We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure, but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world. — Jack Gilbert, A Brief for the Defense
For all who feel deeply about the world, for all who mourn a planet under siege, for all who care about justice and human dignity and democracy and the welfare of the most vulnerable — these are hard times. Shocking and dispiriting days. I feel it, you feel it.
When is it all going to turn around? It will turn around, I’m convinced, but at a great price of waiting too long. My theory is that we humans are an eleventh-hour species, waiting until it is almost too late to do anything to save ourselves. But we do, history tells. We do. Barely. By the skin of our teeth. While the future remains open with no guarantees, I truly believe that the current moral sickness will break like a fever and we will see better days. And we who care and dare and dream and choose kindness are part of that recovery, even if we can’t see the results at present.
But this is little consolation while morality and human decency continue to go south. For example, you may be made of sterner stuff, but when I hear hateful, toxic rhetoric day after day, the words seem to waft out from my TV, settling on my skin, leaving behind a layer of dirt and muck. There is no use trying to deny what’s happening or run from it — we can’t. There is no use wallowing in despair — we mustn’t. What we can and must do is be attentive to our souls in the midst of our work for better days. . . . (Read More)
MY WRITING finds inspiration in a particular view of the world called
process thought. Process thought is not
a religion; it is a philosophy. But this philosophy is friendly to people of
all faiths and traditions. In fact, this particular worldview, most identified
with the work of mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, stirs
one’s deepest spiritual inclinations, even for the irreligious. But, one might
say, if I already have a religion—thank you, very much—then why do I need to
think beyond that? Do we really need a philosophy or is it just so much
We all have a philosophy-of-sorts going on in our heads at all times,
whether we are conscious of it or not. Each of us comes to a religious text or
tradition wearing philosophical glasses: certain assumptions we have about the
world and about the people and animals that make it up. That’s why people who
read the same sacred text can end up either a Pat Robertson or a Mother
Theresa, a Hitler or a Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s all about what you bring to
your religion: those hidden assumptions created by your cultural and psychological
influences, your prejudices and traumas, your understanding of power and
relationships and meaning. So, becoming aware of those assumptions that color
our religion and the way we treat others and our planet is a good thing. That’s where philosophy comes in: it helps
clarify our sense of meaning and our values. It helps us in our wondering, too. As
Professor C. Robert Mesle says, “Philosophy is born of wonder; it is the
art of wondering in a disciplined, thoughtful way.” Philosophy can even help
us with our theology. After all, many of our theological assumptions come to us
via the great philosophers of the past. Many of their ideas were good ones; others,
not so much–or at least, severely outdated.
Take me for instance. During my seminary studies, I couldn’t get past the
“problem of evil and suffering,” so my Christian faith took a reluctant
and despondent nosedive into agnosticism. I could not, in good conscience,
believe in God in the face of horrible realities like the Holocaust. After poring over all the traditional
“theodicies” that tried to save a traditional God, i.e., an
all-powerful, all-good God, my search finally came to a dead end. My spiritual
life had become one huge sigh of regret. That’s when I took up the study of philosophy
at the University of Missouri and became a teaching assistant. One day, as I was preparing to teach an Intro
to philosophy class, one of my professors handed me a copy of a journal article
by Charles Hartshorne about Whitehead’s view of God and the world. I devoured the article and signed up for a
seminar on Whitehead. It was the beginning of my life-long love affair with
I was intrigued by Whitehead’s concept of a relational God which cut against
the grain of the traditional view of God defined by Western philosophy (and
duly adopted by Western theologians). In
Whitehead’s philosophy, the all-powerful, supernatural ruler of the universe
gives way to the relational, transforming “poet of the world.” The
traditional Greek concept of “perfect power” as “unilateral
power” was turned on its head in this cosmology. Relational, persuasive
power takes center stage in Whitehead’s “philosophy of organism.” So,
God began to make sense again, this time as one who “dwells in the tender
elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love.”
(Process and Reality, 343)
But God was only part my personal “Copernican
Revolution.” Whitehead’s radically open and interconnected view of the
universe–a monumental break from Cartesian dualism–also made sense to me in
light of quantum science. Everything began to make sense– not just my
relationship to God, but to the pelicans and the tree frogs and bees. I no
longer had to choose between science and religion–what a relief!
Finally, after reading John Cobb, David Griffin, and Marjorie Hewitt
Suchocki, three brilliant process theologians from the Whiteheadian tradition,
I was able to return to my Christian roots—albeit with a radically fresh
understanding of God and the world. I even became a minister and introduced my
husband, a biblical scholar, to process thought. (He ended up writing a seminal
work on process hermeneutics.)
But process thought is not just for Christians-in-crisis—not by a long shot.
Some of the finest process theologians today are Jewish (e.g., Rabbi Bradley
Shavit Artson) and Muslim (e.g. Farhan Shah). Many traditions East and West are
currently in dialogue with Whitehead–Buddhism for example, which, like process
thought, has always been a relational, interconnected way of seeing the world.
Buddhism makes sense in light of process thought–a great deal of sense. In China today, with its event-oriented
language and rich philosophical history, Whitehead’s thought is blossoming.
Process is big-tent philosophy for anyone of any faith — or naturalists,
environmentalists, and those who have an understanding of spirituality that
stands outside of any particular religious tradition.
Process thought allows me to embrace my own tradition even while I deepen my
appreciation for other spiritual paths. In a nutshell, process engenders
empathy. So beware of becoming a process thinker! You will be infused with and
challenged by empathy, and that changes everything. Heaven forbid, it
might even change your life direction! It did mine. In fact, that’s why I love
writing fiction: It allows me to get inside the skin of my characters.
Characters who are unlike me. Characters with different views of the world,
different religions, different hang-ups, different genders and sexual
orientation. Yes, I want to feel with
them and know them and present them to the world. This need to empathize
in storytelling bubbles up not only from artistic passion, but because of
process thought: a lovely luminosity in my life and soul.
For process thought is all about expanding our souls to embrace contrasts
and differences in a richly interwoven world that is always in the process of
becoming. It’s about seeking beauty in our relationships, not only with people
who are different from us, but with animals and the planet and very air we
breathe. And in this world of religious conflict and environmental disaster,
such a philosophy as Whitehead’s—one which promotes beauty and justice and
relational harmony among all living beings—well, it couldn’t hurt, could it?
“Everything can be taken from a [person] but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances . . . . Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how.'” — Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
Dear Generations X, Y, and Z:
On behalf of Baby Boomers everywhere, I offer a heartfelt apology for the planet we are leaving you. You were born on a distressed Earth in the throes of Global Warming and it’s not fair. Please forgive us for our part in this unprecedented catastrophe. Our generation failed to act on what we knew was coming; we preferred to live in denial with our 401(k) plans to think about.
Every generation has much to forgive of the preceding generation. I was born in the throes of the Cold War with the shadow of “The Bomb” over my head. I would wake up with night terrors: Would I be turned into instant nothingness in a great mushroom cloud? My parents’ generation, when they were children, woke in the night fearing they would have no food because their burden was the Great Depression. It seems that every generation leaves behind a fearful burden, something children do not deserve, a terror that keeps them awake at night, afraid and angry. That’s because every generation is like every human being: noble but flawed, a thoroughly mixed bag. . . .
So you must not be frightened . . . if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloud-shadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall. — Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
A Word for Spring
I am standing in a crowd on a cool spring day, listening to the celebrated artist Edwina Sandys tell us the story about a fresh word — a bud of a word, a transforming word: a word made for Spring.
Edwina is the granddaughter of Sir Winston Churchill, that enormously important (and controversial) British leader, who was, above all, a man who knew his way around words. His gift with words helped him buoy up a beleaguered nation in the fight against Nazi Germany.
“See the world through the eyes of your inner child. The eyes that sparkle in awe and amazement as they see love, magic and mystery in the most ordinary things.” ― Henna Sohail
When I was young and impressionable and just learning about spiritual matters in my church youth group, someone offered me this acronym: Joy = Jesus, Others, Yourself. In that order. This translates (I was told) to: Jesus before others and others before yourself. I tried to embrace this thrilling hidden code of spiritual wisdom but, alas, it did not add up to joy. Instead, it weighed down my youthful spirit, separated things that should not be separated, and put me in my place: last.
Now that I am older and wiser, I still don’t like the acronym; however, I recently ran across another gem of “joy” wordplay that I do like. . . Read More
“How shall we live? Welcoming to all.” — Mechtild of Magdeburg
Preaching to Birds and Squirrels
A new sculpture called “Saint Francis and the Birds” was recently celebrated among neighbors at Pilgrim Place in Claremont, California, a senior community committed to justice and peace. Commissioned by Mary Ann and Frederic Brussat, co-founders of Spirituality & Practice, this sculpture was born of art templates from the late artist Frederick Franck.
This fresh interpretation of the saint sweeps the eye upward in a feeling of celebratory movement, gratitude, and hospitality. Here Saint Francis welcomes a panoply of birds circling and hovering about his uplifted arms. You can almost hear the saint preaching to these exuberant birds, calling out to them, “My little sisters the birds . . .” Click here to read more
On a soft, snowy morning I read a poem by Mary Oliver. And in the afternoon, it came to me, a notice of her death. Too soon! I thought. Too soon to lose a talent of this magnitude. My heart rocked in grief for several minutes. But then I re-read the poem from the morning called “Bazougey” (Dog Songs, 2013), about the death of a beloved dog. It begins,
Where goes he now, that dark little dog who used to come down the road barking and shining? He’s gone now, from the world of particulars, the singular, the visible.
So, that deepest sting: sorrow. Still, is he gone from us entirely, or is he a part of that other world, everywhere?
I now think of Mary Oliver as in this poem, no longer part of the singular, the visible, the world of particulars, but rather “a part of that other world, everywhere.” . . . . read more