Monday, August 28, 2006

On Epicurus
There is no divine interference in the natural order of things, according to Epicurus. Far from having been created by the gods, he said, this world has endured for an infinite time. ( "We can see that nature, free from divine tyranny, can accomplish all by itself."6) He insisted that the soul is a corporeal entity that does not survive the death of the body. Following certain of the earlier Greek naturalists, he also spelled out the crude beginnings of a theory of natural selection in evolution -- anticipating the discoveries of Charles Darwin by over two thousand years. For example: "And many races of living things must have died out and been unable to beget and continue their breed. For, in the case of all things, either craft or courage or speed has from the beginning of its existence prohibited and preserved each particular race.7


Saturday, August 26, 2006

Sightings 8/24/06

Cell Phone Theology
-- Brent A. Smith

I see applications for Paul Tillich's theology of culture in the most unusual places. His claim that "religion is the substance of culture [and] culture is the form of religion" reminds me to look for the deepest longings and "ultimate concerns" of human nature in contemporary cultural expressions, in the particularities and peculiarities of our time.

Take, for instance, our obsession with cell phones -- something that later generations will surely point to as a unique feature of the current era. Two recent cell phone commercials reveal expressions of deep longings in the present existential moment; they demonstrate, in unexpected ways, the desire for the assertion of individuality as well as the need for community as humans struggle to overcome isolation.

The first commercial is the series of ads for a provider that claims to offer subscribers the largest national network. In these ads, this network is literalized in a crowd of people always accompanying the phone-toting client. There is something soothing in this notion that wherever you go, and whatever "interference" you may encounter in your daily life, there will be a community to aid and support you, walking with you, even dropping out of the sky to be with you, as in the commercial. "You are not alone," the images in the ad suggest -- a prospect that just a few decades ago struck fear into the hearts of many. Now it speaks of a desire for stronger communal bonds in a time of increasing individual isolation.

The second commercial has a company's aging baby-boomer boss talking to his underling about his new cell phone package, one that gives him unlimited calling anywhere. "It's my way of sticking it to The Man," he boasts. His underling replies, "But you are The Man. So ... you're sticking it to yourself?" The boss says, "Maybe," apparently unfazed by living this obvious contradiction. During the 1960s, the "counter-culture" romantic ideal of authentic individuality was considered possible only over and against authoritarian conformity. Today, however, "sticking it to The Man" is announced even as it is revealed as an empty proposition.

Together, these two commercials attest both to a desire for and suspicion of community and communal authority. This ambivalence also finds _expression and response in religious life. Not long ago, I read the Winter 2006 issue of the University of Chicago Divinity School's publication Criterion, which contains a wonderful remembrance of theologian Langdon Gilkey. One of his observations about American Fundamentalism stunned me with its insight into the kind of tensions and desires I'm talking about here:

"The reality of the world from which the liberals originated and which they resisted was the reality of communal authorities. The reality of our world is of community-less individuals, where the hope for community, family, and church is felt very deeply by the otherwise empty individual .... Fundamentalism grows in America because the natural and social communities of life have been threatened by economic, political, and social developments .... [Fundamentalist communities] have a saving character to them. There's no doubt that fundamentalism is a real community."

Gilkey does not dispute the ambivalent nature of American Fundamentalism, nor shy away from critiquing its excesses. But he also doesn't deny its balm for human yearnings to be connected, to overcome the anxiety resulting from the condition of human existence: separateness.

As a religionist in a liberal faith tradition (Unitarian Universalist), I find Gilkey's critique stinging and prophetic. My faith's historic resistance to authoritarian structures that inhibit the unfolding of the self into individuality on the one hand, and, on the other, its support for the individual standing in as direct a relationship with God as possible spoke with clarity to a former time. Now there is a greater need for social bonds, for the covenants that help bring people out of the isolation of the self and into the redemptive possibilities of community.

Vestiges of authoritarian hegemony linger, however, even within the salvific possibilities of community. Free speech and the idea of individual civil liberties are being reconsidered nationally and internationally, and religion -- especially Christianity, Judaism, and Islam -- is a driving force in most instances, just as it is in answering this existential moment's most pressing human yearning for the bonds of mutual affection.

The present lesson in cell phone theology affirms this ambivalent feature of humanity: For better and sometimes for worse, the destiny and meaning of an individual's life are bound up with the destiny and meaning of a community and peoples of faith.

For Further Reading:
The Winter 2006 issue of Criterion containing Jeff B. Pool's interview with Langdon Gilkey, cited above, may be accessed at: http://divinity.uchicago.edu/research/criterion/index.shtml.

Dr. Brent A. Smith is minister at All Souls Community Church (Unitarian Universalist) in Grand Rapids, where he lives with his wife, son, daughter, son-in-law, and all those people in his local cell phone network.


The current Religion and Culture Web Forum features "Religious Identities of Latin American Immigrants in Chicago: Preliminary Findings from Field Research" by Andrea Althoff. To read this article, please visit: http://marty-center.uchicago.edu/webforum/index.shtml.


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

"Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher 'standard of living' is worth its cost in things natural, wild and free. For us of the minority, the opportunity to see geese is more important that television."

-- Aldo Leopold

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Cherokee Wisdom: Two Wolves

One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a
battle that goes on inside people. He said, "My son,
the battle is between two 'wolves' inside us all.
One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret,
greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment
inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego.

The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope,
serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence,
empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith."

The grandson thought about it for a minute
and then asked his grandfather,
"Which wolf wins?"

The old Cherokee simply replied, "The one you feed."

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Robert Ingersoll said, "The hands that help are far
better than the lips that pray."

Monday, August 07, 2006

"I'm not sure I want popular opinion on my side -- I've noticed those with the most opinions often have the fewest facts."

-- Bethania McKenstry

Saturday, August 05, 2006

"Only to the extent that someone is living out this self transcendence of human existence, is he truly human or does he become his true self. He becomes so, not by concerning himself with his self's actualization, but by forgetting himself and giving himself, overlooking himself and focusing outward."

-- Dr. Viktor Frankl

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