“So you’re a divinity student, huh…?”

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I haven’t even started classes yet, but I had my first, “so you’re a divinity student, huh…?” conversation last night.

You know the one: where someone says “so you’re a divinity student, huh…?” and you say, “uhhh…” and they launch into a forty-minute monologue about life, the universe and everything that inevitably ends with the Ancient Aliens guy.

Because I work in a Church setting (I head the Church Street Ministry of First Parish Unitarian Universalist, which works with home- and food-security in Cambridge, Mass.) this isn’t a totally unexpected  scenario, and because it’s UU, the Ancient Aliens thing is also, um, not totally unexpected. 

Don’t get me wrong. I love talking to people about Ancient Aliens. See, I’m particularly interested in the individual and vernacular “deviations” from creeds and practices, their origins in oral traditions, nascent religions and religions like Christianity in their oral, incipient stages. I am always fascinated by how people are interpreting and utilizing the received wisdom of religious traditions, de- and re-contextualizing them, mixing, matching, recycling, re-purposing, and tweaking them for their own ends.

And while I am, in fact, delighted to hear from people about their beliefs, let’s call them, although we don’t really live in an age of belief so much as credulity, I emphatically reject the idea that divinity students have any more “insight on divinity,” as one friend recently put it. You can talk to literally anyone about literally anything and get insight into divinity. That may, in fact, be the main takeaway of divinity school for divinity students (I’ll let you know in three years when I finish my MDiv).

So, yeah: the conversation started with that ominous “so you’re in divinity school, huh?” And I knew immediately where it was headed. But it’s the journey, you know?  And this one started with a visit to a Catholic shrine where my fellow pilgrim observed a worshiper in deep thrall to a statue of the Blessed Virgin.

“Isn’t that idolatry?” He huffed.

I treated this as a sincere inquiry, not a rhetorical question, which I’m guessing is, like, Day 1 of Divinity Student 101, right? (Again, I’ll let you know).

The Cult of the Blessed Virgin is right up my alley, a great example of one of the developments of early Christology so central to the establishing of orthodoxy on the nature of Christ that borrows from ancient archetypes. It took 400 years to sort that out — it was not until the Council of Ephesus in 431 that the cult of the Virgin as Mother of God was finally sanctioned. It was in committee for half a millennium.

My traveling companion was more interested in the general issue of idolatry and pagan influence, as he saw it, as evidence of an inherent and irreconcilable internal contradiction (not to say conspiracy) in the Orthodoxy of the Church. (We’re about 1/5 of the way to Ancient Aliens, for those of you keeping track of our mileage.)

“Worshiping the likeness of the Virgin Mary,” he said, raising an eyebrow, “when, hey, didn’t God say something about ‘graven images’?”

I was like: “I mean, technically it came from the Finger of God rather than His Mouth, but, yeah, something like that.”

And then: “But here’s the thing…”

I’d just been reading about the Hellenization of Christianity in those first crucial years, and suggested nascent Christianity’s break from Judaism, particularly after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, and its incorporation into the imperialist project of the Roman Empire might have something to do with the more pagan elements of worship that have come down to us today. Early Christians distanced themselves from their Jewish roots, partly because their roots were ripped out of the ground. 

He pricked up his ears at the mention of Jerusalem, and, wresting the wheel, he took a sharp turn to the right, pulled into a dark alley, and picked up Louis Farrakhan, whom I had not even seen on the side of the road there! I mean, bowtie and all!

“Why,” he asked, a note of heightened indignation creeping into his voice, “do the Jews think that’s their land?” He didn’t wait for an answer, instead repeating Minister Farrakhan’s inflammatory contention that “the State of Israel has ‘no home’ in the Middle East and that the Holy Land does not belong to the ‘white Jew.’”

Now, I suppose I could have said WHOOAA. HEYYY. HEY NOW NO. PULL OVER. LET ME OUT OF THIS CAR.

But this is, as they say, The Work.

And anyway, we were now halfway to Ancient Aliens. I mean, let’s ditch Farrakhan at the next Gas Food Lodging. But I might as well stick it out, right? I could almost make out the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlán peeping up over the horizon up ahead, as we raced past a thousand years of Secret History via The History Channel.

“There are written records they don’t want us to see hidden in a room somewhere!” my comrade cried, his eyes bright as a fire worshiper on the twelfth day of Izcalli. “They’ve kept the truth from us!”

Not to be gendered about this, but I feel like the belief that there’s always a windowless room somewhere with the truth hidden away in a desk drawer is a very mansplainy way to look at truth. Because if it’s all stuffed in a file cabinet on Skull Island or whatever, you can always Mission: Impossible that shit, right? Just, like, bust in guns blazing and catch the Illuminati by surprise, steal back the truth and save the day!

I get it. The idea — you might even call it faith — that there is hidden proof is one of our species’ most persistent idées fixes. It may come from our early days digging for tubers and cracking the shells of nuts with stones.

The certainty that a staggering Truth is being hidden and withheld is part of our popular understanding of the forces of oppression at work in our world. It’s also a way we’ve been conditioned, or maybe condition ourselves to deny the power of our own truths. But what if what’s really being hidden on Skull Island is not the Truth that No One Must Know but the Truth That Everyone Knows?

My fellow seeker nodded sagely.

“Yeah,” he said, appreciatively. “You know, how is it that they’ve never found human remains in any of those pyramids in Mexico.”

I was like: “uhhh, I’m not sure that’s… ”

He gave me a significant look that cut me to the quick. We had arrived.

“I’m not saying it’s aliens, but…”

 

 

 

Back to The Garden

I am a Candidean in my heart of hearts. The garden is my church. Its lessons and parables make perfect sense to me, its rhythm, hymns, and liturgy are those of life, and are immediately recognizable as such. That’s because gardens (aside from sex and death) are always about returning.

I’ve always been a fan of the great outdoors. In the summers of my youth, my parents flung the screen door open at dawn and did not expect us back until dusk (except maybe for a PB&J around noon). I hiked a good portion of the Appalachian Trail in my twenties and worked in an orchard in New Hampshire on and off for years after college. But I didn’t get into gardening until later, in my thirties.

It started with a phone call. My father had been diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer. His prognosis was 6 months to a year. We had been semi-estranged, as they say, for some years, both seething from some unspoken insult, so common in relations between fathers and sons. He had not been The World’s #1 Dad. I had not been The World’s #1 Son. We both bore a ridiculous grudge about it, as you do.

I was living in Boston, and, of course, traveled back to Indiana to do what I could to help. I say of course, but to be 100% honest: I only offered because I fully expected them to say no. I knew there wouldn’t be much I could do. Maybe lend a hand around the house, run errands. I had never faced anything quite like this, and had not an inkling of what was involved, thank God. Because had I known I would have sent thoughts and prayers and missed out on what was one of the most profound, complex, sad, joyous experiences of my life.

It was December, and as bleak a homecoming as you can imagine. My father had just had emergency surgery to have a tumor in his brainstem removed. He had had a round of radiation, and had fallen ill with pneumonia. We spent Christmas with him in the hospital, but it was the first Christmas in memory we had all been together. There was some Christmas Magic in that. It was the first of many such strangely hopeful, happy moments in a seemingly dark and hopeless situation.

We got him home and it was decided I would stick around and help out for as long as necessary. There was a mixture of elation at reunion and anxiety about the reason. But it was a time of gratitude more than trepidation. I took over running the household day-to-day. My father had been retired for years, but my mother, who was much younger, was still working full-time. My brothers and their families pitched in daily as well. As we adjusted over the next few weeks to this odd new normal my attention turned increasingly to a sad, nagging sight outside the breakfast nook.

My father had a small “secret garden” outside the  nook that he had designed in all its details (typically, with my mother in mind, who was simply grateful that in retirement he had found a hobby that kept him out of her hair). There was a hedge around a large round bed with four fussy beds in the corners. It was now as forlorn and haunted as an empty tomb. He had fallen ill in the autumn, and had not had a chance to lay it down for the winter, everything had died but remained there to be seen day after day from the nook.

The ravages of cancer were relentless, and the view of that forlorn, abandoned garden day after day seemed to amplify the despair in the house. The January snow covered it, and for a while it was invisible. By first thaw my father was frail. Mentally and emotionally it seemed as though he was aging in reverse, and he had reached a brief, charming phase of reverse childhood where he said silly things and spoke in ways that were strange, romantic and bright, and because of the way the morning light fell in the nook that time of year, I would often roll him out there and we would have breakfast together overlooking that forlorn, ravaged garden.

He would peer out of the window, squinting, and tell me about the apparitions he saw. My father had not had a poetic imagination, that I could recall, but in these last weeks of life his mind seemed flooded with Blakeian visions.

One day as we sat looking out on his secret ruin I realized it was my time to get my hands dirty. It’s strange how the obvious can so often strike us as a revelation, isn’t it? Had I been waiting for some other gardener to show up and clear away the remains of a wasted harvest? Who had I expected would come and plant flowers in the spring in my father’s infirmity and absence?

I have seldom launched into anything with such a spirit of unabashed hope as I did that garden at the first thaw. I went to the nursery daily and brought home whatever I could find to add a pop of color. I was inept, but if anything didn’t take, I didn’t hesitate to pluck it out and throw something in the ground that would.

Finally my brothers and I pitched in on a fountain, which was the only accoutrement the tiny garden lacked. We ran plumbing out to it, and it trickled and gurgled serenely amid the purple coneflowers and orange and vermilion butterfly weed, the Virginia bluebells and black-eyed susans. The morning of that reveal, just a week or two before his passing, my father’s eyes lit up like a child’s, and I knew that whatever I had given him in that moment, he had already returned to me a hundredfold.

(See what I mean about parables?)

Theologies of Courage

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Independence Day was hard for many Americans to celebrate this year, and Therese Patricia Okoumou, who climbed up to the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty on the 4th, demonstrated succinctly in word and deed exactly why that is.

“In a democracy we do not put children in cages,” she said in remarks after her arraignment.“Period.”

“There is no debating it,” she added emphatically. “Nothing you will say to me will justify putting children in cages.”

That this not only needed to be said, but needed a public act of political protest, a singular act of courage by an individual with a story of her own to tell in her own words to drive it home, reminds us that we are in a moment that requires acts of courage from all of us. That requires us to radically change the course of our own stories.

One reason I’m so interested in Bonhoeffer is that his life story is the search for how we answer a radical evil in word and deed. His is a political theology. There’s a lot that I don’t know that I agree with in the nitty-gritty of his theology, but my agreeing with it or not (and there is literally no agreement among Bonhoeffer scholars about his theology, so no pressure) certainly doesn’t change the fact that Bonhoeffer was a genuine badass, and his theology was absolutely central to his badassery.

I have read just enough of theology to realize already that there’s really no such thing as Theology. Whether we would like or not, there are only theologies. And these theologies themselves are dynamic, each a living narrative, each a life. Bonhoeffer’s biography was his theology, his theology was biography. I think that’s why he remains such an object of fascination: you simply cannot separate the two, and the implications are positively vexing.

Such is life. And the capital T Truth of all theologies must be lived. But that dynamism shouldn’t frighten us. In fact, it’s what propels us forward, into experience, engagement and encounter. Deeper and further into life in all its vexations.

So there really is no theology outside of experience, in my thinking, and experience is  therefore not merely incidental to our theologies, sola fide (more about which later) be damned.

Bonhoeffer’s theology was as extraordinarily dynamic as his times, because, again, there is no theology outside of living relation and encounter. There is no Truth that does not lead back to encounter.

Our theologies are not really there to give us answers, they’re there to give us courage.

They are not there to provide the certainty of reward in this or a next life. They are there to give us courage to act in this one without any thought of reward.

Here’s where I’m going with this, and I’ll expand on it going forward: the presumption of certainty has brought us manifest evil, and we need dynamic theologies of courage to combat it. And not only that, we need to recognize and acknowledge the sanctity of these living theologies of courage, and challenge ourselves to engage in authentic encounter with them.

To have courage to be transformed by them, and thereby transform the world through them.

 

The Final Brick

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The bad news has been unrelenting this week, and reading about Hitler’s rise in Bonhoeffer is chilling. Yesterday I stumbled upon a New Yorker piece from early last year about Stefan Zweig (whose memoir is next on my reading list), where the author concludes:

The excruciating power of Zweig’s memoir lies in the pain of looking back and seeing that there was a small window in which it was possible to act, and then discovering how suddenly and irrevocably that window can be slammed shut.

And I couldn’t help thinking: that’s where we are now. We’re thinking the window is still open, but it’s already closed. And not just closed. As Justice Kennedy’s devastatingly timed retirement shows, they’re bricking it up. And while there are isolated moments of hope, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Democratic primary win in the Bronx Tuesday, there is virtually no chance we will flip the Senate. 

The best we can hope for — and it’s not nothing — is to grab a slim majority in Congress, but that’s in no way guaranteed either. We may actually lose seats in the Senate. Whatever happens, I believe what’s in motion now (and I’m not talking about the “Blue Wave” here, friends) is all but unstoppable. They’re about to place that final brick.

Yesterday I was reading in Bonhoeffer about the Reichstag Fire. Of course, history nerds, and those junior high school debate, too clever by half, smartest guy in the room types are looking for an analogous event that the current administration will use to “declare Martial Law.” Guys: history repeats but not like that. This regime’s Reichstag Fire already took place. 17 years ago. This is a long game. It’s like a cancer that’s been moving through the body and we’re just seeing it now that all our organs are shutting down.

Now, don’t get it twisted. I’m not saying “9/11 was an inside job.” This is not a conspiracy blog. All I’m getting at is that within two years of 9/11 Congress had created the laws and the culture that left the door wide open to Fascism. It gave us the Patriot Act, our Reichstag Fire Edict:

Articles 114, 115, 117, 118, 123, 124 and 153 of the Constitution of the German Reich are suspended until further notice. It is therefore permissible to restrict the rights of personal freedom [habeas corpus], freedom of (opinion) expression, including the freedom of the press, the freedom to organize and assemble, the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications. Warrants for House searches, orders for confiscations as well as restrictions on property, are also permissible beyond the legal limits otherwise prescribed.

The Patriot Act of October 2001 allows for all his and more. Those repeating this piece of history learned it well. Guantanamo opened in January 2002. By November 2002, the eerily named Department of Homeland Security was up and running, with ICE to follow in March of 2003. The laws, enforcement and penal apparatus have been in place for over fifteen years.

Not to go full Godwin’s Law on you, but since we’re already here, I might as well say it: they had to wait for their Hitler.

Bush just wasn’t a very good demagogue. He was more a feeble heir to a patrician ideal that was already teetering. The last of the Respectability Republicans, his appropriately condescending “compassionate conservatism” was entirely too conciliatory. Compare his merely tone-deaf reaction to Katrina to Trump’s flat-out GFYS to Puerto Rico after Maria. There was not even the clumsy pretense of compassion in the latter. 

Obama provided what was missing: the kindling. His election triggered the White Supremacists. What followed was eight years of resistance to his legitimacy, led with open scorn by Mitch McConnell and the Republican establishment, nurturing the movement, stoking the flames of white resentment until they were white hot.

McConnell was their John the Baptist. Trump is their Jesus.

Yeah. I went there.

But, come on. They went there first.

I saw this photo in a story on the Red Hen, which has now been shut down until further notice from a deluge of threats and protests after the Manager tried to speak Truth to Power:

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It’s the “Trump is Love” couple that gives me chills. I’ve noticed a change in the nature of this cult in the last few weeks. As the self-reinforcing madness has been building, the “religious” fervor has more grotesquely focused on the person of Trump himself. It is a kind of madness we have seen before.

Should we abandon hope? I think it’s important to prepare for the worst. This didn’t come out of nowhere. We need to stop waiting for the other shoe to drop. This is a movement that was waiting for its moment to seize total power. This is its moment.

What happens with that last brick in the window is the only question now.

Echoes and Shadows

Reading about Luther in the Bonhoeffer book. Omg.

The author calls him “the Don Rickles of Wittenberg,” and says “for much of his adult life Luther suffered from constipation, hemorrhoids, a cataract in one eye, and a condition of the inner ear called Meniere’s disease, which results in dizziness, fainting spells, and tinnitus. He also suffered mood swings and depression.”

Blick auf ein sich mehrfach spiegelndes Lutherbildnis in der Ausstellung...

As for his late-in-life anti-Semitism, which the Nazis were more than happy to exploit: “the trouble started in 1528 when, after a large meal of kosher food, he suffered a shattering attack of diarrhea. He concluded that the Jews had tried to poison him.”

It’s so interesting to me how much we are at the mercy of our stomachs.

There’s also a prescient passage related to Bonhoeffer’s eulogy for one of the teachers with whom he disagreed but for whom he had great enduring respect, Adolf von Harnack, who was, theologically, very much in the “opposing camp”:

Bonhoeffer’s words reveal that he was never what one might today term a culture warrior, nor could he easily be labeled conservative or liberal. He disagreed with Harnack’s liberal theological conclusions but agreed profoundly with the underlying assumptions that guided Harnack, and he rightly saw that those were more important than the conclusions to which they Led. Anyone on the side of Truth, wherever it lead, was a compatriot to be lauded. This virtue had come to Bonhoeffer, in part, from Harnack and the liberal Grunewald tradition in which he had flourished, and Bonhoeffer was generous enough to see it and state it publicly. Bonhoeffer’s father was his primary mentor in this way of thinking. Karl Bonhoeffer’s conclusions may have been different from his son’s, but his respect for truth and for other human beings of different opinions formed the foundation of a civil society in which one might disagree graciously and might reason together civilly and productively. In the years ahead this would be seriously attacked, and the Nazis would stoke the fires of the culture wars to play their enemies against each other. They would brilliantly co-opt the conservatives and the Christian churches, and when they had the power to do so, they would turn on them too.

Just sayin.

I & Thou in the Dollhouse

I was careful with my application to divinity school not to misrepresent my beliefs in any way. I mean. Its not like I’m a follower of Baal, but, you know, some people would prefer that to humanism. (I can assure you, aside from eating babies there is absolutely no overlap.)

But I also needed to make a case for why a humanist should be at all interested in Divinity School. There are many good reasons, of course and we’ll talk a lot about them in coming posts. But I tried to tackle it in a different sense in each of three very short essays I was asked to write for my application.

This one asked me to “describe and interpret a favorite book or movie with commentary on why it is meaningful to you.” I almost chose the movie Welcome to the Dollhouse

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… but went with I & Thou instead:

My freshman year at Indiana University was a returning for me. I had struggled over the previous two years with family conflict, the source of which I could not yet comprehend, which had led to a brief stint of homelessness. I had been forced to take a gap year, and while now finally back on track, my transition to life on campus was still pretty bumpy.

The Spring Semester of that year I was lucky enough to get into a 300-level course offered at my dorm (a Living & Learning Community I was also very lucky to get into), by an extraordinary professor, Rabbi Mike Morgan (now Chancellor’s Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Jewish Studies there) who introduced me to, among many other wonders, Martin Buber’s I and Thou. The core message of the book — that “all actual life is encounter” — communicated with forceful compassion by Professor Morgan, struck a chord deep within me that gave me courage to go forth, and resonates within me to this day.

In the book, Buber posits two modes of engaging the world of the Other: “experience” — the profane, everyday, objectifying I-It — and the fleeting, sacred, reciprocal I-You of “encounter”, in which we glimpse the “the absolute relationship”, the “eternal You”. Buber offers no prescriptions of chants or mantras, no parables, arcane symbols or secret codes. I and Thou is descriptive rather than prescriptive, in keeping with its author’s matter-of-fact mysticism. Professor Morgan’s lively but focused classroom discussions brought this to vivid life.

The book’s iteration of a relational theology was not entirely unfamiliar to me, even then: it is rooted in the core belief of reciprocity we find in all world religions, that I had heard in countless interpretations of the Sermon on the Mount over the years in my own Mainline Protestant upbringing. But having struggled with the limiting concept of a remote and largely proscriptive God, I found Buber’s insistence that it is through the particular Other that we encounter “the absolute relationship” — a concept clearly informed by the dialogic tradition of Hasidism — electrifying.

In Professor Morgan’s classroom, not only was the moral imperative of attention to the reality of the Other and our vital participation in the unity and totality of encounter clear, it was put into practice. The challenge was presence, and presence the reward. Had we read and discussed I and Thou less attentively it would have been easier to shrug off its insights. Buber’s language could seem obscure at times, but for me, with Professor Morgan’s spirited delivery, it had the ring of uncanny truth of overheard corner-store conversations: “Something happens to man,” Buber says of the “absolute relationship”. “Something happens.” And I knew just what he meant. Isn’t this the essence of revelation? Isn’t this how we talk about love?

In Buber we find the mysterious and awesome Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, The I am that I am, that cannot be inferred or deduced, that “can only be addressed.” And approaching this mystery with the guidance of a great teacher is how presence in the world became home to me. Something happened in that classroom, in the “sphere between things” that has stuck with me, and gives me courage, again and again, to return.

I’ll work Welcome to the Dollhouse into all this somehow later on. Count on it.

Today’s Reading: Bonhoeffer

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Last year around this time I was posting about Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters & Papers from Prison. He’s the “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil…. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” guy.

While lately there’s been a lot of protest from the right (and from that camp of the left that seems for some reason to want to prove the right right about the left) about the internet reaching singularity with Godwin’s Law, I don’t think the parallels to the rise of Nazism have to be exact for the analogy to be useful. You know, if the jackboot fits…

So I’m revisiting Bonhoeffer with this biography. His thoughts on folly, from his Letters and Papers from Prison, are more relevant than ever:

Folly is a more dangerous enemy to the good than evil. One can protest against evil; it can be unmasked and, if need be, prevented by force. Evil always carries the seeds of its own destruction, as it makes people, at the least, uncomfortable. Against folly we have no defence. Neither protests nor force can touch it; reasoning is no use; facts that contradict personal prejudices can simply be disbelieved – indeed, the fool can counter by criticizing them, and if they are undeniable, they can just be pushed aside as trivial exceptions. So the fool, as distinct from the scoundrel, is completely self-satisfied; in fact, he can easily become dangerous, as it does not take much to make him aggressive. A fool must therefore be treated more cautiously than a scoundrel; we shall never again try to convince a fool by reason, for it is both useless and dangerous. …

If we look more closely, we see that any violent display of power, whether political or religious, produces an outburst of folly in a large part of mankind; indeed, this seems actually to be a psychological and sociological law: the power of some needs the folly of the others. It is not that certain human capacities, intellectual capacities for instance, become stunted or destroyed, but rather that the upsurge of power makes such an overwhelming impression that men are deprived of their independent judgment, and – more or less unconsciously – give up trying to assess the new state of affairs for themselves.

The fact that the fool is often stubborn must not mislead us into thinking that he is independent. One feels in fact, when talking to him, that one is dealing, not with the man himself, but with slogans, catchwords, and the like, which have taken hold of him. He is under a spell, he is blinded, his very nature is being misused and exploited. Having thus become a passive instrument, the fool will be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil. Here lies the danger of a diabolical exploitation that can do irreparable damage to human beings.

But at this point it is quite clear, too, that folly can be overcome, not by instruction, but only by an act of liberation; and so we have come to terms with the fact that in the great majority of cases inward liberation must be preceded by outward liberation, and that until that has taken place, we may as well abandon all attempts to convince the fool. In this state of affairs we have to realize why it is no use our trying to find out what ‘the people’ really think, and why the question is so superfluous for the man who thinks and acts responsibly – but always given these particular circumstances. … A person’s inward liberation to live a responsible life … is the only real cure for folly. But there is some consolation in these thoughts on folly: they in no way justify us in thinking that most people are fools in all circumstances. What will really matter is whether those in power expect more from people’s folly than from their wisdom and independence of mind.