Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Derivation of Catastrophe

As I write, heroic workers in Japan struggle to prevent what one headline called potential “nuclear catastrophe” in the wake of the record-breaking earthquake and devastating tsunami. I was struck by the use of the word, so I looked up catastrophe in my 1975 hardcover edition of The American Heritage Dictionary.
Catastrophe 1. A great and sudden calamity; disaster 2. A sudden violent change in the earth’s surface; cataclysm 3. The denouement of a play, especially a classical tragedy. The root derives from the Greek katastrophe from katastreiphen: to turn down, overturn. Kata-, down and strephein-, to turn. From the root Strebh, to wind, to turn, to twist.

At first the root meaning is not obvious to me. Then I think of the earth turning, like its own tides and storms, like the twisted strands of DNA. In a tragedy, literary or literal, there is also a turning. The tragic hero overreaches, underestimates, or both, and the tide turns against him, the people turn against him, the furies, the very elements. He is overturned, overthrown like a corrupt regime, downturned like our economy. We live in catastrophic times. Humans, as a species, share the tragic flaw of the hero, the illusion that we can control what is beyond our control for our own ends. And now we face global catastrophe.

Earthquakes, tsunamis, cyclones, volcanoes (earth, water, wind, fire) are natural disasters not caused by human agency (though increased storm activity is linked to global warming). They are the earth shaping and re-shaping itself, losing and restoring balance, as it always has, as all life does. This dramatic flux is nothing new on planet earth. A cataclysm (kata, down kluzien, to wash) is catastrophic because we cluster in huge numbers along the coasts or on the slopes of volcanoes or on flood plains where the soil is fertile. And if we must build a power plant on a fault line to meet our needs, we do, hoping for the best, preparing (however inadequately) for the worst—all of us, in every nation that has the capability.

As we appear to be in a period of denouement in our collective drama, we might ponder the meaning of tragedy. The hero in a tragedy is not just flawed but heroic. Our advances in technology, medicine, agriculture that have hugely increased our population and our expectations all began with noble intent. The tragedy, as a form, gives us a chance to identify where the hero (us) lost his way. The survivors of the tragedy (us too) have chance to restore the balance that was lost and begin again.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

WDJS: What Did Jesus Say? Individual and Corporate Discernment

There was a time in my life when in prayer and meditation, I would ask questions of Jesus (among other deities) and often feel that I had received answers—usually in the form of another question that made me see everything in a different light. When I learned that George W. Bush also spoke to Jesus in this direct, intimate way and based his political decisions on these conversations, I felt (and feel) uneasy. Was there any difference between me and the man who ordered the invasion of Iraq despite worldwide protest against this action, including the protest of many religious people and institutions?

In her recent article in Huffington Post “God in Wisconsin,” Diana Butler Bass notes that The Roman Catholic Church as well as most mainstream Protestant denominations have endorsed the Unions in their standoff with Governor Walker, but he remains immoveable, obedient to his personal understanding of God’s will.

Reading her article, I felt an appreciation for corporate religious practice, the checks and balances the institutional church can provide to the individual’s interpretation of divine will (which is often his or her own will dressed up as god, a particularly noxious and often dangerous form of spiritual inflation). My gratitude to mainstream institutional religion is ironic. I have always been on the side of those the church persecuted: mystics, heretics, and other nonconformists. Though I am an ordained interfaith minister, I currently have no institutional affiliation.

The daughter of an Episcopal priest, who practiced and preached the social gospel in the 1960s, I left the church to become a member of The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). I attended a silent Meeting (as distinct from a pastoral) where each person shared in the Meeting’s ministry and anyone moved by the Spirit could speak from the silence. Quakers temper the individual’s “leadings” with the corporate discernment of the whole Meeting. Their model works as well as any I have ever seen. So why didn’t I remain a Friend?

During my time as a Quaker, there was much controversy among Friends about their positions on Christ-centered as distinct to Universalist worship, abortion, homosexuality, and whether or not Friends could accept the worship of the divine as feminine. Friends often reminded each other that it took one hundred years for Quakers to come to corporate agreement on the abolition of slavery. When it came to my beliefs, I found I was not willing to submit to the discipline of corporate process. I was not, in essence, a Quaker.

For the past sixteen years, my communal (as distinct from corporate) spiritual practice has been hosting earth-centered celebrations at The Center at High Valley. Everyone is welcome, and no one has to believe anything. There is a beauty to these celebrations, which involve lots of singing, dancing, and spontaneous creativity, which many find people healing and even profound. But there is no institutional element, nothing to ensure that our heartfelt, eclectic traditions will survive in any form. Nor can we do something as fine as endorse the stand of the Unions. Our lack of institutional identity is a trade-off, a dance on the horns of a dilemma.

My personal spiritual practice is imaginative and has included re-writing The New Testament in a series of novels called The Maeve Chronicles, featuring the Celtic Mary Magdalen who is no one’s disciple and is even more hopeless at institutional affiliations than I am. In Bright Dark Madonna, Maeve struggles with people’s invocation of the resurrected Jesus’s authority. In a dream, she confronts Jesus. He explains somewhat ruefully:

“You’re going to have to get used to people having visions of me, receiving messages from me. It seems to be a side effect of the god-making death, as you call it. The druids never warned me about it… I can’t help ‘appearing unto’ people when they call on me, when they believe in me. I might even ‘speak unto’ them, but remember what Anna the prophetess used to say about prophecy, how it always loses in the translation and gains in the interpretation? It’s like that, and I’m afraid I don’t have much control over translation or interpretation.”

I would like to offer with a few checks and balances for people without institutional ties as well as those whose churches encourage direct, personal communication with the divine:

Is the divine message for you, regarding your own behavior and moral accountability?

Is the divine message directing you to reform others and possibly inflict harm on them?

If the latter, best to recall what Jesus already did say: “You hypocrite! First remove the beam from your own eye, and then you will see clearly enough to remove the speck from your brother's eye." -Matthew 7:4