world is complicated.
 
Hildgard of Bingen saw this in her visions.
She imagined the cosmos as a human
	with Christ as its soul.
She saw each human as a microcosm,
	with God moving in us and moving us,
	and making us part of something greater.
Each of us is broken, as the world is broken.
We are each being mended,
	because we are all being mended,
	as God mends the world.
For God, in God’s fullness, was pleased to dwell
	in creation, in human flesh, in us.

God in God’s fullness is beyond our experience.
	But we can, quite literally, wrap our mind around Jesus.
We can understand Jesus as our king.
	And so, we have just a glimpse 
of what it might mean to be the rulers.
	We can be kings and queens to the extent
		that we can imagine a king,
			suffering for our salvation.
We can see Jesus as shepherd, hen, and vine.
	And so, we have just a glimpse
		of what it means to care for the world.
	We can be shepherds and gardeners to the extent
		that we can imagine Jesus as the life of the world.
We can even understand Jesus as Logos, as the order behind creation,
		by studying the universe.
	We can look into the reality of God,
		by gazing in wonder, curiosity, and true humility
at the unbelievable, intricate and wonderous variety
that God has made.

We can know as we are known,
	give as we have received,
	forgive as we are forgiven,
love as we are loved.
 
Humanity has meaning, significance, uniqueness 
	but always in the context of God and neighbor.
	We are part of something greater than ourselves.
Otherwise we miss the point.
Our humanity is grounded in God and manifest in creation.

For this reason,
I think that resurrection life
	will have more than humans.
We will not be alone in God’s kingdom.

There is no I alone.
There is no humanity alone.
There is only God, 
moving in us 
and moving us to love one another.

It is an ineffable game,
	but it need not always be.
God is telling us about the rules,
	every time we ask the question,
	every time we turn to nature with curiosity,
	every time we look to scripture with humility,
	allowing the answer to be greater than the question.
We are complicated,
	gloriously so.

Other Resources

The relationship of humans to other living things forms one of my core areas of research. This is a sermon geared specifically toward Christians considering humans in the universe. If you are interested, you can find a more philosophical approach here. The topic was also covered in a graduate seminar with a scientific focus here and here. The topic of non-human souls is covered at length in my recent book. A theological reflection on how science shapes our perception of the place of humanity in nature appears in the journal Zygon.

Mix, LJ (2016) Life-value narratives and the impact of astrobiology on Christian ethics. Zygon 51(2): 520-535.

Posted by: dacalu | 4 September 2018

Labor and Scapegoating

The Scapegoat

Leviticus 16:21-22 provides the original scapegoat.

“Then Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness.”

In Hebrew, the goat was ‘azazel. Sometimes taken as a proper name, the word may simply mean “goat that departs” or just an intense “to depart.” For the Latin Bible (Vulgate) Jerome used caper emissarius, goat that is sent. William Tyndale called it a “scapegoat,” and so it appears in the King James Version.

For the Israelites, azazel was a way to separate themselves from their sins, so that they might be at peace with one another, and with God. They could literally cast off the evil that bound them. Azazel was only a small part of their atonement, however. Leviticus 16 describes a public ceremony of accepting responsibility, seeking change, and sacrificing a second goat (as well as a bull) for the sins of the community. The good use of a scapegoat, if there is one, requires the fullness of atonement: recognition and repentance as well as release.

In the nineteenth century, “scapegoat” came to mean “one who is blamed or punished for the mistakes or sins of others.”1 We project our faults and debts onto someone else so that we can continue in our error. The proper anger we feel at bad behavior can be vented at an improper target. Scapegoats allow us to feel good without doing good. In this sense, scapegoating is the opposite of atonement. It ducks responsibility. It prevents recognition, precludes repentance, and resists genuine release. Because the fault persists, new scapegoats are always needed.

The New Testament letter to the Hebrews makes precisely this argument. Jesus’ death for our redemption provides a “full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.”2 One and done. Christians need no scapegoat.

Jews have their own interpretation of Leviticus 16 and the day of atonement. I do not cite Hebrews to critique Jewish practice, ancient or modern. It requires the full context of recognition, repentance, and release. Other religions have their own rites of turning, as well. I cite Hebrews to emphasize that Christians have no sins to cast on the “other.” We have cast them all on Christ. Everyone sees willful ignorance, unjust punishment, and cruel indifference as bad. Christians scapegoating is wrong in another way: it shows a lack of faith in Jesus and his atonement.A

Scapegoating is also incompatible with loving neighbor as self. How can we punish others for our mistakes unless we love them less than we love ourselves? For Christians, scapegoating is more than wrong. It is actively sinful.

Scapegoating appears most clearly when we blame the weak for an unjust system that could only be perpetuated by the strong. We all shape the societies in which we participate, but some have more influence than others. If we are looking for systematic injustice – real societal dysfunction – we must look to trend-setters, decision makers, power brokers.

We must ask which groups are blamed and expelled?

We must ask who blames and expels them?

Most critically, we must ask whether blame and expulsion fix the problem. If we look at failures of professional trust, it makes sense. We should cast the embezzlers out of banking, sadists out of medicine, child molesters out of teaching, and liars out of reporting. In the US, it makes sense to cast out those who willfully lied to the US government to gain entry. It makes sense to cast out those who will not renounce violent rebellion or aid to invaders. In all of these cases expulsion directly addresses the problem.

Other cases should give us pause.

 

Labor

We have a problem with economic injustice. The upper and middle classes shrink, while the lower class grows.3 Many work and are not rewarded. Others are rewarded without work. Most of us, perhaps especially the lower class, benefit from the work of those who make so little they barely get by. In the US, these people harvest our crops and prepare our food. They drive the trucks and work the aisles of Walmart and the distribution centers of Amazon. Abroad, they mine the minerals and assemble the components for our personal electronics. They make our clothes and freight our cargo.

It takes no personal animosity for this injustice to occur. It requires no mistaken or malicious economic theory. In many cases, it arose because it works so well. And yet, people suffer. Labor is not fairly rewarded. Workers suffer and die unjustly.

You may believe that the world is this way naturally. You may think life is nasty, brutish, and short. You may think that God punishes us or teaches us or lets us live in our own filth. You may think that the universe is vast, cold, and indifferent to our suffering or that evolution breeds selfishness. For our purposes, it doesn’t matter why the world is this way, or even why the US is this way.

We feel the economic injustice.

It pains us as a society.

We need to do something to alleviate the pain. And so, we find people to cast our sin onto. We blame and expel them, even though it does not fix the problem.

I think the US has an amazing history of promoting individual rights. We have spoken up, legislated, and enforced the rights of all people. And yet, we have also continued to want convenient workers, cheap labor that we do not have to treat well. Long hours, low pay, and scant benefits result in inexpensive goods and services.

In short, we have faced this dilemma by saying that some workers are not people. For centuries we did this explicitly through chattel slavery. We turned workers into sellable objects. When slavery became illegal, we found other ways to lessen the personhood of workers. We turned to women, children, and foreigners.4

Make no mistake. The market drives inhumane treatment of workers. The majority of consumers are poor. The poor choose the cheapest options because they barely get by. I am not blaming them. Nor am I blaming the rich. I am noting the injustice inherent in our system. Removing players will not fix a game when the rules are broken.

Whenever we blame a group of people, we are guilty of scapegoating. That includes blaming the bourgeoisie, the selfish poor, the entitled, the 1%, the politicians, or the bureaucrats. When we remove them, others will take over their role.

Recent years have seen a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment and anti-immigrant policy in the US and Europe. We seek to expel “foreigners” whether they be illegal, legal, or even citizens. We seek a scapegoat to lessen our guilt. We blame migrant workers. We say that they are stealing our jobs and taking advantage of our social services. We blame and expel them.

It does not solve the problem. The market drives the problem, not the laborers. The desire for cheap goods and services drives the problem.

Such scapegoating is immoral.

It is ineffective.

Worst of all, it is addictive.

Expelling the foreigner solves neither the economic nor the moral crisis. Economic problems persist because they are systemic problems. Moral problems get worse. New scapegoats must always be found. We recognize our guilt in scapegoating and, thus, always require new scapegoats. In the 1900s, Marxist revolutionaries started at the “top” and worked their way down. Fascist revolutionaries started at the “bottom” and worked their way up. Both met in the middle by scapegoating anyone who disagreed with the system.

Scapegoating is not a new problem. It is old and common. We must be constantly on our guard against our own desire to simplify the world to suit our own desires. We must constantly fight for a just and informed society, for effective and moral policies.

When scapegoating becomes a political platform, when a politician or party asks us to cast our sins upon a group of people and expel them, the time has come to resist that platform. It harms society. Those who use scapegoating should be cast out of politics. It would not solve economic injustice, but it would directly address the problem of civic immorality and our addiction to blaming others.

 

Notes:

  1. Online Etymology Dictionary: “scapegoat
  2. This phrase appears in the Eucharistic prayer for every English Book of Common Prayer and the first three American Books of Common Prayer. The current (1979) American BCP retains it in Rite IA.
  3. By classes I mean this: the upper class does not have to work for a living. They are independently wealthy. The middle class works but gains more than they need to survive. The lower class works to live.
  4. To speak fairly, I should say that our willingness to demean women, children, and foreigners has long been part of human culture. In the Tanakh (Old Testament), the trio of aliens, widows, and orphans is invoked again and again to describe the oppressed. Frequently it is in the context of work and money. Widows and orphans are, importantly, those women and children without an adult male patron to protect them. Exodus 22:21-22; Deuteronomy 10:17-18, 14:29, 24:17-22, 27:19; Psalm 94:6, 146:9; Jeremiah 7:6, 22:3; Ezekiel 22:7; Zechariah 7:10; Malachi 3:5.

A. A friend asked me to amplify this paragraph. Here are my two comments: 1) I don’t intend to say that there is no atonement outside Christianity. 2) Inside Christianity, Jesus atonement is fully sufficient to cover all sins. Any time we try to deal with sins (no matter whose they are) by punishing people (no matter who they are), we have shown a lack of faith in Jesus, whose atonement has dealt with all sin. We might punish for other reasons, but never to deal with sin.

Posted by: dacalu | 7 August 2018

Introductions to Buddhism

A friend of mine asked for good introductory texts on Buddhism, so I opened up a discussion on Facebook. Here are the recommendations I garnered. Strong recommendations from me personally have a star.

Academic

*Rupert Gethin. The Foundations of Buddhism. 1998.

For Children (and Adults)

*Jon Muth: Zen Shorts, 2005; Zen Ties, 2008; Zen Ghosts, 2010; Hi Koo, 2014; Zen Socks, 2018.

Mahayana Buddhism

Paul Williams. Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. 2008.

Theravada Buddhism

Rahula Wapola. What the Buddha Taught. 1959.

Books by Jack Kornfield

Tibetan Buddhism

*Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche. Gates to Buddhist Practice. 1993.

Books by Pema Chodron

Robert Thurman. Essential Tibetan Buddhism. 1996.

Chogyam Trungpa. Cutting through Spiritual Materialism. 1973

Zen Buddhism

*Alan Watts. The Way of Zen. 1957.

Shunryu Suzuki. Zen Mind, Beginners Mind. 1973.

Kosho Uchiyama. Opening the Hand of Thought. 1993.

Robert Aitken Roshi. Taking the Path of Zen. 1982.

(https://sites.google.com/site/robertaitkenroshi/)

Robert Persig. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. 1974.

D.T. Suzuki. An Introduction to Zen Buddhism. 1934.

Charlotte Beck. Everyday Zen. 2007.

Engaged Buddhism

Thich Nhat Hanh. The Blooming of the Lotus. 1993.

Nichiren Buddhism

Woody Hochswender, Greg Martin, and Ted Morino. The Buddha in Your Mirror: Practical Buddhism and the Search for Self. 2001.

Posted by: dacalu | 24 July 2018

Simply Love

Every few years, I take a serious look at my faith with an eye toward sharing it. Christianity has come to mean so many things to so many people. It’s hard to say what counts as correct, orthodox, or traditional. I can tell you what it means to me, why it is good news to me, and why I think it is the most important thing in the world.

My faith hangs on two simple rules.

1) All you need is love.

2) It’s always simpler than you thought.

The real challenge comes from our basic confusion about love and simplicity. Both come very close to the core of how we see the world. Often, we cannot even talk about them meaningfully. This is why I love martial arts and science and other things that let us see the real world more clearly, things we can physically do that help us mentally understand.

We use the word love to mean many things, from selfless care for another to overwhelming desire to mild interest. What is Christian love? Christian love starts with curiosity, true desire to know another. It ends in sacrifice, a willingness to give something up for the good of another. It always happens simply, concretely, and physically. It means showing up, paying attention, and then doing something to help.

If this still sounds abstract, we can start with the examples given in the Bible: feed the hungry, care for the sick, give to the poor, forgive the guilty, befriend the lonely, calm the angry, teach the willing, and provoke the unwilling. It gets tricky once you start looking at the needs of the many. How do you do all those things at once? How can you be all things to all people? You cannot. You must start somewhere – simply, concretely, and physically – and work your way out.

Simplicity can also be hard. By it, I mean the sort of truth that seems obvious and important once you hear it: something that makes you say, “I should have thought of that” even when you didn’t.” The simplest things can be the most profound. Einstein’s equation E=mc2 is simple. A pulley is simple. A book is simple (binding the pages by the edge). Simple does not mean obvious; it does mean elegant. It took centuries for humans to work these things out, but they transformed daily life.

Living simply is the great struggle of life: to do what we want with the least amount of work.

Jesus of Nazareth was an elegant, if un-imagined, solution to the distance between us – the gaps between humans and the gap between humans and God. He loved simply. He showed us simple love. He stepped – simply, concretely, and physically – into the space between. He gave us tools by which we can do the same.

I judge my own faith, my own Christianity by these standards. I judge my own actions. Do they start in curiosity and end in service? Do they match up with Jesus and the friends of Jesus through the ages who seem to have gotten love and simplicity right?

When in doubt, I try to make my faith simpler and more loving.

Posted by: dacalu | 2 July 2018

Geocentrism

“And yet, it moves.”

So said Galileo about the earth. The story may be only legend, but the sentiment is true and important. We move through the heavens, both physically and conceptually. We grow and change.

I believe that science progresses. We continue to learn new things about the world. I also believe that fashions change, not always for the better. Sometimes we simply change our minds, our philosophy. Which common beliefs have changed because of scientific discovery and which have changed for other reasons? The progress of science depends on our ability to tell the difference.

The moving earth provides a great example. Our perspective has changed. Our knowledge has deepened. And yet, our familiarity with the word “earth” can hide its true significance. Science, through Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton, helped us see that the physics of earth can be applied to stars and planets. This idea that our place in the universe is not privileged, that (all things being equal) the same rules apply everywhere, has been called the Copernican Principle. I think it represents scientific progress.

All things are not equal, though. After all, we are here (on Earth) and not there (in space, on Mars, …). So, we must be careful in how we apply the Copernican Principle. It has become fashionable to say that Copernicus decentered earth and humanity. This is true, but in a limited way. A quick look at the dictionary reveals three parallel meanings for the word “earth”: soil, world, and planet. Each has a different story. Science decentered the soil, but not the world or the planet.

Earth as Soil

Soil provides the oldest meaning for earth. It refers quite tangibly to the stuff beneath our feet. Ancient Greeks thought of four elements – earth, air, fire, and water. This earth was responsible for mass and heaviness. As such, it settled downward. In a spherical universe, it formed the central sphere. Gravity made sense because all earth tended toward the middle. Water enveloped earth, then air, and fire. Finally, the heavens, unimaginably large and made of a fifth element, enveloped the fire.

This earth is a common noun. It is a kind of stuff. Many debated whether there were other clumps of earth out there. Lucretius thought that everything was falling through space and that there were many flat platforms of earth, all falling together. Mostly, though, scholars thought gravity wouldn’t work unless it all ended up in the middle.

Our ideas about matter have changed over the centuries. Earth, air, fire, and water gave way to modern elements. We discovered that gravity could hold clumps of matter together locally without a single force pushing downward (or center-ward) everywhere. And so common earth was distributed throughout the cosmos but got to keep its spherical shape locally. Copernicus decentered earth as soil. With Galileo and Newton, he spread the earth around.

Earth as World

A second meaning refers to earth as a place we find ourselves. We use the German derived “world” for the range of humanity, but the Hebrew ‘erets, Greek ge, and Latin tellus (or terra) can have the same meaning. We live on top of the soil. We came to call our place earth.

The human world may have been at the center of the earliest cosmologies. Israelites and Egyptians, for example, envisioned a sandwich of earth and sky, with humans in the middle. By the common era, scholars had a more complex perspective. The dominant view came from Plato and Aristotle (and Philo and Augustine). The human world formed a thin shell partially covering the sphere of soil. Modern authors might say the biosphere (living Earth) wraps around the geosphere (solid Earth). Many Ancient and Medieval authors thought that the world only covered one hemisphere or less.

This earth became a proper noun. Like the (U.S.) Capitol or the Federation in Star Trek, it acquired a capital letter and an attendant particle. We can speak of The Earth. It is both specific and significant. We can speak of other worlds, but we always speak hypothetically. No one would be confused about which world, which Earth, you were talking about unless you had already introduced others.

The Earth was close to the center of Ancient and Medieval cosmologies, but it was not the center. Nor was the center happy or privileged. Plato wrapped the Earth around Tartarus and Hades. Dante wrapped it around the Inferno, with Satan at the very center, the bottom of the universe. These were Hell-centered cosmologies and, for both Plato and Dante, they reflected human dysfunction. By “decentering” the world, Copernicus and colleagues freed us from the mud and muck of earth as soil.

Earth as Planet

A third meaning arose only after Copernicus’ revolution. Prior cosmologies included planets as sky-travelers. The word means “wanderer” in Greek and refers to the irregular course of planets in our sky. Stars describe a constant circle in the sky, but planets seem to move on their own. Ancient cosmologies associated planets with gods, Medieval cosmologies with angels. They were considered intelligences on their own, though they might (as in Dante) rule over heavenly spheres and subjects.

We cannot speak of earth as planet prior to Copernicus. The terms were mutually exclusive. Planets wandered; the earth stayed put. If we embrace the Copernican principle and reject the idea that earth (as soil, world, or planet) provides a privileged perspective, then we should drop the article. We do not live on The Earth, but only Earth. We occupy one place among many. That place has a proper name. No one would speak of The Mars or The Pluto; why should Earth receive an honorific? Copernicus did not demote or decenter the planet Earth. He created it. The old cosmology ended and a new one took its place. Planets, including Earth became places in space.

Being Moved

It can be easy to think of the Copernican revolution as a demotion for humans. Indeed, intellectual fashion says as much. This was not a product of science, however, but of humanism. Ancient and Medieval cosmologies were centered on value and disvalue, placing the rarified good and God in the heights, the gross bad and Hell in the depths. The humanists argued that we should not have such a Deocentric (or infernocentric) view; we should have an anthropocentric one. Or perhaps a noocentric one, defined by the intelligence that perceives, understands, and models the universe. This new perspective fit well with Enlightenment values and so was taken on. In many ways, it elevated the importance of human minds while distributing soil and human bodies. Humans have moved, but perhaps not in the way we imagined.

 

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