Monday, March 23, 2009

Evolution Waterfall 98

Evolution Waterfall 98
Originally uploaded by dancgrn

I took this photo with a disposable camera with a panoramic format on a backpack trip with my dad in early July 1998. This is Evolution Creek running down to join the South Fork of the San Joaquin River.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Working Paper

This paper was written for a seminary class in 2005 on the work of the African-American theologian, mystic, and pastor Howard Thurman, who was Martin Luther King's spiritual director.

It's as pertinent now as it was then...

Throughout his written works Dr. Howard Thurman talks of the necessity for each person who seeks to live a spiritually committed life to have a “working paper”--a statement of one’s highest ideals, deepest beliefs, and guiding purpose, and how these work together to form a sense of what it is one is doing with one’s life and how one is going about it. So I would like to compose a paper with this wide sense, relating it to the “search for common ground” as it is operative in my life, and with an eye to the way that Dr. Thurman’s work sheds light on that search.

My aim in life stems from the hunger of my heart for belonging, a hunger that I believe I share with many people in the world today. It is a response to an urgent hope, but also betrays a hint of bitterness and disillusionment with those ways of belonging that modern mass society affords, ways that I feel are destructive to that innate human desire to know oneself and be known as significant, individual, as an “I”. Thurman speaks often of the power of this desire, but also of his faith that the very nature of human existence, and indeed of the cosmos itself, involves us in community. He implies that any idea of personal fulfillment that does not embrace the reality of the interdependence of life is a false hope when he offers this definition of “actualizing one’s potential”:

“The degree to which the potential in any expression of life is actualized marks the extent to which such an expression of life experiences wholeness, integration, community.”

--The Search for Common Ground, 4

Thurman writes eloquently in the final chapter of The Search for Common Ground of the problems raised for the individual, especially one in whom a religious conscience is active, in the modern context where the sovereignty of the nation-state is the comprehensive and definitive horizon of belonging. This problem is especially acute for those ethnic “minority” groups to whom full participation in national life is compromised or denied. I would add to Thurman’s analysis a further problem that recent decades have brought into sharper focus: what does it mean for the search for common ground when the institutions of the state are bent toward maximizing the interests of a small corporate-capitalist elite at the expense of the rest of the citizenry? This problem is more than a political one, as that same elite exerts ever more dominant control over culture and the economy, so that every aspect of social life from birth in the hospital to education to the disposal of one’s earthly remains at death has become a profit-making enterprise within the overarching system of global finance and market competition.

This corporate totalitarianism cloaks itself in the mantle of liberal institutions such as the “free press”, the university, and “democracy”, but its true nature is revealed in a variety of phenomena that are rarely held together and considered as parts of an interrelated picture. Yet if we are concerned about the common ground of life, we cannot avoid looking at the connections between rising global temperatures, genetic contamination of the food supply, resource wars and repudiation of international humanitarian law, Wal-Mart’s forcible invasion of local communities, the privatization of water, the epidemic of teen suicide and childhood autism, the growth of the prison-industrial complex, the new nuclear arms race and so on. My point is not that the world is going to hell, which it manifestly is, but that some kind of powerful conceptual shift in our understanding of where we belong and what is possible and desirable for human community seems to be in order.

During the era of the Cold War there was the perception of a grand ideological conflict, embodied in the two Superpowers and their respective blocs, which were contesting each other for the loyalty of the world’s inhabitants. On pages 87-88 of The Search for Common Ground, Thurman describes this from the point of view of the global “outsiders” as a choice of coming under that sovereignty which offers the most credible opportunity for the fulfillment of human potential. While the collapse of the Soviet Union vindicated the Western capitalist order over the Communist bloc, it remains an open question whether the sovereignty of the new global empire does in fact allow a free and supportive space for human flourishing. A relentless campaign of state and commercial propaganda makes the case that it does, but the real on-the-ground experience of most of the world’s people is of a steady erosion of the sovereignty of local communities and even of historic nation states under the onslaught of transnational corporate power, its client elites, and their allied military and paramilitary security forces.

What is rarely reflected on in the mainstream of public opinion is that the Capitalist and Communist systems were fundamentally identical in many of their key attitudes toward human community and the relationship of it to the larger web of life. The difference between public and private ownership of capital is of little consequence compared to the shared commitment to industrialization, urbanization, the suppression of cultural and linguistic minorities, and the collectivization of people into centralized systems of indoctrination, dependence, and control. In both systems, the rise of the modern state was achieved at the expense of the inhabitants of the places where the primary “resources” of industrial exploitation were to be found. Economies of scale in manufacturing and transportation, afforded by the temporary availability of abundant cheap energy as fossil fuels, drove the further process of moving vast populations off the land, making way for industrial agriculture and creating a cheap labor pool for expanding factories in the towns. From a society of communal small producers, both systems created societies of “autonomous” (that is atomistic and anonymous) wage-earners and consumers.

Too often consideration of these problems gets sidetracked into acrimonious fault-finding, and inaccurate accusations about seeking to “turn the clock backwards.” The prickly defensiveness of the modern urbanite covers a deep psychic vulnerability, however, that lies precisely in the area that Thurman summarizes on page 83-4 of

The Search for Common Ground:

“Our atmosphere is polluted, our streams are poisoned, our hills are denuded, wild life is increasingly exterminated, while more and more man becomes an alien on the earth and a fouler of his own nest. The price that is being exacted for this is a deep sense of isolation, of being rootless and a vagabond. Often I have surmised that this condition is more responsible for what seems to be the phenomenal increase in mental and emotional disturbances in modern life that the pressures—economic, social, and political—that abound on every hand. The collective psyche shrieks with the agony that it feels as a part of the death cry of a pillaged nature.

Nevertheless the importance of territory in the experience of community remains. Territory is one of the perennial guarantors supporting man’s experience of community. Man has to feel at home if he is to be nurtured; home means place and the place means territory.”

I believe that Thurman is speaking the truth in this passage, and it is a truth of the first importance. I would go further, in fact—the consequences of a life out of harmonious balance with the territorial or ecological community is not only psychically and aesthetically deadly, it tends toward social fragmentation, economic disintegration, and political chaos. A truly democratic polity, a political sovereignty, or a cultural identity that is not rooted sustainably in the ecological community with its compulsory disciplines of scale and its peculiar life-sustaining niches, is an empty abstraction that inevitably fails to provide any possibility of effective wholeness because its ultimate loyalty and actual power resides somewhere else in space and time. The modern world system is founded on a massive overdraft on a deposit of fossil energy that was fixed by a life-community that died millions of years ago. In a few short years that account will be closed, and humanity will be faced with the challenge of rediscovering its dependence on a living earth-system whose health and fecundity it has abused to the point of collapse. All the fantasies of technological wizardry notwithstanding, we will have no choice but to begin the long, slow regeneration of the earth. This crisis will also afford us the opportunity to rediscover our sense of wonder and gratitude for the amazing creative and adaptive power of the earth’s living systems. It will reawaken in us the spiritual, ethical and aesthetic satisfaction of a human cultural creativity that recognizes what it means to be located elegantly, intimately, and responsibly, with kindness and accountability to one another, to share a common heritage, a common purpose, and a common destiny.

This merciful necessity will demand a process of collective death and resurrection unprecedented in severity and scope. Prophetic voices have long been pointing the way, but the transformation that is demanded is of such magnitude that a powerful movement of resistance is already mobilized, led by those who have the most (as they see it) to lose, but operative even among those of us who know better, who obsessively cling to the consolations of an age that is ending. The spiritual benefits of embracing the new/old vision of harmony, however, are scarcely conceivable to us now, deeply embedded as we are in a materialistic and mechanistic worldview. The psychic disorientation involved in watching the pillars of modern bourgeois identity crumble one after another, and the courage and imagination required to forge new forms of community, new ways of relating, new spiritual, somatic, and aesthetic capacities, all will demand an unwavering fidelity to ourselves as beings grounded in God, in our common and diverse humanity, and in the hope of Earth’s future. The great religious traditions of humankind, engaged with a highly developed sense of “negative capability” (Keats’ term for the capacity to hold two mutually contradictory aspects of the same underlying truth in one’s mind at the same time) will be indispensable in this process.

It is for this reason that I am dedicating myself to ordained ministry in the Christian church. I feel that the Judeo-Christian heritage offers vitally important teachings for the times we live in, which must be drawn out of the fire of a death-seeking and Earth-hating apocalypticism, and offered at the table of the world’s wisdoms. Dr. Thurman has done an admirable job in The Search for Common Ground of bringing forward the continued relevance of the Biblical creation myth as an expression of the racial memory of life in harmony and kinship with the whole cosmic order. In Jesus and the Disinherited he offers a radical interpretation of the historical Jesus as a teacher of the spiritual path of nonviolent resistance and community survival under conditions of colonization and oppression. In Disciplines of the Spirit and The Creative Encounter he describes the inner dispositions and classic religious practices of the experiential “hunger of the heart” that makes the Divine presence a lived reality of worldly existence.

To these I would add three more properly sectarian dimensions, all of which bring into focus the remarkable interpenetration of the universal and the particular that I see as the fundamental Judeo-Christian insight. The first of these is the central motif of The Promised Land. In the Biblical tradition the ultimate religious goal, and the only final measure of spiritual achievement, is the establishment of an egalitarian and ecologically harmonious social order in the place which God has given to His people. This motif is developed in the New Testament tradition in a more universal direction, but the Kingdom of God and the New Jerusalem are symbols deeply rooted in the former image.

The second is the Trinitarian and Incarnational Christology of the undivided church. Liable as this theology is to doctrinal quibbling and arid metaphysical aridity, there is at the core of its synthesis of Jewish and Greek humanisms a stunning affirmation of the spiritual potential of personal human nature for dynamic and intimate communion with its own collective totality across time and space. This glorified humanity is capable of the most profound and creative expression of cosmic being, in conscious and unimpaired relation with the whole of creation and even with the uncreated and fecund abyss of the Divine essence, and all this in and through its concrete, embodied, earthbound existence.

Finally, I see this interpenetration of the universal and particular beautifully and powerfully expressed in the sacramental liturgies of the Christian community. Investing ultimate religious meaning in the mundane and elemental acts of forging human community—taking a bath, sharing a meal—makes a profound statement about the human encounter with the divine. These symbolic acts, which claim universal validity and significance, are nevertheless only possible within the gathering of a particular community in its own place, where they are sufficient to embody the life of the entire church across all time and space. Sadly, the full implications of this vision have been forgotten by the churches until the very recent past, and the recovery that is underway is still a long way from grounding the prayer and faith of Christians in living communion with the very water springs and wheat fields that are the elemental sources of their own particular saving mysteries.

Our semester-long conversation with Dr. Thurman has helped me to sense the possibility of integrating religious practice, insight, and community in such a way that it opens up the sacred dimension of life in all its aspects. I found him to be a trustworthy guide because he remained so resolutely faithful to the measuring rod of his own experience. It is this kind of religious leadership—disciplined, committed, humble, questing, ruthlessly honest, and always aware of the prior claim of life as one must live it day to day in one’s real context—that I think the world needs more of right now. I hope I can learn to be that kind of leader, at least a little bit. I believe Howard Thurman is one of the spiritual masters I will keep close by me and return to again and again for insight, encouragement, recollection, and friendship along the way.

About Me

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Petaluma, California, United States
I am a priest in the Episcopal Church, and have been (among other things) an organic farmer and gardener, and a Zen monk. I have a lifelong interest in social and spiritual renewal on the basis of contemplative discipline, creative nonviolence, and ecological practice. In recent years my work has focused intensely on the responsibility of pastoral ministry in the humanistic, evangelical, and catholic branch of Christianity known as Anglicanism. I'm married with a daughter, and have three brothers and two parents.