"Except for the point, the still point, there would be no dance, and there is only the dance." ~ T.S. Eliot in "Burnt Norton"

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Froms Most Beautiful and Most Wonderful

One of my current classes and I just went to the Koch Hall of Human Origins at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Below is the post I placed on our class blog in reflection on that exhibit:

When I was a little girl my favorite place to go was the Tampa Museum of Science and Industry. Even though I grew up near Orlando, my family did not have season passes to Disney World or Busch Gardens; we had season passes to MOSI (the above-mentioned museum). So my early memories of science are filled with what it was like to walk as a very small person and look up at enormous dinosaur skeletons, to watch as my father, an electrician, explained the way a current climbed up a Jacob’s ladder, to send a giant pinball though an equally giant pinball machine to learn about kinetic and potential energy, and to sit still and in awe as galaxies swirled above me in a planetarium. And this is also the place where I first fell in love with the world and learning about it…and so with science…well that and my home in the Florida countryside with its lizards and fiddler crabs and an endless ocean. But all of that is to say that whenever I enter a science museum, I feel like I am five again—astonished by and in wonder at everything around me, ready to explore, and in love with the world.

The Hall of Human Origins is not different for me. I can’t help but be in wonder in front of the answer to one of the deepest questions of our existence: where did we come from? I love how the answer to that question shows our connectedness to every living thing around us and to the earth itself. I am looking at a bowl of fruit sitting on my kitchen table as I type and I remember that I am 60% similar to a banana. That knowledge changes how I approach that banana, how I approach everything…and that approach, which may be one that started when I was a child wandering through another museum, is one of reverence to everything around me, everything I am somehow genetically connected to, which is what I think Darwin felt as well. The last lines of The Origin of the Species get at this, and are very meaningful to me:

"There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved."

“Forms most beautiful and most wonderful.” Yes, that is what I felt as I walked through the exhibit this time. And that humanity is one of these most beautiful and most wonderful forms. Darwin’s text deals with brutal things: survival of the fittest, extinction, death, but this is how he chooses to end his text with beauty, wonder, and even hope.

And humanity too is a brutal story: war, genocide, slavery, and yet all of the answers to the question “What does it mean to be human?” throughout the exhibit were about what makes us beautiful: we write music, dance, and sing; we make sculptures and paint images; we have empathy and care for those who would die without our help; we use tools and language and write; we live in community.  The exhibit that most struck me in the Hall of Human Origins was an interactive film about Neanderthal burial practices. I was struck by this answer to what it means to be human: bury the dead, mourn, place flowers in a grave. The beautiful unnecessary practice of recognizing the meaning of a life, the importance of an individual, the passage of time and life and death. This is part of our own beauty, our gift to this universe in which we find ourselves. Sometimes the tension between religion and evolution hinges upon the idea that humans lose their “specialness” if we have evolved like any other animal and from animals. But, as a religious person, I see something else in our evolution. I see that we are unique and special among the species of the world precisely because we have come from other animals, precisely because we are connected to the world around us so profoundly and we are able to be aware of this and look with wonder at how we came to this place. We give a unique and unrepeatable beauty to this vast and stunning universe…but we could never do so if we were not a part of it, if we were not one of these “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful.”


Thursday, February 16, 2012

Richard Dawkins, the Reason Rally, and Teeny, Tiny Chameleons

There have been a few things in the news recently that make me happy. Here the are:

The first is an article by my friend Adam Mann, whom I mention here a lot because he works for Wired.com as a science writer. Anyway, here is his article about teeny, tiny chameleons which just makes me smile quite a lot. Here is the picture that appears with that article:

We can add these guys to the list of why I love science and nature and why that is something profoundly spiritual for me...also, they are just totally adorable.  My class has recently been discussing Darwin's The Origin of the Species and when I look at these little guys the last lines of that text echo in the back of my mind: 

"There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved."

The second thing that makes me happy is this article about Richard Dawkins over at npr.org, which more or less sums up how I feel about him: brilliant evolutionary biologist, poor religion scholar...and not particularly nice.  It's nice to see that someone else thinks the same thing.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The End of Occupy?

A lot of you will wonder why I am writing about the Occupy movement on this blog. Well, there are actually a lot of reasons that it appears here. But I’ll give you one or two. Last semester one of the students in my religion and environment class asked me if he could write about capitalism as a religion and its relationship to our food production and consumption. And I let him. He made a good case that our approach to money and to capitalism as a system has led to things like factory farming, overly genetically-modified foods, and the fact that healthy foods are much more expensive than junk foods, which are slowly killing people in this country, most often the poorer populations. Around the same time that he was working on this paper, the Occupy movement was also flowering. And so he went down to the encampment in McPherson Square in Washington, DC and conducted interviews, talking to the people there who were protesting capitalism’s more problematic qualities.

At the same time I was watching all of this: the protestors in Zuccotti Park in New York, those in Freedom Plaza and McPherson Square in DC, and those around the country. And something long dormant was stirring in me. My friend, Jeremy, was becoming involved in the encampment at McPherson Square. One day he told me that he and a few other people had set up a “prayer tent” and were having a prayer service every Saturday at noon. He invited me to come. I hesitated initially, trying to figure out what was happening inside of me, what this thing was that was waking up, and whether I should listen to it. I was moved by what I saw in the Occupy movement, troubled by many of the police responses and equally troubled by the silence of the establishment regarding the movement…but I was not yet sure if I was ready to join it.

Then the day before Thanksgiving I spent the day making bread with a friend and at the end of a peaceful day, doing something very simple, but deeply meaningful for me (perhaps at some point I will write something here about making bread), I decided to listen to music as I cleaned the kitchen after my friend left. I pulled up Dar Williams in iTunes, a bit on a whim as I had not listened to her since college, and this song came on.

The next night, after the Turkey had been cleared away and everything was quiet, I wrote this as a Facebook Note to the people whom I thought might understand what was happening in me:

Last night as I was working in my kitchen, making pie crusts and attempting to figure out how to cook a turkey for the first time in my life, this song came up on the computer. I had forgotten about it...and about how in college I could barely listen to it without crying. This was at the time that I was giving speeches about sweatshop labor, leading boycotts against Wal-Mart, and having recurring nightmares of nuclear annihilation. Now about ten years later, I have been reminded of the power and meaning of protest, first by the Occupy movement and then again, more personally, by this song that still encompasses everything I feel about this idea, except now I can add to it economic inequality and dysfunction in a way that I could not before.  These lines resonate the most with me...and what has happened to me, what I have chosen, in the last ten years and what is being awakened in me as I observe the Occupy movement:

And I am your children; I am millions.
And I wanted to sell out, I wanted to try,
but the sky got too low and the ocean got too high.
I tried to take God into my own hands.
Is it too late? Is it over?
Have I sacrificed my family to the great unknown?
There's a war between my conscience and the great unknown.

I am grateful for many, many things this Thanksgiving, but what I am most grateful for this year is that I feel like I have my conscience back in a way that it had been absent from me before. I pray that I may make good use of it.

Those words from that night have stuck with me. The next weekend, I was at Jeremy’s Occupy Church meeting in the Square…and the week after that I was leading the meeting. And I stayed because what I found there was something I had been working toward for most of my theological career…if not my entire Christian life: ecumenical community and care for the poor. Around a small circle sat myself, a Roman Catholic, Jeremy, a Nazarene, a Greek Orthodox man, and people of other various denominations and backgrounds, praying and singing together…and reaching out to others in a very tangible way. I couldn’t help but think that this is where Jesus would be.

I won’t claim to have been very involved in Occupy as an encampment. By the time I had become involved with Occupy Church the encampment was already collapsing. I was nervous to be there alone as it had become something of a haven for sexual predators and substance abusers, though there were still very good, thoughtful people involved. But that being said, almost immediately after I began to go on Saturdays, the People’s Pentagon was raised. On that Sunday evening, I rushed to the park on my bike to be there in solidarity with the encampment as the police took it down. And something else changed on that bike ride. As the wind rushed by my face and my fingers froze in their gloves and I pedaled hard against the wind, I thought of my own social justice tradition within Catholicism. I thought of the Berrigan brothers going to prison in protest of the Vietnam War; I thought of Dorothy Day and her Catholic Worker houses; I thought of the Jesuits who began the protests of the School of the Americas; I thought of St. Francis, whom I chose for my confirmation name for his simple love of earth and people; I thought of how he abandoned the comfort of the city of Assisi to care for the poor and the lepers who had been left for dead outside of its walls, and on and on and on. And on that bike ride, I knew that I could not go back.  I would enter this part of my tradition; I would follow Christ in this way…and I might get arrested as so many before had. Maybe even that night.

I did not get arrested with the people resisting the demolition of the People’s Pentagon. And I still have not been. I won’t pretend that I am not afraid of that, but I hope that when the time comes, I will do it if it comes to that. Something in me is now demanding that.

But that is my personal story. The encampment at McPherson Square is now gone, dismantled yesterday by the Parks Police. But for me Occupy is so much bigger than a group of tents around a statue. Occupy is the call to wake up, a call to action, a call to conscience. A call to dismantle in my own heart the encampment that capitalism has established there…and a call to dismantle the same encampment in my church and all Christian churches, and the country as a whole. Because if my student is right, and capitalism has become a religion, then we can no longer worship that false idol. This is what Occupy is to me: a call to conversion and in a very real since to revival, not in the way that word has been tossed around in Christianity, but in a way that really does revive us to live whole, healed lives within ourselves and with those around us. At its best Occupy is a call to a better community in which we care for one another and don’t abandon people because of their social class, their education, or their mental state…at its worst, it fails at this spectacularly as we have seen. But even in that failure, the dream of a better world remains, and so does the call: the call to Occupy our churches and restore the social justice aspect of our faith that has always been there but perhaps lain dormant and to empower the social justice work that has always happened…but also the more profound call, without which social justice work cannot occur, which is the call to our own continued conversions. The call to rip our hearts away from capitalism’s pride and greed. The call to heal the world…because a better world is possible.