2019 Journal

An occasional record of thoughts and questions

16 December 2019

As I was washing blueberries for our breakfast fruit, I cupped the damp berries in my palm and thought how beautiful they were, shining from the water and the snow-lit sky. Then it occurred to me that I should write a series of brief essays about things of beauty I encounter in everyday life—A Book of Beauties—but no sooner had the title come to me than I realized it would seem like an imitation of Ross Gay’s wonderful Book of Delights. Title aside, however, what if I began the new year looking and listening for instances of beauty? If the writing came to nothing, this would still be a good spiritual practice—a daily expressions of gratitude. Would I learn anything about beauty? About the world? About myself?

11 April 2019

The word “gospel” derives from a root that means “good story” or “good news.” The orthodox Christian view is that the “good news” is our reprieve from mortality, and the promise of eternal life with our loved ones. Is there any wonder that such a belief is passionately embraced by evangelicals? But what if the “good news” was not about escaping death but about our fundamental nature? What if the actions, stories, and words attributed to Jesus were meant to reveal our capacity for love, for caring, for compassion? So interpreted, the “news” he brought would be the same as the news offered by the Buddha: in our depths, there is a serene, all-embracing love that frees us from suffering in this life.

I am reminded of the exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees in Luke 17:20-21. “Now having been questioned by the Pharisees as to when the kingdom of God was coming, He answered them and said, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ For behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst.” Often the key clause is translated as “the kingdom of God is within you” or “inside you.” But many of the modern translations offer “in your midst” or “among you.” Maybe that is the good news of the gospel: We are in heaven here and now; it is the loving community that we make together.

Salvationism focuses on the self, the ego, the individual. The appeal of that approach is obvious. But what if our “redemption” from loneliness and suffering is provided by community, here and now, in this world, the only world, and not in some afterlife?

1 April 2019

I’ve lost my taste for books that are merely current or competent.  I want to read work that is highly accomplished as art, or that addresses my ecological and social concerns in powerful ways, or that teaches me something about the art of writing, or that deepens my understanding of my American lineage.  Recently, an interest in discerning that lineage led me to pick up Robert Penn Warren’s New and Selected Essays (1989).  I’ve owned the book for years, and I read two of the essays early on, but I set it aside.  Turning back to it now, reading Warren on poetry, on Mark Twain, on Hemingway or Faulkner, I’m reminded of the insight that a first-class writer can bring to literary criticism.  In his essay, “The Use of the Past,” he describes what I take to be the importance of lineage, whether understood in a literary or spiritual sense:  “The past is, in fact, the great pantheon where we can all find the bearers of the values by which we could live.  It gives us the image of a community and of a role, an identity, within the community, the image of a self to be achieved” (p. 50).

15 March 2019

One might formulate the fundamental questions of our existence in terms of five P’s:

17 February 2019

This is a dark time not only in our nation’s history, but in the history of humankind. More widespread suffering is sure to come, caused by the disruption of Earth’s climate and the unraveling of the ecological web. Even as the human population grows, large regions will become uninhabitable, due to coastal flooding, extreme heat, wildfires, and epidemic disease. There will be more severe shortages of fresh water and food, more civil wars over dwindling resources, more refugees.

There are two kinds of suffering. There is the kind that comes of our being mortal creatures—subject to pain, accident, illness, disappointment, loss of people we love, and ultimately our own death. Such suffering is unavoidable.

The other kind of suffering is caused by human actions or neglect—caused by murder, rape, war; by hatred, especially that based on race, gender, and religion; by fraud and theft; by the ravaging of Earth for private profit; by lack of medical care; by poverty amid wealth; hunger amid an abundance of food; homelessness in a land filled with mansions. Such suffering is avoidable; it can be relieved.

If one follows national and international news, it’s easy to feel discouraged about our society and our species. To grab our attention, the mass media feed us reports about violence, cruelty, dishonesty, obscene riches and insatiable greed. They offer us a parade of showoffs and charlatans, bigots and egomaniacs. They show us humans at our worst.

But that impression is not the whole truth, or even the most important truth, about us. In communities across America, there are people who work to reduce hunger, house the homeless, welcome refugees, shelter abused women and children, provide healthcare for those who can’t afford it, protect the air and water and soil on which we all depend. That is what we do at our best. Instead of causing suffering, we seek to relieve it. We care for one another and for the Earth.

1 January 2019

I begin the year with a question that has haunted me since childhood: Are living creatures, myself among them, related to anything eternal? Is there a source of Being, a dimension of reality, that transcends the universe we can observe? Most of our ancestors, and most of our contemporaries the world over, have answered yes. But the popularity of a belief is not evidence for its truth--nor for its falsehood. Most scientists would at least doubt the existence of any reality inaccessible to their methods of inquiry, and many would deny it outright. But why should we assume that the methods and instruments of science exhaust the possible ways of knowing? Mystics of many cultures have claimed direct experience of such a transcendent dimension; musicians, painters, sculptors, and poets have borne witness to it through their art. Supposing there is such a dimension, what can we know of it, and how can we acquire that knowledge? Believing that we arise from an eternal Source does not necessarily imply that we can expect any form of immortality. We may well be as ephemeral as any wave on the ocean, while only the ocean itself endures. That seems to me the most likely outcome of this brief and precious life. But I remain open to surprises.