Archive | November, 2016

The truth is. . .

28 Nov

I reflected on a news item, which in turn prompted these three poems:

“The booth, the size of a small house trailer, in the shape of a cartoon word bubble with “TRUTH” in bold letters on its side, serves as a video confessional. It will be set up at several locations, including at the Republican and Democratic national conventions. Visitors are asked to sit inside and finish the politically and metaphysically loaded sentence that begins, “The truth is …” (New York Times, July 18, 2016). I thought of three ways people seem to think of truth.

The truth is …: Word

A word. . .

in sacred language,
we do not understand

requires learning

we speak those words aloud
understood or not

by ourselves
and together

Sanskrit Hebrew Greek
Latin Arabic King James English
the constitution’s colonial rhetoric

our accents as variable
as we are

the truth they say
is in the recitation

words require interpretation
that’s what rabbis are for

never just one rendering
of truth

we must choose
which words persuade us

which rabbinic eloquence
or logic

the truth is. . .

The truth is …: Place

A place

for the solitary monks
two millennia back in time

empty desert wastes
were truth-bearers

resonating to
lives emptied of things
and fancies

the great western plain
is such an empty vastness
like the sea when the shore is
left behind

emptiness is overflowing fullness

when I’m alone
my vessel
small barely visible
against the wastes
that have no boundary
is filled by a vastness
not mine

for me
this place is both
beginning and end
where arrival and starting out

are one

The truth is …: A Person

Her eyes,
that’s what it is,
Piercing, yes–
but even more,
the world that lies behind her gaze
and projects outward.

Her voice
echoes with the resonance
of God.
Pulling me into her world,
I know that she
is truth for me.

She sees straight into my heart,
tells me who I am
who I can be
and who I must be.
She gives me my direction
and my mission.

She bodies forth the truth
and my truth,
not from afar
nor from a higher place,
but here, before me
at eye level.

Eye-to-eye, I can see
she’s more, better, than
I could ever be, but she is
very like me. I say fully like me.
She eats and drinks,
loves and struggles

to a degree that surpasses me.
But she cries,
fears death–
shouts out her abandonment.
So fully me I ask myself:
Can this be truth?

I considered writing a fourth poem about how all forms of truth are filtered through us–our vision, our minds, our judgments. No matter how we anchor truth in something objective outside us, we judge what is true. I would not say the truth is me and my judgment, but there is no truth for me apart from me.

Query: would it make a difference if the Person were male?

(c) Phil Hefner 11/27/2016

America’s Religion

14 Nov

The election campaign and results have revealed to us something about America’s religion. Eduardo Cruz, the Brazilian theologian, believes that the dark side of our religion has come to the fore. A few weeks ago Martin Marty wrote that football is the American religion. Bob Benne and I wrote a book in the 1960s, entitled “Defining America: A Christian Critique of the American Dream.”

Sociologists and historians like Sidney Mead (a mentor of Marty’s) and Robert Bellah pointed out decades ago that Americans have made a religion out of their society, coining the term “civil religion.” Mead put it in an aphorism: “America is a nation with the soul of a church.”

We’re not the first or the only society to do this–the ancient Romans practiced a religion of society. The Afrikaners, during the apartheid period in South Africa, held a story that is similar in some respects to the American Story.

I agree with Marty about football, but I will focus here on other elements of the American religion. The idea that we have made an Exodus from bondage to the New World is prominent for many different Americans. That Exodus may have been from Europe or Central America or Vietnam or Syria or many other places. The upshot is that everyone holds to a hope– feeling that there is something special or exceptional about the American experience–it is a place of promise. Sacrifice is also a part of the American Dream; hard work assures an upward spiral.

But the upward aspirations of these immigrants to the Land of Promise left a trail of damage in its wake–the dark side of the American Religion that Cruz sees. That dark side is always present, very real to some, even though it recedes into the background for others. It manifested itself first in dispossessing the native peoples who were here when the settlers arrived and became systematic oppression and even genocide by the Europeans. It manifested itself further in two centuries of slavery of Africans, the treatment of women, the exploitation by the robber barons, and the internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II. We’ve exploited the natural world, wantonly, the whole time. These acts were justified by the sense of Americans that they are exceptional, a chosen people.

This is the America that has assumed the status of a religion. It seems to be more obvious in the aftermath of the election. Both candidates spoke of American greatness. The  most outrageous, theologically, was: “America is great, because America is good.” The other candidate argued that we must regain greatness–by exorcising foreigners, building walls of tariffs and also of fence and brick and mortar. Both are frightening. For our new president, civil religion has become “America First” and a jihad against immigrants. It is also the cult of the free market, even though the market economy is regularly manipulated to the benefit of the few. One form of that market has taken away the livelihood of millions of workers in the past quarter century–globalization still has its community of worshippers. Another group of worshippers hold that a different form of the market–marked by tariff barriers–will bring the jobs back. In the name of the market, health care for the underemployed and the elderly is stingy, public aid is withheld, and education neglected.

The Religion of America promises salvation, but it fails to deliver, and it perverts the idea of salvation. Christians, Jews, Muslims, and serious humanists know this–they know that the civil religion has no real God. America First and the free market just don’t work as gods. They’re not big enough, not honest enough, not loving enough.

I’ll be reflecting on these issues in my coming blogs. Send me your ideas and opinions.

(c) 11/14/2016 Phil Hefner


More than politics

5 Nov

This week, Chicago–the quintessential “political” town–was a good place to be if you needed to be reminded that life is more than politics. I’m talking about Chicago Cubs, of course, and their triumph in the World Series last Wednesday. Chicago went berserk–5 million people at the parade and rally on Friday, reported by the Chicago Tribune to be the “seventh largest crowd of human beings in the history of the world.” (Disclaimer: the Tribune is part-owner of the team). It was a shout out to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton: “Move over, give us a break. We love the Cubbies more than either of you!” Here at Montgomery Place, music events were cancelled for the games. Believe me, that is a very big deal here.

A much-appreciated reminder that as important politics is, it’s not the end-all and be-all. But there’s more–I’m a White Sox fan. I empathize with the woman quoted in John Kass’s Tribune column: “If this becomes a thing with the Cubs and it happens every year for the next three years, then I’m leaving town,” said Sox fan Wendy. “I won’t be able to take it.”

My wife, Neva, is a Cubs fan. I’m reminded that you can be on the wrong side of history and still love the “misguided” people on the other side. So the Cubs had 5 million people at their parade. We had 2 million at ours in 2005, and that ain’t hay, as they say. Chicago is a Cubs town, to be sure, and a Bears and a Bulls and a Blackhawks town–never a Sox town, but 2 million of of us redefine the concept of “outsiders.”

There was more than baseball this week that put politics into perspectives. Good news: a granddaughter selected for the Association of Choir Directors of America National Choir, to perform in the Minneapolis Symphony Hall on March 11. A friend has emergency surgery to deal with a heart rate issue; a pacemaker solves the problem, and she goes home the next day.

Bad news: my sister’s cancer has returned, and she faces drastic surgery. An old friend who fell and broke her shoulder in four places now undergoes fusion of her cervical vertebrae.

Politics is important and even decisive in some respects, an essential dimension of our world. But it’s not the whole. We’ll be rooting for the Cubs–or not–no matter who is elected president or senator, or local dog-catcher. The Inauguration will pass, and sister and my friend will be living with the results of their surgeries and rehabbing themselves back to recovery. The world we live in has many dimensions–not parts that we can separate from one another, but interweaving dimensions that in fact permeate each other.

Personal life has been in tension with politics for millennia. In Sophocles’ play, Antigone, (written 2,500 years ago), tragedy results when Antigone clings to family values. She buries her brother, against the wishes of the king, who executed the brother for treason. President Obama (reputed to be a Sox fan) went a different route when he called John Madden, the Cubs’ manager, to invite the team to the White House, before Obama leaves office.

On the other hand, no one cares who the surgeons and nurses vote for–we just want them to do their personal and professional best. And we pray.

Only three days until the election. Between now and then, my TV will be tuned to Masterpiece Theater and re-runs of “Murder, She Wrote,” “Gunsmoke,” and “NCIS.”

Sorry, pundits. Sorry, Donald. Sorry Hillary. But you see, there’s a murder every day in Cabot Cove, and Angela Lansbury is a charming sleuth.

(c) Phil Hefner 11/5/2016