NOT MAROONED

Since I had never taught or taken an AP class before, I went on College Central’s website to figure out what it takes to make an AP world literature class different from the world literature class I would teach if you set me loose in the classroom with no knowledge of standardized expectations and testing. I assumed I’d find a dry list of required skills and a stuffy map of expected areas of knowledge, but surprisingly, the article provided on “The art of Teaching AP English Literature,” by Ellen Greenblatt, sounded like the author had actually had fun writing it. It was as entertaining as it was useful. First, Greenblatt warned me that I would be working with students who “alternate, often in a flash, between the highest levels of sophistication and the deepest abysses of ignorance.” The realism of this insight was at the same time strangely comforting and strangely reminiscent of the protagonist of the first text I was teaching in AP World Literature, Oedipus Rex.

Oedipus goes back and forth between having the clearest understanding of human nature and completely missing the significance of the stories told surrounding the death of Laius. He fails to recognize his guilt and presence in the story, until the end of the play when it is all spelled out for him by an old shepherd under torture. Throughout the play, Oedipus is championed as a hero to the people of Thebes, for he saved them once from the terror of the Sphinx, and they are certain he can save them again from the uncanny plague that is ravaging the city. The Sphinx’s riddle may seem simple enough for those of us who have known it now for going on three thousand years, but I doubt the winnowing of the oral tradition that preceded Sophocles would have preserved it if it was really as simple as it sometimes seems today. Most of us have known the answer since about the time we were transitioning to two legs from four. I for one, knew the riddle long before I knew anything about the Greeks.

The story I was told went something like this. Once there was an evil woman who lived high on a lonely mountain pass who would ask travelers that passed along the road a riddle and then cast spells on them when they couldn’t answer. She would give them three tries before casting a spell that would make them forget their name, where they were going, and where they came from. They would wander around in the mountains, lost, and wailing because they knew nothing about themselves, and eventually die of thirst, starvation, or exposure. One day, a wise man passed along the mountain path, and the witch came down from her hut above the road, and stood in his way, and told him that if he couldn’t answer her riddle, he would be doomed to wander the mountains, forgetting his name, where he was going, and where he came from until his death. The riddle she asked him was this: “What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and goes by three legs in the evening?” The wise man thought, and thought, and the witch became impatient. Just as she drew from her clothes the crooked stick with which she cast her spells, the wise man answered, “It is man, who crawls on four legs when he is a baby, walks on two legs when he is grown, and leans on a walking stick when he is aged.” Upon hearing the right answer to her riddle, the witch shrieked frightfully, and imploded in a cloud of dust on the trail.

In the Greek mythology, the Riddler was a Sphinx, and the answerer Oedipus. The Sphinx terrorized Thebes, eating whomever she chose that came in and out of the city and couldn’t answer her riddle. When Oedipus arrives at Thebes, he is able to answer the question, and the Sphinx loses her power, and falls, shrieking her death wail, into the ravine below the city. In Oedipus Rex, Oedipus or his followers assert several times that he did not answer the riddle by “consulting the birds,” or by magic, but by his own intellect and reasoning. And yet I doubt that Oedipus answered the riddle simply because he was smarter than all the other good Greeks who died trying to do so. I think riddles are more often answered in flashes of something like intuition than they are through logical deduction. I think that Oedipus thought about the world and his own life differently than the Thebans did. I think he had different assumptions about time and personhood. He somehow recognized continuity of self through time in ways that perhaps the civilizations of Greeks that preceded their mythology did not. Perhaps it was his knowledge of the prophecies about him that allowed him to see his future as concretely and intimately a part of him as his present. Perhaps it was his uncertainty about his parentage that made his past as relevant and demanding attention as his present. Perhaps it was the way the prophecies yoked the certainty of his destiny to the uncertainty of his origin that formed his mind to see the past, present, and future selves as one essential whole, rather than leaving him free to carry himself through life with an awareness marooned in the present.

Is the one, after all, who walks in the morning, afternoon, and evening the same person? Without our understanding of the soul, would we be able to say so? Does your childhood self exist? Does your stooped, aged, future self exist? If we were strict materialists, we would have to say no, with the exception of our eye lenses. (What is it that’s the window to the soul again?) Even our tooth enamel gets replaced after we’ve learned to walk, and may well fall out before we hit the grave. The concept of the soul, though, opens the possibility of our past and future selves being one. When did the concept of the soul develop? Has it been thus forever? What is it in us that is essential? What is it that lasts?

Somehow Oedipus understands it is the same person throughout, and in a flash of insight, knows that the animal changing its gait in the morning, afternoon, and evening must be a very different animal from the ones that spend their whole day on four legs.

And yet despite everything that Oedipus sees, despite whatever reason, insight, or intuition it was that allowed him to answer the Sphinx and rule the city wisely, he is blind. He doesn’t know who he is, where he has come from, who he has married, or who he has killed. It is not knowing that he is from Thebes and of its royal blood that has allowed him to kill his father and marry his mother, the very fates he left his childhood home and family to avoid doing. The play is a dramatic illustration of the way you can never be sure of yourself or what you’re doing, if you don’t know where you are from. If you don’t know who you are, you’re in position to make some serious mistakes, or worse, be inclined to not act at all.

In a cultural sense the consequences of this not-knowing are true, and in the cosmic also. How do you know where you come from? Is it possible? Who of us does? Part of the reason why twenty-five hundred years later the play still disturbs us is that beneath all our cultural, historical, and socio-political identity markers, we still don’t know who we are. The fact is, that in the richest tradition, and in the oldest family with the best kept pedigree, if we think about it too long we have no idea where we came from. What happened in that great web of the Universe, the tapestry of Fate, and the impenetrable will of God that resulted in our consciousness being sown here, in this furrow of time and space?

Is answering where we come from, though, the most important question? Answering the question prematurely, or avoiding the question in favor of an answer that does not go all the way to the soul, is a way of losing our soul to the spirits, markets, fates, and forces that would operate upon us. If we are to learn where we come from, it will be a revelation that develops. A process that is unfolded across life through a relationship with life and with ourselves that is open to grace. I think the best description of the life I’m thinking of is in Henry Nouwen’s book, With Open Hands, a book on prayer, which by teaching us how to pray teaches us how to live. The life lived with open hands accepts that which is, and that which may yet be, and that which may be already, but which we cannot already see. This is a life of thankfulness and receptivity, turning continually toward the One who speaks, looking upward to the One who calls. Only through a surrender to grace will we ever be able to look back and understand our past as a coherent unity. Where we come from will ultimately be clarified only by grace. Only through grace will we know who we are.

This post was originally written for and published on the Curator.

November Three, Two Thousand and Twenty

I woke up this morning to the whistling of the wind.

The corners of the house were teeth in the mouth of November,

and whistling around them was the world spinning

like a dynamo, when I got up this morning.

When I got up this morning, the wind gashed

long tracks across the valley, and in the darkness

before dawn it undid many a plastic icon.

.

Somewhere the proud boys are making buttermilk pancakes

this morning. Somewhere a lonely antifascist is eating his

avocadoes and toast. Somewhere a retired plumber,

who has placed his hope in maga and a 401k, fries himself

an egg for breakfast. Somewhere a democratic-socialist

with student debt and a degree in nursing does the same.

Somewhere an ecologist worries over his coffee. Somewhere

a militia member boils his, a different set of anxieties brewing

in the same regions of his brain. Both had trouble sleeping

last night; neither have yet been through a midlife crisis.

.

A great wind is coming through the valley, the sky is tumbling

down upon the earth, in great blocks of light, rebounding off

the ridges, and running down the hills, submerging the grass,

the grass and leaves that run for cover. As for myself,

I am driving. Feeling the weight of the car in the wheel against

my hands as I accelerate around the corners. The blacktop is

bright this morning with what the sky spat out last night,

the road is a torrent of leaves, and I am a mercury juggernaut.

The leaves rejoice in my wheeling, and I make them my train,

a flinging of wings in my wake, the ones that fall down,

and the ones that rise up to meet me.

.

The sinuous wind digs its fingers between the panels of steel,

and pulls my car forward or yanks it to the left or right.

The wind is a wild banquet, a blanket of heedlessness,

a ubiquitous turning, and no man knows where it comes

from, or where it is going. This wind this morning has every

direction, it takes them all, and none take it.

.

I rejoiced this morning when I went to see the man of God.

My heart laid low, but my body thundered, when the wind

knocked the caps off the ridges, and the grass went streaming

away beneath the light, and the sky came spilling down onto

the meadows. My tires sang as I did, when I went to meet

the prophet, while plastic apparitions took on life and fled

the yards of their origin. The giant inflatable ghosts

and pumpkins went soaring off like air balloons, crazily climbing

and eclipsing eachother, or singeing their circumferences

on power lines and falling to wrap their flabby lengths round

trees for safety. Loose limbed skeletons, rattled like maracas,

and campaign yard signs lept from their moorings and

went whistling through the air like corrugated plastic guillotines,

or the ashes of discarded ballots. I swerved to miss a garbage can

come barreling across the middle line, unhinged, and hungover,

vomiting its contents on the road. A telephone pole leaned stricken,

its wires sagging toward the standing seams of the roof beneath it.

Trees cast off their branches, porch swings disowned their cushions,

and the fabric of sun-bleached flags, on every pole was ripping.

.

We are all sheep, lead astray, and every man has

Turned into a yard sign.  

.

There was a forge in the heart of the man of God. And a fire

in his front room. His voice was his own, and his words were

another’s, two halves of a bellows they were to my heart.

.

We use the truth, and our own apprehensions of it,

To beat one another upon the head. What I have seen,

You must see also, and I have no imagination to consider

What you may not have learned. But who is our teacher?

And where is the spirit in our learning? Where is the spirit of our becoming?

My counselors, my baptizers, the founders of my faith and my awakening

Are trading in the bread of puppets and monarchs, and making

The pearl of parables a plaything. The flags of nations and empires

Are equally sun-bleached, equally rending before the wind of His becoming

Polkinghorne, come out from among them, and prophesy this also.

Is the kingdom of God an accelerant, a caffeine shot, a stepping stone,

a building block, a moral guide post, a guiding principle to the dream

of America?

.

Follow no man further than he follows God. We all pray

in our own way. Don’t tell me you don’t pray, just say

why you don’t more often. We all pray in our own way

Some with weakness, some with hollowness, some with

fullness, some with caviling, and some with desire. The man

of God knows it is not prayer that saves us, but surrender.

Can we agree this hole has no bottom? Can we agree to act with

Our conscience, and demand no man does the same? Can we agree

We have been trained by the institutions of acquisition, and can we

Become students instead to the mysteries of his love and his will for us?

No man knows the way of the wind. It takes everyway, none take it.

.

Even the bricks wave at me this morning. Even the dust mites

spark light that’s brighter than their own. For beneath the tiniest

quarks there is bottomless chaos. The burden of becoming

touches all, and form is brought up by desire form disorder.

I will admit that in our bandwidth, greed and hate get the most

airtime, but still maintain that beneath everything, it’s love

that structures all existence out of pure potential. There was

a forge in the heart of the man of God. And a fire in his front room.

His voice was his own, and his words another’s,

two halves of a bellows they were to my heart.

Even the bricks wave at me this morning. Even the dust mites

spark a light that’s brighter than their own.

.

I will open my home to the wind this week. Pull down

my blinds and windows, and let it sift my living room,

find its way to my bed, and carry me off to sleep, or wake

me in the morning. For it has found its way somehow

into my lungs and blood already.

Spring Break Just Short of Moscow

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This is about a journey to the East.

While half of Bluffton University went to do beach type things in Florida, a quarter responsibly went back into the work force, and the remaining quarter studiously hunkered down in their dorms to work on semester projects, Ermais Assefa and I drove lazily East. Ultimately, we made it out of Ohio, across Pennsylvania, past New Jersey, through a yard, across some rocks, and around a few fences to the waves of the Atlantic in Sheepshead Bay, New York, New York.  

From the beginning there was only one real plan in mind: escaping Bluffton. The destinations were all just stops along the way. For various reasons we stopped off in Columbus, Lisbon, Pittsburg, Juniata County, and NYC, performing the essential tasks of sleeping, eating, and reading at every stop along the way.  In Columbus we took in a birthday party, in Lisbon a church service, in Pittsburg three hams, in Juniata County the lay of the land, in New Jersey a couple of bottles of wine, and in NYC the incredible company of some wonderful old friends of mine, Kenneth and Charis. Kenneth and Charis moved to Sheepshead Bay a couple of years ago, and in the meantime their daughter Kayra grew up to be a delightfully intelligent and genial three-year-old, practically wise and sympathetic enough to open a practice in counseling.  

Though we feasted on a Mennonite potluck dinner in Lisbon, enjoined my mom’s cooking in Juniata, and dined sumptuously on dumpster food along the way, our culinary experience culminated at the Jordan Center for Advanced Russian Studies at New York University. Lured there by a lecture on 2nd world Soviet influence on 3rd world literature and cinema in 20th century, we unwittingly fell prey to a banquet of the finest Russian cuisine.  

We found the event online, and simply walked in, very confidently so as not to draw attention to ourselves, and looking nearly as eager as we felt for knowledge on Soviet political clout in the world of 3rd world literature. We found seats in the back just as the lecture began, and tried very diligently to appear as if we belonged. 

The lecturer with a pronounced little mustache and a larger, less-pronounceable name spoke very softly and soothingly from his seat behind a table in the front of the room for an hour or two about writers who had larger mustaches and less pronounceable names than he did. In the back row, I promptly fell asleep, all the while sitting bolt upright and nodding and smiling appreciatively—all useful skills I had sharpened throughout the semester pretending not to sleep in the front row of Dr. Myer’s post-lunch astronomy class. Between the dreams, continents, decades, and empires, every now and then I could see Ermais beside me, also nodding and smiling appreciatively, though judging from the questions he asked in the Q & A time, I’m guessing he was actually awake 

My alert subconsciousness sensed immediately when the lecturer gave his concluding comments, and I joined in heartily with the applause. There followed a round of questions and answers in which Ermais took an erudite part, and after a department chair got up and thanked us all for coming, Ermais and I stood up and determined to make a quick and innocent exit, but alas, the Russians were too fast for us. No sooner had we collected our bags, and fended off the would-be conversationalists around us, than the departmental lackies had already begun piling up tea cakes and Narzan and Borjomi Russian sparkling waters by the door. I made honest effort to grab only a single Borjomi and escape, but just as I was about to dodge a sudden of rush of cold meats and cheeses coming at me through the door, I looked behind me and saw Ermais succumb to a golden swarm of giant Russian teacakes.

I knew I couldn’t leave my brother in this situation alone.  

It was a wild time, and I gave myself to it fully. The things just kept appearing. By the time the Bolsheviks, hollow eyed grad students and I had seriously depleted the caviar reservoirs and were bearing down on the smoked herring, somebody even brought out plates and napkins. There were bread baskets of tea cakes, passles of pastries that nobody but a Russian scholar would have names for, smoked salmon, whitefish, herring, oodles of pickled vegetables, stuffed tomatoes, and vat of caviar on top a mound of cold crepes. There were all manner of dried figs and fruits, sparkling Russian wines, and bottles of vodka that looked expensive enough to exact the combined salaries of several oligarchs.  

It may be, that when the histories are examined closely, it will be seen that I lead the charge upon that gastronomic apex of Russian civilization. But I also signaled the retreat when they began shoving the pickled and smoked and sweet things aside to make room for the entrees, and I did not stick around to finish off the survivors.  

In This Life of Celebration

I recognize a dramatic need in my life to live with celebration. There’s a story I love of the Simple Way Collective receiving a gift of 20,000 dollars near the beginning of their existence as a community. Using the money themselves would have appealed to their self-interest, but instead they sent 10,000 to a hundred different Charities, and took the second 10,000 dollars and dropped them from balconies above Wallstreet and watched the brokers, bankers, and homebums go equally mad, scrabbling for money for once on an equal playing field. Before dropping the money, Sister Margaret of the Simple Way blew a shofar, and Shane Claiborne shouted out:

“Some of us have worked on Wall Street, and some of us have slept on Wall street. We ae a community of struggle. Some of us are rich people trying to escape our loneliness. Some of us are poor folks trying to escape the cold. Some of us are addicted to drugs and others are addicted to money. We are a broken people who need eachother and God, for we have come to recognize the mess that we created of our world and how deeply we suffer from the mess. now we are working to give birth to a new society within the shell of the old. Another world is possible. Another world is necessary. Another world is already here.”

Granted, if I fell into money I wouldn’t spend it like that, but I still love the idea. Yes, life is serious and we have obligations and responsibilities, but we also, as Gilbert Chesterton observed, “go into a room and stuff foreign objects into a hole in [our] head.” And what’s serious, ordinary, or to be expected about that? Sure, we do it all the time, but that doesn’t take away the strangeness of it. The world is a strange place, and we damn well better not come to the ends of our lives without having enjoyed something of them. As Ray Bradbury notes “Certainly we are ridiculous little animals wallowing in the fudge bowl, and God must love us all the more because we appeal to his humor.” Somehow though we’ve got to get the mindset of festivity, which I’m not sure how one does; I’m just certain that it’s not something one can order from amazon. We need to get out of our heads that consuming things will make us happy, and get into them that time spent creatively and intimately with people we know and like well will. I’m convinced there is every bit as much fun to be had wallowing around in muddy pond and building a gigantic brush fire in November as there is to be had spending the night gaming or buying shoes online.

Tom Sine writes, “We need to discover that God calls us to an image of the good life and better future that isn’t only simpler but also much more festive than anything the consumer mall can offer. What would our lives look like if we intentionally lived into the imagery of the new world breaking into this one?” Not only simpler but also much more festive? I’m here for that. I wanna meet the Christians who can actually celebrate well. Who can cut loose and party in a way that the morbid fraternity mooks dutifully pouring miller lites down their throates never heard of. Matthew Fox writes about justice as celebration. Celebrating the justice of the Lord, that is, and is about to come. Christians should be the happiest and freest people on earth. Down with cultural cults, with state religions, with worship of gentility, propriety, and respectability. Somebody, let’s go to the hard work of changing eleven water storage pots into wine, shall we?

Adding to, expanding, and backdropping the wedding at Cana, the Jubilee, the ridiculous absurdity of all our kingdoms which the babe in the manger subverts, is the call to deny yourself and go die. Yes, this is the call, and the answer is also celebration. If living is a beautiful absurdity that we should give ourselves to fully, isn’t dying as well? So many of the martyrs died singing, scorning the formality of death, beyond ecstasy and pain already, already partaking in Gloria. Laying down your life across your life though, not even in the flash in the pan of death, can also be a celebration. “Except a seed fall into the earth and die, it abideth alone. But if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” I think there is a joy in the rotting, the germination, the chemical transitions of the seed that has been sacrificed to the promise of harvest, and fallen into life, into the soil. We are given a Joy in giving, and receiving, the blessed sacredness of life, partaking, sharing, in the wild mystery, of being an animal and a spirit, merged together, living out a series of  moments, in this our spectacular universe of celebration.

 

Attention and the Way of the Heart

The hurts in our world are not from lack of theory, but from lack of caring. Too few have seen healing, seen the potential for growth possible in spiritually mature human beings, seen the beauty, tenderness, and paradox of unconditional love. Masters of the human mind, virtuosos of the heart, savants of the psyche have been writing for generations, on the clarity, poise, and wonder of the human consciousness positioned within reality. The medieval mystics opened up for us by example and testimony, the incredible human capacities for interiority and ecstasy. The Christian existentialists in blazing prose demanded that we reckon with the drama of created, individual will and action. The psychologists have taught us to reflect upon consciousness itself, to love healing, process, and dialog. The twentieth century mystics, Simone Weil, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Jean Vanier, have repeated for us, everything that materialism and modernity would have us forget.  

Spending careful time with any of these authors has the capacity to change your life. But don’t come for information, for a fix, for a solution. Come to spend time well. Select a time in which you will have no other engagements. A free evening, when you don’t need to think about a test or meeting the next day, when you don’t have to worry about the next assignment you have, when you won’t need to check your phone, and when you can be completely comfortable with being alone. For me at Bluffton, the best times for this are Friday evenings. I have no class the next day, I have the freedom to stay up an extra hour, I can fulfill my obligations sometime else, and there’s nothing in the world I’m required to give my attention to other than what I choose to place in front of me. When you’ve found and liberated this time, read slowly, discussing with your mind, or with God, or with your notepad, the most profound and compelling ideas you encounter. Read contemplatively, caring about the truth of the words, gently arguing with the text, staying with the syntax of complex sentences until you have unlocked all their meaning. Read in communion with yourself.  

I have said that the hurts of the world come not from lack of theory, but from lack of care. However, the theory, the truth of great authors can teach you how to care, show you the process of caring, its methods, its mercy and its justice. Care is a developed capacity, and it can be learned both in person and at a distance through the words of people who have developed the capacity deeply. Over and over again, authors writing at intersections of spirituality, psychology, and mysticism, have emphasized the importance of human attention. There is a tremendous value, even power, in the human attention, and we assert the value of the things we turn our attentions to. Attention is also a quality that can be developed. Because the human is so complex, involving spirit as well as mind and body, I don’t think there is a maximum amount to the attention that we can pay something. Think of the varying levels of attention that you can pay someone who is in conversation with you. Think about someone attempting to explain to you their deepest spiritual needs, some problem that is too complex, too contradictory, or too paradoxical for you to understand. According to your developed capacities of wisdom, understanding, and interiority, there is an ever-increasing-but-never-arriving amount of attention that you can pay as a listener, like the endzone you’ll never arrive at by eternally decreasing the distance by half.  

How does one increase one’s abilities of paying attention? In May, when I was leading a conversational therapy group with men overcoming addiction at a rehabilitation center in Chicago, my girlfriend Shanell gave me this profound piece advice: “Listen with your soul today.”  

What if we listened to one another with not just our egos or our minds, but with our very souls? In The Recreation of Relationship Elise Boulding writes “Another very important skill which we in the Christian community haven’t given enough attention to is what I call “prophetic listening.” We all know about prophetic speaking, but prophetic listening means listening to others in such a way that we draw out of them the seeds of their own highest understanding, their own obedience, their own vision—seeds that they themselves may not have known were there. Listening can draw out of people things that speaking to them cannot.” Rogerian (or Person-Centered) psychological theory operates from the understanding that every human is capable of reaching the solutions they need for their problems. The Rogerian process of psychoanalysis is an asking of ever-deepening and differentiating questions, which the patient answers with an ever-increasing revelation and understanding to uncover the truth and solutions that are already latent within him.  

This process is of course often difficult or even impossible by oneself, within one’s own interiority, but it can be begun and continued there. We are all aided however, in our process of healing by the attention and questions of others. By paying attention to what is innermost, what is truly beautiful in another we call that beauty valuable, and by noticing it increase its power and presence within reality. Jean Vanier, who spent his life living beside and listening to humans with profound mental and physical disabilities describe in From Exclusion to Inclusion the way of the heart: “Justice flows from the heart…Our basic needs are the same as those of all other human beings. We need other people who will call forth what is most beautiful in us, just as we need to call forth what is most beautiful in others.” 

Give somebody the gift attention today. Practice your abilities of attention by reading difficult books on the human spirit, asking questions of both discernment and positive regard, by listening to draw forth the prophetic, by listening with your soul.  

The Inhumanity of Advertisement

It’s crazy how an opportunity or supply of something when marketed can create demand for it. In Everyday Justice, a book about the impact of overconsumption, Julie Clawson tells the story of how after World War II a huge supply of cotton was left over that had been going for bandages and now had no use. Companies owning this left-over cotton would have lost money, except that some entrepreneur decided to market the cotton to women as disposable hygienic pads, according to Clawson using an argument from class and status rather than from function or utility. The marketing said that a “better-class woman” needed these products, and that using them would elevate someone’s place in society. If a woman wanted to be carefree and modern the advertising line went, they would buy and throw away cotton hygienic pads rather than wash and reuse cloth ones or wear thicker more absorptive underwear. The point is not that disposable pads aren’t ever needed or that they haven’t made women’s lives easier, but that the use of them started with a concern for capital rather than a concern for comfort.

I’m not a women, and I don’t know what the actual functional need for hygienic pads is, whether they should be disposable or reusable, or what other options there are, but I do know that our culture is overly obsessed with sterility and sanitation, and that advertisement is often a way of foisting unneeded items upon consumers in order to extort more profits from them. If someone needs something, they will go out and get it, or invent some solution to fulfill their needs from products they already have. If someone does not need something, and yet a company wants them to buy it anyway, that company will have to pay artists, designers, and social psychologists to construct as convincing and manipulative a message as possible in order to lead the consumer into buying it.

Advertisement is aesthetic violence. It is the science of inciting lust. It is the practice of arousing greed. If a product is not needed for the good of human life, there is nothing beautiful about the most tastefully rendered sales pitch. Unfortunately, such sales pitches are not even beautifully rendered, but instead obnoxious, abrasive, appealing to lust or gluttony, or patently false or sentimental. In the case of streaming platforms, advertisement is not even applied as a service, not even intended to be attractive, but instead is used as a weapon to inflict annoyance and frustration in order to influence purchase of a paid account.

The human soul, and its five senses, the channels transmitting physical reality into it, are noble and holy things, designed by and patterned off the Divine. The soul is fed and shaped by at least two things, the physical world it receives through its senses, and the physical world it interacts with through its responses to what it receives. Jesus said “it is not what goes into a man that defiles him, but what comes out”, placing the essential importance on our responses to what we encounter in the world, rather than the content of what we encounter itself. However, media and sensory input, does have an effect upon culture and soul both in its presence and its absence. A soul can remain uninterested, aloof and untouched through a four-hour bombardment of audio-visual advertisement, but what if instead during that time, the soul had been taking in The Brothers Karamazov, the Tao Te Ching, Olafur Arnolds, Schubert or even silence?

Perhaps the most revolting thing about advertisement is its inhumanity. It does not serve human need, but the need of capital. At its best, advertisement is profitable for a company, pulling in more capital through sales and profits than is being spent on the ad. At its worst, advertisement is a way of funneling enormous amounts of profits that would otherwise be taxed and used for public infrastructure back into the company image. Whether this mode of advertising results in net gain for the company or not is unimportant; it was not needed in the first place. If there is a net loss it does not matter for the company since this is money that would have been lost to them anyway through taxes. If there is a net gain for the company, there still is no real human benefit, for the profit is not a return upon production, but a return upon profit and goes only to expand already sufficient return upon investment. I am not speaking here about advertisement by companies starting out and acknowledging their place in the market in order to continue to exist, or about companies marketing better access to actual human services, but of already dominant companies, marketing not human needs but human distractions, vanities, and their own self image. Not only is much of what is marketed not needed by the consumer, but it is also unaffordable. Hence huge swaths of advertisement have become simply a contest in making debt look the most agreeable.

What reactions or reconsiderations do you have about advertisement? How do they effect your life? If soft-practices shape our lives and personalities, what unconscious effect does exposure to advertisement have on your life? What do you habitually or compulsively buy and consume that would effect your happiness and well-being little to do without?

The Problem with God and Muffins at Harvard Divinity School

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This past weekend I got to go to the International Conference on Christianity and Literature in Boston, on a Pi Delta Research Grant from Bluffton University. The specific event title for which was the evocative The Problem with God: Christianity and Literature in Tension. Lynn Martin, a fellow editor at The Curator had let me know about the conference a few months ago, and since my soul consort Kenny Godoy lives in Boston attending Sattler College, I immediately began plotting on how to attend.

Pi Delta grants exist to provide financial support for students at Bluffton doing work in their field of study beyond Bluffton’s academic requirements. The Bluffton handbook claims that the grant is competitive, but based on the number of people who actually apply for it, I sort of doubt whether there is much competition involved. In any case I was awarded the full amount, and after arranging registration, housing, a ticket out of Detroit, and other travel expenses, had a comfortable margin left over for coffee and pastries. When I looked up the schedule of the sessions, lo and behold, there was my American Lit professor, Bluffton’s very own Dr. Lamar Nisly, reading a paper on “The Problem of God-talk: How Can Writers Write if Words are Exhausted?”

Once I decided to go, of course, I bullied and cajoled Lynn to attend as well, who had wanted to but was getting end-of-the-semester cold feet. Thankfully he acquiesced, and drove the eight hours from Maryland through harrowing East Coast Megapolis traffic to get there.

I flew out of Detroit Friday morning, and spent an hour-long flight talking to an ancient and feisty ex-Bostonian who “lived in Boston a hundred years ago” and was going back to say a mass for her “ninety-nine year old mother who died last week, unfortunately not making it to one hundred”. Her memory may have no longer been strictly linear, but she did have vision for life. “Education is just the start.” she said.

Of the many things that Boston is, intuitively laid-out it is not. Cambridge especially is a snarl of tangled streets, awkward alleys, bleak parks, and thoroughfares that dive above and below the ground. In between all this are slashed streets with the varying length and rational that you might expect to find if you turned a toddler loose on a giant pizza with a rolling pizza-cutter. The uninitiated pedestrian like myself is left walking in many directions, some of which he has no need.

I emerged from the metro line at Harvard Square and tried to rush off directly toward Harvard Divinity School where the conference was being held, but found the first several directions I tried insensitive to my intentions or compass. I wasn’t entirely up on the whole timing and schedule of the conference, but when I got to Andover Hall around two o’clock expecting things to be in full swing, I was actually an hour early and had time to go out and walk around again in various directions and get rained on before the first session. This was fortunate, as I didn’t have to miss Lamar Nisly like I thought I might since he was presenting in the first round of sessions.

Alongside papers read on John Donne’s poem “Resurrection Imperfect,” C. S. Lewis’s novel Till We Have Faces, and Chaucer’s sermon The Pardoner’s Tale, Nisly presented from his work on Flanery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Leif Enger and Tim Gautreaux. Friday evening, two Conference on Christianity and Literature awards were given. Book of the Year Award went to Irish poet Michael O’Saidhail for his condensation of modern cultural history in The Five Quintets, and Lifetime Achievement Award went to poet and essayist Kathleen Noris.

After the final session, Lynn and I broke ties with our Mennonite heritage and personal instincts and left without taking advantage of the dinner reception afterwards in order to meet up and eat with our friends not attending the conference. In my pragmatically well-formed conscience, leaving something behind already payed for feels so much like contract breaking as to register a guilt level on par with dishonesty.

Saturday morning I fortified myself with several blueberry bagels Kenny and I had gathered from a Panera dumpster on our wanderings across the city the night before, and headed off again to Andover Hall. The morning proved to be educational both literarily and culinarily, as I learned two things about two interesting and useful details about Harvard breakfast. Number one, it can be served anytime before noon, and number two, at all costs avoid the muffins. After sitting through several delicious rounds of papers, around eleven o’clock someone announced that “breakfast” was being served in the Brown Room. The content, coffee, fruit and pastries I could have identified as breakfast, the timing however was new to me.

I snagged two crunchy looking blueberry muffins and headed off to the next session on “Resisting Weak Faith” and “The Problem of the Post-secular.” Unlike your ordinary muffin, these were concave instead of convex, dipping down into the paper rather than swelling out. Their depth looked promising. The crunchy part though, it turned out, was only a thin film along the top of sugar baked into the crust. As nasally voiced Dr. Gonch whined on about pluralist susceptibility in The Death of the Archbishop, I forked my way deeper and deeper into the worst muffin of my life. It was atrociously undercooked, mealy, and more alkaline than a battery core. So bad it was, that I kept wondering if this was a sort of pastry with which I was totally unfamiliar. Was it a crab-cake? A lady-bug pie? Perhaps there is a particular Bostonian oatmeal blueberry muffin recipe that calls for four times as much baking soda as actual baking, you never know. My optimism goes only though so far; I did not eat the second.

The conference over-all though, as I’ve said to everyone who has asked, did meet and exceed all expectations. In under ten hours of lecture, I took over twenty handwritten pages of notes that I know I’ll have reason to return to often. Walking away from the conference Saturday afternoon, I tried to identify what for me at least, had been the main or reoccurring themes of Christianity and Literature in Tension. I think I found three: the need for new/old forms of reading, the need for a vibrant Christian poetics in the 21st century, and the need for finding meaning beyond theory and full-articulation.

Susan Felch presented a paper on “Post-Critique and the Process of the Text,” alluding to the primary 20th century mode of reading that went from asking questions of a text to hostile, power-based approaches where reading well came to mean doing nothing more than pointing out the problems in a text. While Susan acknowledged that the “odious odor of naive reading is difficult to dispel,” she pointed out that critique is ill-equipped to engage sacred texts, because sacred texts do not claim to be validated or invalidated by subjective critique but instead by the fact that they make universal claims upon the reader. Both religious fundamentalists and moral relativists have reduced texts of their potential by using them as methods of coercion rather than offering them acts of love. New modes of reading can learn from modes both ancient and medieval, and through contemplation and attention more richness can be drawn from reading than from either aggressive or consumerist critique or “harvesting.”

One way of characterizing our century is post-Christian, in that neither the old, institutional forms of Christianity such as Roman-Catholicism, nor any Christocentric commitments seem hold any influence in public life or societal consciousness. Another way of characterizing our century though, is post-secular, in that the secular constructions of rationalism and naturalism from modernity are also losing influence and giving ground to a shifting interest in the extra-sensory. On the question of what Christian literature has to offer in the 21st century, Jack Dudley said that it’s clear that criticism has been secular, but it is less clear that literature ever was. He points out that the literature has always been concerned with the problem of God, and that traditions which have sustained this tension will have much to offer in the post-secular arena. David Mahan said that he’s no longer interested in the arguments for or against being a Christian. He just is one, and for him that means responding as responsibly and convincingly as possible to our common human concerns and difficulties through literature. He says that we are in the world to make it richer, and that everything we do, including literary scholarism should do so.

Perhaps the richest session, in the sense of delivering far more than I could take in, was Problems with God in Medieval Literatures, in which poems and sermons from medieval mystics were discussed. In these sermons and poems, there was a beautiful recognition of meaning beyond the closure of syllogism or full-articulation. There is a depth to truth that the intellect cannot exhaust or monopolize. In a different session, Brent Little said that “In the experience of enjoying a great myth, we come the closest that we can to appreciating truths that we cannot express.” Alongside fictions, parables, and myths, rituals and practices can also be languages informing us of who we are, perhaps through deeper veins than linguistic communication. Faith in the transcendent means recognition of a reality that we can never finally express, and the expressions of it that we are given include and go beyond language to include along with it the seeking of silence, the contemplation of prayer, and the participation of shared ritual, attention, and experience.

Nola via Chicago, 2019

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From Beaver Dam, a truck-stop-village just below Bluffton, route 30 runs all the way to the southern suburbs of Chicago. Through Indiana from Fort Wayne to Merriville, I was culling the best of groceries from dumpsters along the route, and ended up with a nice collection of greek yogurt, biscotti, white portabellas, fresh herbs, tomato, bacon, etc. I hadn’t known what a wasteland the bottom half of Chicago was, but I had come prepared.

I got off the highway at 115th street at Pullman, and lurched across the craters and pot holes through West Roseland. It was about nine in the evening, and nobody was out, with only an occasional light on in the smattering of houses, many of which were obviously abandoned. Apparently many also had been torn down, as there was as much empty brown yard lot as actual residence. On nearly every corner stood squat, tan-brick rescue churches, looking like they had been built in the fifties and boarded up in the eighties. Plywood and iron grating were the only faces to be seen. I tried to imagine what these neighborhoods would look like in the summer time, archipelagos of housing amid seas of grass and weeds.

I spent the night at a Walmart parking lot just outside of Burbank, sleeping immediately and deeply even with the jets thundering over me out of the Chicago Midway International Airport. In the morning I drove up to 41st street and left my car on an unmarked street to buy a day pass for the metro. I hadn’t planned on seeing the Bean, but I stepped down from the L at Washington/Wabash, like a proper little tourist and the first thing I came to was Millennium Park. The view itself from Millennium is worth going for, the city face and skyline rearing up on one side, and the ice fields of Lake Michigan on the other, both expanses jagged, huge, and nearly monochromatic.

I had brought my board, a skate deck on cruiser wheels, with me and spent the rest of the day tramping and boarding, covering as much ground and taking in as much of the city as possible. The sheer expanse of Chicago is wearying. Though urban, there is no reason for things to be compact, it’s the Midwest and there’s room to spread out, to build, to tear down and to leave behind. Huge tracts of post-developed land lie across from the canal and railyards beside Dearborn, some the size of small towns. In 1833, the US government forced native American tribes to cede them the land of northern Illinois and Wisconsin, and proceeded to sell the land cheaply but still at enormous profit to investors who would turn around and sell it again to settlers, traders, and entrepreneurs. The wilderness prairie came cheaply, and there was a lot of it, with Lake Michigan on one side, and on the other near limitless room to expand.

I spend Saturday night near Belmont in the parking lot of what could very well be one of the smallest Walmart’s in the US, crammed between a railroad track and a shabby wooden fence blocking a ghetto. Typically when in a major city on a Sunday, I would look for a cathedral to attend a late morning High-Church service at for the aesthetics, but since Reba Place is in Chicago, this I decided this weekend to go worship with people whom I could share vision with. I was rewarded. Online I learned that Reba starts with bagels and coffee at 9:30 before worship, and on the first Sunday of the month shares a potluck meal. Happy March 3, I told myself

Reba Place community was begun in 1957 as an intentional community by a group of Christians who wanted “to live out a radical Christian discipleship as they observed it in the Gospels and the book of Acts.” Online Reba Place church self-describes as “Anabaptist in tradition, catholic in spirit, evangelical in conviction, charismatic in practice.” Before worship I ate two delicious cinnamon bagels smothered in butter and cream cheese and talked to various parishioners predominately of the aged variety, i.e., those who woke up early to attend pre-worship activities. Worship was wonderful, with both traditional hymns and intuitively tuned modern choruses textured by jazz piano accompaniment by an aged Irishman and various wind and string participants. After the service, I ran out to the car and brought in some Colby and cracker dumpster fair to contribute to the potluck collection, and filled up on fried chicken, deep dish pizza, and a fantastic cold Quinoa and lentil salad.

After lunch in an attempt to meet David Janzen, a historian of Reba place, I ran into Luke, a Bluffton graduate who lives in one of the households at Reba. Luke gave me his number, and agreed to me coming over later to his household to cook up some of the groceries I had brought with me from Indiana. Luke shares “the patch,” a house in Evanston Illinois with six other housemates, who split a very reasonable monthly rent. At the patch, I plugged in my laptop, phone, and portable speaker, and discussed with Luke the various pros and cons of Bluffton University. Later, as I began to regain appetite post the potluck apocalypse, I hauled in my enormous diaper bag full of food stuffs, and made a fry of bacon, mushrooms, tomatoes, balsamic vinaigrette, sage, and rosemary. After cooking and eating, I cleaned up my mess, washed the dishes in the sink, loaded the dishwasher, and unpacked all the grapefruit, pastries, and blueberries that I couldn’t take with me to New Orleans. As I was cleaning up, I met two others who stayed at the patch. KC, was a young pastor and business owner from a community in Minneapolis in Chicago doing demos for Target of an Asian hotsauce he created. Meghan it turned out, was another Bluffton grad working in Chicago, and until Luke left, there were three Bluffton University students/grads together in the same house, in a northern suburb of Chicago, Illinois. Bluffton is a tiny private school in Ohio, with fewer than 200 students in a graduate class, but apparently the people who go there continue to move in the same circles.

I left my car in a lot under the metro stop just above Evanston, and caught the purple-line down to the blue-line to O’Hare. My flight didn’t leave till the next morning, but I didn’t want to risk the odds of waking up, making it across town, and getting through security all before 7 AM. I tramped about in O’Hare for at least an hour scouting for the best place to sleep. The ground side of security seemed to be pretty much all of the same sort, and after sitting for a few hours near a charging station, eventually I lay down on a slightly raised grated strip against the exterior glass wall near my airline. The strip turned out to be a heater, and unfortunately I was wearing all my clothes for the trip to offset the temperature difference from Chicago to New Orleans and still get away without paying for a full sized carry-on with Spirit Airline. I shed what I could, and tried to sleep, my head on my backpack in an attempt to breathe through the heat. I had brought juice boxes and greek yogurt with me for breakfast, which were almost done cooking by the time I stumbled up and wandered through security at four.

I had been planning to take a metro across town when I got to New Orleans, but when I got on the ground, my brother text me and said drop me a pin, we’re circling the terminals. Both Micah and Hannah came to meet me, since she had the day off from her work at the hospital. Our first stop was the abandoned navy base, where we resurrected a friend of Micah’s who lent me a bike and a lock. Once properly rigged and necessary repairs and adjustments were made, our second stop was peddling down to a Kebab shop, where Micah and Hannah treated me to things like portabella and feta sandwiches dipped in startling and delicious sauces. Creamy horseradish and aquafaba, tahini and habanero, turmeric and mint.

The 70 degree weather google had been prophesying turned out to be a low forty, but the air still had the warm breath of the gulf, and as the week warmed up the sun’s rays gathered the strength to burn. On two afternoons I went out with Micah along the river-walk wear he sold his leather work, and watched the river, lost chess games, and chatted with passersby. On Mardi Gras I woke up gloriously late, and set off across town, hoping to find a café somewhere along Magazine Street to sit and write in for a couple of hours. I ended up at a middle eastern café with baba ganoush and turkish coffee. In the afternoon, I struck off through uptown, and eventually ran into the Krewe of Elks parade, winding for miles through Napoleon, St. Charles, and Canal Streets. Like all other major holidays, Mardi Gras is a vast production of tasteless, single-use, and useless decorations. All the floats throw nearly identical cheaply made nerf balls, plastic beads and plastic, wooden, or aluminum chips. Last year after Mardi Gras, ninety-three thousand pounds of beads were cleaned from the drains in a five block stretch of St. Charles Street. I pushed my bike through the tides and sand bars of beads and food container rubbish that had washed up against the curb, burying the pavement.

I think the loudest and most surprising thing I saw on Mardi Gras was Christians. All day long they preached from megaphones, and held every manner of sign from “Repent you Drunk Catholic Pervert.” to “Let me pray for you.” One particularly large and impressively lettered sign read, “Roman Catholicism is of the Devil and will send You to Hell.” An evangelical group blared CCM all afternoon from the Washington Artillery Park, playing Passion songs and Jeremy Camp. Some carried crosses larger than themselves, some marched in their own parades, some had their own private security, some fences and generators, fluorescent lights and PA systems. From all angles, and creeds of evangelism or orientation, people leaped into fervent shouting matches, lustful and fierce in their joy. As far as I could tell, the opposition to the opposition was as happy for opposition as the opposition was. A little good old-fashioned persecution cheers everybody up all around regardless of faith or affiliation.

Throughout the week, I spent slow mornings in the small, mosquitoey backyard eden Micah and Hannah had created over the last year in the 7th Ward. One day I went to City Park and sat beneath the 700 year old oaks, another I biked out past the navy base to the World’s End and sat and prayed and watched the river. Thursday we dug, mulched and planted a garden patch in the back yard, Saturday we went to the navy base and explored a small portion of one of its three monstrous buildings. Altogether, the Bywater navy base encloses one and a half million square feet of floor space. Hurricane Katrina flooded the first two floors in 2005, and over the next six years the Navy moved out, leaving it completely unoccupied by 2011. In 2013 the Navy deeded the base to the City of New Orleans at no cost, a despite vast plans for restoration, the only reoccupation that ever happened was by the by scrappers, squatters, and explorers. When I was in New Orleans in 2016, I had to climb a fence to get into the base. Today, the gates hang open and you could drive a moving truck or tour bus inside. The base has become its own dystopian village, supported by the natural resources of what the Navy left behind. Immense graffiti projects cover entire faces of the buildings, and underground from the rest of society, a furtive and private population has dug in and barricaded itself in shipping containers and office space.

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For some reason I had thought my flight left Sunday, but on Friday I got the 24 hr. check in alert, and I reconciled myself with the fact that my days were numbered. Down to one in fact. We had spent the entire week celebrating, and in recognition of parting, we did more of the same.

Micah cooked series of fish fries and rice pots, brewed various teas, and sliced up a kale salad that rustled with entire parades of flavors. Dried tomatoes, roasted pepper, rosemary and oregano, ginger and garlic, oil and vinegar. At lunch we spoke of things we would yet do, over dinner of things we were doing. At night we biked down to the French Quarter and watched street bands or went to the river and talked of times that were gone. Jazz artists blended in eddies on Frenchmen street, exchanging feeling beyond speech, in voices of swing or brass or blues. The Mississippi surged against the curve of the Marigny, and swept back upon its current, repeating itself, unsure of its direction, only of its destination.

A consequence of learning is that nothing stays the same. Change is. All of our lives are submerged beneath the past or future, and we surface only in the moment, feeling the tremor of reality as it appears among us, and passes away. We use words as sign posts, pointing toward things we see and cannot comprehend. The wonderful thing about persons is that no matter how well we know them, there will always be more to learn. A name, a definition, is our guide back to a person or thought. The person as they are does not survive the passage of time: who they were falls into the past and dies, who they are is changed by the passage. Only the symbol, the definition, our picture of a person survives across time. The person themselves, in all particularity and complexity, arrives only in the moment.

If every identity is infinitely individual, what does it mean to speak of people who are closest to you, when finally we are all as far away? The complexity of personhood is a mystery unmeasurable by any telling, type or acronym. The secret of self is one which only you are given to know. Sometimes we are haunted by the same dreams as another. Sometimes we are shaped by the same conflicts and fight the same battles in the dark. Our best dreams are always given to us, but they are really only ours when we realize they are different from the ones who gave them. Whatever the nightmare or vision, our only access to it is the one we are given alone.

 

The Veil of Soul-Making: Self-Definition as Creative and Participatory Response

I first encountered the idea of life as a metaphor from Tabitha Driver’s blog the Ultimate Metaphor. I was immediately compelled by the idea, and have been wondering about it ever since. Driver said that “life is a metaphor,” but I was left asking “a metaphor for what?” Eventually I answered the question by saying that life is a metaphor of the soul whereby it comes to know itself, but couldn’t explain that metaphor well until this semester when I ran across a quote from Keats about life as the “veil of soul-making”. Immediately things began to lock in and make sense.

How widely is it possible to use the word metaphor? It is derived from two words: meta, meaning “over, above, or across,” and pherein, meaning “to carry or to bare.” Commonly, we use the term referring to a transfer of meaning, usually comparing an abstract concept like love or despair to a concrete image like fire or flood. Metaphor then is a transference of meaning, across the distance from the material to the abstract. In this sense, we could also say that metaphor is the inverse of incarnation, which is the bearing out of abstracted meaning into reality, or into the concrete. We could think then of life, which is the engagement of a self with reality, as the transference of meaning from concrete to abstract reality. Materiality is the metaphor, the comparison, or the reflection by which the soul comes to know itself. In the Gospel of St. Thomas, Jesus is recorded as saying, “If the flesh came into being because of spirit, that is a marvel, but if spirit came into being because of the body, that is a marvel of marvels.” 

In a letter to two of his siblings, John Keats suggested that rather than the “veil of tears” the world is the “veil of soul-making.” He said that if you can understand the world as the veil of soul-making, then you have understood what the world is for. 

“How then are Souls to be made? How then are these sparks which are God to have identity given them—so as ever to possess a bliss peculiar to each one’s individual existence? How but by the medium of a world like this? This point I surely want to consider, because I think it a grander system of salvation than the Christian religion—or rather it is a system of Spirit-creation. This is effected by three grand materials acting the one upon the other for a series of years. These three materials are the intelligence, the human heart (as distinguished from the intelligence or the mind), and the world or elemental space suited for the proper action of mind and heart on each other for the purpose of forming the soul or intelligence destined to possess the sense of identity. I can scarcely express what I but dimly perceive—and yet I think I perceive it. That you may judge the more clearly I will put it in the most homely form possible—I will call the world a school institute for the purpose of teaching little children to read…. Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul? A place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways!… As various as the lives of men are—so various become their souls, and thus does God make individual beings, souls, identical souls of the sparks of his own essence. This appears to me a faint sketch of a system of Salvation which does not affront our reason and humanity—I am convinced that many difficulties which Christians labour under would vanish before it…”

Engagement of the self with reality is essential for its formation. That engagement, in that it is formative of the soul and the self’s identity, is essentially creative. Engagement is necessitated by existence and is validated by its relationship to God. It is moral and draws the soul towards God in that it follows His methods of engagement of reality. Therefore, our engagement should also be practically creative, mimicking God’s own engagement with the world. Again in the Gospel of St. Thomas, Jesus is recorded saying, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you don’t bring forth what is within you, what you don’t bring forth will destroy you.” Our engagement with reality should be gracious, sacrificial, constructive, self-giving.  

In a short story I read recently, Thomas King re-tolled the Native American creation story of the Earth Diver, and contrasted it with the Genesis account, suggesting that the Earth Diver provides a better framework to inform our own necessary participation in the world. He compares the commonality of all the animals working together to provide a safe place for the woman who falls from the sky and gives birth to the two creating twins to the seeming individuality of the Creator in Genesis acting independently from any assistance. He says that the Earth Diver story better instructs our awareness of the necessity for collaboration, reciprocity, and mutual-submission in our moral action in the world. What King failed to appreciate though, was the relational and creative aspect of the Trinity present and operative at creation, and St. John’s understanding of the creation narrative. God mutually creates in relationship, and beyond the initial act of creation, created in such a way that his creatures would continue to create with Him. King’s point however is sound: we need an awareness of the participatory and mutually constructive nature of our actions. Our participation in the world should be good, creative, and cooperative with the good and creative participation of others.  

Similarly, I can’t understand why Keat’s must see the world as a veil for soul making as being different or antithetical to the narrative of Christianity. I can only surmise that his opinion on the subject is a commentary on the cultural expression of Christianity of his time which he was exposed to, not of Christianity in its universal sense. I’m most compelled by Christianity because I see it as the most compelling, the most dramatic iteration of the human condition. It contributes the most pathos, the most drama, to human existence and the seeming absurdity of human suffering and death. Major worldview competitors, Hinduism, fatalism, nihilism, functional-hedonism, and scientific-empiricism just fall short. Stoicism, Daosim, and Islam come close, but ultimately stop before the cosmic game-changer of Divine Incarnation. Compelled by arguments from scope and drama, I’m intrigued by Keat’s comment on a grander system of salvation than Christianity, but I don’t see the system of reality as the veil of soul-making as opposed to Christianity at all. I see it already assumed within Christianity. That God created, became like us, and suffered so that we could become like him is the most sophisticated and dramatic telling of the universe we’ve been able to come up with. That as Keat’s says it “affronts our reason” shows if anything that we did not indeed come up with it. The Christian system of salvation is grander than the Keatsian, because it assumes both directions of meaning transference, not only the metaphorical but also the incarnational. Not only is spirit formed by body, but body is also formed by Spirit. In His life, Christ took on the materiality of our life so that we could take on the perfection of His. The ideal, complete, abstraction of perfection became concrete and material in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In The Problem of Pain Lewis went to great lengths to show that if you wanted to make self-volitional souls via the multivalent dialectic of choice and action you would need a material universe and consequently the possibility of pain. He argues that love implies otherness, and otherness implies being, and that created, freely-willed-but-finite being requires a material universe. That created, material universe becomes the metaphor or explanation for the soul to recognize and determine by living out what itself as a being in reality is like. Part of that metaphor, that interaction, is of course creation, using the materials of creation. Indeed, the Lord’s creation is not individual, not selfish. He invites, He commands, He implores, us to participate in it. His desire is a work is a defining work which find us where we are at and asks us to work with Him.  

We define our identities in a number of ways, but there can be no identity prior to relationship, prior to encountering the otherness of what is outside of self. We define and are defined by the dialectic of encountering and responding to circumstance. There are elements to both our circumstances and our responses that are within our control, and there are elements to both that are beyond our control. There will always be circumstances that are entirely out of our control, and at best we can hope to only influence minor elements within them. Similarly, even the most carefully and powerfully manipulated circumstances will always carry elements that are beyond the control of the one intending to manipulate them. In a general instance though, we hold far more control over our responses than over our circumstances, and so our responses are able tell more about us. Situations which we control say something about our identity, in that they indicate what our desires for circumstance are, but since they are already considered and self-directed, they provide less opportunity for us to learn what we don’t already know about ourselves and provide less opportunity to demonstrate dialectic, dynamic identity formation. To truly understand or define yourself, accept circumstances that you can’t control and observe your responses within them. Your responses define your identity, and so to take command of, and revise your identity, consider those responses, and when in similar circumstances employ the changes and responses that you would most like to identify yourself by. 

We understand ourselves by the reflection of our choices and responses to the circumstances in which we find ourselves. That’s why self-reflection is so important, our thoughts, our feelings, our reactions are to the extent that they occur in the moment involuntary, and so if we would really have them be our own, we must examine them and with the all knowledge that we now have, consider whether they are ones which we would like to continue to own or not.  

Voluntary Economic Exclusion

In one of my most interesting classes last semester, I learned very little in the traditional academic sense, but did learn quite a bit in real-life practice about confusion and frustration management. The class was Issues in Modern America, and the professor a nuclear physicist who worked on the Iranian nuclear program in the ’80s, graduated from MIT in the 90’s, the University of Ohio in the ’00s, and came to Bluffton in order to study the Sermon on the Mount and its application to economic theory and human survival over the next ice-age which will be brought on sometime in the next 15,000 years by a global transition from the blue-skied, to canopied-earth model. I wish I was making this up.

We spent more than half the time in the class in discussion groups, usually with less than half of us having more than half of an idea of what we were supposed to be discussing. It’s true that we did not discuss issues in modern America, but we did at least cover extensively and over several class periods what it means to be poor in spirit and why the pizza delivery guy may have been late with your order. I wish I was making this up.

Two redeeming parts to the class were the course-work, and a wonderfully comprehensive book written by a British economist Bill Jordan in the ’80s A Theory of Poverty and Social Exclusion which thoroughly examines cultural, political, sociological, and even philosophical and religious issues which factor in contributing both to poverty and its alleviation. What I did make up is my own theoretical attempt to economically justify my personal beliefs on the ideal relationship to money in my contemporary cultural context. I found some of my best sources in Jordan’s bibliography, and other incredible resources at the simply fantastic blogsite Simplicity Collective. The following is an excerpt and abbreviation of my term paper written for Issues in Modern America.

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In recent decades wages across a broad range of occupations in America have stagnated, with the bottom end of wages exhibiting the least growth. If the federal minimum wage had kept up with actual productivity after 1970 as it had roughly done so previously, it would have been at $18.42 per hour in 2014 rather than the $7.25 per hour it was then and still is today (Bivens, Gould, Mishel, 2015). Similarly, the wealth gap in America has dramatically expanded in the last decades, with the wealthiest one percent of Americans now owning approximately forty-two percent of the wealth, or more than the collective wealth of the bottom ninety percent combined (Wolf, 2010). The top one percent of households in 2015 took home twenty-four percent of the year’s income, while the bottom twenty percent took home only four percent of the year’s income (Congressional Budget Office 2018).  

Most of the wealth gap in post-industrial societies can be understood in terms of enforced exclusion from wage earning, profits, and developmental profit. However, not all forms of exclusion can be explained by limit at point of access. In their 2015 paper “Are you really Financially Excluded if you Choose not to be Included” authors have argued that access point definitions of financial exclusions are not adequate for determining financial exclusions since some non-participance in high/middle income brackets and certain financial services may be volitional rather than necessitated by circumstance. Their paper sought to apply approaches used in definitions of social exclusions to determine better definitions of financial exclusion differentiating between enforced exclusion and voluntary self-exclusion (Salignac, et al. 2015).  

In view of the incredible wealth inequalities in economies such as America’s, why on earth would anyone choose to exclude themselves from market opportunities that are available to them? To understand categories of behavior, it is important to not only draw distinctions between groups who experience enforced exclusion and groups who exhibit self-exclusion, but also to draw distinctions between non-participants who self-exclude because of perceived personal lack and non-participants who self-exclude due to perceived personal sufficiency. Previous authors have pointed to this distinction especially regarding social exclusions via self-stereotyping, self-censorship, and label-internalizations (Hoff, Walsh, 2017) In terms of differing behavior toward markets, some groups may self-exclude from access points such as credit, investment, or transaction accounts because they don’t feel that they have the ability to navigate such access points profitably, whereas other groups may self-exclude from access points because they experience contentment and are uninterested in the abilities these access points may provide. Considering market non-participants who self-exclude for reasons informed by perceived sufficiency, what are the motivations for such groups and such actions?  

Voluntary self-exclusion from financial access to market resources has been characterized in a growing body of literature as “voluntary simplicity” sometimes simply abbreviated to “VS” (Alexander, 2012; Walther, 2016; etc.) Groups that exercise voluntary self-exclusion may do so for reasons of morality (Alexander, 2018), faith and religiosity (Abou-Zaid, 2014), life-style preference and well-being (Walther, 2016), or in order to engage in non-remunerative capability-sharing such as volunteer services (Le Guidec, 1996), or political action whether for societal VS advancement or some other compatible end (Alexander, 2012).  

Despite an increasing wealth gap, stagnating wages, and pressured middle-class, there are people variously affected by these trends who are voluntarily choosing less out of a framework informed by perception of sufficiency. It is true that exorbitant amounts of wealth are being accumulated by the top percentages of earners in post-industrialized economies, but it is also true that with a little deviance from accepted patterns of maximizing consumption to meet or exceed means, wage earners in much lower percentiles can reduce their market participation and still survive with remarkable sufficiency. The possibility arises from conditions of abundance brought on by market capitalism, and can be experienced by individuals who have and recognize the opportunity to earn more than they need to acquire the basic material necessities of life. The condition of abundance allows the freedom of self-determined standards of living and reflective self-direction of personal capability sharing.  

Values of simple living are by no means new but have been passed down from many wisdom traditions both recent and ancient. Teachers such as Lao Tzu, Buddha, Diogenes, Jesus, St. Francis, John Ruskin, William Morris, Thoreau, Tolstoy, and Gandhi have lived out and taught the virtues of contentment and material moderation across centuries. The conditions made possible by our current economic situation, however, can allow lifestyles of voluntary simplicity very different from the self-denying asceticism which we might get the picture of as practiced by voluntary simplifiers in previous historical periods. Moderate restraint of spending practices while maintaining full employment, reducing hours worked while still enjoying discretionary consumption, or more likely some combination of both are the primary ways in which individuals in economies of abundance can choose to practice voluntary simplicity. Productivity per hour worked has gone up in the American economy as evidenced by rising GDP per-capita. Rising productivity has lead to predictions of corresponding increases in leisure time by optimistic theorists such as Robert Theobald who in 1961 advocated for education reforms which would prepare children for the enjoyment of the twenty-hour work he expected would typical within a generation (Theobald, 1961). Increase in productivity though has not directly corresponded with a decrease of typical hours worked, however, at least partially because unnecessary levels of both consumption and waste have risen along with productivity. 

Economic principles aside, ecological concerns pose a very compelling argument for reducing consumption. Current levels and methods of production and consumption threaten the natural world around us through climate changes and pollution. Members of some societies vastly over-consume, while members of other societies experience significant lack. Recent analysts have estimated that if earth’s entire 7.7 billion population consumed resources at the levels which Americans do, it would require roughly four earths to support the production and sustainability assimilate the waste (McDonald, 2015). Not only are members of wealthier societies disproportionately responsible for the overconsumption which damages the environment, they will also be less proportionately harmed by it, since they will have more recourses to protect themselves from its consequences.  

Unfortunately, it is difficult for people to take personal action for problems which they share responsibility for with a group, but because we all contribute to environmental damage, we are responsible for at least our contribution to the problem even if we are not exposed to its consequences. Every time we make purchases, we are voting for the types of products we want to be produced, and the type of world that we will live in. Every consumable product takes energy to be produced and must be eventually disposed of. Since no process is one hundred percent efficient and nothing that is disposed of ever really goes away but must be either somehow contained or assimilated back into the ecosphere, all production results in wasted energy and all disposal results in damaged to the ecosphere to the extent that it cannot be re-assimilated. Voluntary simplicity can be practiced as a recognition of the fact that we live in a finite word and have personal responsibility for how our individual waste and consumption impacts the environment we exist in. 

Recognizing conditions of inequality and overconsumption, voluntary simplicity becomes then for some a rationally based ethical or moral response. In a 2018 essay, authors Rupert Read and others argued that voluntary simplicity is conclusively supported by three major act-based moral-philosophical frameworks, utilitarianism, virtue ethics, and Kantian deontology. The maximum well-being for the largest number indicates over-consumption should be reduced in order to preserve the availability of resources for future generations. From an Aristotelian virtue perspective, simplicity is the golden mean between insufficiency and excess, and liberates the individual seeking his telos to determine what other virtues he should acquire. From Kant’s rational perspective of categorical imperatives, it is impossible to desire that my levels of consumption and waste become universally practiced given that such universalization would break the delimited system I practice them in.  

For others, self-exclusion that is volitional rather than directly necessitated by market circumstance may be a function of adherence to a faith tradition which seeks to incorporate production and consumption within a materially transcendent and spiritually inclusive framework of human meaning. Many faiths teach against material acquisitiveness, for example, the texts of all three major monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam unanimously instruct against the financial practice of charging interest. The morality of religious injunction against usury typically gets rejected as primitive, irrelevant, and too untenable for even consideration, however, just because a system exists which opposes a moral normative does not in itself invalidate that normative, and certainly other types of systems could exist, as evidenced by a 2015 essay in which economists Leonce and Abou-Zaid point to methods of capital financing alternative to usury such mutual and equally interested partnerships as practiced by Islamic Banks, The Hebrew Free Loan Society, the Swedish JAK Medlemsbank, and other institutions (Abou-Zaid, Leonce, 2015).  

The Catholic conception of work has long been not primarily as a wage-earning activity or even primarily an action ending in production, but primarily a realization of the human being made in the image of a God who creates. Writing from the perspective, Dorothy Sayers argued that valuation should not be derived from profitability, but from work itself, saying that work is not only something that one does to live but also something which on lives to do. To her, work “should be the full expression of the worker’s faculties, the thing in which he finds spiritual, mental and bodily satisfaction.” She concludes from this that the “greatest insult which the commercial age has offered to the worker has been to rob him of all interest in the end product of the work and to force him to dedicate his life to making badly things which were not worth making” (Sayers, 1948). For Sayers, an economy built on valuing profitably over capability-sharing results in an economy of over-production and over-consumption, and a “society in which consumption has to be artificially stimulated in order to keep production going is a society founded on trash and waste…a house built upon sand” (Sayers, 1948).  

For others still, voluntary simplicity and market self-exclusions can be motivated simply from differing, self-interested conceptualization of what a good life entails. Some individuals and groups value lower levels of stress and higher levels of leisure and freedom over the satisfaction and status conferred by higher levels of consumption. This interest could be demonstrated by either more radical examples such as new age travelers leaving jobs and economic security for transient lifestyles, or by prefatory choices such as taking a lower paying job that requires only forty hours a week over a much higher paying one that requires fifty.  

A growing awareness of conditions of abundance and a growing sense of sufficiency is evidenced by burgeoning movements which from a market perspective could be viewed as self-exclusionary. Focuses such as the Journal of Consumer Culture, and The Simplicity Collective have developed expansive analysis of the cultural downsides of over-consumption, and accessible ways forward into voluntary simplicity characterized as being more beneficial to individual and societal well-being than the excess of traditional methods of consumption. Central to these arguments is a skepticism toward market messages of ever-increasing abilities of consumption correlating to ever increasing levels of satisfaction. That life satisfaction depends much more upon relationships than consumption above levels of basic material survival is both intuitive and shown to be the case by empirical research (Reis, 1990). Voluntary simplicity is often marked by practical emphasis of investment in relationships via localization of exchanges, community, collective action, and more time made available for relationships.  

If motivated by faith-based convictions, morality, or a valuation of relationships, groups that self-exclude are already likely be concerned about the conditions of those excluded by necessity, and as self-exclusion places them closer to situations which include the traditionally excluded, further possibilities of solidarity and capability sharing solutions will result. Whatever the primary reasons are for groups practicing voluntary self-exclusion out of perception of sufficiency, these groups are in an incredible position to address situations of exclusion by necessity. Those who choose to be excluded have by definition at least some of the capabilities necessary for market inclusion, and so may operate with more flexibility than if they either did not have those capabilities or had them tide up in exchange systems. Being freer from demands upon time alone allows one to focus more on providing solutions for the excluded. Some Americans are finding that they are able to provide for the lifestyles they choose by working only four days a week rather than the traditional five, and therefore have an extra day a week in which they can engage in non-remunerative capability sharing activities of their choice (Cohen, 2009).   

In Associative Democracy, Paul Hirst argues that centralized, bureaucratic government provides too unaccountable and unresponsive public administration to be effective in addressing the complexity and multivalencey of social needs (Hirst, 1994). Knowledge management and capability sharing easily become diluted and lost in the impersonality and clutter of bureaucracies. Top-down, centralized approaches of addressing the conditions of the excluded are ineffective simply because empathy and pathos, prime human motivators are depleted within the non-exposed bureaucratic layers. The condition of non-exposure to the actual issues of exclusion also results in decreased abilities of knowledge-management, and higher ignorance content in the solutions and externalities produced. Self-excluded voluntary simplifiers however, have the opportunity to address the conditions of the traditionally excluded both from better positions of relationally-specific knowledge management, and from less centralized and more contextually responsive abilities of capability sharing.  

Along the same lines, Douglas North points out that along with more conglomerate and aggregate operating agents such as foundations and corporations, come not only higher operating costs but also higher transactional costs, enforcement costs, and in the form of contractual safeguards (North, 1990). In North’s view, the most successful conditions of social and economic inclusion are those in which formal and informal force-extensions are set up so that they encourage the maximum volume of low transactional cost voluntary exchanges between individuals. The challenge is that not only do conditions of exclusion destabilize abilities of knowledge management and conversion of brute-force to force-extensions, they also often fail to give rise to the norms of trust, reciprocity and confidence necessary for voluntary exchange systems to advance beyond the most rudimentary transactions. Excluded populations therefore have difficulty in self-organizing groups for their own interdependent economic advancement.  

Following Hirst’s and North’s analysis of resource-management and my analysis of the abilities and interests of the voluntarily self-excluded, it could become the task of more mobile and resilient middle-class voluntary exclusionaries to use their increased time for knowledge management and allocation of capability sharing to provide both formal and informal structures of exchange with lower-threshold access points which poorer populations could voluntarily interact with. More localized, inclusive and dispersed capitalism, operating on more grassroots levels could be easily facilitated by groups that elect partial dominant market exclusions, and could be more easily entered into by groups which are excluded from dominant markets by necessity. Lower-structured informal exchanges would represent less risk than large scale transactions, and hence could allow interdependency and risk sharing to be more readily entered into. Groups operating out of concepts of sufficiency and therefore already volunteering for some level of economic exclusion would be better prepared to absorb micro-losses in the form of un-enforced transaction risk, and therefore able to remain in informal exchanges with the excluded providing the stability and demonstrating the resilience necessary for norms of trust, mutual interest, and reciprocity to develop. As a cultural stock of such norms get developed within the informal exchanges of the excluded, not only would a buildup of trust-capital be generated, but also a buildup of wealth-capital from an increased volume of transactions.  

Humans are more than resource takers and will not be fulfilled unless they have both resource taking opportunities and power-process opportunities of knowledge management and capability sharing (Kaczynski, 1995, Rafizadeh, 2018). Without networks of exchange to interact in, the knowledge-management and capability-sharing of the excluded are wasted to both their own loss and the loss of society around them. Relieving situations of poverty is synonymous with providing the excluded with a wider range of freedom and possibilities. Correspondingly, solutions of informal, voluntary exchange systems provide the opportunity of immediate volitional actions on the part of the excluded on their own behalf. Increasing the opportunities of capability-sharing and exchange for the excluded will enable their inclusion in abilities of social and market interaction, and contribute to individual dignity by increasing the range of available options by which they can exercise volitional, self- and societally-beneficial action.  

Accordingly, a large part of addressing the situation of the excluded will be developing new networks and connections and increasing integration with existing networks and connections. Here the localized, communal, and relational values of voluntary simplicity become important. Bill Jordan defines community as activity of voluntary members who “regulate each other’s actions by reinforcing norms of social obligation and offer mutual support and assistance on a reciprocal basis” (Jordan, 1996). Because their exchanges are mutual and reciprocal usually entailing no transaction and enforcement costs, communal arrangements are extraordinarily efficient and allow consistent, sustainable growth even if there are only low-volumes of wealth to be exchanged. Sustainable growth is slow growth. 

Integration and creation of new networks can be accomplished by offering small, no-interest or low interest loans to the excluded. These loans could be used to build small business or strategically improve living conditions in order to gain better access to systems of exchange. Self-excluding individuals could join those excluded by necessity in working to develop more integrated communities where more opportunities for working, living, and shopping exist within walking distance of each other in order to reduce commuter costs. Those who self-exclude by choice have backgrounds of more inclusion, and therefore have more trust-capital with those of traditional, dominant market inclusion. They could use this trust-capital along with their increased availability of time for capability sharing and knowledge management to connect labor markets of the included with labor resources of the excluded.  

Existing exchange networks of the excluded could be strengthened directly by the voluntarily self-excluding investing by purchase in small and struggling businesses, voting with their money that they want the livelihoods of the excluded to survive, rather than the monopolies of the elite to become stronger. Networking is perhaps one of the most important services to be provided for the excluded, since the possibilities of capability sharing in relationships exterior to the one making the connection are usually more extensive and diversified than ones that he himself could provide. Bill Jordan notes that professionals and public agencies can provide better services by connecting the excluded with already existent communities and infrastructural resources rather than attempting to independently engineer comprehensive solutions to every individual need (Jordan, 1996). Resources such as job markets, labor supply, business ventures, informal exchanges, union organization, ethnic, regional, and faith communities should be brought together around and among the excluded to interact with each other and benefit from mutual capability sharing.  

The approaches offered in this analysis would take a long time to develop and gain effect, even if immediately adopted by those who practice voluntary self-exclusion. However, given the values, interests, and abilities of the voluntarily self-excluded, it would seem that they are more likely than the traditionally included to adopt these approaches, and have more flexible and immediate ability to do so incarnationally, not only because they understand better the positions of the excluded, but also because they are less hindered by investment in the interests of the included. Wherever the voluntarily excluded do succeed in developing sustainable formal and informal exchange systems among the excluded, however, such developments are likely to have long-lasting effects. When grass-roots networks of knowledge management, and capability sharing do develop, the sustainable wealth and trust capital that gets generated continues to strengthen the system and systems around it. Robert Putnam notes that the current areas best socio-economically off tend to be the same ones where cooperatives and mutual-aid cultural associations were most prevalent in the nineteenth century, and these were in turn most likely to be located in areas where neighborhood and economic associations such as guilds, and infrastructural religious communities and work collectives most flourished in the centuries previous (Putnam, 1993).  

In conclusion, the position taken in this essay is that voluntary simplicity from a market perspective is a form of self-exclusion, and from an analytical perspective is motivated by a perception of sufficiency at levels of consumption below those which conditions of relative abundance could allow. Further, those included in this definition of voluntary simplicity are likely to be more immediately interested and able to relationally and sustainably address the situations of those excluded by necessity. Since this is a grassroots approach to the situation of excluded relying primarily on voluntary relational exchanges rather than being dependent on system-based, top down force-extensions, it is a few-agree position that does not need to ascend to a many-agree position before it can start functioning, but can instead strengthen few-agree positions compatible with it and form many-agree positions within the specific, localized situations it works itself out.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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