Friday, September 30, 2011

Finding redemption on Iliff Ave.

     Photographer Robert Adams, in a recent interview on the public radio show "Colorado Matters" said that his job was to record what was, so that what could be seen to be wrong might be rectified, and what was right might be preserved.  Adams chronicled, through photos, the changes in Colorado in the late '60's and early '70's, and, when asked whether the photos would be relevant today, he replied that some things have probably gotten worse, but that there are always going to be those things that are right and good.  And he said that he always seeks to "find redemption in nowhere in particular".  Ryan Warner, the interviewer, found that statement quite thought-provoking, and so do I.
     Adams reported that he would often walk down a street or sidewalk, simply observing his surroundings.  If something struck him as photo-worthy, he'd snap it (the photo above was the product of that kind of meandering in Colorado Springs).  He wasn't looking for anything in particular, perhaps only contrasts or lighting anomalies.  He may only have taken a couple of dozen photos a day.*  Yet amazing photos resulted.
      What is counted as "redemption" will differ from person to person (and I'm not just speaking in "religious" terms, although the statement is probably true in that regard as well).  The idea that one might find it "nowhere in particular" made me wonder, however, how much I might miss that is "redemptive" simply because I didn't imagine it could be there.  With a different set of eyes, what might I see?
      I was, of course, listening to this interview while bike-commuting, and I looked down at the very cracked (and repaired) road surface.  What was redemptive there?  And the cracks spoke to me of the power of that natural world to undo a lot of what we make.  As we know, without the constant work of road crews, our streets would quickly become pitted, pot-holed, and barely passable.  Nature strikes back -- redeeming work.  Hopeful, in some respects!  I'd never thought I'd find redemption in the bumpy surface of Iliff Avenue.
     Maybe it's not just "finding redemption in nowhere in particular" but, with eyes-and intention-to see, finding it, potentially, everywhere.  That would be looking through the eyes of blessing rather than cursing. Of salvation rather than damnation.  Of hope rather than despair.  Imagine what might change if we could train ourselves to do that.


*  This is in stark contrast to National Geographic photographer Dewitt Jones, who would snap hundreds of photos, trying to be at the right place at the right time-like dawn or dusk-trusting that one out of those myriad snaps would be great.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Let there be . . . neutrino!

     So much for the speed of light!  Or so the papers reported this morning!  It seems that researchers at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva have observed a nuetrino (a sub-atomic particle) that travelled faster than light.  Given that modern physics is pretty much premised on the Einsteinian principle that NOTHING travels faster than light, this discovery basically rocks the scientific world.  A tenet of scientific faith, challenged by a scientific experiment.  Cool!  A researcher at Fermilab (an American counterpart to CERN) was quoted as saying "[If it's true,] it's going to cause us problems . . . no doubt about it."
     What other certainties, accepted as true, are waiting to fall?
     The report this morning comes on the heels of my reading a book review of a graphic book/comic book soon to be released by noted evolutionary biologist and feisty atheist, Richard Dawkins.  The book is entitled The Magic of Reality:  How We Know What's Really True.  Hmmm.  I wonder if Dawkins will quickly recall the book and add something about this challenge to a scientific "truth"?   I imagine that Dawkins will take this in stride; he is a good scientist.  But there is, in his title (in my opinion) an implication that we can know what is "really true" through the scientific method.
      I think we can know, through the scientific method, that which the scientific method can test and evaluate.  And we need to hold any findings as tentative; we need to approach the results of experiments with humility.  Another famous scientist, physicist Richard Feynman wrote of this humility:  "Every scientific law, every scientific principle, every statement of the results of an observation is some kind of a summary which leaves out details, because nothing can be stated precisely. . . . It is necessary and true that all of the things we say in science, all of the conclusions, are uncertain, because they are only conclusions."*  Feynman goes on to highlight the role of doubt in science.  In a subsequent chapter, he highlights the role of doubt in religion as well.
      I believe in the humility of faith.  It suggests an openness to new discoveries no less than a good scientist is open to startling results to experiments -- even IF it means re-thinking long-held beliefs.  What we understand about the physical world has changed over time.  Religions form and re-form themselves over time as they come into contact/conflict with new realities/circumstance.  We tend to forget about a lot of those changes as we sit in the midst of the current "truths" -- whether we're scientists or religious people or both (Feynman, though not a religious man, certainly thought one could be both!**).
      What does that neutrino portend?   It certainly rocks our world.  But so did Moses, the Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, Baha'u'llah.  And when they appeared, their contemporaries weren't certain what they would portend -- and in some cases that uncertainty translated into fear.  But we've moved on . . . . mostly . . . and generally in a positive direction!
      So, let there be . . . neutrino!  Rock us on!


*      Richard P. Feynman.  The Meaning of It All:  Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist.   Perseus Books, 1998:  25, 26.
**    Ibid., 36.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Take the time to listen

        Yesterday afternoon a number of faculty and students gathered to discuss "The Constitution, the Budget and Morality."  The two faculty presenters came from very different starting points: one focusing on the issues of consensus and the social contract, the other on differing theories of economics.  They weren't necessarily at odds, but the perspectives were quite different.  They did agree, however, that we as a body politic have lost sight of "consensus" and that "consent" (of the people) doesn't imply uniformity or agreement.   One of the outcomes of the discussion was a pretty palpable desire (in the room) for a return to conversation about issues, not vitriolic debates.*
       Conversation, however, takes time.  And in our "hurry-up" life-style, time "is of the essence".  Or is it?
       In our rush to conclusions, do we miss the nuances that are inevitable when dealing with human beings?   Do we discount another's humanity simply because we disagree with their points-of-view-and trying to hear them takes too much time?  A study recently has suggested that the speed at which children's show "Spongebob Squarepants" shifts scenes (say that three times fast!) begins to take a toll on a child's ability to learn and memorize.  Is faster always better?  Well, no.
      We want results, and we want them now.  And if we don't get what we want, we shift brands, or "throw da bums out" at the next election.  We don't really want to spend the time to understand; it's often hard work.  But, in the context of another person's thinking, understanding is one of the greatest gifts we can offer.  Sitting, listening, being.  We may not come to agreement.  That's okay.  Most of us don't always agree with the people we love the most.  Should we expect complete agreement with anyone else?
       I appreciate the advice given by Jesuit scientist/theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin to a young friend:  

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.  We are all, quite naturally, impatient in everything to reach the end without delay.  We should like to skip the intermediate stages.  We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new, and yet it is the law of all progress that is made by passing through some stages of instability -- an that it may take a long time. **

His advice to a young man seeking his way in life is also a good reminder to us that we might want to engage in the "slow work" of understanding -- which I might argue is the work of God. 


*  The entire conversation can be heard here.  The file is found on the right side of the page.
**  The passage/letter in its entirety can be found here.

Friday, September 9, 2011

False devils?

Idolatry is committed, not merely by setting up false gods, but also by setting up false devils by making me afraid of war or alcohol, or economic law, when they should be afraid of spiritual corruption and cowardice.  (G. K. Chesterton, Illustrated London News, 9/11/1909)* 

      One thing common to just about every religious tradition I know is the counsel against idolatry.  That is, the counsel against setting anything up in the place of God; it can be money, sports figures, self-interest, Simon Cowell, love-of-country, anything!  Such a tendency must be common to all of us, given the universality of the caution against it.  (And the caution is not against making little statues of animals with horns.  They are simply physical representations of some spiritual/psychological issue.)
       I was struck, however, by the nice turn-of-phrase by turn-of-the-20th-century English author G.K. Chesterton.  Certainly, he recognized that we are prone to setting up false gods (or idols).  But his assertion that setting up false devils is just as dangerous seems a very appropriate consideration at this time, of this year.
       First, we are on the eve of the tenth anniversary of 9/11/2001.  That awful day, ten years ago, was the manifestation of Chesterton's observation (reported, VERY coincidentally, ninety-two years previously, to the day!).  The terrorists had apparently set up both false gods (as in their understanding of religion), AND false devils (as in blaming America for all of their problems) . .  and many innocent people suffered.  But that awful day, ten years ago, also prompted many Americans to set up OUR own false gods and false devils . . . and many innocent people have suffered as a result.
       But, second, we are also on the eve of the start of another academic year at the University of Denver (and elsewhere); classes begin here the day after September 11th.  Many of us at colleges and universities--whether students or faculty--cling both to false gods and false devils.   When we are at our best, we hope the light of inquiry and knowledge will help dispel some of the darkness of both falsehoods.  But that takes a lot of humility-not a virtue that is highly appreciated these days.
       We begin anew.  We can choose to cling to the darkness, to false security, to the gods and devils of our own making.  Or we can choose to humbly seek the truth--even with those whom we might disagree or not understand--and follow that path wherever it may lead, perhaps to peace.  Chesterton would probably say that such humble searching was an act of great courage.  And, I believe, it would honor the memory of all the victims of the horror of that day.
       Here's to a new year, new possibilities, and a better world.


Sunday, September 4, 2011

A lamp, lifeboat, or ladder?

    Here at the University of Denver, we are literally hours away from the influx of incoming first-years.  Indeed most of the new international students have already arrived and are undergoing orientation.  Some other groupings of students are also here:  athletes, orientation leaders, etc.  It's getting busy!  Those folks in Student Life who bear the most responsibility for orientation and residence life are madly scrambling to have things ready.  Many emails are answered with an "away message" advising the sender NOT to expect a reply until sometime next week.  While folks are (for the most part) maintaining good spirits, every so often I'll pick up a note of stress and worry.  And that's to be expected, given the nature of the time.
       The incoming students, too, are often stressed.  They're out of their familiar surroundings.  With the international students, the language most often spoken around them isn't their "mother tongue".  Finding things on campus isn't always straightforward; I'm often giving directions or accompanying people to this office or that.  Anxiety about getting desired classes, about "clicking" with a roommate.  Stressful times.
       And . . . the economy is tough.  Political discourse is rough and inflammatory.  Hurricans and earthquakes have wrought real damage in people's lives and work-places.  We're coming up on the 10th anniversary of 9/11.  Wounds will be re-opened; anger and fear may rise.
     It is so easy, at times like these, to hunker down-to cover our heads until the storm blows over, or to distract ourselves to avoid having to deal with the difficult times.  Often we feel at a lost to help, so we avoid trying.
       In that regard, I was struck the other day by a quotation from the Sufi poet Jelalludin Rumi's "The Diwan of Shams of Tabriz"

Be a lamp, or a lifeboat, or a ladder.
Help someone's soul heal.
Walk out of your house like a shepherd.

What struck me was that there were three images provided for how to help -- and the help suggested wouldn't necessarily work for every situation.  Someone drowning doesn't need a lamp; someone in a pit doesn't need a lifeboat.  I often find myself thinking that I have one primarily "helping mechanism" and, if that doesn't fit the situation, then I'm somehow left helpless.  
       Rumi challenges me to think more broadly.  I'll look to fill my tool-box with many more ways to help.