Category Archives: spirit

Readings

Essays, “takes,” news articles, and one Twitter thread that have affected me in the last three months. Curious as always for your thoughts and reflections.

Carsie Blanton, “The Problem with Panic.” A sex-positive musician and educator reflects on sexual autonomy, #metoo, and the moral power of sex in our culture. Sex remains one battleground in which patriarchy controls, devalues, and silences women. But sexual assault also weaponizes a shame already present in our culture’s understanding of all sex. Blanton is fearful that the left may come to believe that we can legislate our way to “prudence” or “temperance,” without working to undo this sexual shame by talking honestly and specifically about the complexity of sex. “Sexual assault is about power; sex works as a method of control because sex and its attendant cultural narratives are so powerful.” Sex offender registries– enacted in a moral panic– do not deter first offenders or reduce recidivism. These punitive systems also fail to make important distinctions between different “sexual offenses,” in a way that Blanton feels destroys lives and also ultimately trivializes rape and assault. Blanton ends by reflecting on the work of undoing sexist socialization, toward a fuller sense of agency for women, that will make both sexual autonomy and intersectional solidarity more possible.

Agnes Callard, “Can We Learn to Believe in God?” Callard invites readers to consider openness to religion not as self-deception, but as an act of aspirational faith, similar to the fragile, doubt-filled hopes we hold about things such as our friends’ fidelity or our dreams’ likely success. As with sharing any new pleasures with a skeptical acquaintance, “you want him to try to believe them to be more valuable than he has currently has reason to, in order to learn their true value.” It takes openness to believe that there could be something utterly wonderful– something that could connect us with a more profound sense of meaning, kinship, and durable joy– waiting for us in life. Callard encourages us to view that openness as something other than self-manipulation.

Google researcher Francois Chollet posted this thoughtful, scary Twitter thread on Facebook’s use of AI. As algorithmic curation gets more pervasive and AI gets smarter, humans’ innate vulnerability to social manipulation is more and more under the power of systems such as Facebook that control what information we consume. He ends: “If you work in AI, please don’t help them.” I add: please consider getting the hell off of Facebook!

Terry Eagleton, “‘Cast a Cold Eye’: How to Think about Death“: An article from my favorite Christian Marxist theorist, on the liberating possibility of the acceptance of death. The call to “act always as if you and history were about to be annihilated” can be a call toward the radical affirmation, not negation, of value. Since no act can be undone, each act can be a preparation for the finality of death. So, in pursuing a moral commitment to liberation even to death, we can wrest meaning from death, in an assertion of the durability of the virtues we’re ready to die for. “Resurrection” promises not perpetuity, but an unimaginable transformation and redemption. Death itself, meanwhile, remains both unremarkable and inconceivable. “…Like love, death searches out what is most singular about a person, poignantly highlighting their irreplaceability. One of Plato’s objections to tragedy is that by furnishing us with images of death it reminds us of our apartness, thus undermining political solidarity. For Hegel, death, like law, is a universal truth that nonetheless confronts us with our utter irreducibility as individual selves, at once leveling and individuating. Like the human body, it is both an external fatality and radically one’s own, a mode of distinction but also a shared condition.”

Andi Grace, “Power under Abuse: What It Is and How to Heal.” How do we have mutual accountability in relationships when there are profound differences in power? This article asks extremely tough, complex questions about survival mechanisms from trauma and oppression; about comfort, entitlement, and shame; and about compassion.

Shaun King, “Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner Promised a Criminal Justice Revolution. He’s Exceeding Expectations.” When I saw scholar, professor, and activist James Forman Jr. speak in Seattle, he stressed that mass incarceration was constructed not by a single cultural turn but by countless small, often local, policy decisions. Forman said, too, that undoing it would require similar small, local steps, and encouraged activists to work not just for noble public defenders and City Council members, but enlightened and anti-racist prosecutors and DAs. Such people are out there and should be encouraged to run, Forman said. Larry Krasner has been a spectacular example of this: since taking office, he’s fired 31 prosecutors for opposing a civil rights agenda; he’s permanently prohibited 29 of Philly’s most tainted police officers from ever being called as witnesses; he’s ordered his prosecutors to decline charging marijuana possession or sex work; he’s increased diversions and softened the plea-bargain process; and he’s mandated that post-release probation be shortened to 12 months or less. Institutional transformation is, of course, vulnerable to rollback; it’s also not the same as structural transformation. (Like, does Philly have the staff in its diversion programs necessary to accept the flood of those newly referred to them? Does the police chief support Krasner enough to stem the plainly predatory and racist police practices that lead to arrests in the first place? What would it take for Philly’s schools to also adopt a diversion-based, civil rights vision of discipline?) But damn, it’s something.

Esther Perel, “The Secret to Desire in a Long-Term Relationship.” In this TED-ish chat, Perel examines the cultural uniqueness of modern Western coupledom— the strained belief that a partner can be one’s village, co-parent, friend, lover, and life partner— and then talks about the work of cultivating a space for the erotic– the playful, selfish, exploratory, resistant, vibrant– amid the commitment and responsibility of love. Some cool Freudian stuff as well about the messages our child self receives about the danger and joy of the world beyond the parents’ arms.

Evan Rytlewski looks back to an album I used to love and now can barely stomach, Sublime’s 40oz. to Freedom. Its eclecticism still feels utopian; the genres it sponges up I still adore; the musicianship is outstanding. But Brad Nowell’s lyrical boorishness and shameless copycatting wear me out. Why did this album strike the chord it did? Read on…

Rebecca Traister, “This Moment Isn’t (Just) about Sex. It’s Really about Work.” One critique of #metoo is the movement’s focus on violations in professional, rather than domestic, spaces. But, Traister says, this economic emphasis is important to examine for its own sake, beyond our patriarchal culture’s fascination with perceived threats to women’s virtue. “What makes women vulnerable is not their carnal violability, but rather the way that their worth has been understood as fundamentally erotic, ornamental; that they have not been taken seriously as equals; that they have been treated as some ancillary reward that comes with the kinds of power men are taught to reach for and are valued for achieving.” Traister notes that spaces and professions populated by poorer POC women haven’t been examined in this movement’s moral reckoning; she ends with the hope that this moment may begin the work of “addressing and beginning to dismantle men’s unjustly disproportionate claim to every kind of power in the public and professional world.”

Jenna Wortham, “Is RuPaul’s Drag Race the Most Radical Show on TV?” An awesome, nuanced profile of RuPaul. Wortham looks hard at some of the critiques of drag– from the malleability that drag assumes of femininity, to its fraught relationship to trans rights, to its roots in the interpretation/satirization of black womanhood– and also at the cultural earthquake that Drag Race has precipitated. Wortham points out the risks drag performers take on in a patriarchal society, the contempt aimed at those seen as willingly giving up the protected domain of male privilege. She also reflects on the profound generational shift around questions of identity that RuPaul reflects: from the 90’s-rooted idea that liberated communities could arise from satire and free play, to our current relationship to identity where “sharpening categories [is] a means to demand inclusion and recognition.”

Matt Yglesias, “Everything We Think We Know about the Political Correctness Debate Is Wrong.” The assumption among nervous liberals, outraged right-wingers, and everyone who absorb their thinkpieces– that college kids increasingly reject reasoned argument, that righteous young people mob-attack dissent, and that media echo-chambers have left us all less tolerant– isn’t supported by survey data. “”Overall public support for free speech is rising over time, not falling. People on the political right are less supportive of free speech than people on the left. College graduates are more supportive than non-graduates. Indeed, a 2016 Knight Foundation survey showed that college students are less likely than the overall population to support restrictions on speech on campus.” But dig the utterly unsurprising exception: “Among the public at large, meanwhile, the group whose speech the public is most likely to favor stifling is Muslims.”

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R.I.P. Edwin Hawkins

Childhood memories of the Edwin Hawkins Singers blasting on Sundays as we cleaned the house… Crying 25 years later just from the sound of the harmonies on “Let Us Go into the House of the Lord“… That rising ecstasy of the music, that first experience of the idea that art must embody what it describes. Deeply sorry Hawkins is gone.

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Sanford Thompson, 1946-2017

Hi friends: Had the personal grief and cosmic honor of being present and holding my dad’s hand as, after a six-year journey with prostate cancer, he died at home.

I’m feeling, still, the terrible intimacy of final illness and death— a second infancy out of which, if we’re lucky, we can be midwifed by our loved ones and caregivers.

My dad was my first teacher, someone who was thrilled to learn anything new about the world. One of my first memories is of him passing me his tinted sunglasses on a drive so I could really appreciate the mountainous pileup of the cumulus clouds out the window; in the last month of his life, he couldn’t wait to ask my brother what he’d learned in lab about how a mess spectrometer works. He loved being a parent; he also believed that learning is moral work. He largely turned away from the privileges his Ivy League diploma offered him to instead provide legal aid and safe spaces to GI’s seeking conscientous-objector status; to work for free clinics; to organize medical supplies for victims of our Latin American guerrilla wars; to do mental health work with poor and struggling kids; and to devote thousands of hours to supporting community media. And he took notes on every damn book he read after turning 25, so if– as he urged me ever since I committed myself to liberatory politics– I ever read Marx’s Capital (“especially chapters 24 and 25”) and Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, I’ll have his voice as my teacher.

I’m feeling so much love and gratitude for Kathy, his companion and wife for his last decade and more, who was devoted, imaginative, and tender as a caregiver in the months of 24-7 labor needed as my dad became less and less able. Love too for Charlotte, the caregiver and CNA who was here to give him his last bath and diaper change and sponge of water, and who called us over, as his breathing slowed and thickened, to hold his hands and tell him it was OK, tell him he could go.

After eighteen months and seven days, I’m again mourning a parent, feeling like an adult, feeling like there’s nothing now between myself and the sky.

(My dad’s obituary ran in his hometown paper on November 26; here it is.)

Photos: My dad in his last week; my dad with scowling newborn me; my dad politely enduring the 1940s.

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Reflection on the Parable of the Tenants

Here is the reflection I gave at St. Mary’s about a month ago, on the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, on Christ’s Parable of the Tenants (Matthew 21:33-46).

I almost didn’t have the heart to complete this reflection. After a 6-year journey with prostate cancer, my dad, Sanford, moved to hospice care in June and is near the end of his long goodbye with his wife Kathy, his family, his years of reading and thinking, and the birds that come to the feeder in his garden. A sudden death is a painful shock, but a slow death grinds us down: this loss erodes my strength, drains my hope, and isolates me from my usual gifts and comforts. My grief has more often felt crushing than illuminating. But, in praying on this gospel and writing this reflection, I re-learned a lesson that I’ve gotten over and over as a parent: it is comforting to give comfort. Seeking the soul-nourishing meaning I could uncover and share here in Christ’s parable nourished my own soul.

I re-read this week’s gospel on a sunny early morning in our neighborhood’s P-Patch: a community garden full of squash, greens, tomatoes, huckleberries, a beehive with a few last bees circling, and a sweet hanging smell of jasmine. It was easy, in that garden, to feel close to the love and labor of the prophet’s friend in Isaiah, or of the landowner in Christ’s parable: the P-Patch was busy but quiet, charged with its own inner life and eager for the care of its gardeners.

In one of my favorite books, Kathleen’s Norris’s memoir The Cloister Walk, a Benedictine nun tells the author that the “enemies” spoken of in the Psalms and the parables—the unbelievers and mockers and military foes who humiliate or overpower the psalmist; the “wretched men” in today’s parable—are best understood not as external enemies to vanquish, but as aspects of ourselves we must overcome. Hearing this relieved the troubled feeling I’ve often had at the harsh, and final, punishments the psalmist asks God for. The psalmist is speaking of an inner struggle.

This reframing also gave me a clearer understanding of today’s parable. In the beauty of the morning garden, I had no problem understanding the vineyard in Christ’s parable as our magnificent creation. This world is a free gift of God, and we’re called to be grateful stewards of this gift. But I see now that Christ is also speaking to us of our inner garden. Our humanity is also a free gift. As Father Armando said last week, we are not human beings having a spiritual experience, but spiritual beings having, for the duration of our lives, a human experience. How might we tend these spirits of ours if we believed this?—If we felt the incredible good fortune of receiving this magnificent inner garden to tend?

I don’t know about you, but I can identify with the “wretched men” of this parable. I’m often painfully aware of the wretched, possessive, fearful, jealous sides of my spirit: my love hesitates, my courage falters, my faith flows out under me like sand, my sense of solidarity shrivels.

I’m also wretchedly aware of all the ways I participate in what St. John Paul II called “structural sin”: how, by my silence and inaction, I too often consent to a society that pulls apart families based on immigration status; sells bombs to the world’s warlords; degrades and excludes women; robs the dignity of LGBTQ people for how they express their love, their gender, and their sexuality; riddles poor communities with opioid addiction, joblessness, and despair; and consigns young men of color to police violence and mass incarceration.

To work for justice in our relationships and in our society is to labor in the vineyard of God’s creation. But to do so is also to tend our inner vineyard. Close your eyes for a moment and imagine a natural thing you find beautiful: a bed of jasmine, a field of undisturbed snow, a great blue heron, a sleeping cat, a clear forest stream. Now imagine that, in God’s eyes, each of our small acts of courage, tenderness, or solidarity are that beautiful. These are the fruits and blossoms of our inner garden, and God sees them and loves them and loves us for them. To cultivate these qualities in ourselves is to lead a more beautiful life. But it is also to say thank you to the first gardener, of whose work we are the stewards.

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The Largest Named Thing in the Universe

is Laniakea, measureless heaven in Hawaiian: the 500-million-light-year-wide fibrous structure which contains the Milky Way and 100,000 other galaxies in clusters like knots in a spilled skein of yarn.

It’s a structure so vast that no one thought to look for it—to look past the Virgo supercluster which contains the Milky Way for any sort of larger shape or order governing the movement of our galaxy—until 2014, when astronomers in Hawaii and Lyon announced their discovery. Its name, chosen to honor the Polynesian navigators whose astronomical knowledge guided them across the Pacific, was suggested by Nawa’a Napoleon, a community college professor of the Hawaiian language.

(Speaking of Hawaii and astronomy: a word about the struggle of indigenous Hawaiian people against the construction of a giant telescope atop Mauna Kea, the most sacred mountain to indigenous practitioners of pre-conquest Hawaiian religion. Arrests, public actions, court conflicts, and the experience of years of repression of indigenous spirituality are at work here. For now, a judge has ruled that construction can go ahead, with “mandatory cultural and natural resources training” for the telescope’s employees. This is small comfort for communities who have seen their sacred lands despoiled and occupied for centuries, and certainly not the challenge activists were hoping for to the colonialist presumptions of many American scientific institutions.)

One of my favorite categories of discovery is the one which changes our sense of cosmic scale. Edwin Hubble discovering that the Milky Way wasn’t alone in the dark but was one of at-the-time-uncountable galaxies; the 1964 hypothesis and then discovery of quarks; the 1998 discovery that the universe’s expansion is accelerating over time. We feel a change like this in our body, a tug at the fibers that constitute our sense of self and place. The feeling is awe. One of my favorite Jesuits, astronomer (and former chair of the Pontifical Sciences Council) George Coyne, was asked, “When you pray, does it make any difference that the universe has 10,000 billion billion stars?” Coyne replied:

Absolutely. When I pray to God, it’s a totally different God than I prayed to as a kid. The God that I pray to now is a God who not only made me but brought me to be in a universe that is dynamic and creative. The universe is not itself a living being, but it is a universe that has thus far given birth to human beings who can pray to God.
I pray to a God that, from my scientific knowledge, has made a universe in which people have come to be and are still coming to be, even from a scientific perspective. The universe is continuing to expand. Just in the past 50 years, look at what the human being has come to be.

The awe of these sorts of discoveries is sublime, but it’s not exactly comforting, especially considering the mounting scientific evidence that worlds like Earth, congenial to life, are not common as once thought, but are probably very rare in the Milky Way, in Laniakea, and in the universe as a whole.

Why are Earth-like planets rare? (I sponged up much of this information is from two popular-science books I adore, Peter Ward and Don Brownlee’s beautiful downer Rare Earth and John Hand’s breathtaking summary-of-everything Cosmosapiens. Hurry up and read them both.)

First, our sun is in perfect galactic real estate—far from the crowded, explosive environment of the galactic core and the sterilizing lashes of radiation that emanate from the black hole at the Milky Way’s center; far too from the obscuring clouds of unaggregated cosmic dust at the Milky Way’s edge—and it’s stayed in this sweet spot for its full lifespan. The Sun is a G2 star, not too big or small, and stable (few flares, no surprise expansion) over its multi-billion-year life. Both of these factors mean that life has has 4 billion relatively undisturbed years to flourish on Earth.

Earth also had a lucky collision early in its existence: fewer than a billion years after it was formed from loose rock and dust, our young hot planet was struck by a meteor the size of Mars.

This meteor’s iron core sank and was absorbed into Earth’s, enlarging and strengthening our magnetic field, which protects our planet’s surface from the scouring, cancerous effects of solar radiation. The rubble blown off from this collision also collected into one satellite: the Moon. The Moon’s mass considerably slowed Earth’s rotation (its day), so our nightside surface can shed heat that could otherwise collect into a planet-wide greenhouse effect. The Moon also stabilized Earth’s axial tilt: this means our planet is spared what would otherwise be a violently wobbling axis periodically turning the Arctic tropical and vice versa. Tilted now at 23.4 degrees, our planet instead enjoys steady, regular seasonal change: great for life.

Earth is also blessed with a helpful big brother, Jupiter. The immense mass of Jupiter draws in most meteors and comets that come charging through our solar system. Instead of crashing into Earth, these meteors and comets collide with Jupiter. It’d be much harder for life to flourish on Earth if our planet was struck every few million years by a dinosaur-killing-sized meteor.

Our earliest ancestors likewise got lucky with where and how life first appeared. (First learned about this from, of all places, the appendix of a wonderful Natural Geographic book my dad got for Finn.) As simple proto-algae creatures spread throughout the ocean, they absorbed CO2 (which further limited the greenhouse effect), and breathed out oxygen. This oxygen rose from the ocean and was fused into ozone, creating an additional buffer against the Sun’s radiation for the life that did eventually creep onto land. If life had appeared on land first, solar radiation through Earth’s early ozone-less atmosphere would have introduced mutations so severe that evolution over time may never have taken off.

No one knows exactly how life itself first appeared, but it now seems likely that there are billions of near-miss planets in the universe: nice, temperate worlds with liquid water that never got a chance for life (or where life could never spread) because of galactic or solar radiation, a too-short or too-long day, a veering axis, or meteor bombardment. We now have strong enough telescopes that we can find evidence of planets around other stars. We can detect their mass and movement by how their gravity causes stars to wobble, and by how their transits slightly dim the stars they circle. The vast majority of the planets we’ve found are not even near-misses: they’re just no good for life. They’re “hot Jupiters,” gas giants squeezed up closer to their stars than Mercury is to the Sun, or they’re rocky but tidally locked, with the same side facing their star (and cooking into lava).

As a kid who read a lot of science fiction, I drew comfort from the idea of a universe as busy and amicable as a beehive with intelligent life. This dream now seems unlikely. Some scientists argue that any civilization that develops sufficiently may not choose to explore and populate the planets of other stars; but, in any case, our galaxy seems quieter than my kid self had hoped, and less congenial to life than we’d thought.

So, is Laniakea still beautiful in a universe full of stone and fire, radiation and rainbow dust, but largely empty of life? Yes, but it’s a beauty more like a thundering waterfall than like a garden: a beauty that doesn’t comfort us, but one that, for now, “serenely disdains to annihilate us.”

How does it change your perspective and life to find yourself at home in Laniakea? Or, put in terms closer to me, what prayer is appropriate to this scientific knowledge? The king-and-parent language of my own tradition feels impoverished before these discoveries, but I feel myself drawn toward the simple root prayer of the Orthodox: kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy! Or the open-palmed confession of human smallness and contingency in Islam: allahu akbar, God is greater. Or the recognition, central to Hinduism, that our being and will themselves are grounded in God: “What cannot be thought with the mind, but that whereby the mind can think: Know that alone to be Brahman, the Spirit; and not what people here adore… What cannot be indrawn with breath, but that whereby breath is indrawn: Know that alone to be Brahman, the Spirit; and not what people here adore” (Kena Upanishad). This prayer says that God–whatever that bare, wonderful word means to you–is the condition, the ground, for our questioning, smallness, curiosity, and fear. Our planet’s cosmic improbability and fragility might provoke the same questions as we face when we think about our own mortality: If it’s so delicate, so brief, what was ever the point? Did it matter that we ever lived if our planet will be boiled by its dying Sun and our universe stretches the fabric of itself into a fizzle of loose, dead particles? Questions like this resist an answer, but demand a response. How do you live, having absorbed knowledge like this into your body?

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And as I Step into Ordinary Time

I’m carrying the feve I almost ate in our house’s king cake:

photo-on-1-17-17-at-3-56-pm

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Speaking of Which

oscar-wildeA thought that ties into my post here Monday. From Oscar Wilde’s essay “The Soul of Man under Socialism”:

“The message of Christ to man was simply ‘Be thyself.’ That is the secret of Christ.

“When Jesus talks about the poor he simply means personalities, just as when he talks about the rich he simply means people who have not developed their personalities. Jesus moved in a community that allowed the accumulation of private property just as ours does, and the gospel that he preached was not that in such a community is is an advantage for a man to live on scanty, unwholesome food, to wear ragged, unwholesome clothes, to sleep in horrid, unwholesome dwellings, and a disadvantage for a man to live under healthy, pleasant and decent conditions. Such a view would have been wrong there and then, and would of course be still more wrong now and in England; for as man moves northwards the material necessities of life become of more vital importance, and our society is infinitely more complex, and displays far greater extremes of luxury and pauperism than any of the antique world.

“What Jesus meant was this. He said to man, ‘You have a wonderful personality. Develop it. Be your self. Don’t imagine that your perfection lies in accumulating or possessing external things. Your perfection is inside of you. If only you could realize that, you would not want to be rich.

“‘Ordinary riches can be stolen from a man. Real riches cannot. In the treasury-house of your soul, there are infinitely precious things, that may not be taken from you. And so, try so to shape your life that external things will not harm you.'”

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