Friday, September 12, 2014

Dawkins' logic

    A couple of weeks ago, at worship, I was seated behind a family, one member of which was a young woman in a wheelchair.  I'm no physician, so I can't assume to name her condition, but she was fairly contorted; she was almost supine in her chair.  She seemed a bit agitated as well; there were a couple of times a family member felt it necessary to take her out of the service.  It was abundantly clear, however, that her family members loved her, and were not "put out" by her condition or the potential disruption she might have caused.  I was very happy to see them there.
     Last week, at the same house of worship, I was sitting on the opposite side of the building, and behind another family.  This one was more "conventional" -- a mom and a dad and their baby boy, as well as a set of grandparents.  The boy slept in his carrier through most of the service, and, when awake, was the "perfect angel" (i.e., quiet, but alert).  
He was taken out of the service, too, but for a very different (diaper-related) reason.  Again, the family was clearly very loving and attentive to the boy.  I was equally happy to see them there.
     At both services, sitting behind both families, one of the main things that kept running through my mind was the recent firestorm created by Richard Dawkins (evolutionary biologist and noted "new atheist").  He responded to someone who was wondering about potentially being pregnant with a "kid with Down's Syndrome".  Dawkins' response was "
@InYourFaceNYer Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.
"*  As might be imagined, this tweet "went viral" and created a HUGE backlash against Dawkins, especially from the Down's Syndrome and the Right-to-Life communities.  Dawkins subsequently tried to justify his position by pointing out how many Down's Syndrome foetuses are aborted already.  And he questioned whether or not the foetuses could suffer.  And, then, finally, he published a more complete response, suggesting that if he weren't limited to the 140 characters of Twitter, he would have given a more nuanced, logical, rational, answer.  The gist of that more "complete" response was that aborting the foetus would be a mercy to the foetus, preventing it from experiencing future suffering.  He also states that the choice to bring to term a child with Down's Syndrome would "condemn" (his word!) the parent(s) "to a lifetime of caring for an adult with the needs of a child".
      Now, I can take issue with Prof. Dawkins for any number of reasons.  Clearly, his position as one of the spokespeople for the "new atheists" puts him and me at odds over some fundamental theological issues.  The question of abortion in such a circumstance is certainly problematic on a number of fronts.  I am not choosing, here, to step into those troubled waters.  I have, however, two other thoughts stemming from Prof. Dawkins' assertions.
      First, I can't imagine that he could assert that a life without suffering is possible.  According to his Wikipedia biography, he is currently in his third marriage.  I don't know the circumstances, but if he had not experienced some level of suffering because of the dissolution of his first two marriages, I'd have to wonder about his humanity.  I bring that up only to suggest, as have many throughout history -- perhaps, most notably, the Buddha --  that the very fact of living includes some level of suffering.  If that is the case, then Dawkins' logic would compel us to abort every pregnancy.  Hmmmmm.
      Secondly, I'm not sure "caring" for someone is a "condemnation", unless one is driven by a totally selfish motivation (Dawkins DID, on the other hand, write the book, The Selfish Gene.  Just an observation.)  This question derives from my experiences over the last couple of weeks at worship, my own experience as a parent, indeed, my experience as a human being.  Suffering -- our own, and that of our children -- is basically inevitable (unless we've been able to achieve enlightenment as suggested by the Buddhist tradition).  
The circumstances or troubles we face may be visible or invisible to others.  They may have been the results of bad choices, or problematic genes, or freak accidents of weather.  The reasons matter not. The question of our response to that condition, it seems to me, is the critical issue.  What I saw in the faces of those family members of those two (VERY different) children was compassion.  Love.  It was not "logical" resignation to being condemned to care.
      It was, I think, an illogicalirrational choice of commitment to care in the face of real life.  Of course, those attitudes are what our religious traditions would commend.  Sign me up.

Chaplain Gary

*Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) August 20, 2014

Friday, September 5, 2014

After the light goes down

    Earlier this week, my wife and I went to the Denver Botanic Gardens for an event that also gave us the opportunity to see the David Chihuly art installation.  For those unfamiliar with his work, Chihuly “sculpts” in blown glass.  He has exhibited, and has pieces in museums, all over the world.  The installation at the Botanical Gardens has been fabulously received.  I was anxious to see it.
    We arrived just after 6:00pm; it was still daylight (although a bit dim because of overcast skies).  As we walked around the gardens, the lighting was such that we were able to see reflections of some pieces in the ponds.  Other pieces simply were so well-integrated in their setting that they looked both otherworldly and natural at the same time.  The evening wore on, and, between the clouds and the setting sun, darkness descended on the gardens . . . and an (almost) entirely different set of artworks appeared.
    Lit from beneath, above, within, and/or behind, the glass shimmered and shown in ways that couldn’t have been anticipated during the daylight hours.  Objects in the background framed the sculpture in a different way.  In some cases, the individual pieces of art stood on their own as the surrounding plants disappeared.  I was captivated by the change.
    Our visit to the gardens came during Orientation Week here at the University.  As always happens to me during this week-before-classes-begin, I spend a lot of time thinking about what it is we do at colleges/universities, what it is that these new students will find.  And, sometimes, in years past, I’ve thought of our educational enterprise as being one of “turning the lights on” so that what was once “dark” or poorly understood might become apparent. What occurred to me last night was that such pre-academic-year reflections were instrumental. That is, the “turning on of the lights” would enable the student to do something different with the information.  And that’s a good thing; If firmly believe it!
    There is, as I realized last evening, possibly something even more.  The change in the light clearly revealed something different about the art.  But there wasn’t anything different that I could DO with what I’d seen.  I could only appreciate it differently.  What changed was not the art, but rather me.  And, maybe that’s what we at the university are really about.  Sure, we’ll teach, explore and analyze facts and data. We’ll seek new ways to put that information to use, hopefully (I would assert) to the betterment of our fellows and our environment.
    At the end of the day/quarter/year/degree, however, may we all be changed.

Chaplain Gary

Friday, August 29, 2014

Clutter or Grime?

       In a couple of days, over a thousand new students (and their parents) will descend upon the University of Denver for the first time (not counting campus visits).  They will unload trucks, trailers and cars and, with the help of numerous volunteers, cart the students' belongings to their new campus residence.  Most of them will meet their roommate(s) for the first time.  Perhaps they've communicated in advance ("I'll bring the TV; you bring the Wii!"  "Dude, let's decorate in green and purple polkadots!"), perhaps not.  They may have decided which side of the room each student will inhabit.  And I know that on many campuses, the roommate selection process requires a pretty sophisticated computer algorithm (I don't know if DU does that).  I have to wonder, however, if the students (or the computer) really gets to the nitty-gritty of the matter?
       I managed a student residence for eleven years (I may have mentioned this before). One of the things that became very clear to me as I listened to floor-mates complain about their neighbors was that there was a big difference between "clutter" people and "grime" people. Some folks believe a space is clean when it is clutter-free; all the surfaces are clear, and everything is in its place. Others don't care so much about the clutter as they do about the dustthat may be hidden behind books on a bookshelf, or the grime on the baseboard behind the oven.  In short, "clean" meant different things to different floor-mates and, when it came to common kitchens and bathrooms, these differences became LARGE.  
(This realization has informed a lot of my pre-marital counseling as well!)
       The flip-side, of course, is true as well.  What one person considers trash (or dirt) is anobjet d'art to someone else.  The matter, or item, under consideration is not the point; particle of dust are particles of dust.  What matters is the meaning, or import, attributed to them.  As the anthropologist Mary Douglas pointed out, "Dirt is matter out of place".*  She goes on to describe how/why certain "matter" is defined as "dirt" by various cultures.  I've always found it a fascinating analysis, and one, as I've suggested, that has usefulness in many different contexts.  Certainly one context is the potential disagreement (and perhaps fruitful late-night conversation) among room-mates about how THEY came to hold their particular views on what a "clean room" implies.
       But, as I read/hear the news from around the world, I see a different set of contexts where Douglas' insights might be applied.  Whether they're the various conflicts in the Middle East or, more nearby, race-related violence in the urban areas of our country, one of the root causes (it seems to me) is that we've been taught (WE HAVE BEEN TAUGHT)! that there are fundamental and, thereby, worrisome differences between various groups of people -- whether defined by race, ethnicity, religion, gender, etc.  We choose to perpetuate these distinctions despite the best evidence from multiple disciplines.  We have "stuff" invested in maintaining these artificial and dangerous categories, and then we resort to "any means necessary" to eliminate those we deem "dirt".  And people suffer.  And, I believe, God weeps.
       My prayer for these incoming students is that they learn from one another that a candy-wrapper on the floor is just a candy-wrapper.  They may differ in how they regard that candy wrapper -- and that difference should be a point-of-departure for some great conversations.  If they can internalize THAT, then maybe they can bring some greater level of hope and understanding to a hurting world dealing with much larger problems than a messy (?) dorm room.

Chaplain Gary

*From her 1966 book, Purity and Danger.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Up on the roof . . .

     In the early 1960's,  the songwriting team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King teamed up with "The Drifters" to release, what came to be a huge hit, "Up on the roof".  Many have heard those opening lines over the last fifty years:
When this old world starts getting me down
And people are just too much for me to face (Up on the roof)
I climb way up to the top of the stairs
And all my cares just drift right into space (Up on the roof)

On the roof, it's peaceful as can be
And there, the world below can't bother me
Let me tell you now
That song, of course, represented a very urban reality, as later lines would make quite clear.  The idea, on the other hand, of finding a place of respite in a busy world is as real a concern in the suburbs or rural areas.  We all need a place where "all our cares just drift right into space."
       When we were in the process of moving to Denver several years ago, some Denver-based friends took me on a driving tour of the city to offer their advice about where we might want to find our next home.  One of the things they told me was "Make sure you find a place where you can see the mountains in the morning."  Fortunately, for those of us in Denver, that's not that hard.  And we were fortunate to end up in a neighborhood that allows me to see the mountains just about every time I leave the house.  I've seen the sun rise on them; I've seen them snow-covered; I've seen storm clouds develop behind them.  They are gorgeous.  There is a very good reason that their silhouette forms the backdrop for the Colorado license plates!
       This summer, however, I've probably spent more time experiencing the mountains than in the last few years.  I've hiked, I've fished, I've camped, I've bird-watched, I've breathed the thin clear air.  I've driven on the highest continuous paved road in the U.S. (Trail Ridge Rd in Rocky Mountain National Park).  And I've come away each time from those experiences renewed, refreshed, and VERY anxious to return again, as soon as I can.
       Those experiences called to mind the fact that I grew up in the shadow of several mountains, most significantly Mt. Hood in Oregon (above), as well as Mt. St. Helen's (no longer as tall as it was in my youth!).  AS I grew up, we camped every summer on its slopes.  I back-packed a lot of the area in high school and early college.  The mountains and the accompanying forests became part of my environmental DNA.  I will admit, however, that once I moved away from Oregon and lived in other areas -- not as mountainous -- I forgot what rejuvenation those heights would provide.  It has only really come back to me in the last couple of years, and I'm grateful for its return.
       That recollection brought new meaning to a favorite psalm from the Hebrew Bible, Psalm 121, which begins (in the King James Version) "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help."  For a number of years I've used that line as motivation as I ride my bike up a long and/or steep inclines, recognizing that the exertion it requires will, ultimately, strengthen me.  Now I see that there is a different kind of "
help" that those hills provide -- not necessarily help that comes from labored breathing, but rather relaxed breathing.  A breathing that allows for a very different kind of Presence to make itself known. 
       My friends were right; there IS something restorative about seeing those mountains everyday.  But Goffin/King/"The Drifters" were right, too, that "up on the roof . . . my cares drift right into space."  May we all (re-)discover such a place before the cares of the upcoming academic year begin to "get us down".  And, once we find such a place, may we visit it often!

Chaplain Gary

Friday, August 1, 2014

Remeber when?

      Every day I receive a message in my email in-box from "Mile High on the Cheap."  It contains a little list of things to do, things to buy, or places to go in the Denver area that are either free or deeply discounted.  This morning's had two items that related to the fact that today is August 1st:  Colorado Day.  Colorado Day (for those of you who are non-Centennial State folks) marks the day that Colorado joined the United States in 1876.  So, Happy Birthday, Colorado!  You're looking good at 138!  Anyway, those two freebies for folks in Colorado are free entry on Monday, the 4th (?) into any of the Colorado State Parks (which, by the way, are marvelous!), as well as free entry (August 1 and 2) into the History Colorado Center in downtown Denver.  Both opportunities are great ways to celebrate Colorado!   Aside from marking Colorado's entry in the Union, however, August is also the month that holds my birthday (No, I'm not as old as Colorado!).  And that started me thinking about holidays of various sorts.
      Colorado Day gets promoted as a way to celebrate everything that is Colorado . . . and that's great!  The idea that folks might spend some time in the History Colorado Center (for FREE!) also suggests that Colorado Day is a day to recall Colorado's past.  And if any of you have been in History Colorado, you know that there's a lot to recall -- both positive and negative.  All of that history has shaped us as a state, and as a people.  Every so often, however, as I walk through the museum, I get a sense that there's more than simply the recounting, or re-depiction, of events.  There is a hint -- although I'd be hard-pressed to point directly at its source -- of what we might become.       I think most of our holidays contain that potential. Many, however, seem to have become little more than opportunities for sales at mattress and furniture stores.  ("Golly!  It's President's Day!  I need a new 'fridge!")  This isn't always the case, certainly.  And there are folks and institutions that regularly buck the trend away from remembering the "reason for the season."  I think particularly of the annual July 4th re-reading of the Declaration of Independence by the hosts and commentators on NPR.  But how often DO we spend a holiday considering what it may call us to BE?        I've recently been re-reading formative stories from the early books of the Hebrew Bible.  So many of them end with the setting up of some kind of memorial of stones in order that the people might remember who/what it was that led them to that point.  But there was more at stake than a simple "Recall what happened".  The implication was that the memorials would also serve to remind the people of their calling, their purpose.  The establishment of rituals and holy days in most religious traditions are meant to be re-formative, to pull us back to our roots, our origins.
       Returning to our origins or history, whether in Colorado or congregations, doesn't necessarily mean, however, that we are meant to "re-create the old days".  "Remember when?" doesn't imply "Let's return."  On my birthday, I may recall the day I got my driver's license, but it certainly doesn't mean I want to be sixteen again!  On the contrary, it signifies a new level of freedom I attained, but also a greater level of responsibility.  So, Coloradans, Happy Birthday!  What can we become based on where we've been?  So, too, Christians/Muslims/HIndus/Jews/Buddhists/Wiccans . . . what can we become based on where we've been?


Chaplain Gary

Friday, July 18, 2014

What is the last thing . . .?

     Last weekend, I was camping in Rocky Mountain National Park.  I was enjoying the park -- fishing, birdwatching, hiking, and trying to stay clear of the thunderstorms.  For the most part I was successful in my enjoyment (although the fish mocked me, and the rain/hail was indiscriminate).  One thing surprised me at the outset, and the surprise grew throughout the weekend.  There were a couple of birds that I expected to see, that are very common in mountainous areas like Rocky, that I did NOT see at all:  Clark's Nutcracker and Gray Jay.  Almost anyone who has picnicked or camped in the mountains has had one or both of these birds as dinner guests.  But they were completely absent!  And, as I was leaving the park, two of the employee/rangers agreed with me:  it was unusual that they were unseen!
      And, of course, I started speculating (as did the park folk) as to WHY these birds weren't around.  Was it because of the pine beetle?  That is, given the beetle-kill, were the number of nuts/seeds down so far as to affect the bird population?  Or was the heavy snow-fall, and, therefore, late snow-melt responsible for a relative lack of picnickers -- folks who provided the free-pickings for the birds?  But then I started thinking in a slightly less "natural" direction.  Setting aside for the moment any effect human-caused global warming might have on pine beetle infestations or heavy snowfalls, what if something that we humans are doing (or are not doing) is having a detrimental impact on these montane birds?
       This direction of my musings may have been partly because of an article in the Summer 2014 edition of the Oregon Quarterly.  The article asked the question about how/why the island of Rapa Nui (or "Easter Island") became devoid of the verdant palm forest that once covered it.  One, older, answer was that the inhabitants had simply chopped down all the trees, perhaps to move the large statues around (in addition to providing fuel and shelter).  A more recent answer is that the early inhabitants brought rats with them that consumed all of the nuts from the palm trees, leading to deforestation.  Some speculate that there probably was some combination of human/rat cooperation in the devastation.  Regardless of the singular, or joint, cause, 
Paul Bahn and John Flenley in their book Easter Island, Earth Island, assume that there could have been a human who cut down the last tree, and who could have known that it was the last tree.*  They write:  "The person who felled the last tree could see that it was the last tree.  But he (or she) still felled it.  This is what is so worrying.  Humankind's covetousness is boundless".  How similar is that statement is to something Aldo Leopold wrote:  "Conservation is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land.  We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us."**
       Leopold's assertion may be correct -- at least the last statement.  I'm not so sure, though, that his first sentence is quite right (although, according to Genesis 17.8, God DID promise some land to Abraham and his offspring after him).  Prior to the promise to Abraham, however, God placed the whole earth in the care of humans (Gen 1.26).  We were to be stewards of the earth, yet even the translation that suggests that we have "dominion" over the earth doesn't suggest that we destroy it to suit our purposes.
       And so, I wonder what that Rapa Nui-an must have thought/felt when he/she felled that last tree?  And the absence, even if only temporary, or Gray Jays and Clark's Nutcrackers, caused me to wonder how I'd feel if I knew that I had something to do with the demise of the very last one of them.  Could I justify my stewardship to the one who placed the care of the planet in my hands?


Chaplain Gary

* Quoted in the Oregon Quarterly article on p. 8.
** A Sand County Almanac (Oxford, 1949), viii.

Friday, July 4, 2014

The matter of perspective

     Numerous prompts over the last week . . .
     1)  Last Saturday, I stood with my back to Pike's Peak, looking at a young couple who were "plighting their troth" to use the old language.  Congrats to Casey and Megan on their marriage!  Prior to walking down the "aisle", Casey and I had a final little conversation about marriage.  I noted (and he remembered) that, within a week following their wedding, my wife and I would be celebrating our 32nd wedding anniversary.  He nodded, and said that he'd taken that "perspective" to heart as he recalled our conversations prior to the wedding.  Yes, I thought, thirty-plus years doesprovide a certain level of perspective on sustaining a relationship that newlyweds don't quite have (but I hope they will!).
     2)  Earlier this week I was camping with my son at, what I believe, is THE . . . BEST . . . CAMPGROUND . . . EVER!  (and, no, I won't tell!).  We were joined in the campground by a family from Georgia (although the wife had grown up in Colorado Springs). The kids -- new to camping in CO -- were blown away and kept saying, "We NEED to move here!" From a Georgia perspective, we, in Colorado, might take things a bit for granted -- although they're pretty awesome!
     3)  The same family quickly hiked their way to a rock formation that overlooked the campground (pictured above, with CO Spgrs grandpa on the left).  My son and I hiked up there the following day, and the view of our campsite from that vantage point was quite different from camp-fire level.  Well, it's a matter of perspective.
     4)  As mentioned above, at the point of celebrating a thirty-two year long marriage, I are reminded of how different life looks at this point than it did when we walked downour aisle those many years ago . . . in a very different setting than Casey and Megan.  Joys.  Sorrows.  Challenges.  Successes.  Moves.  Job changes.  Deaths of parents.  Advent of children.  Wow!  Do I see things with a different perspective now (that my kids don't understand!)!
     5)  Last evening, on the 151st anniversary of the end of the Battle of Gettysburg, I was watching the mini-series about that important event.  At many points during the movie, the generals tried to find their way to the highest point possible (a school tower, or a promontory, or even a fence rail), in order to gain a better perspective on how the various engagements were faring.  They needed to see things that the foot-soldiers were not. 

     6)  Today, I am writing on the 238th anniversary of the founding of the United States of America.  And I read regularly about the conflicts in other countries around the world who are struggling to build their own futures.  I'm often struck by how commentators (or "opinionators") forget that we have a perspective born of that history that those still engaged in natal struggle do NOT have.  The talking heads seem so quick to condemn others for not being as "enlightened" as we.  We often forget our backs-and-forths, our struggles, our controversies, that have led us to where we find ourselves.  We would do well to remember.
      Finally, I'm reminded of the end of the biblical book of Job, after Job and his friends argue over WHY Job-the-righteous has had to suffer all the calamities he's experienced.  God speaks:  "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge . . . Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?  . . . Who determined its measurements--surely you know! . . . Have you commanded the morning since your days began? . . . Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades or loose the cords of Orion?" (and there's more!  Job 39-41).  God forcefully reminds Job that his perspective isn't quite complete.
      The reminder that was this week is that perspective is crucial.  That doesn't mean that we should not use our experience -- our perspective -- as a launching pad for arguing our point in a marital conflict, OR seeking justice on a global scale.  It only suggests that a bit of humility might be a substantial aid in our efforts, a recollection that our perspective is not the only one.


Chaplain Gary