Thursday, February 1, 2018

A Second Look at Urban Homelessness

I have spent some time with homeless people. Indeed I am sometimes thought to be a homeless person, I suppose because I don't care much for sartorial splendour. I have taken several homeless people into my home, and I have often asked good, rich, christian folk who think 'something should be done' about homelessness why they don't just let someone homeless live in their spare bedrooms. Everytime I go to Seattle, I walk through what seems a boulevard of nightmares, so many 'homeless' people having setup housekeeping on the ramps and sidewalks leading to the Coleman Docks. (The photo above was taken in November 2017 on First Avenue.)

But today when I read an article in Wired, one of the many glossy venues that make money hucking celebrities and catastrophes, about the 55,000 homeless folks living in Los Angeles, often in squalor, it provoked me to think about the situation slightly differently from how I (we?) usually do, and to ponder about living in squalor in the context of the recent enormous migration to cities. Despite the supposed advantages of living in green acres,  Eva Gabor was not the last to say, 'Darling I love you but give me Park Avenue'.

It was when I lived in a tent that most people considered me homeless. I was fresh off a three-years-long kayaking wander and I didn't want to have walls between me and the sounds of the rest of the world. But I never lived in squalor. REI and friends made it possible to live quite luxuriously in a tent. I even had a silk persian carpet, although it didn't come from REI. There is a long history of living in tents luxuriously. Abraham and Sarah and Hagar, progenitors of many of the world's troublemakers, lived in tents. Of course when I lived in a tent, I was convienently reliant on city water and electricity and sewage. And when the going got really rough out there in the wilderness, Abraham and his harem hightailed it to Egypt, the ancient equivalent of Park Avenue, for a good meal.

But for very many people, country living has not been luxurious. It has been squalid.  The water supply for the kitchen was often polluted by the toilet. (One high tech feature of Benedictine monasteries wasvto put the kitchen upstream from the latrine.) Health care often consisted of little more than a rag dipped in coal oil. Food was scarce and blankets were thin.

A local church here in Port Townsend serves soup to whomever in Wednesdays. (It gives them a chance to do good while wearing rubber gloves.) I go every few weeks, partly because I am lazy and it saves me washing dishes, but partly also to eaves drop. I am always after data. I went there yesterday, and sat with two homeless men. They had not met me before, and told me a list of places to eat free in the PT area. Even the small city of Port Townsend has amenities for the homeless.

Eighty-five years ago, the people who lived in penthouses on Park Avenue or Wilshire Boulevard could not see the people living in squalor in the green acres in between, nor could the squalid even imagine life at the top. But now people living in squalor know what everyone else does: there are advantages to living in the city. There is access to clean water. People will give you socks and blankets. There are a lot of free meals. It ain't Park Avenue, but people keep choosing it over the woods.

Having everyone squeezed together in cities means that the people living in squalor are no longer invisible to comfortable folks: they have become a problem, a much more incarnate problem by far than the photos of James Agee. What sort of problem the exposure of the inequalities of human life poses is, of course, debatable, with there being many different viewpoints but no clear solution visible from any of them.

I would like to offer a few thoughts on this very visible situation, foolish as I may be.

Being homeless and destitute is not new but cities and communities provide a better environment than the countryside.

The short-term effects of mechanisation and digitalisation of what have been human jobs will amplify the differences between the rich and the poor. I continue to find that the condition of the poorest people is improving, and that the trickle down effect has worked and continues to work, but that it's not most importantly money that trickles down. Few people who read the book or watch the movie Grapes of Wrath consider what an unusual thing it is that the Joads are refugees with a truck. The California in which the Joads arrive was as centered around the motorized vehicle as was the Joads family. But there are fewer and fewer jobs for the Joads in today's California.

We can adjust to the new situation. Our situation comedies have tried, with Friends replacing Ozzie and Harriet. But we will not necessarily adjust to the new situation. I have asked the hive mind of Facebook if there is a successor to comedies situated at home. All I could think of was Game of Thrones.

The situation is not, despite my digs at the church, a moral one. I have singled out Christians who want something done, just not in our backyard, because no matter how elevated, how compassionate, our rhetoric is, we are all uncomfortable with the strange, the other. My adventures in bringing the homeless home home was indeed an adventure. These days strange others are coming at us faster than ever before.

The situation is what I call a post-economic one. Economics has usually been an effort to manage scarcity, hopefully to diminish it. But we really do have the abilities to end scarcity. It is our  self-blinded insistence on false understanding that stands in our way. The North Koreans live in darkness because their leaders have convinced them that the world is depriving them of electricity. Rich Europeans with no knowledge of biology or chemistry, but who can afford any foods they want, are trying to outlaw the advances in farming that can provide food for seven million people.

I think that always the key to understanding a situation is to consider not so much 'what is'  as 'what is happening'.  From that viewpoint urban homeless joins urban wealthiness as part of our moving to the city, as part of our becoming a visibly more interlinked world.

It's certainly a new world. Are we brave enough to look at it?

Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Irish Wake: Thoughts on Migration within the Global Village

Recently I watched a series of videos ( about the great ocean liners connecting Europe and the United States for more than a century following the middle of the nineteenth century. Something which surprised me is that much if not most of the profits of those vast and luxurious sea-faring hotels came from the steerage passengers immigrating to America from Europe. Looking back at that era through the rear-view VR headset of Twitter, we often romanticize or ignore the conditions of that migration, usually dividing between those of us who welcome more immigrantion and those who fear it.  Something else I learned suggests to me that to look at today's migrations through the rear-view mirror misses something profoundly different about the world in which today's migration occurs. That difference was suggested to me by the Irish custom of the American Wake.

Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century was what some today might describe as a shit-hole country. We might argue about the reasons for the conditions in Ireland, but it was a place many wanted disparately to escape. As many as 4.5 million Irish would emigrate to the United States, about half the population of Ireland, making them a third of all U.S. immigrants. Often before they left, families and friends would hold an American wake. Once they left the docks of Ireland, they would be as separated from their families as if they were dead.  Migrants in that misty age left a country which was largely imaginary to the people of the country to which they were going, just as their destination was largely imaginary to the the people whom they were leaving. They would be strangers in a strange land, celts among angles and saxons, catholics among protestants. Many jobs would be closed to them, and the Ku Klux Klan would harass them. But, it was expected that the separation would be complete and final.

So far as I know, even though many Americans saw the Irish as dirty, ignorant, drunken catholics, there was no fear that they might take over the government or impose Irish law or customs. Rather, they were seen as diluting the purity of WASP America. The most dangerous thing about them was their catholicism, a danger shared with the Italians and Poles and Hispanics. The danger was not that they would try to impose Irish rule, but papal rule. (I saw this fear fleshed out during the 1960 U. S. presidential election. My great-grandmother, a protestant, had a catholic sister who visited that summer. During the heat of an Arkansas summer, the two sisters , Nora and Georgia, made war with their rocking chairs.  The evil catholic sister was denied use of the car to attend mass. She faithfully walked each morning.) But it was expected that Irish- and other catholic-Americans would put their Americanism first, as John F. Kennedy tried to do. Some Irish-Americans did send money to support the Easter Rising, but I have found no evidence that they took any religious stance towards the Spanish-American War, although the St. Patrick's Battalion, a unit of 175 or so led by John Riley, had fought with the Mexicans in the Mexican-American War.

In general, the huge migration to the United States beginning in the 1840's of which the Irish were a large part, took place during, and was part of the nationalism and industrialisation of the age. The counties the Irish left, the duchies the Italians left, the petty principalities the Poles left, were more a part of their self-identity than any nation, a concept which was yet emerging in europe. In the United States they would land in a nation very consciously building itself, a country which enjoyed Henry Clay's claim that it had a manifest destiny. They were part of something larger, something about which one son of celtic immigrants would sing, 'This land is your land, this land is my land'. Just crossing the ocean they would have travelled much farther than their forebears. Now they spread out into a nation comprised not of uniting territories with ancient histories of their own, such as Bismark and Garibaldi were attempting, but a nation of territories cut out of whole cloth by the original states (Texas and California excepted). Industrialization was creating new jobs every week.

Now migration takes place in an era of globalism and post-industrialism. Nations are no longer the largest units of power: for many people Google provides more essential services than does the national government. Jobs is a category in chaos: it makes no sense to bar immigrants from jobs which no longer exist. We are all pretty much strangers in a strange world.  There is often very little time for the families and friends to hold a wake for emigrants when they are leaving as the shells are falling, but neither is there any sense that, if they can survive, emigrants will never be heard from again.

We live in McLuhan's famous global village, where all of us have the latest gossip on everyone. It is a front porch on which we all are sisters fighting for identity--McLuhan argues that all acts of violence are ways of defining identities--as the world around us becomes smaller each day. Few historic artifacts have been more significant than Apollo 17's photograph of the blue marble that is 'this fragile earth,our island home', as Howard Galley described it.

The Irish migrated from a small island to what seemed a vast continent. Now we all live, whether we acknowledge it consciously or not, is a small island in space. Few of us are willing to do the work to understand what this implies. We tend to either deny our fears, or misplace them.

Some of us, who often call ourselves progressives, deny being fearful and stressed, and like to think we can absorb all the cultures and people that come to our shores. (Some of my friends in this category belong to a church which does not allow homeless people to sleep on their property or use their restrooms, and which cancelled Sunday breakfasts because people were migrating in from the streets.)

Some of us, who often call ourselves conservative, claim that without interference from foreign people and ideas, we could return to the greatness we imagine existed before World War II or some other watershed.

I would suggest that Alvin Toffler was right, and all of us are walking around in shock. We are all strangers in a strange land, and as the events of violence in the United States show again and again, we are quite capable of being overstressed without outside influences. If we want outside influences to justify our feelings of distress, there are plenty of them, willing to blame all the problems of contemporary life on capitalism or patriarchy or socialism or international trade or carbon dioxide in the atmosphere--pay your data and take your choice.

Once when Marshall McLuhan had been lecturing about the rate of change in which we live, he was asked, 'what should we do?' He replied, 'No one knows yet'. When we are all urged to take action, this is not a very satisfactory answer. But it is an honest answer, one which suggests that we need to pull back from bashing each other with our wheel chairs and realize that in a village most of the communication is gossip, neither gospel truth nor fake news. It is important that we listen. It is important that we, so far as we are able, understand. Most importantly we need to recognize our own fears, and develop some way of responding to them besides the fight or flight that were our options when we were few in number, wandering through the savannahs and deserts. On our little porch in our shrinking village, fighting just kills our sister and there's no room to flee.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Parallel Universes Might not Matter, but maybe this one Doesn't either.

The history of the idea of parallel universes begins in mysty mythology. The worlds joined by the World Tree of Norse mythology, Yggdrasil, connects what might be considered parallel universes. In some of the Hindus sacred texts, the Puranas, there are many universes, each with its own gods. More recently, Jose Luis Borges foreshadowed one of the mathematical speculative theories of multi-verses in his story "The Garden of Forking Paths'. One might also suggest that Leignitz made mathematical multiple universes plausible with his theory of monads. By the late twentieth century,  multiple or parallel universes had become common in speculation and story if not in demonstrable reality.  They cropped up frequently in the Star Trek series, and many mainstream mathematicians and physicists--if a mainstream can be discerned--have come to accept the theory of simulltaneous  realities that Erwin Schrodinger had suggested in 1952 or in branching realities that Hugh Everett proposed in 1957.

There is no shortage of theories of multiple realities or universes or time lines., but little widespread acceptance of any one of them. I tend to find Max Tegmark as convincing and comprehensible as anyone, Tegmark outlines  four possible 'levels' of multiple universes. For my meandering considerations as I approach my 71st birthday, however, the complexities of possibilities reduce to two: there might exist parallel universe or universes about which we have no certain method of knowledge; or, the universe may be a branching thing in which every choice results in two or more branches, in which I and we live different lives in different times. I don't expect to drop into Al Capone's Chicago like a Star Trek character, but the branching idea intrigues me. I have serious difficulties understanding the physics of such a universe. It seems very difficult to square with Einstein's General Relativity Theory, although perhaps we live in a world of repetitive Big Bangs and just don't notice it. Or maybe I'm hung upon particles and the permutations work more smoothly in wave fields Still, I wonder if there is an I--indeed many I's--who made different decisions and are living different lives. What if?

What if I had managed to accept the offer of a full scholarship to Stanford despite my father's objections? (The offer came in May or June, and I was not 18 until August.) What if when the woman who was to become my wife said to chose between my orange hunting cap and her I had chosen the cap and remained my wilder self? What if when my father died I had moved to New York and The New School instead of Chicago? You get the idea.

I confess to find it comforting in a insubstantial way to think that there are other 'I's who made the other decisions, although I also wonder whether the I who was wild and crazy and kept the orange hat and went to New York and the New School died of AIDS. (I like to think that the I who went to Stanford developed an insight into the basic nature of the universe, something that the I who is writing this blog still finds elusive.)

I also confess that I strongly suspect that there are multiple universes. The one we live in is so fractal that I would be seriously surprised if the larger reality were not also fractal. Again and again we folk have thought that our understanding was all there is, only to be surprised. The Navajo thought that they were the only people. Astronomers before Galileo thought our Moon was singular. Before Edwin Hubble we though we lived in the only galaxy. Christians and Muslims still today persist in believing they know the one true religion.

What I find insubstantially comforting in the idea of multiple universes is that it makes what happens in any one of them less important. I recently met a man who was planting 70 of some sort of tree on some land he had just bought, land on which that species of tree had never grown before. It seemed to me that he would have been wiser to have planted ten of seven different species of trees. A branching, multiple universe seems wiser than one in which all the eggs are in one basket, to mix metaphors a bit.  It also reduces our singular importance. We humans seem to tend to hubris 'bigly'. I suspect that in the larger scheme of the universe(s)--if there is a scheme--we don't matter diddly squat. 

I would find it more comforting if more people accepted the notion that it is not necessarily the most friendly action to impose their concept of the universe on others by force. I kinda like the notion of the universe in which, when Constantine invited bishops to Nicea, they said 'you've got to be kidding.', or one in which when the prophet told his wife that god was talking to him, she had said 'there, there, you're just tired' and had not bought him a horse and a sword. 

Meanwhile, it is good to consider that bishops, prophets, wives and presidents don't matter diddly squat. Whether there is another universe or not, this one will pass, and we with it.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Clickbait 2.01: Monogesis, Monads and Monado

At least since my seventeenth summer, when I sat long hours on the roof of my parents' house reading but not understanding Upanishads, I have been interested in the history of religion. My interest has broadened to include the history of philosophy, science, and mathematics as well: how have we as a species understood the world and our place in it?

Despite vacuous statements one often hears from ill-informed people who just want us to get along, all religions are not alike, nor do they share the same goals. I think it is insulting to a serious practitioner of, say, Mahayana Buddhism to say that his religion is just like that of a serious Mormon, and insulting to the Mormon as well. There are huge differences within groups who share the name of a religion, so huge that it can be hard for us to recognize one another. My mother, a sort of folk-protestant, expressed this difficulty when she would finish 'her Christmas' at midnight on Christmas eve and then say that after that I could celebrate Christmas in 'my religion'.

It would probably be convenient if, despite our differences , we could get along, although we do a rather good job of fighting even when we claim the same religion. Good English protestant Christians didn't hesitate to bomb the good German protestant Christians of Dresden. Perhaps in modern western culture, when religion has come largely to be relegated to the realm of 'the soul', that as Leibnitz said in paragraph 81 of his Monadology. 'According to this system bodies act as if (to suppose the impossible) there were no souls, and souls act as if there were no bodies . . . .' Leibnitz is often remembered in terms of Voltaire's caricature of him, but Voltaire gave us jokes while Leibnitz discovered calculus. He also struggled very hard to find a theory of everything, long before that struggle would occupy theoretical physicists.

For many religions, a theory of everything is assumed, with so little conviction that those with other theories of everything must be burned or beheaded or sent into exile. I find it interesting that those who believe in the law of gravity have never found it necessary to punish those who don't.

I would like to be able to ignore religions at this point in human history, to simply point out that we do not rely on religious theory for understanding the things that are important to us, but upon physics. My best understanding of religions these days is that they are live action role playing games The computer you are using to read this blog doesn't care whether you said the filioque yesterday at the Easter mass or even whether you went to mass yesterday. But, alas, many people with big weapons do care about such things. In the United States they tend to be people who will quote John 3:16 you. When I was younger and more patient with such people--i.e., before they had taken over the government--I would point out that the gospel according to John is not a collection of memory verses but a really quite beautiful piece of writing from the time when followers of Jesus were already being kicked out of the synagogues, and ask them if they had memorized John 17:3, in which Jesus tells his disciples what eternal life is. The wonderful thing about the Gospel according to John, in my opinion, is not that it is a spiritual book but a physical book. The soul does not act as if there were no body. In the beginning was the Word, but it became flesh. The flesh is killed, but when it is resurrected, it still wants a nice bit of fish and chips, even though it can now pass through closed doors. There are loose ends. It is nowhere nearly so neat as Leibnitz' Monadology.

But it is within the Gospel according to John that Christians find their big weapon to insist that their theory of everything is the only one, the one they will impose upon you for your own good even if they have to torture you to do it. Jesus is called the μονογενής γιος , the only begotten son, and that has been thought to mean that god has no other natural children, and if you don't 'believe in him'--whatever that means--you ain't gonna have eternal life and that has been thought to mean that you're going to hell. This interpretation ignores other uses of μονογενής γιος, such as Abraham's description of Isaac.

The discovery of video games in my old age has helped me understand in a convenient way how religions develop and how intensely people become involved with them. The Legend of Zelda, for instance, has in thirty years developed a large canon with difficulties in time-lines and meanings that are very similar to the difficulties that biblical scholars have with their canon. There are books and blogs and YouTube channels all devoted to the correct interpretation of the Zelda mythos. It's like Thomas Ray's Tierra, a computer simulation of evolution. But there are other games out there. One of the interesting ones in terms of Leibnitz and religion is Xenoblade Chronicles, which starts with a battle between two gods. Mechanis and Bionis--pictured above--not unlike the struggle that is part of many cosmologies, a struggle implicit in the stories of many parts of the Hebrew canon. There magic swords, the Monados, and one of them is marked with the name of god and it can kill the god. Fascinating stuff. The hero, Shulk, is a young boy who spends a lot of time contemplating the universe at Outlook Park. So far as I know, no one who plays Xenoblade has put to death someone who instead plays Zelda. But in a few years, who knows. 'The future doesn't belong to you.'

So, to answer a question someone asked me after my first Clickbait post, I suppose that I have come to think of god and christianity much as I do video games: as magnificent, interactive, works of art. The reason I find video games a better parallel than other arts is the participation, the interaction. Dance, which has often been a part of liturgy, is also similar, as can be a meal. Babette's Feast is a beautiful movie which describes one such meal.

In South Korea there are people, usually young men, who become addicted to video games to the exclusion of all else. I suppose that in a society that allows one to choose one's life, that choice should be honored. Monasteries are full of people who have become addicted to prayer to the exclusion of all else. In my own life, the temptation of the monastery has been stronger than that of the keyboard and mouse. But one misses so many of the other possibilities of life when one enters an addiction.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Clickbait 2.0: Does the Round Dance of Jesus Scale?

Once again, the interwebs has led me. I was googling 'round dance of Jesus' this morning and the first suggestion was Odd, since there is not post like that on the bamabong. But it seemed a good way to follow up on my previous post, which several people had asked me to do, so, here goes.

I do not follow Kant's categorical imperative in all things. I recognize that many of my activities are not possible for everyone to do, that my rather rich but indolent life style in my old age is possible because I lived differently when I was younger and because other people are living differently now. My life style is not a moral statement, it's a hobby, like, I would suggest, organic gardening. A religion that claims catholicity, however, should probably fit Kant's criteria. In other words, it should scale.

The problem with Christianity, as with most religions, is that it does not scale. It is based on and claims to be a continuation, a fulfillment, of revelations and promises made by a rather tribal god to a man named Abraham, in the mostly desert region we  now call the Near East. Despite some suggestions that he was a god of thunder storms, he wasn't consistently good about providing rain, so Abraham's tribe had to go to Egypt, where their gods kept the Nile flowing. But things went sour in Egypt, and the god of the Israelites, as they were now called, after Abraham's favourite grandson,  fought with the gods of the Egyptians, who let his people go. Into the desert they went, where they were given water miraculously and also the law. And, they were promised a land. When they entered the land, the way with dealing with peoples of other gods was to wipe them out, a task which they failed to do very well.

I am going to skip the history for several centuries, except to mention that the most successful of the descendants of Jacob in terms of conquest was David. As we all know from Christmas carols and the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus, the Christ, is proclaimed as the proper scion of David. How comfortable Jesus was with this designation is a little hard to tell, but the Romans took it seriously enough to put him to death.

But, Christians say, the story didn't end there. He was resurrected from the dead, ate and cooked fish, hung around with his disciples and other friends for forty days before going up into the sky, promising to come back the same way, but sending 'another 'paraklete', the Holy Spirit, to lead them until he came back.

The Christians quickly became a much more motley crew than the Israelites. Membership was open to anyone, whatever their ethnic and social background, by baptism, and it was voluntary. To the distress of many Christians, even till this day, not all Israelites, who were called Jews by the time of the Roman empire, volunteered to follow the new David. What had been a movement within Judaism found itself anathematized by mainstream Judaism. But in the Roman empire, which encompassed many tribes and many gods, Christianity became a very powerful new force for unity, a situation which Constantine recognized by making Christianity a state religion. With Constantine's recognition and celebration in architecture of the new religion, however, it quickly changed from a pagan religion--a religion of the countryside, even though it had churches and bishops in town and cities--to a religion of powerful bishops in powerful cities.

I am going off on a bit of a historical limb here by suggesting that although there were many skirmishes within Christianity during the early centuries, it would be the substitution of the centralized, priestly religion for the god-in-a-blazing bush, god-knocking-one-off-one's-horse religion that would lead to its biggest opponent. Certainly we can see the stresses going back to the time of Samuel when David wanted to build a temple. And Jesus himself would predict that the Jerusalem temple would perish. But out in the desert, where Abraham had been a wandering Aramean, the same angel Gabriel who had appeared to Mary would appear in 610 to another prophet, Muhammad, with what Muhammad's followers would insist was the final and definitive word on all matters theological. Many Christians at first thought that the Muslims were just another Christian sect. Some say the same today about Mormons. Muslims did not see Christians that way. Christians and Jews were not so evil as Zoroastrians, but they were not part of the faithful.

As Christianity. which had ceased to be voluntary but had become a matter of imperial fiat,  spread further into Europe and Asia and Africa, it encountered other religions that found it intolerable.  Need I mention the attitude of the Vikings, for instance, upon encountering people who did not recognize the authority of the true gods? In places that Christian kings conquered, baptism by force became normal. This led to some odd circumstances. The dancer on the right in the picture that heads this blog is named Jesus 'Jacoh' Cortes. He is part of an American Indian dance group called Dancing Earth. Is his really the dance of Jesus? Is there something in Christianity other than its familiarity and comfort that is valuable to the world today, that is really catholic in the sense of belonging to the whole world? I think there is, and that it is easiest to find, perhaps, in the Gospel according to John. But that discussion will come in 'Clickbait 2.1: Monogenis'. We in the age of the interwebs have trouble reading something as long as this post has been.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Clickbait: Facebook, Identity, and Religioin

Today is both my eighth anniversary on Facebook, and Good Friday. I was reticent about using Facebook when it was new. I had looked into MySpace, which seemed ugly. Many of my friends insisted that one could customize it to make it look however one wished, it didn't seem worth the effort. But a friend, who has since left Facebook, made me an administrator of a group, so I investigated the new kid on the block. The clincher was something that Mark Zuckerberg had said, I think in response to criticism that Facebook didn't allow anonymous users: 'One identity'. Kinda like what Jesus said: 'If thy eye be single.'

I became a user of Facebook, and many of my friends are from church, either from the meat world or from the virtual world. They are nice people, most of them. So I have reticent to write this because I don't want to suggest that I am condemning them. Yet as I have gotten older,  I have more and more come to think of my and many of my friends' continuation in the church as an example of Stockholm syndrome.

I grew up in Jonesboro, Arkansas, a town that was then in Southern Baptist captivity. Bidden or unbidden, the thinking of the place, the gestalt, was presented to nearly everyone as a sort of individualistic calvinism. My conversion experience, something everyone was expected to have, came as a result of a nightmare. I still remember it. I was nine years old, and I dreamed that I was being pursued by a rhinoceros. Somehow my mother, who had heard my noises and come to comfort me, as I lay in my colonial maple bed in a room with sky blue wall paper covered with airliners, somehow she turned my nightmare into a religious experience. I should give my heart to Jesus, and I wouldn't have to fear the rhinoceros. (I'll let patient reader do other kinds of interpretations of that dream.) So, the next Sunday, to the tune of 'Footsteps of Jesus', I walked the aisle and got saved. A few weeks later, on a Sunday night, I got dunked, and was given a collection of tracts which explained the faith. I don't remember what they said, but I remember how they smelled.

I outgrew the Baptist church, went off to college, and thought I was free of christianity. But its basic tenets of guilt and its narrow morality were so much a part of the society that I was deluding myself. I got married. It would, I thought, cure my homosexuality, even though I didn't even allow myself that thought consciously. My wife and I avoided church for a while, but the time came when we moved to a new town and wanted to meet some 'nice people, and thought that they would be at church, and they were.

What does one do when one lives in a culture based on original sin and one is an original sinner--at that time in thought, not in deed. I had not technically slept with a man. (Except for one college room mate with whom I shared a bed;  I deeply loved him, but was deathly afraid of showing it. But that's the tale for another night.) I went into the grace business: seminary, ordination, the full catastrophe. Divorce followed, and although I thought I would never again be a professional christian, most of my friends were still in the church. The people I met at gay bars were in the church. I became lovers with the pianist of one of the major Memphis churches. I attended an episcopal church whose senior warden I would meet sometimes on Fridays at the local leather bar.

Then I moved to Santa Fe, and met more liberal churchmen. It was and is odd. The 'real church' is the nice people with whom one hangs out. The Westboro Baptist people are not really christians. It's like nice nazis in the Third Reich saying that the people who ran the ovens weren't real nazis. I became orthodox, trying to convince myself that the total depravity of humanity was only part of western, Augustinian christianity. Duh.

Stockholm Syndrome. We have, at least my generation, been so immersed in the guilt and sin prison that we think it is good. I want to distance myself from that understanding of the world as much as I can, but it is not easy.

So, how to be authentic in one's identity? One of my friends, a nice person in just about every way, said when I began to appear on Facebook as 'other than christian'. that if I became the sort of atheist who thinks religions are evil he would find it a bit over the top. Do I think christianity, islam, the whole caboodle kit of religions, are evil?

I have been pondering that question rather intensely the past few days. I recently read Max Tegmark's 'Our Mathematical Universe', in which he tries to make sense of identity over time, comparing it to a soft pink worm that wanders through spacetime. A slice at any point is a now. How much a part of my identity this Good Friday afternoon in the Year of our Lord 2017 is the boy I remember being frightened by a dream one night in 1955? How is that memory more 'I' than the memory of how 1956 automobiles looked and smelled, or of the colour of the plastic baskets that held the hamburgers I ate for lunch most warm Sundays when my family made its weekly trip to the drive in on Gee Street? It is very easy to convince myself that the balance of the influence of christianity on my life has been evil. It was the desire to appear moral that led to my marriage, to the one time I spanked my son, to living a lie for years.

What about the balance for society beyond myself. Good Friday is a particularly confrontational time to consider that, I think. It is the day when the church focuses on an act of torture which is somehow claimed to be the salvation of the world, or at least central and necessary to that salvation. I think of how many saints are identified by the instruments of their tortures. How many folks know that St. Lawrence is the patron of the barbecue grill? When christianity was the religion of the downtrodden and tortured, I can understand how making an act of 'torment and shame' a source of salvation was helpful. But as soon as the church got power, it began to torture.  Identity is such a problem.

So, in as much an effort of full disclosure as I can, I am writing this and sharing it. I want to make it clear that I am not blaming the church or its members. I am not claiming myself to be other than a willing victim, at least not after I was aware enough to realize that giving my heart to Jesus would not prevent nightmares. I have been a collaborator, an enabler. I want to stop, I want my identity to be one, my eye to be single. but damn. The gospel may be fake news, but it has such a seductive soundtrack.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Sitting in the dark, talkin' 'bout the light

Growing up in Jonesboro, Arkansas, during the 1950's, the Christmas season began when the Sears Christmas Catalog arrived. It was the liturgical book of the season without peer. We pored over its pages and then wrote our prayers to Santa Claus, who knew when we were sleeping, knew when we were awake, but who still relied on the USPS to receive our prayers.  In the Baptist church, Christmas was the birthday of Jesus. There was no christology that I ever noticed. There was a cantata and a pageant. I had my first beard as Joseph in the pageant one year. It was glued on. 

Over the years I sort of forgot about the church and such things. Christmas was still a lot of fun. Trees and music and gifts. When I was married, we always had a life tree which we put up on Santa Lucia's Day, because it was also my wife's birthday, and planted on Christmas day. Everyone else slept while I took down the decorations as I watched a ballet on NBC. Then we planted it.

Later, I discovered that there was more to Christianity than Jezebel and Ahab, who had been the subject of nearly all the sermons of my youth, and that there was more to prayer than sending a wish list off to an old man, wherever he lived. I discovered other liturgical books than the Sears Christmas Catalogue. And I discovered Anglicanism, which has had about the best prayers one can find. I use the past perfect tense intentionally. One of the best is this jewel:

'ALMIGHTY God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.'

That prayer is the Anglican collect for the First Sunday in Advent, 'to be said throughout Advent'. It was newly written by Thomas Cranmer to replace the Sarum Collect, which had been one of the 'Stir up's':

'Stir up, we beseech Thee, O Lord, Thy power, and come, that we may be accounted worthy to be rescued by thy protection from the threatening dangers of our sins to be set free by Thy deliverance'

The changes are not, I think, insignificant. I think it shows Cranmer in a quite anti-Lutheran mood. Our rising to immortality needs us to do things. But even more important is that it seems to recognize that things in this mortal life are not only not as they seem, but not as they should be. The Sarum collect suggests that things are not as they seem, but that the Lord will come and see them rightly, 

Both recognize a significant awareness that had been dawning on the church of a very long time. The Christ had not restored everything to any easily recognized good and perfect order, and that he didn't seem to be coming back soon.

Cranmer was writing at a time when the even the idea of Christendom, headed in the west by the Pope of Rome, was crumbling. He published his first Book of Common Prayer in 1549. Ninety-nine years later, at Utrecht, the crumbs would be sorted out. 

Advent has pretty well fallen out of the public consciousness, even though many DIY churches are beginning to 'observe' it again. The Roman  church no longer even has standards for Advent fasting. Only the Orthodox, with St. Phillip's Fast, or the old hold outs for St. Martin's Fast in the West keep the fast that traditionally was the precursor to a feast. 

But I think it is worth considering what Advent suggests, even though we might not like it. It suggests that the Nativity was a failure. Yup. We will sing Watt's big hymn, 'Joy to the World', and talk about the 'real meaning of Christmas'. This is of course bullshit. The real meaning of Christmas is buying stuff at Macy's. We might keep the pretence until the 2ND of January, the conclusion of one of the few Octaves left on our calendar. But, sins and sorrows will once more grow, thorns will infest the ground, and the idea that 'the nations prove the glories of his righteousness' is a joke at best, despite the best efforts of Cranmer and the Twdors, even despite the best efforts of Elizabeth of Windsor.

This Advent, do we, do the church, do anyone, really believe that Christ will come again in glory to judge the quick and the dead. I seriously doubt it. So, we play at Christmas. Which has some problems. If we take it seriously as history, as the story is told, Jesus came to accomplish a bunch of stuff which he mostly doesn't accomplish--I mean, 500 or 5000 people being fed once hasn't much helped the folks who have starved since. Then he scoots back up into the sky and sits down a the right hand of the Father.  

Playing at Christmas probably isn't such a bad thing if one thinks of the whole cycle of the 
Christian year and its many feasts and symbolisms, but we threw that away when we left the farm. Having a yearly cycle is just that. A cycle. Shit happens. It gets cleaned up. But we can't rest, because it will happen again. 

The Second Advent is a different sort of thing entirely. It is a deus ex machina about which we have little control. Cranmer's collect suggested a way of preparing for it that had been missing in the previous collect. But it is still beyond our control. Jesus knew this when he refused to be played with the crowd in Jerusalem who wanted him to be their king. His idea of a kingdom was famously within, independent of Jerusalem. But ideas about Jesus have always been more central to Christianity than has Jesus. 

Unfortunately, there have been plenty of men much less wise than Jesus who have been quite happy to play the role of deus ex machina, to be king. 

I can, I think, do no better than to quote Yeats:

'Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart' the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

'Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty century of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?'

And, being an old jouster with windmills, I will conclude with the short form of Cranmer's collect, with the caveat that one should always be careful what one prays for:

ALMIGHTY God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life.