Theology

A New Story

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On a November morning, the sunrise can be spectacular, arousing a sense of awe.  It’s rare to take in the beauty of the natural world and the environment designed and built by humans from the same vantage point.  City dwellers may still enjoy seeing natural beauty during the day, but the bright lights have masked the visible stars of the night sky.  Those living in less populated areas may still have that advantage.

A recent exhibit, Anthropocene, on display at both the National Gallery of Canada and the Art Gallery of Ontario, highlights what we humans have done to plunder and devastate our natural environment. This show is not the first to focus on this tragedy. More than thirty years ago, a Roman Catholic priest and cultural historian, Thomas Berry, expressed a need for a new story expanding on the one we find in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis.  He reminds us that earlier theologians like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas placed equal importance on learning from the Book of Nature.  What scientists now know about cosmology – the origin and nature of the universe - is astounding.

 Berry inspired colleagues to present this story in an award-winning film called Journey of the Universe. Since its release in 2014, the film and accompanying book have caused responses from a variety of Christian communities supporting Berry’s argument of the need for reassessment. This challenge is both complicated and contentious.  When Copernicus discovered that we were not the centre of the universe, his news was not well received. Nor were Darwin’s findings. Science has discovered that our milky way is only one among billions of galaxies.  The writers of the early books of the Bible had a lesser sense of history and it was limited to a very small part of planet earth.

 Journey and the first Genesis story share common elements.  Both start in darkness.  Light emerges, then water, then earth, then plants, then birds and animals and finally human beings.  In the Genesis story, creation is complete and humans become the focus of history.   In Journey, creation evolves in stages through billions of years and continues to do so.

 At the recent consecration of our new bishop in the Diocese of Toronto, we acknowledged that we are settlers.  What we celebrate less is indigenous peoples’ reverence for the earth - they see themselves as subjects alongside animals, vegetation and stars.  In contrast, we live in a world where anything other than ourselves is viewed as an object for our use and exploitation. The last 65 billion years of the Cenozoic geological period were the earth’s most creative and flourishing.  But in the last four hundred years we’ve managed to reverse the process of creative evolution - eliminating forests and species, polluting rivers and oceans, and robbing the earth of its resources.  And even as we put humans at the centre, we are selective about which humans, preferring those nearest and dearest and most like ourselves.

 Putting humans at the centre has a history and takes us back through 19th and 20th century industrialism and the earlier writings of Newton and Descartes, who proclaimed that everything that was not human was merely matter.  But we can also go further back to the two biblical creation stories, noting that the redemption story, where the world is dangerous and tempting, has prevailed over the creation account.  Within this context, we have taken the directive to have dominion over the earth and turned it into domination.

 People of faith now have an opportunity to learn.  Thomas Berry proposed more than 15 years ago that Christian and other religious communities can join with modern science communities to become part of a new Ecozoic era, where we return to intimacy with the earth and our place in the universe. When the earth itself becomes sacred to us, we recover both a sense of our miniscule presence as individuals – and at the same time, our sacred responsibility for it, owing to our gift of human consciousness.  It means rethinking the frameworks of theology and its implications - for liturgies, formation, stewardship, laws, governance, and for the challenges of our time – climate change, technology and the threat of annihilation by nuclear war. Meanwhile we have obsessed about gender and sexuality – not expressing with gratitude the wonder of the cosmos and our proper place in it.

 The first step is awareness.  Go to see Anthropocene.  Watch Journey of the Universe on YouTube.  Visit the associated websites: www.journeyoftheuniverse.org and

  www.theanthropocene.org. .  You will experience the universe and our small planet in new ways. These are first steps that may lead to increased understanding and commitment.

 

 

A New Sense of Place

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How do we situate ourselves?  Where are you from, we ask?  Where are we going? Where is our world going, we ask even more in the midst of political turmoil, war and environmental destruction? How do traditional powers and patterns of continuity collide with cultural changes of all kinds?

Thomas Berry (1914-2009) Photo by Lou Niznik 10–6–1999

Thomas Berry (1914-2009)
Photo by Lou Niznik 10–6–1999

Academic institutions used to provide forums for such questions and some still do. It’s interesting to review the life of religious and cultural historian Thomas Berry, who taught at Fordham University and later founded the Riverdale Centre which used to present lecture series twice in the academic year and workshops in the summer. Now his ideas and practice is now conveyed several years after his death though film, books websites with rich resources well as online courses and social media.  The ideas haven’t lost the relevance that first came to light in the seventies of the previous century.

 Starting from his own religion and culture, Berry studied others searched to find their wisdom and points of comparison.  This big picture thinking inevitably led him to focus on the earth itself as our common home and develop new questions with a new framing based on all the disciplines that were involved. These were not just religion also but geology anthropology, archaeology, biology, paleontology, and astronomy,   We live in the world where all these play a role. Their combined role in industrial development and technology became a subject of concern for Berry as well as the lack of response to them of religion.  Two world wars and subsequent ones were part of his life experience too. Most of us, in contrast, have specialized knowledge and lack a broader understanding of these multiple fields. One place to start to remedy our shortcoming is this resource for kids to learn some basics of “ologies”

Did the teachings of the world’s religions have anything to say to these scientific fields of knowledge?  Did religions themselves need to get to know one another better as well as well as examining new developments and discoveries from their own perspectives? 

The environment I where grew up in the thirties and forties was a comforting but basically limited world of a street, a neighborhood, a city, a province and a country. It reminds me of a scene in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town a play where the dramatist ponders life and mortality in a scene where a young girl meditates on this fact even more widely.

REBECCA: 
I never told you about that letter Jane Crofut got from her minister when she was sick. He wrote Jane a letter and on the envelope the address was like this: It said: Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farm; Grover's Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America. 

GEORGE: 
What's funny about that? 

REBECCA: 
But listen, it's not finished: the United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God--that's what it said on the envelope. 

GEORGE: 
What do you know! 
REBECCA: 
And the postman brought it just the same. 
GEORGE: 
What do you know!

Now my family and I travel and communicate in a world more like the second part of the letter whether we go the entire distance or not. But I still start from the ideas of my original spiritual background, cosmology, music, literature, painting, sculpture and dance. I now encounter those of others - including my own family’s digital natives’ world on an equally superficial and introductory level at the start. How am I going to go beyond that? More on that soon.

It is Like That . . .

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Be careful how you interpret the world.  It is like that.
— Erich Heller

My laptop is back.  I had noticed it was behaving strangely and taking forever to boot up in the morning, but last week it failed.  I headed off for GeekSquad which had sold me the unit two years ago.    Because I maintain a couple of websites, I stressed the urgency of a repair and went home to wait. I had saved all my documents on USB sticks and the updates were recent.

If you have any doubts about your addictions, take away your devices for a few days. “Left to my own devices” had a whole new meaning and made me ponder my interpretation of the world and what was currently in it.  Here was some of it – readings for a couple of discussion groups, daily piano practice (I’m back doing this after resuming lessons), exercises to remedy a problem with the sciatic nerve, finishing reading a novel, cleaning the apartment, needing to do the laundry, grocery shopping.  These might be seen as a reasonable workload for an 82 year old.

But they weren’t.  I was obsessed with the absence of the laptop.  Where was the more sombre view of what was happening in the US as documented in the New York Times online?  What did I owe the accountant for my taxes – since the invoice now came electronically?  What were they saying on Washington Week?  This might seem obsessively American.  I live in Canada.  I had access to mail on a tablet and a phone.  But I felt as though someone had removed part of my brain and it was in the shop. Where were the 20 or 30 newsletters that came through Unroll,me?

Thus, I was ready for of all things – theology.  A book, Life Abundant, was buried on a shelf but I hadn’t looked at it for years.  I met the author at a west coast retreat centre some years ago and told her I had just bought her book. “Which one?” she asked, and on hearing the title, she responded, “I’m so glad.  I’ve been writing the same book 14 times so far and this is the best version yet”.  Amazon tells me that there are later ones, but this one is more than sufficient.

The book’s subtitle is Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril. Sallie McFague taught at Vanderbilt Theology School for more than 30 years and is now based at Vancouver School of Theology where she is still teaching and conducting research.  She starts this book by explaining that she has spent many years teaching religious autobiography, but when challenged, realized that she had never written her own.  It’s a reminder that we all have one – whether we are part of a denomination, or agnostic or atheist. The last thing we generally have time for thought as to what it is.

During re-reading, I was giving myself brownie points that reflection was the most frequent tag on my blog posts, but theology is more than that.  I’m generally optimistic and see life more as a comedy than a tragedy.  These days it’s more like a farce with a reality show leader keeping us all glued for the latest episode where we couldn’t make this stuff up.  We are amused and appalled.  But what does it say about us?  I’m so busy being a spectator of this soap opera that I don’t need to reflect on my own life – and the fact that I’ve got to be further along on the downward slope than I want to be.

The laptop is back.  The hard drive has been replaced and so has a new version of MS Office with an amazing number of new distractions.  I have been surprised at how quickly I am up and running.  Press a button on the modem – and we’re back on line. Bring back the mail services. Check. Bookmark all the frequently visited sites. Check.  Bring back all the saved files. Check. Anything missing?  Personal photos weren’t among the saved files.  I’ve just obliterated a major part of two decades.  Still I later found many of them on a stick.  But the lack of care about what really matters has hit home.

So what is this theology stuff?  McFague says it is “words about God” but refreshingly she reminds us that it is about an interpretation of the world as we see it.  Any theology is going to involve three C’s – context, content and criteria.  That’s going to keep us busy for a bit.

Context reminds us that the documents of any faith are written in a particular time in history. These reflect the interpretation of the writers based on their own understanding of the universe in which they dwell.  The reflections will be of necessity partial and relative to the context. For this reason. McFague says that any theology needs an adjective in front of it to clarify the group espousing it.  The adjective in front of “Christian” for example, might be “liberation, feminist, fundamentalist, progressive – or a name of hundreds of denominations with different emphases and views.  The speaker matters.

Content depends on experience – but again McFague notes that experience is the channel and the means that it comes through – not the content itself.  Something comes into our life as a revelation or an insight that concerns the relationship of a god or creator that is of such importance that it affects our orientation to the world and our behavior.  It’s not religious experience so much as ordinary experience.

The big question then becomes - who is our neighbour.  I asked this question in a discussion group in my parish church last week.  The answers were what I expected – the person who lived down the block or in the apartment next door – whose name we might not know.  But as I look out my window from a high floor, I can observe a barrier around a tree that is going to be removed to accommodate reconstruction of a water reservoir.  I live in a large metropolitan North American city.  Are my neighbours people of colour? People who live in the third world? People of other faiths? Other creatures? Oceans? A tree?

Our world contains questions that are more than we can ask or imagine.  We have to explore further.   The criteria will have to wait for a later post.