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Belief in the Age of Coronavirus: Dread, Science and Mystery

23 Mar

There’s the existential angst that comes with self-quarantine and the awareness of why it’s necessary—we call it “plague dread.”  And then there are the various levels of explanation, the micro-meanings, you might say. And then there’s the mystery—the big meaning, macro-meaning.

Each of us will fill in the dread with the facts of our own life. I am approaching age ninety, with at least three of what the media call “underlying conditions”—more than enough empirical ground for me to dread the Coronavirus.

Almost hourly, we hear precise scientific descriptions of the virus. These descriptions are crucial, because they enable competent people—physicians, nurses, and researchers—to treat the disease and even prevent its spread.

The scientific theory of evolution helps me understand our situation. The Coronavirus is an example of an evolutionary process wrapped within larger evolutionary processes. The behavior of the virus follows Darwinian expectations. All of the processes that take place within our bodies—from the nano and molecular levels to the cells—follow the same evoIutionary pattern. 

These evolutionary processes within us are fundamentally ambiguous in that they bring us life and they also bring us death. Leonard Hummel and Gayle Woloschak describe this ambiguity in their fine 2017 book, Chance Necessity, Love: An Evolutionary Theology of Cancer (Cascade Books). 

This presents us with a dilemma—we are grateful for the life-giving work of our internal body processes, and we dread the deadly work of those processes. Like cancer, the presence of Coronavirus is fully “natural.” Nature within us is “naturally” ambiguous. Further, these micro-evolutionary processes take place within a much larger story of evolution with several chapters: the evolution of life, which began millions of years ago, within the larger 4 billion year-long story of planet Earth’s evolution, within the still larger story of cosmic evolution, 12 billion years in the telling.

Our response to COVID-19 is to resist the flow of evolution and redirect it. That’s what our practice of medicine is about, the attempt to redirect evolutionary processes in our favor. The long processes of evolutionary bend because of our efforts. This reminds me how infinitesimally small we are, and yet how amazingly gifted we are. Evolution has brought us life and also the skill to reorder evolution itself.

Nevertheless, despite our efforts, even when they are successful, the struggle with evolution takes its toll—and that means injury and death. In my case evolution in my mother’s womb caused me to be born with spina bifida, which, though moderate in severity, has radically impacted the last ten years of my life.

Even as I write, I am aware of the Mystery (note the capital “M”) that wraps around us. We—and these incomprehensible processes of evolution—float in a sea of Mystery. Why is it that our existence is woven on this vast and complex loom of evolution? Why has God chosen this particular way of bringing us into life and sustaining us?

Many thinkers down the millennia have pondered this “Why?”—and they have given us no satisfying final answers. We can probe Mystery, but we cannot resolve it like a puzzle. The Book of Job speaks to me at this point. When Job raised the question and demanded God’s response, the voice from the whirlwind spoke to him: Your mind is too small and weak to comprehend the height and depths of Mystery—you simply must accept it and trust it.

The Existentialist Albert Camus acknowledged the Mystery, and he believed it is indifferent to human hopes and longings; we cry out for answers for our lives, but in return we hear only silence—he called it ultimate absurdity—Absurdity with a capital “A.” His novel, The Plague is the story of life during a plague. The plague was indifferent to human existence, the epitome of Absurdity.

Others have called the Mystery Enemy, malevolent, intending to destroy us, if it can. 

Christian faith calls the Mystery Friend, Redeemer, Suffering God. Much like the message of Job—death at the hands of the Mystery is real; our attempts to understand it are futile; but the same Mystery is our Redeemer.  We can trust it.

After all, evolution is a process—faith believes the process is going somewhere, and that “somewhere” is in the life of God. The life of God is love, which is why in the midst of plague we find love, caring for others.

Medically, for most people our current plague will not have serious consequences. Psychologically and economically, it will damage most people, at least to some degree. A small percentage of people will die. All of us will be borne along the same evolutionary process into our future. And for all of us, that future will be God’s gift to us.

Think of the image of a train. Some of us will get off the train at this station, everyone will get off sooner or later, at different stops. Every station’s name will be the same, “God’s Destination—Love.”

(c) Phil Hefner 23 March 2020

Let’s hear it for poetry!

20 Mar

Pablo Picasso, in his “blue” period, painted an old man with a guitar. In a poem, “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” Wallace Stevens interpreted the guitarist as a poet whose music had to accomplish two things at once: evoke a transcendent world of peace, love, and justice and at the same time portray that world as a real possibility in the lives of his listeners.

Poetry borders two worlds, as Stevens suggests—the world of concrete experience as we live it and a transcendent reality that peeks at us through our everyday life.for some, this transcendent dimension is God, but for many others the idea of God doesn’t work. Stevens himself wrote:

“If there must be a god in the house,. . .

Let him move as the sunlight moves on the floor,

Or moonlight, silently, . . .

He must dwell quietly.” 

Poetry is the poet’s act of responding to the world and the people of her experience. She is responding to a “mystery that enlarges our existence” (the words of Christian Wiman). If you believe that your everyday life floats in a sea of mystery and surprise, you will love poetry. If you don’t—if words like “mystery” and “surprise” seem pretentious and far-fetched—you’ll find poetry a hard slog.

A friend once said to me that her problem with poetry is symbols. “You’re always saying that a word or image symbolizes something else, and I don’t see things that way,” she said. Why should the old guitarist symbolize a poet, and why should his music symbolize poetry? She was right—to the poet, everything in life is a symbol that refers to the mystery in which we live, to the God who dwells quietly in our world.

Some people insist that scientific language sets the bar for all our language—we should aim always at precise description of our experience. Poets are also obsessed with precise language, but at the same time they are aware of the inadequacy of our words. The richness of our experience defies precise words—and the quietly dwelling Mystery evades all efforts to capture it.

Scientists struggle to describe the natural world precisely. The task facing the poet is even more daunting: to evoke a sense of the mystery that surrounds our lives in the natural world.

April is National Poetry Month. The mystery that surrounds us at this moment, in the COVID-19 epidemic, challenges both our science and our poetry. I’ll take that up in my next installment.

(c) Phil Hefner.  March 20, 2020

What language do you trust?

29 Jan

Three events have spurred these reflections. The first comes from my days as a seminary teacher, in a seminar discussing the Bible.  One student spoke up: “I grew up in a Soviet society; we knew that we could not trust what the government told us; much of the time we could not trust each other. But we could trust the language of the Bible.”  The speaker was Anne Kull, who is now a university professor in her native Estonia.

That seminar took place forty years ago. Just a few weeks ago, Michiko Kakutani’s new book appeared, The Death of Truth, an analysis of political talk in the United States. The dust jacket features a snake attacking Truth.

The third event, which forms the background for my reflections, is my daily reading of the Hebrew Psalms. Several verses stand out:

Psalm 140—

Rescue me, Lord, from the wicked,

save me from the violent.

Their tongues strike like a serpent, 

their lips hide deadly venom. 

Heap hot coals upon them, 

plunge them into the deep, 

never to rise again.

Let liars find no place to rest 

let evil stalk the violent

and drive them to their ruin. 

Psalm 12—

Everyone lies to their neighbor;

they flatter with their lips

but harbor deception in their hearts.

Psalm 149–

May the Lord silence all flattering lips

and every boastful tongue—

those who say,

“By our tongues we will prevail;

our own lips will defend us—who is lord over us?”

They make their tongues as sharp as a serpent’s;

the poison of vipers is on their lips.

Deep fissures of alienation run through American society today. Our public discussion focuses on our political alienation; ironically that discussion is itself often alienating—marked by name-calling, hypocrisy (as the antagonists insist each upon their own ideological purity), division within communities and even within families. Although certain individuals are pictured as the primary agents of alienation,  the body politic itself is alienated; in actual fact, “we the people” are its agents.

This being the case, it is not surprising that we are alienated in and by our language. Politics is a realm of alienation, and so are the news media  (Fox News versus MSNBC); in some instances, even sports has been politicized and thus also become a domain of alienation.

The three events I have referred to span three millennia. I am shocked sometimes by how relevant the ancient psalms aren’t the current scene—I think particularly of “they flatter with their lips  but harbor deception in their hearts.” Language is a great gift, without it we would not be human—and yet our tongues are as sharp as a serpent’s, and the poison of vipers is on our lips. Our language is demonic—following theologian Paul Tillich’s definition of the demonic as “the good turned against itself.”

What are we to do? Language, in both writing and speaking, pervades our living spaces, like the air we breathe. Like Anne Kull, each of us has specific language-places that are our safe places, our refuges, from demonic language. Sections of Scripture, favorite poems or novels, pieces of music and songs—all of these can serve to remind us of truth that does not kill; they can be language-oases for us.

I am interested in the safe places of language that serve you. What language do you trust? Send me your responses, and we can stage our own life-sustaining language event.

(c) Phil Hefner 1 February 2020

Two Stories

18 Jan

It is not unusual that events in my daily life prompt reflection. On an afternoon in January here at Montgomery Place a service remembering Martin Luther King, Jr. was followed by a Jewish Shabbat service. 

I was impressed that each service recounted two stories, they were on parallel tracks. One story tells of the miseries of the human condition—injustice, brutality, exploitation, The other story is centered on the ideals that picture human life as a quest for justice, kindness, deepened sense of community, and sacrifice for others.

The two-story structure underscores a theme of the King service: “the genius of humankind, the thing that makes us half divine, is that some human beings can envision a world that has never existed.” 

One resident left the service in tears, feeling the years-long weight of the evils of racism. We all know the truth in her tears—the “isms” that mark our lives, often so pervasive that we are blind to them: racism, sexism, classism, ageism. These are ways we label people as “other” from us because of race, gender, sexual orientation, and economic-social class. Barack Obama warned us against this “othering” we so often engage in—against those “others” who look different from us, who speak, think, love, vote, or worship differently from us. “We must not permit ourselves to go down that road,” he said. But we have gone down that road, and we continue to do so. 

There is something in those tears that can awaken vision in people, the vision that we can take a different road.

The Shabbat prayers spoke eloquently of this “half divine” dimension: “Looking inward, I see that all too often I fail to use time and talent to improve myself and to serve others. And yet there is in me a yearning to use my gifts for the well-being of those around me. Renew my vision; help me understand those about me. Let me remember that I depend on them, as they depend on me; quicken my heart and hand to lift them up.”

Two stories. One drives us to despair, anger, and tears. The other gives us vision to strive relentlessly for a world that does not yet exist, except in our hopes.

These two stories make us human.

(c) Phil Hefner January 18, 2020

 

King’s College Service of Lessons and Carols 2019 Christmas Eve Opening Prayer

24 Dec

Beloved in Christ, be it this Christmas Eve our care and delight to prepare ourselves to hear again the message of the angels; in heart and mind to go even unto Bethlehem and see this thing which is come to pass, and the Babe lying in a manger.

Let us read and mark in Holy Scripture the tale of the loving purposes of God from the first days of our disobedience unto the glorious Redemption brought us by this Holy Child; and let us make this Chapel, dedicated to Mary, his most blessed Mother, glad with our carols of praise:

But first let us pray for the needs of his whole world; for peace and goodwill over all the earth; for unity and brotherhood within the Church he came to build, and especially in the dominions of our sovereign lady Queen Elizabeth, within this University and City of Cambridge, and in the two royal and religious Foundations of King Henry VI here and at Eton:

And because this of all things would rejoice his heart, let us at this time remember in his name the poor and the helpless, the cold, the hungry and the oppressed; the sick in body and in mind and them that mourn; the lonely and the unloved; the aged and the little children; all who know not the Lord Jesus, or who love him not, or who by sin have grieved his heart of love.

Lastly, let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom, in this Lord Jesus, we for evermore are one.

These prayers and praises let us humbly offer up to the throne of heaven, in the words which Christ himself hath taught usOur Father…

Sent by Phil Hefner 24 December 2019.

This prayer was written by an Anglican priest who had experienced firsthand the cruelty and suffering of World War I. He wanted to emphasize the Christian gospel of love. The prayer is amazing in its out reach—history, the evidence of Place and particularity, including the chapel in which the service takes place, its college and university, as well as the city of Cambridge, while praying also for the poor and suffering of the entire world. And those who are not Christian.

 

Walt Whitman, Democracy, Empathy

20 Dec

I have thought and read quite a lot about empathy, but I was startled when I read recently about empathy as the essence of democracy:

“Democracy is a way of being: in particular, it is a way of being with others. It has much more to do with how you approach your fellow men and women. Do you respect them? Do you acknowledge their dignity? Can you identify your interest with theirs? In short, do you love them?”

These are the words of Walt Whitman, the quintessential American poet, whose 200th anniversary we celebrated last year.

Customarily, we discuss democracy with terms like, “equality,” “power rests with the people,” “one person, one vote,” or “grass roots initiative.” We think in terms of politics or sociology; we don’t use the rhetoric of empathy to describe our democracy.

Whitman speaks of radical empathy towards all others: respecting them, acknowledging their dignity, identifying with their interest, loving them. And he defines democracy with those attitudes.

This is so radical that it is difficult even to imagine. Merriam-Webster defines empathy as understanding and vicariously experiencing experience of another person. It ranges from intellectual “knowing” another’s situation to sharing and entering into another’s experience. For me, the most vivid image of empathy are the Latin American curanderas—folk healers who actually enter into the fear and despair of those they treat.

This is so radical that it is difficult even to imagine.
I read Whitman’s words for the first time when. I was recovering from illness in the rehabilitation unit of the retirement community in which I live. I thought of my fellow residents and also the caregivers, nurses, doctors, wait staff, maintenance workers, and the many others I had met in the hospital and rehab environment. I had been in touch with a true cross section of American society—working class men and women, highly skilled professionals, retired academics—people who cover the spectrum of urban America.

I tried to picture these people as individuals. Did I enter vicariously into the experience of these people? I gave myself a rather low grade on this score. Then I turned to Whitman: Do I respect each of the persons I mentioned? Do I acknowledge their dignity? Can I identify their interest with mine? If, as Whitman suggests, these are the elements of love, do I love the individuals that I meet in hospital, rehab, and my fellow retirees?

The social class system in academia (where I and many of my fellow residents have lived for many years) and in the United States generally, the political alienation that marks our life in this country, and also the prejudices and discriminations that have been so prominent in the worlds where we live and work—these factors make it difficult at times to truly respect each other and to acknowledge their dignity. To be honest, these same factors make it impossible at times for me to identify my interest with the interest of the cross-section of people I live with.

Whitman’s proposal tells me that it is difficult to practice genuine democracy with my fellow travelers. It is not a question of whether I am good or bad, moral or immoral. Whitman is moving us to a different level: Can we practice democracy in America? Can we truly make America what America claims to be?

I hazard the guess that most have recited the pledge of allegiance from the days we were in elementary school: “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Walt Whitman digs into the specifics of what this pledge means.

This is an ideal: I ran across Whitman’s words in an issue of Poetry magazine. Ideals and poetry both are meant to prod us, deepen our understanding.

Not a bad agenda for a new year.

(c) Phil Hefner 20 December 2019

The Gift of Thanksgiving

26 Nov

A sermon preached at Montgomery Place retirement community 

Nov. 26, 2019

My reflections this evening will be very personal. My wish is that they will deepen the bond of thanksgiving among us all.

The attitude or emotion of Thanksgiving is a gift. To be able to give thanks is itself a blessing. To give thanks means we have received something. 

We might count our blessings, and give thanks. But then again we might actually feel more needy than prosperous. I am a very needy person—I say thanks many times a day, because I receive care from many people each day: wife, Neva, caregivers, nurses, doctors, lab technicians, family, friends, staff and fellow residents of Montgomery Place. I can’t get out of bed or leave my apartment until I have received other people’s caring. I could not be here this evening except for the care I have received today from others. The presence of these people and their care enables me to say thanks—and I have said “thanks” many times today. Being able to say thanks is their gift to me. Thanks is not so much a formality or obligation as it is an enablement bestowed upon me by those who care for me.

They may care for me out of love or out of obligation. They may even wish they  could be doing something else.  I might sometimes wish they cared for me in different ways. But their care is a gift. How miserable if there were no one to say thanks to!

Everyone of us here is needy in some way and requires  care. Some of you are needier than I, some much less. No one of us came here because we thought it was so much fun, we came because we knew we needed some kind of care.

Saying thanks is the privilege to acknowledge  that we are cared for in ways we could not do for ourselves. Here and also among the strong, those in the prime of life, we live in a caring network that precedes us.

Psychologist David DeSteno wrote a piece in last Sunday’s New York Times about the benefits of gratitude. Gratitude counters materialism, it motivates us to do more and to be more generous, for example. In other words we will actually benefit in important ways if we feel grateful. He even quantifies the chance of benefit—being grateful means there is a 50-50  chance you’ll cheat less often: and 12 percent chance you’ll give more to charitable causes. 

DeSteno offers a  transactional view of Thanksgiving, in which we give something and we receive something. I’m talking about giving thanks because we have already received something; even if our lives are miserable—we’ve received care. In technical theological terms, the gift of thanksgiving is prevenient.  It comes to us before we even think of it. This prevenience was inculcated in me when, as a boy, I recited every week in Sunday School the words of 1 John 4:19,  “We love God because God first loved us.” We are able to live because we have first been cared for. 

How good it is that we can give thanks!

(c) Phil Hefner 25 November 2019

Waiting

16 Oct

Waiting

How much our lives do we spend just waiting? On the highway, in a traffic jam; waiting to see the doctor or for a report on our latest examination; waiting to be picked up or for a bus or taxi to take us where we want to go; standing in line to check out our groceries or to buy our stamps in the post office; fidgeting until we are served in a restaurant—everyone can add to this list.

Most often, we simply consider waiting to be down time, time that is wasted when we could be doing something more useful or more enjoyable. The other day, after what seemed to be an interminable time of waiting, I asked myself whether I could offer a more useful view.

Several conclusions came to mind—I call them a “reflective approach to waiting” or even a “spirituality of waiting.”

First of all, waiting reveals to me that my life is a network of dependencies. I am not fully in control of my life, because I am a dependent person—on other drivers on the highway, on the doctor, on the bus driver and the grocery clerk and the waitstaff. I’m not the self-reliant “Marlboro Man.” I live in relationships, and I’m dependent on a network of other people. 

Waiting tells me that my life is not a static thing, but rather a dynamic process. I am on a journey to someplace else, to a new situation. Every waiting is a transition. As a buffer between our past and our future, waiting is actually a blessing—even though we may not recognize this in the moment. But at those times when change comes instantaneously, without a buffer space, we are often traumatized by the sudden transition.

In the waiting period, we can sort out the possibilities,  both the positive and the negative, and imagine our alternative futures.

In other words, there is a lot more to waiting than “down time.” In fact, an entire world of meaning is embedded there—and that is my spirituality of waiting.

(c) Phil Hefner     16 October 

Do Lives Matter?

9 Aug

Do Lives Matter?

(Inspired by a poem by Claudia Rankine)

Claudia feels sadness because

Billions of lives never mattered.

CHORUS:

We all want our lives to matter,

think they should matter,

believe they do matter—for someone.

 

Columnists write about the people’s 

lives that matter.

Irv Kupcinet said to the cab driver,

“Instead of a fare, 

I’ll put your name in my column—

you matter.”

The cabbie said, 

“I’d rather you pay the fare.”

CHORUS:

My life already matters—

 

Blacks marched to upscale

North Michigan Avenue, 

announcing “Black Lives Matter.”

Some Whites responded, “White Lives Matter”—

meaning, “Our lives mean more than yours.”

Other Whites asked, “Why don’t they

stay in their own part of town and march and shout?”

CHORUS:

We all want our lives to matter, think they do matter.

 

Her mother’s funeral was this morning.

Afterwards, she said that her mother was

her closest friend.  Now her life is 

a blur of mourning.

CHORUS:

Her mother’s life mattered.

 

Workers are not people,

they are a business expense.

Obviously, that expense should be

kept to the minimum.

CHORUS:

Workers’ lives don’t matter.

 

Sobornost—a Russian Christian’s way of saying,

“God never forgets anyone—even the sparrows.

CHORUS:

In God’s never-forgetting,

billions of lives do matter.”

(c) Phil Hefner    8/9/2019

 

Cotton—also as Art

4 Aug

 

Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art: Virgil Abloh 

Picture the familiar “Cotton” logo: in white letters, the word “cotton” surmounted by a white cotton boll, all against a black background; with the husk of the boll outlined in black, against the white of the boll itself. 

Holding this logo in your mind, recall that the cotton was picked by black slaves and sharecroppers—for profits enjoyed by white owners.

Now note that the Cotton logo is the property of Cotton Incorporated, which in turn was established by The Cotton Research and Promotion Act of 1966 to conduct research and promote the use of cotton.

This logo is included as a commentary on race in the United States, by an artist who is also a fashion designer—and the son of Ghanaian immigrants.

My micro description of one display may give an idea of the richness and complexity of the retrospective now on exhibit at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, entitled “Figures of Speech.” The artist, Virgil Abloh, is 38 years old, with a biography that is as breathtaking as his art. Graduating from the University of Wisconsin–Madison with a Bachelor of Science degree in civil engineering, going on to a  Master of Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, he followed his talents into fashion design. Soon, he started his own fashion house, Off-White, headquartered in Milan, Italy, but opening its first store in Tokyo. He then partnered with IKEA to design furniture and in 2018 became head of menswear fashions for Louis Vuitton. This current exhibit includes clothing, shoes, sculpture, installations, and architectural models.

Abloh’s work cuts across media, connecting visual art, music, graphic design, fashion design, and architecture. One critic has said that Abloh brings hip-hop into fashion (think of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s bringing hip-hop to the musical, in “Hamilton”). To get your mind around this artist, it helps to keep in mind that he begins with streetwear and turns it into fashion; and that his work—much of which focuses on race and racism—is intentionally subversive. 

A final example of Abloh’s art—a black hand sneaking up behind a white figure, giving the “peace” symbol. All of this beneath a neon sign that reads “You’re obviously in the wrong place.”

 

 

Cotton at Museum of Contemporary Art

inspired by the current exhibit

White on Black

Black on White

Cotton boll soft and white 

against the calloused black hands

that picked it

black hands and aching black backs

within the white world

that lived off black backs

Cotton Incorporated

a world perpetuated

still white

I feel most black when I am 

against a white background

I feel most white when I am 

against  a black background

(c) Phil Hefner, 4 August 2019,  with respects to Zora Neale Hurston