Wednesday, March 31, 2010

AUTOMATIC WRITING?


Once, in a previous parish, a woman handed me a notebook of her “automatic writings,” and wondered what I thought of the phenomenon. Of course I didn’t have the truthful courage to tell her that I thought it was poppycock, so I nodded and said, “There just may be something to it…” and words to that effect. This was many years ago, and I’d forgotten all about it, until, a few weeks ago, I had a vivid dream and awakened with the poem, below, forming in my head, about three-quarters finished. When I was fully awake, I went to the computer and wrote it out.

I realize that the product of a dream is not exactly the same thing as what is meant by automatic writing (“the writer’s hand forms the message, with the person being unaware of what will be written”), but I’ve never experienced anything like it before.

I’m no poet, and I do not offer this as such. But I find it tremendously amusing. I woke up laughing, and I laugh every time I read it. (Note: In reality, Jeff is my friend and brother-in-law, who has a hearing loss which dictates which place at a table will be most advantageous for him – I must be working out some hidden resentment here. The other characters are fictional – and came with the dream.)


For Jeff: A Dream

Because of his “hearing loss,”
Jeff needed to be seated
at the middle of the table
between Daphne and the sparkling Lisette.
The only chair left for me was
at the end, across from
Hrulff, the silent.
(Silent except
for the unintelligible story
about his colon.)
Midway through the interminable meal
I glanced up. Lisette’s eyes were shining,
Daphne’s head thrown back in laughter.
They weren’t looking at me.

Next time I’ll play maitre’ d:
“Ahh, Lisette, you sit here;
Daphne – here.
Good evening, Hrulff,
this will be your place –
Jeff will be here soon, you’ll
have to tell him that amusing
story about the clinic….
Ah, here he is now. Jeff, you sit…
No, not there! That’s my….”

Saturday, March 27, 2010

PUT THE TRUTH OUT ON THE STREET AND LET IT TAKE CARE OF ITSELF


Although I fully subscribe to the science of evolution and cosmology, my main interest in it – as a pastor, parent, and teacher – is the faith of our children, and this faith is threatened far more by a misguided and ignorance-based insistence on teaching certain parts of the Bible as science than it is by exposing our kids to the most rigorous and challenging scientific thinking. Even if some try to protect them from it, children will eventually be introduced – in high school or college or through their own reading or curiosity – to modern science. At that point, if they have been led to believe that they must choose between science and faith, they will either give up on science, or – more likely – they will leave their faith behind. Either of these choices is a tragedy, because it is a false choice, one that neither the Bible nor faith asks them to make.

Genesis, and, indeed, all the books of the Bible, stake a claim on the truth, yes, but literal scientific factualness was a non-issue for the ancient writers and readers of a pre-scientific age. The Bible is a multi-century collection of different kinds of books (poetry, hymns, history, love songs, letters, sermons, etc.), and people of faith have always used their capacity for thinking and reasoning to interpret them. If I tell my daughter that she is a gem, I am communicating something truthful to her, yet no one would even consider discussing whether or not she is really (“literally”) a gem. The Christian does not exist who does not use some kind of judgment to decide which aspects of scripture are to be interpreted literally and which are to be understood metaphorically, and Martin Luther reminded us that “plain reason” is a partner with Holy Scripture in understanding the word of God.

There are two distinct accounts of creation in Genesis (different authors, different styles). The first account ends and the second begins in the middle of what we call Chapter 2, verse 4. (Those helpful monks who outlined the text with chapters and verses a few hundred years ago didn’t always locate the most logical breaks.) In the first account, the method of creation is simply the spoken word: “Let there be….” In the second it is a hands-on process: God forms a mud-man and breathes life into him; God plants a garden. The first account has the sound and repetition of a liturgy; the second is a narrative, a story. To attempt to correlate either of these with the instruments of science is to miss the real questions the writers are addressing (For example, the main question addressed in the second Genesis account is, “If God meant the world to be good, how did it get so messed up?”)

And then there’s the book of Job. In the 38th chapter of this book we come upon yet another explanation of creation, in a narrative in which God himself tells the story. In this delightful and somewhat sarcastic exchange, God is saying, in effect, “Tell me about it if you think you know so much!” and the passage suggests still another method of creating: the builder’s arts of carpentry and construction:
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?... Who stretched the measuring-line upon it?... Who laid its cornerstone?... Who shut in the sea with doors and made it fast with a bolted gate?... Who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens?”
Next time you hear someone say, “I believe literally in the creation story of Genesis,” I propose two questions; 1) “Which one?” and 2) “What about Job 38?” If a creationist reading of Genesis requires a literal Adam and Eve, for example, and is used to launch expeditions to seek Noah’s Ark, then shouldn’t this declaration to Job from the mouth of God cause us to develop science projects such as, “How big are the bolts on the doors which hold back the sea?” and “Where should we travel to find the cornerstone or the pillars of the earth?” I suspect that even literal creationists read these as metaphors, but why? Why is this passage less worthy of a literal interpretation than those in Genesis? And if there are no literal gates holding back the sea, then what is the writer trying to say? Do we look for a scientific meaning or a theological one?

We don’t need to protect our children (or the Bible) from scientific inquiry. We can “put the truth out on the street and let it take care of itself.” We can teach our children that there is no conflict between the theological world-view of Genesis and the discoveries of science.  We can be at least as open-minded as reformer John Calvin (hardly a flaming liberal), who, in 1557, wrote:
Genesis described in popular style what all ordinary men without training perceive with their ordinary senses. Scientists, on the other hand, investigate with great labor whatever the keenness of man’s intellect is able to discover. Such study is certainly not to be disapproved, nor science condemned with the insolence of some fanatics who habitually reject whatever is unknown to them.*
 With John Calvin, people of faith can see science (“whatever the keenness of intellect is able to discover”) as a kind of “third testament” to the creative will of God, and not as an enemy.

The Roman Catholic Church only recently (1992!) admitted that it was a mistake to try to silence Galileo and his theories over 300 years ago. Sadly various school boards and whole church bodies (this time influenced by a blinders-on fundamentalism) are making the same mistake regarding evolution. I don’t want them teaching my kids – in church or in school.


*Ironically, the Texas School Board just replaced Thomas Jefferson with John Calvin in its outline of the study of civilization's ideas. Thus, I propose that this quote be engraved over their office door.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT THIS WEATHER?... AND THE QUADRATIC RECIPROCITY THEOREM?


A recent study (as reported in this New York Times article) indicates that the more we engage in conversations of some length and depth (what the study calls “substantive” conversations) the happier we are, and that people whose social interaction is heavily weighted toward “small talk” are less happy. According to the article, the study doesn’t answer the obvious question: Is it that happy people engage in deep conversations, or that deep conversations make us happy? (That, apparently, is the subject of some follow-up research.)

In a BBC interview, the author of the study acknowledged that healthy-minded people certainly engage in conversation at both levels, but that small talk for those in the happy group is probably limited to about 10% of interactive time – kind of like “How ‘bout them Yankees?” at the beginning of a cocktail party discussion before entering deeply into a twenty-minute tete-a-tete on the relationship between the current value of the Euro and the New York Stock Exchange.

Although my example sounds flippant, my intention is not to mock. I am one who hungers for conversation, and I find this research encouraging (though I am happy to report that the study comes to no apparent conclusion about the importance of the deep conversationalists knowing what they’re talking about!).

Interestingly, the study doesn’t delve into its application to new social networks like Facebook, etc., but it certainly hints at some logical conclusions: I enjoy – to a degree – the clipped and often witty Facebook exchanges between and among dozens of friends – including (though to a lesser extent) friends of friends. They even elicit witty repartee from me. But this kind of interchange seems to have a built-in fatigue trigger – after a while it’s literally no fun. With close and long-time friends, I switch to e-mail or telephone and – although they must speak for themselves – I’ve never received an e-mail from a friend that I thought was too long. I contend that a multi-day braided e-mail conversation among three friends discussing a subject at some depth approaches the same kind (though surely not the same degree) of fulfillment as a lengthy confab over a glass of wine or a cup of coffee. (I’m not the only one who may be a challenging Facebook friend because of the difficulty of keeping those short “comments” from turning into something like little essays.) As an old friend said in an initial Facebook exchange: “Hey, this is just like e-mail – only less convenient!”

At the risk of damning with faint praise, Facebook has its place -- and I'm increasingly glad to be part of it. When you think about it, Facebook is almost a literal (and, I think, positive) response to John Updike’s existential invitation: “We are all so curiously alone, but it’s important that we keep making signals through the glass,” so I do not conclude (from this study) that happy people are on e-mail and unhappy people are on Facebook. I conclude, rather, that too much Facebook (or Twitter, or “how ‘bout them Yankees” or People Magazine) can bring you down. (One can quibble with the exact figure, but 10% sounds about right.) Like the couch potato (in me) who needs to get out into the sun, the Facebooker (in all of us) needs to "hie thee to a coffee shop" and have a good old-fashioned bull session.

(I'd love to hear your views on this.  Maybe on Facebook!)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

THE FREEHOLD

He who would study the scriptures must have much leisure. ~Sirach 38:24

For a few years now, a friend and I have engaged in an on-again, off-again debate over the question of why some people enter the laboring trades while others (as a matter of vocation) pursue what is sometimes called “the life of the mind” of philosophy, literature, and art. For neither of us was this a question of basic intelligence, but my friend thought it was primarily a matter of interest and aptitude – that the guy on the scaffold (for example) was unlikely to produce a work of poetry or philosophy because he simply didn’t have any interest in it. However, as I thought about it, it seemed that, historically at least, it has more to do with time and opportunity. That is to say that those who work in the various fields of “labor” have just as much intellectual potential (and potential interest) to produce a great poem, philosophical system, or work of art as anyone else – it’s just that, at the end of the day -- and over the course of a lifetime -- they’re too tired.

(Our conversations are essentially glorified college bull sessions, and we are probably both right, but here I will carelessly leave my friend’s side of the argument behind as I make my case.)

A survey of the history of literature and the arts demonstrates that the great works have been produced – to a disproportionate degree – by a) those wealthy enough to be free of the need to work, and b) those who accepted poverty in pursuit of their art. (A variation on these categories is the poor artist supported by the commission or patronage of the wealthy.) In each case, the result was, to put it simply, that they had time to read, write, compose, paint. This leaves the working man who – accidentally or on purpose – had committed himself to supplying his family with food and shelter by the only means at his disposal -- his physical labor -- and thus had to work so many hours in a day that he probably invented the phrase, “he was asleep before his head hit the pillow,” but was too tired to write it down. If he wasn’t poor, he would have been if he bought pen and ink and took time to cast his thoughts and dreams onto paper.

It goes without saying that there have always been exceptions, but this is the way it was, and -- in much of the world -- is. Its persistence down through the generations is the main theme of Thomas Gray's, “Elegy in a Country Churchyard,” written in 1768.

   Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
   Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
   Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway'd,
   Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre:

   But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page,
   Rich with the spoils of time, did ne'er unroll;
   Chill Penury repress'd their noble rage,
   And froze the genial current of the soul.

There are two other categories for our consideration and placement in this speculative scheme: The “gentleman farmer” and the clergyman. The gentleman farmer is a man of the soil and of the mind – he goes off to be educated and comes back to work the land. (I realize that this title originally had to do with one who was wealthy enough to have others do the work, but it has come to define one who understands the organic connection between hand-smarts and head-smarts.) Some of my best friends are gentlemen farmers. (How the rise of the modern middle class and a more accessible path to higher education alters my neat analysis is a subject for another essay.)

And clergymen?  I sometimes envy the Victorian stereotype of the rector as a “kept man,” pottering in his study, breaking for tea, then attending the parish flower show up at the manor-house. (This is an exaggeration of the Church of England's "freehold" system, in which the vicar essentially had ownership rights to his parish, and was, in a way, "lord of all he surveyed.") I have to say that the modern pastor’s job description is more like “the man who mounted his horse and rode off in all directions.” Yet I do not want to be disingenuous about (or give up on) the built-in need in this calling for what the Anglican Church refers to as “reflective ministry,” and what the Book of Sirach calls, simply, “leisure:” Time, that is, to study, read, and write. (See introductory line, above.)

We are discovering that, in a humane civilization, all occupations and professions ought to offer a measure of flexibility in the work schedule. (It was, after all, the pre-conversion Scrooge who told Bob Cratchitt, "Be here all the earlier next morning!") And studies show that flex-time even helps the bottom line. So rather than succumbing to the lure of workaholism (an illness), the pastor can model a healthy balance in his or her own life, and support such balance in the lives of members of the parish and the community. Gold, perhaps, has been the most pursued; but time the most valued resource after all.

John Donne, who delivered powerful sermons from the pulpit of St. Paul’s in London from 1621 till his death in 1631, also wrote volume after volume of religious (and love!) poetry during those years. R.S. Thomas, who died in 2000 after forty years as a rural vicar in the Church of Wales and who wrote thirty books of (Nobel-nominated) poetry in that time, said frankly, after he retired, that it was the “Anglican freehold” that allowed him time to write. I trust that the reflective hours in the Rev. Donne’s London townhouse and Father Thomas’ country parsonage also resulted in caring ministry, but the world is grateful to their parishioners for granting them the time.

_________________________________________________

R.S. Thomas d. 2000
John Donne d. 1631




Thursday, March 11, 2010

MY FAVORITE JOKE


After years of trial and error, a team of scientists had at last been successful in creating life in their laboratory. They uncorked a bottle of champagne and engaged in a round of congratulatory back-slapping. The chief scientist called the raucous gathering to order and said, “I guess the first thing we have to do is let God know that he’s no longer needed.” They all agreed, and deputized a young member of their group to deliver the message. The scientist made an appointment with God, and was ushered cordially into His office. “Yes, my son, what can I do for you?” “Well, er… Mr. God, sir, you see, it’s like this…, we scientists have created life now, so, well, you’re no longer needed; you’re free to go.”

“I see,” said God. “Well, that may be, but, just to make sure, I propose we have a man-making contest.” “Certainly,” said the young scientist.” “You go first,” said God. “All right,” said the scientist, as he bent over and scooped up a handful of soil. “No no no!” said God; you get your own dirt.”


____________________________________________________________________________
Disclaimer: This, my favorite joke, is not an advertisement for “creationism” (which I don’t buy. As a pastor I believe and teach that there is absolutely no conflict between evolutionary biology, cosmology, and the Christian faith or its texts). Rather, I submit it as a commentary on my favorite question: “What was there before there was something?” (as discussed in an earlier post.)

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

SMILE WHEN YOU CALL ME THAT, MISTER


Life, I have discovered, is filled with little epiphanies. I had another one today.

A refugee family new to our country and our congregation experienced the tragic death of their teen-age son in an ice-related auto accident a few months ago. It was a multi-car crash and so, of course, has become a battle of insurance companies. The grieving father was told by relatives that he should get a lawyer, and – still “new to our ways” – asked me to ascertain if that was true, and to check out the recommended attorney. (I am humbled by the degree to which members of this refugee community are moved to “ask the pastor” about any number of things.) I did what I could, and ended up feeling that, yes, a lawyer would be good for them, and yes, this guy seems OK.

It’s interesting, however, that as I was checking on the lawyer, I assumed that he would be an ambulance-chasing sleaze-bag. After doing a little research and meeting with him with my friend, I was a little red-faced at how suspicious I had been. This is not to say that he is not, in fact, an ambulance-chasing lawyer (one who works on contingency and makes his income from a healthy share of the settlement – no charge to the client), that is, if you want to engage in the stereotypical labeling of a personal injury attorney. (Yes, yes, I know -- some deserve the epithet. I haven’t become that dewy-eyed over lawyers.)

I serve in an occupation that is vulnerable to stereotypes: To some, I’m the preacher-man; to others, no doubt, a snake-oil salesman. (I want to burst out in applause whenever I see a movie in which the clergyman is a regular guy.) My wife is a schoolmarm; my daughter is (must be) a hair-in-a-bun shushing librarian; my friend, the funeral director, is an ashen-faced, top-hat-wearing vulture hovering at the graveside; my doctor lives on Snob Hill and drives a Mercedes (well, that one is true… Just kidding!). Are you pigeon-holed with a stereotype, dear reader? Have you  – as I have – applied them to others? In Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink,” the author relates the tale of how a car salesman’s encounter with a hayseed farmer cured him (the salesman) of making judgments about customers as they walked through the door. (The crudely-dressed hick turned out to be one of the wealthiest clients the salesman had ever dealt with.)


But that’s not the epiphany. Here’s the epiphany (actually a long-forgotten memory) that came to me as I walked out of my meeting with the lawyer about whom I had contemplated such distrust: Forty years ago, my parents’ retirement was essentially financed by the proceeds of a personal injury lawsuit. My mother was struck, as a pedestrian in a crosswalk, by a car driven by a young man who had failed to clean the snow from his windshield. She was laid up for months and carried accident-related disabilities for the rest of her life. She never harbored an unkind thought or uttered an unkind word about the driver. It was a battle of insurance companies. The settlement was modest, but I (later) saw what they would have lived on with their pensions alone, and they ended up doing OK – that is to say, comfortable – with the help of an ambulance-chasing lawyer… I mean, a personal injury attorney. 

Saturday, March 6, 2010

WHO ARE YOU?

I have just finished reading a biography of the twentieth century Welsh poet, R.S. Thomas (“The Man Who Went Into The West,” by Byron Rogers): an outstanding example of the biographer’s art, no matter what one might think of poetry or this poet. Thomas will be ranked among the great religious poets of the ages (although his “religion” has as much to do with the absence of God as with his presence).

Thomas was always regarded as a rather difficult curmudgeon; in Roger’s book that characterization comes off almost as an understatement. The product of an emotionally warped childhood, he emerged into adulthood (and the Anglican priesthood) almost at the pathological end of the introversion scale (he once jumped over a cemetery hedge rather than stay and chat with the post-funeral mourners), and with a conflicted sense of self that was pulled back and forth between the Welsh background that he considered his real birthright, and the very English nature of his intellectual formation and his language. Serving in rural Welsh parishes for his entire career, he disdained any of his fellow-Welshmen who would not speak Welsh. (He in fact learned his “native” tongue as an adult – in night classes.) Yet he wrote in English because (he said) he had learned Welsh too late to be a poet in the language. In fact (and this is the point at which I come to the subject of this blog), in terms of his speech, R.S. Thomas, the most authentic of poets, was, it turns out, something of a poseur. As a self-conscious defense against the judgment of his backwoods parishioners, he adopted as a young man what his biographer calls “an extra cut-glass Oxford accent” that he carried through his life (when he wasn’t preaching or conversing with his parishioners in Welsh).

At that point in the story, I was tempted to cry, “Phony!” But it caused me to pause, and think. I wonder if most of us – maybe all of us – in our development, as we come to terms with our emerging sense of ourselves, don’t engage in posing as some kind of person or other – trying on personalities and styles that we see around us – whether consciously or sub-consciously. Certainly a person raised with a healthy ego and a sense of acceptance will become an authentic, self-differentiated individual, but that will undoubtedly involve trying on a hat or two along the way. Perhaps the posh accent was a pose for Thomas at 25; perhaps at 80 it was simply himself. (Some of Robert Frost’s biographers, too, claim that the “good gray farmer-poet” was something of a pose.)

In “The Nurture Assumption,” the child development researcher Judith Harris claims (and goes a good way toward proving) that a child’s personality and character are formed almost completely by her peers – the parents contributing very little. She summarizes the findings of her very sophisticated research with this simple observation: “When you were sixteen, whom did you most want to be like: your parents or your peers?”

I claim now to be one of those healthy-minded self-differentiated individuals, but I recall in my youth (about the same age that Thomas was when putting on that accent), being a shaggy-haired bold rebel like… like all of my peers.

And just when I think I have evolved and emerged fully differentiated: There was a time when I went out and bought a hat just like the one I had seen Ian Tyson wear on stage. I was fifty-five!


Have you, dear reader, been free from the pose?






                                                                                                          The author, posing.
                                                                                                                                                          


(The impertinent reflections in this blog post are the merest footnote to a footnote on the life and art of a sublime poet. You can see R. S. Thomas at 80, and hear that "cut-glass" accent, here.)



Wednesday, March 3, 2010

EVEN-STEVEN?

In the last few days I’ve heard a couple of different commentators make the point that, in the God – no-God debate, the burden of proof is on the believer to convince the non-, and not the other way around. This is a philosophical position that goes back at least as far as Bertrand Russell, the great logician. Who am I to argue with an actual logician, but, I wonder.

If God, for the sake of this conversation, is defined as an uncreated non-material entity, power, or force that initiated the coming into being of everything that is matter or energy, then is not the burden of proving that such an entity does or does not exist basically even?  To the old question: “What was there before there was something?” the two answers, 1)  “There was a non-something that brought something into being,” and 2) “There has always been something” are equally speculative and un-provable (in the material sense).

I’m not talking about a “personal” god or the Judeo-Christian God, or the God of the Bible, or Genesis, or Jesus; and I’m not talking about whether or not there is a “purpose” in creation. Just this non-material initiating entity for which I’m using “God” as a label. Too often in these kinds of debates the believer moves directly to the lordship of Christ, but that faith position has nothing to do with this question. And I’m not talking about trying to prove or disprove evolution, which, after all, is an explanation (to which I subscribe) of organic development and not ultimate origins.

And if the cosmologist was able to describe down to the precise nano-nano particle the stuff and energy that was present at the nano-pin-point-instant of the big bang, that, too, would have nothing to do with this debate. What was there before…? If some kind of energy force fluctuated and brought about the primal explosion, what was there before?

“In the beginning God said…,” and “In the beginning there was nothing and then it exploded” are equally incredible statements.

And if matter/energy had no beginning – are eternal – if the world simply “always was” (a case Bertrand Russell argues as cogently as it can be argued – see link, above), is that not a metaphysical definition of what might be called God?

(I acknowledge that, as a believer, there is no way that I can cast this debating question completely objectively, but I ask the reader to believe that my purpose in this post is not to convince anybody of anything spiritually. It is simply to make an attempt at formulating the debate, and to ask you to join me.)