Concern for the world (κόσμος in Greek) is not new. The Romans addressed air and water pollution. Soil conservation was practiced in China, India and Peru 2,000 years ago. The modern environmental movement began in the late 19th century in Europe and the U.S. in response to the Industrial Revolution. Humans, individually and corporately, impact the cosmos, whether by planting a garden or detonating a nuclear weapon.
Lake Erie was almost devoid of fish in the 1960s and partly responsible for the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and the Clean Water Act of 1972. My first awareness of the word “ecology” was around 1970 when I saw it on a campus poster. Young people today are aware of the cosmos at an earlier age than my generation, and exercise more responsibility, as demonstrated by Greta Thunberg.
Perhaps you’ve that noticed that sustainability is an important focus among today’s companies. Some large corporations now have a Chief Sustainability Officer. “ESG” (environmental, social and governance) is prominent in corporate annual reports and presentations. ESG is a significant investment theme and there’s a growing number of sustainability-themed mutual funds and exchange traded funds (ETFs).
Children are leading. Corporations are leading. Cosmos has been an undervalued faith theme because some faith groups have been slower to lead, but that appears to be changing.
Community is where we practice freedom. Our tempting illusion is that if we could “fix” those around us, our problems would go away. How might your day be different if you viewed the most troublesome thorns in your flesh as treasures? Congress, perhaps? If you want a “sea change” in your life, view community as a gift or a playground, not a problem or a burden.
Community is us, not them. Thus, the desire to fight becomes a respectful pursuit of what is right. The urge to flee becomes contentment with “the things we cannot change.” In Divine Therapy and Addiction (pp. 63-64), Thomas Keating (1923-2018) provides insight into the Serenity Prayer:
“Humility is the capacity to accept whatever happens, peacefully. Then you can decide whether God is calling you simply to accept the situation, or to do something to improve or correct it. Humility … puts one in tune with the universe and with whatever is happening in the present moment, whether to oneself or others.”
Alienation, and the violence that may accompany it, is rooted in feeling powerless, disconnected from community. True freedom gives one the power to connect, to create. Where isolation and powerlessness abound, community is an undervalued faith theme.
“Justice is the societal expression of love,” said Ted Runyon (1930-2017) in a a long ago lecture. He was a theology professor with deep faith and quiet joy. He was my seminary faculty advisor. I’m grateful for his wisdom and confident vision of “how things ought to be and one day shall be.”
Runyon was a great interpreter of John Wesley (1703-1791). On page 164 of The New Creation: John Wesley’s Theology Today he cites “On Living Without God,” Wesley’s Sermon 130: “True Christianity cannot exist without both the inward experience and outward practice of justice, mercy and truth.”
Congress is a forum for competing self-interests to find consensus for the common good. This week will remind us that consensus about justice can be elusive. For Runyon (pp. 183-184), the “measures taken by God to preserve freedom should set the standards by which human institutions gauge their efforts to protect freedom and responsibility.”
“Arbitrary power that does not honor justice and the rights of all is never consistent with the final reality, divine love. This structure of the divine-human relation, and the freedom that is essential to it, was at the center of Methodist preaching. And it was this structure that was to contribute to the underpinnings of the emerging democracies in England and America as well as to the fight against slavery, for it combines freedom from arbitrary, oppressive power with freedom for the common good as perceived by love.”
Amid conflicting self-interests, justice is an undervalued faith theme.
Compassion is the outward expression of grace. Parrie Gus Cook (1885-1983) comes to mind. Our paths crossed for a year (1972-1973). She lived in a small white house. I remember her simplicity, hospitality, faith, gentle demeanor, and encouraging attitude. The community treasured her compassion, which flowed from her deep inner reservoir of grace.
Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) is an icon of compassion. He was a very centered person who appeared to many to be eccentric. If you see a statue of a guy in a robe with a bird sitting on his shoulder, you know it’s Francis, who is remembered for his compassion toward animals.
I encountered compassion as a faith theme in 1979 via Matthew Fox in A Spirituality Called Compassion. In 2019 Fox said, “Thomas Merton defines compassion as a key awareness of … the interdependence of all living things. We are all a part of one another and involved in one another, and I think that’s a good working definition of compassion.”
“By the time Jesus came ashore, a massive crowd was waiting. At the sight of them, his heart was filled with compassion, because they seemed like wandering sheep who had no shepherd. So he taught them many things.” (Mark 6.34)
Given the degree of pain in the world, compassion remains in short supply. Compassion is an undervalued faith theme.
Posts on the previous seven days have featured some undervalued faith themes: sabbath, grace, love, freedom, responsibility, repentance, opus. The focus has been my (hopefully, our) personal encounter with these themes.
Today’s post is the first of seven that aim to expand the personal dimension of the above faith themes to consider their social, global implications: creation, compassion, justice, community, cosmos, peace, omega.
A key function of sabbath, sabbatical or vacation time is to relax and “be comfortable in your skin.” This means finding and enjoying our place in creation. It means finding home.
The two creation stories in Genesis include a grand poetic account of creation (1.1-2.3) and a folksy story about relationships and reconciliation (2.4-3.24). Together, these two accounts provide a basis for creation faith.
When in anxiety or dis-ease, I mentally wrap myself in the swaddling cloths of the universe. When spouses, siblings, neighbors, nations or political parties clash, I mentally wrap them in cosmic swaddling cloths.
We’ve had trouble from the get-go (Genesis 4.1-26), but we are all kin. We share the gift of life, the gift of creation. When we forget this, when we become disconnected, creation becomes an undervalued faith theme.
Opus, Latin for “work,” has become an English word for a musical or literary composition. Many were introduced to opus through the 1995 movie, Mr. Holland’s Opus. The word became part of my consciousness when reading The Divine Milieu by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). For me, the heart of the book is this paragraph:
“…(T)he human soul, however independently created our philosophy represents it as being, is inseparable, in its birth and in its growth, from the universe into which it is born. In each soul, God loves and partly saves the whole world which that soul sums up in an incommunicable and particular way. (There is a) ceaseless working-over that all the forces of the universe undergo in us in order to reach the level of spirit. Thus every (person) in the course of his life, must not only show himself obedient and docile. By his fidelity he must build–starting with the most natural territory of his own self–a work, an opus, into which something enters from all the elements of the earth. He makes his own soul throughout all his earthly days; and at the same time he collaborates in another work, in another opus, which infinitely transcends, while at the same time it narrowly determines, the perspectives of his individual achievement: the completing of the world.”
In our necessarily utilitarian world, “work” tends to mean our job, our career, or our vocation. The simplest job that appears “menial” is noble when infused with the human spirit. Work is important for paying the bills but it is also important in the broader and deeper sense described above by Teilhard. Our work, our opus, transcends a paycheck and for many people it includes non-paid work such as homemaking, parenting or caregiving. It can include one’s avocation.
Our opus, our participation in the completion of the world, is a vastly undervalued faith theme.
My early religious memories are of civil religion. I remember conversations in public settings that were shaped by conservative, politically correct expressions on radio and TV. I remember Cumberland mountain rocks painted “Get right with God,” and “Repent” signs nailed to trees.
I encountered transactional religion that focused on the experience of getting saved, using that transaction as a starting point to talk with others about whether they had been saved. One old friend regularly cited his transaction date and retold how he was saved while using a crosscut saw.
My faith is more relational than transactional, with at least as much mystery as certainty. My faith is more about God’s preferred future rather than my record of prior conversion(s). For me, repentance is an ongoing process of turning as I learn about myself, God, Jesus and Reality.
In my mid-20s, I read Erich Fromm’s You Shall Be As Gods: “The meaning of sin as missing the right road corresponds to the term for repent, which is shuv, meaning ‘to return.'” I identify with the Hebrew term for the repentant sinner, baal teshuvah, literally “the master of return.”
Repentance is continually turning, growing, maturing, evolving, rebirthing. I see it as normal, not exceptional. Repentance happens when the “kingdom of God” comes near (Mark 1.15). If repentance is something done just once, often long ago, it will be an undervalued faith theme.
Today’s post is a companion to yesterday’s post about freedom. These twin virtues were forever united in the person of Moses, a central figure in the Hebrew Bible. Moses also is prominent in the Christian New Testament and in the Muslim Quran.
As liberator and lawgiver, Moses represents freedom and responsibility. Two sets of Moses stories are woven together. The “Wilderness tradition” begins at Exodus 16.1 and ends at Numbers 36.17. Inserted within the wilderness stories is the “Sinai tradition” of the Ten Commandments and other laws (Exodus 19.1 through Numbers 10.10).
Children and youth appropriately must learn essential boundaries. We first experience law as simple rules. My first memory of boundary violation was when I pedaled my tricycle past the alley entrance just beyond our next-door neighbor’s house. I did that just once. As we demonstrate rule-observance, parents allow more freedom. Overbearing parents stifle freedom. Non-responsive parents fail to provide appropriate boundaries.
Freedom and responsibility are forever intertwined. When responsibility isn’t included alongside freedom, responsibility becomes an undervalued faith theme.
A healthy faith frees a person to be true to one’s self, to be the best one can be, and to exercise one’s gifts in freedom. A healthy freedom steers a person toward humble self-confidence and away from hubris or insecurity. A healthy faith creates a healthy freedom.
A healthy freedom keeps a person looking forward, not looking backward in guilt, self-doubt or dependence on the internalized voice of others. Freedom is an essential faith theme in this “complex and ambiguous world, in which addiction is the number-one health issue and victimization is the universal experience.” (Easum and Bandy, p. 49.)
Yesterday, Richard Rohr introduced a two-week focus on addiction, which takes many forms and may be our greatest hindrance to freedom. Rohr writes: “Human beings are addictive by nature. … Substance addictions like alcohol and drugs are merely the most visible form of addiction, but actually we are all addicted to our own habitual way of thinking and doing.”
Freedom is an undervalued faith theme because there are so many forces in our psyche and in our world that seek to devalue faith by controlling us.
Yesterday’s critique of a secular Santa song does not diminish my respect for Nicholas of Myra (270-343), an early bishop known as Saint Nicholas. He was a mythical, bigger-than-life figure with a legendary love for children. His feast day is November 6.
Nicholas’ tomb in Myra (now Demre, Turkey) was a pilgrim destination. In 1087, a group of merchants in Bari, Italy, organized a prestige-motivated theft that moved his bones to Bari. He became Nicholas of Bari.
Today, Nicholas’ love for children is remembered in many ways. Red, the bishops’ color, is prominent. The artist Thomas Nast (1840-1902) created the modern American version of Saint Nicholas, or Santa Claus.
The common thread in the many legends of Nicholas of Myra is his love for children, rooted in Jesus’ love. Agape love is sacrificial, self-giving love.
Love can be misunderstood, misused, or misplaced, as in Bari’s bone heist. Nicholas would be proud that his life is an icon of love and toward children, but he surely would chafe when it is exploited.
Love is a universally popular faith theme. But, to the extent that love is misappropriated, it becomes devalued. It’s in this sense that love can be an undervalued faith theme.