Friday, April 20, 2007

Some of you have seen the film “Six Degrees of Separation” which spins out its plotline upon the notion that all people, everywhere, are within six people of knowing one another. But for musicians, the degrees narrow down to three, and for professionals, down to one. If I meet an orchestral musician, they are guaranteed to know someone else I know. And this might not be very interesting except that it beautifully illustrates a gem of world-view: everyone is connected.

Naturally I didn’t invent this idea. Lots of writers explore how people (not just professional musicians, naturally) are connected. Only a few seem to think it’s a good idea to separate people, to impose distance (which is not the same as boundaries, which might be the subject for another musing), and huddle only with a select few. Some time ago I had an epiphany which got me past the idea that people are not connected; this epiphany has been unfolding, in fresh chapters, for years now.

Some people don’t like this idea of basic human connectedness; usually, they’re the ones with something on their conscience. It’s a bit frightening to be connected to, or to be within one or two degrees of, someone you have harmed. Or a friend that you treated shabbily. Or an acquaintance you shunned. Or betrayed. Or avoided because you have something on your conscience. Fear is a burden, and I feel for people who carry too much of it, because I know how that feels.

Then another epiphany unfolded: everyone has something on their conscience. That’s one of the connections. And this led me to this shiniest epiphany: it’s a good idea to forgive people. If I forgive people, I don’t need to worry about being one person away from knowing them. I don’t need to worry about them reappearing in my life, as people tend to do, sooner or later, in actuality or on the internet or in heaven or in dreams. What’s in your life stays there, and you can come to terms with it, but it will not go away. Naturally, I’m not referring to behaviors or to objects, but to people.

Even behaviors and objects have staying power, I now realize. Some shoddy behavior of mine may be in the past, but it remains a memory in my mind. I can be forgiven and forgive myself, but the memory lurks, hopefully keeping arrogance at bay. And you might know the Orson Welles movie where the dying star, powerful and renowned, utters a word on his deathbed: “Rosebud.” People keep trying to figure out what it means, and only viewers know it’s his old toy sled from childhood—a relic of innocence, perhaps.

Another chapter of this epiphany granted the realization that, even if I am not joined to someone by family ties, or the selectivity of friendship, or the peculiar intensity of working together, or what have you, we are still connected. One degree or six, the connection holds. This makes me suppose that I am responsible. I cannot act like a child who huddles and sneers with a clique on the playground, refusing to talk to someone for the eternity of a day; nor can I complain eternally about someone who annoys me. At some point I have to get over it and treat them with the openness of connection. After all, the connection appears to remain, no matter how we treat one another, no matter how far we try to run, or how busy we attempt to keep ourselves. So I might as well just open up. I might as well be decent to everybody.

Despite the chapters of this epiphany, I am not perfect. But I am resolved to answer everyone’s phone calls or emails, unless you are a telemarketer. So, if you don’t hear back from me, you know the technology is broken. I’ll always answer if I can.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Who is My Brother? My Sister? My Neighbor?

Jesus answered the question about who my neighbor is when he told the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). When Jesus said "go and do likewise"--show mercy to one who needs it--he defined the parameters of our human connection. We are connected to everyone, and responsible to show mercy, to everyone, even if they are different from us, and a sinner or an outcast or problematic or judged by fellow inhabitants of our comfort zone as dangerous. I think that's why Jesus selected the Samaritan as the example in his story. He could've placed the Samaritan in the victim role, showing him lying by the side of the road, needing mercy, to imply that we who stand in our own assurance of our place in the center of society need to reach out to those we consider "other". But Jesus placed the Samaritan in the powerful role of mercy-giver. He implies that if some "other" gives mercy with such power of kindness, we are to go and do likewise, and not hold ourselves above anyone.

Some people like to limit their neighbors to those in their comfort zone. A science fiction writer, Kurt Vonnegut, coined a name for people in your comfort zone; in his novel "Cat's Cradle," he calls this group a "granfalloon". His idea is that the people who inhabit the cozy zone of hot air and mutual support with you are your granfalloon, and we all crave such a group. I call them kindred spirits, and I never feel I have enough of them. But someone recently pointed out that granfalloonery has its downside, from the Christian perspective: we like to be listened to, but what we need is to be listeners. We need not only our comfort zone of kindred spirits, but our difficult zone of Samaritan outsiders to learn from and give to.

Oddly enough, what changed my viewpoint on my comfort zone, pushing me to reach beyond what I think I need, is the rejection and avoidance I experience from a Christian whom I make uncomfortable. In my heart, I really hurt from this rejection. It seems vast to me, and mysterious, and like a thorn in the flesh of my mind that keeps me wondering. So now I look around with different eyes, and, prodded by my thorn, think: who needs me to reach past my comfort zone? who is my neighbor? if we're all neighbors, brothers, sisters, where do I need to look next? I might look right beside me and see an opportunity to reach across the slim divide.

Monday, October 02, 2006

My Thoughts on Sam Harris' Latest Book!

So, Sam Harris recently made waves with a polemic entitled "Letter to a Christian Nation". I won't plot-summarize here. Go to Amazon and take a look, or browse the slender tome at your nearby independent bookstore. Briefly, the book deploys Harris' thoughts on how baseless Christianity is, with special focus on how hypocritical, unreasonable and intellectually vacuous conservative evangelical Christianity is as it manifests itself in the public sphere here in America. As you can tell, my bias is showing.

Sam Harris makes me ashamed to call myself a liberal. This is further evidence in support of my comments, a few posts ago, about how the American labels, "liberal" and "conservative" have blurred into toxic vague uselessness, at least for people like me.

First, he confuses one segment of Christianity with the whole of Christianity, misusing the straw man. He even utters a diss against those of us who are "liberal" Christians, calling us various names and attempting to attack our beliefs. However, his attempt to attack Christianity falls flat for the same reason that any attack on insubstantial, faith-based realms falls flat: you can't "prove" a faith-based idea, because that is the nature of faith: it's based on the unseen, the felt, the lived, the unquantifiable experience. Harris may as well attack the use of Brahms symphonies to uplift your soul on a Friday night after a tough week. He could also attack string theory, while he's at it. Ok, I'm vent here, and that's ok, because this is my blog, and not a nationally-published slim volume.

I think Harris destroys his case through non-credible attacks. Liberals and conservatives alike seem to enjoy publishing, and then reading, the kind of rant that serves no purpose other than to stir up hate, and vague yet intoxicating feelings of superiority. So, it serves no purpose for me to closely analyze and deconstruct Harris' slender manifesto here. He, and those who agree with him, won't listen, nor read, nor have any other response than the tight shutting of their minds. And the same goes for conservative writers who pour forth their prose in opposing rants.

If writers hope to gain respect, they need to remain above the primal, playground-level ad hominem attack.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Faith Persists

Lately I've been dwelling in persistence, or, as Emily Dickinson has it, dwelling in possibility. Some of you have told me that you, too, focus the laser-beam of your attention on your own pain to the exclusion of any blessings that happen to surround you, whether singly or in a cloud. I'm to the point, today, where I am enumerating the blessings in a slogging mantra just to distract myself from the one absence in my life.

Pain is odd: it demands amelioration, instantly if not sooner. Pain says: Me, Now! and to get past that wall of need requires more patience and selflessness than I have, most days. Fortunately, there are lots of people around me who have pressing needs, and it's my job to attend to them, so I get distracted. Thank God.

Here I am, persisting in faith that my loving ways will reach someone who is afraid. Here I am, persisting in faith that love is much stronger than illusion, or guilt, or self-hatred, or false assumptions, or expectations, or age, or distance, or misapprehension. We'll see whether I'm right in persisting. But even if I'm wrong in my attempt, I have to persist in my faith. All things work together for good of those who trust God. Interesting: people who hear this tend to think: (1) how cheesy or (2) how deluded. In this edgy modern world, faith seems mawkish. So, I've noticed, many of us keep faith under wraps. Me too, sometimes. Maybe, though, the world is evolving, in its relentless fashion, and faith will be the new edge.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Reality and Scripture: Part II

If you think reality is defined by one's perceptions and filtered through one's context-shaped lenses, then your thinking is right in line with Augustine (of Hippo) and the postmodernists too. If you think reality is the sum of facts and concrete objects or occurrences happening in the world, then your thinking is in line with such people as Wittgenstein ("reality is what is the case") and with some Christians nowadays as well. But what if reality comprises both conditions? What if facts which exist, and things which are, and events which transpire, are real, and yet the perception of such realities are shaped by our context-based lenses (to borrow the modern metaphor)?

At what point does reality quit and perception take over? --at the point in which the concrete reality is transferred into word or image. Wittgenstein also thought that words and images cannot completely reflect what is "the case" though they can come close. And he thought that words/images could actually shape the reality of human thought and action (though perhaps not of a concrete object--calling a "chair" a "table" does not change its shape but only its signification).

In the Bible, we read words which describe concrete events (such as the Flood) , actions (Jesus' life and death), and real objects (the Euphrates River). Many, in fact most, of these concrete phenomena are known to be real because, for example, we can visit the Euphrates River now, we can read about Jesus' life in the writings of Josephus and other historical sources outside of the Bible, and we can find archeological evidence for events such as the Flood. In conclusion, we can rely on a certain historical accuracy in the Bible. Often, the words do not err.

We also read words describing what people said, and in some cases the descriptions of what one person said differ from one part of the Bible to another. At this point, a skeptic might question the reliability of the Bible; or, if a believer reads, they might wonder: which words did Jesus really say? And we have no answer, now. At this point, believers rely on faith, trusting that despite a human error which obviously crept in during centuries of transcription, the sense of the scripture remains, and truth awaits us through prayerful reading and thinking about the scripture in question.

We also read words said by God, or Paul, or someone else, in the Bible, and we wonder how literally a current believer needs to take them. A famous example is the line in Leviticus forbidding God's people to touch anything made with the skin of a pig, but many scriptural passages confront us with questions about how they apply to us as believers today. Are bigamy and slavery ok for believers because Biblical believers had multiple spouses and owned slaves? Jesus even mentioned slavery and never condemned it. On that basis, nineteenth-century Christians argued about whether or not slavery was immoral.

What remains real in the Bible? To me, the spiritual weight and sense of its precepts remain real; God remains real; the principles articulated from the first page of Genesis to the last page of Revelation remain in force. I can go take a look at the Dead Sea too, but through reading or talking with various experts I can discover that physical aspects of it have changed since Biblical times. So there is a midpoint, a grey area, lurking in any modern individual's view of the Bible. To me, it's obvious that the Bible is not meant to serve as a guide to modern life in the concrete sense. I don't expect the Dead Sea, or the Mount of Olives, or the Euphrates to look exactly as it did when Biblical writers wrote about these concrete realities. Reality has changed. Similarly, believers today don't own slaves, we don't (most of us) practice bigamy, and all football-playing people touch pigskin regularly.

There's a slippery slope, definitely, in this thinking. And I would urge us not to strain out the slippery slope and swallow a camel. Instead of arguing for scriptural inerrancy, we could be sharpening our discernment. Between the lines of Paul's writing, I see a constant focus on discernment: he urges believers to become the kind of people who can know the difference between good and evil, between truth and lies. Discernment is never easy. The lesson of the scriptures, for me, is that I need to work on my discernment. What's at stake is not who wins an argument about scripture, but whether I can learn to discern what I need to understand in order to meet God's grace half way.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Reality and Scripture

Is scripture inerrant? How do we know? --these questions incite arguments among believers, and now we have three houses: those who think scripture inerrant, those who don't think scripture inerrant, and those who don't want to argue about the question.

For a some time now, I've found myself in the third house. But this could be changing.

My reasoning for not wanting to argue went like this: there's too much we don't know about scripture, in its origins, its permutations through the course of history, and its context. No, I don't intent to use the term "context" as a signifier of postmodernist leanings, so if you flinch from the word, I invite you to relax, at least temporarily. In fact, this leads to my next point: we Christians who differ tend to stop listening to one another, and dismiss quickly the reasoning with which we disagree. So many of us, including me, have taken the stance of not knowing, or not listening: why even discuss scripture and its errant/inerrant status, if we don't know and can't agree?

Recently I may have stumbled to an answer: the stakes are huge. If a Christian believes that scripture is inerrant, they hold themselves to follow every word, and to believe that the words are, in a sense, frozen in meaning, because otherwise the slippery slope of postmodernism would cave in beneath believers' feet and tumble us into the chasm of doubt. The other slippery slope lurking beneath the feet of those who think scripture is "errant" has been explained to me this way: if scripture can err, if the words are faulty, or variably interprable, or prey to differing schools of hermeneutics, or hostage to reader-response, or situated in a context we current readers cannot know, then anybody could twist the words to mean anything.

This is a problem. Why wouldn't the Lord choose the inerrant route for his scriptures? it would make sense. Why leave so much room for doubt, argument, twisting of words?

In the next post, I'll go forward with this. Now, it's about a hundred degrees in here, and I recently returned from eight solid weeks of musicmaking, so I need to take a little breather.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Quote of the day: "As an antidote to the screechy hatefulness, I recommend Christian love. While our fallen nature makes all of us, whether on the Left or the Right, prone to hating our enemies, we Christians know that Christ calls us to a higher standard."

Stephen L. Carter's words, quoted above, come from his article in Christianity Today, which I access via a daily feed.

"Screechy hatefulness" is not only unattractive, but unChristian, and my main task while renewing my Christian walk has been to defeat the impulse to hatefulness, a violent wellspring that bubbles evilly up in hearts, including mine. After four years of work on this, with great help from grace, the struggle gets easier, though I still wrestle daily. Oddly enough, it helps me to see examples of hate, disrespect and other ills, because then I'm reminded of just how ugly this habit is. In an article I was reading yesterday, all was well until my eye hit a line about idolizing diversity in our culture. My inner ear heard the wrong note, and I paused to consider why that line felt so wrong. Was it because of the subtle dig against people who are different (whatever that may mean)? was it because of the barb of utter dislike pricking out between the words? was it the sheer hyperbole? because diversity isn't privileged, and often doesn't exist? was it the leakage of bitterness, against diversity or whatever the author felt it stood for? Yes, in the culture in which we live, errors have been made in the name of "diversity" and "political correctness" and some screechy hatefulness emits from proponents of those two.

We have to ask ourselves what we'd like to emit. I have to ask myself what my motives are. And then I turn to those glowing witnesses and read them, to steep myself in the spirit I want to learn from. In addition to the scriptures, I find authors like Carter, bloggers like Glenn Lucke, and past masters like C. S. Lewis to be very strengthening. I really appreciate them.