Perspective

I am reminded of Ansel Adams’s photos of Yosemite: nature framed and re-presented so as to point beyond itself to the eternal Beauty that lies behind all change and decay. Good art lifts us out of ourselves, and puts us in touch with what is true.

This picture is worth a minute or two, just to admire… and wonder.

[click on the link below for more on this recent image]

via ‘Blue Marble 2012’: NASA’s ‘Most Amazing’ High Def Image Of Earth So Far : The Two-Way : NPR.

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WWLD: What Would Lenin Do?

The latest issue of Foreign Affairs contains a fascinating collection of analysis and commentary. Taken from  the journal’s archives, the collection reads  like a first-hand account of the unfolding of the last 90 years. The apt title of the collection is “How We Got Here”; the aim is to “tell the story of the ideological battles of the past century and the emergence of the modern order.” The first articles in the collection are on Lenin, from the perspective of two thinkers (Harold Laski and Victor Chernov) who themselves were writing in the 1920s.

The question of “how we got here” arose more sharply when I read the following report yesterday on Gazeta.Ru:

“Three gay-rights activists were detained on Friday night, having conducted a flash-mob in Red Square, at Lenin’s Tomb. The three activists opened placards with slogans supporting the rights of gays and lesbians….”

The cognitive dissonance for me, is the linking of “flash-mob” with “in Red Square, at Lenin’s Tomb.” Having spent childhood and young adulthood carrying pictures in my head of Soviet power and control, and hearing about all the tight restrictions on information and expression, I do wonder: How did we get from 5-Year Plans to flash-mobs? Of course we know that the Soviet Union dissolved, and the Berlin Wall came down. At that level, how we got here is well-known. The fascinating part, however, is trying to figure out why: which big ideas and grand schemes were true and wise; and which of them were false and brutal.

В Москве задержаны три активиста гей-движения, проводившие флэшмоб у мавзолея Ленина. В Москве на Красной площади в ночь на пятницу были задержаны три активиста гей-движения, которые развернули у мавзолея Ленина плакаты с лозунгами защиты прав геев и лесбиянок, сообщил «Интерфаксу» источник в правоохранительных органах.

via Новости дня — Газета.Ru.

Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Karl Marx’s phrase “religion is the opium of the people” suggests a numbing effect for religious practice, rather than a quickening effect. Too often in modern Western society this is true: religion is for those who want to go to sleep.

Rev. Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” contains a passage (quoted at length below) in which he talks about “fostering tension” in a community. This is the opposite of the narcotic effect: to raise tension is to raise discomfort. To raise discomfort, to raise tension, is one of the marks of authentic religious practice and expression. It is nothing less than the prophetic voice of religion, canonized in the Hebrew Scriptures in such figures as Isaiah, Hosea, and Amos.

Society does not change unless creative tension is brought to crisis. Rev. Dr. King knew this. While an edgy American populace continues under the delusion that a different election result will bring about “change we can believe in,” or “renewal,” or whatever slogan catches on, the truth is spoken more clearly in the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” New life– more fair, more just, more compassionate, more hopeful– is the province of a religion that calls insistently for people to wake up.

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.

via Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.].

The Reduction of Human Flourishing to the Experience of Satisfaction

Miroslav Volf: Helpful Words for the Mess We're In

The Yale theologian Miroslav Volf, following others, characterizes the American predicament this way: our definition of human flourishing has become so self-centered, that chronic dissatisfaction and pervasive despair are the result.

As Volf tells the story, it wasn’t always like this. In another time, human flourishing was conceived to be inseparable from loving and giving glory to God. The Westminster catechism comes to mind: Q. What is the chief end of man? A. To glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. In this understanding of who the human being is, human flourishing is unintelligible if severed from transcendence. Right relationship to the goods of this world depends on our right relationship with the Transcendent One.

Then came humanism, and the disconnect from God. Human flourishing was defined in strictly human terms, without reference to divinity. There was still a connection to transcendence, however: instead of that transcendence being grounded in giving glory to God, it was now grounded in ideals like universal brotherhood/sisterhood, or the society of a commonwealth, or universal human rights. While disconnected from God, these ideals were still larger than the solitary self– still transcendent, in that sense.

Finally– and Volf traces this final movement to the last 30-50 years– the notion of human flourishing collapsed into the solitary self itself: collapsed into the pursuit of pleasure, and the individual experience of satisfaction. Inevitably, dissatisfaction, melancholy, and despair follow, when human flourishing becomes disconnected from some kind of self-transcendence. The solitary self is a poor repository for ultimate meaning.

via 9781587432989.jpg (JPEG Image, 1050×1623 pixels) – Scaled (38%).

Memento Mori

Pointing to Good Friday-- And Beyond

The balance that religion can give, if we’re doing our job, is to remind this culture of what we frantically deny: limits, diminishment, and death. The authentic prophetic voice is not a voice of doom, but a voice of truth. Any memento mori is prophetic because it is true.

Those of us following Jesus will speak a further truth: that death is not the end. However, the good news of Easter is gibberish if we can’t even acknowledge the preceding Friday. A robust Christianity is unflinchingly realistic about death. There is no abundant life in worshiping perpetual youth; nothing truthful in avoiding the transformations from which none are exempt.

A robust Christianity also understands the cost of a hope worthy of our trust. A trustworthy hope cannot be hope in our own powers, because our own powers will fail; by faith, we trust a God whom we cannot see, and the cost of such trust is giving up the comfortable illusion of control.

None of this is easy. Every day, though, we get another crack at it.

via Kyle Whelliston’s Notebook.