Monday, April 30, 2007

More ≠ Better

Bill McKibben, who first sounded the alarm twenty years ago on global warming in his book The End of Nature, may have come up with the best argument yet about the evils of capitalism: it makes us unhappy.

In his latest book, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, McKibben cites a variety of statistics to show that the More promised by capitalism does not equal Better, that in fact once we have satisfied our basic needs it produces dissatisfaction rather than happiness. (The only more surprising argument that I know, against technology with its unintended consequences, is that too many chemicals in the environment have been shown to shrink male genitals.)

I haven't read Deep Economy because my local library has not yet added it to the collection, and I'm currently trying to limit my purchase of books, or anything, actually. McKibben would like that, I think, since he has praised the virtue of limits (on consumption, the use of oil, big-box chain stores, etc.) in all of his writings. So to find out more about the ideas in his new book and the possibilities for an alternative to the destructive capitalist global economy, I read reviews in the New York Times and Boston Globe, his recent article in Mother Jones, a profile in AARP and an interview in (plus, of course, his Wikipedia entry). McKibben also has his own web site, and was instrumental in organizing a campaign to promote climate action, Step It Up 2007, with local protest marches around the country earlier this month. The man is indefatigable!

To explain capitalism's failings, McKibben goes back to the founder of modern economics, Adam Smith. His "core ideas -- that individuals pursuing their own interests in a market society end up making each other richer; and that increasing efficiency, usually by increasing scale, is the key to increasing wealth -- have indisputably worked," McKibben writes. But now, research is revealing that "devotion to growth above all is, on balance, making our lives worse, both collectively and individually. Growth no longer makes people wealthier, but instead generates inequality and insecurity." And finally, and most surprisingly, "growth no longer makes us happier." Because of our faith in capitalism, McKibben says, "that's as bizarre an idea as proposing that gravity pushes apples skyward." More, in other words, is no longer automatically Better. It is quite frequently Worse, not only for the planet but for the possessors of more stuff than they can ever use or appreciate.

Traditional economics holds that if you buy something, it ipso facto makes you happy. You have made a rational decision about what will provide you with "maximum utility" by purchasing this item. But we also know how irrational economic decisions can be, and, just as in politics, we often thwart long-term goals for short-term gain. In 2002 a psychologist was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics by inventing the field of "hedonics" to determine well-being statistically, what makes experiences and life pleasant or unpleasant. Now happiness is no longer subjective, but a measurable phenomenon. And now, according to McKibben, this discovery
allows economists to start thinking about life in richer (indeed) terms, to stop asking "What did you buy?" and to start asking "Is your life good?" And if you can ask someone "Is your life good?" and count on the answer to mean something, then you'll be able to move to the real heart of the matter, the question haunting our moment on the earth: Is more better?
The answer, you will not be surprised, is no. We have more things, new and efficient technologies, storage lockers full of stuff, a GNP that has tripled in 50 years, and surveys show that none of it has made us happier. "It's not that we're simply recalibrating our sense of what happiness means," writes McKibben, "we are actively experiencing life as grimmer." Rates of alcoholism and suicide have gone up dramatically in every developed country, and one report in 2000, cited by the author, found that the average American child reported higher levels of anxiety than the average child under psychiatric care in the 1950s.

"How is it, then," asks McKibben, "that we became so totally, and apparently wrongly, fixated on the idea that our main goal, as individuals and as nations, should be the accumulation of more wealth?" The answer, he says, is up to a certain point this process works. Research shows that money consistently buys happiness right up to about $10,000 income per capita. "That's a useful number to keep in the back of your head -- it's like the freezing point of water, one of those random figures that just happens to define a crucial phenomenon on our planet." Once basic needs are met with that figure, McKibben reports, the data on happiness gets scrambled. Rich Americans have identical happiness scores with Pennsylvania Amish, the Swedes as a whole, as well as the Masai. The happiness of the homeless in Calcutta is among the lowest recorded, "but it almost doubles when they move into a slum, at which point they are basically as satisfied with their lives as a sample of college students drawn from 47 nations."

A world of More turns out to be a nightmare of hyper-individualism where the traditional bonds of community and friendship are severed; people in great numbers watch a television show where the goal is to end up alone on an island. "It's not so hard, then, to figure out why happiness has declined here even as wealth as grown." During the last thirty years, we "simply worked too many hours earning, we commuted too far to our too-isolated homes, and there was always the blue glow of the tube shining through the curtains."

McKibben lives in Vermont, where he teaches at Middlebury College, and practices what he preaches. His last book was simply titled Enough. He has undergone experiments in practical living, going without television and eating only locally produced food. Rather than destroy the market economy, he wants to revitalize and localize it. According to Lance Morrow's review of Deep Economy in the New York Times,
McKibben says in effect, All right, we are two nations: 1) Wal-Mart Nation (gigantic, globalized, unsustainable in the face of climate change and the trashing of nature and the coming exhaustion of the world's fossil fuels), a world predicted half a century ago by Lucille Ball in the chocolate factory, desperately gobbling oversweet glut from the unstoppable assembly line; and 2) Farmers' Market Nation (manageably small, localized, communitarian, neighborly, calibrated to the human scale).
The question for me is: can we change, downsize, stop the global steamroller? Maybe we can, with a new environmentally and business-critical administration, but the developed world is racing to catch up with First World rates of growth. China by 2031 will have 1.3 billion people as rich as Americans are today. They will use 99 million barrels of oil a day, 15 million more than the entire world consumes at present. The mind boggles.

McKibben appears to be hopeful, at least in the material I read. But I can't help thinking the game is over already. As long as a few powerful people continue to get wealthy, and others hope they can join them, we are locked into an economy that harms both people and the planet. Only some catastrophe on a global scale, making 9-11, the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina look puny by comparison, might shake people up enough to convince that the enough, in fact, is enough.

Friday, April 27, 2007

What's a Tooth Worth?

While I wait for the vicodin to kick in, let me talk about teeth.

So you want to know what a tooth is worth? How about $2,200? That's what a root canal and crown will cost for my tooth #14 on the upper left. I'm one of the lucky ones with dental insurance, but they will only pay about $1,000, and my cap for the year is $1,500 so there won't be much left for the next tooth to go.

So instead of buying a new computer, a replacement for my aging truck or a round-trip ticket for my next trip to Bangkok, I'm paying for a tooth. If my jaw didn't still ache from two-and-a-half hours in the chair at the endodontrist's office yesterday, I would be more poetic than bitterly ironic about this. But my patience wears thin.

As the cost for dental specialists has risen, I've chosen to pull the damn things out when they've outlived their use. But I'm running out of teeth. I can no longer chew on the right side of my mouth, and when the left goes I'll be restricted to a permenent soft diet. Mush anyone?

No, I don't floss more than once or twice a week, and my gums are bad. In fact, I'm a poster child for "long in the tooth." I've had root planing twice, where the gums are pulled back and the roots lazered clean, but it doesn't seem to last. Deep pockets? I've got lots of them, and my dental hygienist is appalled. I figure if God had meant us to floss, she would have provided us with the string.

I once had a neighbor who, when faced with deteriorating teeth and gums, had them all pulled out and new ones screwed into her jaw. It cost $25,000 and a couple of months of recovery, but her tooth problems were over and she never had to sit in another dental chair listening to the whir of the drill and smelling the odor of burnt enamel. I listen to music on my iPod and try to meditate but am unable to block out of the sound of "that's a deep one" and other extraneous information.

A couple of years ago a tooth cracked while I was traveling in Thailand. I was directed to the sign of the smiling tooth around the corner from my hotel where a woman dentist with minimal English probbed the problem and said: "Extraction." Why, I asked her. "Pain!" she replied, and I let her take it out. She didn't need any more English than that. The procedure was relatively painless and it cost me only $25.

My endodontrist here was a young woman and, after telling her the above story yesterday, we discovered that we had both stayed in the same Buddhist monastery near Ubon Rathathani. I considered that a good sign. She was surrounded by the latest in dental technology, including a digital x-ray machine. After the long procedure, I could see both x-rays and photographs of the offending tooth. She pointed out a fracture that could eventually result in another cracked tooth, a candidate for extraction. At least there will be no pain this time because the nerve is gone. The last time I visited an endodontrist, the tooth lasted only a few months after getting its roots removed before the remains of it had to be removed. Why didn't God provide us with teeth that wouldn't wear out?

When I paid the receptionist for my share of costs, I grumbled about the expense. Her reply was to reassure me that "your teeth are forever."

Yeah, right.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Let's Hear It For: Music & Film

Pee Wee (see his back) Comes to Santa Cruz

It isn't often that two of my biggest passion, music and film, collide so beautifully as they have this past week.

One reason is the 6th annual Santa Cruz Film Festival which began last Thursday with the world premiere of a slasher flick called "The Tripper," filmed in Santa Cruz and directed by David Arquette. (The plot of the heavily criticized film features a man in a Ronald Reagan mask who kills hippies; a local reviewer wrote: "I never thought I would ever feel any sympathy for the ex-president, until this movie.") One of the co-stars is Paul Reubens, aka Pee Wee Herman, and Reubens and Arquette pulled up to the Del Mar Theater in matching limos opening night for the kickoff festivites, attended by a score of cineastes and local street people. Pee Wee, despite his much publicized arrest (or perhaps because of it) for public masturbation over 15 years ago, and more recently on child pornography charges (which were dismissed), was a big favorite with the crowd.

The festival is half over and I've only seen five films and assorted shorts so far. All of these were good but the standouts have been "Sound of the Soul," a documentary about a concert of religious music in Fez, Morocco, by performers from different traditions, and "Vanaja," the story of a poor young girl in rural India in the 1960s who wants to become a dancer and has to struggle valiantly against the prejudices and class divisions of her society. The title for the first film comes from an Afghan singer's comment that "music has no religion, no borders, no boundaries. Music is the sound of the soul." The performances by groups from Ireland and England, along with a jazz gospel band from the U.S., and Arab and Berber musicians and singers from Morocco are of a kind that sends chills up the spine. Denominational and sectarian boundaries can only crumble under such sounds of the divine. The festival audience gave "Sound of the Soul," directed by Stephen Olsson, a standing ovation. I bought a CD of the soundtrack in the lobby and loaded the songs into my iPod.

The music in "Vanaja" was incidental to the dancing by the young actress, Mamatha Bhukya, who was discovered by director Rajnesh Domalpalli in this, his thesis film, for a degree from Columbia University. All of the actors were unknowns and Bhukya was specially trained for the film in the traditional dances which had the audience mesmerized. It brought back for me the outdoor concert of traditional Indian dance I witnessed in Mamallapuram in January one night against a backdrop of 7th century carvings covering the face of a large cliff behind the stage. The young actress and dancer in the film was every bit as good as the professionals I saw that evening. Apparently Domalpalli's film has been unable to secure a distribution contract in America, and so he is forced to travel the festival circuit showing it to movie goers at small gatherings like this one in Santa Cruz. The turnout for the film last night was small, but it will be shown again Wednesday evening, with the director in attendance.

The other films I've seen at the festival so far did not feature music, but each was exquisite on its own terms. "Indies Under Fire: The Battle for the American Bookstore" is a documentary from filmmaker Jacob Bricca which was filmed largely in Santa Cruz where the chain store Borders first tried to set up shop in Capitola, and then, when protests convinced the City Countil to downsize the big box shop, moved onto Pacific Avenue in downtown Santa Cruz, midway between two local bookstores. All seem to be thriving at the moment, but statistics were offered to prove that chain stores ultimately drive local stores, like Printer's Ink in Palo Alto, out of business. Not much was said in the film about, but I suspect the online retailer has taken more business away from the mom 'n' pops than Borders or Barnes & Noble. I've patronized all of them at one time or another, and think that without a radical change in economic policy and values, the days of mom 'n' pop stores are doomed. The internet is just too damned convenient.

Another film in the festival filmed locally was "Meditate and Destroy," a documentary about punk Buddhist Noah Levine, son of Stephen Levine the death-and-dying guru, and a local kid who grew up in Santa Cruz, spending considering time in local jails for drug and graffiti arrest. Levine, who co-led a men's retreat I did at Spirit Rock last year, turned the corner when he took up meditation and the 12-step program, and now leads groups of punk Buddhists on both coasts. He wrote his story in Dharma Punx and now Sarah Fisher's film should make him into a pop icon. The kid's got charisma. I'm still not sure why the punk movement has such disdain for the hippies beloved of my generation, but I'm sure, after reading the book and seeing the film, that tattoos and the Buddhist dharma make a surprisingly nice fit.

The final festival film I saw this past weekend was "Viva Cuba," the delightful story of the friendship between two children who make a road trip the length of Cuba to visit the girl's father. While mostly free of propaganda, the film did deliver the subversive message that we should all stick together and not abandon our friends (and the country demonized by successive U.S. presidents for two generations). My Cuban friend told me that the film was full of wonderful satirical jabs at Cuban icons but that the English translation was unable to translate them successfully. Tarrau Broche and Miló Ávila, who played the girl and boy in the film directed by Juan Carlos Crematta Malberti, were marvelous. And the photography, like that in most films of Cuba, made me dream of someday seeing that place with my own eyes.

There are quite a few other films yet to come featuring music as an integral part of the story. For more info on the 6th annual Santa Cruz Film Festival, click here.

The last film I want to mention was not in the festival but rather was discovered on the shelves on a video rental store near my house. "Gadjo Dilo" came out in 1997 and was directed by Tony Gatlif, an Algerian filmmaker whose "Latcho Drum" four years earlier I saw and loved. Like that film, "Gadjo Dilo" (which translates as crazy stranger), is about gypsies, or the Romany people. But whereas that film was a documentary, this one is the fictional story about a Frenchman, played by Romain Duris, the handsome student from "L'auberge espagnole," who comes to Roumania to record gypsy music in its natural setting. In the process he falls in love with one of the natives, played by the fetching Rona Hartner (my new crush). The story is as real and as heart-warming as it can get, but it was the music that hooked me. I found the soundtrack in the iMusic store and loaded it into my iPod. Originally from Roumania, Hartner now lives in Paris where she is apparently developing a kind of gypsy rap music. Far out.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

One Year of Blogging

We're making enemies faster
than we can kill them.
--bumper sticker reported in NCR

Happy Anniversary to me!

I've been slogging away at the blogs now for exactly one year. And this is my 145th entry. Can't say as they've all been readable, but I have enjoyed putting pen to paper (metaphorically speaking) and expressing my thoughts in this cyberspace. And even a few people have told me they appreciated what I had to say.

If you want to read the first blog I wrote, click here. It kind of sets the tone for what followed.

Politically, little seems to have changed in the last year. The war in Iraq goes on, Bush remains in office unimpeached, the protests against his imperial reign continue. Sure, Democrats now control both houses of Congress after the November elections. But their efforts to stop the Bush-Cheney debacle seem somewhat feeble so far.

Spiritually, I feel more estranged than ever from the institutional Church. For me, all dogma is up for grabs. Friends wonder why I still identify as a Catholic while quarreling with almost all core beliefs. But for me the church is "the people of God," as Vatican II worded it, and "God" is just a word for the mystery of the divine within us all and in all of creation. I am less and less interested in the fingers that point to the moon and more drawn to the moon itself.

Sexually, my time in Thailand in January and February was a revelation, helping me to confront my aloneliness and loneliness, and to recognize that age has not diminished my capacity to love and be loved in return. Sex is the most difficult of my topics to write about, and I lost at least two readers when they realized I was sleeping with my guide and translator on Koh Samui. The challenge in the second year of blogging is to explore the interconnections for me between spirituality, sexuality and aging in some depth, truthfully and honestly. And sex, as we know, is always political.

I am most happy with the blogs I wrote on my journeys -- to Madison, Wisconsin, in the spring, Argentina and Chile in the summer, to New England in the fall, and to India and Thailand at the end of the year. Almost every day while traveling I wrote about my experiences, and included photos from my digital camera to illustrate each entry. Being on the road in some new place, suspended between before and next, is always a joy and a delight.

Throughout the year I wrote about other passions as well, movies and music and the occasional book (just finished the short but moving Milk by Darcy Steinke) that crossed my path. Netflix provided me with over 40 movies from Argentina to watch before I traveled south, and lately I've been seeing interesting films by directors from Thailand (who seem mostly obsessed with ghosts and gangsters), Japan and South Korea. Along with the vast collection of tangos on the iPod, I've added folk music from Isan in the north of Thailand, as well as older material by Julio Iglesias and the Cubans, Silvio and Pablo, and new songs by Bright Eyes and Andrew Bird.

Now, as I look forward to the future, or at least the next year, I am faced with some momentous decisions. Do I travel to southeast Asia for an extended stay in the fall (which means I should probably give up my apartment in Santa Cruz)? Do I turn my back on America and its corrupted political process and corrosive consumer culture, for a simpler life in a third world country? Do I explore the opportunities for May-December romance with partners who speak little English and whose cultural values are so different from my own? There are no easy answers.

I will turn 68 this summer and the body makes its age known in many ways. I had my sore right knee checked for arthritis and will soon have an MRI to see if surgery is needed for a torn meniscus. This week I get a crown on a tooth to keep it from cracking; there are so few left now that I can only chew on one side. I've decided to stop watching my prostate since I've ruled out any intervention in advance, but feel miraculously free of symptoms at the moment. (Just yesterday another friend told me of his diagnosis for the same disease that killed Peter and that threatens my lifespan.) But my mind is good and leaps with agility from one object of curiosity to another. Life is endlessly fascinating. In the last day two people, one online and another in person, have marveled at the freedom I have in the life I have constructed after the divorce six years ago. I feel humble and very grateful.

Dear reader, those few of you who are out there, thank you for your cards, letters, emails, phone calls and conversation (there are at least three of you I am thinking about). And if it occurs to you, please leave a comment here now and then to let me know I have an audience for these musings and ravings on the topics so dear to our heart.

Friday, April 13, 2007

And So It Goes...

I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around,
and don't let anybody tell you different.

Kurt Vonnegut died this week at the age of 84.

He was a crotchety, cranky curmudgeon, a worthy successor to Mark Twain, and his witty, sorrowful and ironic voice will be missed.

Starting with pulp fiction fifty years ago, Vonnegut wrote 14 novels, lots of short stories, several plays, and a slew of articles, most recently for the liberal rag, In These Times. His last book, A Man Without a Country, published in 2005, was a collection of columns from that publication. In it, he bemoaned the fate of humanity in general, and under the heavy hand of George Bush in particular. The President, he wrote, "has gathered around him upper-crust C-students who know no history or geography." Elsewhere he had written: "True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country." And in an article the year before, Vonnegut had written "Our president is a Christian? So was Adolf Hitler." The only difference btween them, he said, was that "Hitler was actually elected." And in yet another rant, he wrote: "There is a tragic flaw in our precious Constitution, and I don't know what can be done to fix it. This is it: Only nut cases want to be president."

In his fiction, which veered frequently into the realms of science fiction, Vonnegut often turned tears into laughter, tragedy into the foibles of fools. Slaughterhouse Five, or the Children's Crusade was based on his experiences as a prisoner of war in Dresden during the firebombing of that city in 1945 and is an eloquent condemnation of the pathos and cruelty of war. Published in 1969, that book became a metaphor for the war in Vietnam and was absorbed by my generation. It should be read again as this country commits yet again the sin of agression against another people (which started with the Native Americans).

An avowed humanist, Vonnegut was no friend to organized religion "Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith," he wrote, "I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile!" In Cat's Cradle (1963), he wrote, "Anyone who cannot understand how useful a religion based on lies can be will not understand this book either." He believed, rather, that the madness and meaninglessness of modern civilization could only be redeemed by kindness. In God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, or Pearls Before Swine, published in 1965, he wrote:
Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you've got about a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of babies, "God damni it, you've got to be kind."
On the other hand, in Wampeters (1974) Vonnegut said that the "great swindle of our time" is the assumption that science has made religion obsolete "All science has damaged is the story of Adam and Eve and the story of Jonah and the Whale. Everything else holds up pretty well, particularly lessons about fairness and gentleness." People who declare religion dead and science triumphant are "simply using science as an excuse for greed and harshness. Science has nothing to do with it, friends."

The answer is love. In Sirens of Titan (1959) he said, "A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved."
Still and all, why bother? Here's my answer. Many people need desperately to receive this message: I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.

Above all he was a humorist, his comedy a way to cope with the terrors of modern life. "Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion," Vonnegut wrote. "I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward." He told an interviewer that "the telling of jokes is an art of its own, and it always rises from some emotional threat. The best jokes are dangerous, and dangerous because they are in some way truthful." And in Cat's Cradle he wrote, "Maturity is a bitter disappointment for which no remedy exists, unless laughter can be said to remedy anything."

Vonnegut grew up in Indianpolis and worked in journalism and public relations before selling his first short story in 1955. He studied for a master's degree in anthropology at the University of Chicago but his thesis was rejected (25 years later the university accepted Cat's Cradle as his thesis and gave him the degree). His first novel, Player Piano (1952), was a satire on corporate life. The last novel was Timequake, published in 1996. Many of his books were made by Hollywood into films, including Slaughterhouse Five, which featured a young Holly Near as the daughter. In recent years he was a familiar figure in New York City where he lived and wrote, his perpetually rumpled appearance surrounded by a cloud of cigarette smoke.

In his last book, A Man Without a Country, Vonnegut defined his creed as trying "to behave as decently, as fairly and as honorably as we can without any expectation of rewards of punishments in an afterlife." He include this Requiem:

The crucified planet Earth,
should it find a voice
and a sense of irony,
might now well say
of our abuse of it,
"Forgive them, Father,
They know not what they do."

The irony would be
that we know what
we are doing.

When the last living thing
has died on account of us,
how poetical it would be
if Earth could say,
in a voice floating up
from the floor
of the Grand Canyon,
"It is done."
People did not like it here.

Two final quotes from Kurt Vonnegut:
You realize, of course, that everything I say is horseshit.

When you're dead, you're dead.

Rest in Peace, Kilgore Trout. And so it goes...

Sunday, April 08, 2007

The Mystery of Resurrection

Easter 2007

Caravaggio, “Supper at Emmaus”, painted 1601-02. National Gallery, London

Jesus died, was buried, and on the third day he rose from the dead. That is what his followers assumed when they found his tomb empty, and when he began appearing to them and to others.

After their teacher's shameful execution as a criminal, hung on a cross of wood, two of them were walking to the village of Emmaus when they were joined by another man who seemed to be unaware of the recent events. Cleopas, one of the travelers, told him about Jesus and how he was "a prophet powerful in word and deed in the eyes of God and all the people." They had hoped that he was the one who would set Israel free from the Roman oppression. But then he was condemned by the authorities for blasphemy and treason and killed. Now they had learned that some women in his group had been to the tomb and found it empty, the body removed. Others were declaring that angels had told them he was alive. The stranger helped them to understand, by quoting from Scripture, that all this had been predicted by the Jewish prophets to describe the Messiah.

When their journey ended at Emmaus, they invited the stranger to join them for dinner. And when they had sat down at the table, he took the bread, blessed it, broke it open and began to distribute it to them. As Luke tells the story in his Gospel, at this moment the eyes of the two men were opened and they recognized the stranger as Jesus, "whereupon he vanished from their sight." They said to one another:
Were not our hearts burning inside us as he talked to us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us?
They got up immediately and returned to Jerusalem where they told the disciples about their meeting with Jesus on the road to Emmaus, and about "how they had come to know him in the breaking of the bread."

I love this story about the appearance of the risen Christ to Cleopas and his friend on the road to Emmaus. Caravaggio's painting captures the moment when they realized the identity of their guest. It helps me to imagine what it would be like to believe in the resurrection.

But I don't. For me, the Bible stories are allegorical; they are not historical. Although some extra-Biblical writings do attest to the crucifixion of a man called Jesus, the historical record is, for the rest of it, silent. These are truths of faith, and my faith is more like that of the doubting Thomas. For my disbelief in the resurrection, celebrated today on Easter, I stand accused by the Apostle Paul:
If Christ was not raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your trust in God is useless (1 Corinthians 15:14).
Paul says that all Christianity stands or falls because of the resurrection.

For me this is a problem only if resurrection is assumed to be bodily resurrection, as it is by perhaps most Christians. That has never made sense to me. At what age is our body preserved for heavenly life? For me, 22 was a very good year, when I was youthful but stupid. The story of Christ's resurrection tells me that death is not the final answer, that death has no dominion over life, but is rather a transition leading to a mystery. The tangible harps of heaven have no allure.

During these last few days of Holy Week, I've been perusing Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity, by Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King. These respected theologians have been studying the recently revealed extra-canonical gospel from the 3rd century and their interpretation has been helpful for understanding this most maligned of disciples. It has also helped me to distinguish between the Christ sacrificed by God who died for our sins and the Jesus who brought good news to the poor, sick and oppressed. These are two very different interpretations of Christianity, and, as I'm sure you can tell, I lean toward the second.

Like bodily resurrection, I have never really understood the doctrine of atonement, that the horrible death of Jesus somehow atoned, or paid the debt, for the sins of Adam and reconciled humanity to God. Like Isaac, the son of Abraham, Jesus became a scapegoat, taking on the sins and sufferings of the world. But where God spared Isaac, he allowed Jesus to die. What kind of God is that? This is the God that slaughtered the Canaanite children, the God of wrath that punishes transgressors. This is a God of the Incas and Aztecs who would desire blood sacrifice. This is not the God of love that Jesus proclaims.

Pagels, in her many writings, has shown conclusively that early Christianity was not monolithic and consisted of many sects with different interpretations of the Christ event, competing with each other for authority. But history is always written by the victors, and when the New Testament canon was finally established, writings that presented a different perspective were banished. The Gospel of Judas is one of many non-canonical gospels of Jesus discovered in the last fifty years that tell a different story.

Judas, in this gospel, was the favorite of Jesus, the only discpline who really understood his mission, and who played an important role in the final drama at the request of Jesus himself. The author was opposed to the idea of sacrifice, both to that of Jesus and also, writing at the time, of the martyrs who were willingly being eaten by lions in the 3rd century when being a Christian was considered treason. Jesus died not as a scapegoat, a sacrifice for our sins, but in order to remain true to his teaching that the spirit is preferable to flesh. This of course is a gnostic notion that opposes spirit to body, and I find it rather repugnant. So I do not like this Judas anymore than the old one who sold Jesus to the Romans for 30 pieces of silver.

The gnostic Judas is also opposed to the resurrection of the body, since it is flesh that imprisons the spirit. Although I find the Manichaean notion of body bad/spirit good not very helpful, there is a sense in which the purely physical should be enlightened by the spirit, and this requires a spiritual discipline like meditation. In his Easter homily, Fr. Cyprian Consiglio speaks of the "grace of carnality" and the "carnality of grace" as a way to preserve the union of body, soul and spirit that he loves in the spirituality of Fr. Bede Griffiths. As I wrote a few days ago in a blog about the censure of Jon Sobrino, it is very difficult to harmonize Jesus the Christ as both human and divine; one or the other side gets emphasized.

Cyprian sees the Transfiguration as taking place in each one of us. But once we have been transformed by grace, then we have to again come down off the mountain and go about the work of our lives, individual flames of the divine, clothed in bodies. Our hearts, like the men on the road to Emmaus, are burning within us. When we break open the bread of life, we are exposed to each other, carriers of hospitality and grace. There is an intimate connection between the incarnation and the resurrection. It is neither historical nor causal, and it happens again and again in each person.

So I can make sense of the resurrection, sort of. In the end, it's a mystery, but a hopeful one.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Life is Hard...Then You Die

Good Friday 2007

Today, Christians remember the crucifixion of Jesus on a cross of wood. Most crucifixes which represent this gruesome death are not as graphic as the photo above which I've borrowed from Mel Gibson (except perhaps in Latin America where Latinos emphasize the blood and gore), but I chose it to make a point and raise some questions.

Movie suffering is nothing compared to the real thing. People are dying horrible, painful deaths daily, hourly, in Iraq and elsewhere around the globe. Perhaps falling down dead from a heart attack while mowing the lawn, or dying peacefully in bed, is rare. However we go, that's it. Life is terminal. (Save your exceptions for later)

Richard Rohr, the Franciscan priest and prophet, proposes four lessons that people must learn in order to become fully mature humans: 1. Life is hard. 2. You are not that important. 3. Your life is not about you. 4. You are not in control. 5. You are going to die. He does this in the context of initiation rituals for young men (Adam's Return, 2004), but I think these lessons are important for everyone. If you're like me, you instinctively recoil from each one of them. And our culture, in fact every culture, devises innumerable answers to these lessons that will assuage our existential anxiety.

Life is not so hard if you're white, wealthy and live in a western country. Make it easier with a college education, a good job, the perfect spouse. Of course I'm important! How could MY life NOT be about me. And if I do the right things and work hard enough I can control almost everything that affects me. As for death, well, what is heaven for?

Very different answers are provided in the Buddhist tradition. Our small meditation and study group, Sangha Shantivanam, has been studying Buddhism for several months, listening to talks given by a member on the Tibetan perspective and reading texts which speak of suffering as a spiritual path rather than as a result of sins or simply bad luck.

One of them is Enlightened Courage (Snow Lion, 2006), an analysis by the late Kyabje Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche of an 11th century text by Chekawa Yeshe Dorje based on an oral teaching from the Indian master Atisha even earlier. I immediately recognized the practice of tonglen from my reading of Pema Chödrön's wonderful book, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times (Shambhala, 1997). Pema's counter-intuitive wisdom about suffering is to "lean into it," accept it, and this was strangely comforting during a very difficult time in my life. Tonglen is the practice of taking the suffering of others upon oneself in meditation and returning back to them healing energy.

The conclusion to the root text we studied gives a thumbnail sketch of the Buddhist practice:
Having roused the karma of past training,
And feeling powerfully inspired,
I disregarded suffering and censure
And sought out the instructions to subdue my ego-clinging;
Though I may die, I shall now have no regret.
This sound like pretty good responses to some of the lessons posed by Rohr. Other suggestions offered in the ancient teachings include: "Consider all phenomena as a dream," "Place all setbacks on the path of liberation," "Do not have opinions on othther people's actions," "Do not take advantage of suffering," "Always meditate on what is unavoidable," "Do not expect to be rewarded," and -- best of all -- "Don't take what you do too seriously."

Another text we studied was "Turning Suffering and Happiness into Enlightenment" by Dodrupchen Jikmé Tenpe Nyima, which is available online. Dedicated to the Buddha of Compassion, who refused enlightenment until everyone entered nirvana, it offers the advice that "we need first, to get ride of the attitude of being entirely unwilling to face any suffering ourselves and, second, to cultivate the attitude of actually being joyful when suffering arises." Suffering, the author says, can be used for training in renunciation and compassion, for overcoming arogance, and for purifying harmful actions, among other values. Suffering teaches us to cherish others more than ourself and helps to dilute the poisonous power of the ego.

Choosing to accept suffering (which must be distinguished from the martyr's choice of suffering for the sake of itself) sounds a little like the "no pain, no gain" mantra of athletes and body builders. But another way to put it is: Pain is inevitable (in life), suffering is optional. Buddhism teaches that running after pleasure and avoiding pain is the source of suffering that can be relieved; pain is the inevitable consquence of a life that includes sickness, old age and death.

All of this helps me to understand a little bit the suffering and death of Jesus we remember today. The metaphysics of atonement, by which his death somehow wipes away the sin of humanity caused by the Fall when Adam ate Eve's apple, makes no sense to me. I cannot believe in a God who needs a scapegoat. But I can understand and admire the wonderous power of a Jesus who takes the sufferings of others upon himself, and then in some sense spreads healing energy in return. Jesus is a Bodhisattva whose Gospel message is one of compassion and whose culminating act was to save us rather than himself.

But my understanding, like this blog is a work in progress. I still need to respond to the five lessons of Richard Rohr.

Above is Salvador Dali's crucifixion. Below is the wonderful Yellow Christ by Paul Gaugin:

Liberation Theologian Condemned

Holy Thursday 2007

The Vatican's attack dogs are at it again.

Liberation theologian Jon Sobrino, a Spaniard living in El Salvador, has been censured by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome. While Pope Benedict XVI, who was called God's rottweiler when he headed up that office for over twenty years, did not personally sign the official "Notification," his fingerprints are all over it.

The Jesuit priest was formally denounced, but not silenced, for "erroneous" and "dangerous" statements in two books written in the 1990s which -- his inquisitors charge -- diminished the divinity of Christ and "may cause harm to the faithful." The Notification was meant "to offer the faithful a secure criterion, founded on the doctrine of the Church," by which to judge what they read. The last time a theologian was censured, a little over two years ago, over the signature of Cardinal Ratzinger, the Jesuit Roger Haight was forbidden to teach Catholic theology. Although the Vatican itself did not similarly silence Sobrino, the Archbishop of San Salvador, where the theologian lives and works, has said he can no longer teach or publish "until he rectifies his conclusions." Bishops worldwide have been sent the letter and told to make their own decisions about the theologian. And a Vatican spokesman said future disciplinary action has not been ruled out.

In the summer of 2004, I went one afternoon to hear Jon Sobrino speak at Santa Clara University. While I have forgotten the topic of his talk, it was not long before the publication of his last book, Where Is God? Earthquake, Terrorism, Barbarity, and Hope (Orbis Books, 2004). He is a slight man of my age, well spoken with barely a trace of accent, and for an academic cleric, his passion on the topic of social justice was remarkable and contagious. Sobrino, raised in Basque country, was sent by his order to El Salvador in the late 1950s and became a close friend of Archbishop Oscar Romero who was murdered in 1980 while celebrating mass by agents of the ruling junta. In 1989, Sobrino barely escaped being killed along with six of his Jesuit brothers at the University of Central America by members of a Salvadoran army death squad because he was in Bangkok giving a lecture.

But now that life is relatively safe in his adopted country, Sobrino's Christology, his legacy as a theologian and teacher, is being assassinated by the protectors of orthodoxy. After at least five years of investigation, the Notification was signed by Cardinal William Levada, Ratzinger's replacement and former Archbishop of San Francisco. In it, the faithful are alerted to "grave deficiencies" in two books by Sobrino, Jesus the Liberator and Christ the Liberator. Both take as central the perspective of the poor, in the Gospel accounts of Jesus and in the Church. Sobrino is faulted by the Vatican for placing too much emphasis on the human rather than the divine nature of Jesus, and for minimizing his death as the way to salvation. The Church in its teachings requires assent to the doctrine that Jesus is equally both human and divine, and that his death saved the world from sin.

Most commentators on the censure assumed that by condemning Sobrino's writings, the Pope was continuing his twenty-year war against liberation theology for its excesssive reliance on Marxist theory, its social concept of sin, and for a worldly understanding of salvation. Even Sobrino, in a letter to the superior general of the Jesuits, thought this was the target, and wrote that the long "campaign of defamation" against liberation theology "is of little help to the poor of Jesus and to the church of the poor." One of the leading lights of liberation theology, which evolved in Latin America after Vatican II, Sobrino felt the sting of Vatican criticism in 1984 and 1986 but was not singled out like Leonard Boff of Brazil who was silenced and eventually left the priesthood.

Sobrino told his superior that he could not accept the Vatican's findings because the investigation misrepresented his theology which has been praised extensively by Catholic theologians. He had been harrassed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith since 1976, he wrote, and their methods were "not always honest or very evangelical."
I think that to endorse these procedures would not in any way help the church of Jesus to present the face of God to our world, nor to inspire discipleship of Jesus, nor [to advance] the crucial fight of our time, which is for faith and justice.
He believes that one reason Romero's cause for beatification has been held up in Rome is because of the suspicion that he influenced the late archbishop's writings and speeches.

The condemnation of Sobrino's writings was criticized widely. Leonard Boff predicted that the Vatican's criticism would mark a resurgence of Marxist theology in Latin American, and might "lift the spirits of those Christians who are follower of liberation theology." The resigned priest said that this action "cheats many of the poor, because Jon Sobrino was always an ally of the poor. And the Church may be able to disappoint the rich, but she cannot betray the poor." Fr. James Martin, a Jesuit author, said Sobrino is "one of my heros" and a "theological giant," and anyone who sought Jesus among the poor would feel the same. Frei Betto, a Dominican priest from Brazil, who has championed Latin America's poor, asked: "How can we renew the Church if its best minds are placed beneath the guillotine by those who see heresy where there is fidelity to the Holy Spirit." Theologians in Germany issued a letter which described Sobrino as a "shining example of a theologian whose theology practices what it believes," and asked why Rome was not "more concerned with the question of power than of doctrinal issues."

But John Allen, the respected observer of Rome for the National Catholic Reporter, and author of a book about Pope Benedict XVI, believes the first censure of a theologian in this pontificate is more about the future than the past, more a condemnation of "religious relativism" than Marxist influences in liberation theology. The Notification against Sobrino is a respone to "recent debates over the uniqueness and singularity of Jesus Christ." The Vatican's "core theological concern," Allen writes, is that, "in the name of cultural and religious pluralism, traditional doctrines about Christ as the Son of God and Savior of the World gradually will be drained of their content...Christology is, to this way of thinking, the 'canary in the coal mine' for the impact of religious relativism on Catholic doctrine." If anything upsets the current Pope it is the "dictatorship of relativism" that turns dogma and orthodoxy into metaphor and poetry. The Church demands that its truths be objective and singular. Liberation theologians value Christiantiy for its social utility, the liberation of the poor, orthopraxis over orthodoxy. Religous relativism, for Pope Benedict, "ends in a kind of liberation theology by default," according to Allen.

Pope Benedict XVI may be going to Latin America in May and his condemnation of Sobrino's Christology may serve to silence any remaining believers in the value of liberation theology, but his real target, Allen observes, was disclosed by the recent apostolic exhortation based on the results of the 2005 Synod on the Eucharist. In it, the Pope reaffirmed priestly celibacy as well as urged vigilance about Christological doctrine. Jesus is the lone and unique savior of the world, and Christ, seen as merely a human being, reduces salvation to a "purely sociological" endeavor.

While the old dogma of "no salvation outside the Church" may not be in favor, the new dogma is Christ alone. At a 2002 Congress on Christology in Spain, Ratzinger emphasized the need to accent Christ's singularity:
Christ is totally different from all the founders of other religions, and he cannot be reduced to a Buddha, a Socrates or a Confucius. He is really the bridge between heaven and earth, the light of truth who has appeared to us.
Sobrino famously changed the old dogma to say: "No salvation outside of the poor." Which, of course, got him into hot water with the modern Inquisition. As for me, I side with Sobrino and I tip my hat to Buddha, Socrates and Confucius. Jesus is in good company.

Although Pope Benedict XVI has dramatically (and not very successfully) reached out to Islam, his emphasis on the uniqueness of Christ makes ecumenism all but impossible. In last week's issue of The New Yorker, writer Jane Kramer notices the differences between two ecumenical gatherings in Assisi sponsored by Pope Paul II. The first gathering in 1986 "was a common prayer: a hodgepodge of interfaith holiness," Kramer writes. "For John Paul, it was an irresistible, ur-ecumenical occasion, with everyone praying together in what was described by a 'an unconditional opening to the religion of the other.'" Such an affair did not appeal to Ratzinger who told an Austrian paper, "This cannot be the model." Assisi I had been "too folkloric," Kramer writes, and, worse, "it had carried a risk of religious relativism and 'syncretism' (which, to be fair, it did)." The next Assisi gathering in 2002, before Pope Paul II's death but when Ratzinger exerted much influence, was "a highly negotiated outpouring." Assisi II was reinvented, an organizer told Kramer. “'The religions would pray one beside the other. Not together but beside.' This time, John Paul II was installed on a big throne, surrounded by other Catholics, and the religions prayed alone."

One barrier to ecumenism is the hellenisation of Christianity which sees the faith in Greek categories and places an emphasis on reason and the Logos. Kramer discusses this in her article. And Sobrino may have come under scrutiny in part because of his criticism of hellenisation during the early Church councils. "Although he does not deny the normative character of the dogmatic formulations," the Notification says, "neither does he recognize in them any value except in the cultural milieu in which these formulations were developed." Sobrino's critique, shared by many proponents of inculturation, as well as of ecumenism, is a challenge to assertions the Pope made last year when he suggested that intrinsic to Christianity is its encounter with the Greek world. An exclusively Greek Christianity cannot dialogue comfortably with the Hindu or Buddhist East. Which is a shame.

Researching this story has been depressing. I came into the Church 23 years ago partly because I had been inspired by the liberation theologians of Latin American and the base Christian communities started there by believers in peace and social justice who put their beliefs into practice and struggled to liberate the poor and oppressed, as Jesus had taught in the Gospels. God acts through our hands, and if they are always folded in prayer rather than feeding the hungry then his will is not done. And now my hopes for interfaith dialogue and ecumenism are being trashed by the aging celibates in rome. The legalism and the authoritarian posturing of the Vatican and the current Pope I find disgusting. Why do I continue to stay in the Church?

Because it's our Church, damnit!

Sunday, April 01, 2007

My Sweet Lord Denounced

Let us now celebrate Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week, the day we commemorate the entry of Jesus into Jerualem, a week that will include Holy Thursday and the memory of his last Passover meal, along with Good Friday when he was crucified and Easter when he arose from the dead.
Today is also April Fool's Day, and in New York they have removed "My Sweet Lord," the sculpture of Jesus made from dark chocolate by artist Cosimo Cavallaro from the offended eyes of people of faith passing by the window of the Roger Smith Lab Gallery where the life-sized chocolate Jesus had hung. The exhibit was to have opened today.

The protest against the sculpture, a naked a pony-tailed Jesus, was led by the 300,000-strong and decidedly right-wing Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights which had called on 500 religious and secular groups to boycott the Roger Smith Hotel which houses the art gallery.

Can't they take a joke?

"They would never dare do something similar with a chocolate statue of the prophet Mohammad naked with his genitals exposed during Ramadan," said Kiera McCaffrey, the League's spokesperson.

New York's archbishop, Cardinal Edward Egan, called the sculpture "scandalous" and a "sickening display."

On the other hand, the gallery's artistic director Maqtthew Semler, resigned to protest the cancellation of the exhibit. "I saw it as meditation on all those issues: the fact that it's chocolate, the fact that it's nude, that the chocolate is black," he said.

The artist is well-known for his installations with food. He covered a hotel room in Washington with cheese in 1999 and sprayed cheese over the interior of a house in Wyoming two years later, all in the cause of culinary art. In 1999, Mayor Rudy Giuliani, now running for president, tried to withdraw a grant from the Brooklyn Museum of Art for a painting showing the Virgin Mary as a black woman splattered with elephant dung and adorned with cut-outs from pornographic magazines. He was unsuccessful.

When I heard the title, "My Sweet Lord," I laughed, despite the respect and devotion I feel towards Jesus, the prophet, teacher and transformer of the world. It reminded me of George Harrison's wonderful song of the same name which praises Krishna, the god of the Hindus. It later turned out that his melody was so close to a 1962 hit by the Chiffons called "He's So Fine" that the former Beatle was forced to pay restitution for plagiarism. Harrison, who later bought the rights to the original song, was found by the court to have copied the melody unintentionally.

Jesus, on this Sunday of palms, can never be confined within the institutional church's definitions. Let him be sweet, naked, and made out of dark chocolate.