Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Banning Goldfish Bowls

Not long ago the city of Monza, Italy, banned the use of traditional goldfish bowls because their curved sides obscured a fish’s take on reality.

Makes me wonder, what next? Churches, with their stained glass windows? Theaters, with their only “window” being a stage? Possibly observatories and laboratories, with their high-powered lenses? All of these could be said to offer a distorted view of reality!

In their recent book, The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow use this curious anecdote as a beginning point to contemplate whether any of us have an accurate view of reality. We all may be looking through a curved lens, so to speak.

But, they add, a goldfish could still accurately predict movements outside their sphere, and that’s part of the scientific quest. They later explain that our brains are continually modeling the outside world, despite a hole (and therefore blind spot) where the optic nerve is attached in the middle of each retina, which emit pixelated messages that our brain constructs into a three-dimensional whole.

The field of vision is one place where the academic quest of deconstruction would not be helpful to understand the whole! Notice the breadth of possibility in this metaphor.

Last night I watched again The Fountainhead, based on Ayn Rand’s novel. My interest in its philosophical take on the world has been piqued by American legislators and business leaders who share Ayn Rand’s views on the individual, the absurdity of self-sacrifice, the absoluteness of the self.

I “get” the need to do one’s work, no matter the consequences. I’ve tried to do that my whole life. That’s what keeps me focused on my writing. But I extend that first sentence by adding, “no matter the consequences to me.” I am constantly aware of the consequences for others, because a writer usually has readers in mind.  I care about readers, what words may inspire, challenge, and provoke. And, as a minister, I am keen on helping rather than hindering others on their spiritual paths, trying to discern what’s true, good, and beautiful. I’ve been blessed by readers, editors, copyeditors, and publishers who help me in that process.

The Fountainhead depicts an architect who does not want his work compromised. Admirable, in a way. But then, who is he building for? Will his structure take into account the humans who will inhabit it? And how does he know that without consultation, both with them and with other architects? Collaboration is key.

But then, that’s the “collectivism” the character deplores.

Last night I also watched the final episode of The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin’s accomplished depiction of cable news. In this last season, the news network has been acquired by a young high tech mogul intent on increasing its revenue, viewership, and appeal to younger viewers. He does so by making every viewer a contributing “journalist” regardless of qualifications and without checks and balances for truth, privacy, and sensationalism, wreaking havoc.

This is the kind of collectivism I deplore.

During a “Big Chill” kind of weekend with former classmates, I learned that several were surprised I didn’t go into filmmaking. We had grown up together in L.A.; they knew I liked to take photos, make movies, and write. One told me he even watched movie credits looking for my name. I explained that, had my calling not been elsewhere, I would not have liked writing for Hollywood because everyone “in the industry” thinks they’re writers, and what’s on screen often bears little resemblance to the original.

As I reflect on my education, I wish I had been given more experience working in teams. What has helped make up that deficit is my vocation in the church and more broadly, the spiritual community. Spirituality is inherently collective, even for spiritual hermits, for all of us pray and write and care as one.  And we have the spiritual resources over the ages of the many who have gone before us.  That’s a core truth of spirituality: we are not alone, we are bound to one another. The apostle Paul thus depicted the Christian spiritual community as the Body of Christ.

That’s why I’m puzzled that some current aficionados of Ayn Rand claim a Christian identity. Rand was consistent in her individualism: being an atheist, she was not bound to a concept of spiritual relationship or community.

The more I read and the more I watch documentaries on the scientific quest, it’s clear we’ve gotten where we are because of collectivism in science as well. The recent PBS/BBC series, How We Got to Now, demonstrates this well.

To paraphrase Saint Paul, “For now we see through a goldfish bowl dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now we know only in part; then we will know fully, even as we have been fully known.”


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Please support this blog ministry by clicking here or mailing to MCC, P.O. Box 50488, Sarasota FL 34232 USA, designating “Progressive Christian Reflections” in the memo area of your check or money order. Thank you!

Progressive Christian Reflections is entirely supported by readers’ donations. It is an authorized Emerging Ministry of Metropolitan Community Churches, a denomination welcoming seekers as well as believers.

Copyright © 2014 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Tricked by Grace (My 200th Post!)

This is my 200th post on this blog, created in 2011 to encourage and enhance the spirituality of progressive Christians. Thanks to 500 subscribers and an additional 3000 monthly visitors from all over the world! And thanks to Metropolitan Community Churches for including it among the denomination’s Emerging Ministries in 2012.

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A few weeks ago I was reading one of Southern writer Flannery O’Connor’s last short stories, entitled “Revelation,” published posthumously in her collection All That Rises Must Converge. She takes the book’s title from Teilhard de Chardin, whose writings as both a scientist and a mystic she greatly admired.

The story is written from the perspective of an older woman who finds herself in a doctor’s waiting room, looking from person to person, engaging in small talk. Her judgmentalism is in high gear as she silently evaluates their appearance, their interactions and lack thereof, as well as sharing aloud the foibles of people in general with another woman. I was especially put off by her frequent use of the “n-word.”  In that brief story I saw the unabbreviated word more often than I have seen it in recent decades.

Needless to say, I too was frothing with judgment (of the protagonist) as the story came to a surprising twist. Without giving the story away, something happens that upsets her certainty about things, and later, watching the sun set, she has an unsettling vision of what was to come: all the people she routinely judged marching nonetheless toward heaven, “battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs.” The story continues: 
And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away. 
I cried with recognition. I was her. Flannery O’Connor tricked me, even as grace tricks us all. We think we will be saved by our many words—prayers, sermons, posts—or our many deeds—charitable, political, religious. But it’s grace that really saves us. 
In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah. 



Copyright © 2014 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. 

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Stand Your Ground: Ferguson, Washington, Jerusalem

Possibly not even residents of Ferguson, Missouri fully comprehend what’s happened there in recent months after the shooting death of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson.  Wilson was not indicted by a grand jury last week, prompting protests and rioting not only there, but in other cities, including my own, Atlanta, where black and white seem to work together better than in any city in which I’ve lived.

A CNN commentator complained about the extended “whine” of the Ferguson district attorney regarding initial reports by social media and the media in general, but I do think social media as well as the internet can enable a virtual lynch mob to form opinions without a full and accurate story, not to speak of due process. We love that when it topples despotic dictators, but we should be concerned when it may bias either a judicial outcome or public opinion, especially when sparking violence.

I have found it difficult to talk about these events even with people who share my political views, so strong are our opinions.

So I want to talk about the larger problem when it comes to conversation about this and all contentious issues. “Stand your ground” laws that permit use of violence to protect ourselves are simply outward signs of an inner, spiritual problem. “Standing up for yourself” has now become  “stand your ground” when it comes to any issue, as if the ground you’re standing on is first, yours, and second, high holy ground.

When I believe the ground belongs to me and mine, when I consider mine the high moral ground, or even worse, holy ground, there is little room for listening to the concerns of another. This could apply not only to our conversations about Ferguson, but also about Washington and Jerusalem and every other place of conflict.

Forgive me for once again citing NPR, but a recent study reveals that people fail to “hear” opposing views because they doubt their opponent is basing their opinion on positive motivations.

Adequate incentive is required to begin to see another’s perspective: in the study, a financial incentive did the trick! I believe a spiritual incentive could as well. As Jesus said, go the extra mile, turn the other cheek, give your cloak as well as your coat, love your enemies and pray for those who oppose you.

What also interferes is that we defensively fear the other is assigning negative motivations to us.

When you’re standing your ground, it’s hard to share, and find common ground.

I personally experienced this recently while discussing a New York Times article about police experts speculating if Officer Wilson could have performed his duties in such a way to create a different outcome. On ABC News Wilson unequivocally rejected that anything he might have done could have avoided the tragedy. Now, in our litigious and “gotcha” culture, I understand that self-doubt and uncertainty become indicators of guilt or malfeasance, but if I had done something that ended in someone’s death—no matter the circumstances—I would have been wracked with guilt and doubt, wondering what I could have done to avoid or prevent that.

But trying to tell this to a friend came across as minimizing Michael Brown’s bullying and threatening behavior and maligning Darren Wilson, which I did not intend.

Both Brown and Wilson could be said to “stand their ground.” Republicans and Democrats, Israelis and Palestinians do the same. And it begets either stalemate or tragedy.

The day I write this I felt encouraged by another Times story by Manny Fernandez and Brent McDonald about someone trying to bridge the gap in Ferguson. Lt. Jerry Lohr, who manages the security of the Ferguson police headquarters, wears no riot gear and carries no baton. He treats protestors like people, saying “please” and “thank you.”

“Allowing people to talk on a one-on-one level does a lot as far as building bridges,” he says. “They may not agree with what I’m doing, but now they at least know my name and my face. I’m human again. They realize that I’m a person. I’m not just a uniform. We have to bridge this gap. It’s not going to happen overnight. This is going to be a long-term relationship, a long-term commitment, that both sides are going to have to make.”

Preach it, brother!


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Please support this blog ministry by clicking here or mailing to MCC, P.O. Box 50488, Sarasota FL 34232 USA, designating “Progressive Christian Reflections” in the memo area of your check or money order. Thank you!

Progressive Christian Reflections is entirely supported by readers’ donations. It is an authorized Emerging Ministry of Metropolitan Community Churches, a denomination welcoming seekers as well as believers.

Copyright © 2014 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. 

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

When "the Least of These" Overwhelm

During Saturday’s opening online session of an Advent retreat I’m leading, someone asked what to do when “the least of these” are overwhelming in terms of kinds, conditions, and count.

Of course “the least of these” comes from this past Sunday’s Gospel reading from Matthew when those who tend to the stranger, the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned are welcomed into eternal life in the reign of Christ.

My response was that Jesus’ ethic of attending to the nearest neighbor could be a way to focus.  I thought but did not quote the Stephen Stills hit, “if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with,” advice borrowed from musician Billy Preston.

For example, the Samaritan proved “good” because he tended to the stripped, robbed, and beaten traveler along the road between Jericho and Jerusalem, while the priest and Levite passed by, perhaps on their way to the Temple. Ritual requirements of the time would have rendered them unclean and unable to enter the temple, given the man’s condition.

But most of us are not on our way to perform such solemn duties. Rather, we are picking up the kids or the dry cleaning or groceries for dinner. Unlike Jesus, we don’t live in a world expecting that the kingdom of God could break in before we get to Kroger’s. So we prioritize.

The questioner was lamenting that we are torn among many divergent needs in our communities. How do we handle that?

NPR recently reported a study indicating that people are more likely to give to a cause when it’s singular or limited. Feature a homeless person or an abused animal and donations pour in. But if you add “there are millions of people with no shelter” or “there are millions of animals mistreated,” donors are overwhelmed and feel their gift would make little difference, and give less or not at all.

From time to time I have felt guilty that I do not volunteer at a soup kitchen. I have had to remind myself that my blog and my books and my correspondence offer a bit of spiritual soup for readers’ souls, and given that it brings in very little money, I do most of what I do as a volunteer. It is my calling rather than a job.

I can’t do everything. Neither can you. But we can each do something.

Forget about the millions. Think about one neighbor. A Palestinian. An Israeli. A Syrian refugee. An Ebola patient. A wounded veteran. A violated woman. A transgender child. An undocumented immigrant. An elderly person. A youth with little hope. A homeless pet.

Then figure out how you can make that individual’s life a little better, either personally or through existing organizations. And for God’s sake, let’s all do what we can to influence public policy, the most extensive and inclusive way of helping “the least of these.”

This week I learned that the gay priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins was once asked how best to believe. A spiritually “sophisticated” response was anticipated, but Hopkins said only, “Give alms.”

Maybe a case of spiritual “practice makes perfect”?

Other research indicates that the same area of the brain is pleasured when we give as when we meditate or win the lottery. So, let’s feel good as well as believe by attending to a neighbor, nearby or across the globe. It’s a better bet than playing the lottery!


Related Post: Our Own Fiscal Cliffs

Who made ya, baby? Consider reading this post for American Thanksgiving tomorrow: The Making of You

Please support this blog ministry by clicking here or mail to MCC, P.O. Box 50488, Sarasota FL 34232 USA, designating “Progressive Christian Reflections” in the memo area of your check or money order. Thank you!

Progressive Christian Reflections is entirely supported by readers’ donations. It is an authorized Emerging Ministry of Metropolitan Community Churches, a denomination welcoming seekers as well as believers.

Copyright © 2014 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.