Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Thomas More's Utopia

The current tenor of politics has given rise to dystopian analogies. As in Handmaid’s Tale, fundamentalist Christians and the state are coercing women to carry unwanted pregnancies in a growing number of states. With similar reasons for the burning of books in Fahrenheit 451, print media is ridiculed as fake news. Like the animals in Animal Farm, all citizens are equal, but some citizens are more equal than others, especially corporations and the very rich. As in 1984, “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”

So how refreshing by contrast for me to happen onto Sir/St. Thomas More’s utopian fantasy at a yard sale last week, appropriately entitled Utopia. I had read excerpts in my Norton Anthology in college but had never held a full copy in my hands. I treated this 1947 version as if it were the original sacred Latin text from 1516. I resisted my usual underlining and markings in pen and used a less permanent and less damaging pencil instead.

OMG, a few holier-than-thou folk might say, you’re reading another “dead white man,” adding, didn’t you hear about that recent hullabaloo about how harsh More was in the trials of heretics?! Well, as I’ve written before, saints are not perfect people who always got everything right, even as he has been revered as A Man for All Seasons. He got many things right, such as educating his daughters, a counter-cultural move, and, refusing to recognize the king as head of the church (an example we sorely need today), for which he was martyred in 1535 and sainted 400 years later.

In her Introduction to my newly-acquired-for-one-dollar version, Mildred Campbell makes some observations about the times of More’s writing of Utopia that sound familiar:

An expanding economy had many benefits to bestow, but, as More was aware, not all of its effects were beneficial; nor did everyone share in its bounty. … The malpractice in currency manipulation that kings and their ministers indulged in and an increased demand for goods of all kinds were producing an upswing in prices that eventually brought ruinous dislocations to the social and economic systems of nearly every country in Europe. …

It was a period of growing competition… It put a premium on individual initiative and aggressiveness; riches increasingly became the measure of achievement. It was this spirit of competition and materialism that More deplored as much as he grieved over the suffering of those who fell victim to it.

Thomas More carefully put descriptions of Utopia (which means “nowhere”) in the mouth of a fictional mariner, Raphael Hythloday (whose first name comes from the Hebrew for “God has healed” and whose last name comes from Greek words meaning “a skilled conveyer of trifles or nonsense”). In their conversation, More defends private property, as would be expected of an English nobleman, but it is also clear that Hythloday serves as his alter-ego, a representation of his serious bent as a Christian humanist, which Campbell describes as a “fusion of Christian faith with the pagan belief in reason and virtue.” She adds, “It formed a basis for the religion that More gave to the Utopians, a kind of humanitarian deism which abhorred religious intolerance.”

Next week’s post will describe the religion of the Utopians, but this week I lift quotes about their economy with contemporary relevancy from a 1949 translation from the Latin by H. S. V. Ogden, the version used in the Norton Anthology:

But in Utopia where there is no private property and where they zealously pursue the public business, there the name commonwealth is doubly deserved. … In Utopia where everything belongs to everybody, they know that if the public warehouses and granaries are full, no one will lack anything for his personal use. Among them there is no maldistribution of goods. …

Comparing Utopia to other nations, More’s fictional character asks,

What justice is there in this, that a nobleman, a banker, a money lender, or some other man who does nothing at all for a living or does something that is of no use to the public, lives a sumptuous and elegant life? In the meantime a servant, a driver, a blacksmith, or a farmer works as hard as a beast at labor so necessary that the commonwealth could not last a year without it. …

Is not a government unjust and ungrateful that squanders rich rewards on noblemen (as they are called), bankers, and others that do not work but live only by flattery or by catering to useless pleasures? And is it just for a government to ignore the welfare of farmers, charcoal burners, servants, drivers, and blacksmiths, without whom the commonwealth could not exist at all? …

Furthermore the rich constantly try to whittle away something from the pitiful wages of the poor by private fraud and even by public laws. To pay so little to men who deserve the best from the state is in itself unjust, yet it is made “just” legally by passing a law.

So when I weigh in my mind all the other states which flourish today, so help me God, I can discover nothing but a conspiracy of the rich, who pursue their own aggrandizement under the name and title of the Commonwealth. They devise ways and means to keep safely what they have unjustly acquired, and to buy up the toil and labor of the poor as cheaply as possible and oppress them. …

And yet they are far short of the happiness of the Utopians, who have abolished the use of money, and with it greed. What evils they avoid! What a multitude of crimes they prevent! … Fear, anxiety, worry, care, toil, and sleepless nights would disappear at the same time as money! …

Certainly rich men know this. They also know that it would be more practicable to provide the necessities of life for everyone than to supply superfluities for a few, and much better to eradicate our innumerable evils than to be burdened with great concentrations of wealth.

If that one monster, pride, the first and foremost of all evils, did not forbid it, the whole world would doubtless have adopted the laws of the Utopians long before this, drawn on by a rational perception of what each man’s true interest is, or else by the authority of Christ our Saviour, who in His great wisdom knows what is best and in His loving-kindness bids us do it. Pride measures [its] prosperity not by [its] own goods but by others’ wants.

When Raphael Hythloday finishes his tale of Utopia, Thomas More explains to the reader that he was constrained from questioning Utopia’s values and practices because “I remembered that [Hythloday] had spoken ill of certain men who feared they would not be thought wise unless they could find something to criticize in other men’s opinions.”

Though More says he can’t agree with everything described, he concludes, “Yet I must confess that there are things in the Utopian Commonwealth that I wish rather than expect to see followed among our citizens.”

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Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Near Death Experiences

Morris Chapel, Oaktown, Indiana, where Wade's mom was baptized at three months of age.
Yes, that's a cornfield on the left.

I have put off writing this post for several weeks, using the excuse of describing my workshop on self-care and then explaining my guilty pleasure watching old episodes of Frasier and Murder, She Wrote and finally, using photos of signs I’ve taken in recent years.

But this picks up where I left off with “A Mother’s Work Is Never Done” about my mother-in-law’s death. I had thought to save you any more reflections on death, lest you roll your eyes or click “delete” or find something more pleasant on the internet. But, like death itself, writing about it is inescapable.

I wrote a whole book about death, The Final Deadline: What Death Has Taught Me about Life, describing many experiences finding myself in proximity to someone’s death, so you might think I’d be used to death by now. But, while more experienced, I still am at a loss when someone dies, especially as I come closer to my own final passing or “transitioning,” as a hospice worker referred to dying.

As I write this, I look out at our backyard lawn dying from prolonged lack of rain and unrelenting summer heat despite my best efforts at watering. At least it can look forward to being aerated and reseeded this fall when cooler temperatures prevail.

I am interrupted by Wade explaining he’s taking his mom’s Christmas ornaments to our nearby Habitat for Humanity ReStore, and my mood lightens as the question crosses my mind if that’s where I’ll end up!  ( ;  

When we talked about afterlife, a neighbor who looks every bit the part of a Hindu sage with long greying dark hair and beard and flowing attire and sandals, suggested humbly that expecting life to be eternal is “a bit greedy, don’t you think?” His comment made me smile appreciatively. Maybe this desire for everlasting life is simply a reflection of our acquisitive, self-indulgent culture.

In my book I wrote that belief in an afterlife is more important for me when it comes to other people I care about, especially those whose lives have been cut short or ended before fulfilling their life dreams.

In seminary I read an essay that explained early Christians weren’t thinking of life that extended forever, but rather, life that has eternal significance and thus, an eternal “view,” perspective, and effect. Earlier, in college, I became enamored of process theology, in which we live on eternally in God’s memory. This hardly seems satisfactory to those of generations past who spent their lives enslaved, marginalized, or closeted or of their descendants who become the victims of violence.

Nearer to home, I wondered what life would be like without Wade or he without me, the more likely scenario.

Wade and I spent a week in Indiana that included another memorial service for his mom and scattering of her ashes in their hometown of Oaktown. We spent part of our time finding and visiting and, in two cases, adorning the graves of his relatives.

Cemetery next to the chapel.

That’s also how I spent part of my May visit to California, but this time, not just visiting graves of my relatives, but finding and visiting the graves of two friends.  One died as a child when I was a child after initially surviving one of the earliest open-heart surgeries. The other became one of my best friends in high school and later in college after the untimely death of his nineteen-year-old brother. I discovered to my surprise that the latter friend, who died in 2009, is buried in the same grave as his brother, and has no marker of his own.

I thought of my maternal grandfather, who lived to be 95, wryly saying to me on a cemetery visit, “When you get to be my age, you have to come here to visit some of your friends.”

I also visited the grave of a friend’s brother. A promising songwriter, his life was cut short by gun violence at 29. On his grave marker are these words:

Always documenting my discoveries through music…
The music is a part of me that I received from God.
I acted as an instrument and God as the musician.
For many years I was lost…
looking the wrong way for the wrong things.
“The end justifies the means”—No, I don’t think so.
It is the journey, not the destination that is vital.

Life is meant as a gift to enjoy,
to experience, to give and to receive.
The simplest, smallest gestures can be of greatest essence.
So don’t hold back. Make life whole and complete.
Seek not material things but fulfillment of the soul and spirit.

A reminder that "God Loves Us."

Here is the Amazon link to my book: The Final Deadline

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Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Signs of the Times, Ominous and Hopeful

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Wednesday, September 4, 2019

The Gospel According to Jessica Fletcher and Frasier Crane

Okay, I’ve written enough heavy posts in recent weeks to warrant one that’s just for fun. I mentioned in passing in last week’s entry that one of my self-care habits is watching old episodes of Murder, She Wrote and Frasier.

First, both TV programs overlapped my move from Los Angeles to Atlanta, so they gave me continuity. And I shared Murder, She Wrote with Mom and Frasier with both Mom and my brother, more continuity. (This may make you nostalgic for the days when we all watched the same programs on the same day at the same time and thus could  talk about them the next day!)

Both helped me survive the death of my mom, followed by the death of what had promised to be a lifelong relationship, followed by the death of Open Hands magazine, whose editorship accounted for about half my income.

I know you’re thinking, where’s the lighter part of this post?

At the time, Murder, She Wrote episodes aired twice in the morning and twice in the late afternoon. I would only allow myself one episode per day, given my work ethic! But escaping to the homely and picturesque Cabot Cove, Maine, and hanging out with both a writer and a motherly figure (pardon me, Angela Lansbury) trying to solve a mystery was just the escape I needed. I preferred the episodes in her hometown to the ones on location or in New York City. (Of course I noted the scenes filmed in my home state of California, which I missed.)

What I subsequently discovered is that many clergy LOVE crime dramas, maybe because the solution to a life’s mystery can be discovered within an hour, whereas most life mysteries require a lifetime to solve, if then.

Plus, watching the show encouraged my own new project, writing a mystery novel and spoof about a “spiritual profiler” named John Boswell, not to be confused (wink) with that medieval history professor at Yale. Every afternoon I would escape to my fictional town of Crowbar, Mississippi (the prototype of which I discovered on a solo road trip) where Boswell interviewed, one by one, selective citizens of the town to determine who murdered the pastor of Primitive Presbyterian, Angus MacDonald. Originally I called it A Presbyterian Murder, but later renamed it Angus Dei.

In his sometimes stodgy first person narrative, the Roman Catholic Boswell describes how he realized his gift of spiritual profiling:

As I look back, my adulthood prescience of the spiritual dimensions of traffic accidents should have intimated to me the possibility of applying my gifts to crime scenes. One traffic accident I happened onto, for example, I sensed, came from one driver’s inability to forgive the trespass of another, and that first driver’s insistence on his right-of-way brought them together in death, though never meeting in life, giving a spiritual if not ecumenical twist on the traffic instruction, otherwise ignored, to “merge.” And another: A one-way street seemed to confirm the theology of one driver, only to run into a universalist going in the other direction. Unbelievably, only their theologies were badly shaken. And you can imagine the multiple car pile-up when a fundamentalist refused to “yield.”

Back-to-back Frasier reruns came on twice in the evening between 6 and 7, my dinner hour. And since I was now eating dinner alone (though my dog Calvin was mindfully aware of any dropped or leftover food), far from family, the ensemble cast of characters became a kind of substitute family. And it was a non-traditional family, and the stories were often about love sought and found and lost, with the “loser” always able to return to the bosom of the extended family. Of course, there were some hilariously gay episodes, my favorite, and plenty of gay sensibility humor in others, which got the series written up in a New York Times article lauding subtle gay themes and jokes in otherwise mainstream sitcoms!

The truth is, Frasier can still make me laugh out loud! So when I need a laugh, I watch an episode on Netflix or Cozi TV, the latter of which also runs Murder, She Wrote.

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Copyright © 2019 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.