Thursday, December 23, 2010

An Encounter With Tolstoy

I took the past few days to read Leo Tolstoy’s classic Anna Karenina, my first full-length encounter with his work, and am ever more convinced that what makes a great artist is a great degree of self-knowledge.  The 19th century English poet Matthew Arnold said on the back of my edition that the book was not to be taken as a work of art, but as a piece of life.  I think he misses the point of the kind of awareness that authors like Tolstoy possess.  Art and life overlap and are intertwined…how do we define one without the other?  How can we say we understand life without resolving conflicts, without understanding that those conflicts do exist, and without having the ability to “separate” from the absurdity of it all to recognize what reality is really comprised of? 
                A book as layered as Anna Karenina is hardly explained through any particular theme or genre.  Tolstoy believed in the novel as a treatise on life, and to reduce this work to a story of romances interlaced with episodes of “realism” would be to miss the point.  My first thought after finishing the last page was that the romances were used by Tolstoy to point us towards the larger love that IS.  The tragic element of the love myth is emblematic in the main character’s fate, and the base desires of the libido are interspersed at various points throughout the book.  The search for the higher love of the universal is best portrayed in the philosophical yearnings of the character Levin, Tolstoy’s alter ego in the novel, and the character that I most identify with as well. 
                The great artists must have a deep understanding of life, first of themselves, and then of others.  Understanding of self leads to understanding of others through those embodied interconnections that are what makes us human.  Through being able to clearly identify those incoming and outgoing signals in relation to our own humanity means that we can also understand the other.  When Tolstoy addresses death in the book, he uses this embodied understanding in the character of Kitty dealing with Levin’s brother.  Levin had all the intellectual knowledge in the world about death, but it took the understanding of the reality of death, apart from the abstract, for death to be dealt with.   Kitty had the ability of empathy, that element of love, which was essential in the context of the situation.  Levin was only to develop that ability later, and through a different path…which was illustrative of one of the many subtleties that Tolstoy incorporates into his writing. 

                Anna was searching; she was going through the normality of life.  However, Tolstoy made the book real in the sense that Anna, as the main character, was the one person who we thought had a handle on “who she was”.  Anyone would have been attracted to Anna, and everyone was.  However, as much as Anna seemed to transcend the absurdities of society, and to be able to see right through it, she was still looking at it from a vantage point that left nothing to be seen past it.  We saw this with a lot of the characters, and this was one of the fascinating elements that Tolstoy incorporated.  “Realism” as the style of this type of writing was apt as the book took us down many paths where I thought I knew the character, only to be confronted with some element of their personality that blindsided me.  Tolstoy gave us the idea of the character, and let the reality develop on its own and in its time. 
                This was a book that was written over a period of four years.  We can see Tolstoy’s view on life developing, especially at the end of the book, with the existential and spiritual crisis that we find Levin articulating.  Levin eventually discovers his peace, as did Tolstoy in his own life.  From that point on in Tolstoy’s life and writings, he further incorporated his convictions of nonviolent Christian anarchism…or resistance to power structures through a life lived with the highest principle of love.  Love as power, and not power as power was what Tolstoy believed in and exemplified. 
                I became fascinated with Tolstoy from a course on nonviolence that I took at Eastern Mennonite University this past semester.  Hearing that Tolstoy had a huge influence on Gandhi and MLK made me resolve to dive into his works the minute I had the chance.  Through further research, I can see that Tolstoy went through the same restlessness that I’ve gone through in my own life, and that many of us go through.  Ultimate meaning for him meant seeing himself in the other, and seeing the divine or the universal in all of us and through all of us.  This continues to be the common thread that is always presenting itself to me, and that I find in scriptures, philosophy, metaphysics, art, literature and music.  Perhaps it’s the paradigm I’m incorporating to view life, but it’s the only paradigm I’ve discovered that makes sense. 
                There is a line that runs through the philosophy of Tolstoy as portrayed in Anna Karenina.  It is a line that Levin discovers at the end of the book, and is grounded in Levin’s heritage.  Levin acknowledges the narrative structure of the individual life, and starts to make sense of his own story just as the book ends.  This is what can be said to be the discovery of voice.  Tolstoy certainly found his, and recognizing what he discovered as the foundation of his voice is the key to understanding Anna Karenina, and is the key to understanding life.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

An Anabaptist Heritage

When I began my radio career, I was told to imagine that I was talking to a single person, conversationally.  The “singular” person would ideally be the stereotype of the target demographic the radio station was hoping to attract.  For example, in Las Vegas, the prime audience for our advertisers was females between the ages of 18-34.  So my ideal imaginary listener was probably a 25 year old female, single, fun-loving, without children. 
                Over the years, this form of vocal delivery became second nature, and if I was to think of an image of the person to whom I was speaking, it would be vague, indistinguishable, faceless and nameless.  The sociologist George Herbert Mead came up with the concept of the “Generalized Other”, which might be an apt description, for even though I was talking to a single person, that person represented the common understanding of all other individuals just like her, so there was a universal element to my delivery.  Language obviously was central to this universality; however there was no true individuality, either from me or reciprocated from my audience.  Everyone in this exchange engaged in a layer of culture that was superficial and concentric, for although I was talking to one person, I was also talking to society at large, in the language of that society (Collins, 1994) (Connolly, 2002). 
Radio and media attempt to turn the concentric around and bring the superficial or surface elements of culture back to the individual, instead of out from the individual.  Either way, this paradigm is illusory to authentic identity.  I cannot possibly reveal any sort of my true nature through this mode of communication, nor can the listener learn anything about her identity through the reception of this message from the radio.  However, if it is the authentic that one is attempting to avoid, then media, entertainment and other forms of escapism are the perfect avenues. 
The example of my past career is a part of a narrative, a layer of my narrative, therefore a part of me, but only on a surface level.  William E. Connolly talks about layers of perception, thinking and culture, while James McClendon refers to narrative ethics as being the only true way to see morality; that is, to see it as a story.  I find no dissonance in combining the two concepts in the form of narratives having their own layers.  Perhaps the media/career aspect of my life was an outer layer, one that was most susceptible to adjustments from the elements.  It was unprotected, constantly changing, having no real substance, completely transparent (Connolly, 2002) (McClendon, 2002). 
An Anabaptist Heritage
This essay is an attempt to articulate the process in which I now find myself; the process of returning to the innermost layers of my narrative to define what living a good, ethical life means to me in the context of the part of the universal from which my story is shaped.  I am learning to acknowledge my heritage, my Anabaptist heritage, because I have reached a point where that acknowledgement no longer frightens me.  It has become painfully obvious to me that the main reason people run from true identity is the perceived sacrifices that they believe they might have to make if they peel back their layers.  The outermost protection that they think they have is often the most harmful element of their lives.  This is where we start to hear clichés about the difficulty of leaving one’s “comfort zone”. 
When Christ talked about denying self, he wasn’t referring to the denial of who we are, he was trying to help us remove the construct of society, the caricature, the costume, the distortion, that was covering up our true identity.  It was only in that discovery of identity that the divine could be found, and therefore the love that could be extended to others.  Some traditions, such as Hinduism, may refer to this in different ways, such as the removal of the ego standing in the way of Atman.  Understanding heritage in the context of narrative is to understand a part of the life-giving process.
Heritage clearly has a tie to the past, but what is that tie?  Isn’t it a coming out of an endless set of contexts, going further and further back, an eternal sense of the ever present now that transforms into the future?  Our role in the heritage is to take the past as a starting point, a grounding and a place where we’ve grown out of the universal God /grain of life, and then transform that past into the present where we find the embodied self. 
Heritage and Ethics
At Eastern Mennonite University, studying under Dr. Christian Early, I was told that “the better we understand who we are, the more grounded our ethics will be” (Early C., Ethics Lecture, 2010).  There is a tension in that statement, a conflict of opposites, because self-discovery through a look at heritage will involve pain as well as pleasure.  But pain, adversity, uncertainty, even suffering, are often necessary parts of forward movement, for they create questions, and it is through questioning that we discover. 
This discovery of self, at any level, can only be navigated by the embodied self.  Referencing Antonio Damasio, the feelings and emotions that influence and guide us are received through the body, but I must question from where they originate (Damasio, 2003).  Could many of these feelings arrive out of the body itself, out of a past life?  I’m not referring to reincarnation, but to the connection that heritage brings into our lives.  To state this in a somewhat scientific manner, we embody the genetics of our heritage; we carry the blood of those who came before and their actual DNA.  Traced back far enough, we could even say that we are the embodied community of all humanity.  The parallels between the universal soul/consciousness/Atman/Brahman/Allah/God and this embodiment are not to be missed. 
Recently, I’ve been especially interested in my mother’s family, as the mother symbol has fascinated me in the process of personal study and discovery.  Carl Jung was the one who opened my eyes to the effect of the anima, the female/mother archetype in the mind, and the role that it plays in a life narrative.  I’ve always been aware that my mother’s lineage has provided me with the greatest family mentor figures in my life, even though I do realize that this is not the case for everyone.  However, the insights of Jung, and the further ideas of attachment theory as introduced to me by AnneMarie Early, have only increased my focus on the maternal (Jung, 1976) (Early A., 2010).  My mother’s maiden name is Jantzi, and her mother’s maiden name is Swartz.  Both families came out of the Alsace Lorraine region of Europe/Switzerland.  The Swartz were Jewish, and it is only recently that I’ve realized my bloodline connection to the Jewish people.  It was in the 1700’s that the Swartz converted to the Amish lifestyle to avoid the rampant Anti-Semitism that has had varying degrees of intensity in Europe for hundreds of years.    From the Amish, they gradually evolved their thinking to the identifiably Anabaptist tradition that we know today.  Despite hoping to escape persecution for their Jewish beliefs, they encountered it anyway with their pacifistic Anabaptist stance (Swartz). 
So, my mother’s parents met and married in the context of a close knit community of Anabaptists that included the Swartz and Jantzi people.  These people had traveled to America together, and set up a life and a style of worship together.  It is said that they were known to “share earthly possessions, as well as joys and sorrows” (Swartz).  They were a people who loved life, and knew how to work hard and intelligently, while desiring to better the world around them. 
A Narrative of Service
The restless energy of service is evident in my more recent family history.  I remember my grandparents as being full of the kind of life and laughter that can only come out of that knowledge of the self that desires to care for the humanity of the other.  This energy was transferred to their children, and is evident in my mother, who has served as a nurse, pastoral counselor, and care-giver to her parents at their life’s end, as well as to my sister and I in our youth, and most recently to me as an adult following my near-fatal car accident.  My mother’s work has always poured out of a life filled with the highest of moral standards, love and the desire to work for people rather than the material.  This is a common theme throughout my maternal family narrative. 
The energy of service is evident in my mother’s brother, Vernon Jantzi, who is a familiar name and figure on the Eastern Mennonite University campus and community, as well as the various communities with which he has participated through his years with Mennonite Central Committee.  Vernon has taken on the role of a sage figure to me.  He embodies all that is good about the Anabaptist tradition, and is a model as to what it means to live out, through the powerful practices of virtue spoken of by McClendon, a morally upright ethical life; one that has to be taken as a narrative to be understood (McClendon, 2002).  His direct actions for peace, such as his work to help establish the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding on EMU’s campus, resonates both forward, back and horizontally in his own heritage.  By horizontally, I mean that his peaceful actions are congruent.  His narrative is consistent, authentic, and reflects his own path to discovery through heritage.  His various roles of uncle, husband, father, grandfather, teacher, mentor, scholar, leader, activist, university administrator and advisor are all in line with a universal love ethic.  He is a man who knows himself, in the truest sense of knowledge. 
My mother’s sister Sharon and Sharon’s husband Herb show a similar narrative in their lives.  They have a passion for the African continent, and their children were born in Ethiopia during their nearly two decades of service to that country.  Their approach to missions, like Vernon’s has never been of the “beneficiary” mentality; meaning they don’t practice a mission characteristic of hubris.  They look to learn from others more than they hope to teach others. 
This humility in service recognizes what McClendon refers to as “Perspectivism”, which I interpret as a humble pluralistic acceptance and acknowledgment of different shades on what comprises truth.  It is a realization that the truth cannot be simply implanted into the narrative of those whom we’re serving, but must be looked for out of that narrative of the other (McClendon, 2002).  I believe it was Mohandas Gandhi who once said that we should hold others to the highest standard of their own traditions.  I don’t think Gandhi meant for the truth to be relativistic, but that we should recognize and validate the ethical narrative of those we encounter.  This recognition of pluralistic narratives can only come out of a security with our own narrative, so when we practice Gandhi’s principle, we practice self-discovery and a discovery of the other.  This is an ethic of community, a multi-sided narrative of life. 
A Love Lesson
I agree with the idea that the primary narrative of humanity is a love story.  I credit Dr. Christian Early with that idea, and its corollary of the tragic element in love.  The past couple of years have seen numerous life-shaping rifts in time (spoken of by Connolly) that have revealed tragedy in my own narrative, but through the tragedy has come a greater love and awareness (Connolly, 2002).  One rift, which I have mentioned in a previous writing, was a near-fatal car accident in the summer of 2009.  Another rift was a unique intellectual awakening that I can clearly see in hindsight as I look back on the spring of 2010.  It was a period where I encountered the writings of Richard Rohr, and was introduced to the concept of mystical non-dualism for the first time (Rohr, 2009).  That rift was followed by the discarding of labels and beliefs that were blocking my own vision of identity.  There was a great deal of clarity immediately following my car accident.  There was a great deal more with that second rift this past spring.  Both rifts involved a letting go, and I’ve found that the more I can discard attachments, the more I am able to comprehend concepts, ideas, history, knowledge, and the more I am enabled in the examination of heritage. 
In a way, I may have more questions now than I’ve ever had in my life, but I consider that a sign that I’m able to name what I’m trying to answer.  When, for example, I’m able to recognize and therefore question why I’ve always been restless, I can look to the heritage of my family narrative for some of the answers.  Perhaps the restlessness, pain, struggle and redemption of the Jewish people is encoded in my DNA.  The Jews are a historically restless people both literally and figuratively, but they have also been commanded and called out by God to an ethical narrative that incorporates love, service, and humility.  The idea of homeland is very important to them, but it is something that has been evasive and insecure throughout their history.  Now, we can see their pain exemplified in a tragic way by their desperate struggle to retain their homeland by the harming of others.  This goes against the divine, and will only involve more tragedy in their cultural narrative unless they can learn to recognize that their calling out does not place them on a morally, ethically or physically superior level to the rest of humanity, but requires them to be an example of how to practice validation and recognition of all who live. 
No longer do I run from who I am.  Now, I embrace my heritage, on all sides of my family.  I have given a slight glimpse into my maternal past as it is with me on the path I’m currently walking.  I am becoming ever more aware of the pull that service has on me, and I can observe the next part of my story taking shape.  It wasn’t and isn’t inevitable that this story would or will turn out positive.  I fully place myself and my idea of God in a paradigm with no deep structure.  I like the idea that “God” is what holds the intention of the universe, but not the agenda.   And yes, I can see that we are fundamentally a result of our connections (Early C., Ethics Lecture, 2010).  Heritage is a starting point, not an ending point.  Heritage is not a definition.  Heritage is a place where we’re grounded in the divine.  Heritage is the root planted in Krishna, Brahman, Allah, God, Yahweh.  

Collins, R. (1994). four sociological traditions. New York: Oxford University Press.
Connolly, W. E. (2002). Neuropolitics: thinking, culture, speed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Damasio, A. (2003). Lookng for spinoza: joy, sorrow, and the feeling brain. Orlando: Harcourt, Inc.
Early, A. (Performer). (2010, December 6). Attachment Theory Lecture. Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Virginia, USA.
Early, C. (Performer). (2010, December 10). Ethics Lecture. Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Virginia, USA.
Early, C. (Performer). (2010, December 1). Ethics Lecture. Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Virginia, USA.
Early, C. (Performer). (2010, September 24). Ethics Lecture. Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Virginia, USA.
Jung, C. (1976). The portable carl jung. New York: Penguin Group.
McClendon, J. (2002). Ethics: systematic theology, volume 1. Nashville: Abingdon Press.
Rohr, R. (2009). The naked now: learning to see as the mystics see. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company.
Swartz, M. Swartz History.

Greenpeace and Music

 By coming here tonight, you are making possible a trip for life and for peace”, said Greenpeace co-founder Irving Stowe to the crowd of 10,000 gathered on the evening of October 16th, 1970 in Vancouver, British Columbia (Amchitka, 2009).  The event was the Amchitka benefit concert, and not only was it the launching pad for Greenpeace as an environmental organization, but it also marked the beginning of the marriage between Greenpeace and musical activists. 
Although Greenpeace was founded out of that concert, no one really knew the current name of the organization until almost a year later.  The Amchitka concert was an effort by Stowe to raise money intended to fund a protest-by-sea against the U.S. nuclear testing facility on the Amchitka Island of the Aleutian chain, a part of Alaska.  The three headliners of the show would have been a music lover’s dream at the time, and they were all in the prime of their careers:  Joni Mitchell, her then boyfriend James Taylor and Phil Ochs.  They all agreed to perform for free, and Mitchell and Taylor have continued to support Greenpeace to this day (Ochs having passed away in 1974) (Greenpeace, 2010) (Kurutz, 2009).  

The Initial Mission
The concert ended up being a huge success, raising enough money to fund the initial activity of the boat that had been renamed the Greenpeace for the inaugurating voyage in September of 1971.  The group of ragtag activists, hippies and lawyers on board had formed a loosely knit organization called “The Don’t Stop the Wave Committee” before the Amchitka concert, but after the voyage, they believed the only good thing to come out of the trip was that they had finally settled on the name Greenpeace, taken from their sailing vessel (Greenpeace, 2010). 
The plan for the mission was to park the Greenpeace right in front of the nuclear facility on Amchitka Island, but the boat was lightly rammed and ordered to abort by a U.S. navy boat, albeit manned by sailors who were in fact sympathetic to the cause.  This turnaround in the middle of the course was discouraging to the crew of the Greenpeace, and they thought the entire year to be a wasted effort until they arrived back in Vancouver and discovered that they had received unprecedented media attention from around the world.  The particular nuclear test that they were protesting did happen, but many future tests did not, as Amchitka was shut down by the U.S. government five months later, and Greenpeace was officially in business (Greenpeace, 2010).  

The Perfect Match
Greenpeace is now one of the most visible environmental organizations in the world.   They are involved in a broad spectrum of environmental issues from climate change, ocean and forest preservation, anti-nuclear causes, promotion of a toxic free future, sustainable agriculture and visible protest activism.  Greenpeace has long recognized their mission as being a perfect match for the passion and spirit of many artists and musicians, and they have pursued these artists as much as the artists have pursued them (Carothers, 1989). 
At the beginning, the artists at the Amchitka concert and the founders of the organization would literally have hung out in very similar scenes, with both parties coming directly out of the 60’s counter-culture movement.  “When I encountered the people at Greenpeace, and saw the work that they were doing, and they way they engaged this [environmental] problem, I felt a huge sense of relief that people were working on it” said James Taylor in 2009 upon the long-awaited public release of the recording of that landmark show.  Both Taylor and Mitchell have agreed to donate all proceeds from the sale of the recording to Greenpeace (Amchitka, 2009). 
Other artists that have done significant activism over the years for Greenpeace include U2, Annie Lenox, Sting, Michael Stipe of R.E.M., Peter Gabriel, Public Enemy, Chrissie Hynde, Jerry Garcia, Sade, Green Day, Pink, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Bryan Adams, Jack Johnson, and many more who have supported the organization in principle (Greenpeace, 2010) (Carother, 1989). 
The Personal Factor of U2
Growing up on the music of U2, Greenpeace was literally the first environmental organization I’d heard of.  Since then, I’ve always had respect for Greenpeace, in large part due to that initial visibility provided by U2.  There was a period of time in the late 80’s/early 90’s when Greenpeace was the sole organization officially supported by the band (Flanagan, 1996).  So, I can personally attest to the benefit Greenpeace sees in uniting with artists (especially those more politically, socially and sustainably inclined) to increase the awareness they’re trying to promote, as Greenpeace was effective in attracting me through this method. 
U2 was involved in one of the most visible Greenpeace events in history with the Sellafield concert and subsequent protest action in June of 1992.  U2 and Public Enemy headlined the concert, which was held near the Sellafield nuclear facility on the coast of England bordering the Irish Sea.  Sellafield had been dumping radioactive waste into the Irish Sea for some time, causing increased cancer rates around the site, but the final straw for Greenpeace and the bands was when Sellafield decided to open a second facility to take on the radioactive waste of other countries.  This was too much, and the fact that Ireland, Wales and Scotland were seeing some of the worst of the effects only angered the band that much further, especially considering that Sellafield was directly owned by the British Government (Flanagan, 1996). 
Sellafield had obtained an injunction prohibiting U2 from setting foot anywhere near the actual facility, but no matter.  The thought was that if they entered by sea the injunction couldn’t be enforced.  So, the members of the band sailed in rubber rafts with three drums of radioactive sand from the beaches of the UK, and deposited them at the front gate of Sellafield (which was basically right on the Irish Sea anyway).  Overall, the project was a success in the sense that it brought awareness to a facility that was previously unknown to the masses (Flanagan, 1996).   

Why Greenpeace?
In researching this topic, I initially approached it from the vantage point of why artists were particularly attracted to Greenpeace.  It was only through research that I discovered the attraction actually went both ways.  Still, I have wondered what is it about environmental organizations or any socially conscious causes that seems to draw artists; at least more so than other types of people. 
I discovered a quote from Annie Lenox that I think is illuminating to this question:  “Music is the language of the soul articulated,” she says. “The inner world is very potent for me – I don’t ascribe to any God or Jesus or Buddha – I just have a sense of it and revere it along with the natural world and human consciousness” (Drakakis, 2010).  I think all artists, like Annie, have a sense of the unity, the one great force that is the universe, even if they don’t acknowledge it. 
Having been around and interviewed many artists during my radio career, they all seem to recognize something bigger than themselves that gives them their creative inspiration.  Most can’t explain where it comes from, but they sense something, and they have that unique passion that drives them to purpose.  I feel that same passion, and it is a uniting feeling.  It causes one to question the world around them, and when questioning starts, the questions inevitably lead to “how can we do this better; make this world better?”  These questions can be equally applied to the artist’s music, or their environmental consciousness, and striving to answer this question has been Greenpeace’s mission as well. 
I think the efforts that Greenpeace has taken over the years to engage artists is exemplary, is unique, and is to be commended.  They have not altered their message to attract these artists, they’ve not had to.  The original crew of the Greenpeace sailed with the theme of “bear witness” which they took from the Quaker pacifist tradition (Greenpeace, 2010).  Continuing to honor this practice will keep the actions of Greenpeace and our own actions in line with the grain of the universe, and that grain is hope, love and unity.  When we practice the genuine good in life, everything else falls into step.  May we all continue to question how to make this world a better place to live.  

Amchitka. (2010). Retrieved from Amchitka Concert Web site:
Carothers, A. (1989, November 1). Can rock 'n' roll save the world?: music's mission to moscow and beyond. Retrieved from @U2:
Drakakis, H. (2010, November 29). Annie lenox: Music icon and Woman of the Year on drug-taking, adopting children in Africa and redefining feminism. Retrieved from The Big Issue in Soctland Web site:
Flanagan, B. (1996). U2: at the end of the world. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.
Greenpeace. (2010). Retrieved from Greenpeace Web site:
Kurutz, S. (2009, November 22). Speakeasy: Lost 1970 Amchitka Concert Featuring Joni Mitchell and James Taylor Surfaces. Retrieved from Wall Street Journal Blogs Web site:

Saturday, November 27, 2010

A return to the Ethics of Anabaptism with James McClendon

This first personal introduction to James McClendon was a return to my roots. Having been raised in an Anabaptist family and tradition, I was able to appreciate as never before how the ethics of this community coincides with the universal ethics that I now incorporate as my own life’s perspective. Many might shy away from a book that is not technically a part of “their worldview”, but I am at the point where I not only appreciate where I’ve come from, but I also want to learn more about how religion, atheism, humanism, secularism, philosophy, science, etc… all strive for what we consider to be the “good” or “truth”.

Theology is seen by McClendon as a “drive for truth”. So, theology (and Ethics) by his definition does not have to be inherently religious. He does say, however, that theology is a NARRATIVE. It is a way of living, and is not reducible to a single moral principle or value. Only through the course of a lived life can we see a specific moral pattern and place it in its context in time, place and community. That according to McClendon is what makes “Christian ethics” Christian, and, even though he doesn’t mention it, what would make “Muslim ethics” Muslim, etc… Where I find McClendon’s verbiage a bit misleading is that he seems to discard the universality of ethics. He downplays the importance of our basic relation to the “other” for the sake of elevating Christianity. I understand that in order to consider one’s self Christian, then it can only be done by the “Christian narrative”. However, I found his emphasis on the specifically Christian to be a bit too focused. The ethics of Christianity ARE present in other belief systems, but it will not be displayed in the “Christ narrative” or by acknowledging the supremacy of Christianity. However, is that what is ultimately important when we are considering the hungry, the weak, the oppressed and the poor?

I am appreciative of McClendon’s prophetic leaning Christianity in that we are to practice the high principles of that tradition (social justice, compassion, love) in the here and now. I just wish he would have looked for that common ground (which is there) in the other traditions a bit more, but that is my issue, and he clearly was out to show what it means to live the CHRISTIAN life vs. anything else. Although, I consider this recommended reading for its great insight into the Anabaptist tradition (including examples of lives such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Dorothy Day), which is one that will resonate for anyone pursuing the causes of justice, universal truth and the guiding force of love.

A review of "The Next Christendom" by Philip Jenkins

“Christianity is never as weak as it appears, nor as strong as it appears” says Philip Jenkins as he ends this important book on global religious trends. Whatever might be the presence of religion in one’s life, the numbers cannot be ignored. Christianity has gone through its largest boom period in history over the last 100 years, and the pace is only quickening. Due to an often patronizing Eurocentric viewpoint, this fact is usually overlooked in the Northern Hemisphere. Most of the new Christians reside in the global Southern Hemisphere, and Jenkins points out that that half of the world is experiencing a Christianity that is inconvenient and uncomfortable to the modern beliefs of Northerners.

This becomes a touchy subject as the very term “modernity” or “post-modernity” is called into question. “Modernity” according to whom? The increasingly smaller percentage of “enlightened” secularists or religious pluralists in the North? Or “modernity” as it relates to pure numbers of people? If we are looking at numbers alone, then Christianity and Islam HAVE to be understood and incorporated into any complete understanding of the world. Jenkins lays out the case that these trends are not going away, and that this century should see even greater growth in both religions than the last.

Jenkins does a decent job of staying as neutral as possible on a very passionate, charged topic, although his political conservatism does come through at times…as in the reasons for the existence of the Jewish state, and his downplaying of Islamic intolerance in the Western media. Where he is right on point is in his description of the “new” Southern Christianity looking nothing like what the North has experienced in recent decades. Parts of this new Christianity focus on the teachings of Jesus concerning oppression and poverty (in the North considered progressive socially), while remaining ultra-conservative on issues of gender and sexual orientation. There is undoubtedly multiple arguments to the effect that this trend cannot last when the “Southern Hemisphere gets more educated”, but there is a danger in looking down one’s nose through this line of thinking.

This book struck me in a number of ways. First, it was humbling. While I try to be as well-informed as possible, I realized how much I lacked empathy when it came to the reality of religion in the world. Second, I realized that my continuing quest to identify with a constantly changing world was to re-visit the teachings of my youth…even if I no longer subscribe to that religion (or any religion). If I am to relate to future generations of world citizens, I need to understand the various new forms of “Southern Hemisphere” Christianity just as much as I attempt to learn as much as possible about Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism. Re-visiting new ways of looking at old Christianity is just not trendy in Europe and North America. However, to ignore those forms of Christianity is to ignore what are the largest current forms of religion on the planet, and an incarnation of Christianity that is on an unbelievable upswing. No, religion is not disappearing anytime soon, as much as those in the West depict its demise. We can either learn more about how these others think, or slowly become more and more uninformed and ultimately out of touch by burying our heads in the sand.

Monday, November 1, 2010

"Rifts in Time"

Many of you have already heard this story presented elsewhere, so don't feel the need to indulge me again :)  I am posting this blog as a reminder to myself of the unique perspective I've gained through studying with Dr. Christian Early at EMU.  This essay was the result of a midterm assignment.  

A 34 year old man experienced a cataclysmic event that seemed to slow the passing of time. The hours, the minutes, the seconds had not changed their eternally fixed durations, but something had changed in the man. A “rift in time” (Connolly, 2002) had occurred that had altered the man’s perception of speed. No longer was the man’s conscious mind filled with disposable thoughts that were used to merely exist; to function, as it were, in a life filled with absurdity. Now, the man had come to an awareness of. This awareness is the profound realization that each moment of the eternal past meeting the eternal future - the ever present now that constitutes the very makeup of time – is a moment that can never again be composed of exactly the same amount of life experience, maturity, perception, spiritual development and assemblage of mental images. Nor can this “ever present now” (specific to our subject) be experienced by any other person. Those closest to the man in physical and conscious proximity could only see the external manifestations of what had become an internal layering of culture, neural maps, evolutionary conditioning, and genetically designed modes of thought.

That man was/is me. The “cataclysmic event” that caused the “rift in time” was a near-fatal car accident on July 21st, 2009. Through lenses provided by Antonio Damasio and William E. Connolly, I am able to see certain fence posts that this event created around the borders of my mind. Damasio and Connolly have taken steps to fill in the space between those posts, thus marking an artistic work in progress. My hope is to partly articulate the color and design of this ongoing creation to you, the reader. It is as Damasio has stated in his search for emotion and feeling through philosophy: “Spinoza was still the same, but I was not” (Damasio, 2003).

A new paradigm involving the universal had taken a hold of my mind. When Damasio refers to Spinoza’s idea of salvation, he mentions this universal. To me, the universal is God. When I say the universal, I don’t mean just the world as perceived by the senses. It is not even something that one can completely bring into consciousness, though it is something that is a part of us all. Damasio says when describing salvation according to Spinoza: “When you are less than kind to others, you punish yourself, there and then, and deny yourself the opportunity to achieve inner peace and happiness, there and then. When you are loving to others there is a good chance of achieving inner peace and happiness, there and then” (Damasio, 2003). Spinoza’s code of ethics resonates with my own, and I fully believe resonates with anyone. It is an ethic that is about love, and love represents unity. There is a part of you that is the same as me. Therefore, harming you would be an affront to my own being. Ethics evolves, first, out of a love for the self. This is not a narcissistic obsession, but an acknowledgement of the eternal essence that makes up all of us. Spinoza believed in this essence not as an actual being, but as BEING itself. God to Spinoza was all there is. To accept life, to acknowledge and face death, to work on the intellect, to be as present as possible, to be charitable, to take equal care of the mind, body and soul is to go with the grain of the universal. Spinoza would consider this to be a move closer to happiness, because it is in step with God.

Connolly would describe whatever one does to attain this happiness as an “artistry of the self” (Connolly, 2002). Connolly states: “You began to experience meaning less as something to be discovered and more as an investment you make in selective activities and events” (Connolly, 2002). At the risk of sounding cliché, it is a practice in the game of life. Connolly talks about “loyalty to thought”. The conscious mind works with what is contained in the unconscious, and the artistry of self is a process of repetition and reflection on that which is agreeable with the universal. To go against this universal, or God, is to engage in self-destructive behavior. It is to deny reality, to attempt an escape from becoming. It is to ignore feelings, and to allow emotions to enter a state of anarchy. Or, it can be a process of counterfeiting emotions and feelings through the use of drugs, sex, work or any of a number of intoxicants.

I have now established the fact that by the “universal” I mean “God” and by “God” I agree with Spinoza that “God” is all there is. It can then be understood why I also agree with Connolly’s idea of “rifts in time” as being a more accurate description of the life process than the linear predictability that is common to the theo-teleological view of philosophy articulated in the Aristotelian tradition. That linear view of life is too narrow, and too defined. It can stifle individuality just as much as the cold scientific view evolving out of Copernicus and Newton. If I was to live by the teleological viewpoint, I would find no reason to engage in my own artistic process as everything I could possibly imagine has already been planned outside of time by an omniscient being. If I was to live by the scientific viewpoint, I would find myself in an existential black hole of insignificance. Both viewpoints could very well lead me to ask the question: “Why am I here”? Either way life would lose its significance, its individuality. With my “universal” view there is more than enough “room” in my God concept to allow for these rifts in time. Paradigmatic adjustments in life are the moments where bursts of growth happen. It is that state of flux described by Connolly as “becoming”.

I don’t believe that we’re meant to arrive, but to appreciate the movement that carries us along. It is a movement that has evolved out of a homeostatic machine infused with culture and the vitality of one’s humanity. To be human is to be an individual part of the universal. It is to engage with the other “parts” of this universal through the methods of love, and recognition of the validity of voice, character, and the view from that place on which the “other” stands (i.e. empathy).

The homeostatic is the machine that evolution has designed to allow us to regulate this life process (Damasio, 2003). This process gets to the very root of what it means to be alive by acknowledging action at its base. Life is energy, energy is action. Action is what affects the biological organism and that “affect” is what Damasio would call an “emotionally competent stimulus” that produces a reaction in the organism. This “reaction” is what we mean when we refer to “emotion”. The emotion then produces a feeling that is a mental image. Emotion produced feelings are the ink on the paper of the neural map. The neural map is the score for the music of life. What we compose is up to us. To go with the grain of the universe is to compose in the major key of joy. To go against this grain is to go against our very essence, and is unpleasant and painful to listen to. This would be akin to making a composition in the minor key of sorrow. Anything joyful, according to Damasio’s interpretation of Spinoza would not harm the “other” (Damasio, 2003). I will go a step further and say that true joy is an engagement with the essence that is common to both ourselves and the “other”. That engagement is what we call love. It’s not necessarily a physical engagement, but a mental one. The “essence” with which we engage is also love and therefore it is unity and “God”. God is love. This is what I mean, and what I believe Spinoza means when he says that God is all there is. Therefore, salvation comes through love, because it touches the divine.

The rift in time that happened at the exact moment of my car accident allowed me to touch the divine. I realize this with the advantage of hindsight, and to summon a reference to Connolly, the moment of consciousness that I attained after waking from the accident is “colored” with a variety of emotions and feelings. Initially, I was unaware of what my body felt due to the state of shock that I was in. Then the layers of perception started to make things clear. I was apparently in a car. I heard nothing at first. All I felt was an incredible peace that (literally) infused the color of white into my memory. However, I mean more than this when I refer to color. The peaceful feeling in my mind was the color of that first moment of consciousness. Then with ever increasing rapidity, the layers of perception started attacking my senses, adding texture to the color. Someone was calling my name. How did he know my name? I knew that this was impossible; I had been driving by myself. Instant panic. Memories of a lifetime told me that this was not right; in fact is was more than not right, it was drastically wrong and deserving of fear. The pain started to hit me, and the fear became stronger. This man also appeared to be upside down (actually it was I who was upside down). Clearly, the somatic markers of my mind eliminated the need to rationally process every detail of this dire situation. Even with the additional coloring of a surreal haze, I knew that my life was in a precarious situation. The sounds of the jaws of life and the fireman coming through the passenger side door with a knife to cut my seat belt off of me only pulled up more unconscious layers and further colored the entire scene with extreme anxiety. If firemen were involved, I knew that this was an accident. The man that was saying my name confirmed this, and the fear reached its peak. Accident. That word. It was a somatic marker. Panic now occupied every part of my body from my injured foot and shattered knee to my inability to catch my breath and the flood of thoughts that instilled the messages of bodily emotions into feelings of my consciousness. Panic was all that was in my consciousness at that moment.

When I read Connolly’s references to the Hitchcock movie Vertigo and his reading of Bergson, it brought greater clarity to the memories of that accident. Connolly’s entire account of perception is well summarized in those two examples. In Vertigo, we hear Connolly describe the juxtaposition of the woman falling and the feeling that something was off from the timing of the woman’s scream (Connolly, 2002). This creates that familiar feeling of uneasiness (the feeling itself a result of memory layering). We have a certain sense from experience of how things “should be” in our world. The seemingly upside down paramedic was akin to the woman’s scream for me. I knew that his position, outside the car, on the road, and standing still, did not make sense to a man (me) who seemingly seconds before was driving at a speed of 55 mph. Connolly masterfully incorporates cinema to illustrate these kinds of moments in life, and uses Bergson to shape his descriptions.

It is quite difficult to fit all of my experiences of the initial seconds, minutes and hours after the accident into some sort of organized explanation. Enter the idea of naturalism, and specifically immanent naturalism. More than anything I’ve read in Connolly, I appreciate this attempt to “fill in the gaps” as it were. This is the third element comprising the trilogy already containing the Aristotelian theo-teleological and the scientific. Connolly defines naturalism as “the idea that all human activities function without the aid of a divine or supernatural force” (Connolly, 2002). Immanent naturalism would contest the idea that we have it “all figured out” through theology, philosophy and science. This makes perfect sense to me. There has been no universal “system” or “idea” that is as authoritative in its clarity as to explain everything to everyone. Countless interpretations of the “transcendent” or “supernatural” dot the landscape of humanity. The world we are a part of, our lives, our individuality all are in a state of flux. Seemingly universal laws could be subject to change. This is the constant process of becoming. Immanent naturalists contend that nature is more complex, indefinable and incomprehensible than any god that the human mind could conceive. Connolly has perhaps given me the most realistic “textbook” description of the reality of life that I have ever seen. The “gaps” in life are where the substance lies, and they are what Connolly attempts to explain.

As I sum up where I was and where I am now as a result of my car accident “rift in time”, I would like to call on the ghost of Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s “underworld” of conscious layering that is a part of his immanent naturalism would work well as a form of explanation.

I was born a human, like billions of others, but I am an individual, unique and unexplainable by a set of pre-defined laws. To be sure, I have characteristics, both physical and mental that are similar to those other billions. I carry the same essence of humanity that is common to all, while retaining my individuality. I would go so far as to call this essence a “natural inheritance” from being human. My brain and body are hard-wired from millions of years of evolution to strive for my own survival. I am constantly fighting a natural fear of the unknown. Unfamiliarity has genetically instilled the idea of danger into my mental wiring. Nietzsche and Connolly would both state that these natural tendencies to fear the unknown (including “unfamiliar” fellow members of the human race) can be overcome by self artistry. We work on our unconscious by working on our conscious. We practice those moral principles which go with the grain of the universe. We ignore cultural messages of hate, division, racism, sexism, materialism, homophobia, nationalistic exceptionalism, individual inferiority and external status symbols. Instead, we practice love, mutuality, nonviolence, empathy, dialogue and acceptance.

Before my car accident, I was in a state of culturally conditioned mental distress from a disintegrating marriage and radio career. After the accident, my mind was re-programmed. Some of that came from those cultural items that were still worthwhile to me. This included literature, knowledge, and all that marks the achievements of humanity in the process of becoming aware. I quit clouding my mind and disrupting the messages of my emotions and feelings with substances such as alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. I refused to listen to any message from society that went against the universal. I returned to nature, as it were, in my drive to survive. Life to my naturally and culturally conditioned mind was not worth living unless I was “happy”. So, I took it upon myself to determine what it meant to compose the music of my life in the major key of joy. This process involved looking inside my mind, bringing to my consciousness more and more of the elements of my unconscious, and reconciling, acknowledging and accepting the contents of the dark corners. The more I acquired from my interior, the less I required from the exterior.

This to me is what it means to live the “good life”. This process has brought a degree of clarity that I never thought was possible. It has brought me to this place in life, to this university, and to the writing of this paper. Antonio Damasio, William E. Connolly, Spinoza and Dr. Christian Early have helped me to see even further. I am grateful for these additional moments of clarity, and am always conscious that each new experience is one that is irreplaceable.