Wednesday, October 12, 2005

A book review of “No Man is an Island” by Thomas Merton/musings about alternative Christianities

First things first I want to thank Kevin for buying me this book as a going away present.
"No Man is an Island" is a very well thought out book. It consists of 16 essays about various concepts involved in the spiritual contemplative life. I will draw out the overall logic that runs through all of his essays, then I’ll mention a few thoughts about ethics that this book invoked, his view of pre-destination and free-will, and finally speculate about the philosophical underpinnings of his argument (I warn you I’m not a philosopher in any sense of the word).
I want to give a brief caveat about Merton’s worldview. At various points he writes some things that made me as a Lutheran/protestant cringe. For example "I exist to save my soul" and "God’s will for me is that I should shape my own destiny, work out my own salvation." Yeah, its that Faith/Works thing.
Merton’s basic framework that is found throughout the various essays goes something like this. Most of life’s anxiety and strain comes from dependence on self. But once we start to shake off the blinders of huberious we recognizes that we are all human, all fallible, all fall short. Therefore we need to love one another in spite of our shortfalls. If we don’t, no one will love us. If we are going to love others we needs to love them well.
To love someone well we need to first know ourselves. Merton admonishes us that we should not self examine too much (think of Luther’s thoughts about "bellybutton gazing") because we start to question everything and at its extreme "disfigure our whole personality."
We must not see ourselves totally in our actions, as they are often not our actions, but the actions of our unconscious or of societal compulsions.
To find ourselves we need to "take up our cross" and not the cross we want (for example who wouldn’t want to be beat up defending a higher truth, boatloads of starving refugees, etc [or maybe that’s just me] but who would want to suffer ailment or illness or a dead end job?), but the cross destined for us. Suffering is the most personal act that exists. It asks us "who are you?" It asks what were we, what have we become, what do we want to be. And in this suffering we will realize the contradictions in our answers. We will give up the idea that we are objective, as we often twist facts and information to fit what we know. We need to be humble and accept ourselves for who we are, because if we are not at peace with ourselves all our interactions with others will be rooted in falsity and only spread our internal conflicts into external ones.
Once we know ourselves we must be honest and truthful to the other, we will wear no masks, and be humble. And then we can enter into relationship accepting the other for who they are. We can, to quote Merton "respect their solitude." The other becomes more than a mirror of our own soul. Our love is no longer narcissistic; it isn’t simply creating people in our own image. We are no longer a painter creating a self-portrait out of the other. At base we are recognizing the right of the other to be an autonomous person; we allow the other to have secrets.
Now here is the kicker, apply all that I wrote about the other to God as well as our neighbor. We need to be honest with Him, as He knows us better than ourselves and before we were formed in the womb. Approach God, but allow God to be God,
"If I find Him with great ease, perhaps He is not my God./ If I cannot hope to find Him at all, is He my God?/ If I find Him wherever I wish, have I found him?/ If He can find me whenever He wishes, and tells me Who He is and who I am, and if I then know that He Whom I could not find has found me: then I know He is the Lord, my God: He has touched me with the finger that made me out of nothing."
Reading this got me thinking about ethics. Merton wrote, "We obey people not for their sake, but because we believe their will is the will of God." This kind of blew me away, what does that say about voting, about having bosses, about… everything! I think, I could be wrong, but I think, it means we have to ask ourselves "If Jesus was me, how would he act?"
Merton’s take on the conflict between predestination and free will is all wound up in the idea of Hope. (warning I may butcher his thinking) They are both brought together with the idea of Hope. By our hoping that we are predestinated for salvation we freely choose our salvation.
Finally, I noticed constant sideways references to Plato in Merton’s work. For example, our actions are a shadow of us, but we need to focus on the light that created the shadow, and of course his view of heaven, much like C.S. Lewis’ espoused in the Narnia Chronicles, is that of us (and all of creation) moving from the state of being Emanations to being Form. In heaven a horse will become the perfect Horse, a man will become Man. Nietzsche calls Christianity Plato for the masses, I think this is why. It makes me think. What is Hell then? The first thought of course is Sheol, "the grave", becomes "the Cave" of Plato’s Republic. Another thought I had was that we become the totality of a corrupt and imperfect emanation of ourselves.
A larger question this brings up is what if Christianity had a different philosophical tradition as the background to its history (baring the argument that all philosophy is simply a critique or counter critique of Plato)? I think we can see some generations of this in some present presentations of Christianity.
For example Liberation Theology does in some ways points toward an engendering of Christianity that takes Marxist thought rather seriously. At base it says that God has a preferential view of the poor. There are also Post-Modern Christians that I’ve read about some. The solution to the problem of "a lack of connection between things" is that we need to weave snippets of scripture into a quilt of new thoughts that fit into new contexts. We also need to further democratize theology. How to do this is rather nebulous.
What about a very Eastern Christianity? (I am thinking a little of Borg’s view of a sage-like Jesus) Perhaps like Buddhism there would be a recognition of suffering throughout the Bible (eg Cain, the exile, the destruction of the Temple) culminating in the crucifixion of Jesus. Then there would be an end to the cycle of suffering through the teachings and re-birth of Jesus in… the pure land.
Of course this is REALLY academic. Still, its interesting, I remember a while back there was a historical fiction series where Christianity was spliced with Norse religion and Scandinavia took over Europe… Uffdah!

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The Short Happy Life

So, I'm joining "The Alchera Project" The first writing prompt was:
"This month’s starter: I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone, but they've always worked for me. (Hunter S. Thompson)"

So here it is

The Short Happy Life
By Chris Halverson
I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone, but they've always worked for me. Drugs was the first day, alcohol the second. The third day… That was the day of the robbery, the forth… well, I’m only human. Trauma like that, it gets to you. Yet, those four days were the first days of my life.
“Get your arms off of me!” I shouted, scraping the attacker’s face with my key chain.
He grabbed harder, pulling at my wallet.
I turned around
Fuzzy. Fuzzy. It was cuddly, smarmy comfort, piss. I lapped it up as best I could.
“Adam! Adam!”
Funny blue man. I think. “Not so funny,” said the voice.
He was going to attack me. Like before. Like before. Like before.
“No, I understand. Last night was a bit much. It was kind of fast. Fast for me too. Sorry about that by the way.”
“Nothing to be sorry about. I. I enjoyed it.”
“I know,” she said, kissing high on my cheek bone.
I could feel the lipstick cling to me. I smiled, “bye.”
“Bye,” she said, walking down the street, her body swaying the way only a woman’s body can.
You know man. Fuck it. Seriously, if those kids don’t respect you. Fuck em. Tell ‘em they don’t need to be taught,” Allen was pissed. He couldn’t believe that happened. He had been born in Zambia, to him schooling was still a privilege, as he told me all the time, “you know,” he said, “Back in Zambia school was a privilege,” then he’d always tell me about how he even felt it was a privilege to be beaten by Mr. Everet” an overly zealous Anglican school teacher. “You know what. This is going to sound strange, but I even enjoyed it when Mr. Everet would beat me. I felt at least I was learning. It was a hard lesson, but a lesson none the less.”
Blue. That’s what they call ‘em. Blue is black. It’s all sensicle, because black… men can’t be black, so they called them blue. I saw that in that smarmy cute movie.
My head ached. I hadn’t felt like this since I was a freshman back at University. I opened my blurry eyes. Not my bed I think, and look around.
“Wow,” I say, mystified as this woman comes in, with some bacon, toast and an Asprin.
“Hey, Adam,” she said, smiling, satisfied.
She was beautiful, long black hair, athletic build, green eyes, in her mid twenties.
“Adam,” I replied. I was already on my 5th drink and the night was young. The music was campy, all smiles. I put out my hand to shake hers. Then. I was all smiles and kissed her hand.
She smiled too. I think she liked me.
“Care to go to a movie?” she asked.
“What’s playing?”
“It… Doesn’t matter,” she replied, pulling me from the barstool. I almost fell into her, she just laughed, and tugged me onward. I followed.
“Tell you what would make you feel better.”
“Hmm?” I questioned.
“One… of these,” he said, producing a little round pill with a hello-kitty image on it.
“I don’t know. That seems.”
“Dude. You have a couple of days off. This doesn’t do anything worse than weed.”
I shrugged him off, “Na. I’m… you know, a teacher… DARE and…”
“Come on Adam. For this week don’t be a teacher. It’s like back home, a right of passage.”
The blue fuzzy African man held me down.
“Calm man, calm. Put that shit,” and something fell from my hands.
“Adam!” he shouted into my ears.
“Did. Did you see
“He didn’t just disrespect me. He attacked me.”
“Shit. That is bad. Tell you what would make you feel better.”
She at down next to me, “So, you’re a teacher.”
“Not a very good one,” I replied.
“Yeah? Why’s that?” she asked, putting her arm around my shoulder and filching one of my toasts as I reclined and ate.
“I was
In America was all that was playing. The parts I caught were kind of entertaining, but not as entertaining as her hands on my chest, her lips on mine, her tongue with mine.
We wrestled through the credits, and the usher, younger than the kids I taught, in his bellhop-looking outfit, humming and hawing, finally made us go.
We turned to a liquor store, and soon enough we were in her flat.
“Why the hell not?” I said, popping the Hello-Kitty into my mouth.
“Should drink something, otherwise your mouth will get kind of dry,” Allen said, handing me a gin and coke.
I swigged it down in one gulp. I felt a bit of a buzz, but I think it was from the drink, “When does this take effect?”
“Should start to feel it pretty soon.”
I decided to go to a ‘Hole in the Wall’ before I went home. I looked at my face in the tinted window of a Woolworths. I liked the red lips she left on my cheek. I couldn’t help but smile. My head was clearing up.
“Mr. Davidson!” someone shouted at me. I could recognize the voice. And he was on me
Twice. Twice. Twice twice twice twicetwicetwicetiwice. Twoittwoittwoit.
“Twice!” I shouted at Allen.
“Twice what Adam?” he asked, putting the lamp I had held in my hand onto my dresser.”
“He-he, attacked me two-twi-twice.”
“Who did?”
And hit him hard.
He fell down, as did my wallet. I

I woke up late. It was after noon. My mouth was dry, cottonball dry. On my desk lay my students’ essays about In Cold Blood. They were already graded.
“What the hell?” I looked closely at them. It was my writing, a little sloppy, but my writing.
Sandra. C
You missed the point of the book entirely, it is ‘non-fiction novel.’ I know you can do better.
Thomas. B+
Good stuff. You really are improving. You’re literate now! Good job.
Brad. F
Ssee me after class. This isn’t your writing. You obviously got this from the internet. You’ve done this a lot. I’ve let it slide because I don’t expect much from you. That’s wrong. You deserve to be held to the same standards as the rest of your class… And another thing! If you ever hit me again I swear I’ll rip your heart out.
I showered, made myself some breakfast, and called up Allen.
“Hey. That was good. You know what. I finished all my grading…”
“I finished all my grading. I read 31 four page essays and.”
“Cool. So you have some free time?”
“Let’s go drinking tonight. There’s someone I’d like you to meet. She’s the Residential Director at the Empire.”
“Well. I was thinking… I need to…”
“What? You’re done grading, and you don’t have to deal with students for a couple of days still.”
“Okay. I’ll go.”
I was breathing quickly, hyperventilating. “Gotta find Brad.”
“So what, he can attack you again?”
I shook my head no… vigorously.
“Make sure he’s okay.
“This is good,” I said, referring to the breakfast, and the cuddling, and the whole situation.
She nodded.
“You know what? Last night, after you passed out on my bed.”
I laughed at that.
“I got to writing. I hadn’t been able to… to do it well, for a while. But I just sat down next to the bed, watching you kind of writhe around, muttering. And I got something! I wrote a whole monologue in one night!”
I sopped up the last of the yolk with a piece of toast, “What’s it called?”
“The Short Happy Life.”
“Like Hemingway.”
Things were smashing around everywhere. Allen was laughing. I was to, but I didn’t know why.
“There you go. Not so bad my little Adisa,” he said, hefting me up and walking me to his car. We drove around for a while in the rain. Things were blurry and passed fast.
“Now my little Adisa,” he always calls me that when he’s gotten me to do something new. It means ‘one who will teach us.’ ‘Adisa why don’t you rap Shakespeare.’ ‘Adisa, let’s go clubbing, maybe you’ll find someone.’
“Yes, sweet Feirefiz,” I responded. Feirefiz was the only black in Arthurian legend.
“Just sit down. Enjoy the night. Do whatever strikes you.”
I nodded, stumbling up the set of stairs to my flat.
I picked it up and put it back in my pocket.
“You know what,” he was getting up from the ground, holding his jaw, “you get an F. Brad. You get an F, its what you deserve. Start taking life seriously. Start realizing this is all you have, and you might as well do well at it!”
I walked off one way, toward the ATM, he ran off the other way. I hear someone shout, “You got it from the teacher!”
I think it was another student, Victor, who said it. I didn’t care.
I had a hell of a time convincing Allen to take me. I was glad he did. Brad’s house was in the worst part of Hackney. I was the only European for miles. I’d stopped stuttering, though the idea was still rather mad.
I knocked on the tenement door.
“Wha’s you want?” asked a skinny African woman.
“Mrs. Carpenter. I’m Mr. Davidson, your son’s teacher I would like to talk to Bradley.”
“Sure, come in. Would you like some tea?”
“Yes please,” Allen followed me from behind, locking his BMW with his keyless entry. Two homeless men were looking at the tire. Allen shrugged, the car beeped, and they went away.
“Bradley Adisa Carpenter, get down here.”
He came down a set of creaky stairs into the kitchen. When he saw me his eyes went big, the pupils went small, the whites large.
“Mr. Davidson. What you doing here?” he chewed on the side of his mouth, looking at Allen. I doubt he watched the kind of movies Allen acted in.
“We both have a little time off from school. I graded your paper, and wanted to talk to you about it. I don’t think you wrote it.”
Mrs. Carpenter was shocked. Bradley nodded, “Nah, I didn’t.”
“But you should have,” I said looking more at Mrs. Carpenter than Bradley.
“Yeah, should have.”

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Prayer request from fellow missionary in Guatemala

Maggie sent me this. Sounds like things are a little ugly right now.

"Hi Friends!

I hope all is well with you guys! It sounds like everyone is having a great time at their various sites.

I have another prayer request - Guatemala is in bad shape right now. I wish this were an email filled with funny stories, but alas.....

We finished language school this past Wednesday and it has been a bit of an adventure ever since, actually our last day was kind of non-existent due to what I thought was only the usual massive amounts of rain that rainy season brings - I don't know if you have heard about it but Guatemala has been ravaged by Hurricane Stan.

I am perfectly safe, as are the other volunteers but the majority of the country is not. Locals here are saying that this hurricane has been more devastating for the country than Mitch back in 1998.
It rained here for 3 or 4 days and has caused massive amounts of flooding and countless landslides. From what I understand from radio reports and newspapers, it seems that almost all the bridges on the Pacific lowlands have been destroyed by the overflowing rivers. There are a lot of people taking refuge on their roofs. In Xela (where I am currently living), the water in Zone 2 was six and a half feet deep. There's no transportation from Xela to much of anywhere.

They are now reporting 250 deaths - I think it may be more by now. I read in an internet article that 30,000 people have been evacuated to shelters from 270 communities.

This is a event with long-term impact. Crops everywhere have been ruined. Most of the Occidente and Sur regions of the country are dramatically affected - this is the area where I was supposed to move on Sunday.

Right now the immediate need is for food and water, but those won't be deliverable until the roads are cleared and bridges repaired/constructed. They are saying it may be two weeks until the roads from here to the Coastal region are cleared and at least 4 days until we can reach the capital city. Marcia thinks it will be longer.

Furthermore, yesterday El Salvador, who was also hit hard by Stan, experienced a large earthquake (I've heard a range on the rictor scale from 5.8-6.5), it was also felt in the Northern regions of Guatemala and in Nicaragua. This is in addition to the volcanic eruption earlier this week in El Salvador and the prediction of another eruption this coming week.

All things considered, we are in high spirits. We are patiently awaiting what we can do to help - attentively observing and taking in all that we can. Please keep us in your prayers.