Things Fall Apart: Why We Think Everything’s Getting Worse

Most Americans, year after year, continue to think that the country is on the wrong track. The older you are (i.e, the more experienced you are, and the more of history you’ve seen), the more likely you are to think everything is falling apart. And it’s not just in America: worldwide, people tend to think things are getting worse. And it’s undeniable that the world is facing horrible problems: climate change, pollution, terrorism, income inequality, racism, sexism, etc., etc., etc.

Maybe you’ve noticed the same thing in your own life. I don’t mean to be depressing here… but how many times have you failed to change a habit, or break an addiction? How many of your jobs have fallen through? How many times have you had to move away from your home? How many pets have you lost? How many of your friendships and relationships have failed, or faded away in distance or time? How many people you’ve loved are gone forever?

Almost all of us have tragic answers to those questions. The things we love in our lives always end; the patterns we love endlessly unravel.

Detail from "Consternation", by Scott Grady, 1977. Thanks to Ali for this image.

Detail from “Consternation”, by Scott Grady, 1977. Thanks to Ali for this image.

In nature, things unravel, too. But there, something else is always raveling up to take its place. Trees die, but their tall standing snags — monuments to themselves — are colonized by armies of insects, fungi, and other critters, which in turn become feasts for woodpeckers and other animals. And when the snags finally fall, they become nurse logs for the next generation of trees, nourishing a richer, more diverse forest.

A tree’s death is a catastrophe, but it’s also what Tolkien called a eucatastrophe: a sort of deus ex machina, except that instead of a god swooping in from on high at the last minute to save everything, it’s a sudden unexpected change in fortune that’s consistent with the established framework of the milieu. It’s a miraculous redemption that arises inevitably from the world itself.

Oftentimes, a eucatastrophe is the result of the efforts of many, many individuals (humans, bugs, plants… doesn’t matter), each working for their own benefit or the benefit of their local community. Individually, each effort is barely noticeable, but when they’re added up, profound changes take place. Since these small efforts are self-directed, it can be extremely difficult to see what the final aggregate result will be, and whether it will, in the end, be good or bad.

Such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere. – Elrond, in the Fellowship of the Ring

So perhaps things look like they’re unraveling simply because we don’t have the complete picture. We as a species are young, and our vision is limited. We sometimes glimpse things that might happen, but for the most part, we only see the present and the past. It’s no wonder that most of what we see seems to be dying or dead.

The core of the problem, really, is that we can so rarely see patterns before they emerge. And so the world seems to be falling into disorder, and our lives seem to be full of endings, with precious few new beginnings.

It is an illusion, though. A new order is rising up, but we can’t see it. This is why eucatastrophes are surprising.

Detail from "Consternation", by Scott Grady, 1977. Thanks to Ali for this image.

Detail from “Consternation”, by Scott Grady, 1977. Thanks to Ali for this image.

Oftentimes we can see the re-raveling only in hindsight. Human history is littered with dire disasters and intractable problems: the ‘population bomb’, the end of oil, war, the nuclear holocaust, monarchy, illiteracy, slavery… But it’s an undeniable fact that most of these problems have gotten better over the last few hundred years. Not solved — not by a long shot; even one person enslaved is a terrible tragedy. But better. Most problems, like human rights violations and non-renewable energy, have been improved through long years of thankless toil. Many others, like slavery in the US, cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Some, like the falling rates of crime and warfare worldwide, have just been slowly eroding away, though no one really knows why. And a few, like the hegemonic Soviet Union, have ended in a completely unexpected eucatastrophe.

This happens in one’s own life as well. I’ve left behind friends in six different cities, lost three jobs, lost a marriage… Many of these changes left me wondering whether everything I’d worked and struggled for was gone forever. But of course, I made friends in the seventh city, scored that fourth job, and found a true soul partner. After 40+ years of life I’m finally starting to glimpse the larger tapestry sometimes. There are still problems and tragedies I struggle with, but someday — sooner, perhaps, than I can see — they will pass, too.

Seeing the Raveling

How can we get better at seeing patterns before they’re fully formed?

First, practice. Look for the raveling. Too often we focus only on what is going wrong, or what we fear will go wrong. This is instinctive. As embodied beings, it’s natural to be wary, to watch for danger. But take time to look for what is going right, or what might go right, and focus on that as well. The old saying is to hope for the best and prepare for the worst; and both parts of that are important.

Also, study history. Look at how eucatastrophes happened. Most people were surprised when the Soviet Union collapsed, when monarchies ended, and so on — but the writing was on the wall for decades. What writing is on the wall now?

Trust your gut. Your conscious mind has access to only a small part of your complete consciousness. Your subconscious is always looking for patterns, and usually sees the big changes coming. Meditation, and talking to guides, can help.

And finally, have some faith. One of the things I struggle with personally, as a Druid, is what Alison calls the ‘Problem of Justice’. Just as Christians wonder why God permits evil in the world, we who follow a nature-based spirituality wonder what is natural and what is unnatural, what is right and wrong, what is evil and what is good. When you see an oil spill or a huge parking lot and you feel a visceral revulsion or sorrow, your body is telling you that it is unnatural, wrong, evil — especially when compared with a forest or pristine river. But obviously humans are part of the natural world, and what we do is natural; so in a sense, an oil spill or parking lot is natural too. So why are we always tearing things down, causing mass extinctions, and fouling the waters? How can these things be “natural”, how can they be “good”?

And it’s not just humanity. When beavers flood a forest, felling and drowning dozens of trees, or when wolves disembowel an encroaching coyote and defecate around its body as a warning to the others, we have the same problem:

Many earth-centered spiritualities look to the relationships, patterns and laws of nature for insight into the ways we might live a just and ethical life — yet, within nature are myriad examples of suffering, destruction, violence, injustice, even cruelty and maliciousness… How should we respond to them? — Alison Leigh Lilly

The resolution of these paradoxes (both the Druid paradox and the Christian one) may, in part, lie in our limited human understanding. Maybe we just can’t yet see how the evils of the world will be woven into the larger pattern of beauty. In nature, always, there is a subtle, organic order at work. Problems turn out to be blessings; tragedies plant the seeds of triumphs. Even in truly awful situations — such as a forest fire — there is a hidden raveling. Underbrush is cleared out, soil is renewed, seeds are germinated, diversity is increased, and diseases are cleared away. Forests periodically burn as naturally as the cycle of the seasons. Maybe what we see today as injustice is part of a great invisible cycle.

It can be hard to have faith, to believe in rebirth, when all you can see is death. But something wonderful is being born, right now. Study, sit in silence, and wait, and you will see it.

Hummingbird on a snowy branch

Meditation: Animist Consecration

Last night my awesome wife Ali and I joined in a set of consecration ceremonies at our Unitarian Universalist church. Along with the Reverend’s UU blessing and our friend Chris’s Wiccan consecration, we demonstrated a Druid / Animist method of connecting with an object.

I say “connecting with” an object instead of “consecrating” because in our tradition, all things are sacred. We cannot imbue an object with holiness. It is already holy. What we can do is recognize the sacredness of the object, and enter into relationship with it (or deepen our existing relationship). We do this by sitting with the object, touching it, and listening for its voice in the Song of the World.

I wrote a meditation to guide this process, and it seemed to go well, so here it is in full:

Animist Consecration Meditation

Sit and relax. Take a deep breath… and release. As you breathe out, let all your tension melt away. Relax your shoulders, relax your neck, relax your eyes. Take another deep breath… and release. Imagine that a wave of warm golden light is slowly rising in your body, starting in your feet, rising up through your legs, up into your torso. The warm golden light fills your body, down your arms and into your fingers, up to the top of your head… Let your body sink, growing heavier. Your arms and legs have become heavy and settle comfortably.

Now turn your attention gently to the object in your hands. Feel its weight there. Imagine that, like your body, it is becoming heavier. Feeling its weight and heft pressing in your hands helps you relax further. … Feel its texture. Is it hard? Soft? Smooth? How does it respond when you apply gentle pressure? … Feel the temperature of the object in your hands. Perhaps it has responded to the warmth of your body, becoming warmer as you’ve been holding it.

Think about history of the object. Where did it come from? How did it come into this room? How did it come into your possession? Do you know who else has held this object, if anyone else ever has? Was it crafted by a person, or by a machine, or is it completely natural? How long ago was it made? Where did the materials of the object come from? From an animal? A plant? If so, what do you know about those living beings, and the lives they led? Did they live nearby, experiencing the same summers and winters and rains as ourselves? Or did they live far away, in a distant land, under different stars? Has it been under the sea? Did it come from the earth, crafted from stone or crystal, formed millions of years ago?

Imagine what it must have been like to experience the history of this object — from the time of its making down to the present day. Think about what it must be like to be the object, now, today, surrounded by us in this warm and sacred space, being held and warmed by your hands.

Feel the warmth of the object again. The object has responded to the heat in your hands. The heat in the object is nothing more nor less than vibration; its atoms and molecules have begun to vibrate along with the atoms and molecules of your hand. If your ears were sensitive enough, you would be able to hear the vibration of the object in the air. Hold it tightly and feel the warmth. If it were making an audible sound, what would it be? Would it be high-pitched, or low? Would it be a single constant tone, or a chord of notes? A monotone, or a tune? …

Hear that sound in your mind. Focus on it.

Now, in a moment, when you are ready and comfortable, respond to the song of the object, in whatever way feels right. Maybe you want to hum along with it, or provide a bass or counterpoint. Maybe what is called from you is a chant, or a whisper. Sit with your object, listen to it, and respond. Sing the song of the world with your object.

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Powers of Darkness

In 1997 there were about two thousand children living in the homeless shelters of Miami, FL. (There are more than twice as many now at the time of this writing, 2014.) Lynda Edwards, a reporter for the Miami New Times, submitted an article in June of that year documenting the folk tales and beliefs of these children. The article has become something of a quiet sensation on the Internet; it’s long, but it’s powerful and extremely disturbing. I first read about it in 2006, from my friend Kate Gladstone, who guaranteed that I would never forget it.

fluteofdawnShe was right. I have to say it is still one of the most harrowing and hair-raising things I’ve ever read. It’s a strange combination of the creepiest sort of fantastic horror — the kind you love to hear around a campfire — alongside the reality of homelessness and abject poverty — more mundane maybe, but no less horrible.

It’s a long article, so don’t feel compelled to jump right over and read it immediately, but it is amazing, poignant, and harrowing, and should be read.  The children have collectively created a mythology that is rich, colorful, and choked with fear and desperation.  For someone such as myself, who believes in various overlapping mythological systems, it raises all sorts of difficult and vital issues.  Are the children really tapping into spiritual truths?  Are they actually being contacted by spirits, as they claim?  If so, why is their vision so full of fear and doom, when the visions of so many other spiritual people have so much light and joy?

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Big Data Will Blind You

Not all of us are scientists, but all of us today are consumers of science. And I mean science, not technology. When we want to lose weight, or make more money, or find that perfect someone, we don’t go to gurus, and we don’t go with our guts. We look at the latest studies.

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailIt’s been said that Generation X has a deep need for data. Certainly a lot of people my age long ago lost our last vestiges of idealism, and are most interested in knowing, as pragmatically as possible, exactly what works and what doesn’t. We no longer believe in Dr. Spock’s intuitions or Oprah’s platitudes. We want to see what science says. We’re only interested in practical, proven methods. We haven’t given up trying to explain the world, but we’ve stopped trying to make beautiful, abstract theories workable. In the same vein, companies like Amazon, Google and Facebook are proud to call themselves ‘data-driven’: they make no claim to being led by ‘visionaries’, but act based on rigorous analysis of consumer activity. (Of course, there are a minority of companies, such as Apple, which do claim to be led by visionaries, but these are the exception, and their stock prices are more volatile.)

Part of this zeitgeist is the modern tech industry excitement about the possibilities of ‘Big Data’, a rapidly-emerging state in which we’ll have so much data on so many people and so many financial transactions that we’ll cross some kind of singularity into perfect knowledge, a threshold beyond which we’ll find new markets, new products, and vast new vistas of profit.

Maybe so. But there’s a big pitfall that comes with Big Data. If you’re given a big pile of facts, you start to imagine that you know more than you did before; that you can just crunch some equations and run some statistics, and the numbers will tell you what to do. You’re tempted to believe that you don’t need to get the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of things, as long as you have enough ‘what’.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. But knowledge without understanding is even more dangerous. Here’s some examples of why.[Continue Reading…]

In Which Links are Forged and Pods are Cast

My attention has been away from this blog for a while, so I thought it might be interesting to collect some links to what I’ve been working on. Over at Faith, Fern, and Compass, for example, I’ve contributed a couple of articles that might be of interest to you:

The Sea in the Skull

Theologians and scientists agree: ritual is good for the human soul. But I don’t like ritual much. It’s probably my Zen upbringing. If ritual is poetry in the realm of acts, then perhaps my poetic-action aesthetic is too used to the haiku or koan: short, unrehearsed, improvised, intentionally subversive. But one thing I do like about ritual is the creation of a sacred space. This is about how I create a sacred space without ritual.

The Land’s Religion: Hold Her In Your Heart

Those of us of European descent who don’t live in Europe — who live, in fact, in landscapes conquered or annexed by our ancestors — do not have a simple relationship with the earth we live on… We are like a branch grafted onto the wrong tree, an organ transplanted into another body. We’re aliens in our own homes. But we cannot go back where we came from; we’d be aliens there, too. There is nowhere in the world that we really belong. So what should our relationship be?

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The Toxic Society

I stumbled on an old, ignored piece of news the other day, which struck me powerfully. Apparently crime rates in the United States continue to plummet, despite the ongoing recession. While I had assumed that the drop in crime rate was related to our insanely high rate of incarceration, apparently that doesn’t really explain it. First off, most of the rise in prison population comes from non-violent offenders, and violent crime has dropped even faster than non-violent crime. Second, there are lots of other places around the world where crime has been dropping, and the incarceration rates there haven’t changed. Sociologists are either at a loss, or they have conflicting ideas, or they say it’s a combination of factors.

But a little-known economist, Rick Nevin, has a theory: a drop in lead poisoning. He applied a statistical model which tracked violent crime rates and lead poisoning in nine different countries over the course of the 20th century. Lead is a neurotoxin that reduces the ability of people to control their impulses.

“It is stunning how strong the association is,” Nevin said in an interview. “Sixty-five to ninety percent or more of the substantial variation in violent crime in all these countries was explained by lead.”

Through much of the 20th century, lead in U.S. paint and gasoline fumes poisoned toddlers as they put contaminated hands in their mouths. The consequences on crime, Nevin found, occurred when poisoning victims became adolescents. Nevin does not say that lead is the only factor behind crime, but he says it is the biggest factor…

Nevin says his data not only explain the decline in crime in the 1990s, but the rise in crime in the 1980s and other fluctuations going back a century. His data from multiple countries, which have different abortion rates, police strategies, demographics and economic conditions, indicate that lead is the only explanation that can account for international trends.

Because the countries phased out lead at different points, they provide a rigorous test: In each instance, the violent crime rate tracks lead poisoning levels two decades earlier.

“It is startling how much mileage has been given to the theory that abortion in the early 1970s was responsible for the decline in crime” in the 1990s, Nevin said. “But they legalized abortion in Britain, and the violent crime in Britain soared in the 1990s. The difference is our gasoline lead levels peaked in the early ’70s and started falling in the late ’70s, and fell very sharply through the early 1980s and was virtually eliminated by 1986 or ’87.

“In Britain and most of Europe, they did not have meaningful constraints [on leaded gasoline] until the mid-1980s and even early 1990s,” he said. “This is the reason you are seeing the crime rate soar in Mexico and Latin America, but [it] has fallen in the United States.”…

Nevin’s work has been published mainly in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Research. Within the field of neurotoxicology, Nevin’s findings are unsurprising, said Ellen Silbergeld, professor of environmental health sciences at Johns Hopkins University and the editor of Environmental Research.

“There is a strong literature on lead and sociopathic behavior among adolescents and young adults with a previous history of lead exposure,” she said.

If this is true, it raises a lot of questions. Most obviously: what’s the best way to lower the crime rate? Maybe we should reduce funding for police forces, incarceration, etc., and concentrate everything we have on anti-lead environmental legislation. After all, it was just a few years ago that lead was found in toys imported from China; and lead has leeched into the earth and groundwater from underground gas canisters all over the country. And not just lead — it is an especially widespread neurotoxin, but it’s not the only one. What other poisons are we eating, drinking, and breathing?

Another question is: should we, as a society, regulate lead? The obvious answer is yes, but how, exactly? Should it be regulated on a state-by-state basis, or by the EPA? Or should there be international standards set by the UN? Or should there be a set of class-action lawsuits brought by states and individuals against lead-producing industries? Remember, the issue here is not so much whether such laws would be moral or just, but what would be the quickest, most effective way to eliminate lead poisoning. Outright bans are simple in theory, but they quickly get complex in practice, and they don’t always work.

But for me the most interesting question is: what does this say about the philosophical foundations of a free society? Because, since the time of Locke, it’s been assumed that individuals are independent agents with free will. Tyrants, dictators, and even philosopher-kings are morally wrong, because every human has the inalienable right to liberty. While we may be persuaded or dissuaded or coerced, ultimately all our decisions are our own responsibility; and thus we can vote as we wish, establish laws as we wish, speak as we wish, and so on. And if we break the laws of our society, whether because we feel they are wrong (civil disobedience) or for any other reason, we alone hold the responsibility for that decision and we alone must pay the consequences.

But all of this is clearly false. A child born into a lead-infused home, exposed to neurotoxins from birth, has been poisoned, and cannot be held fully responsible for their actions. In effect, their crimes are the result not of poor character, but of environmentally-induced mild insanity; and the solution is not incarceration, deterrence, or punishment, but treatment (if possible). Left untreated, should such a person be allowed to own or operate a gun? Should they be in any position of responsibility such as military or political service? Should they be allowed to vote? In other words, if they are not fully sane, can they really fulfill the social contract that a free society requires?

It would seem not. But here’s a sobering thought: how many of us are, in fact, suffering from environmentally-induced mild insanity? I myself grew up in the late 70’s, before most of the laws against lead in gasoline and paint went into effect. I have never committed a crime, but nor have I ever wanted to — I have different issues with impulse control. Of course, most people do. But maybe most people have been poisioned, to various degrees. Do we even know what a normal person would be like, anymore?

Maybe we really have all gone slightly crazy. How would we know?…

Genesis: the Story of Why We’re Different

In the summer of 2011 I was fortunate enough to go to the Wild Goose Festival, a gathering of speakers and artists active in the “emergent Christianity” movement, and there Alison and I met up with Carl McColman, who introduced us to Mike Morell. Like most of the awesome people at the Wild Goose, Mike is a Christian who takes a dim view of dogmatic pronouncements and brimstony evangelism, and he grapples vigorously with the tensions between Biblical teachings and 21st-century reality.

For example, in his post “Evolution and the Two Trees in the Garden” he gives his personal interpretation of Genesis’s story of Adam, Eve, the serpent, and the apple. Mike suggests that the story isn’t really about two actual people, a talking snake, and a magic apple. Instead it’s a metaphor for humanity’s transition from pre-history to history:

But then… something happened. A magnetic pole shift, climate change, or the dawn of complex agriculture. Suddenly (over a period of 2,000-4,000 years – but “suddenly” in geologic time), something changed in our fundamental psychological functioning. Whereas before consciousness was distributed through our entire bodies, now it all rushed up into our heads. Where we used to be instinctual, feeling, tribal creatures, every condition was now in place for us to be discursive reasoning, thinking, individual decision-makers.

This isn’t the only way of interpreting Genesis, of course. Micah Redding, a commenter on Mike’s post, suggests instead that it reflects our knowledge of our own mortality. Others have suggested that it represents the consciousness of ourselves-as-individuals, or dualistic thinking, or moral consciousness, etc., etc.

To me it seems very unlikely that humans actually underwent a physiological or neurological (as opposed to cultural) change as recently as a few thousand years ago. 6000 years ago, humans were already spread all over the world, effectively divided into separate gene pools. Any genetic change that started in 4000 BC would not have reached, say, the Aboriginals of Australia or the indigenous peoples of the Americas until a couple of hundred years ago. Did the Aztecs never (metaphorically) eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil? No matter what you think the fruit of the tree represents, it would be hard to argue that.

My own take, of course, is that the Genesis story doesn’t have a “meaning” — outside of the meaning we assign it. And it’s interesting to look at the meanings we give it, because that tells us something about ourselves. In the 19th century, lots of people used the Genesis story to explain why women were second-class citizens; and some people still do that today, though thankfully that’s falling from favor. They also used to tell the stories of the exploits and treacheries of Adam’s sons and Noah’s sons to explain why there were different races of people, and why some races were better than others. You almost never hear those parts of Genesis brought up anymore. Instead, people today talk about what exactly God meant by giving us “dominion” over the world, and whether the story is applicable in some way to evolution, and what it says about the differences between people and animals, and so on.

But when you get down to it, the Genesis story is a tale about why we’re exceptional. There’s all sorts of things in there about humanity being made in God’s image, and being given special instructions, and being uniquely disobedient, and eating magical fruit, and so on; and all of these have been used to argue for humanity’s special place in the world — as well as for the male’s special place in the family, and the white man’s special place in society. Is this healthy?

It’s all too easy, all too tempting, to fall into the trap of thinking that humanity (or males, or the white race, or modern civilization, or the Western tradition) is qualitatively exceptional. All of these categories are certainly unique in some ways, but that’s true of all animals, peoples, cultures and subcultures. People (and animals) have always been sometimes brilliant and sometimes stupid, sometimes wise stewards of the earth and sometimes appallingly thoughtless, sometimes dualistic and sometimes mystic, sometimes moral and sometimes wicked, and so on. Even our technological advancement might not be unique: if we all disappeared tomorrow, almost all evidence of us would be gone in a few thousand years. What sets us apart, if anything, is scale. There are a whole hell of a lot of us being brilliant, stupid, wise, wicked, etc., all at once. But that’s a quantitative difference, not a qualitative one.

Now, I’m all for sacred texts, and for studying them carefully, and trying to draw meaning from them, no matter how crazy they are. But Genesis should be handled carefully. History shows that it’s all too easily read as a grab-bag of excuses for powerful people to believe they’re exceptional, to believe they have a sacred mission, to believe that they can do whatever they want. So meditate on it, contemplate it, even believe it if you want; but do so with care and awareness. If I were going to recommend a creation story to believe, I’d pick one with less violence and misogyny. Personally I’m partial to the Taoist:

Something mysteriously formed,
Born before heaven and Earth.
In the silence and the void,
Standing alone and unchanging,
Ever present and in motion.
Perhaps it is the mother of ten
thousand things.
I do not know its name
Call it Tao.
For lack of a better word, I call it great.

The Tao begot one.
One begot two.
Two begot three.
And three begot the ten thousand
things.

The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of the ten thousand things.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one sees the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name; this appears as darkness.

Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery.

(Trans. Jane English)

Gaus: Freedom, Morality, and the State

Ok, here’s another book I desperately want to have (and while I’m wishing, it sure would be great to have the time to read it as well): The Order of Public Reason: A Theory of Freedom and Morality in a Diverse and Bounded World by Gerald Gaus. It’s about large-scale human societies — how they arose, how they work (to the extent that they do), and how they ought to work.

Now, everybody and her brother has their own ideas about what’s wrong with the government, and what should be done to fix it. For a while, it was thought that that emperors and kings were either gods, or representatives of God on Earth. This idea became less popular as it became more and more clear that emperors and kings were, by and large, greedy psychopathic killers. Then it was thought that government was a sort of “social contract” that existed because, in the deeps of time, Man was in a State of Nature and everyone was a greedy psychopathic killer, and eventually it was decided that someone should be made a policeman and thereby keep the peace. This idea fell out of favor as anthropologists discovered that non-state societies (such as indigenous tribes) were, by and large, peaceful, content, and sane; and as archaeologists found that the first city-states actually arose because some minority group (such as a priesthood) gained monopolistic control of some essential resource (such as an irrigation system) and starting lording it over everyone else. And once you have a state in one place, then the neighboring villages and tribes start gathering into states of their own, if only for mutual defense. So it would seem that a government is an evil that’s only necessary if there are other governments around.

Photo © Alison Lilly 2012

And yet the modern large-scale state has some definite advantages. Of course, it defends its citizens against other states. But beyond that, it provides a free-trade zone, and an area of consistent laws about education, taxation, health care, and so on, which serves to both enrich its citizens and provide for jurisprudence and the rule of law. So how did the (relatively) moral, just modern nation-state arise out of the barbarity of its ancestry? And is it possible to make it even better?

This is what Gaus’s book is about. He has apparently drawn together many of the most recent strands of philosophy, game theory, and social science into a coherent whole — a theory of how a society can be free, moral, and just — and he’s gotten some rave reviews. I’m an optimistic fellow (or at least, I’d like to be) and it would be great to think that something that started out as common banditry and blackmail would inexorably develop, over time, organically, into something wonderful, even beautiful. We don’t often think of human nature working like that, but human nature is just nature. And changing excrement into flowers is the way nature works, isn’t it?

The Druid and the Wild Goose II: Conversation With Doctrine

In the previous post of this series about the emergent / progressive Christian Wild Goose festival, I talked about the courage of Christians facing moral contradictions between church authority and Biblical doctrine on one hand, and the call of heart and culture on the other. The Wild Goose was a place where they could come together, face the doctrine, and engage with it.

Richard Twiss, a devout Christian of Lakota heritage, showed this spirit when spoke movingly of how the invading Europeans justified the genocide of the Native Americans by comparing themselves to the Israelites invading Canaan, a slaughter carried out with God’s blessing. Does the Good Book really condone genocide? It certainly seems so, on the face of it. Most Christians ignore that part of the book, or assume it is a metaphor for… something or other, or no longer applies, or whatever. But Twiss said no, no: we need to face this.

Twiss also joined up with Lakota dancers to perform and lead ceremonies and dances at the festival. He said, “These may seem pagan or un-Christian to you. But they are the dances that God gave my people; and I do not apologize for them.” Twiss is still working on how to reconcile the ways of his people with the Bible, which he still believes in, and which says it is the only way to God.

Phyllis Tickle, I think, summarized the problem most succinctly. Christians, she said, must answer three questions today.

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The Druid and the Wild Goose I: Christians Courageous

At the emergent/progressive Christian Wild Goose festival this year, I was extremely fortunate to meet a new kind of Christian.

I was raised with a sort of American Zen / New Age philosophy. But growing up in the American Southeast, I met a lot of Christians. Christians I’ve known well mostly fall into a few well-defined categories:

  1. Christians who are devout, and concerned about the fate of my soul, and actively trying to convert me. For the most part, these are family members. There are, of course, devout Christians outside my family who try to convert me, but I never get to know them well, thank the gods.
  2. Christians who are devout, and probably concerned about the fate of my soul, but are more interested in me as a human being they can relate to. These folks generally avoid discussing religion with me, because that might be awkward, and imperil our friendship.
  3. Christians who are not particularly devout, or religious at all; or perhaps they’re spiritual-but-not-religious. Again, these folks are more interested in our friendship than the fate of my eternal soul (or theirs).
  4. The rarest type: Christians who are devout, but cognizant of the place of Christianity as one faith among many, and comfortable enough with their spirituality to openly and easily discuss theology with me without trying to convince me. When we discuss religion, which is awesome, we mostly tell about our personal experiences, listen without judgement, and walk rather gingerly on our common ground.

But at the Wild Goose I met devout Christians who not only discussed theology openly, and were conscious of Christianity’s changing status in western culture, but dove deep into areas where they were uncertain. That takes courage.

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The Cat Cure: Animal Husbandry and Human Civilization

I do love my cat. Gods, do I love my cat. Cu Gwyn is his name, meaning “White Dog” in Welsh; we chose it for him because he’s a black cat, and that’s the kind of sense of humor we have.

Cu wanders the house at random, mostly sleeping or looking out the window or playing with his toys. Sometimes he comes over to us for pets. Sometimes he stalks us and attacks us. And sometimes he does things we just don’t understand. For example, he watches the birds intently, and makes odd little chirping noises, as if he were trying to sing with them. He brings his stuffed tiger to us, mewing plaintively for no reason we can see.

Cu Gwyn, Best Cat Ever

We feed him in the morning, and he thanks us by purring and rubbing his head against our hands. We pick him up and cuddle him until he gets fed up and wiggles free. We play with him, throwing his ball so that he can chase it up and down the stairs. He sleeps in our bed sometimes. He follows us from room to room — not to get attention, or to watch us, but simply to be near us. He also likes his stuffed tiger toy, although it’s a little confusing whether, in Cu’s universe, Tiger is a sibling, a friend, or maybe… something more. (But Cu doesn’t get too “involved” with Tiger, because Cu has been to the vet.)

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Ruminations Under an Oak

On Wednesday we visited the Angel Oak near Charleston, South Carolina. It is a vast thing, probably over a thousand years old, twisted and hoary and huge, like a cross between a live oak and an elephant. From a short distance away, it looks like a whole grove of trees; under its boughs, it is a cathedral of gnarled, bearded wood, floored with waxen golden leaves.

Some random thoughts I had while sitting, meditating, and walking around and under the Oak:

Most trees are a tall trunk, from which spread the branches in a halo. The human body is much the same. Most animals follow a slightly different scheme: a horizontal trunk, supported by multiple limbs. Human architecture tends to follow the animal scheme, a horizontal roof supported by multiple pillars. But there are exceptions, such as the yurt, which is supported by a central pillar, and is extremely sturdy.

The Angel Oak has multiple support points, like an animal; but the overwhelming impression is more like an atom or an amoeba: its trunk is less like a central pillar, and more like a nucleus. Its branches and roots go up, down, sideways, in all directions.

This tree is a god. Literally. Touching its bark, you have same sense of something ancient, nigh-eternal, and very present, aware of you. Tolkien had it right when he described Treebeard’s eyes.

One felt as if there was an enormous well behind them, filled up with ages of memory and long, slow, steady thinking; but their surface was sparkling with the present: like sun shimmering on the outer leaves of a vast tree, or on the ripples of a very deep lake. I don’t know but it felt as if something that grew in the ground – asleep, you might say, or just feeling itself as something between root-tip and leaf-tip, between deep earth and sky had suddenly waked up, and was considering you with the same slow care that it had given to its own inside affairs for endless years. — Tolkien, The Two Towers

Time. The tree is old, old, but time is measured in changes. For something that changes little… time moves more slowly. The Oak moves slowly compared to humans, so a thousand human years is not a thousand oak years. Still, it loses and regains its leaves each year (in the spring); it is not changeless.

It is a living sculpture carved by gravity, light, air, time, and the forest around it. The branches curve and twist in unexpected ways, echoes of obstacles the tree once faced, now long-gone. For some reason, it hasn’t grown to the east. Maybe there was a building there, or another large tree, now vanished?

The tree has grown to become an axis mundi. An axis mundi, a world tree or central mountain, sits in a central location, and exerts its influence over the whole world; and the whole world is reflected within it. Just so: the Angel Oak influences the land all round it, physically and spiritually, so that the land echoes the oak; and the oak reflects the land all round it, too. Of course, this is true of all things; it is only our human manners of seeing and thinking that make some axes mundi clearer than others.

The Angel Oak and its surrounding forest are threatened by development. Get more information here.

Oddments

  • Think of the fierce energy concentrated in an acorn! Bury it, and it explodes into an oak! Bury a sheep, and you get nothing but decay. -Shaw
  • And this our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything. -Shakespeare

Moss, Mire

This week we’re in Charleston, South Carolina, visiting the Angel Oak. It’s considerably sunnier and wetter here than it is back in Pittsburgh: the earth is sandier, the blue skies paler, and the waters warmer. In the morning we went out jogging past the stately homes, the gardens lush with semitropical bushes, huge magnolias, and towering pines. In many places the yards showed the ongoing struggle of the suburbanite to grow grass everywhere, everywhere in America, even in places that would much rather be, say, a sandy beach, or a peat bog. As we ran, we ducked under the hanging Spanish moss, one of my favorite plants of the deep South.

Spanish moss is not moss at all, really, but a kind of bromeliad, related to the pineapple, and native only to the Americas. Like many bromeliads, it grows in the air, attached to other plants (or poles or telephone wires), and thrives in areas of high humidity. The island of Barbados (from Portuguese “bearded”) was named after the Spanish moss growing there.

The Proto Indo European root meu meant both “moist” and “marsh”; it is the ancestor of Latin mucus (eww) and Proto Germanic musan, meaning “marsh,” “bog,” “mire,” and a plant that often grows there: “moss.” Musan became meos in Old English and moss in modern English. Meanwhile, musan became myrr in Old Norse, which was borrowed into English as mire. These words both carry the spiritual notion if manifestation, creation, in recognition of the tremendous life-fostering power of those areas where land and water mix in equal parts. Moss also has earthiness and growth, increase; while mire has strong motion, power, movement, and suggests an almost malevolent agency of entrapment.

Oddments

  • We procrastinate all our lives. Perhaps we know deep down we are immortal, and that eventually all men will do and know all things. – Borges
  • When the oak is felled the whole forest echoes with its fall, but a hundred acorns are sown in silence by an unnoticed breeze. -Carlyle

Rain, Wind

It’s been a cold, rainy spring here in southwestern Pennsylvania, and though there are lilies blooming in the garden and birds clamoring in the yard, I’m nevertheless wrapped under two blankets, the windows are shut tight and the rain and wind are beating at the glass.

3 AM – I am awake to the downpour, dark rains swelling the land, my bones themselves seeming waterlogged until they are spongy and wrinkled.

4:11 AM – The first bird opens his throat to swallow the dark in rising song slipping in between the rain. The land awakening, dawn remade. – Ali

Rain

Rain is probably from Proto Indo European reg, meaning “moist, wet”, related to Latin rigare (whence we get irrigate). In Proto Germanic reg became regna, and in Old English, regn, contracted to rain in Middle English. Spiritually the word indicates motion through initiation towards groundedness and release; it echoes the sentiments of many who feel that a shower is a baptism of the earth.

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Temperance, Terror, Torch, Torture

My old blog, the Word of the Day, is defunct, and I’m getting ready to take it down. Before I do, though, I’m going to repost some of the best words here over the next few weeks. Enjoy!

Temperance

Ultimately, temperance comes from Latin tempus, “time”. No one knows where Latin picked up tempus – most likely from some nearby language, such as Etruscan. In any case, it’s also the root of words such as temple, temporary, tempo, extemporize, and tempest. From tempus came the Latin verb temperare, “to mix properly, moderate, blend”, in the sense of cooking or preparing something to the proper time. This was the source of temper (Old English temprian), and also of the Latin noun temperantia, “moderation”. Temperantia was borrowed into Anglo-French (i.e. the French spoken by the upper-classes in England after William the Conqueror) as temperaunce, which became temperance by the mid-1300’s.

The very oldest versions of the Temperance Tarot card show a figure mixing water into wine, thereby showing temperantia, moderation.

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