Relationship trumps vindication

Cof orange hexEpiscopal Bishop Jake Owensby (of Western Louisiana) is one of the sharpest people I know. So when he writes something calling for a change in our corporate behavior both in the Church and in our society, I pay attention.

In his recent post on resolutions for the New Year, he ends by sharing the following list which he offers as a way to move us beyond the corrosive partisanship that just about everyone agrees is tearing us apart, but no one seems to be able to escape.

  • Seek the common good, not just your own narrow self-interest.

  • Ask what you can contribute in every situation, not merely what you will get out of it.
  • When we disagree about ideas, assume the good will of those with whom you disagree.
  • Refuse to indulge in contempt for those with whom you disagree.  Look actively for the good in them.
  • Find the one thing you agree upon and commit to working together on that with all your might.
  • Remember that right relationship is more important than being right.

We need a new tone in this country.  We need a positive, cooperative spirit that takes disagreement as a process for finding common solution instead of battles to have our own way all the time.

We are all in this together.

More here. (With graphics and a movie even!)

I added the emphasis on Jake’s last point because I think it’s so important. We need right relationships with each other more than we need to be able to protect God from the errors we fear someone else might be making. God doesn’t need our protection. And for people that might argue that we are trying to protect the person making the error, rather than protecting God, I’d like to be shown proof of how uniformly successful they’ve been in changing the behavior or ideas to which they object…

It seems to me that the opening of John’s Gospel, where we remember the moment that the Word of God literally “pitched a tent and lived among us” points us to the method that God used to finally gain our attention and change our direction. God lived among us in relationship first – our understanding and change takes place as a result of that relationship. Relationship seems to precede amendment of life – at least in most of the biblical narratives. We are called, I believe, to seek relationship with others more than we are called to find vindication of our ideas about others.

I make a further point in the opening chapter of the book “Entangled States” when I argue that the Church has a special charism in creating these sorts of healing relationships in such a moment in our history.

Posted in Centrists, Religion | 1 Comment

Not one but many: The American Nations

A few months ago a book by Colin Woodward called “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America” (on Amazon here) lit up my Facebook and Twitter feeds with many of my friends sharing an analysis of the culture wars in America that could be rationalized by the authors thesis.

The short version is that the “northern” cultures of the US (Yankeedom, New Amsterdam, Midlands and the Left Coast) are locked in a fundamental disagreement with the Dixie cultures (Deep South, Tidewater and Appalachia) over issues like the environment, gay rights, and gun control. The fractures in Washington DC and the increasing conflict that fills the talk shows are all part of a struggle for dominance in the United States that has been going on since before the Revolutionary War.

If you’re interested in current events or politics, you ought to read the book. As a person who grew up on the border between the Midlands and Appalachia to essentially Yankee parents, who lived for a while in Tidewater and in El Norte (the US Southwest) and who now lives in Yankeedom, this book makes sense of things I’ve noticed but couldn’t explain.

For instance, within the Episcopal Church, the one regional grouping of dioceses (called a Province) that is reasonably successful is Province 1 – the New England Province. And according to Woodward, Province 1 is the only Province of the Episcopal Church that I can see which is essentially a single American culture. (The states in Province 1 are all part of Yankeedom – not all of Yankeedom is in Province 1, but it’s the only mono-culture Province.) I wonder if reorganizing the Provinces by culture rather than arbitrary state divisions would make them more effective.

As I’ve been participating in the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church, and meeting regularly with leaders from across the Americas (including representatives of the South Pacific culture) I’m more and more convinced that it’s critically important to remember that the Church spans multiple cultures and that what makes sense in one context doesn’t in another. That point that the context matters is something that the Anglican Communion office has been stressing, particularly as Anglicans and Episcopalians struggle to stay in relationship across significant cultural boundaries. As much as context matters in the Anglican Communion, it matters in the Episcopal Church as well.

There’s a lot to think about in the points being made in the book. If you’ve not read it, and you’re thinking about or involved in issues at a national level (whether church or state) I really think it’s worth your time to pick this one up. It’s a fast read – especially if you’re a history buff. Stick with it, the most thought provoking section, for me at least, was the final chapters in which Woodward discusses the Culture Wars of the last century.

Posted in Books, Centrists, Current Affairs | 8 Comments

Cosmological principle in trouble? Maybe.

One of the tools used by people doing cosmology is the assumption that at a certain scale in the Universe, things become isotropic in distribution. In other words, if you look at a big enough sample of the Universe, one part of the Universe should be essentially identical to another.

When we look out at the local section of the Universe, the Milky Galaxy or even our local galactic supercluster, this clearly isn’t true. But, if you zoom out far enough, the local density anisotropy begins to disappear. It’s a matter of practice that when you’re looking at length scales of this magnitude, you are working in the realm where the Cosmological principle holds. Even the massive voids between superclusters seem to be evenly distributed.

Except there’s been a recent observational challenge apparently. New images of a Large Quasar Group (LQG) show a structure much larger than should be allowed:

“Based on the Cosmological Principle and the modern theory of cosmology, calculations suggest that astrophysicists should not be able to find a structure larger than 370 Mpc. Clowes’ newly discovered LQG however has a typical dimension of 500 Mpc. But because it is elongated, its longest dimension is 1200 Mpc (or 4 billion light years) – some 1600 times larger than the distance from the Milky Way to Andromeda.”

(A quasar is now believed to be an early form of the core of an active galaxy – we only see them at extreme distance from the Earth, and thus at a very early moment in the Universe’s history.)

More here.

I’m not current enough in the field to know whether or not this is a major challenge, or merely represents a data point that the models can be adjusted to include. Cosmological data has extremely large error built into as a result of the difficulty inherent in making the observations used to support the models.

As I read this, it’s an error of a little bit more than a factor of 2. That just doesn’t strike me as a sufficient motivation to overturn the principle. (It is a principle representing phenomenological experience, not a formal law after all.)

Neat result though. More data for the models.

Posted in Science

2013 Bishop’s address to the Diocese of Rhode Island

In most dioceses in the Episcopal Church, there’s an expectation that the bishop will speak to the Annual Convention to both recap the previous year’s events and to point people toward what is expected in the coming year. Rhode Island has a long tradition of such addresses.

Last year I read a longish piece that I wrote. I wasn’t completely satisfied with how it went, though I was gratified by the response. This year I thought I might try something a little different – a “keynote” address making use of images and words in a more creative way.

The communications staff at convention, and Ruth Meteer, our diocesan director managed to capture the presentation’s audio feed and have combined it with the slides I used. Here’s the “video” of the result.

Video | Posted on by | 2 Comments

What will work and employment become?

Matthew Fox, the Episcopal priest, not the actor, is one of the few theologians I know who’s been thinking about the meaning of work and vocation within the larger matrix of an understanding of the purpose of Creation. There’s a sense in his writing, and of others, as well as that of sociologists, that human beings have a deep seated need to do meaningful work.

But there’s a problem lately. Jobs are going away. Even the cruddy, dehumanizing jobs of the sort that so many decried during the height of the Industrial revolution. With no work, and no way to provide for a family’s needs, it’s no wonder that we’re seeing a breakdown in the structures of community.

I came across this article a few months ago that points out that our increasingly sophisticated technology is perhaps driving the change. We need less workers to accomplish what we used to need…

From an essay by David Roffman in the MIT Technology Review that discusses the work of ­Erik Brynjolfsson, from the MIT Sloan School of Management, and Andrew McAfee which focuses on trying to get a handle on the shift:

“[T]he most damning piece of evidence, according to Brynjolfsson, is a chart that only an economist could love. In economics, productivity—the amount of economic value created for a given unit of input, such as an hour of labor—is a crucial indicator of growth and wealth creation. It is a measure of progress. On the chart Brynjolfsson likes to show, separate lines represent productivity and total employment in the United States. For years after World War II, the two lines closely tracked each other, with increases in jobs corresponding to increases in productivity. The pattern is clear: as businesses generated more value from their workers, the country as a whole became richer, which fueled more economic activity and created even more jobs. Then, beginning in 2000, the lines diverge; productivity continues to rise robustly, but employment suddenly wilts. By 2011, a significant gap appears between the two lines, showing economic growth with no parallel increase in job creation. Brynjolfsson and McAfee call it the ‘great decoupling.’ And Brynjolfsson says he is confident that technology is behind both the healthy growth in productivity and the weak growth in jobs.

It’s a startling assertion because it threatens the faith that many economists place in technological progress. Brynjolfsson and McAfee still believe that technology boosts productivity and makes societies wealthier, but they think that it can also have a dark side: technological progress is eliminating the need for many types of jobs and leaving the typical worker worse off than before. ­Brynjolfsson can point to a second chart indicating that median income is failing to rise even as the gross domestic product soars. ‘It’s the great paradox of our era,’ he says. ‘Productivity is at record levels, innovation has never been faster, and yet at the same time, we have a falling median income and we have fewer jobs. People are falling behind because technology is advancing so fast and our skills and organizations aren’t keeping up.’”

More here.

(It’s a long article…)

I think the Church clearly has a need to think this through. What will say to culture when the basic need of the community to provide meaningful work is no longer being met, but we still swim in a cornucopia of material goods that threatens to drown us.

Oddly enough Gene Roddenberry (of Star Trek fame) thought about this in his wondering about the future of humanity. He imagined that technology would commodify most of industrial production – and given a limitless source of energy – no one would want for anything. He imagined that mass produced stuff would lose it’s value. Food stuff, technology, etc would be essentially free. The things that would become valuable would be things that were handcrafted, one of a kind sorts of objects. A violin by a master crafter is much more highly prized than a instrument largely stamped out by machine. A hand thrown pot made by a master ceramicist in Japan is much more precious to us than a vase we pick up at the local big box store for a buck; even though both serve the same essential purpose.

So if technology is fundamentally changing the meaning of work and, I guess by extension, the meaning of vocation, what shall we as the Church contribute to the conversation?

Does anyone know of anyone working in this area of theology?

Posted in Current Affairs, Religion, Science | 8 Comments

Why study Physics.

A truly lovely short film by a Rhode Islander – who studied physics at Brown and design and animation at RISD – both a few blocks from where I sit as I write this sentence.

Why Do I Study Physics? (2013) from Xiangjun Shi on Vimeo.

Take a few minutes to watch it and then look at the world around you with your new rational and irrational eyes…

Posted in Film, Science, SOSc | 10 Comments

Transfiguration, not Transformation

I’m making a visitation tonight at The Church of the Transfiguration in Cranston, and as I was preparing the sermon for tonight, I came across a sermon I wrote more than a decade ago on the Transfiguration. I don’t think the sermon is good enough to warrant posting the whole thing, but I rather like this little part from the introduction on the contrast between Transfiguration and Transformation:

Transfiguration does not mean the same thing as the word Transformation. Transformation implies a remaking of the nature of a person or object. Transfiguration implies a revelation of the true nature.

Jesus is not transformed on the Mount that day. He doesn’t go up the mountain like some sort of caterpillar, to wrap himself in a cocoon and emerge as a glorious butterfly, full of light and beauty. That is what happens at the Resurrection event, but not here, not today.

What happens here is that Jesus stands revealed. It is as if a mask is taken away from his face, and the disciples are granted a vision of who he really is, as God the Father sees him and loves him. I suppose that if you push me hard enough, I will admit that in my mind, Jesus’ human body contains the glory of the Godhead, and in the Transfiguration event, the disciples see through the husk of his body to the soul of his being and power. That statement by itself of course is in error, since it would deny the goodness and completeness of Jesus incarnation, but, since so little of what I am able to say about the details of the Incarnation isn’t ultimately in error, I hope you’ll let this one slide with just a minor remonstrance.

We are familiar with the same kinds of moments in our own lives, among the people we know and love. Have you ever seen the face of child transfigured with joy at some gift or unexpected event? It is as if you are peering into their very soul, through the layers of dirt and chocolate cake on their face, and seeing them as they truly are on the inside. Have you ever seen someone, beautiful to behold, so overcome with anger and frustration, that their face becomes transfigured as well? It is frightening sometimes to see how people really are on the inside when that happens, and it is certainly disillusioning as well.

The sermon goes on from there to talk about the irony that this day is also the anniversary of the destruction of the city of Hiroshima by our country dropping the first atomic bomb – and how that too is a form of transfiguration of our human nature.

Posted in Religion | 2 Comments