Terror and Abundance: An Advent Reflection

(So much of this is stolen from or inspired by Steve Antil, Peg Downing, the general energy of all the St. Joseph Central High School community, and my family and friends. If you like it, thank them for the message. If not, you can blame me for the packaging!)

We are gathered here together during the season of Advent, in which Christians prepare for the coming of Jesus on the holiday known as Christmas. There is a philosophy in Christianity called “Neoplatonism” (actually, it is a philosophy found in Judaism and Islam as well) that may be helpful for understanding Christmas. I won’t get into all the details, but basically Neoplatonism holds that God is superabundant, so full of love and goodness and beauty that God overflowed God’s self and that is how the universe came to be. Some Christian thinkers used this as a way to understand the significance of Jesus, that God was so overflowing with love for the world that God spilled over into the world, becoming a person like you and me. This might be a helpful image of the Christmas story, a story of the overflowing abundance of God’s love and goodness and beauty.

I want to talk today about abundance. Not because I live this way all the time, but because I struggle to live this way. Abundance might seem like a strange thing to talk about in light of all the tragedy we are experiencing in our world. But for me, the big tragedies in the world are not special. I am not going to minimize them, but I am going to recast them in this way: The major tragedies are reminders to us of all the suffering that is going on in the world all the time. The suffering of even one starving child is unconscionable to me. Irreconcilable with my sense of what the world should be or could be. But the problem of suffering is more than that, more, even, than all the starving children of the world. What about the toddler out front of Jettie’s ice cream shop, who licked her ice cream cone and it toppled over onto the ground? She is sitting out there, wailing and screaming because her ice cream is on the side walk. This is a major tragedy, at least to that little girl. We may be tempted to compare her suffering to life’s “real” problems and then to laugh it off, but who are we to diminish the suffering of another human being? Viktor Frankl said that suffering is like a gas; it expands to fill whatever container it is in.

Something strange happened to me on the way to work today. I was driving my usual route to work and I came to a four way stop. And, in typical fashion, a person who came to the intersection after me neglected to stop and then took his turn ahead of me. I am sure all of you have witnessed something like this. That’s when something snapped in me. I was so fed up with the discourteous habits of DC drivers that I let him have it.

When I say “I let him have it,” I mean that I let him have the turn. Of course, he was going to take it anyway! But something shifted in me, and I realized that if I let him have it, then he can’t take it from me. If I stop thinking of it as “MY turn,” then it becomes impossible for him to steal it. So I said to him, in my mind, “Yes, here, you go first.”

How was this small miracle able to happen in my life? I think it was in response to a story that came out of France two weeks ago. As you know, terrorists in France killed one hundred and thirty people, injured hundreds more, and left huge holes in the lives of countless friends and relatives. A 35 year-old man named Antione Leiris lost his wife, leaving him to be a single dad to his one year old son. This is an excerpt from what he posted to Facebook, which has since gone viral:

“Friday night you took away the life of an exceptional human being, the love of my life, the mother of my son, but you will not have my hatred.”

“I saw her and I felt I had to force myself to write what I wrote — I didn’t have a choice if I wanted my son to grow up as a human being who is open to the world around him, like his mother, to grow up as a person who will love what she loved: literature, culture, music, cinema, pictures.

“If I had given in to hatred, he might grow up to do the same, and then I would have brought up a person who was just like the terrorists.

“If we stand free, if we stand here with a zest for life, with happiness … then [the terrorists] don’t win.”

Another terror survivor named Viktor Frankl exhibited this attitude as well. Frankl was a psychiatrist who survived a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. What he found there surprised both him and the other prisoners of the camp. They were emaciated, starving, trudging through the snow to do manual labor all day with no food. They had lost everything, including their family and friends. And yet, to their surprise, they would sometimes look up and see the sun shining through the trees or sparkling on the early morning snow, and they would stand there, dumbstruck, in awe of the beauty and goodness of the earth.

Frankl said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

These two people were able to separate the horror that was being done to them from the ultimate goodness and abundance of life. This is what I want us to think about today: Living out of an attitude of abundance rather than scarcity.

How are people able to make this choice, even in the worst circumstances? What makes the difference?

I believe we can see something similar in the stories we heard a moment ago. In the Book of Samuel, the ancient Hebrews were facing an unstoppable giant named Goliath. All the great Hebrew warriors said “Look at how big Goliath is! We could never hit him!” Then Little David came along and said “Look at how big he is – how could I miss?”

The same thing happened to Jesus in the Gospel. Crowds of people were hungry and tired and irritable, and the disciples wanted to turn away with their few loaves and fish. But Jesus said, “Give them to me!” and started passing them around. Before you knew it, everyone had eaten their fill and there was more to spare.

There are many miracles described here today: defeating the giant, feeding the multitudes, conquering terrorism, surviving the Nazis. And yes, maintaining sanity in rush hour traffic. We are good at telling stories about miracles. But we don’t spend so much time on how they happen. Are they just a mystery? Or can we perform them ourselves, or at least be open to them. I think we can, and I believe it has something to do with a shift in attitude, what I am calling an attitude of abundance.

This abundance has been called the power of positive thinking. But some people call it faith. I don’t think they are very different. I know people who have mastered the miracle of positive thinking without a belief in God. But I also know that it can be helpful to have that belief. It might be easier to be positive if you have this belief in a God who will ensure a positive outcome.

We are so often confronted with images and messages of the scarcity of our existence. That there isn’t enough money, food, energy, or clean water. But this is false. There is always more money, more than enough food, energy, and water. We have the potential to grow enough food to feed everyone on this earth, several times over. It has been often proven that hunger is not a problem of resources, it is a problem of will power. The same goes for water, and energy, and money. I hear a lot of talk about the growing world population. But very few people point out that that number will top off at a certain point, and then it will begin to recede.

This attitude of scarcity, of only telling half the story, affects our daily lives. When we see our friend get an “A”, we think “She took my A!” We forget that there are an abundance of A’s, and that our friend just proved to us that they can, indeed, be earned. And when our friend gets into a college, we think “She took my spot!” But we forget that sometimes a school accepts a whole cohort of students from one school, as a prestigious school did a couple of years ago here at NCS. Those five students got into their school as a team, not as individuals. The university didn’t say “We can only take one of these girls; they said “Look at how awesome these five girls are! We don’t just want to pluck the best one out of the group. We want that whole group to come here and continue their collaborative success.

I had a principal named Peg Downing who used a basketball analogy with me once, to point out our interconnectedness. She told me, “You know, it isn’t the team with the best starting five who wins the championship.” “How is that?” I said? She replied, “It is the team with the best five players on the bench.” “The benchwarmers?” I asked, “What do they have to do with the championship?” She replied, “The team with the best five players on the bench will always win, because it is against those bench warmers that the starting five play against day-in and day-out in practice. So the starting five is only as good as those they practice with.”

That is why when a team wins a championship, it is the whole team who gets to celebrate. It’s not just the Most Valuable Player, or the starting five. Even the players who never play one minute of a game are a part of that championship.

It’s the same thing here. For those of you who don’t know it yet, at the end of the year here at NCS, we take the flag off the flag pole and we award it to the student with the highest grade point average. But this flag really belongs to all of us. This is not to take away from all the hard work the flag winner did. She earned her distinction. But she also became so good within the environment of teamwork and competition here at NCS, sparring and scrimmaging with all of you who surround her.

Living out of a sense of abundance doesn’t mean we live in denial. We still acknowledge when things are sad, tragic, lousy. We need to see the sad stuff, because that is the occasion for turning it around.

Living out of a sense of abundance doesn’t mean you don’t admit when you’re beat. I know a 92 year old woman who just started attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Most people would say, “Why bother?” This woman has a different idea. She knows she is at the end of her life, but she wants to live out that end in a dignified way, free of her addiction. Positive thinking isn’t about denial of suffering or death. It’s about how we approach suffering and death. “The last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

I would like us to be defiant in our sense of abundance. We should provoke each other with our positive thinking.

So when you get a “C” in Math and your friend gets a “B,” don’t despair. Well, you can despair for one minute, but then you should smile. Smile because you know now who to go and ask for help. Ask your fellow student if you can study with her. You might even make a friend.

And teammates: when your teammate scores a goal, don’t be jealous, as if there were only so many goals to go around. Even if the enemy scores a goal, be happy for them. And then go and score two goals. There are always more goals to be scored.

I am very serious when I place these small daily moments on the same level as huge, life-changing experiences. Viktor Frankl also noted the relativity of suffering. It is all the same. He said that before the Holocaust, a toothache was the worst tragedy in his life. Then the Holocaust happened, and toothaches were the least of his problems. But then, after the holocaust, a toothache was the worst tragedy in his life again. When we triumph over any suffering, big or small, catastrophic or miniscule, it is a victory of the same magnitude.

Mel brooks said it just as well: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger; Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” It’s all about perspective.

I want to leave you with an image of abundance. Let’s close our eyes and picture ourselves at the age of three or four. You wake up before anyone else in the house. You creep downstairs to watch cartoons, and a minute later you get hungry. You run to the kitchen, your feet slapping against the floor the way little kids’ feet do. You spy the cookie jar on the counter, so you grab a chair from the table, push it all the way to the counter, climb up, pull the jar toward you, lift the lid, and then…

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” comes the booming voice from your mother, who has just come down the stairs. “You can’t have cookies for breakfast!”

Now rewind the video a minute. You wake up, you go downstairs. You spy the cookie jar, and so you drag a chair across the kitchen. You climb up, pull the jar toward you, lift the lid, and then you hear a whispering voice. It’s grandma…

“Hey kid! Grab one for me while you’re in there, will you?

Like that grandmother, let’s live our lives out of a deep abiding sense of abundance. Let’s keep our eyes peeled for ways in which we can make this shift in attitude, whether it is in school, on the playing field, in traffic, or in any part of our lives. I think the season of Advent, of preparation for an outpouring of abundance, is a perfect time to practice just that.

Amen.

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A Word on the Koran

Nowhere in the Koran does it say that girls should not be educated;

Nowhere in the Koran does it say that a man should throw a bucket of acid on the face of his daughter if she disrespects her family’s reputation;

Nowhere in the Koran does it say that we should shoot a girl who stands up for the rights of her fellow women;

Nowhere does it say in the Koran that if you spill the blood of innocent people that you will be rewarded in heaven with forty virgins.

Yes, there are some leftover vestiges of the patriarchal society out of which the Koran came. For example, Muhammad (P.B.U.H) had more than one wife. But even facts like these can be reinterpreted by both more and less modern Muslims, as is being done so the world over.

(c.f., referenced in the Wikipedia entry on “ISIL,” Hasan, Mehdi (10 March 2015), “Mehdi Hasan: How Islamic is Islamic State?”, New Statesman, retrieved 7 July 2015, Consider the various statements of Muslim groups such as the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, representing 57 countries (Isis has “nothing to do with Islam”); the Islamic Society of North America (Isis’s actions are “in no way representative of what Islam actually teaches”); al-Azhar University in Cairo, the most prestigious seat of learning in the Sunni Muslim world (Isis is acting “under the guise of this holy religion . . . in an attempt to export their false Islam”); and even Saudi Arabia’s Salafist Grand Mufti, Abdul Aziz al ash-Sheikh (Isis is “the number-one enemy of Islam”).

Khadija, the Prophet’s first wife, is considered the first convert to Islam. She encouraged Muhammad (P.B.U.H.) to trust his spiritual experiences. Aisha, his last wife, helped to preach Muhammad’s message and was respected in her own right as a scholar, intellect, and leader. So while Islam did not wholeheartedly break free of the patriarchy of its environment, it was certainly not misogynistic. It may have been sexist in its primary voice of men speaking to other men. But the role of women, if anything, was sexist mostly for its holding of women on a pedestal. People who hold there is an essential evil within Islam simply have no ground on which to stand, as has been demonstrated countless times.

Wherever it is Christians who form the bulk of the disenfranchised masses, it is Christians who become terrorists (e.g. the KKK in the U.S., the Nazi’s in Germany);

Wherever it is Hindus who form the bulk of the disenfranchised masses, it is Hindus who become terrorists (e.g. the assassination of M. K. Gandhi in 1948);

Wherever it is atheists who form the bulk of the disenfranchised masses, it is atheists who become terrorists (e.g. Stalin’s Russia);

Wherever it is Muslims who form the bulk of the disenfranchised masses, it is Muslims who become terrorists (e.g. ISIL and the Al Queda).

We must stop this shadow-boxing. If we want to solve this problem, we must first identify it: The economic and spiritual disenfranchisement of the masses. This cause was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be the source of our woe. Three causes, actually: the disenfranchisement, the inability to correctly identify the problem, and the failure to address it.

In word and in deed, let us always address our brothers and sisters from the heart. Let us see what we can do for them. Let us cease our countlessly tried-and-failed policies of weaponization, deposement, divide-and-conquer, colonization of the mind and market, and, above all, our daily increase of ill-will toward each other through inciteful images and words throughout the media. We forget that free speech means also freedom to not speak, or to choose to speak out of love. Let see if we can choose not to repeat history yet again. As Goethe said,
He whose vision cannot cover
History’s three thousand years,
Must in outer darkness hover,
Live within the day’s frontiers
(quoted in Ken Wilbur’s Up From Eden)

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OVERemployment

Let’s stop talking about unemployment and underemployed for a moment, and let’s talk about an inversely related thing: the overemployed. Let’s talk about the CEO’s and shareholders who make 30 or 50 or 300 times their employee’s salaries. No, I am not a Marxist. I’m not a communist. I’m not even a socialist. But I think we need capitalism with a conscience. If you don’t like Marx, then stop proving him right. He said capitalism would lead to near-monolopolies and conglomerates and the consolidation of wealth into the hands of the few. He said it would lead to a steady decrease in wages to the lowest possible level to sustain the life of the workers. If you don’t like that analysis, then stop proving it correct. Start valuing your workers. Start seeing labor as valuable, no matter what kind it is. The guy who cleans the toilet and the woman who manages the teller line and the CEO are all valuable. If you’ve ever fallen victim to food poisoning, then you know firsthand the value and responsibility residing even in the so-called “lowest” jobs, like the dishwasher and the prep-cook. There may be slight differences in wages based on the time the job takes and on the level of responsibility, but that difference should fall within the range of 10 times, not 50 or 100 times, and and certainly not 300 times another’s salary. We need to use our freedom to create a truly free market, a market characterized by profound decisions about how to treat our customers, our colleagues, our employees, our shareholders and yes, even our bosses. Right now, we don’t have a free market. We have a deterministic market, a market run by the whims and fears of our lowest selves. We need to find our highest selves. And if you don’t believe you have something as mystical-sounding as a “highest self,” then use your imagination to envision one, and live your life according to what you think it might do.

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“Don’t strive for world peace; strive for individual peace.”
Eric Voegelin

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An Easter Homily

Easter Homily on John 20:11-18
April 7, 2015

I was wondering if we could try a little call-and-response for a minute:

Alleluia! The Lord is risen! And you say: The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Alleluia! The Lord is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Alleluia! The Lord is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

(“We’re not really that kind of a congregation, and that’s okay,” or “I didn’t think we were that kind of a congregation, but maybe we are!”)

I’m not that kind of a preacher, and that’s okay too. But I wanted to try this proclamation today, because I think it’s one of the most joyous things ever said by a human being. And nobody knows what it means. And that’s okay too. In the Roman Catholic Church, the resurrection of Jesus is called one of the glorious mysteries. So maybe it’s okay that we don’t know what it means.

The only thing I can think to say is this:

A wise person once said:

It will be alright in the end, and if it’s not alright, then it’s not the end.
It will be alright in the end, and if it’s not alright, then it’s not the end.

But that’s not enough, is it? Could I leave you with that? What is this story about? I was stumped, but I figured there are really only six questions that can ever be asked or answered: Who, What, Where, When, Why and How. If I can just answer those six questions right now, then I will have done a decent job up here today. So here it goes:

First of all, Who? Well, you and me of course. Who else is there?

What? It’s a story about death and resurrection, so I’m guessing this is about living and dying and something else that follows that. (You know, a lot of people who have a problem with religion—their problem stems from stories like this one. “This here is what really gets me,” they say, “it’s all this unbelievable stuff. Jesus, rising from the dead. Adam and Eve, standing in a garden talking to a snake. Water turning into wine.” People think these stories are a problem for us because we live in the scientific age. Well, I’ve got news for you: These stories were a problem for people 2000 years ago, too. Nobody could believe it back then, either. Just read the story! Now, back to our questions.)

Where? Here.

When? Now. NOW!

Why? Because. Just kidding. Love, of course. It’s always love.

How? Now this is where I get stumped again. How? How are you and me supposed to live and die and do that other thing that happens in the story. How? And then I read the story again, and what sticks out to me is this: an empty tomb.

God has come to earth. God has died. God has resurrected. What’s that supposed to be like? There should be fireworks! There should be storms and earthquakes and hail and blazing sun and angels on clouds and heaven on earth. But no. What do we get? An empty tomb.

It will be alright in the end, and if it’s not alright, then it’s not the end.

We’re confronted with an emptiness, but I think that’s a beautiful message. An empty tomb, to me, means pure potential. Freedom. No-thing. Nothing. The potential for anything.

There is another symbol for this potential: An Easter Egg. An egg is a symbol of creation, of birth, of rebirth, renewal.

In the Christian tradition, you often hear a lot of “born-again” language. “Are you born again?” a girl once asked me in college. “Isn’t once enough?” I replied, much to her disdain. Luckily she laughed.
My problem with “born again” language is that most of the people I know who use that language haven’t died enough to be born again. None of us have. Or we have died and been reborn, but we’ve stopped there, as if it’s a one-time thing. We’ve stopped dying and being reborn.

I don’t know about “capital-D Death” of course. But I’m talking about the little deaths we die every day. All the time we are dying, and we are being reborn. The question is, what are we going to be reborn into? Will I die to my fun-loving self and be reborn as a curmudgeonly old man? Or will I die to my curmudgeonly self and be reborn as a fun-loving one? Will I die to my gossipy self, and be reborn into someone with more integrity? Or vice versa? Will I die to my opportunistic self and be reborn as a selfless one?

If you’re like me, and I think you are, once you’ve found your identity, before you know it, you outgrow it. You outgrow it and you let it go and you find a new one. And another one. And another one.
Seniors: You are about to say goodbye to your upper school selves. Upper-Schoolers, you’ve said good bye to your middle school selves. Lower-schoolers: you’ve said goodbye to your young childhood selves. Faculty and Staff, you’ve said good bye to all of these and more: You’ve said good bye to student-selves and father selves and mother selves, grandmother and grandfather selves, mentee selves and mentor-selves, mentally healthy selves, physically healthy selves. Luckily we get to say “hello again” to some of those as well.

Luckily, the thing about dying and being reborn is that your old selves never go away completely. They are always there, it’s just that you don’t identify with them anymore. Your old selves still reside somewhere inside you. Just the other day, my toddler-self came out when I tried to use my keycard to get into the gym for the third day in a row and it didn’t work. I threw a two-year-old tantrum right there in the parking lot. My toddler-self came out, but because I don’t identify with it any more, I could end my tantrum pretty quickly. Luckily, I also got to experience my child-self the other day, when I slid down a bunch of water slides at Great Wolf Lodge. Those old selves are there whenever we want them, (and sometimes when we don’t). But the bottom line is that they are not us. We are MORE than those selves.

Like you, I’ve been a lot of things. As a kid, I was a shy introspective artist, but then I found myself in these art classes with all of these “old” people. I wanted to be with kids my age. So then I tried to be an outgoing jock. That didn’t work for a number of reasons, but one of them was that I got very sick as a teenager. But that’s when I discovered the saxophone. And then I got a collapsed lung. And so you see, one of the scary things about identities is that they can dissolve in a split-second. I can tell you that none of them last. None of them are satisfactory. So while we can and should have identities, we should also remember that we are more than any of those identities.

But it’s even more complicated than that.

Every time I die, I think to myself: If I can only get it right this time. If I can only die and then choose the right new self, then maybe I won’t have to die again.

For example, one of my identities was this junior executive who thought he might like some success in the corporate world. But just as I was about to accept that job, I realized that what I really wanted to do was to be a teacher, the thing I had always dreamed about. And so I didn’t take that job and instead I joined a community of resistance, a group of poor teachers at a Catholic school in Massachusetts.

You might think, as I did, that I got it right that time. I died to success, and I found a new identity as this counter-cultural poor person by choice. Wasn’t that the right choice? Sure, it sounds better than the corporate dude who’s after money and success. And it might be better in a way. But it’s not substantially better. It’s just another identity, another self. And soon you outgrow it. I thought I was doing God’s work in that job, but God made me go a different way. God said to me, “You’ve got to pay your bills, Justin!” And then another set of options presented themselves—another corporate job, and this job at wonderful NCS.

The trouble is that every time I let an old self die, when the smoke—and tears—clear, there is always a new self waiting there! I crack open the egg, I break through the restrictions and then, before I know it, I realize I’ve created a new shell! What is the point of that? Why would I crack open an egg and then surround it with a new shell?

And this brings us back to the empty tomb. The point is not to get it right. It’s not that if we die right and are reborn right that we won’t have to do it all again. The point is to give up all the identifying, to give up all the attachment to identity, to give up all the ego-centeredness. The point is to not let any one identity be you.
At some point you just want to give up your old self and identify with…nothing. Sometimes you want to…

Just be, as you are, right here, right now, in this very moment. Just be.

Boy, girl, man, woman, transgender, homosexual, heterosexual, pansexual, Lower, middle, upper class, black, white, European, North American, South American, Central American, Central Asian, East Asian Pacific Rim, Pacific Islander, Mediterranean, Middle Easterner, North African, West African, Subsaharan African, South African, Latino-Latina-Mestizo-Mestiza, Lakota, Pueblo, Navajo, Cherokee, Jock, Punk, Nerd, Hipster, Emo, Prog, Dandy, Zombie, Vampire, Wizard, Witch, Muggle…

Right now you are, as we all are, having fun and working hard discovering all of these identifiers. But we shouldn’t make them into our WHOLE identity. We shouldn’t have to carry the burden of these identities with us at all times. We forget that, in the end, we are all of these things and we are none of these things. We are more than our identities. You, you are more than any of that. In the end, you are you. Nothing more need be said.

So, Who? You and me.

What? Just be.

Where? Here.

When? NOW!

Why? Because.

And How? Any way you want. It’s an empty tomb. Pure potential. Just be. And remember:

It will be alright in the end, and if it’s not alright, then it’s not the end.

Amen.

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Daish or Isis?

A military friend of mine just told me that ISIS actually called themselves “Daish.” This word means something like “to tread under foot” and it is an acronym for a phrase similar to the one “ISIS” represents. Despite retaining the connection to Islam, I would much rather refer to them this way. I regret that “ISIS” is a homophone of “Isis.” I am sure the Goddess can weather that kind of PR, but She should have to.

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There should be no “I” in “ISIS”

I’m sort of relieved to see Egypt strike back against ISIS and its recent slaughter of Christians. And I wish we would stop referring to them as “ISIS” or “ISIL.” It’s as if this “Islamic State” doesn’t know one thing about Islam: Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Parthians were all “dhimmi,” or “Protected Peoples,” all the way back to the time of Muhammad (PBUH) (see Qur’an 3:199). (Treatment of polytheists is a topic for another day, but even Hindus and Buddhists were sometimes given this status as well). ISIS has about as much right to call themselves “Islamic” as the KKK has a right to call themselves “Christian.”

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What’s In A Name?

Isn’t it funny that we refer to storms by personal names such as “Katrina” or “Octavia,” or “Neptune”? We even assign agency to them, as when we say “Neptune really caused havoc for Boston today.” We are even allowed to name systems that recur, such as “El Nino.” But if we assign a name to the whole of the weather, or to the wind, or to the sky, then we would be thought of as perverse, primitive polytheists. I don’t really see the difference! Although I suppose I haven’t seen any meteorologists making sacrifices to these gods:

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A Unified Theory?

I don’t think there will ever be a unified theory of everything in physics. This is because this everything is rooted in something that eludes theory, a spirit that is unpredictable, unmanageable, that defies formulation and theory. It is pure potentiality and creativity. When we number all of its emanated dimensions, it will just create ten more. It is not an it, and there can be no complete science of it. But there are some things that can be said…

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Irrelevant Work That Has No Value

To those who are disparaging professors:

I have been deeply disturbed over the last year or so by the small but vocal number of people—colleagues, friends, family (many of them teachers!)—who have disparaged tenured professors, basically saying in one form of another that they produce “nothing of value.”  The latest of these criticisms came from Nicholas Kristoff who, while not exclusively critiquing their output, chastised these intellectuals for not being “public” enough.  This charge may be taken as an implicit critique of their work, at least that portion of their work that does not lend itself to the 140 character tweet or the 30 second sound bite. 

The value of this kind of work cannot be measured in the moment, perhaps cannot be measure at all.  This does not mean that it has no value.  Would anyone question the importance or relevance of the 20th century revolutions in Latin American countries?  And yet many people question the practicality of studying psychology, philosophy, literature, and religious studies.  Do they not realize that it was Gustavo Gutierrez’s study of these things that, along with his experience living among the poor, led him to the creation of liberation theology, which inspired all of those revolutions?  Whether one agrees with those revolutionaries or not, you cannot doubt their relevance, nor the relevance of the intellectual work that inspired them.

Would anyone question the relevance of the American Civil Rights movement, or of Dr. Martin Luther King, jr.’s leadership in it?  And yet how many times did I endure my father-in-law’s jokes (“What kind of food cart do you open up with a degree in philosophy?”) when I followed Dr. King as a student of religious studies at Boston University?  (For the record, the only thing my father-in-law truly respects more than my religious studies and philosophy teaching is fodder for a good joke.)

If your son or daughter wanted to study ancient languages, as a philologist does, you might not see the utilitarian value in this.  And yet would anyone deny the impact of Friedrich Nietzsche’s thought on so many millions of people?  One need not look past his influence on the music of Bob Dylan, who voraciously read Nietzsche while he writing the songs the whole world sings.

I realize these are just three examples.  If I could take any more time away from my own reading, writing, and teaching about irrelevant work that has no value, I would provide  300 examples.  For now, suffice it to say that when someone disparages the work of the academic as having no value, (s)he does not prove that the work has no value; (sh)e only proves that (s)he do not understand its value.

Posted in Contemplative Living, Education, Ignorance, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Theology | 2 Comments