Category: Art

Bennington

We’re in the home stretch of a month-long journey, towing a small camper across the eastern US. The 21 campsites include state and national parks, private campgrounds and Harvest Host locations in 9 states. This is our first long trip in the camper, which is a cozy ten feet long, seven feet wide and 7’8” high.

We’ve travelled 3,900 miles in 27 days, with 600 miles to go. We’ve compiled a lengthy list of dos and don’ts for future trips. A month seemed like a very long time away, but one of our major learnings is that we’ve tried to cover too much ground in too short a time. There’s much to see in North America.

We’ve avoided the Interstate Highway System. Our “retro” camper seems fitting for the highways we’ve traversed, often two lane, often taking us through small towns we otherwise would have by-passed and never experienced. Bennington, Vermont is a delightful town in the southwest corner of that state.

A 306-foot tall obelisk Battle Monument was erected in 1891 to commemorate the 1777 Battle of Bennington, which was a turning point in the Revolutionary War. This journey reminded me that much of our national identity is associated with that war and the Civil War. During the final week of this journey, I’ll share some reflections about the “battleground” states we’ve crossed.

From Bennington Battlefield Monument

The problem with secularism

The previous several posts may lead one to think that John Cobb favors secularism. While he believes the process of secularizing is a healthy and much-needed activity for (literally) the world’s survival, he sees dangers in secularism. This may be a subtle distinction, but I believe it is very important.

In Spiritual Bankruptcy, Cobb acknowledges that “the secularizers have kept the traditions fresh and alive. But as humankind faces the need to make dramatic changes, and seeks the wisdom to guide it, the dominance of secularism is today an even greater obstacle than religiousness.”

I invite you to think about politics in the US; the global rise of authoritarianism, tribalism, and various injustices; the climate crisis; and the role (or absence) of religious communities in these matters. Against this current backdrop, hear this paragraph from John Cobb:

Secularizers in any traditional Way seek to draw knowledge and understanding from the best thinkers of their day. Today experts in all fields are encouraged to be secularists. Secularism builds up its knowledge and understanding out of presently available sources rather than by critical appropriation of a tradition. The result in modern history has been the amassing of vast quantities of information, but in a way that is barren of wisdom.

What wisdom from your Way (Cobb’s term for a religious or non-religious tradition) helps you address one or more of the difficult problems now facing our world?

From “John Cobb on David Korten: An Appreciation of David Korten’s Change the Story, Change the Future,” April 12, 2018 (photo by Thomas Oord)

Secularizing the “sacred”

In his 2010 book, Spiritual Bankruptcy, John Cobb discusses the process of secularizing. He wrote: Some secularizers are liberal, some conservative, some orthodox, some neoorthodox, some liberationist, and some progressive. I employ for myself the last of these labels. But if the best possibilities for secularization are now with progressives, it is only when progressives are defined as those who draw upon the best of liberalism, the best of conservatism, the best of orthodoxy, the best of neoorthodoxy, and, especially at present, the best of liberation theologies.

In my view, that’s an important paragraph because it seeks to affirm the best of these various traditions and it may help us get past today’s rampant polarization and tribalism. Like Cobb, I identify with the progressive “label,” but (like him), I try to avoid doing so in an us versus them kind of way.

Cobb says the word religion is problematic because it means many different things in different contexts. Cobb sees the process of secularizing as a way to highlight the best and most practical attributes of “the great traditions that have shaped the world in the past two or three millennia, especially Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.” Then, Cobb suggests that “instead of religions, we call these, and other smaller movements, Ways, or the traditional Ways of humankind.”

To begin to unpack some of Cobb’s points, I invite you to ask whether you self-identify as more secular or more religious. I grew up in a secular world and while matters of faith and theology are important to me, I served as a pastor for much of five decades with a secular self-consciousness. So, I’m very much at home with Cobb’s advocacy of the process of secularizing. Even as we respect the broad dimensions of the sacred, I agree with Cobb that one of our healthiest spiritual actions is to secularize (and thereby de-sacralize) aspects of religion that are today (as Cobb asserts) spiritually bankrupt.

Old Testament prophets did this in their day. Hence, Cobb’s subtitle: “A Prophetic Call to Action.”

From “John Cobb,” The Work of the People: Films for Discovery & Transformation,

OT and prayer

This concludes several posts about the Old Testament as a resource. As more people submit their DNA to groups like Ancestry.com, I keep hoping my DNA results will show some semitic origins. Whether by birth or by adoption, I’ve always felt at home in Jewish synagogues.

At a long-ago luncheon for Christian clergy at a synagogue, I heard this Jewish prayer for the meal that we were served: Blessed are you, Lord God, creator of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth. This was the mealtime prayer we taught our young son.

A rabbi helped us with the key Hebrew phrase from young King Solomon’s prayer for wisdom, which found its way inside our wedding bands: “give your servant lebh shomea (a listening heart).”

This phrase (a listening heart/mind) is part of my evolving breath prayer: Abba/Amma, lebh shomea. I’ve never spoken in tongues and I can write all the Hebrew I know on a popsicle stick, but my heart is being shaped by these ancient words for “father/mother” and for the essence of prayer–listening.

From “Let Me Hear Silence,” by Jan Jarboe Russell, Texas Monthly, August, 1991

Love and suffering

Richard Rohr reminds us that “love and suffering, and especially suffering” are “universal paths” to change. Suffering is a common thread of Judaism, Christianity and Buddhism.

A Jewish teaching, from Midrash Samuel, states that “Everyone undergoes some suffering in life. Only one who can keep it from distracting him will succeed at Torah study.”

The suffering and death of Jesus is central to Christianity. Theodore Runyon said everyone suffers, thus everyone has a point of connection with Jesus: “The uniqueness of Jesus is his universality.”

Four Noble Truths of Buddhism deal with suffering: (1) suffering exists; (2) it has a cause; (3) it has an end; and (4) it has a cause to bring about its end.

From “They Say Suffering Will Make You Stronger—But It’s Not That Simple,” by Paul Bloom, Time, November 29, 2021

Kenotic faith

This concludes several posts about Sallie McFague’s 2013 book, Blessed Are the Consumers: Climate Change and the Practice of Restraint. One of my many takeaways from the COVID-19 pandemic is that the underbelly of the American heritage of individual freedom is that we are prone to chafe at requests for restraint in the interest of the common good.

Restraint relative to public health practices, restraint relative to environmental degradation, and restraint relative to consumption of vital resources may be dismissed as “woke” ideology. It isn’t heard as an extension of the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament or Jesus’ self-emptying (kenosis). This is a sad byproduct of today’s hyper polarization.

McFague devotes an entire chapter to an exploration of “kenotic theology.” This includes sharing scarce resources among the needy, with a particular focus on food, “the lowiest, most basic need shared by all living beings.” She wrote: Like “Teilhard de Chardin, I have come to realize that I cannot love God or the world, but must love both at once.”

The chapter concludes: The classic doctrine of Christian discipleship, that, made in the image of God, human beings should embody the kenotic love of God, means that our own bodies must be on the line. In other words, food (and the whole planetary apparatus that goes to produce food for the billions of creatures) should become the central task at all levels, personal lifestyle changes, and public policies.

From “Tomorrow’s Gods: What is the future of religion?” by Sumit Paul-Choudhury, BBC Future, August 1, 2019

Restraint

Sallie McFague (introduced yesterday) drew from the lives of the saints to build a basis for a life of restraint. Ancient people had plenty of built-in restraints, moderns not so much. Discipline and voluntary restraint have been out of vogue for, well, at least a century (see photo below).

In what is close to a thesis statement for her book, Blessed Are the Consumers, McFague wrote that restraint, the one thing needed now, is both a gift from the religions and a challenge to them. It could be considered a “coming home” for the religions as well as their greatest contribution to the economic/ecological crisis facing us.

Much of what claims to be conservative thought, faith or politics is too outlandish for an old respectable word. Sometimes conservatives are used by truly radical leaders. I think a better word for conservative today is restraint. Restraint is needed across the political spectrum. Restraint is a first cousin to respect.

June 30, 1922. “Washington policeman Bill Norton measuring the distance between knee and suit at the Tidal Basin bathing beach after Col. Sherrill, Superintendent of Public Buildings and Grounds, issued an order that suits not be over six inches above the knee.” From Shorp

R.R.A.

Sometimes it helps to talk. Naming a fear is the first step. I have Room Rater Anxiety. Room rating started during the COVID Pandemic, made famous by Claude Taylor. He’s the Room Rater. He rates rooms, the backgrounds people choose for a TV interview or for a Zoom meeting.

The pandemic made almost everything virtual, so we began seeing inside people’s homes. Room decor is a way to display one’s latest book, or fresh flowers or one’s pound cake de jour, as in Claire McCaskill’s kitchen. I live in fear that my mug shot may one day get Claude Taylor’s attention.

Taylor rates rooms from 0 to 10, which he posts on Twitter. He gives suggestions for how to improve one’s score. I fear being rated. There, I said it. I feel so Zero. I’m still traumatized by someone’s crooked picture I saw this week in her room, and by the widespread criticism of Mar-a-Lago’s carpet.

Shiver me timbers!

Tuning out the noise

Before mentioning more resources for life’s journey, hear this affirmation for print and online resources as an alternative to broadcast, cable or general social media resources. Here’s a personal example from spending two nights on the road this week.

Wednesday morning I woke up earlier than usual (4:00 am CT), alone in a motel room. No one would be bothered by turning on a light and/or the TV. I was curious about the much-anticipated response by the Department of Justice to Donald Trump’s request for a Special Master.

Sometimes I must suppress my urge to check cable news. I went to my email inbox to read Richard Rohr’s daily meditation. If I’m not careful, I can get sidetracked by a Twitter post, which can lead to a 20-minute detour down a rabbit trail. On Wednesday, I went first to Rohr.

Wednesday’s was exceptionally good: “Heaven is a Great Party” (not a courtroom). After that, I was ready for anything. Blog posts via Substack by Heather Cox Richardson, Robert Hubbell and Joyce Vance told me everything I needed to know about the DOJ story. In just a few minutes.

Via print or digital, I can re-read a critical section or skim over less critical sections. When I read, everyone uses their “inside voice.” No elevating the volume or media personalities talking over each other. I “processed” my readings in the shower and over breakfast, in solitude, quietly.

From a long essay by Don Murray, “This is the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius,” in Progressive Christianity, August 28, 2022. I read some resources rapidly, then return for a more leisurely stroll, perhaps in installments. This is one of those.

Remaining hopeful

My third read of the day is Today’s Edition Newsletter, written by California attorney Robert B. Hubbell. It’s a free email distributed by Substack. This resource was recommended by some guys in my weekly Fullness of Love group shortly after I learned of it through Morning Rounds by blogger Rita Clagett.

Hubbell’s theme is “A reflection on today’s news through the lens of hope.” He’s a tenacious attorney, passionate and partisan, though primarily focused on the US Constitution. He’s a tour de force, providing essential legal background for the day’s news. I think of him as Jamie Raskin on steroids.

Hubbell saves me an enormous amount of time by condensing important news stories with a hopeful tone. A daily dose of Richard Rohr, Heather Cox Richardson and Robert Hubbell puts my day within the context of faith, freedom and hope. Together, they help me stay oriented to life’s greatest theme: love.

Hubbell’s August 30 installment of Today’s Edition Newsletter, “A coward’s bluff” unpacks the legal issues surrounding the current investigations into Donald Trump. Hubbell referenced a new free Substack blog by Joyce Vance, Civil Discourse with Joyce Vance. Hubbell ended this edition with:

As always, we have plenty of reason to be hopeful, but no reason to be complacent.

From “A Conversation with Robert at the Los Angeles Arboretum,” with Jill Hubbell, November 8, 2020, via YouTube, about his blog that began on the day Donald Trump was elected president. The Hubbells’ daughters were devastated by the election. He writes Today’s Edition Newsletter to keep them informed and to give them hope. I’m one of many thousands of readers who eavesdrop on this resource.