Thursday, June 25, 2009

Two in One Day

Two of the pop icons of my youth are gone. Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson. Each was tormented by a different kind of demon as adults. May they rest in peace.

And That's the Way It Is

I grew up as a child watching the most trusted man in America deliver the evening news. Walter Cronkite obviously had his biases and faults, but he understood that it was the job of the journalist not only to report the news but to hold the people he reported on accountable to the Truth. Truth with a capital T. There was such a thing then. I still remember watching the reporting out of Vietnam and it was clear that no matter what LBJ or Nixon was saying about the war, the pictures on the screen were telling the real unpretty story. Cronkite reported the Truth about the war.

The MSM long ago lost its belief in the Truth, or at least its belief that it is part of the media's job to dig for the truth and hold officials accountable to the truth. We make fun of Fox News' 'fair and balanced' moniker but only because it is so unabashedly brazen about the fact that what matters on Fox is not the Truth but that their 'truth' outshouts everyone else's truth. It's crude post-modernism on display every night on Fox.

But everyone else does it too now. The media's job is not to report the Truth but to report what competing interests say the truth is. Let the listener try and figure out the Truth if they dare, or care.

Even NPR is apparently too cowed by its corporate sponsors. Is waterboarding torture? When the North Vietnamese were doing it to American soldiers it was torture. By every known human rights convention waterboarding is torture. When Jack Bauer does it on 24 it is torture, vitally necessary to save the free world of course, but still torture. But when the Bush administration does it suddenly it isn't torture. Now it all depends on who is doing it and why they are doing it and whether they have lofty motives. So NPR bars its reporters from using the word 'torture' when they are talking about what the Bush Administration was doing to terror suspects. That would be telling the Truth and reporters can't do that any more.

Glenn Greenwald has a lot more to say about this here.

Beauty Everywhere We Look

A few weeks ago in a Sunday message about the contingency of life and living life with gratitude I made reference to Jonathan Edwards' most famous sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. I don't share Edward's view that we sinners are in essence being dangled by God above the fiery furnace and at any moment God could justly let us drop. I do, however, think that when we ponder the contingency of life it feels something like being thusly dangled.

In any case a post by Rod Dreher about beauty (and how the aim of artistic expression with regards to beauty as a value or goal has changed over time) got me to thinking about Edwards again.

Beauty was everywhere we look in Edwards' worldview. God was beautiful, love was beautiful, nature was beautiful, the virtuous life was beautiful. Beauty was, for Edwards, both an ontological reality and the ultimate goal of the spiritual life.

What I really liked about Edwards' take on beauty was the way the creation was a spilling-out or overflowing of God's beauty into the world so that the divine beauty was reflected everywhere. God's beauty was the animating force in the universe.

While Edwards could preach hell-fire and brimstone, fear was not what motivated him and he hoped it was not what motivated others to live virtuously. It was the beauty of God that drew us to Him (as he would have said it), a beauty that was always all around us if we have eyes to see.

This was Edwards at his most sublime.

Let the Earth Bear Witness

Via Andrew Sullivan, a music and video tribute from the Waterboys' Dublin singer, Mike Scott to those protesting for freedom in Iran.

Whatever happens from here on out in Iran, we know now that Iran is not just President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards. When we deal with Iran on the world stage, as we must, and when we think about the future of this country, we must remember these people who also want a different Iran. They have been truly inspiring.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Party of Family Values

What do Senator John Ensign, Republican of Nevada and Governor Mark Sanford, Republican of South Carolina have in common? A lot. They are were both 2012 presidential hopefuls. They are both right-wing Christians. They are both members of the "C Street", a Christian Bible-study group on Capitol Hill. There is something else too...

They are both in big trouble with their wives.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Unalloted in Minnesota

I listened to Governor Tim Pawlenty today as he announced his specific proposals for unallotting government funded programs like aid to cities and counties and money for healthcare funding for the poor. The Republican governor and the Democratic-controlled legislature were unable to agree on a way to balance the budget for the next 2 years. The Dems proposed raising taxes and the Governor vetoed their bills. Therefore, a MN statute allows the governor to unilaterally balance the budget by de-funding programs.

The Governor said repeatedly in his talk that just as Minnesota families were tightening their budgets in the face of the recession, so the government should do the same.

This kind of thinking sounds perfectly reasonable but is totally wrong. Imagine if the federal government took that approach. Our deep recession would quickly turn into another great depression. Now is precisely the time when the government needs to step up spending to employ more people and keep the economy from going into a free-fall.

The states cannot fund their budgets with deficit spending like the federal government can, but they can raise taxes to maintain services. Minnesota DFLers (our particular version of Dems) proposed a slight tax increase on the wealthiest Minnesotans along with some small budget cuts in order to balance the budget. The governor, who is now essentially running for President, wouldn't hear of it.

Instead, funding to colleges, hospitals, cities and counties will be cut. People will lose their jobs, thus deepening the state's financial difficulties. State budget belt-tightening in a recession sounds so reasonable but is totally counter-productive.

Megachurch Members Give Less

I see an article was making the rounds Sunday about megachurches and those who attend them. A survey found that megachurch participants are younger, they give less, and they volunteer less:
Conducted by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford Seminary and Leadership Network, the survey of nearly 25,000 people who attend 12 U.S. megachurches was conducted from January through August 2008. It is billed as the largest representative national study of that religious demographic to date.

Each week, an estimated 5 million Americans attend about 1,300 U.S. megachurches, defined in the study as Protestant churches with attendance of 2,000 or more.

To compare the megachurch data to Protestant churches of all sizes, the study relied on the U.S. Congregational Life Study of 2001.

Among the survey's highlights was that many megachurchgoers don't exhibit the behavior the churches expect of members: Nearly 45 percent of megachurch congregants never volunteer at the church, and 32 percent give little or no money to the church.
Is any of this a surprise? Many people go to megachurches so they can be a fly on the wall. They can participate as a spectator. Unless they choose to get involved in some aspect of church life, like a small group or a children's program, they will unlikely step forward to volunteer. In addition they look at the campus, the multiple staff, the professional quality music, etc. and understandably assume that money isn't an issue for the church. Their money isn't really needed. And if they are younger and have children they might not have very much to give anyway of their money or their time.

I don't even think this is a problem limited to megachurches. I don't have the statistics in front of me but Catholics, who typically attend parishes larger than their Protestant neighbors, give less. Over the years I have heard many a priest or active Catholic parishioner bemoan the small percentage of active participants in their parish.

It is just much harder to be a fly on the wall in a small church. And the uninvolved tend not to sit in the pews on Sunday mornings for very long before they become inactive and mostly non-attending members. Those who stay are committed and give more of their time and money.

Why Are Republicans Afraid of a Public Health Care Option?

It is amusing to me to see all the Republican Party fulminations about a public option that would compete with private insurance companies to provide health care to Americans. What are they afraid of? Typically Republican politicians deride the government that provides them a paycheck for, among other things, its bloated bureaucracy, its incompetence, its inability to deliver goods and services as efficiently as the private sector.

But this isn't what we are hearing from them about health care. It appears that what they are afraid of if the government provides a choice in health care coverage is that the government will provide better and more efficient care than private insurance companies can provide. They are not worried that the government will waste taxpayers money or make a mess of the health care system; they are worried that the government will out-compete the private sector.

Isn't that rich?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Bush's Deficit, Obama's Problem

A New York Times article today shows that no matter what Republicans may be claiming now, the exploding budget deficit can still be laid squarely at the feet of former President Bush:
The story of today’s deficits starts in January 2001, as President Bill Clinton was leaving office. The Congressional Budget Office estimated then that the government would run an average annual surplus of more than $800 billion a year from 2009 to 2012. Today, the government is expected to run a $1.2 trillion annual deficit in those years.

You can think of that roughly $2 trillion swing as coming from four broad categories: the business cycle, President George W. Bush’s policies, policies from the Bush years that are scheduled to expire but that Mr. Obama has chosen to extend, and new policies proposed by Mr. Obama.
Obama's stimulus package is responsible for only 7% of that swing, his spending proposals on items like healthcare and the environment another 3%. The rest of it is the result of policies hatched by Bush and an economic downturn largely caused by Bush.

Nevertheless, it is now Obama's problem and as the article points out he hasn't really started to address it yet. Nor have the Republicans whose own suggested fixes would only make the deficit worse.

Any solution is almost certainly going to include reigning-in entitlements - my entitlements, as a 50-year old baby-boomer who knows that his retirement benefits are going to need to take a hit. Thank God for my Church of the Brethren pension! That was a joke, son.

But I also hope that part of the solution to the deficit problem comes in the form of a significant gasoline tax. A big gas tax would not only help pay for the deficit but it would also make a dent in the global warming crisis. And, I can't imagine the bailouts of Chrysler and GM and their forced retooling to make smaller, more fuel-efficient cars making any sense unless gas prices are a lot higher. Who is going to buy these small cars if gas is cheap? I would imagine that $5 a gallon is going to need to be the floor to get us to the kind of psychological shift that really changes driving and buying habits. We are going to need a gas tax to get us there.

My Amazon Order Has Shipped

But I didn't order anything through Amazon. But wait, way back in September of last year I ordered The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context. That was so long ago I wonder if it can still be relevant!

In the Garden Today

Another Nepeta in the foreground with 'Moonshine' Yarrow blooming in the background.

I seem unable to enlarge this photo, but there is a Ruby-throated Hummingbird at the feeder.

The Ego and the Id

I am reading Ken Wilber's Integral Spirituality and he makes an interesting claim about Freud's famous insights regarding the workings of the ego and the id: Freud never used the terms ego and id:
Not many people know that Freud never--not once--used the terms "ego" or "id." When Freud wrote, he used the actual pronouns "the I" and "the it" (das Ich, "the I," and das Es, "the it.") Strachey (James Strachey who gave us the definitive English translations of Freud) decided to use the Latin words "ego" and "id" to make Freud sound more scientific...

Perhaps Freud's best-known summary of the goal of psychotherapy is "Where id was, there ego shall be." What Freud actually said was: "Where it was, there I shall become." (p. 123)
Which, as Wilber says, is a beautiful summary of what happens when we do shadow work. We find the alienated part of ourselves, the parts we have turned into "its" and we re-own them and make them part of our I.

I have really appreciated Wilber's larger point in this chapter that the phenomenological insights of Freud (if not necessarily his explanation of why it happens) and Jung about our shadow and how much of it develops in early childhood is one of the great modern and Western contributions to knowledge of self. We can't grow-up spiritually without learning about our own shadow and where it came from. Wilber repeatedly says that the great meditative traditions, East and West, don't have any way of helping us do this work. They can help make us aware of the presence of our emotions, like our anger, but if we don't do the therapeutic work (learning and working through our history) we are likely to just become more serenely angry.

His summary description of the way shadow works was also very good:
We began with anger as a sample shadow-impulse. The anger starts out as a 1st-person reality (my anger; I am angry, I have anger). For various reasons--fear, self-restriction, super-ego judgments, past trauma, etc.--I contract away from my anger and push it on the other side of the I-boundary, hoping thereby not to get punished for having this horrible emotion. "My anger" has now become "anger that I am looking at, or talking to, or experiencing, but it is not my anger!"(Jay: it becomes 2nd person anger) ...If I push further, that anger becomes 3rd-person: I am no longer even on speaking terms with my own anger. I might still feel this anger somehow--I know somebody is angry as hell, but since it simply cannot be me, it must be you, or him, or her, or it. Come to think of it John is always mad at me! Which is such a shame, since I myself never get angry at him, or at anybody, really." (p. 135)
Funny and too true.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

In the Garden Today

This is one of about a half-dozen members of the Nepeta (catmint) family that we have in our garden. They are just coming into bloom now. Every year I have to divide this particular plant in half because it spreads so fast that it would take over the entire bed it is in within just a couple of years. It stays put, though, because when it starts to bloom the hummingbirds begin showing up in force.

Hostas are really beautiful right now. This one is "On Stage" and it is aptly named at 3 feet high and 3-4 feet across.

This is "June" with "Guacamole" on the left and an unknown - to me -member of the Hosta family on the right.

We have a crop of baby squirrels in the garden feeding at the base of the bird feeders but also working diligently to try and defeat the squirrel-proof design of the feeders. They have fresh bushy tails and are as yet unafraid of picture-taking humans like me.

Finally, when is a wild flower a weed? When it shows up unbidden in your garden. But since Mary Ann hasn't planted her annuals in the front of this bed yet, I allowed this Bladder Campion to grow. Today is its last day, though, since it is past its flowering prime and is starting to drop its seed-laden bladders to the ground.

Evolving Values Systems

Several months ago the leadership team at our church read The Emerging Church by Bruce Sanguin. Sanguin is pastor at Canadian Memorial Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. The Emerging Church (not to be confused with the emergent Christian movement), is a reflection and manual about congregational leadership development from a progressive Christian perspective. I highly recommend it, as well as another book that Sanguin draws on heavily, Evoking Change by Anna Christie. Christie is a pastor and therapist and has written a great book about how to grow our emotional health and intelligence, and about how important this is in the church. I wish I had read these books years ago.

In any case, tucked in the middle of Sangin's book is a brief discussion about Spiral Dynamics. Spiral Dynamics was pioneered by the late Dr. Clare Graves, a developmental psychologist, who mapped out a historical time-line of the evolution of worldviews and value systems. Don Beck, a student of Graves, color-coded the map and made it easier for the lay person to understand. According to Graves, for the first humans basic survival was all that mattered. For much of human history they existed at the Arhaic/Survivalist Value System (Beige). Then about 50,000 years ago clans and tribes formed and the Tribal Value System (Purple) replaced basic survival as the over-riding value. The gods existed to protect and help the clan; magic could be used to invoke the Gods. Purple was followed by Red, the Warrior Values System (10,000 yrs ago), the Blue, the Traditional Values System (5,000 yrs ago), Orange, the Modernist Value System (300 yrs ago), Green, the Postmodernist Value System (150 years ago); in the last 3 decades two further values systems have begun to emerge: Yellow, the Integral Values System, and finally Turquoise, the Mystical Values System. You can read much more about Spiral Dynamics here.

Sanguin used Spiral Dynamics to make two points. One, to buttress his case that spirituality is evolving; there is clear historical evidence that we are progressing spiritually. Two, to make the point that individuals and congregations have different colors, or worldviews and value systems. This is important to remember, he says, because although two people may be reading the same scripture text, they are reading it through the eyes of their dominant color or values system. And if they are in different colors they are understanding the text in very different ways. Further, according to Sanguin and Spiral Dynamics, there is no way in the world that a person at a lower rung or spiral can understand it at a higher level. They can evolve over time - that's the good news - but until they do they can't understand a person or congregation who is reading or operating at a higher level of the spiral.

At first blush the whole notion of Spiral Dynamics rubs me the wrong way. It sounds and feels very elitist to me. It also meshes well with a post-modern perspective on the world which also often rubs me the wrong way because it is so frequently used to deny the existence of any truth whatsoever, or to simply dismiss the need for conversation. What is the point of talking if we each have our own truth and we can't really hope to understand each other?

But I have had the experience of sitting with people who have heard my messages and then listened as they tell me what they just heard, and thought to myself, "We are not living in the same world." Sanquin and Spiral Dynamics would say that we are living out of different colors. There is a certain sense in which this does feel elitist, particularly if I presume that they are understanding at a lower level than me. And would I, I wonder, know it if I was the one who was at the lower level? I think not.

I would like to believe, as well, that we are evolving spiritually. I don't think human nature changes but I hope that human values are evolving towards a higher plane. I think the evidence supports this view; after-all there is no one in the western world today who sanctions slavery. No one can deny, I think, that we still have the capacity to do great evil, and our progress has given us the technology to inflict irreparable harm on the earth and its inhabitants, but I think our sights have been raised in terms of what it means to be human and a member of spaceship Earth.

This whole concept does raise an interesting question of whether someone like the Buddha or Jesus was able to transcend the highest values system of their day? Were they just the most enlightened individuals within their day, but still bound by the limits of their (Blue) worldview? Or were they already seeing and living at the highest (Turquoise) level. My guess is that with Spiral Dynamics the answer would be that they were bound by the worldview of their day. I would tend to agree. I just don't think it is very helpful to blame Jesus or Buddha, or Paul, for not knowing everything and getting everything right. It is enough for me to let them be truly inspired visionaries for their day and admit that they were wrong about some things, from the perspective of our more evolved worldview.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Packing Heat in Church

A Kentucky pastor is inviting his congregants to bring their guns to church on the Saturday before the Fourth of July:
"We're just going to celebrate the upcoming theme of the birth of our nation," said pastor Ken Pagano. "And we're not ashamed to say that there was a strong belief in God and firearms — without that this country wouldn't be here."
I just came across this quote in the wonderful book by Terry Eagleton, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate:
This brand of piety is horrified by the sight of the female breast, but considerably less appalled by the obscene inequalities between rich and poor. It laments the death of a fetus, but is apparently undisturbed by the burning to death of children in Iraq or Afghanistan in the name of U. S. global dominion. By and large, it worships a God fashioned blasphemously in its own image--a clean-shaven, short-haired, gun-toting, sexually obsessive God with a special regard for that ontologically privileged place of the globe just south of Canada and north of Mexico, rather than the Yahweh who is homeless, faceless, stateless, and imageless, who prods his people out of their comfortable settlement into the trackless terrors of the desert, and who brusquely informs them that their burnt offerings stink in his nostrils.
But maybe he finds the smell of gun powder pleasing.