The personal blog of Frank Lesko. Award-winning writer. Non-profit entrepreneur. Activist. Religious professional. Foodie. Musician. All around curious soul and Renaissance man.

See also my professional blog: The Traveling Ecumenist.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Crisis of Orthodoxy

I have always had a distaste for some of the shady dealings of Christianity. It is hard to swallow that much of standard Christian belief was enforced with the burning of both books and people at the stake. A good theology seems to require open discussion, so prohibiting that seems completely contrary to the whole point, not to mention the catastrophic assault on human beings and the freedom of the spirit that happens when you suppress such things.

It is also hard to believe a lot of what they came up with.

"Orthodoxy" is the word used to describe these standard, mainline Christian tenets. Most of these beliefs were solidified long before the major break-offs of the Great Schism and the Protestant Reformation, so they are still quite common among Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant churches. They include:

  • Jesus was fully human and fully divine.
  • God consists of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which is fully 3 but also fully 1 unity.
  • God is all-powerful, all-loving--yet evil still exists.
  • Humans are completely free, yet there is a Divine plan.
  • Humans are fully spirit and fully body (which drives a lot of beliefs about the necessity of bodily resurrection after death as well as the spirit).
As you can see, all of these seem to hold mutually contradictory ideas together.

History is ripe with challenges to these beliefs. Arianism argues that Jesus was mostly human with some divine characteristics. Docetism holds that Jesus was fully God--his humanity was more symbolic, but deep down he was really God and could do whatever he wanted. These debates go back to the beginning of Christianity, but as you can tell, people still argue these points today. I'm sure you know people who think Jesus was more divine than human or the reverse.

Modalism professes that God is one unity with three manifestations. Other beliefs show God as three beings (a pantheon of Gods) with a unifying characteristic. Pelegians believed that salvation is achieved through human merit, others believe God has a rigid predestination that is already set. Gnostics believed in the sacredness of the spirit but deplored the body. Process Theology says that God can't be both all-powerful and all-loving if you consider the presence of evil in the world, so God must not be one or the other. Many people today hold views that resemble these in one form or another.

One thing that dawned on me in my Intro to Theology class was that in each of these viewpoints, the mainline Church took the least logical route. These so-called heresies seemed to make the most sense. It is much easier for the human mind to comprehend a God that is either three beings with one unifying attribute or one being with three manifestations. It is easier to pick a side and say that Jesus was either divine with some human characteristics or human with some divine characteristics. How could Jesus be God and still have human vulnerability? It seems impossible for both to be true, and even the Church has not done a good job of living into this (such as arguing the Jesus was human but never tempted, which seems to deny his true humanity).

Yet, time and again, the Church went there. It chose the paradox.

I was really impressed that the Church chose to live within these "crisis points." They did not resolve the tension, but rather chose to glory in it. When you consider that religious truths are transcendent realities, then it seems that paradoxical beliefs are probably the best way for us to access something that is way beyond ourselves. Instead of reducing God to formulas that the human mind can easily wrap around, it chose to pick something that forces us to continually meditate upon and stretch in order to grasp. It invites us into this transcendence, rather than coming down to our level, so to speak (in that, theology itself is a true spiritual path, not just a discussion of it).

It is not that I necessarily "believe" that orthodox tenets of faith are "true" or not. However, I do think they are a much deeper and richer mine from which to continually extract from. They inspire the imagination and force us to wrestle with difficult--perhaps impossible--concepts. The mind and spirit can draw all sorts of meaning out of them because they are never resolved. They are like a big, juicy piece of bubblegum that you can chew and chew and chew and still find flavor. They are also hard and empty.

Some of these other theologies try to nail things down into terms the human mind can more easily comprehend. In that, they are missing some of the primary aspects of a faith-filled theology--transcendence, awe and mystery. A God you just can't grasp.

What it must mean for Jesus to be both fully human and fully divine calls us to comprehend an incomprehensible, unbelievable infusion of God into humanity, and humanity into God--to such an extent that we can say there exists fully Divine and fully human all together. It would be easy for some to say that humans must therefore be divine (Pantheism), but that would also be taking the easy way out. No, the story goes: fully human and fully divine. It is hard. But there seems to be no end to the water in that well, either, when you consider what it must mean for God to become Incarnate into human history, and for humanity to become part of that which is divine. There is a sense of relationship, as Barb Finan says, and movement.

This does not mean we should just celebrate theologies that don't make sense! It was Aquinas who said that "faith without reason is the emptiest of vessels." Faith must be informed by reason, and reason must be sparked and tempered by faith. But there is something to these orthodox tenets that really seem to live at the intersection of faith and reason without compromising either. This tension is the source of growth and development, for we all grow through crisis. The Church has chosen to live right at these "crisis points."

Value of Church Tradition

The organized body of the Church often seems to veer completely away from goodness and truth in so many ways to the point where it seems about as far removed from Jesus as it could be. However, there are some amazing examples where the Church has kept its finger on the hot button despite all forces that would pull it to the contrary. These aren't just accidents of history, either. The debates that solidified these orthodox viewpoints took centuries of debate and a stream of church councils to decide. It wasn't something that just slipped through the cracks while no one was looking. In other words, there is something about the fundamental nature and structure of the Church which is actually good!

Kinda like the Biblical Tradition

I parallel the development of these beliefs to the development of the Bible. There are a number of books out there that did not get included in the Bible. There are probably some decent ones. But based on what I've heard from scholars, it seems that the really good stuff ended up in the Bible. Somehow, someway, the long process that chose the books to be included within the Bible really did an outstanding job. The cream of the crop really did rise to the top. Sure, they excluded the Gnostic texts, and people may argue that the Gospel of Thomas is a worthy book. I don't know, I wouldn't be surprised if there a couple of good examples out there that were left out. The point is that the end product of this long debate created a canon of Scripture that is really impressive. Maybe not perfect, but really up there with the best. Like a polished stone which has been sanded down from generations and generations of waves.

Don't take me literally

The irony is that a paradox would preclude any attempt at nailing down concrete attributes. Knowing that eternal truths are transcendent realities expressed as paradox should by definition preclude anyone from taking them too literally. This is what cracks me up when people take these ideas (expressed in the Creed) as scientfic fact--we call them "mystery" and "paradox", duh. They are Models of God, as Sally McFague argues, not descriptions. Preserving paradox creates the need to transcend our understanding. This is the genius of orthodoxy.

This does not mean that orthodox belief is the only belief system, only that it is a darned good one. It is often the one most casually tossed aside, but also one that has stood the test of time better than most. It will be a long while before it loses its place at the table of theological discussion.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

How Do You Say The Creed?

Do you ever have difficulty reciting the Nicene Creed during your Sunday Christian service? You know what I'm referring to, its the section that starts:

We believe in one God, Father Almighty,
Maker of Heaven and Earth,
Of all that is seen and unseen . . . etc.

I have always had a difficult time affirming the statements of the Creed. I can't say that I agree with it and even worse, I don't understand what all the statements mean. I am no stranger to holding much of Christianity at a metaphorical distance, but there comes a time when I feel I just can't say this stuff anymore and still have any credibility (notice the pun!)

Do I just act 'as if' the Creed is true, and see if grow into it? Do I continue to question but defer to the longstanding tradition of the Church? I have wondered if there is a kind of grace in deferring to thousands of years of tradition--not to stop questioning, but to just agree to "go with it" for the time being. Just knowing that I don't have all the answers, and that maybe the thousands and millions of people who came before me know more than I give them credit for. There are times to wade in carefully at the shallow end, and there are time to jump into the deep end and just start swimming. So I figure maybe I should just swim in it.

Other times, it seems that the questioning spirit is a true path of faithfulness, and one affirmed time and again in the Bible--the questioning and fiery Job was the one who experienced a vision of God, not his doctrinal, legalistic friends. Abraham, who broke with tradition and refused to sacrifice his son, is the patriarch of our faith. These questioners became trend-setters and heroes.

So here's what I say silently to myself as a preamble to the Creed (or something to this effect):

I commit myself to the evolving faith tradition which affirms the mystery described as one God, the Father almighty, etc.

Its a lot better than:

I believe in the scientific reality of one God, Father almighty, etc.

MysticalSeeker regularly asserts that many atheists who were once fundamentalists do not change their mindset when they change beliefs. They just "switch teams" but are playing the same game. Their basic approach and the way they frame the questions remain the same, even if they reach different conclusions. This is an excellent point. The problem is that while many of us approach the Bible and other articles of faith with modernist eyes, many of us (myself included) are still trapped viewing the Creed in black/white, fundamentalist terms.

If we don't take the Bible literally, anymore, then I see no reason to take the Creed literally, either. I don't see why a literal interpretation of the Creed is some kind of prerequisite for orthodox Christian faith.

This may be a difficult assertion, since it can be argued that creeds lend themselves to literal interpretation much more than a scriptural narrative (just don't tell that to a fundamentalist). However, a more loose relationship with a creed may be more in keeping with the original intention.

In this, I rely heavily on Berard Marthaler's The Creed. He says that originally the creeds (there have been several) were statements of commitment and faith rather than of scientific belief. This wouldn't rule out a scientific interpretation, but it would not necessarily be the focus nor the point. Creeds have served many purposes throughout the history of Christianity, from initiation rites, articles of faith, up to an "outright test of orthodoxy" (9). Today, we see the creed only through the narrow lens of the latter of that list.

He describes the Nicene Creed as a narrative. In doing so, that really frees us up to interpret the Creed as we do the Bible: The product of a particular people responding to particular circumstances, coming to understand their God and their faith in the best language they could find (372). Its a wonderful piece of an evolving story, and the theolgy that it is based on is not lightweight.

The Creed is not something to discard, by any means. Like the Bible, it just has to be re-read with new eyes. Marthaler writes: "It defines us in a new particular relationship to God and to the world. In summary form the creed discloses that God at once transcends the universe and at the same time enters into history and the lives of human beings. Like all good stories, which are in essence pointed narratives, it has the power to change patterns of thought and meaning so that everything is seen in a new light." (9)

Now, that's an interpretation of the Creed I can swallow! We can still draw from the Nicene Creed even if we're not so surefooted about the literal details, just as we do the Bible.

The word "believe" is critical. It originally had connotations of be love, such as "This is my beloved son". We do not have that word in modern English. Through some mistranslations and the evolution of words in our language, we ended up with this cold word "believe" which expresses a purely cognitive, true/false reality. It really embodies the western mentality that frames too much of religious discourse as whether something is factually true or not. Marthaler suggests that the evolution of this word most likely has had a profound impact in shaping our western approach to religious faith and dogma (18).

The most literal, accurate translation of the first line of the Nicene Creed would be: I set my heart upon God.

Imagine starting the creed with: I belove one God. In that statement, it is not so much a factual matter of whether God exists or what form God takes. It is more of a question of loving the God that is and swimming in the mystery that surrounds this God. There is "belief" in there--it is not for atheists. But it has more flexibility than most modern people give it credit for.

One of the biggest problems in western society is that we view all truth as scientific reality. We have difficulty affirming the "realness" of religious mystery because are too hung up on whether we can "believe" it or not. And that is important. All truth is going to make sense scientifically, as well as in other ways. But it is also more than that. We ultimately don't go to church to profess laws of natural science, we go there to swim in the mystery of faith and relationship to God.

So if you're like me and disdain the recitation of the Creed, I say: Give it another shot! Like the Bible, you may benefit from a good guide to help unravel deep-rooted assumptions we bring to our reading, and Marthaler's book is excellent. It appeals to both the orthodox and the progressive. It has a neat chapter at the end which is a call for new creeds, and it looks at some modern attempts.

Seeing the Creed anew, I realize it is a lost treasure--hiding in plain sight for us Catholics, since we recite it at virtually every mass.

ADDED LATER: It has taken Christianity the last 100 years or so to understand how to continue to appreciate the Bible even though the literal details have been found to be suspect. We should not underestimate the crisis that occurred when scholars first began to call into question much of the historical details of the Bible. I imagine that it is also going to take a while before people can recognize the value of a creed when its message is no longer taken 100% literally, either.

My point is that there is value in the creed. They serve a purpose in our evolving faith history, just like Biblical narratives do. The early church, in particular, was very creed-happy and chose to frame its message in those terms, which may explain why there were no new writings recognized as scripture--the church simply shifted its focus to statements such as creeds. The various creeds has never been my favorite parts of Church Tradition, but now that I have learned to see them differently, I recognize their role and appreciate them. I think I would be missing out on a major slice of Church history to ignore them.

Outreach Really Means Reaching Out

Non-profit agencies often try to "look like" the people they are serving. If they serve women, they want to hire women. If they serve African-Americans, they want to hire African-Americans. Organizations that serve the elderly want elderly people on staff, and youth groups want someone "youthful" in charge. I have seen this play out time and again in the different agencies I've been involved with.

They are often more-than-willing to accept a lack of qualifications in their employees in order to meet this goal. This is not an expression of affirmative action. It is actually the belief that someone can better serve if they "look like" the people they are serving.

Commonality has a place. If I were on an expedition to a third world country, I would want a local guide with me. That is certainly part of the package. The problem is that as an overall guiding strategy, it is misguided at best, and at worst showcases a most dismal view of humanity.

This is more than just a lack of courage and vision among these agencies (although it is both of those things). It is nothing short of a profound lack of faith in human beings and a complete misunderstanding of what being in relationship means. At its worst, it resigns us to the belief that we are nothing more than the sum of our parts. There is no magic in this equation. It says we are just organisms in a behavioral universe--the better the match-up on a number of key compatibility areas, the better the outcome. So they say.

Mother Theresa was a white, celibate, Roman Catholic nun from Albania. She set up shop in a section of India that couldn't have "looked" any more different from her. Yet, her work was so successful it virtually defines outreach work today--or at least, it points toward the ideal.

All relationships involve the "other"

All relationships are a challenge. Mother Theresa would have known that she couldn't get lazy. There were huge cultural gaps of every kind. Sensitivity, attentiveness, focus and a willingness to work hard at those relationship were no doubt integral to her mission. If you "look like" the people you're in relationship with too much, you could risk getting lazy.

Her faith and love for all human beings was a guiding principle that she brought to any group of people, big, small, white, black, you name it. Perhaps she did not even concern herself with the surface traits at all, since she was so focused on our deeper commonality--our membership in God's family and our universal needs for love and food. But I think there's more to it. Its not just replacing once list of common traits with another, even if they are deeper things in common. There is a mystical belief that while we are channeled by the physical reality of this world, we can also transcend it to perhaps reach a point of ultimate commonality.

Any time two people meet, there is an experience of "other". No two people have the same background, education or worldview. Each time two people get into relationship--any relationship--it involves a reaching out toward mystery and an experience of tension. Nothing works effortlessly, at least, not in the long run. It could be argued this is critical to our growth. We need communication and a lot of effort to continually reach across those divides and find ourselves ever so closer, day by day. True outreach is thus a component of every relationship.

This isn't to say that cultural gaps aren't significant. Some relationships may accidentally work if you find yourself among the 'boys from your hometown'. On the other extreme, I've also experienced the unexplainable chasm of culture shock. However, a person who understands the difficulty of relationships should be able to reach across no matter how different the other may be. The quality of all relationships will depend on the ability of people to continually come closer and closer. I've seen married couples who couldn't have had a more similar background yet be more further apart.

In our western society, many people don't see relationships as an opportunity for growth. They are simply business arrangements, where you look for someone who matches your list of criteria. The special magic that many hope for is something they actually work against. They look for the end product from a list of attributes and are surprised when there is nothing lasting built from such a passive approach. They want something easy.

Sometimes the similarities are not what they seem, either. I have found some of the deepest and most immediate kinship with people who couldn't have looked anymore different: A shepherd in Spain. An Ivy League MBA student from China. My closest spiritual companions are often not the ones who grew up in the pews next to me. I can get more "amens" preaching to a group of inner-city African-American folks than in your average Catholic church. You could argue that each of these people have a small town heart or blue collar sensibilities, like I grew up with. But it wasn't about the costume, nor was it about race, age, gender or nationality.

Perhaps the above are bad examples, because they are "easy" relationships where the commonality was there, it just happened to be deeper than surface traits. And that may be. But if you consider these examples, you start to see that what brings people together is not so much what lies on the surface. The potential for greatness is in any relationship. And I would argue that there are deeper, more mystical possibilities for relationships that are sure tempered and facilitated through our 3-D world, but which also transcend it. This is a far cry from a mechanistic view of life. It points to a commonality, sure, but one that transcends any of the limitations of this world.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Open (forum on) Communion

I have always been embarrassed to bring non-Catholic people with me to mass (embarrassed of the Church, not them!) The reason is Communion. Those who are not "in communion" with the Catholic Church (i.e. non-Catholics) are not welcome to participate in, well . . .Communion. They can come up for a blessing (which no one does) and participate in the rest of mass, but not Communion.

It seems terribly unwelcoming. Which is hard when I'm, well . . . welcoming a friend.

It also seems controlling--if you believe that you need Communion for your salvation, and Communion is only possible for members of the Catholic Church, then it seems like there are high stakes for church membership. Whether this belief was ever "on the books" I don't know, but people have had the impression of this. The Catholic Church certainly has softer beliefs about salvation than that now, but in the old days who knows.

(This isn't the time to go into different beliefs about salvation, but Protestants have long argued for an individual, personal path to salvation, whereas Catholic Tradition has long argued for a community role, joining yourself to the body of Christ, which is, among other things, the Church. Can you really have Communion without community? This is why infant baptism is possible. It is not as much about personal choice as it is being brought into the fold. You still have to affirm this as an individual at some point. So the Catholic view has an interplay between individual choice and community involvement).

Closed Communion also just seems to create this "in group" mindset that seems contrary to everything Jesus was about. It was crap like that which tripped the Protestant Reformation in the first place. When abuses of this privilege become too much, it is not hard to see why people would seek a direct relationship with God instead of monkeying around with the Church. Just keep in mind that Protestants did not get rid of the concept of church, by any means, but maybe they see the role of church differently.

Right now, I'm just talking about the relationship to non-Catholics, I'm not even going to mention all the Catholics who often do not go to Communion because of some heinous sin they may have committed (such as, God forbid, missing mass).

It is bad enough the Catholic Church seems like it has some kind of dominion over the grace of God to transform the bread and wine into Christ's body and blood, but even worse to exclude people from that. Who are they to make that decision? (by the way, they don't feel like they can control God's grace, but they do believe that Christ made the promise that he would be available to them in the breaking of the bread). My beef has always been the exclusion of people more than whether or not the Eucharist is "real" or not (I believe it is).

It seems evident that Jesus would have invited anyone to Communion with him. He may have had his Last Supper with only his closest disciples, but you can read Eucharistic meaning into the more public meals, like the feeding of the multitude, which most certainly contained non-disciples (such as Brian). Besides, Judas was present at the Last Supper--at least in some gospel accounts. He wasn't exactly in "full communion" at the time, plotting Jesus' death and all.

However, there is nothing unreasonable for organizations to have rites of initiation. If someone values taking the Eucharist so much, then it shouldn't be so hard for them to take the classes and go through the steps to reach that point. If something is so precious, you would want to do your share to reach out toward it as much as expecting someone else to offer it to you. This argument doesn't work so well for a person who is not intending to be Catholic--Someone who still wants to be in communion with us while they are communing with us.

If I visited a Jewish Synagogue or Muslim Mosque, I would not be offended if there were certain parts of the ceremony that I could not participate in. It is not that I'm against openness, but I respect that different traditions have different levels of membership. I would not expect to take the job of an ordained minister without going to school and going through all the steps necessary. What is so wrong about having levels among community membership, as well?

This doesn't mean that God requires us to go through steps. I have no doubt that God welcomes us to Communion every day. But is there anything wrong with people putting an earthly structure around it? We are earthly beings, after all, and sometimes I think our minds can comprehend better when there is something concrete to springboard off of. Just as long as we don't lose sight of the fact that God doesn't always work within those human frameworks. The framework is valuable to our understanding, but not as a means of channeling God's grace, which falls like mist upon everyone and everything. Hey I don't know, I'm just thinking out loud here.

To Catholics, the Eucharist really is the Body of Christ. By taking that bread and wine, they are joining themselves mystically to Christ's body, which is already resurrected and ascended into Heaven. They are becoming con-corporeal with Christ as well as the Church, which is Christ's body, as well. Since Jesus is already ascended into Heaven, and you are taking in his body and blood, so you are joining yourself to Christ's body, then that is one step on your own path upward. If you don't believe that, and if you don't even want that, then why would you want to take Communion in the first place? However, I could imagine that there are non-Catholic Christians who would want that kind of union with Christ, whether or not they believe the Eucharist to be a symbolic or real event. So maybe Communion should include other baptized Christians, regardless of denomination?

I guess it raises the question as to what Communion really is. Is there a missionary value, welcoming all to the fold? Or is it "for members only"? Rites of Initiation are fine, but is something as important as the Eucharist really deserving to be the Rite of Initiation? Can't we make something else the Rite of Passage and leave the Eucharist for all people?

If the Eucharist really is that important, you would think you'd want it distributed as far and as widely as possible. But Eucharist is not just how it is offered, but how it is received, as well. It is something you can come forward to accept.

So I'm left unsure. How do non-Catholics feel about this exclusion? How do Catholics feel? What is the primary message of Communion--unity of believers or unity with all?

Friday, March 21, 2008

Nothing Left to Lose

It is a good thing there aren't people walking through the streets flailing themselves with bamboo switches, like in the Philippines. It is a good thing no one is getting nailed to a cross, today (hopefully). But I'm not sure that it is such a good thing that there is nothing different about Good Friday here.

From where I be, you can hardly tell this is a holiday at all. There is little solemnity in the air. There is virtually nothing different about today, except for a few anticipatory Easter wishes at work. Same dirty jokes on the radio. Same advertising. Every day its just pizza and chicken.

It should be expected. There is nothing commercial about a holiday whose distinguishing features are fasting and the memory of a torturous death. Its hard to make something to sell out of all that. Maybe that makes this a very special holiday, indeed.

It is a good thing that we don't live any longer under an oppressive religious regime that forces us to attend services and adhere to strict and sometimes unfair lifestyle guidelines. It is a good thing that it is no longer a scandal for someone to break with convention, out of necessity or choice. Its a good thing you can get yourself an emergency tank of gas, if you need one, or stay home from church. On Good Friday, of all days, it is good that there is mercy in the system.

But like the song goes, freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose.

And nothing from nothing leaves nothing. You gotta have something.

40 Days of sacrifice. 40 days of fasting. 40 days of walking the death walk with Christ. The Lenten season: an inconvenience. Church services and religious observance. It is a hollow victory to throw all that away and replace it with . . . nothing. Or more of the same, which is really a big nothing. We are free from the shackles of oppression, now go buy something. Target is open late. We beat that bad church, now let's collect the spoils and have another day of same ole, same ole. There's a porn star on NPR. And that's nothing.

And maybe this is a day of nothing. I'm not even going to memorialize it with a capital "N". No, its not "Nothing Day". It is just nothing.

And maybe this is a day to experience nothing. For if there ever was a day when nothing promises to turn into something, it would be Good Friday. If there were ever a day when the hollow becomes the hallowed, it would be today. Good Friday: God as Creator again makes something from nothing. Because, you know, you gotta have something.

And that, like the rest of creation, is good.

Sympathy For Fundamentalists and Atheists

It is not easy to live between science and faith. I can certainly see why some people feel it is important to just pick one or the other. There is truly a hard road that lies between.

Once you start questioning certain Christian assumptions and look deeper for the sources, there are some rather disturbing questions that get raised. Many of us don't take the Bible literally, anymore. Well, if that's true, then you start thinking: If God never spoke to Abraham in actual words and if God never handed the Law to Moses, then why in the world do we believe any of this stuff? Why do we believe in a God at all? Who told us that God exists??

If original sin didn't enter the world through Adam and Eve's sin (since Adam & Eve likely didn't exist), then what exactly did Jesus come to save us from? (See Bishop Spong's Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism).

It is easy to despair in light of this. Its easy to say "Its all just made up!" But there are good guides out there, though they are few and far between. I would argue that this hard path to faith is what it's all about.

I think once we start asking these questions, we have the potential for a really adult and healthy faith. A more true faith, if you will. By using the word "true", I am not trying to demean anyone else's faith, only to say that this definition gets to the core of what all faith ultimately is--It is a faith in God, not a faith in the testimony of others. A faith that is a true reaching out into the great unknown that each of us is called to do on our own (and in community).

Its not a matter of just believing that God announced himself to the patriarchs in clear and certain terms and taking that at face value. There is a role for a long-standing faith tradition, but it is not as much about handing us "truths" that we simply swallow whole. It is about offering us some breadcrumbs left by previous travelers for food and direction (manna, if you will) and some snippets of advice in code, the stumbling, incoherent speech of a person truly in awe who can't really describe what they have found, but they sure hope they can get you to see what they see, somehow, if they can just point to it and hope you can catch some glimpse.

You may end up with an answer like: The human race has sensed and experienced God and built theologies around that over time. How does that sit with you?

It is not a faith devoid of reason, nor is it a faith that does not have a reason for being. I do believe God does reveal self to us. It may not be through burning bushes or tablets of law, but the revelation is there. As my prof Barb Finan says, "We can know something about this God."

Scripture scholar Raymond Brown would urge people not to craft a sermon based upon simply debunking the literalness of scripture accounts (101 Questions and Answers on the Bible). What good does it accomplish to say "The world was not created in 6 days" and leave it at that? That's not exactly spiritual food, and you could risk jeopardizing the entire faith of the audience. Why stomp out pillars of someone else's faith and leave them nothing to rebuild with? Faith is a good thing, after all. A better sermon might be like: "The world was not created in 6 days, which frees us to see the ability of God the Creator in the wonders of evolution from the Big Bang forward. The Biblical accounts of creation can be enriched with an understanding of evolution, and visa versa." Showing people how to embrace science while still maintaining faith is a wonderful gift. Perhaps that is a lonely road people should trod themselves, but it wouldn't hurt to have faith communities out there offering a helping hand, would it?

People have an "Experience of God", as Dermot Lane puts it in a book with the same title. People have a sense of faith and a relationship to the Divine. I would add that when science conflicts with that, people either pick science or faith, depending on which has left the stronger impression. Fundamentalists cannot deny their faith nor their experience of God, so the parts of science that do not reconcile with this faith they simply throw out. Scientists do the same thing with religion. While it is important to reconcile science with religion, it is better to try to keep them both alive.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Nutrient Dense

Our hunter & gatherer ancestors ate a diet of fresh and organic foods and did not have as many options for "empty calories" as we do. The folks at the Weston Price Foundation regularly talk about the importance of eating "nutrient dense" foods. Its an important concept to keep in mind: It is a worthy goal to make sure everything you eat is packed full of vitamins, minerals and all manner of good nutrition.

Here are some guidelines for including more nutrient dense foods in your diet:

Avoid buying foods that are already cut, peeled and diced at the store. Nutrients can break down the longer they are exposed to the air.

Avoid peeling foods at all! Buy a vegetable brush instead of a peeler. Mashed potatoes with bits of skin in? That's the best! The peels are often where the most nutrition is, anyway. The problem is that skins are also the place most likely to contain pesticides. Buying organic helps to deal with that problem (its not foolproof, since some organics can have cross-contamination from other fields (even though that's supposed to invalidate their "organic" status), or it could have gotten contamination in the picking and shipping--just wash them). You can buy solutions that will clean the wax and other chemicals off of fruit before buying them, as well.

Eat foods that spend the least amount of time between harvest and your table. Sometimes canned and frozen foods are really good in this regard: They are often preserved within hours of harvesting, whereas "fresh" foods at the grocery store may have been picked days or even weeks earlier. Its important to eat some raw foods, though, so there is a place for those fresh items in your diet. However, a better option is buying food that was picked just hours ago (from a local farmers market) but still fresh. A step further, eating veggies or berries right off the plants in your backyard garden while standing in the noonday sun is, as they say, priceless.

Know where your food has come from! The nutrition of food is highly dependent on the soil and agricultural techniques of the farmers. This goes for animals, too. Animals raised on natural diets are much more nutritious than the factory farmed ones (cows eat grass, not grains!) Many of the organic eggs around here boast having 30% higher levels of Vitamins A and E and some minerals, too, than the non-organic varieties. You don't need to know the nitty gritty of all farming techniques. Just knowing that the farmers regularly build up their fields with natural compost instead of oil-based fertilizers and raise their animals on a diet that is natural to the animal will be enough. Factory farms have been depleting their soil for generations, which results in poorer quality foods.

When in doubt, err on the side of organics. You can taste the nutrition. If a carrot is positively bursting with flavor, odds are it is bursting with nutrition, too.

Eat whole grains. A common guideline is that 50% of your grains should be whole. Our culture makes them scarce in restaurants and common recipes, but the whole grains are out there if you know where to look. You just gotta learn how to start slowly incorporating them into your regular routine. It took me a while to phase them into my diet, as well, but I learned some recipes and found good places to shop. Once you get accustomed to them, they are often much more flavorful than the alternative and you may just prefer them. Experiment around.

If your whole-wheat bread is hard and dry, its not being prepared right. Whole grains can be (almost) every bit as light and fluffy as white breads, but you need to find a baker who knows what they are doing.

See the accompanying chart on the left which compares the nutrient content of whole vs. refined grains.

"Enriched" grains add three different B vitamins and iron (more than what was originally present in the grain), but take a look at all of the other nutrients that are not being replaced!

You can view this chart as half-full or half-empty. It is kind of reassuring that even refined grains retain some of the nutrition of whole grains--they are not stripped completely bare. However, the refined grains contain less than 25% of what they started out with on a number of important nutrients. It may not be enough.

Do you really want to eat food where 2/3 of the nutrients have been stripped out, with a few of them artificially replaced back in?

The good news is that you get a lot from whole grains, more than just a few B vitamins and fiber.

I wonder if there are any reasons not to make 100% of your grains whole? I can only think of one reason: People who are just beginning to incorporate whole grains and other fiber-rich foods into their diet should do so slowly. It can be a shock to your system if you are not used to it, and your body will need time to adapt. However, I am fully used to it, and still wonder if there is any reason to hold back on whole grains? I need to research more on this. Just living in America, its hard to avoid refined grains entirely, but I've been able to do it pretty well for extended periods.

Consider how your food is cooked. You can take a beautiful, vitamin rich vegetable and reduce it to a hunk of empty starch if you don't know what you are doing. That's what happens when you make french fries. Potatoes have enough nutrition to sustain entire cultures of people almost entirely on that single crop. But the minute you peel it and throw it into a deep fryer, you end up with a batch of starch + assorted carcinogens. Nutrients have either been washed out, incinerated or thrown away with the peels.

Slow cooking is one of the best ways to preserve nutrition. I rarely have my range jets higher than 40%, and quite often I use the lowest flicker of a flame possible. High heat is only for bringing something to a boil or prepping a pan before food gets tossed in. Sometimes a lower flame only adds another 5-10 minutes to cooking (depending on what you're making), and it is well worth it. Crock pots, anybody?

Try whole sugar, honey or maple syrup instead of bleached and stripped white sugar.

At every chance you can get, eat whole foods. Keep the peels on, keep the grains whole, eat the pulp. Our bodies have evolved to eat them. And don't be afraid of eating the whole animal, for you meat eaters. Organs, skin and bone-in dishes provide vital nutrition that is sorely lacking in our culture.

The good news is that if you follow these guidelines, you can eat basically the same amount of food you currently eat. You are increasing the nutrition without increasing the calories. That's what it means to be nutrient dense.

Vitamin pills or foods injected with vitamins and minerals may not always give the return you are hoping for. Antioxidants in particular have not been very unsuccessful in supplement form. Old standbys such as iodized salt are still a good choice, though. I don't take any pill supplements, although there are probably really good ones out there. Much of the "good stuff" in food cannot be reduced to a simple amount of vitamins. This is why there is such a buzz about "whole foods" lately. When food is stripped of its wholeness, often what is lost are the proper pathways and support structures that deliver those nutrients to your body. This is a hypothesis as to why antioxidants do not work when taken in pill form. The antioxidant lycopene has been shown to provide all sorts of benefits, but lycopene pills do not seem to have much of an impact at all, compared to people who simply eat a lot of tomatoes.

Its scary to watch my parents skin the meats, cut off the fat, peel potatoes and carrots, make gravy from a powder rather than the meat juices right in the pan. Maybe they intuitively know something that I don't know, but so far the research seems to indicate that preserving the wholeness of foods is the way to go. There is a place for juice without pulp and non-whole grains, but those should be exceptions, not the rule.

Everything you eat can and should be packed with natural vitamins and minerals. It is not always a bad thing to eat empty calories. But every time you eat that white bread, think about what you could have eaten. Americans are well-fed, but often starving themselves of important nutrition, because the foods they eat are plentiful in volume but sorely lacking in quality. Every time you eat your empty calories you are hurting yourself not because of what you eat (although that factors in, too), but because of what you could have eaten, instead.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Rolling With It

I used to hang on the opinions of others. A good compliment would fill me with sunshine. A bad one could send me spiraling. When I would create music, cook a meal, or write an essay, I'd be anxiously waiting for a reply. It was all I could do not to hover over people as they were eating my latest meal and act disinterested when I was carefully examining their every expression. They could feel the pressure, despite my best attempts to disguise it. I really wanted it to be well-liked and well-received. However, (despite reports to the contrary), I could handle a negative response--the non-responses were by far the worst. I just couldn't stand not knowing.

In poverty they call it the "tyranny of the moment". In other words, what is happening right now immediately rules you. My whole being rides on what someone else says about this one thing right now--until the next thing comes along. I guess this is a form of emotional poverty.

It is probably still premature to think that I'm totally beyond this, but I've come a long way.

I've just realized that there is a bigger world out there.

I have cooked meals that would make you want to do nothing more than run to the top of the nearest mountain and proclaim it to the world (please enjoy my modesty). However, when I would cook for Erin and her 3 little kids, it was almost guaranteed that somebody was going to tell me just a little too eagerly: "I don't like it!", no matter how good I thought it was. At first, that was hard to take, until I realized how profoundly liberating that was.

I've written blog postings and other essays that reflected some of my most heartfelt feelings and beliefs, written with every ounce of passion I had. Yet, I've had some of my closest friends absolutely unimpacted. I could almost fall apart in the wake of their ambivalence.

But I've learned to hang in there. A little while later (but still very much right on time), someone would email me or drop a comment that shows they get what I was getting at. They might have even liked it.

A few facts

I've learned that when you send something out into the universe, there are a few things that are virtually guaranteed:

1. Somebody is not going to like it.

2. Somebody is going to like it.

3. Some are not going to have strong feelings one way or another.

That sounds unbelievably simple to the point of being simple-minded, but its wholly profound to me.

Its not unusual when people have a range of responses--it is absolutely the most normal thing in the world!

It really helped me to see the pattern to it all. Cooking meal after meal, day after day, for Erin and her kids really showed me something. The criticism was inevitable but so was the praise. I learned to trust that those response are out there, and learned to then focus my self-image on my opinion, not the opions of others. I'm not bound by a particular response, anymore, which means I can love their freedom to say and do what they want now more than ever. I can wait to let responses bubble up over time, and if people chose not to say something I am more okay with that than ever, because I know the good, the bad and the ambivalent opinions are out there. I trust that. You can't please everyone, so there is a freedom to make the art that you want to make (and have some cheese pizza as back-up).

I've learned to roll with it. A negative comment today? Okay, fine. I'll wait till tomorrow: A positive comment! The next day . . . ?

You never know what someone else is going through. For all I know, someone is congratulating me with false praise out of a sense of loyalty. Some are maybe blowing me off due to their own jealousy or perhaps I offended them or challenged them somehow. It might be their way of slowing me down.

And kids are just kids and need to individuate themselves by telling you how much they don't like what you do for them (right to your face). In fact, I scared one of Erin's kids when I "caught" him complimenting one of my dinners to his sister. I asked him to repeat what he said. He was clearly uncomfortable! The outrage--the sacred pact among kids has been violated--adults are not supposed to find out you like something!

Legendary Responses

Even legends in their field face this. Many love the Beatles and affirm their genius. Many think they are okay but overrated. Some couldn't give a rat's ass about them. Its just to be expected, and there's no way around this. We have a wonderful and diverse human race, and no two people are going to see eye-to-eye on everything or even anything. If the Beatles could elicit these kinds of reactions, why should I expect anything different?

I've read a lot of biographies of legendary musicians. To a person, each one of them has faced catastrophic rejection early in their careers. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find an example of someone truly legendary who did not get rejection at a potentially critical juncture. Toby Keith brought in "I Should Have Been A Cowboy to one of his early auditions. He was practically laughed out of the room. That song holds the title of the "Most Played Country Song on the radio in the 1990's". This is not an exception. Numerous legends have tanked in their first efforts, and often it had nothing to do with quality of the art. Musicians often speak with a prophetic voice and introduce something new, and the audience needs time to absorb it. You need the person who is receiving your art to have vision for where it can go, as well.

To all artists out there

Don't be surprised when someone really important in your chosen field doesn't like what you do. It is practically guaranteed. Their opinion will want to make you run home with your tail between your legs never to come out again. Don't fall for that. It is absolutely to be expected.

It is important to take constructive criticism--don't let the message of this post obscure that fact and convince you to ignore everyone else's opinion. Just don't let your entire mission for your art or mood depend on the response of one person. If you believe in yourself and your art, why would you let someone else control your entire life's work by giving up in the wake of one bad review?

Its like the weather in Cleveland: If you don't like it, just wait a few minutes. Someone else will come along (probably sooner than you think) to give a completely different view. You can almost time your watch to it. I have learned to enjoy it, the good the bad and the indifferent. I can now love the responses of every person since I am no longer dependent on them. I take joy in the wide array of reactions people have, since they no longer threaten to shake me to my core. Its so liberating that someone can tell me "this sucks!" and I can laugh along with them and appreciate the dialogue rather than crawling into my shell over it.

Grace and Freedom

I often get really stressed trying to please others, and often don't share important parts of myself for fear of rejection. But its absolutely unrealistic to think that what you create is not going to get rejected by somebody, someplace. Nevertheless, if I really believe in something I've created, there will be others who share that opinion. But no group of people is ever 100% convinced of anything--it would be a boring human race if that were so!

Besides, it is rare for me to like something the first time I experience it. Take music, for example. Good songs need time for the roots to dig deep. The music that I do like initially is often music I don't care for in the long run.

I think this is what theologians mean when they talk about the marriage of grace (inspiration) and free will. The grace to create, and the freedom to appreciate that gift in your own way (or not), and to love them and love their freedom through it all!

Call For Proverbs


I am studying the Book of Proverbs in my class on Wisdom Literature. For one of the assignments, I am to compile a list of modern proverbs from my family, friends and acquaintances. These can be any kind of mom-isms or words of wisdom that are thrown around--words to grow on that you may have grown up on.

We know some familiar Ben Franklin-ish ones, like:

A penny saved is a penny earned.

Early to bed, early to rise, makes a person healthy, wealthy and wise.

A stitch, in time, saves nine.

Can you think of any more? Are there modern ones you grew up with that you would be like to share?

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Term Limits on Dynasties

I propose an amendment to the Constitution:

"Presidents (and their spouses and immediate family members) should not hold the elected office of President of the United States for more than 2 terms total (including all said relations)."

We haven't had a presidential election since 1976 that didn't have either a Bush or a Clinton on the national ticket (a fact that was so well pointed out by an audience member at one of the ga-zillion recent Democratic debates).

We have term limits for presidents. However, it seems like these "royal families" have found a loophole around that system. There seems to be a never-ending supply of spouses, children and grandchildren to further their dynasty.

Worst case scenario: 8 years of Hillary Clinton followed by 8 years of Jeb Bush. By that time, Chelsea will probably be ready to begin her run.

If "White House experience" were so critical, we wouldn't have term limits in the first place. We do take a risk as a nation to impose them. We bring fresh meat into the White House every 4 or 8 years. Those "first 100 days" are often tenuous as our new leader is expectedly tested by domestic and international powers.

However, most of us are content with this and willing to let a few good ones go rather than risk quasi-dictatorship. I can only imagine how many terms Reagan or Bill Clinton would have had without term limits. Keep them moving, I say, and let them retire as gentlemen farmers.

A lot of businesses have policies against family privilege, and for good reason. Not only does it create a tendency toward favoritism, but it can build a power dynamic within one group of people that offsets the checks and balances so critical in a healthy democracy.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Why Organic

Its a good thing to eat foods raised without chemical fertilizers and pesticides. By definition, that's what makes something "organic." Avoiding those toxins is a good enough reason to choose organics, but it is not the only one--There are possibly even better reasons to choose organics.

Organic foods (usually) taste better and are more nutritious. They taste like they have come out of your backyard garden. The lack of chemical residue might be part of that. However, you may know from your own gardens that you have used pesticides and still yielded great tasting foods.

The reason has to do with the way the crops are raised. Most of the food you buy at the grocery store has been raised on the same fields for decades. This by itself is not a problem, except for the fact that modern agriculture depletes the soil. Tilling lays the land vulnerable to erosion. Oil-based fertilizers give an injection of nitrogen but little else. Then you tack onto that the effect of crop after crop, year after year. As a result, some of the vegetables today have a nutrient content that is--believe it or not--up to 40 times less than vegetables grown in the 1940-50s! (the linked article gives a number at the lower end of that spectrum (15%), but I have heard it as high as 40% from other sources which I can't find right now).

Organic farming cannot use oil-based fertilizers. They rely on natural compost--yard clippings, tree leaves, kitchen scraps and animal manure from naturally-raised animals. This kind of farming builds up the soil and replaces lost nutrients.

There is a debate as to whether or not organic foods are really more nutritious than conventionally raised ones. In theory, there may not be a difference on an apples to apples comparison. Let's say you grow two sets of carrots. They are both the same breed, grown in the same soil in the same climate with the same methods of farming. The only difference is that one batch is sprayed with pesticides and the other batch is not. Pound for pound, are the organic carrots really going to be any more nutritious?

I don't know, but I would imagine the answer is "no." Furthermore, the yield per acre is probably higher for the pesticide-sprayed crop. The trick is that a situation like that is probably rare. The seeds used to grow organics are generally from heirloom or natural species, not genetically modified ones (the linked article above shows how some of these genetically modified species are less able to absorb nutrients from the soil). The soils and farming practices are rarely the same, considering what I've written above about soil maintenance and composting.

The lack of pesticides may have little to do directly with nutrition. However, the whole story is that organics are raised in a vastly different culture than conventionally farmed crops. The earth is better maintained--you can taste it, and your body will know.