Unfurling Life


Virginia Woolf once referred to the “infinite possibilities… furled” within a human life.

It takes an act of the moral imagination to recall those infinite possibilities within other people– especially when we consider people who are very different from us, or who might be our enemies, or whom we might fear. Sometimes it’s the people closest to us, whose infinite possibilities we forget: familiarity effaces mystery. The unfurling of another is beyond our control, so our desire for mastery is  frustrated by the uncontainable emergence of life; the unfurling of our very own selves also can be profoundly unsettling.

Stephanie Paulsell was discussing the Song of Songs with other scholars and students at Harvard, when the Marathon bombing occurred. She remarks how the careful attention to beautiful and sacred scripture (it just as easily could have been careful attention to art, or nature) is the precise opposite of setting off a bomb amidst strangers. Indiscriminate violence kills presently; it also kills that which is poised to emerge. On the other hand, carefully attending to what is beautiful and sacred is the way to discover and to upraise  the possibilities enfolded within. Loving attention is another name for hope.

To bomb anything is the signature of some spectacular human failure– somewhere and somehow– in the unfolding of God’s purpose for the world. While it may be that, in a fallen world and within strict constraints, limited violence is justified to prevent an even graver evil– still, to destroy represents a failure. Every human life contains “infinite possibilities” furled within.

Here is Stephanie Paulsell in The Christian Century:

When I remember the bombings, I hope I will recall, alongside the terrible losses and the heroic actions, the quiet work of love I was privileged to witness that day: a group of human beings holding in their collective hands a poem rendered sacred by centuries of study and debate, prayer and argument, hope and longing. I hope I will remember the close, careful attention of those readers who cherished not only what was shining on the surface of the Song but also what was hidden from our eyes. And I hope I remember to pass on to my students not only the skills they need to do such work but the conviction that reverent attention to all that is furled within a text, within the world, within the life of another human being is holy, life-saving work.


The Long and Sober View

Religion in the Balance aims to comment on our world, taking a long view: in the words of James Hunter, looking at the “climate” (trends over time) rather than the “weather” (what’s happening now). For our culture of instant gratification, short memory, and pain-avoidance, the long view brings a needed “yin” to the culture’s dominant “yang.”

The other balancing we seek, is to counter-weight our culture’s dominant rosy view of human nature and that rosy view’s relatives, such as limitless progress (more is more!) and American exceptionalism (the tragedy of history stops here!). On the question of human nature, we acknowledge and embrace limitation, humility, and finitude– the ultimate expression of which is the memento mori, the remembering that we will die. No conception of the good life (individually, communally, or societally) can be unfettered from this sober recognition of our contingency.

It was from this perspective, then, that I was happy to read the following reminder in a recent issue of The Christian Century:

This much the church should make clear about any election: it is about fallible people choosing between fallible candidates in an electoral process that is deeply flawed.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t vote. It does mean, however, that we shouldn’t act as though political power is ultimate power.

Beyond in Our Midst– A Witness

God’s City– Beyond, in the Midst

In a recent Christian Century article, author Benjamin Stewart mentions the group “Ashes to Go.” On Ash Wednesday, these clergy leave church in order to offer people the imposition of ashes– on street corners, in parking lots, and at bus stops. As the article states, they take “liturgy to the streets.”

We live in a world of reductionism. Exceptions exist for all of these examples, but reductionism pinches much of what dignifies human existence: value is reduced to economics; beauty is reduced to attractiveness; goodness is reduced to taste (“that’s good” = “I like that”); truth is reduced to subjectivity (“my” truth); life is reduced to consumption; the good life is reduced to financial success; education is reduced to career training; freedom is reduced to personal license; the Cross is reduced to a “Get Out of Hell Free” card; the Transcendent One of the Older and Newer Testaments is reduced to the cult god of American dominance.

Contemporary American society tends toward the narrow and the flat.

A Christian witness– outside of the church and in the world– witnesses to a different worldview; or, to change the metaphor, traces the shape of a different architecture to the universe: instead of narrow and flat, we see through the surface to a depth, width, and height that is beyond, even as it is here and now. Ritual action (like good art) can open up and orient us to the depth dimension of life. Ritual action (again, like good art) can also expose the tendency of reductionism to collapse the world into a single system.

An excerpt from Stewart’s Christian Century article follows:

It is perhaps this same impulse that emboldens participants in the “Ashes to Go” movement to shrug off the risk of the police and head into city streets to offer to press ashes onto the foreheads of strangers on Ash Wednesday and to speak the ancient words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

A participant in such a liturgy in New York City, Mark Genszler, described the “wash of relief” that flowed over the faces of those who received ashes—a response he found partly surprising, as he had just told them that in addition to speeding toward the next subway stop they were more certainly traveling into death. But, he reflected, “if you share the secret of your mortality with someone else—even, or especially, a stranger—then you don’t have to pretend that you’re invincible.” The hidden vulnerability becomes at least momentarily public and honored as a holy mystery. And in any case, Genszler said, a shared burden may be lighter.

via Worship without walls: Taking liturgy to the streets | The Christian Century.

Havel on Hope

Vaclav Havel

This is a found item that stands on its own. To distinguish hope from optimism is to distinguishing Christian realism from all banal naivetes, religious or otherwise. There is no reason whatsoever to be optimistic; there is every reason– in the world and beyond– to be hopeful. (From “Pro Ecclesia,” reprinted in “The Christian Century”):

The late Václav Havel… differentiated between hope and optimism. Hope, he said, “is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, and orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. . . . It is an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. . . . [Hope] is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

via Search | The Christian Century.

The Co-option of Christmas

Advent is coming, a beautiful season of reflection and preparation in the Christian liturgical calendar. In our time, however, a new religion is ascending. This new religion takes the old religion and appropriates its holy days for itself, subtly replacing new gods for the old. Instead of the first Sunday in Advent, we are about to have Black Friday. Those observing the latter will far outnumber those observing the former.

And you and I: we can’t have both– not all the way, not to our core. Black Friday and the first Sunday in Advent don’t go together. They are antithetical. To proclaim “shop and spend” is not reconcilable with “prepare ye the way of the Lord.” There may have been a time when our commercial life served our deeper commitment to the God of Love revealed in Jesus Christ, but that time is gone. Now, our lukewarm religious pablum serves our deeper commitment to the gods of ego, of money, of consumption.

It’s not Christmas we celebrate, but a material wealth unprecedented in the history of the world. Glory be to us in the highest.

The less we notice the substitution of the new gods for the old, the more nearly perfect is the co-option. For those few of us for whom following Jesus (or following another authentic spiritual path) is a matter of life, our job is to remember what the new religion would have us forget: that God is God, and we’re not.

(The following is an excerpt and a link to a reflection on the gospel reading for the first Sunday in Advent):

The disconnect between church and secular calendars may never be greater than on the first Sunday in Advent. The irony is that both ostensibly share the same goal: preparing the world for Christmas.

The commercial world is using every medium possible to hawk its urgent message. Our mailboxes, newspapers, television and radio stations, e-mail in-boxes and web pages overflow with one unanimous appeal: buy gifts now. Buy the gifts that your friends or your loved ones need or want. Buy gifts because you are expected to do so and to prove you love your family, admire your boss, appreciate your colleagues, are sensitive to your in-laws, generous toward your employees, and respect your children’s teachers. Buy to show your patriotism. I am no economist, but I suspect that the urgency of the commercial message is in inverse proportion to the health of the market.

It always feels like a lost cause for the church to try to compete with the sheer volume of advertising—especially on the first Sunday of Advent. The eschatological message of the gospel strikes a dark and utterly dissonant chord: “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory” (Matt. 13:24–25). It’s a hard sell when the malls are filled with “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Here Comes Santa Claus….”

via Lectionary column for Sunday, November 27, 2011 | The Christian Century.