10 August 2006

Your dollars at work

Ever have one of those insights where you’re going along doing or saying something and all of a sudden you get an “ah-ha” moment? I had one of those tonight, in the midst of a presentation on the current conflict in Lebanon - my faith community asked me to speak to a gathering, based on my experience covering the Lebanon desk in the Conflict Resolution Program at The Carter Presidential Center many moons ago.

So here’s my insight – perhaps some of you will find it glaringly obvious, but I have yet to hear this idea put quite this way in the media anywhere (maybe I should forward this post to Tom Friedman?). If you are among my American readers, you are supporting both sides of the current conflict in Lebanon with your dollars.

How is this, you might ask? First, your tax dollars go to the U.S. government, which gives Israel several billions of dollars of aid each year, from which Israel turns around and purchases weaponry from American defense contractors, with which to wage the current conflict. Second, your dollars purchase gas for your vehicles (and many other petroleum-based products), a portion of which flows to Iran, who uses those dollars to buy weapons to send to Hezbollah, with which to wage the current conflict. And for those of you who might object to whether your gas purchases directly fund Iran, the macroeconomics of commodity markets function such that all sellers benefit from all buyers, whether directly or indirectly.

So there you have it – your dollars buy the weapons for both sides of this conflict. Oh, and as a side note, who profits from your dollars in both instances? American corporations – either the military industrial complex defense contractors or Big Oil. And who ultimately pays the price? Immediately, Lebanese civilians do. In the long run, we all do.

07 August 2006

Back in the blogosphere again

I offer my apologies to my devoted readers (both of them – well, OK, maybe there are more than two out there) for my extended absence. No, I wasn’t actually enjoying a six-week vacation; it’s just that when one is self-employed and is away for a couple of weeks, there’s no one else to take care of the work in one’s absence. That, and I suppose I’ve been waiting to find something stirring enough to comment on it.

Guess what? I found something. This AP article (as found in the NY Times) cites a recent Harris Poll that 50 percent of U.S. respondents still believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when the U.S. invaded in March 2003. What’s worse, that figure has actually increased from 36 percent last year.

These opinion findings fly in the face of the facts, including the Iraq Survey Group’s (a fact-finding mission comprised mostly of American experts, with some Britons and Australians also) comprehensive report that took 16 months and over $900 million to complete. That report declared that Iraq had dismantled its NBC (nuclear, biological, and chemical) weaponry programs in 1991, and it had no such WMDs as of March 2003. Naturally, Saddam wanted to restart those programs if at all possible, but as of the beginning of the U.S. invasion there were no such weapons arsenals in Iraq.

Why does the American public persist in believing this concocted story? Perhaps it’s because American politicians and media outlets persist in pushing it. A couple of weeks before the survey, Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) and Representative Peter Hoekstra (R-MI) released a report stating that 500 chemical munitions had been collected in Iraq since 2003. What the press release failed to note was that these munitions were abandoned shells, almost all of which were 15 years old or older, and their degraded chemical contents rendered them utterly unusable as weapons. It’s sort of like finding some old Civil War era Confederate shells and concluding that the South has an actively armed conspiracy to rise up in rebellion against the North again.

Various media outlets such as Fox News, talk radio, and bloggers latched onto this report and trumpeted its supposed findings in screaming headlines. Could it be that these simplistic, misleading headlines led devotees of such right-wing media outlets to believe the implied conclusions, without a critical examination of the underlying facts? Is the American public (or at least half of it) that easily misled? Michael Massing, a contributing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, a graduate of Harvard College and the London School of Economics and Political Science, and a 1992 MacArthur Fellowship recipient, describes himself as “flabbergasted” at these poll numbers, saying that “This finding just has to cause despair among those of us who hope for an informed public able to draw reasonable conclusions based on evidence”.

Is this true? Have we finally entered into such an Orwellian society that large segments of the American public are unable to distinguish fact from fiction, truth from spin? By limiting themselves to their preferred slanted media outlets (left and right), are Americans willingly complicit in their ignorance? Has the proliferation of specialized media made it no longer possible to inform the American electorate in any reliably objective manner? If you only get your news from Fox News and talk radio, how can you ever have a doubt in your mind as to the propriety of the current war in Iraq? Similarly, if you only get your news from The Nation and other left-leaning outlets, how can you ever approve of the use of American military force? And if you get your news only from the major networks, well, how can you have any informed grasp on reality regardless of political slant?

Which brings me to today’s word (with apologies to Stephen Colbert): sycophant. Merriam and Webster define this as a servile self-seeking flatterer. Remember the old children’s story about the emperor who has no clothes? The sycophants would be the ones who told him he looked absolutely fabulous in his new outfit, even though he was actually butt-naked. So I ask you, can’t we at least arrest these media outlets for public indecency when they walk around butt-naked in their sycophantic ravings? How about politicians? Bill Clinton got in a world of trouble for exposing himself to only one intern (and he’d probably call it “butt-nekkid”). Yet here are all these naked wanna-be emperors parading around on the national stage – where are the cries of public indecency against them? I tell you this, if we’re going to return America to its time-honored sense of old fashioned morality and decency, we have to do something about all of these naked politicians and media personalities. So I say to America, stand up for traditional morality, and put some clothes on those emperors!

06 July 2006

Musing abroad

Dan is currently musing abroad, on holiday in Europe. He will return soon with tales of the virtues (or lack thereof) of left-leaning agnostic countries, old churches, traditional and modern cuisines, and the pleasures and perils of 20 hours of sunlight per day.

20 June 2006

The best of times, the worst of times

There’s a lot of news out there these days about progress (and the lack thereof) in religion, specifically Protestant denominations. Several large American mainline denominations have had conventions and conferences, both national and regional, of late. Note this USA Today article about various denominations, particularly the Episcopal Church USA and the Presbyterian Church (USA), and their ongoing debates over same-sex unions and ordination. At the time of this writing, the Episcopalians are still holding their General Convention in Columbus, Ohio – this is a triennial conference of the Episcopal Church throughout the USA. They are still debating resolutions about whether to express regret to the global Anglican community regarding the ordination of Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, as a bishop a couple of years ago. In a hopeful sign of progressiveness, however, they elected a woman (and a liberal one, theologically speaking), Katharine Jefferts Schori, to be their new “Presiding Bishop”, which is sort of like being the chief Archbishop over the whole country. Bishop Schori is a very interesting woman – she earned a Ph.D. in oceanography in 1983 and worked with the National Marine Fisheries Service before changing career paths and entering the ordained ministry, and is apparently a strong advocate for the Millennium Development Goals. Naturally, there are some Episcopalians who are unhappy about her election – although they say their unhappiness stems not from her gender, but from her progressive theology.

Meanwhile, a recent regional Conference of the United Methodist Church was a mixed bag of religious tricks. On the bad side, during a debate on an resolution about bringing the troops home from Iraq, one delegate addressed the Conference by reading a passage from the Quran about killing infidels and the like, and cited this passage as evidence that Muslims are inherently violent, and therefore we'll never be able to cease the war on terror until we subdue them all. Apparently this good Christian brother isn't familiar with Psalm 137, where the psalmist writes (verses 8-9) “Babylon the destroyer, happy is he who repays you for what you did to us! Happy is he who seizes your infants and dashes them against a rock.” Nor is he probably familiar with Hosea 13:16, “Samaria will become desolate because she has rebelled against her God; her babes will fall by the sword and will be dashed to the ground, and pregnant women will be ripped up.” Funny, sounds like Christians have their own violent past, doesn't it?

In other words, Christianity doesn’t have an exclusive angle on peacemaking and love, nor does Islam have an exclusive angle on a violent past. All of us religious types have histories we need to overcome, to evolve beyond. Unfortunately, some religious types are stuck in the past, or want to defend the past and are fearful of evolution (spiritual as well as biological). We who are not, I believe, are obligated to continue striving for enlightenment and understanding, both within ourselves and throughout our faith communities. Anything less will condemn us to the ash heap of history, because history is inherently progressive and forward-moving.

Should we hope or despair? Should we be optimists or pessimists? I reached one tentative conclusion this past week – I think I might try to be a spiritual optimist and a political cynic. That is, I do think that history inevitably moves forward, and human enlightenment has no choice but to grow and expand. The alternative, I suppose, is species extinction. I don’t think that this progress is neatly linear – reformations always spawn counter-reformations, and the forces of retrenchment get pretty fierce when they begin to perceive that the struggle might not turn out their way. As noted author (and former Episcopalian priest) Barbara Brown Taylor put it, "human beings never behave more badly toward one another than when they believe they are protecting God." Here’s my question: If the God you worship is in such dire need of your protection, what kind of deity is he? I could say the same thing about the so-called “Defense of Marriage” amendments kicking around Congress and various state legislatures - if your marriage needs to be defended from two gay men or two lesbians who love each other and are monogamous with each other and want to get married to each other, perhaps you should be less concerned with them and more concerned with what’s going on in your own marriage.

02 June 2006

Tongues of fire?

In Western Christianity, this Sunday is Pentecost Sunday. For those of you somewhat unfamiliar with the Christian calendar, this holiday celebrates the occurrence in the early Church wherein the Holy Spirit is reported to have descended on the gathered followers of Jesus like “tongues of fire”. According to certain gospel accounts, the post-resurrection Jesus promised his disciples that although he’d be leaving soon (ascending to heaven), they would receive this indwelling Holy Spirit, which in later Christian teachings became regarded as the third person of the Trinity (the others being “the Father” and “the Son”).

What happened on Pentecost, according to the record of the Book of Acts of the Apostles, was that the frightened disciples of Jesus, left alone after he went on up to heaven, were gathered together in a house when all of a sudden this wind blew through, and these tongues of fire descended on their heads, and they all started speaking in different languages – languages recognizable to the travelers of various nationalities gathered in Jerusalem at the time.

(An interestingly humorous and oft-overlooked side note: Some who heard this talk thought that perhaps the disciples were merely drunk. Peter, in their defense, said that they weren’t drunk, because it was only nine o’clock in the morning. Note that he didn’t say “Oh no, we’re good followers of Jesus, we’d never be drunk.” No, he merely argued that it was too early in the morning for them to be drunk yet. But I digress…)

Nowadays, Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians often practice this phenomenon of speaking in other languages or tongues, technically known as glossolalia. It is seen as a sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit in a particular believer – often concomitant with a special receiving or baptism of that same Spirit. It’s occasionally associated with ecstatic prayer, but also can be part of a quieter devotional practice.

That’s all fine, but here’s my rant on the current practice – and this can apply to a lot more than just glossolalia. The emphasis too often winds up being on the individual believer and the individual practice. Rather than looking at what one believer can or can’t do, or whether that believer or another is filled with a particularly holy or enlightened spirit, let’s focus instead on the oneness of the Spirit that’s supposedly doing all this indwelling. The point of the story about the early disciples of Jesus isn’t that they all had special language skills because of their special relationship with the divine spirit; rather, the point is that this spirit, working through them, was able to bring together an incredibly diverse crowd of folks from all nations by speaking to them in ways they all could understand.

If you’re thinking that I’m continuing with the theme of my last post – that whole underlying unity of the cosmos thing - you’re catching on. I also wanted to include a comment from my friend the Psych Pundit (you can find a link to his blog on the side of this page - although his schedule has precluded him from updating it as frequently as he’d like, it’s still quite a good read). PP noted in an email to me that my last post made him think of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Teilhard was a Jesuit priest, philosopher, and paleontologist who lived and worked in the first half of the 20th Century. He propagated such concepts as the noosphere, a sort of higher level of consciousness interconnecting all humans (or perhaps all sentient beings), and the Omega Point, a final unity toward which all creation is evolving together. PP’s comments, in essence, were that Teilhard stressed that our most profound interconnectedness will ultimately occur at this higher-order level of consciousness, as opposed to the lower-order level of quantum field constituent parts.

I think that the book I mentioned might agree with PP’s analysis and comparisons with Teilhard – perhaps it was only my clumsy rendering of those ideas that made it seem otherwise. When you think about it, Teilhard’s collective interconnected consciousness sounds a lot like various Buddhist concepts, all of which go back to this underlying unity of all things. Hey, if Jung can have a collective unconscious, why can’t we have a collective consciousness also?

Some folks have even posited the notion that the Internet is an early concrete step toward creating the noosphere. A really interesting aspect of this (well, interesting to me, at least) is that this evolution toward an Omega Point is at some level a conscious evolution, and that probably as we progress in this evolutionary process, it becomes more and more of a conscious process.

So are we yet at a point in human evolution when we can begin to evolve consciously? Can we start taking steps to evolve in ways that will be beneficial to all of humanity, to all sentient beings, to the entire planet, to all that is? One can only hope that we’re getting there. The alternatives don’t seem very appealing for our species.

22 May 2006

Mystical connections

I’ve been reading this intriguing book lately – it’s about, how should I put this, the mystical elements inherent in quantum theory and the nature of the subatomic particle physics. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? Anyway, most of you are probably familiar with Einstein’s famous equation, E=mc2, meaning that the inherent energy in something is equal to its mass times the speed of light squared. Now the speed of light is a huge number already – about at 186,000 miles per second, or 670 million miles per hour. So squared, that’s really big. What that means is that even the smallest atom has a huge amount of potential energy in it, if you can figure out how to convert the matter into pure energy. That’s the basic physics behind nuclear power, and nuclear bombs. The other thing that this means is that there are two kinds of stuff in the universe, matter, and energy, and that the one can be converted into the other and vice versa.

Well, what this book argues is that matter, the stuff we see and can touch and bump into, the stuff that actually comprises our bodies, is kind of illusory. Because you see, the distinction between what’s matter and what’s not isn’t like we usually think about it. We tend to think, I’m here, and I’m made of matter, and this desk, for example, is made of other stuff, and between me and the desk is more stuff that we call air, but I can move through the air because it’s not as dense, but I can’t move through the desk. But what are we made of? Mostly water – about 35 liters in the average human body. Our bodies can be broken down into the chemical elements also – we’re about 65% oxygen, 18% carbon, and another 10% hydrogen. But then what are oxygen and carbon and hydrogen molecules made of? They’re all made of atoms, which in turn are made of subatomic particles like electrons and protons and neutrons (for that matter, protons and neutrons are composite particles made of quarks). OK, you get the picture. I’m made of these subatomic particles, but so is this desk, and so is the air. Everything that is, is made up of the same subatomic particles. The only difference is how these particles are organized, put together, and which molecules they wind up forming.

Feeling dizzy yet? So here’s the really wacky part of the argument. At their most basic, all of these particles are really just energy. So then, this stuff that we call matter, the stuff that comprises me and you and this desk and the air, is really just energy organized in different ways. But it’s all tied together in this one big underlying field. It’s like I’m a cluster of energy, and you’re another cluster of this same energy, and so is this desk, and so is the air, and so is everything that we see and perceive as matter. This all sounds like something out of Star Wars, or perhaps something Buddhist, and I’m not sure I entirely buy into the whole argument. But, I do like the truth it’s getting at, namely that we’re all interconnected, whether we see it or not. Maybe we can’t always perceive it, but we are. We’re connected to people we know and like, and to folks we know and don’t much care for. Democrats are connected to Republicans. Christians are connected to Muslims. You, wherever you are, most likely in some relatively comfortable setting at the moment, are connected to the millions of people suffering and dying in Darfur.

Isn’t that what we really all long for, to be connected? E.M. Forster said it well in his novel Howard’s End; you might know it from the film version starring Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins. Forster, who happened to be gay, which in his Victorian and Edwardian England no doubt added to his feelings of disconnect, wrote about:

…the building of the rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion. Without it we are meaningless fragments, half monks, half beasts, unconnected arches that have never joined into a man. With it love is born, and alights on the highest curve, glowing against the gray, sober against the fire…Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.

02 May 2006

Soy un inmigrante

So I got to thinking, after all these boycotts and protests yesterday and all the discussions and diatribes about reforming immigration policy over the past few months, what does all this really show about our society?

Before I get very far into this at all, let me point out that there is no easy answer to the problem of undocumented immigrants or illegal aliens, depending on which side of the issue you choose. We can’t simply open our national borders and let everyone in who wants to come in, but we also can’t simply deport 12 million people. The correct legislative solution, obviously, lies somewhere in the middle, but to find it we’d have to have a vibrant middle in our political spectrum, and that’s pretty well lacking these days.

But I’m more interested in what this debate reveals about us. According to statistics from a Pew Research project, about 74% of the immigrants who are here illegally are of Mexican or other Latin American origin. That means that 26% of the immigrants, or over 3 million people, are non-Hispanic. Funny though, when the pundits bloviate about “illegal immigrants”, you never hear them talking about Romanians or Somalis or Cambodians. Nope, it’s always “those folks coming across the border”, and they don’t mean renegade Canadians, eh?

So is there a racial component to this issue? Naturally. Of course, it’s also true that if roughly 3 million of these immigrants are non-Hispanic, the other 9 million are Hispanic, and so the large majority of the people in question are in fact of Hispanic origin. So there’s some justification for focusing the debate on Hispanic immigrants – but nearly all prejudices have some tenuous connection to reality (or at least reality as it’s perceived by those harboring the prejudices).

But what we have here is another set of categorizations. We have constructed a “them”, in opposition to the “we” that is us, us being those folks who were made in America, and them being everyone else. And when we set up “us” and “them” categories, you know what the next step is: We good, they bad. Yes, it’s the old nasty collective shadow projection rearing its ugly unintegrated head once again. (Click on this link for a prior posting about the shadow concept as it relates to homosexuals and Brokeback Mountain.)

So as long as there’s a “them” over there that we can differentiate from the “us” here, we can project all kinds of badness onto “them”. It’s much more convenient to group folks into categories when we can find some obvious distinguishing characteristics to use in our taxonomy. Thus the emphasis on Hispanic immigrants – they all speak a certain, other language, one that is not ours. There are other inaccurate distinguishing characteristics that are often employed – cuisine, job types, etc. – but we’ll leave those aside for the moment.

But is the “us” really that different from the “them”? I know the argument – “My ancestors were immigrants, but they came here legally, and worked hard and played by the rules and made a better life for generations to come.” The flaws with that argument are obvious – immigration policy wasn’t the same back when your forebears made their way to our shores, and for that matter I’ll bet that one or two of the folks in your family tree probably did slip through Ellis Island without the proper documents. Oh, and if you trace your lineage back to the Mayflower? Well then, you were part of an invading force – or did the Indians stamp the Pilgrims’ passports and grant them extended work visas?

Here’s what really hacks me off about this issue – most, though not all, of the bloviators who are fiercely opposed to illegal immigration are also professing Christians. The last time I checked my Bible, there was a whole lot in there about welcoming the stranger, extending hospitality to the traveler among you, and allowing the refugee to settle in your land. Regardless of your position on immigration policy reform, it’s abundantly clear that if you call yourself a Christian, your moral duty is to welcome strangers in your midst and to offer hospitality to those you encounter.

Some legislators want to make it a crime to extend practical hospitality to immigrants who are in this country illegally. Does that mean my government wants to punish me for exercising my religion, since it’s my Christian duty to be hospitable? I don’t know what the correct legislative response to this issue is, but I can say what it’s not: It’s not one that locks up a priest for offering shelter and bread to a family, nor is it one that snatches a cup of cold water out of the hand of one who offers it to another.

28 April 2006

On natal anniversaries…

Time for some self-indulgent rambling and reflecting (as if there were any other kind), as today is indeed my natal anniversary.

Reflecting on the passage of time (for those of you who are curious, this is my 43d such natal anniversary), I began to wonder, is time linear or circular? Most of us consider time to be linear, and we have various ways of measuring the passage of time. Life is considered to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. (I like to think I haven’t yet reached the middle of mine…) The longer I look at it, though, the more I see time as circular rather than linear, or perhaps circular is the wrong word. Perhaps the correct word is seasonal, or cyclical.

Whether we see it as linear or not, we often mark time with recurring events, rituals if you will. Birthdays are the most obvious marking in one’s own life – another year passed (enjoyed, squandered, take your pick), another new year yet to come (to be anticipated, to be dreaded, new chances to achieve, succeed, fail, despair). Other holidays recur year after year, and we develop complex rites and rituals to accompany them (but we have to eat such-and-such on this day, we’ve always had that!). The liturgical calendars of most religious traditions reflect this seasonality, the cyclical nature of time. We tell and re-tell the same stories, and yet (hopefully) we can find new meaning in them each time around the wheel.

As we get older, we also increasingly value time as a precious, scarce commodity. We talk about spending time, wasting time, not having enough time. For many of us, it seems that we don’t have enough time to do the things we want to do. Maybe our problem isn’t that we don’t have enough time, but that we don’t savor the time we have. There’s a catch phrase in there somewhere – instead of “seize the day”, try “savor the day” (hopefully someone who remembers their high school Latin better than I can provide a pithy translation). This is also known, in Buddhist teachings, as mindfulness. Often Buddhist teachers will communicate this idea with simple phrases such as “Pay attention!” or “Wake up!” The popular guru of the 1960s, Ram Dass, wrote a book called Be Here Now. That’s the same idea. It’s not so much a call to do things differently than a call to do things intentionally, with awareness of what you’re doing.

Of course, once you really start paying attention to what it is you’re doing, you might wind up changing the things you do. When you pay attention to those knots in your stomach and shoulders after your hour-long commute home after another eight or more hours at the daily grind, you might consider whether you can find another way to make a living. (Feel free to send comments about other things that might change once you really start paying attention to them.)

But how do we learn to wake up, to pay attention? I think that meditative practice is a great way to do this. Try spending even a few minutes every morning in some sort of meditative practice – this could be centering prayer, Zen meditation, or a walk on the beach or in the woods. Quiet your mind, settle your spirit, and pay attention to your breath. There are plenty of resources out there to learn more about this stuff – here are just a couple that I think are first-rate (with easy-to-us Amazon links):

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind – Shunryu Suzuki
Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening – Cynthia Bourgeault

Check out these, or other types of practices that fit with your particular spirituality (just about every tradition has some form of contemplative/meditative practice). It’s not easy – trust me, I know – but even the attempt makes a difference.

Pay attention. Wake up. Savor the day.

10 April 2006

Fingers pointing at the moon

There’s a Buddhist saying that goes something like this – “All instruction is but a finger pointing at the moon, and those whose gaze is fixed upon the pointer will never see beyond.” Put another way, the whole point of religious teaching is to guide us toward enlightenment, toward a true knowledge of whatever you happen to call the Divine Reality. The problem is, too often devotees of one religion or another get their gaze fixed upon their particular interpretation of their particular teaching, and lose sight of the ultimate reality that’s supposed to be the true object of their devotion.

All religions and spiritual paths are ways of describing the indescribable, of knowing the unknowing. Fair enough? So what we do, in an effort to know and describe, is construct sets of religious metaphors – God is like a loving parent, God is like a stern white-bearded judge, etc. The problem is that people forget that these are only metaphors, and they start treating them like absolute divine truths, and then they start worshiping the metaphors, and they call anyone who doesn’t share their metaphors a heretic, and so on.

In order to reach a truer state of enlightenment, spiritual knowledge, closeness to God, or whatever you’d like to call it, I would assert that these devotees must move beyond worshiping their metaphor sets. I’ve described this in the past as moving from metaphor to meaning. You may recall my last posting about the guy on trial in Afghanistan for converting from Islam to Christianity; there’s a perfect example of a group of religious nutcases insisting that their religious metaphor set is better than everyone else’s, and that anyone who tosses their metaphor set for a competing set deserves to die. (Good news on that trial – I understand that the defendant was allowed to leave the country, and presumably he's now in Italy where his Christian metaphor set should get a warmer reception.)

This was a pretty egregious example, but I tend to spend more of my time bashing religious nutcases of the Christian variety than those of the Muslim variety. Why? Mostly because I’m better acquainted with the Christian variety, and there’s enough to deal with in trying to reform the faith I’m most familiar with. As Christians enter their Holy Week celebrations, it’s a bit ironic that this would be the time when researchers announced the discovery and translation of a new gospel, the Gospel of Judas. For those of you not familiar with this line of scholarship, there are many other writings out there that purport to tell of the life and teachings of Jesus. There are only four of these gospels included in the official Christian Bible, however. Why only those four, and not some others (such as ones named for Thomas and Mary Magdalene, e.g.)? Conservative Christians would say that’s because the other gospel writings are heresy – they don’t tell the truth about who Jesus was and what he was about.

Of course, who decides what’s heresy and what’s truth is always a tricky proposition. The work of Elaine Pagels, among others, is very enlightening in this regard – if you’re interested in this field of research, I highly recommend her books. According to Pagels, there wasn’t just one orthodox truth (or metaphor set) back in the early days of Christianity. In fact, there were many competing ones, with very different interpretations of the person, life, divinity and humanity of Jesus. This new Gospel of Judas, for example, apparently has a Gnostic viewpoint. In it, Judas is the recipient of a secret teaching from Jesus, and Jesus is glad to have Judas betray him, because once Jesus dies, he will be freed from the human body that clothes his true spirit.

Wacky stuff? Perhaps. But that’s not the point. The point is that there’s more than one way to understand Jesus, and there always has been. Similarly, there’s more than one way to understand God, ultimate reality, divine truth, the spiritual realm, or whatever it is that you’re seeking on your particular quest. This doesn’t mean that you can’t utilize a religious metaphor set to help you along the way. In fact, you probably won’t get very far on a spiritual journey without a good, workable metaphor set. Nor does it mean that all metaphor sets are equal - there definitely are some that are good, and some that are bad. What I do mean is that no one metaphor set has a corner on the market of truth, and no one set is a full, complete, and accurate description of reality. So choose one, run with it, work with it the best you can, but don’t close yourself off to the truths that other metaphors can illuminate. And if you catch yourself staring at a pointing finger, remember that’s it’s just a finger, and try to adjust your gaze moonward.

24 March 2006

No one expects the Inquisition…

Many of you have probably already heard about the trial of Abdul Rahman. For those of you who haven’t, his trial was for a potentially capital offense in an Islamic country.

What was the offense, you ask? Murder, terrorism, rape, maybe even treason? No, his offense, for which he faced a possible death penalty, is that he is a former Muslim who has converted to Christianity.

Outrageous, you say? Indeed. So surely this occurred in some Islamic country that is anathema to America, someplace like Iran, or maybe Afghanistan under the Taliban’s rule?

Well, no, not exactly. This was an Afghan trial. Or, more correctly, it is an Afghan trial. That is to say, this didn’t happen during the Taliban’s rule; it’s happening right now.

Wait a minute, you say. Didn’t we liberate Afghanistan? Didn’t we drive out the Taliban and their attendant religious nutcases? Doesn’t Afghanistan have a democratically elected government now?

Yes, yes, and yes. But, the judiciary is still controlled primarily by conservative religious clerics, under the power-sharing arrangement mandated by the Afghan constitution. And apparently, although I’m no expert in Shariah (Islamic law), the religious courts in Afghanistan have jurisdiction over this type of “offense”.

To be sure, many moderate Muslims (in Afghanistan and around the world) find this trial to be abhorrent. Even those who recognize the “crime” of apostasy, or leaving Islam for another religion, do not consider it to be a capital offense. Unfortunately for Mr. Rahman, however, those moderate Muslims are not running the show in the religious courts of Kabul.

But at least Mr. Rahman can take comfort from the fact that there are thousands of American troops in Afghanistan, and obviously there’s no way we would allow someone to be executed for their religious beliefs in a country that we militarily occupy, right? Again, not exactly. On Wednesday, President Bush called on Afghan officials to "honor the universal principle of freedom." And on Thursday, Secretary of State Rice called the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, to discuss the matter "in the strongest possible terms," according to a State Department spokesman. Meanwhile, the White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, has noted that "clearly violates the universal freedoms that democracies around the world hold dear." Mr. McClellan followed that with the forcefully worded assertion, "And we are watching it very closely,"

Watching it closely? Discussing in the strongest possible terms? I haven’t heard any strong terms used publicly yet. It’s time for President Bush to use some really strong language. How about this: “If your government tries to execute someone for being a Christian, after we sent our young men and women in uniform over there to give their lives to free your country from the grips of the religious oppression of the Taliban, after we’ve pumped billions of dollars into your country to try to restore some sense of order and stability, then we’re going to use those thousands of troops we have on the ground to march right into your prison and grab this guy and bring him to a country where he can exercise his religious freedom. To hell with your precious national sovereignty. You wouldn’t have any national sovereignty if we hadn’t given it to you. Oh, and if we happen to blow up a whole bunch of things along the way, including every one of your religious courthouses, well, that’s just inevitable collateral damage.”

OK, so maybe that’s not really what I think ought to happen in a perfect world. But hey, this world isn’t perfect yet, and besides, it felt nice and cathartic to type all that.

This whole incident highlights the ongoing “clash of civilizations” that is the subject of incessant debate. As Tom Friedman wrote in a recent column, discussing the problems inherent in our efforts to “modernize” the Arab-Muslim world:

The real problem was recently spelled out by an Arab-American psychiatrist, Dr. Wafa Sultan, in a stunning interview with Al Jazeera. Speaking about the Arab-Muslim world, Dr. Sultan said: "The clash we are witnessing ... is not a clash of religions, or a clash of civilizations. It is a clash between two opposites, between two eras. It is a clash between a mentality that belongs to the Middle Ages and another mentality that belongs to the 21st century. It is a clash between civilization and backwardness, between the civilized and the primitive, between barbarity and rationality. It is a clash between freedom and oppression, between democracy and dictatorship. It is a clash between human rights, on the one hand, and the violation of these rights, on the other hand. It is a clash between those who treat women like beasts, and those who treat them like human beings."

The Jazeera host then asked: "I understand from your words that what is happening today is a clash between the culture of the West, and the backwardness and ignorance of the Muslims?"

Dr. Sultan: "Yes, that is what I mean."

Dr. Sultan voiced truths that many Muslims know: their civilization is, in many places, in turmoil, falling further and further behind the world in science, education, industry and innovation, while falling deeper and deeper into the grip of crackpot clerics, tin-pot dictators, violent mobs and madmen like bin Laden and Saddam.

Is there hope for the modernization of this section of the world, hope that universal human rights will actually be respected and implemented in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia? Of course there is. Will simply slapping on a patch of “democratically elected government” fix the problem? Of course not. The problem isn’t merely with the political structures. The problem lies in the religious and cultural pulses of these countries.

And lest I forget: Is it helpful for America to tell other countries that they should reform themselves, respect universal human rights, and not allow religious courts to interpret and apply the law, while at the same time our political leaders ignore universal human rights and continue to push for the ever-increasing influence of fundamentalist religious voices in our own society? No, I didn’t think so.

14 March 2006

Reflection v. Immediacy

I’ve found myself less and less interested in daily news of late. Not that the news isn’t important – just that I don’t care what happened precisely today, as opposed to yesterday or last week or whatever. I do often still get my daily news fix, although that’s usually from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on Comedy Central. I haven’t even been paying much attention to my state’s current legislative session, other than to occasionally note some of the more egregiously regressive measures being proposed by its GOP majority. (It could be worse – I could live in South Dakota, which just passed a near total ban on all abortion procedures.)

As far as the political side of my blogging goes, this is a problem I seem to have in terms of fitting in with the “blogosphere”, the now-common term for the world of online blogs. Much of the commentary that’s out there is based on the 24-hour news cycle, immediate reactions, and staying one step ahead of whatever’s breaking news at that particular moment. Frankly, I just don’t care what’s breaking at this particular moment. In fact, I think that the 24-hour news cycle whips up a frenzy around truly meaningless stories, thus obscuring the meaningful ones. Thousand of refugees are dying daily in Darfur, but we can’t be bothered to cover that story, because there’s some upper-middle-class white teenager lost somewhere. The entire campaign finance system in this country is completely at odds with the public interest, but we can’t examine that in depth because we found a Congressman who might have played golf for free.

I’m even finding it less enjoyable to spend time reading good newspapers, at least the front sections thereof. When I pick up my Sunday NY Times, the first section I head for isn’t the daily news, but the Week in Review. Even that sometimes seems a bit too focused on the immediate, so then I’ll pick up the Sunday Magazine section, with longer-form pieces on a single topic. It just seems more important these days to get some sort of perspective on daily events and be able to fit them into a greater context. This is a skill that seems dangerously lacking in most of our elected officials of either party.

As a quick example of how historical perspective might add to our understanding of world events, most discussions in this country about the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 focus on the moniker “9/11”, thinking that maybe this was an assault intended to invoke widespread panic and a sense of emergency with concomitant references to the common emergency phone number, 911. Not often does one hear of the Battle of Vienna, which took place on September 11, 1683, where the Habsburg and Polish armies defeated the Muslim armies of the Ottoman Empire, turning them away from the very gates of Vienna. Historians often consider this to be the turning point in the 300-year struggle between the European Christian forces and those of the Ottoman Empire.

My real point is this: Knowledge without understanding is not very useful. Or put another way, as did George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Our society is so focused on the what, who, when, and where that we often forget to ask why. Americans think that our 230-year history, with perhaps half a century of being the leading nation-state in the world, means that we’ll always be the leading nation-state. Our Chinese rivals look at us and laugh, calling upon their history that’s at least ten times as long as ours, figuring that they can afford to be patient and surpass us gradually, if not this century, then perhaps the next one. For that matter, we homo sapiens sapiens think that our relatively brief span of being the dominant terrestrial creature means we’re the pinnacle of all creation, forgetting that we are but a blip in the multi-billion-year history of this planet, let alone the larger history of all of creation.

I didn’t start this out intending to sound quite so depressing, so let me try a different tack. I’d like to think that the history of violence in our species doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll always be that way. If we look at our nearest evolutionary cousins, the chimpanzees and the bonobos, one of those species (chimps) has evolved to be a rather nasty and violent species, while the other (bonobos) is much more attuned to social interaction and caretaking and altruism. Maybe we’ve reached the point as a species where it’s time to take more conscious charge of our evolution, and choose which path we desire to evolve along. Maybe it’s not genetically impossible for us to cognitively choose to be more like the bonobos and less like the chimps. Now, just because I’d like to think this doesn’t mean it’s true. Maybe it’s neither true nor false just yet (does that sound enough like Schrödinger’s cat?); maybe it won’t be either until we as a species reach some final tipping point to ultimately push us in one direction or another. Where is that tipping point? I don’t know, but it doesn’t make sense for us to assume that it’s millions of years away. What does make sense is for us to find a way above the day-to-day preoccupations that weigh so many of us down, and take the time to gain a little more perspective on our journeys, individual and collective.

02 March 2006

Lenten reflections

I received my law school alumni magazine in the mail a couple of days ago (yes, I’m a lawyer, but as I like to say, not in the pejorative sense of the term), and was flipping through the listings in the back where the vast accomplishments of people you went to school with are touted. I ran across this one guy from my class who had just made partner at a big-shot NYC law firm. I thought yeah, I sort of remember him, but I didn’t take much notice of it. Then I flipped back further to indulge my morbid thoughts and checked out the “In Memoriam” section. Yep, you guessed it – that brand new NYC partner was dead. A bit of online research revealed that he had a heart attack.

In case you’re not familiar with New York law firms, here’s a typical workweek for an associate: Start a little late, say around 8:30 or 9:00. Work through lunch. Send out for dinner. Have the firm call you a car to take you home, leaving the office around 9:00 or 10:00 at night. Go home to a tiny apartment in the city, or to a nicer house an hour away. Repeat, six days a week, sometimes seven. Put in 60 to 70 billable hours a week at a minimum if you want to be assured of moving up the partnership track (meaning that you actually have to work 80 hours or more a week). Make really big bucks, but have little or no time to spend them, let alone time to spend with your family. Claw your way up to the corner office, and then fall over dead of a heart attack at your desk.

Sound a bit too stereotypical, or perhaps a bit hyperbolic? In the case of my former classmate, unfortunately, it wasn’t. Now I don’t know what this guy was like – reports I read said that he was a fine fellow with good friends and the like. What I do know, simply by virtue of the partnership he attained, is that he had to give up a whole lot of other experiences in his life to get there, things like time, and a lack of stress.

There’s an old saying – no one lies on his or her deathbed thinking “Damn, I wish I had spent more time at the office”. The teachings of many great spiritual leaders warn of the dangers of trusting in material security. They all mostly parallel the words of one of my favorite contemporary popular philosophers, J. Buffett:

Disregard confession
Stop trying to make impressions
On your corporate climb
It might come as quite a shock
But you can’t really own that rock
It’s just a waste of time

In the Christian calendar, Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, which occurred yesterday. Everyone’s familiar with Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, so named because historically it was a time to eat up before the Lenten discipline of fasting. Lent runs until Easter, and the forty days of Lent (they don’t add up, because Sundays don’t count in the forty days; they’re traditionally “feast days”) are to be marked by prayer and fasting, in keeping with the forty days that Jesus was said to have spent in the desert fasting near the beginning of his ministry.

For Christians, Lent is a time of reflection, of contemplation of one’s mortality, of the ephemeral nature of life, a time to reckon and reconcile one’s values and priorities with the way one is actually living. Lent is also traditionally a time where believers “give up” something – in the past, this meant actual total fasts, or fasting one or two days a week. This evolved into a Catholic practice of not eating red meat on Fridays – thus the ubiquity of fish sandwich specials at every single fast food restaurant in South Bend, Indiana during Lent. Other Christians use the time to give up a bad habit – smoking, drinking, cussing, etc. Among the observant, the choice of Lenten sacrifice is often a popular topic of conversation.

But this practice doesn’t have to be limited to Christian believers. I invite each of you this season to consider a personal sacrifice that will improve your spiritual journey. Don’t necessarily think of Lent as “giving up” something either – perhaps what you could “give up” is twenty minutes every morning to meditate. But, if you’re looking for something else as a discipline, may I be so bold as to suggest some things to give up that will improve your spiritual (and physical, for that matter) health? How about giving up your corporate climb, your clawing to the top floor corner office? Give up your commute that requires you to drive two hours a day in execrable traffic and figure out a more sane way of making a living. Give up the notion that material security will bring you happiness, or even security. Give up the quest to buy that bigger house, or that Canyonero SUV. Give up the standards of modern American society that define success in ways that are really whacked. Instead, measure your success in life by the amount of kindness you show to other creatures, human and otherwise. Measure success by the number of dogs and cats you pet, or the aromas and tastes you enjoy, or the sunsets on the beach you experience. Measure success by the laughter and tears you share with family and friends. And give up those things that keep you from achieving that kind of success.

Be at peace.

27 February 2006

Further Grease-fire info

First, I must apologize to my faithful readers (both of you) for my lack of postings over the past week and a half. Most of my free time has been devoted to planning the celebrations for my spouse's 40th birthday party, a milestone I myself commemorated quite some time ago. This not being one of those blogs that assumes everyone wants to see pictures of said blogger's personal goings-on, I won't bore you with photos of the aforementioned party; however, those of you who know me and my spouse in our non-blog lives can feel free to email me requesting said pics.

Back to the business at hand. You'll recall my last post about the era of censorship descending upon the good citizens of Fulton, Missouri. I just remembered that this was the town where Winston Churchill popularized the term "Iron Curtain" - ironic, isn't it, now that we've defeated the Soviet Union with its state-controlled media and rampant censorship, the local school board gets to exercise its own version of state censorship.

Anyway, I digress. In that last post, I mentioned having informed Dr. Enderle, the superintendent, of my article, and invited his comments. I also sent an email to Ms. DeVore, the drama teacher under fire. Dr. Enderle hasn't responded (no surprise), but Ms. DeVore did send a comment to my blog with some updates on the situation. Since I know that not everyone bothers to backtrack and read comments on prior posts, I wanted to make sure her comments were broadcast herein in a more accessible manner:

Good evening,

I just wanted to send a note to say thank you for your kind words of inspiration regarding the NYT's article. As you can imagine, it has been crazy here in Fulton, MO. Everyday brings new stories, letters and emails.

Last week was a rather frustrating as the Fulton Sun; our local paper who started this coverage, posted a letter from Dr. Enderle stating that the show was never "banned" as well as mentioning that he came to talk to the students the day the article came out. This was distressing to the students because they and I felt that he had "used them" to make himself look better. Another slap in the face for them.

Unfortunately, they will not be able to let people know this because the Fulton Sun made a statement that it agreed with Dr. Enderle and would no longer post letters about this topic. Underneath the printed article was a passage from the bible Proverbs 18.2 (this is only in the printed ed., not the on-line ed).

[Blogger's editorial note: this verse reads "A fool does not delight in understanding, but only in revealing his own mind", or alternatively, "but that his heart may discover itself".]

I am not a vengeful person by nature and had agreed to let this fade away and to focus on looking for options for new employment for next year (still no word on my contract at this point). However, this second injustice to the students as well as his denial of the facts, makes it hard.

I am not writing this letter to stir up more anger or provoke anything, but to thank you, make the truth known, keep you updated on a situation in which you expressed a great interest.

Thank you again for your kind words.

Wendy DeVore

14 February 2006

Trouble right here in River City!

[Consider this as my Valentine's Day card to all my teacher friends, who give us all so much to cherish.]

OK, so it’s actually a story from Fulton, Missouri. It seems that the local Fulton High School drama teacher, Wendy DeVore, has gotten herself into some trouble recently. According to this NYT story, she put on a high school production of the musical Grease, which is apparently the second most frequently performed musical on school stages (behind Seussical, go figure). Ms. DeVore apparently went to some efforts to soften some of the sharper edges of Grease, excising some profanity and having the kids smoke cigarettes instead of weed.

Anyway, these efforts apparently weren’t good enough for the good people of River City, I mean Fulton, at least not good enough for three of them (who all happen to belong to one particular conservative church). They wrote letters to the school superintendent, Dr. Mark Enderle, complaining that the production featured scenes including kissing, drinking, smoking, and other “immoral behavior”. Dr. Enderle capitulated to the letter-writers and agreed that Grease was unsuitable for a high school in his district.

OK, so I can understand that the full version of Grease is pretty racy, although I have to admit that when I first saw the movie version in 1978, I completely missed the reference in the number Greased Lightning to the car’s being a…umm…vehicle for picking up chicks. But then again, I was a pretty conservative teenager; I also preferred Olivia Newton-John in her good-girl Sandy look, rather than her converted-greaser look at the end of the film, but that’s just me. Still, a PG-rated film that the school’s drama teacher edits further to make it less offensive seems like reasonable high school fare to me. And hey, if you don’t want your kid to take part in it, tell them not to audition – or maybe have your daughter accept the role of Sandy but not Rizzo. Oh, and if you don’t want to see it, don’t buy a ticket.

But the good Dr. Enderle didn’t stop there. Apparently concerned about future controversial subject matter, he went ahead and cancelled the school’s planned spring production, which just happens to be the second most frequently produced drama on school stages (number one is A Midsummer Night’s Dream). What’s the controversial play that the good people of Fulton needed to be protected from? Why, it’s none other than Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. According to an internal memo, Dr. Enderle cancelled this play after reading this description: "17th century Salem woman accuses an ex-lover's wife of witchery in an adaptation of the Arthur Miller play."

For those of you not familiar with Arthur Miller’s play, he wrote this in response to the “witch hunts” of his time, namely the Congressional hearings of the 1950s headed by Joe McCarthy seeking to weed out supposed Communist sympathizers. The play doesn’t focus on the affair, but rather on the hysteria and fear in the town of Salem during the witch trials.

Does the Fulton School District have no sense of irony? Their response to a handful of parents raising cries of outrage about a relatively benign musical is to cancel a play that’s critical of witch-hunt fear and hysteria? What’s next, banning Fahrenheit 451 (a classic book by Ray Bradbury about a future filled with book burnings) from the school libraries?

Where will these religious extremists strike next? Along with the efforts to ban the teaching of evolution, are we now in for a new plague of literary censorship? How can a school district that bans The Crucible possibly allow Romeo and Juliet, with its teenage romance and double suicide? What about the patricide and incest of Oedipus? And let’s not forget those who want to teach the Bible as literature in the schools – what about those polygamous patriarchs, or the supposedly virtuous King David who sends his lover’s husband into battle to be killed so he can have her to himself?

If you’re offended by this stuff as much as I am, get involved in your local school district. If you’re a parent, take part in those PTA meetings. If you’re politically inclined, check out some school board meetings. Oh, and if you want to give an earful to the Fulton, Missouri school district in support of Ms. DeVore, why not do what I did and email Dr. Enderle at Mark_Enderle@fulton.k12.mo.us. (Note: I have notified Dr. Enderle of this blog article and invited him to comment.)

There are real problems in our schools today – gang violence, teenage pregnancies, misguided federal programs that force teachers to “teach to the test” instead of teaching critical analytical skills (and burdening the local districts with unfunded federal mandates), and efforts to roll back decades of scientific educational advances. The arts and music and literature are already under enough pressure from budgetary and time constraints; let’s not let them fall victim to the axes wielded by the witch-hunters as well.

07 February 2006

Authentic Voices

I had an interesting conversation/session yesterday with a practitioner of both massage therapy and Reiki/energy work. If you’re already rolling your skeptical, anti-New-Age eyes, you probably won’t much care for the rest of this post either, but stick it out anyway, OK? Her basic “diagnosis” of me was that I had an overly protected heart, and that my center of power, my authentic voice, was somewhat blocked or repressed. She admitted, of course, that this is true of many people in our society, but she encouraged me to try to open up, loosen up, let that authentic voice flow forth freely, and to let myself be vulnerable and not so protected.

So let’s assume this is probably an accurate description of many of us. Our society hasn’t encouraged authentic voices, prophetic voices, voices of the heart, because it’s too preoccupied with productivity and power and protection (and frankly, fear). I’m reminded of a recent broadcast of the excellent radio program Speaking of Faith (note the permalink on my page). The host, Krista Tippett, was interviewing Pankaj Mishra, the author of An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World. Mr. Mishra described the Indian emperor Ashoka, who reigned shortly after the Buddha’s death. Quoting below:

Mr. Mishra: He was a great believer in conquest and expansion. And he conquered this Eastern Indian state of Kalinga. And after this conquest, which was very extremely successful but also very, very violent, he saw the enormous damage he had caused and the deaths of thousands and thousands of people, and he was suddenly struck by this great remorse and, you know, what he had done, and from that point, he kind of gave up violent conquest and violent wars and came sort of gradually to introduce Buddhist ideas into statecraft…he made nonviolence a kind of state policy whenever it was possible. Whenever it was viable, of course, he still had punishments for criminals, and he still had an army. But he tried as much as possible to combine Buddhist ideas of social welfare, compassion, and to be, you know, as a ruler, the model of righteousness…For instance, in the inscriptions that he had inscribed on stone and iron pillars and erected all across India, he'd say things like it's very difficult to do good because, you know, good and evil are unmixed things, and you have to worry about the consequences of doing good. All of these very complex ideas that he's thinking, which he shared with his subjects. Of course, now he would be accused of flip-flopping, not having clear ideas or having a decisiveness personality. But the very fact that he could see how the world was such a complex place and there wasn't such a clear-cut good and evil out there, that's, I find, something quite admirable about him.

Ms. Tippett: All right. So I think the problem is that an American, a modern American, might look at this history you tell and might still compare someone like Alexander and Ashoka, or 21st-century America and India, and say it's clear which version of reality, which ethos is on the winning side. Right? They would say simply this ethos of acquisition and building and progress and power is what, in fact, works in this world we inhabit. Now, how would you respond to that?

Mr. Mishra: Well, I'd very quickly challenge the notion that it works. Where is the evidence that it works? I mean, the 21st century has not started off very well. What I do see is a whole lot of confusion, a whole lot of bewilderment and a whole lot of hatred, a whole lot of violence out there…I'm completely unpersuaded by the notion that the systems we have are working. The fact of power obscures the failures, but the fact that you have to use violence all the time, you know, really points to the failure of all these systems in many ways.

A fascinating exchange, and I apologize for the lengthy quotation (I know, it’s a blogger’s easy way out of providing original content). A shorter quotation from a favorite philosopher of mine, J. Buffett, is also on point:

"Are we destined to be ruled by a bunch of old white men
Who compare the world to football and are programmed to defend?"

So I’m left to wonder – what if my massage therapist/Reiki practitioner is right? What if most of us, including me, really are blocked from speaking our authentic voices? Here’s a little experiment – I’m giving your authentic voice permission to come out right here and now. If your authentic voice were going to say something, what would it be? Leave me a comment and tell me what your authentic voice says – and after all, you can post anonymously if you’re a bit worried about that vulnerability stuff. I will exercise my prerogative to block any comments that simply flame or pooh-pooh someone else’s voice, but I’ll try not to censor much beyond that. Here’s your chance. Have at it. Peace.

03 February 2006

SOTU, part dos

This will be a short one, but I couldn’t let this news go by unmentioned. Remember that little speech Tuesday night wherein President Bush called on America to reduce its oil imports from the Middle East by 75 percent? You heard that number (assuming you stayed awake through SOTU), right?

Well, you apparently heard wrong, at least according to Samuel Bodman. Who’s he? (Disclaimer: I didn’t know either.) He’s the Secretary of Energy, you know, that Cabinet department that’s supposed to be doing things like, say, coming up with a comprehensive energy policy. Remember energy policies? We used to have one of those in the Carter administration…

Anyway, Secretary Bodman said that President Bush's words should not be taken literally. According to a NYT article:

In a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, Mr. Bodman said the goal of replacing 75 percent of Middle East oil imports to the United States with ethanol and other energy sources by 2025, a headline from the State of the Union address, was "purely an example" of what might be done.

“Purely an example”? Uh huh. One wonders, an example of what? Perhaps an example of yet more empty rhetoric, or Orwellian doublespeak, from an Administration that thinks the American public won’t notice, or can’t be bothered to notice.

So, Mr. President, perhaps you owe the American people a “SOTU part dos”. I propose that President Bush make another prime-time, nationally televised speech, in which he explains to us all just exactly which of the things he said on Tuesday night are meant to be taken at face value, and which, on the other hand, are “purely examples” of ideas that really shouldn’t be taken all that seriously. Because after all, we wouldn’t want to start using the term “flip-flopper”, would we? That’s just so last campaign cycle.

30 January 2006

SOTU, part uno

In his Friday NY Times column (registration - and possibly a subscription - required to view), Tom Friedman called on President Bush to use Tuesday's State of the Union address to move America "toward energy independence". Here's a brief excerpt:

If Mr. Bush steps up to that challenge, this speech could be a new beginning for his presidency. If he doesn't, you can stick a fork in this administration. It will be done because it will have abdicated leadership on the biggest issue of our day.

Of course, Mr. Friedman goes on to suggest that President Bush should phase in a $2 per gallon gas tax, using the proceeds to buy up SUVs and other gas-guzzlers and also to fund gas-tax rebates to lower-income folks. He concludes that this upward pressure on gas prices will result in vastly increased demand for fuel-efficient vehicles, thus forcing Detroit to shift its production toward these ends and concomitantly forcing Detroit to innovate better than Asian automakers.

Great ideas all, but will it happen? Of course not. Why not? For some initial thoughts on why not, peruse my letter to the NY Times in today's paper. I'll be submitting a longer op-ed piece on this topic in the coming days, tentatively entitled Prometheus v. Mars, so if it doesn't get picked up by the Times (admittedly a very long shot), I'll post it here for you, dear readers, in a week or so.

Meanwhile, if anyone has ideas for drinking or other viewing games to play during SOTU (the State of the Union), feel free to leave them as comments. I expect I'll have a few things to say about the speech on Wednesday, but I'm sure none of my comments will be as funny as whatever The Daily Show with Jon Stewart's take will be.

23 January 2006

The Other…Does Only the Shadow Know?

First, my thanks to my old friend (OK, so he’s not quite as old as I am) the Psych Pundit for stimulating the psychological orientation of this article, based on recent discussions we’ve had. You owe it to yourselves to check out his site.

In my last posting about the film Brokeback Mountain and its societal impact, I noted that the religious ultra-conservatives who are upset about the film (and about homosexuality in general) are perhaps motivated by “fear of the unknown, or fear of something different, or simply fear of the Other.” I went on to say, “there’s Jungian analysis that could be done there…”

Now, my friend the Pundit is not by any means a Jungian, although in previous private moments he has displayed some affinity for analytical and mythological perspectives (and not merely in his admiration of old Police songs). I, on the other hand, am much more mythically inclined when it comes to explaining human behavior. Thus, I see the Shadow as a solid explanatory archetype. Any discussion of the concept of the Shadow in under 1,000 words is naturally going to be lacking, but in brief, it’s essentially that part of a person’s psyche that is repressed, denied, and is home to many of our darker tendencies. As Jung put it:
Unfortunately there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual's conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected. (Psychology and Religion, 1938, in Collected Works 11: Psychology and Religion: West and East, p. 131)
Part of the danger of the Shadow is our tendency to project it onto other people or groups of people. This usually manifests itself in our establishing of dualities in the world, often in some sort of we/they grouping wherein we assign all undesired traits to “they”. Note that the Shadow isn’t necessarily limited to an individual person – it can also be applied by one group of folks to another group. In other words, we thrive on enemies, because they allow us to project our own darkness onto some other group of people (‘the Other”). Have you ever noticed that in movies, the only time that all of humanity is united is when we’re all fighting some extraterrestrial alien race? We humans can band together only when we have a bigger “Other” to combat.

For the religious ultra-conservatives who deplore homosexuality, the LGBT community is their current hot-topic “Other”. Now, I’m not suggesting that all homophobes are repressed closeted homosexuals (but there definitely are a few). I am suggesting that for whatever reason, these religious folks have decided that much of what’s wrong with today’s society can be ascribed to the growing tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality.

However, these days we don’t necessarily have to resort to mythological explanations for this human behavioral tendency. Now we have evolutionary psychology, natural selection, “selfish genes”, and the like. What’s the best way to make sure your genetic material is the stuff that gets passed along for eons of generations? Eliminate the competing genetic material (and by extension, those people who carry the competing genetic material)! But wait, who’s got which genes? Well, let’s see, that’s my brother, so he probably shares a lot of genetic material with me, so I’ll let him live. This other dude, however, I don’t know from Adam, so let’s take him out. Or, this guy’s a human, but those creepy green aliens clearly don’t have my genetic materials, so set phasers on kill!

Here’s a question – isn’t it about time that we as a species reach the point in our evolution where we can start consciously acting a little more frequently in ways that might conflict with our genetic imperatives? Where, as the critically acclaimed science writer Robert Wright might put it, we realize that life isn’t necessarily a non-zero sum game, where these kinds of we/they dualities have outlived their evolutionary utility? If so, how do we as a species get there?

I’ll leave the neuropsychological answers to that question to those more knowledgeable than I on such matters (perhaps the Pundit will take this on, or one of his colleagues?). From a spiritually inclined, quasi-Jungian perspective, though, I’d say that consciousness, self-awareness, self-knowledge is key. As Jung himself put it:
The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge. (Aion, 1951, in Collected Works 9, Part II, p. 14)

17 January 2006

Storm brewing over the mountain

Brokeback Mountain, that is. Don’t worry, you won’t read any spoilers in this posting (unless you don’t know that it’s a gay cowboy movie, in which case you should have stopped reading already…oops, sorry about that).

In my humble film critiquing opinion - and I only got a B in my college Intro to Film class, but then again, that was partly because in the final I discussed how Apocalypse Now drew on the themes of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, while my hippie-dippy 1960s throwback professor thought it was just all about how bad the Vietnam War was, but I don’t hold grudges, nope, not me…where was I? Oh right, my humble opinion – this was an outstanding film with a compelling storyline about a frustrated, bittersweet romance, absolutely gorgeous cinematography, and several top-notch acting performances. I’ve always been a fan of Ang Lee’s work, and if you’re not familiar with his oeuvre, you should definitely check him out.

What’s been remarkable about the public reaction to Brokeback Mountain is the relative lack of protests it’s engendered, at least to this point. The studio’s strategy was to start with a limited, bi-coastal release, figuring that audiences in NY and LA would be the most receptive to the film’s themes. As the release spread across the country, it was still limited to certain theatres with more gay-friendly demographics (e.g., if you lived way out in the suburbs, you might have to drive into town a bit to find it). After last night’s Golden Globes where it won four awards (including Best Picture – Drama and Best Director), making it a front-runner for the Academy Awards, it will probably start getting more widespread screenings. This has all been a very intentional strategy on the part of the studio, Focus Features (owned by NBC Universal), to warm up the public receptivity to the film’s potentially controversial themes.

But the studio hasn’t been the only one with a strategy. As I noted, there have been relatively few protests about this film – no calls to boycott NBC, not many picket lines outside of theatres (although some theatres have, no doubt, avoided protests simply by declining the film). This is due in large part to the fact that the conservative Christian machine has told its followers to leave the film alone. In short, their strategy to date has been “ignore it and hope it goes away”. However, now that it has major Oscar momentum, it will be much harder to ignore. I expect that the religious ultra-conservatives will now shift into high gear to do battle against what they perceive to be an abomination, namely, the normalizing and mainstreaming of homosexuality in American society.

Mind you, I think the religious ultra-conservatives have every right to hold homophobic opinions – this is America, where every person has the right of free speech, and hopefully free thought as well. They can have churches where gay folks aren’t allowed, and that’s their prerogative. (How they could ever recruit enough choir directors and tenors is beyond me, but that’s another matter.) Where they cross the line is when they seek to impose their beliefs on the rest of us. As my high school history teacher liked to say, “My rights cease to exist when I trample on your rights.” You don’t want to see a movie about a love story that happens to be about two gay cowboys? Do what I do when it comes to horror movies, or teenage romances, or anything with Paris Hilton in it – don’t buy a ticket!

What motivates these religious ultra-conservatives, I think, is fear. Fear of the unknown, or fear of something different, or simply fear of the Other. There’s Jungian analysis that could be done there, as well as lots of discussions about gay marriage, but I’ll have to leave all that for a subsequent posting. For now, if you haven’t seen Brokeback yet, I would urge you to give it a shot. And for that matter, I would be remiss if I didn’t also urge you to go see Syriana, another of my favorites from this year. As George Clooney described it last night, it’s not intended to be a critique of the current Administration, but rather a critique of 60 years of failed Middle East policies. A caveat: there are some pretty intense scenes of violence and torture in Syriana (and some disquieting ones in Brokeback also), but I didn’t consider them to be gratuitous. If you’re looking for somewhat more gratuitous violence, you can borrow my tape of the 24 premiere…

05 January 2006

You know you’re worrying the opposition when…

…your opponents suddenly start acting worried about you. Such seems to be the case for the “Religious Left”, as shown by the recent NY Times op-ed piece by Joseph Loconte, a Heritage Foundation research fellow and regular commentator on National Public Radio. Mr. Loconte attacks Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, among others, for using religious language to advance their political agendas, warning that they are destined to “replicate the misdeeds of the religious right.”

But what exactly is Mr. Loconte’s objection to “religious progressives”? Is it their tactics? I don’t think so. After re-reading his article several times and scratching my head repeatedly (and I use a good anti-dandruff shampoo), it seems to me that his main objection is the content of their messages, rather than their style. What he really doesn’t like is that the religious progressives have agendas that include “global warming, debt relief and the United Nations Security Council.” all obviously repellent policy considerations for Mr. Loconte.

He cites Professor Stanley Hauerwas’ contention that America has, at times, acted arrogantly in its foreign policy and that some folks out there in the world are legitimately upset with us, and goes on to describe this position as being morally equivalent to the Falwells and Robertsons of the religious right who initially claimed that the feminists and gays brought God’s wrath upon America in the form of the 9/11 attacks. Similarly, he asserts that while the Bible is a fine source of moral and spiritual insight, it’s “wrong to treat it as a substitute for a coherent political philosophy.” Unfortunately, Mr. Loconte forgets to quote the one candidate who cited Jesus Christ as his “favorite political philosopher” in the 2000 Presidential debates (hint: It wasn’t Al Gore).

Mr. Loconte does get it right on a couple of points. It is noteworthy that many conservative and evangelical religious groups (not always the same thing, although he conflates the two) are leading the fight to combat international sex trafficking, and are trying to rouse the American conscience with respect to Darfur. The left, by and large, has been too late to the table on these issues, and now should be playing rapid catch-up if it wants to maintain any sense of legitimacy on human rights issues.

Then again, those who cite Jesus as an influence on their foreign policy (see Presidential candidate above) must wrestle with the difficult question of Jesus’ own pacifism, even extending to his lack of self-defense – to loudly call oneself a follower of Jesus on the one hand and advocate for the widespread use of military force on the other yields a cognitive and spiritual dissonance that should be called to account. I’m not saying that a coherent case can’t be made for just war theory – I’m only saying that no one in the present Administration has seemed to want to bother to make that case, preferring instead the easier Old Testament imagery of a vengeful God smiting all enemies of his chosen people.

Mind you, I’m all for the separation of church and state – which means no establishment, and no hindering of free exercise either. But there’s a technical theological term for one who regularly champions the faith-based agenda of one side of a debate while disallowing faith-based claims from the other side. That term, a favorite of Jesus’, is “hypocrite.”

04 January 2006

New year, new wineskins

By popular request (no, really), I’m reposting here a revised, slimmed-down version of a homily I delivered on New Year’s Day. Yes, believe it or not, there actually exists a church that would allow me in the pulpit, on rare occasion.

The primary text for the day was this teaching of Jesus:

Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.

Another text was the Ecclesiastes passage that everyone who can remember music from the 1960s knows, from the Byrds song Turn Turn Turn – to everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven, etc.

So here’s what I had to say about all that:

This idea of new wine and new wineskins always confused me, so I did a bit of research. When Jesus was talking about new wine, he meant really new, as in freshly pressed grape juice that’s still fermenting and bubbling. This new wine would burst out of the old, less flexible, drier wineskins. In order to store the new wine, you needed new, supple, expandable wineskins to allow the new wine to ferment, age, and ripen.

To digress just a bit – the fermentation process of wine is necessary in order for it to ripen and taste better. If you’ve ever had Beaujolais Nouveau, you know what I’m talking about – this is the wine that’s released in November as the first wine of the vintage, so it’s only been aging a couple of months. It tends to taste young, fizzy, and not particularly complex or interesting. Generally speaking, the best wines have been allowed to ferment, bubble, age, grow, and change over time.

Likewise, each of us is (hopefully) on a spiritual journey toward enlightenment that is constantly evolving, growing, maturing. Our spiritual self, however you choose to define that, retains its basic nature – it’s still grape juice – but its essence changes. It’s no longer just simple juice, but now it’s a fine, exquisite, complex wine.

How are we like old wineskins? What can we do to transform ourselves into new, flexible, softened wineskins that allow the Spirit to work within us, allow for all that bubbling up and bursting forth?

In the Buddhist tradition known as Shambhala, there’s a book called The Sacred Path of the Warrior. It describes the essential part of the sacred warrior as being his or her heart. And what do you think is the essential characteristic of that heart? How must an ordinary heart be changed, transformed, to make it a warrior’s heart? You might expect that it needs to be strong, or solid, or steadfast, or perhaps full of courage (insert your best Cowardly Lion impression here).

But no. What this Shambhala teaching says is that the essence of a warrior’s heart is that it is broken. Broken, soft and vulnerable. Only with a heart that is already broken, open wide, vulnerable, flexible, pliable, moveable, is a warrior able to go out and do battle in the world.

Does this sound familiar? It sounds to me a lot like needing to have new wineskins - new, soft, flexible wineskins in order to accommodate the bubbling, bursting, new wine activity of the Spirit within each of us.

What about the church, or any other community of seekers, as a whole, as a body? How can such a body be like new wineskins? There are a couple of things I heard recently that come to mind.

As I often do, this year I listened to the live Christmas Eve broadcast of the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols from the Chapel of King’s College at Cambridge University in England. This is a venerable tradition in an amazing setting – I’ve been to Cambridge University – this place looks like the Great Hall at Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films. The choirmaster for this service explained the reason for adding brand new songs and changing certain things around each year this way – he said it was the way in which he “nurtured” the traditions. Not eliminating traditions, but “nurturing” them, keeping them alive by continually refreshing them, adding new life to them.

Now how can a faith community nurture tradition and transform itself into a vibrant community? Here’s one radical idea – what if it was committed to radical hospitality, radical inclusion, radical welcoming? Instead of being frightened of folks who are different, open your doors to them all, male or female, black, white, or brown, gay, straight, bi, or anyone anywhere on the rainbow we call human.

Here’s another “radical” idea – what if a community became a radically prophetic voice in society? Not “prophetic” as in predicting the future, but prophetic as in speaking truth to power, as in striving to bring about a “new heaven and new earth.” A full-throated prophetic voice like the prophets of old – Isaiah, Elijah, Jeremiah – and like the new prophets – King, Gandhi, Bono – who cry out for justice, peace, and love.

The other thing I heard recently was a description of what a religious/faith institution is, or actually what it’s not, supposed to be. It is not a museum. It doesn’t exist simply to house a bunch of dusty paintings and statues and artifacts – and rituals and practices and beliefs - for curious onlookers to come and browse and stare at. Rather, it should be, must be, a living, breathing, organic body, with a beating, soft, broken, open and vulnerable heart.

Because after all, the broken, open, vulnerable heart – is the heart of God.