Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Obama's Ant Traps

As you should know by now, I've been reading Barack Obama's new book, The Audacity of Hope. While most critically minded people rightly point out that we don't know very much about Obama, I must candidly admit that I am an unabashed fan, and have been ever since his famous speech at the Democratic National Convention. I know that thus far the media has over-hyped him, ignoring any potential flaws and proclaiming him somewhere between a "rising star" and a "rock star." He has a personal magnetism that has so far kept too many reporters from digging too deep and uncovering whatever bones he doesn't want us to find.

We don't yet know how he will respond when he is eventually tested, as he undoubtedly will be. We don't know what he will do when the bright inquisitive lights of a press corp that loves to tear down what they have built up turn their critical gaze on him.

But I like him. I like him a great deal. Listening to his speeches, watching his interviews, and especially reading his books have filled him with a hope that I haven't had in a long time. Perhaps restored my faith in the potential of the American political process, even. If this man, who caters to our best instincts instead of our worst, who encourages us to rise up rather than tear others down, who uses the language of faith and values while espousing a faith that I can believe in and a set of values that I can abide by, can be a serious presidential or vice-presidential candidate...

I have to stop myself there. Can't get too carried away, can I? After all, he hasn't been tested yet. He has never really been on the national stage. He's only won one statewide election, and that wasn't in my state, and it was barely opposed. The Illinois Republicans ran a carpet-bagging, fear-mongering radical against him after their original candidate was brought down in a sex scandal.

But so far I've seen so much that I like. And, while I'd love to focus on policy matters or political philosophy or even human decency, what I want most to point out today is basic humanity. Barack Obama can't help but make politicians seem just a little bit human, just a little bit ordinary. I know, I know. I'm saying that the media-proclaimed rock star of the Democratic Party, a man thus far known more for style than substance, is a humble and humanizing figure. I'm saying that this media darling, this charismatic, luminescent figure actually takes the shine off politicians. That seems ridiculous to say.

But the stories that he tells about himself so often focus on the normal, the prosaic. And I like that. Whenever he is tempted to take himself, his hype, and the power of his political position too seriously, something happens to drag him back to earth. And he shares it. For whatever reason that makes me trust him, and trust him a great deal more than the would-be-gods of politics. Perhaps some scandal will break that will disillusion me. Or, worse, perhaps he uses this face to accumulate power, much like the faux-populist currently in the White House, only to, like President Bush the Younger, abuse the weight and power of his office. Time will tell. But, in the meantime, enjoy this story from his latest book:

One day in February I found myself in particularly good spirits, having just completed a hearing on legislation that Dick Lugar and I were sponsoring aimed at restricting weapons proliferation and the black-market arms trade. Because Dick was not only the Senate's leading expert on proliferation issues but also chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, prospects for the bill seemed promising. Wanting to share the good news, I called Michelle from my D.C. office and started explaining the significance of the bill - how shoulder-to-air missiles could threaten commercial air travel if they fell into the wrong hands, how small-arms stockpiles left over from the Cold War continued to feed conflict across the globe. Michelle cut me off.

"We have ants."


"I found ants in the kitchen. And in the bathroom upstairs."


"I need you to buy some ant traps on your way home tomorrow. I'd get them myself, but I've got to take the girls to their doctor's appointment after school. Can you do that for me?"

"Right. Ant traps."

"Ant traps. Don't forget, okay honey? And buy more than one. Listen, I need to go to a meeting. Love you."

I hing up the receiver, wondering if Ted Kennedy or John McCain bought ant traps on the way home from work.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Changes Coming?

I guess you've probably noticed that I've slowed down a bit, posting only Adam's second annual birthday post since last Wednesday's manifesto on Christian enlightenment. I've spent most of my writing time of late editing material for my hypothetical future book or staring at the screen waiting for inspiration to come. I've finally finished reading Marcus Borg's new book on Jesus, and have almost finished with Barack Obama's new book on, well, Barack Obama, but neither of them have really provided me with too much to respond to. Both books are excellent, don't get me wrong. But Obama's book is essentially outside my field, and Borg's book is mostly a retelling of everything he's already written, only in greater depth, with a few words changed. Anyway, I've written more than enough on Borg since this blog started.

Meanwhile, I've been busy at church. I led a Forum series on the Creation Myths of Ancient Israel, but I haven't yet edited my notes for that into something that I could use here. I also finally got to preach from the "big pulpit" in the sanctuary of my church, one of the most magnificent sanctuaries in America. Standing behind that pulpit, proclaiming my interpretation of the Word of God to the racially, culturally, socially and theologically diverse congregation that gathers there every Sunday for worship, was literally awesome. A moment filled with awe.

I'm used to preaching from pulpits. Before I was appointed to my own church I was frequently a guest preacher at other churches. I have many friends in ordained ministry, and when I was a Youth Minister they would call me to fill in for them whenever they went on vacation. I was a pinch hitter of sorts. Of course, when I got a pulpit of my own, those calls stopped coming. And, after I left ministry I'm not sure that many of them knew what to think. Did my leaving the pulpit signal a desire to stop preaching altogether, or just a desire to no longer have a charge of my own? Not even I could say.

But never in my life have I preached in such a majestic place, such an architectural wonder. The space itself seems sacred, as though the artistry in the building, the aesthetics, somehow makes it a "thin place," a space where the sacred and the secular meet, if only for a moment. Standing behind that pulpit I felt what I had always imagined I would feel as a pastor, instead of the emptiness that so often filled my brief and embattled pastoral career.

I preached on I Corinthians 13. The occasion was "Youth Sunday," the day that the teenagers in the congregation lead the worship service. We have no Youth Minister. When I arrived I asked our pastor what the greatest need in the congregation was. She - knowing me from my reputation as an ex-pastor - had no idea that I spent most of my ministerial career working with teenagers, so she said, "Well, I don't know if you can help in this area, but our greatest need in in Youth Ministry." I volunteered to teach the Youth Sunday School class. It was, quite literally, the least I could do.

As a Youth Minister I loved working with teenagers, but I hated programming. As you can probably imagine, I have absolutely no idea what most people consider fun. I wasn't very good at being a teenager when I actually was one, and I have a very hard time pretending to be one no that I'm not. The farther removed I get from my teenage years the less I know about what "the kids" like to do these days. I can teach almost anyone almost anything, but I can't program to save my life.

So, I volunteered to teach, telling myself that I would finally have the freedom to do what I'm good at without having to worry about being fired for what I'm not good at. Win-win situation. I can still minister, but I don't have to take the grief that comes with the paycheck.

My role has expanded a little since I started working with these teenagers. Now, as Chair of the church's Education Team, I oversee all education ministries, including Youth. As a part of that, I got to help plan for Youth Sunday. After we picked the scripture and the topic, I started coaching the teenagers through their roles. Well, first I had to figure out what their roles were going to be. The I had to bribe them into accepting their roles. After all that, I got to coach them, to get them ready for their respective parts in the service.

I didn't intend to preach. I've preached a little since I've reclaimed my amateur status, but always in the safety of our communion service in the chapel, a small, lay led service at 8:45 Sunday mornings. My plan was for the teenagers to give the message for Youth Sunday. We poured over the text for weeks in our Sunday School class, as I gradually broke it down for them, and then taught them how to do it for themselves. Finally I gave them each a homework assignment: Pick a sentence or two from the passage, and tell me what it means to you. That would be the message on Youth Sunday.

But nerves set in. Most of them didn't want to get in front of the congregation. What would they say? How would to church respond? They weren't used to being in a position of leadership, and weren't comfortable with it. I finally agreed to provide a brief introduction, explain what we had studied in class, and then personally introduce each teenager as they shared their answer from our homework assignment. That "brief introduction" turned into more of an exegesis of the passage, and soon enough I had an actual, bonafide sermon on my hands.

So, last Sunday, before the teenagers each had their moment behind the pulpit, I had mine. Fifteen minutes of exegesis, just like it used to be. The only differences were that I was in a congregation of my choosing. A "liberal" congregation, an urban, multi-cultural congregation, that knows where I stand and accepts me as one of them. I got to preach as a lay person, one of many members of the congregation, sharing his gifts with the others. And then, like a proud parent, I got to introduce three of my students as they shared their thoughts on the passage.

I've been meaning to turn that sermon into a piece for this blog, too. But other projects keep getting in the way. When I preach I rarely write anything down. That is my gift, and my curse. I don't exactly improvise, in that I have everything planned out. A tight exegesis that sticks pretty strictly to the text. But, I chart a course in my head and follow it, allowing the specific language to come in the moment. Those of you who have heard others preach like this know that the result can often be disaster. But when I do it, it isn't. I preach the way that I write, and it works out about the same.

Consequently, there is no script for me to copy and paste here. There are only the ideas that are floating around in my head. So, to turn that sermon into a blog post I would have to recreate it in a much different environment. I would have to look at my few notes, and then stare at this computer screen, hoping that it inspires the same sort of words that a sanctuary full of some of my closest friends already inspired. I'm sure I could write something very good. But it would not be the sermon I delivered last Sunday, any more than my post on Moses and the Burning Bush was the sermon that I gave on the same topic in the chapel five days before I posted it.

And now school is about to start. I'm looking forward to my classes - I can't wait to get started. But I also know that going back to seminary will take me from this blog. I'm just hoping that it won't keep me from working on the book. Reality is setting in. This blog is running out of steam. Soon I may be just another infrequent blogger who posts from time to time merely to relieve some misplaced guilt.


The congregation's response to my sermon rocked me. It isn't just shameless arrogance when I say that I was and am a very good preacher. I can deliver a sermon with wit, depth, poetry and power. Even my biggest enemies have always acknowledge that - it was perhaps their biggest reason for opposing me. I remember at my only pastoral appointment, one Sunday after church, hearing a visitor exclaim to her friend that the church was lucky to have such an excellent preacher. The friend, one of my strongest opponents in the church, grumbled, "Well, he talks good, anyway."

If I were ineffectual then there would never have been any reason to oppose me. I would have opposed myself, discrediting my theology with ineptitude. Oddly, by being competent at my job, a decent person, and an excellent thinker, writer, and public speaker, I created more enemies, more opponents in my congregation, than ineptitude ever could have.

Don't misunderstand me. I'm not being egomaniacal. My former church didn't hate me because I could preach. But their hatred, and their opposition, carried a sense of urgency because of it. They had a fear that if they didn't oppose me as vehemently as they could, I just might lead the entire church astray, seducing them with my eloquent words and heretical theology.

But, having climbed back into the pulpit again, if only for a Sunday, I found myself accepted, loved, and encouraged. Most people who found me after the service encouraged me to rethink my calling. "God isn't done with you," they said. "You should do that for a living," they said.

My plan in going back to school is to try to carve out a living as a theologian, as a teacher and a writer. My goal is also to transform the church from the inside, as a layperson who models the commitment to ministry that God calls all of us to, and not just some professional class of Christians we call the clergy. Yet, after giving a sermon last week, and after listening to the congregation respond to what I had to say, I have to wonder, even if only a very little bit, if I'm not running away from my calling. I have to wonder, even if only a little bit, if I'm not scarred and scared, and looking for anything to do except what I might be best at.

Oh, well... time will tell. Back to work on the book before I hop in bed. I just tucked Adam in, and, and my head is more full of sleep than "lofty" thoughts. And once again I'm rambling...

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Happy Birthday, Adam!

My son Adam turned two years old today. We celebrated this momentous occasion - the onset of the "terrible twos" - with a party featuring his best friend, his cousins, an ice cream cake, a thousand percussive devices, and, of course, a giant plush Nemo.

I'm too beat from the birthday festivities to write much right now, so enjoy the pictures:

While Adam has long loved anything with a ball (ball sports sometimes create some real linguistic hillarities: since you play tennis with a tennis ball and golf with a golf ball, Adam has decided that you must play baseball with a "baseball ball", football with a "football ball", basketball with a "basketball ball", etc.) his most enduring passion so far has been music. Here he is, playing with the snare drum that he made himself by sticking loose change into a plastic tub, while listening to Miles Davis and looking at one of my Jazz encyclopedias. He loves playing any drum, but his favorite instrument to listen to is either the saxophone or the clarinet. He knows that Jeff Coffin plays both of those with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, and he knows that Mama plays the clarinet. His favorite sax players are Paul Desmond and John Coltrane, but his favorite drummer is Chappy! I wonder where he got his good taste!

Here he is just before bed one night last week, wearing his Thomas the Train pajamas (it's been so much easier to get him to bed since we've been able to say, "Hey Adam, why don't you put on you train pajamas?!?") and my running shoes, playing with my tennis racket. He just loves trying to fill my size 13 shoes. Hopefully that isn't a theme for the rest of his life.

Here he is, playing in his room at the birthday party, with a friend and his cousins. Our neighbor, the friend's mom, looked in and said, "That looks like the makings of a great garage band!"

Here's a chocolate lipped Adam blowing out the candles on his cake (both of them!) with Daddy "helping" slightly. For the record, Sami got the cake from Graeter's Ice Cream: Black Raspberry Chip ice cream, with chocolate cake and a fudge center. There's still some in the freezer if you want any. But you'd better hurry, before I eat it all myself.

Of course, the best part of a birthday party is the presents! Here are Adam and his cousin Caleb tearing into one of the many gifts - a Thomas the Train set.

Growing a year older is so exhausting. Here's Adam crashing on the couch with Daddy and three balloons (perhaps the highlight of the party - I may never be rid of them!), plus his Christmas present "Big Elmo" (one of two Elmos he got this year) and his birthday present, a giant, plush Nemo. I think we're trying to watch Wallace and Gromit, but as you can see from my glazed-over expression, I may be wrong. Mostly I was watching the back of my eyelids.

Special thanks to Sami, who took so many pictures that she forgot to be a part of any of them. Or, maybe that was her plan all along...

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Can Enlightenment Be a Christian Concept?

I have written more than once about enlightenment, about the role of religion in enlightening people. But, generally when I and others speak of enlightenment, we have an Eastern and - at least in my case - generally Buddhist understanding of it. Enlightenment is a kind of sudden illumination, a flash of understand, a change in the way one sees the world, and everything in it. It is a transformative moment that stands at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of a long process of transformation.

I have written papers comparing and contrasting what Christians mean by salvation with what Buddhists and others mean by enlightenment; either implying or overtly stating that enlightenment more overtly belongs various non-Christian traditions, while salvation - by which I mean the workings of prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace in our lives - is the distinctly Christian concept that most closely parallels it.

In one such paper I argued that most religions are, at least in part, a human attempt to solve what I call the existential problem:

Many, most, and, perhaps all human beings have a deep-seated existential need to find some kind of “meaning” in life. Many, most, and, perhaps all people also have, related to that existential need, some kind of deep-seated feeling, often inarticulateable, that there is something “wrong.” This feeling, in the context of this quest for meaning, represents a kind of existential problem. An individual’s experience of religion, as well as the choices that an individual makes with regard to religion, may represent their way of “solving” that existential problem.

Each religion, in some way, offers up both a diagnosis of and a prescription for this problem. The diagnosis and prescription, while often offered in general terms, are expressions which are experienced, evaluated, internalized, and either accepted or rejected by the individual. One way, then, to compare and contrast, as well as evaluate the merits of various religious and spiritual expressions and traditions is to look at the way in which they diagnose and attempt to solve the basic individual human existential problem.

After outlining how both Christianity and Buddhism - in their various forms - "diagnose" and propose to "cure" this existential problem, I wrote, as an attempt to find some common ground between these very different approaches of Christian "salvation" and Buddhist "enlightenment":

But, the divide between East and West; the divide between Christianity and Buddhism, is not too great to bridge. That bridge is found in certain similarities between the Christian concept of salvation as a process (which includes Prevenient grace, Justification, and Sanctification) with a particular understanding of the Buddhist concept of enlightenment.

Just as Prevenient grace is said by the Methodists to “[awaken] in us an earnest longing for deliverance,” enlightenment is seen by Buddhists as a kind of awakening. The Buddha, after all, can mean “awakened one.” The concept of awakening, whether it is Christian or Buddhist, carries with it a notion that a big part of our problem is that we are asleep. We are dreaming. We are drifting through life without a conscious thought, without an awareness of our profound existential problem. We must be shaken from our slumber. Whether this is accomplished by the grace of God or an individual act of volition, we must awake. We must become awakened. Once we are awakened, we can become aware of our existential problem, which is fueled by our ignorance of its nature, and we can set out on the path to solving it.

Both salvation and enlightenment are processes. Sure there is, in each, a moment in which something happens. But that moment is not the only moment. And, whatever happens plays itself out in time. In time, and through time, our nature is transformed. In time and through time the conditions which gave rise to our existential problem are eliminated. This is gradual. It does not happen all at once.

and later:

Salvation and enlightenment do not, of course, describe the same thing. Salvation depends on an act of God, and concerns a soul, or a permanent self. Enlightenment does not depend on anything external, and occurs when one has a direct experience of the truth that there is no permanent self. But, both are ways in which people attempt to address their existential problem. Both are means by which the elimination of the conditions which give rise to suffering are supposed to be achieved. Both describe spiritual processes which aim to make life happier and more meaningful.

Looking back at what I've written in the past on both salvation and enlightenment, I can stand by everything that I've said. However, one assumption that lies beneath all of these words troubles me. The assumption is that "enlightenment," in some important way, stands outside the Christian tradition, or at least the language that we Christians traditionally use to describe our tradition.

This may be true in the realm of Christian theology, but a careful study of the teachings of Jesus reveals that enlightenment language was central to the mission of the one we call the Christ, the centerpiece of the Christian religion, the one who, in some important way, reveals to us the nature and concerns of God.

I'm currently working my way through Marcus Borg's newest book, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary. It is his most powerful work yet, and it constantly challenges my assumptions. In his section on the Wisdom teachings of Jesus Borg makes a familiar argument, that Jesus teaches a "narrow way" in contrast to the more conventional "broad way." Of the broad way Borg, in part in a challenge to preachers who are obsessed with conventional models of sin, writes:

Strikingly, it [the broad way that Jesus opposed - CB] was not the way of obvious wickedness - not the way of murder, stealing, extortion, brutality, abuse, corruption, and so forth. Though Jesus certainly didn't approve of these, they did not constitute the broad way. Indeed, the broad way was not even what people commonly think of as "sinful," as specific acts of disobedience to God (such as drunkenness, adultery, and so forth). The teaching of Jesus in this respect (as well as in many others) differs markedly from preaching that emphasizes the "hot sins," as some of today's evangelists do.

Rather, the broad way is the way most people live most of the time. It is not that most people are "wicked," but that most live lives structured by the conventions of their culture, by the taken-for-granted notions of what life is about and how to live, by what "everybody knows."

The "broad way," then, is the conventional way, the rote, thoughtless, mindless way. The uncritical way. The way that most of us sleepwalk through our lives. The way that can be disturbed, disrupted, broken up, by enlightenment.

Indeed, Borg sees enlightenment as not just the gift of Eastern philosophy to the world, but as central to the teachings of Jesus, if early Christian beliefs and teachings are any reflection of them.

Jesus clearly taught about blindness and sight; the blindness of conventional thought and the sight that God gives to the spiritually blind, allowing them to see everything in a new way. Of this Borg writes:

Blindness is a frequent metaphor in the teachings of Jesus. There are sighted people who are blind: "You have eyes but fail to see" (Mark 8.18; see also 4.12). Several sayings refer to this condition. As an itinerant oral teacher, he spoke most (and probably all) of these many times. Blind though sighted was a major theme of his message.

He spoke of the blind leading the blind, and the futility of doing so: "Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit?" (Like 6.39; Matt. 15.14). The saying obviously refers to sighted people. There is a smaller group (those who guide) and a larger group (those they seek to guide). Those who guide are presumably teachers or leaders; it is difficult to imagine a different referent. They could be local teachers, leaders of other movements, or official leaders such as the temple authorities and their scribes/ teachers. They are called "blind." But blindness applies not only to them, but also to the ones they seek to guide. It is a widespread condition.

Jesus, and his teachings, are seen as a cure to this blindness, a way to illuminate our habitual and conventional darkness. They give new sight to the blind. Is this not what we generally mean by enlightenment?

While in the earliest days of Christianity Easter was the central religious holiday of the young faith - the most significant holy day - in our culture Christmas has supplanted it. And, while there are more cultural than religious reasons for this, Christmas is still a significant religious holiday. And, what is the central metaphor of Christmas: The illumination of our darkness with the coming of the Christ, the Light of the World. Images of light and darkness fill Christmas. They also fill the teachings of Jesus, and some of the earliest Christian teachings concerning Jesus.

While most scholars agree that the Gospel of John does not reflect the historical Jesus, it does reflect early Christian beliefs concerning Jesus. And, Borg writes, "enlightenment is central to John's gospel," saying:

John announces it [the centrality of enlightenment - CB] in the magnificent and thematic prologue to his gospel: Jesus is "the true light, which enlightens everyone," who "was coming into the world" (1.9). Our condition is blindness being "in the dark," unable to find a way. The solution is to regain our sight, to see again, to have our eyes opened, to come into the light, to be enlightened.

The subversiveness of this metaphor - and thus the power of enlightenment language in the Christian tradition - is lost in a society in which Christianity is often the conventional way of thinking, the rote, mindless path. This is perhaps one of the many reasons that we Christians cede all enlightenment language to other religious traditions.

But when Christianity reflects conventional wisdom, it stops being Christian if by "Christian" we mean the way of the Christ. Metaphors of enlightenment, metaphors of "waking up" from our deep slumber or of gaining sight, learning a new way to see, or of having our collective yet deeply personal darkness illuminated by the unconventional wisdom of God; these metaphors are central to our Christian faith, and essential to regaining the power of our spiritual tradition.

Enlightenment - both in the sense of awakening to a deep wisdom and in the sense of having our darkness illuminated so that we can finally truly see - is Christian. It is not just Christian, but it is a vital part of our Christian heritage, and should be a part of our Christian practice. We, as Christians, should not be afraid to talk about enlightenment. And, we, as Christians, should seek to become enlightened.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

King's Reply

Having skewered my Metro Councilperson Jim King for his comments on Brooklawn, I feel that I owe it to him to post a link to his reply.

After reading what he had to say in his own defense, a couple of thoughts struck me:

While I appreciate the need to understand context when evaluating statements, and while I also appreciate that Councilperson King did not intend for his inflammatory rhetoric to become public; if you don't want the public to hear your inflammatory statements, don't make them in the first place.

When Jim King wrote in an email to a supporter of the proposed group home that the teenagers to live there "will be psychotic with a propensity for acting out sexually or violently," and that they would be "very capable of committing a sex crime against your wife and children," he at the very least acted unwisely. The best case scenario for this is that he over-heated in an argument. I suspect that this is true. However, losing one's cool does not give one license to make such reckless and inflammatory statements. Whether or not he would have ever made theses views public, there is no doubt that he held them, and that, in an argument, he stated them clearly.

At the very least he attempted to bully Brooklawn and its supporters. And, his attempt to do so backfired when they made his insensitive comments public, which they had every right to do.

That said, he may have a legitimate complaint against Brooklawn. I don't know the details of the situation, and so I can't say whether or not his claims about the "mistakes" made by Brooklawn's management are true. But, even if they are true, by his own conduct King has jeopardized his position. The moment his comments became public - and he should have known that they might get out - he gave up both the moral high ground and public sympathy.

His defense of his actions, including his statement, "Like it or not, we humans are entitled to our fears, rational or not," paint him as prejudiced, recognizing that his fears may well be unfounded, while at the same time defending them and the reactionary politics that they bring about.

But I think I've wasted enough time here attacking him. Read his defense for yourself.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Looking for Help With a New Project

I've decided (and not for the first time - let's hope it finally takes) to start working on a book. As I keep writing for this blog, I realize that part of my project here is not just to tell my own story (though that's important) or even to comment on what's happening in the world, but also (this is going to sound to grandiose, but...) to articulate a vision of religion in general, and Christianity in particular. This vision is not necessarily a new one, as it borrows from many authors and theologians. It is also not exactly my vision, as - again - it borrows from other sources, and is a continuation of a movement that neither started with me nor is limited to me.

There may be no glaring need for new books articulating this vision, as Marcus Borg, Johanna W.H van Wijk-Bos, and many other, better educated and more articulate figures are still doing better work than I will ever do. And, I am not exactly qualified to add my voice to the conversation, being neither an ordained minister nor a credentialed scholar. But, if writing this blog has done anything, it has taught me two important lessons:

1. I need to write.

I simply can't help it. I fundamentally need to write. I used to justify the amount of time I spent writing by appealing to something outside myself. The paper is due. The sermon must get prepared. But, for most of my time writing here I have been neither a student nor a minister. There have been no external demands on my time, save for those trying to pry me from my writing. Yet, with no external compulsion, and with no monetary compensation, I've still written something almost every day, and much of it ends up here.

I have an existential need to write. It is simply who I am. And my writing, whatever else it does, articulates a particular vision of religion in general and the Christian religion in particular, no less than my sermons did when I was a preacher. I may have left professional ministry, but I haven't stopped trying to minister to others by articulating a form of Christianity that rests less on believing the impossible than on having faith in the God that lies beyond all human beliefs.

2. Some people respond to my writing.

I certainly don't have the world's most popular blog. In the blogosphere - a strange social artifice, the definition of an artificial reality - I am, in fact, rather small and insignificant. I've never had a knack for self-promotion, nor can I say what most people seem to want to hear.

Life is complicated, faith is complicated, and living a life of faith in this world is, well, complicated. There are no easy answers, and even if there were, I certainly wouldn't have them. So I can't give anyone the five or twelve or twenty or two or whatever steps to enlightenment, serenity, security, salvation, and, of course, a better body.

But, for some reason, some people really do respond to what I write. There may not be very many of them, but, like me, they have all tried the easier answers and found that they were, well, light and unsatisfying. Lacking in spiritual substance, and smacking of dishonesty. As such, while I don't minister to very many people, it is quite possible that many of the people I do minister to through my writing could not be reached in more traditional ways. It's not that they aren't looking for something to satisfy their souls; it's just that they, like me, have trouble accepting arguments from authority, especially when that authority preaches the impossible while consolidating power for itself.

Don't let that fool you, however, into thinking that this blog has a primarily external focus. If anyone is being ministered to here, it's me. Here I can work through my own issues, bouncing ideas off of others who struggle with the same problems, face the same doubts, recoil from the same fears and insecurities. Ultimately this blog, is one of a very few factors that have helped me reclaim my faith, keeping me connected to my Christian roots. That's why I keep writing here.

But it isn't enough. Perhaps that's because no matter how many connections I make here, the blogosphere still feels contrived rather than organic. Sure it has its advantages: where else could I, an unemployed (again!) former pastor of one of the smallest Methodist churches in Kentucky, someone who holds no post-graduate degrees of any kind, someone who has never published a book or a paper, someone who has no right to compete for the attention of the theologically curious and spiritually hungry, connect with people from all over the world? Sure, not too many people, but people nonetheless. People who I would never have contacted in any other medium. And, people who have touched my life and helped shape my thoughts. But, no matter how much I cherish these virtual friendships, these digital connects, they somehow feel a little unreal.

This virtual reality is not very much like my daily experience of life. And, the words and thoughts that I publish here feel much less weighty that the books I read every day. Somehow the screen is not a satisfying a literary vehicle as the page. It lacks the weight, the texture, the smell, and the gloss of a book. It may be much more ecologically friendly, but it is far less romantic. And, no matter what I write here, it doesn't feel as significant as a published book.

Part of this, of course, could be the nature of the work itself. Every day I read books by some of the greatest theological and philosophic minds of any generation - classic works that not only survived the brutal publishing process, but in many cases have also stood the text of time, being checked again and again my new generations of readers, and still found enlightening. I am not fit for such rarefied air.

But part of this may also be the medium. For as functional, as pragmatic as this mode of publishing, this propagation of ideas is, it just doesn't have the weight of books. Ideas cannot be explored as deeply, arguments cannot be sustained as long. I find that, just as soon as I am really digging into the heart of an issue, I press the PUBLISH button and am finished with the topic.

So I think I'm going to try to write a book. I don't know if I can do it. Sure, I've read plenty of books, and have a good idea as to how they're structured from the reader's perspective. But that's not the same as knowing how to construct a book from the ground up, ordering disparate fragments and ideas into a coherent and cohesive whole.

I've got plenty of fragments both at this blog and on my hard drive. I've written more in the past year than could fit into a single volume. But there is a great deal more to constructing a book than just writing volumes. I'm sure of that. I'm just not exactly sure what that "great deal more" is.

My goal for this hypothetical future book is to explore some of the ideas presented at this blog more deeply, and to connect them with some overarching narrative and theological arch. The working title is Waking Up, an exploration of my argument here that

At its best religion, rather than serving as Marx's opiate for the masses, calls us out of our deep slumber, begging us to see the world all around us, and see it clearly. It calls us to identify the causes of suffering and work for its alleviation, while also waking up all those around us. This is salvation. This is enlightenment.

That is the best encapsulation I can give for any broader "project" I might have. My primary beef with the "culture wars" is that they distract from this project, getting hung up on trivial issues, fighting silly fights. They reflect an unhealthy religious concern, a fixation on the "sins" of others - "sins" which in many cases cause no tangible harm - while ignoring both the sins of self and the more public concerns, the countless causes of global suffering.

I am, of course, not by any means alone in taking that stand. Even some of the more conservative evangelicals have started to realize that corporate action has at least as much moral value as private action, and that God is perhaps a great deal more concerned about genocide and global warming than we, with our fixation on who is doing what with whom in the bedroom, have previously acknowledged.

But while this may be no new perspective, and while it may not be offered by someone with either the formal credentials of ordination or a post-graduate degree, nor by someone with the perhaps more important informal credentials of popularity and public acceptance, it is still my story. Still my project. And, since I must write, not because of any external compulsion but simply because it is what I do, I may as well find out whether or not I can write a decent book.

But, if I'm going to do this, I need your help. I've already started putting together a list of posts that I think need some additional exploration, and that may serves as part of the skeleton for this book idea. I now need your feedback. Which posts have really spoken to you; and which posts do you think are connected to the broader project of religion in general and Christianity in particular as a vehicle for the kind of "waking" up that we need to do?

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Tao of Relationships

[note: This is one of the two papers mentioned here. At some point in the future I may post excerpts from the other one, or perhaps an edited version that isn't quite so long. Even I have my limits!]

While Western philosophy historically tends to be primarily theoretical, aiming to uncover the fundamental nature of things, Chinese philosophy is historically very practical. Rather than being concerned with a never-ending quest to discover the underlying substance of the universe, it simply seeks out how one should live. If Western philosophy is characterized by a search for Reality, then Chinese philosophy is characterized by an attempt to regain Harmony. If the determining factor of the validity of a Western philosophic system is its consistent adherence to Logic, then the validity of a Chinese philosophy is found in the way in which it impacts the lives of those who adhere to it.

Chinese philosophy, at its core, is concerned with the well-being of the individual, and the recovery of harmony in relationships. These relationships concern the dynamic interaction of people with other people; but they also concern the dynamic interaction between Heaven and Earth, as well as the interaction of humans with Heaven and with Earth. In all of these, both for the benefit of the organic whole as well as for the well-being of the individual, harmony must be regained and maintained.

Chinese philosophy is preoccupied with the quest for harmonizing relationships. In part this is because the Chinese culture has long understood that while we may experience life as individuals, no individual exists in isolation. No one is truly self-sufficient, and so any quest for happiness in life that does not primarily concern itself with bringing harmony to relationships is doomed to failure. Simply put, one cannot be fully content if one’s life is characterized by relational discord, either with other people or even with the natural environment.

The Taoist/Laoist school of Chinese philosophy is then, like all ancient schools of Chinese philosophy, concerned with harmonizing relationships. And while the main Taoist text, the Tao Te Ching may be interpreted in many ways, an interpretation of it which does not address the way in which it may be used to help bring harmony to relationships is, no matter how scholarly, incomplete. It is true that to read the Tao Te Ching as exclusively, or even primarily, a handbook for the relationally challenged does not do justice to the text. It is, after all, a very complex book with many levels of meaning. But, the fact remains that principles taken from the Tao Te Ching, when applied to relationships, even and especially in the modern West, can revolutionize the way that we interact with often infuriating loved ones.

Relationships, and, particularly committed, romantic relationships, can be both the source of a great deal of happiness as well as the biggest obstacle to true happiness. While it is often maintained that love and hate are opposites, it can truly be stated that in romance they exist side by side. Anyone who has been in love can testify that our experience of love is a complex bundle of emotions, often flying from ecstasy to infuriation in 5.2 seconds or less. Those for whom we care most deeply are, by virtue of the powerful emotional bond of love, the only people that can truly drive us insane.

This truth is not primarily a theoretical truth; it is practical, and experiential. But, the theoretical groundwork for it is laid in the Tao Te Ching (chapter 36 of Michael Lafargue’s translation), in the notion that the dynamic interaction of Yin and Yang (“the Two”) gave rise to the natural world (“the thousands of things”). This notion, along with many other Taoist notions, implies that nothing exists singularly; it is accompanied by an opposite. Strength and weakness arise together; if we do not know one we do not know the other. Knowledge and ignorance arise together; if we have no knowledge of one, we have no knowledge of the other. The same is true of all opposites – they arise in pairs. Good and bad, male and female, full and empty, hard and soft, movement and stillness; all of these are pairs of opposites who only appear together. If there is no knowledge of one, there is no knowledge of the other. The same is true of love and hate. It is hate that teaches us love, and love that teaches us hate. And, if we spend enough time with one we love, we will learn to hate them. If we spend enough time trying to understand one we hate, we will learn to love them.

And so the biggest obstacle to harmony in relationships might be our attempt to define love and hate as mutually exclusive opposites, instead of realizing the truth that they arise together out of the power of an emotional, relational bond. Rather, then, than seeing the moments that hate is manifest in loving relationships as static moments (and so defining the relationship as characterized by hate rather than love), we should appreciate the powerful, dynamic interaction of love and hate in our relationships as an integral part of the relationship. Hate can serve as evidence of love.

This is all well and good in theory, but, by being a theory it fails, so far, to be an embodiment of ancient Chinese philosophy. Chinese philosophy is pragmatic; any theory which cannot be acted on, or any theory that is harmful to act on, is a bad theory. Again, the value of a philosophy is not found in the beauty or logic of the theory, but rather in its practice. So, while it may be “true” to state that hate and love arise together as a pair of opposites, in what way does this knowledge affect our ability to relate to loved ones, and how can this knowledge be constructively applied to our relationships? I believe that other parts of the Tao Te Ching, while again not primarily concerned with interpersonal relationships, can shed some light on this. And so, at the risk of systematizing a book that is decidedly not systematic, I propose that there are a series of Taoist values that can help bring harmony to love/hate relationships.

The first such value concerns the individual. Simply put, the Tao Te Ching says, “Be yourself!” Act out of your own nature instead of trying to adapt yourself to externally imposed expectations. Chapter 11 of Lafargue’s translation sets up a kind of gradation of values; first Tao (Being itself), the Te (Being individualized in a person), and, from there, Goodness, Morality, and Etiquette. This implies that rather than conforming to society’s expectations (even though those expectations include Goodness, Morality and Etiquette); first and foremost one ought to simply Be. Do not allow who you are to be determined by something external to yourself. Do not allow yourself to be molded by “improvement plans.” If you are truly you, there is nothing wrong with you.

Knowledge of this brings security to relationships. Often the biggest source of conflict in a relationship can be one person in the relationship truly lacking their own identity. They seek to find their identity in the context of the relationship, by conforming to the expectation of another. The more they conform the more they realize that they are not really being themselves, and so they begin to resent the relationship, and their partner. Someone who is secure in their own identity does not need a relationship to define them. So, they will be able to approach the relationship as a whole, healthy person, and appreciate their partner as a whole, healthy person, without placing on them the burden of expectations, and without trying to conform them to their own plans.

This is the second Taoist value that applies to relationships. Just as you should be yourself, you should allow your partner to be themselves. Taoism is always suspicious of moral “improvement” projects. Your partner is not broken, and so they do not need to be fixed. Your partner is not deficient, and so does not need to be improved. Chapter 62 of Lafargue’s translation of the Tao Te Ching says that “The world is a spirit-thing, it can’t be ‘worked’ on,” a fact that, while probably intended to apply to the relationship between rulers and their subjects, easily transfers over to interpersonal relationships. That chapter goes on to say that “One who works ruins/ one who grasps loses.” In the context of a relationship, any attempt to “work on” your partner will not help the relationship. Any attempt to “improve” them will not improve the relationship. It will only undermine trust and communication, two keys to healthy relationships.

Of course, even in a committed, loving relationship between two people who are very much themselves, conflict is inevitable. The key to a healthy relationship, then, is not to try to eliminate conflict altogether (which is impossible), but rather to make sure that the conflict is not too destructive. In other words, in a relationship, don’t be afraid to fight (you’ll fight anyway); rather, when you fight, fight fairly. Chapter 8 of Lafargue’s translation says that “Sincere words are not elegant/ elegant words are not sincere./ Excellence is not winning arguments/ winning arguments is not excellent.” So often, because people are not secure in themselves, when they fight in their relationships, rather than fighting fairly and naturally they fight to manipulate and win. But manipulation (by the use of “elegant words”) only undermines trust, and it does no good to “win” a fight if, by doing so, you lose a relationship.

Just as conflict is inevitable in a relationship, so are problems. The most difficult task in life may be to live with another person, or to be constantly around another person. No matter how much you love that person, you will not always see eye to eye. You may do something to hurt them, or they may do something to hurt you (or, most likely, a combination of the two will occur), but, no matter what, things will not always go smoothly. So, finally, the Tao Te Ching teaches the universal truth that small problems are relatively easy to solve, but big problems are big trouble (Chapters 71 and 72 of Lafargue’s translation). The best “solutions” are the least drastic. To this end, communication is the key to problem solving. If something happens that bothers you, communicate your feelings to the other person. Do not blame them, or try to change them, but rather, simply and honestly present them with the “problem.” Then, through open and honest dialogue in which neither side tries to manipulate the other side, and neither person aims to win, you can, together, work out a simple solution.

Love and hate, like all opposites, according to the Tao Te Ching, arrive in pairs. Those you love, you hate. The key to a healthy relationship is to understand this. Understanding this, you can be free to be yourself, allow your partner to be themselves, fight fairly, and solve problems while they are still solvable. And, knowing this, you can resist the temptation to view the relationship as static. If you see your relationship as static, you will become dismayed when it, at times, tends toward hate. But, if you appreciate the dynamic interplay of love and hate you will no longer need to hold on to your expectations for the other person, and actually experience a healthy relationship.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Five Things You Might Not Know About Me

Liam, who is getting married(!!!), has tagged me with a new meme. I'm to come up with 5 things you don't know about me. Given how much I've told about myself already at this blog, that might be an impossible task. If you've been here very long you probably know more about me than I know about myself. But here goes. These are the Five Things You Might Not Know About Me:

1. I flunked out of school... TWICE!

I was a marginal high school student. I was identified as "gifted" in elementary school, and was part of a special program, but by middle school I was bored to death with school. By the end of high school I was as likely to skip as to show up for class. I graduated high school with a 2.7 GPA, and that was inflated by honors classes, which were weighted.

I started college with no plan or direction, and quickly learned that it was easier not to go to class. I spent my first year of college playing pick up games of basketball and chess, and talking philosophy and religion with anyone who would listen. I failed all but one of my classes.

I took (mandatory) semester off, on academic suspension, before enrolling in a community college, where once again I flunked out. That was when I learned that I have...

2. An anxiety disorder.

When my stress levels get high, I am nearly paralyzed with anxiety. I have panic episodes that feel like heart attacks, and I can't perform even the most basic social functions. I've been in counselling off and on, but it has never helped. I have gradually learned how to control my symptoms through meditation and redirecting my thoughts. Also, living in the emotionally stable environment my wife provides helps. It is no coincidence that, before I met her I flunked out of two colleges, and after we married I was an honor student who had all A's until his final semester, when Adam was born. For some reason having a brand new baby in the house distracted me a little, leading to *gasp* a B! [shudders in horror]

3. I've always dreamed of being an actor.

I took acting classes in high school and college, and have done some acting for churches. I'm pretty good, but not good enough. I can read well, and I can capture the depth of the lines with my voice, but my body doesn't move like it should. I'm a little too stiff and a little too awkward. My college drama teacher thought that I should try to make it as an actor, and even offered me a chance to compete for a drama scholarship, but at the time I was focused on ministry. Now I realize that, even in the extraordinarily unlikely event that I could make a living as an actor, it would be a hard living. It is easy to dream of a life in theater, but I can't think of anything romantic about starving.

What acting skills I have came in handy when I was a preacher. Now they help when I give lectures for our Wednesday Evening Forums at church, and I'm sure they'll also help when I finally finish with school and get to pretend to teach.

4. While I was a student at Indiana University Southeast, I became the first philosophy major to win the school-wide IUS Writing Competition, previously dominated by those dreaded English majors.

I won first prize in the Short Non-Fiction/ Creative Non Fiction category for a paper I wrote in my Ancient Chinese Philosophy course, titled The Tao of Relationships, an exploration of how Taoist principles can inform our interpersonal relationship skills. Despite my odious habit of posting old papers here, I don't think it has ever shone its face on my blog. Perhaps I'll have to post it the next time I can't think of anything to write, but really feel the need to write something.

5. The paper that I am most proud of was the product of an independent study in Modern Black Literature.

I've long loved jazz music, and so I used one of my electives in college to take a course in African American Music History. I loved that so much that I decided to meet my degree's literature requirement with a summer course on Modern Black Writers. The first day of class I found myself surrounded by black women, so I started up a conversation with them. It eventually turned to Negro spirituals, and their influence on American music. One of the women said, noticing my wedding ring, "I assume you married a Sister," to which I replied something like, "Well, not your sister, anyway." She then said, "You mean your wife's not black!?! Then why do you know so much about our people?"

I don't know that I do know very much about black people or the black experience, but the notion that because I am white I shouldn't care about any other race bothered me. I know that we often give that appearance. We often see races and cultures in competition with each other. This is one of the reasons, I suspect, why so many of us fear immigration so much. If those people come here and do well, what will happen to us? But I firmly believe that we are all radically interconnected and interdependent, and so I can't separate my fate from the fate of another. This also applies to races and cultures.

Anyway, I loved the class, and wrote some good papers on it. One of them concerned John Edgar Wideman's use of language in his book Hoop Roots. When my teacher returned the paper to me, there was a note on it, asking if I would be interested in expanding the paper, and trying to get it published.

I stayed after class to talk with her about the note, and she said, "I don't do independent studies. Students have asked, and I always say 'no.' But I'd like to do an independent study with you. I'd love to help you explore the thesis of this paper, and see if you can get it published. This is an interesting idea, and nobody is writing on it."

Obviously I did the independent study. You don't turn down an offer like that. The end result was pretty good, but not quite publishable. My lack of experience in literary criticism shows a little, I think. I never tried to get it published. I was pretty sure tat I bluffed my way through, and didn't want to be exposed for the fraud I thought I was.

I finally re-read the paper last week, following a conversation with at church. I'm about to co-lead a series of discussions titled Marching Toward Equality: Issues in Race, Culture, Education, and Economics, and some of the issues raised in a planning session reminded me of questions I asked in my paper. The paper was better than I remembered it being. For a white guy whose never really studied literary criticism, it was damn good. Now I think that I probably could have gotten it published.

It's always good to stretch yourself, to go beyond your field, beyond your experience, beyond even your expectations. That's how you grow. I've done better work, I'm sure, in philosophy and theology, but I never would have guess that I could write such an interesting paper on a black author's use of language.

If it weren't 19 pages, I think I'd post it here.

Tyler's Inferno

I just went to Habakkuk's Watchpost and saw that there was a fire in Tyler's building. Follow the link and leave a message of support.

The good news is that his apartment is intact, only suffering some smoke damage and other inconveniences. Others, however, were not so fortunate. Those who pray, please remember to pray for this situation.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

On Knowing God

[note: While these ideas have been bouncing around in my head for more than a year and a half, the genesis of this post is a conversation at Habakkuk's Watchpost. Much of the material here is copied and pasted from my comments there. After I left those original comments at Habakkuk's Watchpost, the topic came up again at Guy Sonntag's blog As Light Excels Darkness, in a conversation about Anselm's ontological argument.]

I have written before about the ultimate impossibility of knowing anything about God. God is a mystery to us, beyond the bounds of our knowledge. Yet, as has been pointed out to me by many Christians and other theists - as well as non-theists (perhaps a better term than atheist), at the heart of my religion is the notion that God has been made known to us. If we are to take the Christian doctrine of Incarnation seriously, God is not just mysterious, but also revealed through the person of Jesus.

There is a great distance between those two claims:

1. God is mysterious, and as such the nature of God cannot be known, and

2. God has been made known to us through God's self-revelation, and especially in Jesus.

Our faith, then, teaches apparently contradictory things: the impossibility of knowing God, and the experiential and incarnational reality of knowing God.

Perhaps we can make sense of this by distinguishing between two kinds of knowledge, or two ways of "knowing God": personal, and propositional.

Propositional knowledge is, as you might guess, the set of knowable, true propositions concerning an object. When we speak of the mysterious, unknowable nature of God, I suspect what we really mean that we do not have access to this set of propositions concerning God.

And, perhaps, it doesn't even make sense to speak of such propositions concerning God, since propositional knowledge concerns an object, and it makes no sense to speak of God in any literal sense as an object.

So, it makes perfect sense to say that we can have no propositional knowledge concerning God. It makes perfect sense to say that we cannot make any true statements about the nature of God, since a true statement would be a part of the content of propositional knowledge.

But, does this threaten the kind of knowledge - to the extent that we can call it knowledge - concerning God that is the subject of God's self disclosure, both through revelation and incarnation? If we posit a totally different category of knowledge, then no, I think that it does not.

Personal knowledge is knowledge of, rather than about, a person. To say, for instance, that I know my wife is to say something categorically different than to say that I can articulate true statements about my wife - even if you aren't reading the King James Bible. It is to say that I have intimate, relational knowledge of the person of my wife. Such knowledge may never be summed up by any proposition.

I submit that, to the extent that we can say that we know God, we mean something much more like this. We do not mean that we can articulate certain truths concerning God, but rather that we have had some kind of encounter with the person of God.

Is this not the heart of the incarnation, that somehow God became present to us? Not that in Jesus we gain access to true statements about God, but rather that, in the person of Jesus, in some mysterious way we glimpse the person of God. Not that Jesus literally is God, but that God becomes present to us in the person of Jesus, revealing part of the nature, will, and concerns of God.

And, what if we expand the concept of incarnation beyond the person of the historical Jesus, the founding figure of our faith? What if we say that, in some very real way, we experience the person of God all around us? We are still speaking of God's self disclosure, but once again we are not speaking of any propositional content. Again, to know God, either through revelation or incarnation (a kind of supreme revelation) is to gain relation access to the person of God, rather than to obtain some sort of propositional knowledge concerning God.

As such, God, in the Christian tradition, is the knowable mystery. We know God, even as we know nothing concerning God. God's nature remains beyond the bounds of our knowledge, but God's person is made known to us.

Question(s) for discussion: If you buy this distinction between kinds of knowledge, and if you think that they apply to our understanding of and relationship with God (that is, if you think that we can know God personally, but not propositionally), then how does this inform our theological projects? What can we say, and what can't we say? And, what sorts of questions can and should we ask?

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Politics of Fear

Sorry to offer two "news stories" in the same morning, but this little bit of fear mongering demanded a response.

My first job in Louisville, and my last job before entering professional ministry, was as a 3rd Shift Residential Counsellor at Brooklawn Youth Services (now called Brooklawn Child and Family Services), a home for abused boys. The thirteen months that I worked there are among the most difficult of my life. I worked from midnight to 8 am, watching over the boys as they slept, cleaning the facilities, summarizing and filing paperwork, cooking breakfast, and walking the boys through their morning routine. I slept only 3 to 4 hours a day during the week, catching up on my sleep by sleeping 20 or so consecutive hours on my days off.

But it was also a great time. I moved to Louisville to live closer to Sami - we started officially dating right after I moved, though we saw each other a great deal before the move - and to be nearer to the church where I first started working with teenagers. One of my closest friends was a Youth Minister, and he talked me into helping him out on the weekends. I was a rail-thin 21 year old, with wild red hair and a goatee, looking just like Shaggy from Scooby Doo. In fact, that Youth Group called me Shaggy, and called the big red van that I drove there every weekend the Mystery Machine.

I loved working with the boys at Brooklawn. While they had a great many issues, they were also endearing. They often felt powerless, out of control of their lives, moved around by powerful adults who couldn't always be trusted. But they rewarded the time and effort that you invested in them, especially if you listened to them like they might actually have something worth saying. I started reading the Harry Potter novels because it gave me something to talk to them about, something to share with them.

My last job at Brooklawn was in a Group Home just off the main campus, in a house along Goldsmith Lane, the main street that ran through the neighborhood. The boys in that house had all made tremendous strides in their lives. They had each been in some way abused. Most of them had been removed from their homes and placed in the care of the state. Many of them were looking for foster placements, or better still, adoptive families. They had all gone through several levels of the Brooklawn program, earning more freedom and responsibility. Most had been successfully transitioned from Brooklawn's campus school to the local public schools, and many of them were starting to succeed in school, taking pride in their accomplishments. They were breaking a terrible cycle.

Most abusers were abused themselves, and many people who were abused as children grow up to abuse others. It is a learned behavior that is terribly difficult to unlearn. Violence is a kind of language, a form of communication that is used when more constructive communications fail or break down. For the abused, it is their native language, taught to them by their parents. Brooklawn taught many of the boys that I worked with a new language to replace their earlier maladaptive one. These boys learned how to express themselves constructively and creatively. I was proud to work with them.

The link at the top of this post is to an article in this morning's Louisville Courier Journal, detailing the political battle over a proposed expansion of Brooklawn's services. Brooklawn owns property off Newburg Road, and would like to turn it into a Group Home for 16 to 18 year old boys who have completed their treatment at Brooklawn but have nowhere to go. It would be a kind of transitional housing, designed to help the kids move back into the community and either find jobs or go to college. It is one of the boldest proposals I have seen, and solves a real problem that I noticed while I worked at Brooklawn.

So many kids who move from residential treatment programs back into the world at large find themselves unable to cope, and eventually wind up back in the residential treatment program. Often when they leave campus they are put either right back into the violent situation that they left, or into a placement that can be unwilling or unable to meet their unique needs. In many cases they simply have nowhere to go, and are bounced from foster home to foster home.

The proposed expansion of Brooklawn's services may well address this critical hole in the system, giving kids a safe place to live in their transition back into the broader community, and surrounding them with others who have been through what they've been through, and can act as an understanding support group.

My Metro Councilman, Democrat Jim King, doesn't see it this way. He has characterized the children who might live in this Group Home as "psychotic," and as potential sex offenders. He has also threatened a rhetorical "nuclear war" if Brooklawn doesn't drop their proposal. He is using his clout, and a politics of fear, to try to bully a venerable institution into dropping an excellent treatment program, and the only motive I can see is greed. He owns property near the proposed Group Home, and is afraid that it might harm his property value.

To the substance of King's claims, I must simply say that they have no correspondence to reality. First off, the children in the group home would be supervised by Brooklawn staff, so this is hardly the Lord of the Flies scenario that he is describing to inflame the community. Secondly, the children are by no means "psychotic." Yes, Brooklawn's main campus does have a Psychiatric Residential Treatment Program, but that is totally separate from the Group Home. And, as for the potential for violence and sex crimes, King overlooks that Brooklawn already operates Group Homes in another neighborhood, and there have been no such problems in those homes. There is no reason to think this new home would be any different, especially as the older Group Homes have children still undergoing treatment, while the new home is designed for older boys who have already completed their treatment.

But what sickens me more than King's opposition to the proposed Group Home is the spiteful spirit behind it, as manifest in his words and actions. He has actively worked against other local lawmakers who have fought to restore $2,000,000 of state funding that was cut from Brooklawn, failing to appreciate the valuable service provided by those who treat abused children. Such pitiful short-sightedness fails to recognize that it is in our communities best interests to treat abused and neglected boys while they are still young, breaking the cycle of abuse, neglect, and violent crime.

King attacks those with mental health needs with the same vitriol, the same politics of fear, that are used by the religious right against gays and lesbians. Demonizing the "other" may be a great way to get the fearful and reactionary vote, but it is a lousy way to govern. In emails to supporters he has vowed to "make every effort to impede Brooklawn's success," and has characterized the children there as "very capable of committing a sex crime against your wife and children." Such fear mongering has no place in public discourse, and those who engage in it are not fit to serve.

King has called for a protest on Brooklawn's campus, prompting Brooklawn's director, David Graves, to say, "To me, it's cruel to think children who've already been rejected time and time again would be subject to a group of people coming on campus and telling them they're not wanted."

King's bullying tactics have led fellow Metro Council Representative Tom Burch to say, "Who in their right mind in politics would attack children who have been abused?"

Both of these comments are, if anything, understated. I've voted for Jim King in the past two elections. I'll never make that mistake again. May he soon find himself out of work.

Creationist Museum Built in Kentucky

Tomorrow I start a new Forum series at church, on the Creation Myths of Ancient Israel found in the first two chapters of Genesis. As you can probably imagine, I will focus on understanding these myths in their historic, cultural, textual and linguistic contexts. However, I will also focus on understanding them in their literary context.

I say literary context because so often we fail to account for literary genre when we read sacred works. In this sense, Biblical literalism fails to be literal. Simply put, you don't read a particular work literally if you read it without an eye to its genre; you simply misread it. And no texts have been misread like the Creation Myths of Ancient Israel found in Genesis.

For the penultimate example of this misreading, check this out. Reflecting the confusing hodge-podge of myth and science that is Creationism, Ken Ham, an Australian transplant and Biblical "literalist," has built a museum in Petersburg, KY, designed to depict a "Biblically correct" view of history.

I'd say something more about this if I weren't stunned into speechlessness.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Juxtapose These Posts

A couple of days ago I read this post by Dagoods at Debunking Christianity. While he is an atheist and I am a Christian, I often finding my self saying a quiet Amen! after reading some of his posts. He and I, you see, share a pet project: bringing charity back into conversation.

In his most recent post he laments the lack of charity that Christians (and probably other theists as well) bring to their conversations with atheists. He rightly notes that when a Christian asks, "Why are you a atheist?", they are, rather than actually asking a question as an appeal for information, simply opening the conversational door, so that they can inform the atheist of the real reason for their position, their true motives.

Just as I attack broad, overarching functionalistic theories of religion - whether it be the evolutionary approach of E.O. Wilson, or the psychoanalytic approach of Freud, or the sociological approach of Durkheim, or any of the others - he is offended by that same trend in Christian (and probably other theists) approaches to his own atheism. What each of these approaches have in common is a refusal to treat a phenomenon as it presents itself. Rather, they must seek to insert that phenomenon into their broader world view. While to a certain extent we must all do this - we each organize the data presented to us by our sense perceptions, fitting it into some larger narrative so that we can then understand us; this is the nature of reflection - we must also remain aware of the limitations of this approach. It is quite possible that a new piece of information may not, in fact, fit into the narrative we use to describe our experience of the world. Phenomena not only confirm our world view; they sometimes discomfirm it.

Being open minded means understanding that your beliefs are not always right. It means constantly testing your beliefs against the available information. This is important when conversing with others, especially when they don't share your most basic assumptions.

This morning I read this post by Asbury Theological Seminary's Ben Witherington. In it he attacks the "Angry Apostles of Atheism," a marvelously alliterative phrase that also describes a real and distressing development. Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and their ilk - the advancing public face of atheism - understand very little about religion, yet feel qualified to pontificate wildly on the dangers of it, explaining the real reason people are religious with the same arrogance that religious people use to try to explain away atheism. At no point do they ever attempt to apply any sort of interpretive charity to the subject. The phenomena of religious belief and devotion are not a part of the mental narratives of their lives, so they must, of necessity, be stupid, foolish, and dangerous. They are, as such, incapable of noticing the wide variety of religious experiences and expression, nor can they bring any nuance into the discussion. They are simply dogmatists, attacking religion with the same fervor that fundamentalists attack the evils of "secularism."

Witherington identifies certain hypocritical problems in this form of aggressive atheism - a form of atheism that I see all too often in the comments at Debunking Christianity, and in posts by some of the bloggers there. (This is by no means to say that everyone at Debunking Christianity participates in this problem, or I wouldn't waste my time going there almost every day!) However, I'm afraid he fails to notice some of the same tendencies in himself.

When he builds up constructive arguments for the value and validity of religious experience, when he demonstrates that not all Christians are ignorant fools, or when he attacks the arrogant dogmatism of certain atheistic assumptions, Witherington offers us a valuable service. However, much like those who frequently ask Dagoods why he is an atheist, only to answer their own question, when Witherington offers his own sweeping assertions about the nature of atheism he not only fails to distinguish between the many forms of atheism, but he also exercises some serious intellectual hubris.

When he says things like

Yes, friends you see, fundamentalism is not in the end a position on the arc of the religious or theological spectrum. It is a mindset that can be embraced by conservatives or liberals, true believers or atheists. It is what Bloom complained about when he bemoaned 'the closing of the American mind'. It has to do not merely with the lust for certainty, though that is a crucial component, but also the actual belief that you have found that absolute certainty such that faith is no longer required, it has become unassailable knowledge.

He is dead on, not only instructive but even helpful. However, when he says

But at the end of the day, it does seem probable to me that atheists like Dawkins are in denial about God, because they are in fact in denial about their own nature and condition-- created in God's image. It is of course galling to human pride to discover that one is not a self-made person. It is galling to learn that one owes one's very existence to another outside of the oneself. And it is most galling of all to learn that that Person is not merely one of one's parents, but in fact one's heavenly parent, the Creator. It has been said that one cannot know who one is, unless one knows whose one is-- 'little lamb who made thee' asked William Blake. And here in lies the rub for atheists. They cannot truly learn who they are, and the very nature of human existence without knowing their Maker. When one learns whose one is, one learns who one is.

he assumes that the atheist position comes from a kind of existential dishonesty. While this may be the case for some atheists - each of us, to a certain extent, is guilty of a little existential dishonesty, a refusal to believe the truth about ourselves - many atheists that I know personally are, far from being in any kind of denial, actually a great deal more honest with themselves than many religious people.

Atheism, from the atheist perspective, doesn't come from extreme hubris or a willingness to deny the most fundamental truths about one's self and one's position in the universe, any more than religious belief and devotion, from the religious perspective, comes from ignorance, superstition, or the need for cosmic paternalism. If we are to truly understand each other, and as such live in a peaceful society, we have to meet each other where we are, quick to listen, slow to speak, and especially slow to become angry or assume the worst about another.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

New Sidebar Item, Plus Additional Tagging

The more I visit blogs like Debunking Christianity, blog devoted to debating a single topic or set of topics, the more thankful I am that by and large this blog has been free of the sort of rancor which characterizes discussions in our culture, and especially in this strange artificial social environment we call the blogosphere. So often, both in "real life" and in this virtual milieu, conversations are decidedly polemical, with two definite sides, the "right" side and the "wrong" side. Of course, who is right and who is wrong depends in most cases entirely on perspective. Since we so rarely share the perspective of the "other," our foolish, stupid, misguided, deluded, or just plain evil debate partner, they must a priori be "wrong," just as we undoubtedly seem equally wrong.

This sense of our being "right" and the other being "wrong" as I said is a priori, in that it starts even before the discussion begins. Before any dialogue on any subject, all parties generally begin with a list of beliefs or statements that are "right" and a list of statements and beliefs that are "wrong." Discussion, rather than the meeting of minds and the melding of ideas, becomes both a test and a battle ground. A test, in that each partner in the discussion is looking for particular statements and replies, which signal agreement and acceptance or disagreement and rejection. A battle ground, in that, in the event of disagreement, conflict ensues. This conflict is not a wrestling against yourself to make sure that you fully understand what the other is saying; rather it is a wrestling against the words of the other, which are a priori seen as "wrong."

I say this not to say that all beliefs or ideas are created equal, and have an equal measure of merit, worth, and especially truth-value. Some claims are true, some claims are false. Some ideas are helpful, some ideas are harmful. Rather, I say this to lament the quality of our exchanges, and to lament the arrogance of our clinging to our perspectives. Just because some ideas are true does not mean that my idea, prior to any critical engagement, is necessarily true. Just because some ideas are harmful does not mean that they ideas which contradict my own, by virtue of my disagreeing with them, are necessarily harmful.

Discussion, real discussion, when it happens, serves to expand my perspective. It serves to help me understand other views, and see that not all of my intuitions are universal; not all of my ideas stand up to scrutiny. It also serves to let me know that people who do not share my deepest assumptions are neither evil nor stupid; they are simply not me. But, like me, they also value both the truth and the good, even if we do not always agree what those elusive qualities might be.

Because of the persistence of rancor in blog debates - debates which should be discussions but instead devolve into partisan bickering and polemical warfare - I've added a new section to my sidebar, titled Ground Rules for Discussion. In it you will find a link to my post, A Note on Charity. In the event that a polemical debate ever makes it way to this fair blog, that should prove a useful resource.

On a totally different subject, meme tagging is increasingly like Congressional subpoenas: just because you were overlooked in the first round does not mean that you will escape it. I've decided to issue a new batch of subpoenas - oops, I mean tags - for the Best Contemporary Theology Meme. The whole cast of Habakkuk's Watchpost, consider yourselves tagged. Especially Tyler, Ben, and Kyle. I can't wait to see what you guys come up with.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Best Contemporary Theology Meme

Patrik tagged me with his new Best Contemporary Theology Meme, and as I am powerless to resist the call of the blogosphere, here's my best offering on an impossible subject:

I can't pretend to be an expert on any subject, but if I were it would definitely not be contemporary theology as Patrik has defined it. When I read Christian theology, anyway, I read mostly dead Germans. So it was a bit of a challenge to come up with three (or more) theological works from the past twenty five years. Despite evidence to the contrary (like this huge post), I've spent most of the day thinking this over, and I've come up with two sets of three books, with a surprising four of the six coming from Christianity, and no Buddhist books (the other two are Jewish).

The first set is my original answer. The second set contains mostly lesser known books that I wish everyone would read. So, (finally!) here goes:


The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, by Marcus Borg

Perhaps some "experts" may scoff at the first book here being written for a general audience, but what I love about Borg is just that: he writes for the people in the pews. You can't say that your theology is very "influential" if it takes two or three specialized degrees to read it. Additionally, this book, which makes a sharp distinction between faith and belief, is one of a handful of books that kept me firmly within the Christian tradition as my own theology was shifting so violently in the months that followed my departure from professional ministry.

Anyone who reads this blog very often knows what Borg's work means to me, so any additional explanation for including this at the top of the list would merely repeat ad nauseum what I've already written on Borg.

The Body of God: An Ecological Theology, by Sallie McFague

All you need to know about this selection can be found in this post. If you want to know my opinion of the broader project of the book, rather than the problems I have with the 17 or so pages that seek to define "sin," see the first part of the post. This is simply the most creative re-interpretations of Incarnation that I've seen, and it really helped me come to terms with what I mean when I say that God is made incarnate. Because I certainly don't mean that you should confuse the person of Jesus of Nazareth with the Godhead.

I guess, then, what Borg and McFague have in common is that they have helped me understand incarnation absent the belief that God literally became a human being; a belief that I consider both logically and physically impossible. But, neither of them did it in a negative way. Neither of them came out swinging at the traditional concept of Incarnation. Rather, they each creatively explored the non-literal implications of a classic Christian teaching.

Theologie im Aufbruch, by Hans Kung (published in English as Theology for the Third Millennium: An Ecumenical View)

This could be the magnum opus of postmodern Christian theology, and deserves a better treatment than the cursory overview I'll give it here. It is, like all good Kung books, a cross between systematic theology and critical history. Kung sees history and theology as tied to each other, with our theological ideas as both shaping and shaped by history.

That is, theological ideas are both products of their historical settings, and shapers of future historical settings. They are then both historical and trans-historical, and Kung often devotes a great deal of time and energy exploring both.

This particular work is almost a reinterpretation of systematic Christian theology for a postmodern setting. It looks at historical developments, theological problems, and the historical development of theological problems and conflicts, and watches a new kind of Christianity emerge. To say more would risk butchering Kung. It is the most ambitious read on the list.


Do No Harm: Social Sin and Christian Responsibility, by Stephen G. Ray, Jr.

While Ray taught at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary just before I arrived there for my first tour of duty (my ill-fated stint as an M.Div. student) I have never met him, and don't know anything about him except that he wrote this excellent exploration of Christian social ethics. It looks at the moral value of speaking about sin, an issue that had never occurred to me. Ray argues that our concepts of sin and the language that we couch them in have moral value in and of themselves, and have often been used to do a great deal of harm. He then takes the reader on a brief jaunt through a brief selected history of the language of sin, before then trying to redeem "sin-talk."

The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations, by Jonathan Sacks

I first wrote about this book, a past winner of the Grawmeyer Award, here, and then gave the book a more full treatment here. I don't have much to add to what I wrote about it in December of 2005. Rabbi Sacks wrote a powerful, and powerfully conservative, treatment of how Jews can be faithful to their own tradition while still honoring the traditions of others. It is the perfect antidote to the hostility which so often characterizes what has come to be known as the "clash of civilizations." It is also the easiest read on the list, and highly recommended to general audiences.

Ending Auschwitz: The Future of Jewish and Christian Life, by Marc H. Ellis

This is another book that has already made its way into my blog, here and here. Both posts concern Columbus Day, which is not a surprise given that Ellis links 1492 with Auschwitz. However, his linking the two is not just a metaphor for Christian domination, imperialism, oppression, and anti-Semitism, though, of course, those figure into his work. Rather, he primarily uses this link as a path to Jewish-Christian solidarity, arguing that most Christians are, like Jews, victims of Christian oppression and imperialism. That is because Christianity is growing fastest in the lands of Christian conquest.

It is now a mistake to see the face of Christianity as that of a white European or European-American. Most Christians can now be found in the developing world - an area that has been exploited, oppressed, and colonized by the "Christian" world. As such, most Christians are literally the victims of Christian imperialism and expansionism, and as such have a great deal in common with Jews through history.

Ahh... Now it’s all over but the tagging. So, who do I want to tag? Let's see...

Brian Cubbage, if you're still out there somewhere in the blogosphere, I'm calling you out. (And, if not I'll just have to drop by your house and extract your answer from you in person.)

In addition to Brian, I'm also tagging:

Amy, PamBG, and Crystal.

You're it!

Time keeps tickin' like a melancholy friend...

Time keeps tickin' like a melancholy friend
Ticks the beginning and the middle and the end
But if I close my eyes and just pretend
There is shelter in this song
Like a river flowin' home...

Yesterday marked the one year anniversary of the death of Alvine Clausen, my wife's grandmother, and the woman who raised her. (To see more about Alvine, and why she was so special to us, please read these two posts: Goodnight, Dear Saint, and Bookends.) Last night, Sami's mother - who lived with Alvine for the last two decades of her life - came over for dinner, not wanted to spend this anniversary alone. We never directly mentioned Alvine, though through three people who were shaped by both her genes and her presence in their lives (if you're keeping score at home, Adam is the third, having more in common with his maternal great grandmother than he is ever likely to notice) her memory filled our time together.

Death, and the remembrance of it, always leads me to meditate on the nature of time. For me, in a very existential way, death and time have been forever linked. I remember as a little kid, running circles around my bedroom, unable to sleep late at night, running from the specter of the inexorable passing of time and the inevitability of death. It is time that links the three sufferings first noticed by the Buddha as he snuck out of the shelter of his father's palace: old age, sickness, and death. As Howard Schnellenberger famously said (about something altogether more optimistic), "The only variable is time."

We will all die. The only variable is time. We will all become ill. The only variable is time. And, if we are lucky, we all grow old. The only variable is time. Time, as Steven Delopoulos sang in his song "Jungle Train," "keeps tickin' like a melancholy friend." In the Western model, the model that shapes our unconscious understanding and even the way that we perceive everything else, time might best be described as a train that chugs along in a straight line, a single direction, with perfect precision and a singleness of purpose. With it all things come. In it, all things pass away.

It was the unrelenting nature of time that haunted me as a child. I could not stop it. I could not slow it down. I could not persuade it to change course. Its slow but steady march told me in a voice that I could not ignore that all things are impermanent, even me; that all moments are impermanent, even the ones I would cling to. This impermanence, so evident from the silent march of time, is at the heart of the First Noble Truth of the Buddha, a truth that I did not hear until much later in life, but that I understood from the first moments of consciousness:

Life is suffering.

While this, in its most common English translation, sounds extraordinarily pessimistic, it is neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but instead merely a simple statement of fact. All life is marked by suffering, by dukkha, by a "dissatisfactory" quality. That dissatisfactory quality is its impermanence. Impermanence, unless we truly understand it for what it is, turns even our greatest moments of joy into occasions of great sorrow, as we realize that while we seem happy now, this too shall pass. This moment, like all other moments, will go as quickly as it came, leaving with it the emptiness that comes from clinging to a moment of joy only to watch it, like so many others, slip through our grasp.

I remember as a young child sitting in the back seat of my parents' car - I think it was the old Mercedes that my Dad loved so much back then, though it had seen its best days long before he ever saw it - thinking about the impermanent nature of life in the face of the inexorable passing of time. I was haunted by the possibilities that presented themselves to me.

Life was either finite or infinite; impermanent or permanent. If it was the former, then I would die, the flame of my consciousness extinguish. There would be no more "me." That was unimaginable. But, if it was the later, perhaps that would be worse. I would be subject to the endless passing of time, stretched out forever without end.

Those were the choices as I understood them. Those are the choices as most of us understand them. Either we are subject to the final extinction of death, or, we are not. And, if we are not, then still subject to time (for we cannot imagine anything without the passing of time) then we must eventually feel like Bilbo Baggins just before he gave up the ring of power, stretched thin like too little butter on too much toast.

So, death and the remembrance of it drive me to meditate on time. This meditation is not necessarily a philosophic one. It does not drive me to re-read my volumes of Augustine and Aquinas, testing the internal and experiential logic of their distinction between time and eternity. It does not drive me to posit a Scholastic "arch of time" beyond which lies a metaphysical realm not subject to time's eternal march. It does not drive me to mentally explore the metaphysical nature of time, like the Einstein character in Alan Lightman's first novel. And, it does not drive me to try to imagine the unimaginable, existence and even consciousness without time. Rather, it drives me to explore the emotional and existential implications of my long adversarial relationship with time, to see if I have finally come to peace with the structure of my world.

You see, suffering - true suffering, and not mere pain - comes from the distance between our expectations and our reality. It comes from looking at our reality and finding it wanting. While in some small scale events our tendency to look at situations as they present themselves to us as obstacles to overcome rather than as a reality to adapt to might be good, insofar as it drives us to achieve all that it is possible to achieve; that same tendency, when it cannot distinguish between what can and cannot be changed, is the source of all of our suffering.

It is one thing to look at injustice in the world and vow to end it. Despite the verdict of history, injustice can be ended. It is not a necessary part of the world, but instead a human invention which can, under exactly the right circumstances, be ended. It is another thing altogether to look at time and vow to stop it, or to look at death and vow to survive it. Time passes, and with it comes old age, sickness, and death. And, if your happiness is contingent upon being the exception to that rule, you are condemned to a life of abject suffering. The universe will never change its basic mode of operating just to satisfy our immature desires, our craving for immortality, or for immunity from sickness or the aging process. Time will not cease its march or slow its pace just to suit our whims.

This has caused me to suffer for most of my life. Fits of sleeplessness. Paralyzing anxiety attacks. A fundamental rejection of the reality of my life. For as long as I can remember I have been fighting the structure of the universe, trying to stop or slow time like a deluded man who, after seeing a Superman comic decides he too can stand on the railroad tracks and stop or slow the oncoming train. And, like that man, I have been dashed to pieces as reality collides with my expectation of immortality, both for me and those I love.

But the march of time does not bring with it just the suffering that comes from the distance between our desire for permanence and the realization that we are, as James wrote, "a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes." Old age, sickness, and death are not the only products of time's immutability. With it, too, comes progress. And while we romantics may long for the purity of a day when each person coaxed the earth into providing their food, we must also remember that when it was up to us as individuals to coax that food from the earth, the earth did not part with it so willingly.

While we often decry the word "progress," saying as C.S. Lewis did that progress is not truly progress if we are progressing in the wrong direction; we have to acknowledge that our situation, at least materially, is much better than it ever has been before. One of my philosophy professors in college, an atheist and an Aristotle expert who loved to teach Medieval Philosophy, and who retired right after I studied under him, remarked that when he was growing up the world was a very different place. Much less safe. Almost anything could kill you at any moment. He remembered a friend of his mother who died a couple of weeks after getting a blister on her hand from playing tennis. The blister got infected, the infection spread, and soon she died. From playing tennis.

You already know about my own tennis mishap. While it probably wouldn't have killed me, if it had happened at almost any other point in history it would have permanently crippled me, rendering me a beggar not long for this world. But, of course, if I had been born at almost any other point in history I would have been crippled long before I fell on the tennis court, as that was neither my first broken bone nor my first surgery. Except that, if I had been born at almost any other point in history, I would not have survived infancy in order to suffer the various calamities that would have left me a cripple. If I had been born at almost any other point in history, my death in infancy or childhood would have been the rule, not the exception. That I was born premature, and that I have asthma, move my death in infancy from a strong probability (most children died at most points in history) to a certainty.

But, as time marches on, so do we, solving previously unsolvable problems. And, as we solve those problems, we make the world a better place. Historic optimism, the quaint liberal notion that history is teleological, direction, purposeful, that it is moving somewhere, fell out of fashion as modernism faded into postmodernism and as the devastation of two world wars and the development of nuclear weaponry showed us in no uncertain terms that technological progress does not equal moral or spiritual progress. But, if we truly understand both our history and our present situation, those blind optimists of the first quarter of the twentieth century do not sound quite so mad. That they overstated their case is obvious. We are not marching unimpeded to Zion. But, we are still marching. And we are marching somewhere. And that somewhere is better than here as surely as here is better than where we once were.

And I am marching. And I am marching somewhere. I may be marching to heaven, or I may be marching to the grave. But in that march I am also marching to a better life here and now. My anxiety gives way to wisdom and faith; wisdom which identifies the roots of my anxiety, and faith which tells me that I have no better choice than to trust the universe to be good. My loneliness gives way to a wife who understands me and a child who adores me, just as I adore him. My restlessness gives way to a peace that passes all understanding.

Time keeps tickin' like a melancholy friend
Ticks the beginning and the middle and the end
But if I close my eyes and just pretend
There is shelter in this song
Like a river flowin' home...