Monday, October 24, 2011

Tolstoy Argues with Ecclesiastes

[This is both a coda to my recent sermon on Leo Tolstoy's  "dark night of the soul" and an additional chapter to my new book Wisdom for the Ages: A Season with Ecclesiastes.]  

Leo Tolstoy (born 1828) had a spiritual crisis at full midlife.  By then, this scion of old Russian nobility had become the acclaimed author of two monumental books, War and Peace and Anna Karenina.  Many already considered him the greatest novelist of the 19th century.  Additionally, he had privileges of status and wealth, as well as a large family.  Yet he was a spiritual wretch.

He chronicled his life experiences, as well as his state of mind, in Confession, one of the most noteworthy religious autobiographies ever written—still readable.

In Confession, Tolstoy sketched the dissipations and debaucheries of his youth and early adulthood.  He also expressed guilt over his inherited privileges, including a large ancestral estate, replete with serfs.  (His early debauchery resulted in an illegitimate child by one of these serfs.)

A contemporary of Tolstoy, the American psychologist William James, in the now classic Varieties of Religious Experience, provided a handy category to understand Tolstoy’s spiritual state of mind as he approached fifty years of age.  Tolstoy was a classic “sick soul,” tormented by his sinful nature in the midst of a meaningless world.

In Confession, Tolstoy described his dilemma clearly and cogently:  “My question — that which at the age of fifty brought me to the verge of suicide — was the simplest of questions, lying in the soul of every man from the foolish child to the wisest elder: it was a question without an answer to which one cannot live, as I had found by experience. It was: ‘What will come of what I am doing today or shall do tomorrow? What will come of my whole life?’

“Differently expressed, the question is: ‘Why should I live, why wish for anything, or do anything?’ It can also be expressed thus: ‘Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?’”

A rational, organized thinker, Tolstoy posited four responses: 1) ignorance—not knowing the question in the first place; 2) Epicureanism—living in the moment and moderately enjoying life, nonetheless, oblivious to deeper concerns; 3) the way of strength and courage--suicide; and 4) the way of weakness—knowing life’s absurdity, yet clinging to in vain hope. Tolstoy saw the fourth way as his personal situation, yet another instance of his inherent wretchedness.

My appreciation for Ecclesiastes causes me to examine Tolstoy’s criticism of the Epicurean solution, which Tolstoy strongly identified with Solomon of the Book of Ecclesiastes.

Tolstoy opined, “Solomon expresses this way out thus: "Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry: and that this should accompany him in his labour the days of his life, which God giveth him under the sun.

"’Therefore eat thy bread with joy and drink thy wine with a merry heart.... Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity...for this is thy portion in life and in thy labours which thou takest under the sun.... Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might, for there is not work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.’

“That is the way in which the majority of people of our circle make life possible for themselves. Their circumstances furnish them with more of welfare than of hardship, and their moral dullness makes it possible for them to forget that the advantage of their position is accidental, and that not everyone can have a thousand wives and palaces like Solomon, that for everyone who has a thousand wives there are a thousand without a wife, and that for each palace there are a thousand people who have to build it in the sweat of their brows; and that the accident that has today made me a Solomon may tomorrow make me a Solomon's slave. The dullness of these people's imagination enables them to forget the things that gave Buddha no peace — the inevitability of sickness, old age, and death, which today or tomorrow will destroy all these pleasures.”

In a previous chapter of Confession, Tolstoy had quoted more than a thousand words of Ecclesiastes, one fifth of the ancient book’s text.  This suggests that Tolstoy realized how formidable a voice Solomon (or whoever wrote it, Tolstoy editorialized) presented.

Tolstoy’s judgment of moral dullness is an apt criticism of Ecclesiastes and Epicureanism.  Both lack ethical responses to injustices and inequities.

The moral acuity of Tolstoy—the moral acuity of Siddhartha, too, before his Enlightenment--might be the peculiar sensibility of what William James called a “sick soul.”

In the end, Tolstoy embraced faith in answer to his despairing question, in particular, the radical Christianity of Jesus’s teachings as evidenced in the Sermon on the Mount. (Tolstoy became a Christian anarchist and something of an ascetic.)

Ecclesiastes and Tolstoy both faced the notion of life’s absurdity arbitrated by death and reached divergent conclusions.  These conclusions show the divergence of the “sick soul” from the “sick soul’s” counterpart, the “healthy minded” person.

Ecclesiastes leans to a realistic healthy mindedness, that is, a reasonable enjoyment of life in the face of life’s absurdities, nonetheless.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

A New Normality: A Culture of War

The events of September 11, 2001, turned the world upside down – at least from the American perspective. Almost immediately, commentary asked, when would there be a return to normality; or would there ever be normality again? Normality of course, referred to the relative halcyon days of our common life before that fateful day.

Ten years ago, I remember thinking about this hoped for, so-called return to normality, in part, because normality is one of those words I stumble on. Back in the day when I studied history, I learned about one of the great linguistic faux pas by an American president. In his 1920 inaugural speech, President Warren G. Harding coined the phrase a “Return to Normalcy," referring to the way things were before the first world war. At the time normalcy wasn't an accepted word.  Through the years, for some perverse reason, I haven't been able to keep the two words straight, though that distinction no longer matters, because normalcy has become an acceptable word alongside the normality.

The decade of the 1920s – the decade of the lost generation; of women's suffrage, short skirts, and bobbed hair; of jazz, prohibition, and speakeasies; and, of course, the great crash – established new standards of what was normal.  There was to be no returning, rather a radical reordering.

History, for the sake of convenience, often breaks time into decades.  In an ironic sense, the “Return to Normalcy” is sometimes used to describe the 1920's.

I wonder, what will the decade of our new millennium be known as?  It surely seems a significant decade.

After a sober review of the past 10 years, the decade 2001-2011 appears to be, at the very least, a time, of transition, relative to the narrative arc of the American experience. That arc is comprised of a number of bands. There's a social/cultural component. There's an economic component.  There's a political component, including human rights. There's an international component, also including human rights. Most, if not all of these components, can be interpreted as converging in the decline of America.

There are clear nodal points: the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001; wars with Afghanistan and Iraq; hurricane Katrina, the perfect storm, and the tragedy of New Orleans; the bursting of the housing bubble and with it the meltdown of the US economy; the melancholy years of what is now known as the “great recession;” and a populist response against all aspects of government known as the tea party movement, that aggravated a red and blue divide in American politics, as well as highlighted what is now being called class warfare.

With all this in mind, rather than a return to pre-9/11 normality, we have a dramatically reformed normality.  Bill Schulz mentioned aspects of this new normality in his Christian Science Monitor piece, that includes the acceptance of the term American gulag, the humiliation and torture of prisoners of war, a pre-emptive war, and the assassination of an American citizen deemed to be a terrorist. 

And of course, the new normality includes the tacit acceptance of war.  It was decade of varied wars.

Commentators generally agree that the term “the war on terror,” from the outset promised to be protracted, against a nefarious enemy, with, at best, vague objectives.  Rashly, uttered, the “war on terror” almost as quickly lost most of its cachet.  Though they are being drawn down, we continue to wage hot wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, to mixed reviews.

History will emphasize the Bush administration's policy of war (and the Obama administration continuing it), from the immediate rhetoric of September 11, 2001, including the open-ended declaration of war against terror, beginning with attacking the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan; through the propaganda against Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction that resulted in the invasion of Iraq; to the surges that sought to counter the insurgents first in Iraq and then in Afghanistan.

At the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, there is a program named the Eisenhower Research Project.  The Eisenhower Research Project is a new, non-partisan, non-profit, scholarly initiative dedicated to studying the effects of militarization on U.S. society, democracy and foreign policy. The Project derives its purpose from President Eisenhower's 1961 farewell address, in which he warned of the 'unwarranted influence' of the military-industrial complex and appealed for an 'alert and knowledgeable citizenry' as the only force able to balance the often contrasting demands of security and liberty in the democratic state.

The Eisenhower Research Project assembled a team that included economists, anthropologists, political scientists, legal experts, and a physician to do this analysis—to determine the “cost” of ten years of war. 

Here are the project’s findings:

While we know how many US soldiers have died in the wars (just over 6000), what is startling is what we don’t know about the levels of injury and illness in those who have returned from the wars.  New disability claims continue to pour into the VA, with 550,000 just through last fall.  Many deaths and injuries among US contractors have not been identified. 

At least 137,000 civilians have died and more will die in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan as a result of the fighting at the hands of all parties to the conflict.

The armed conflict in Pakistan, which the U.S. helps the Pakistani military fight by funding, equipping and training them, has taken as many lives as the conflict in neighboring Afghanistan.

Putting together the conservative numbers of war dead, in uniform and out, brings the total to 225,000.

Millions of people have been displaced indefinitely and are living in grossly inadequate conditions.  The current number of war refugees and displaced persons -- 7,800,000 -- is equivalent to all of the people of Connecticut and Kentucky fleeing their homes.

The wars have been accompanied by erosions in civil liberties at home and human rights violations abroad.

The human and economic costs of these wars will continue for decades, some costs not peaking until mid-century. Many of the wars’ costs are invisible to Americans, buried in a variety of budgets, and so have not been counted or assessed.  For example, while most people think the Pentagon war appropriations are equivalent to the wars’ budgetary costs, the true numbers are twice that and the full economic cost of the wars much larger yet. Conservatively estimated, the war bills already paid and obligated to be paid are $3.2 trillion in constant dollars. A more reasonable estimate puts the number at nearly $4 trillion.

As with former US wars, the costs of paying for veterans’ care into the future will be a sizable portion of the full costs of the war.

The ripple effects on the U.S. economy have also been significant, including job loss and interest rate increases, and those effects have been underappreciated.

While it was promised that the US invasions would bring democracy to both countries, Afghanistan and Iraq, both continue to rank low in global rankings of political freedom, with warlords continuing to hold power in Afghanistan with US support, and Iraqi communities more segregated today than before by gender and ethnicity as a result of the war.

Serious and compelling alternatives to war were scarcely considered in the aftermath of 9/11 or in the discussion about war against Iraq.  Some of those alternatives are still available to the U.S.

There are many costs of these wars that we have not yet been able to quantify and assess.  With our limited resources, we focused on U.S. spending, U.S. and allied deaths, and the human toll in the major war zones, Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.  There is still much more to know and understand about how all those affected by the wars have had their health, economies, and communities altered by the decade of war, and what solutions exist for the problems they face as a result of the wars’ destruction.

So, the new normal includes a permanent war culture, out of sight and out of mind of most Americans.  I believe these wars were ill-advised and ginned up.  (Remember the so-called neo-conservatives’ line of rhetoric ten years ago?)  They have had questionable positive affect.  (I’m of the mind they have had many and varied negative consequences.)  They have cost us a treasure and will continue to do so, at last 3.2, perhaps 4 trillion dollars.

The Eisenhower Project recommends that it’s not too late to implement more beneficial policies. 

Remember the Chinese proverb from an earlier reading:  “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” …  The second grave is ours. We dug it ourselves. The question now is: do we have to lie in it?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Gannets: Excellence in Our Common World 2011

I & M Canal, Morris
Some years ago I offered a yearly sermon series called “the annual vulgarity awards.”  I would rant a little about four or five egregiously ugly or corrosive aspects of our common culture.  But I tired of that series; and I also felt, I was, ironically, contributing to a negative social climate.

So I flipped the series 180 degrees and developed a yearly sermon series on what I find to be excellent in our common life.  I immediately named this new series The William Channing Gannett Awards in honor of the first minister of this congregation, whose signature phrase “domestication of the infinite” suited my sense of the source and result of excellence.

Mr. Gannett was a remarkable man with an impeccable Unitarian pedigree.  His father, the Rev. Ezra Stiles Gannett, was the first President of the American Unitarian Association, 1825.  Ezra Stiles Gannett was also the associate minister at the famed Federal Street Church in Boston, where the saintly founder of American Unitarianism William Ellery Channing was for senior minister.  Dr. Channing was William Channing Gannett’s godfather, hence the middle name Channing.

Mr. Gannett was a modernist compared to his godfather and father, who were Christian Rationalists.  Young William was influenced by Transcendentalism’s more expansive vision of religion; and when he made his way west, he joined the Unity Men of the Western Unitarian Conference, whose motto “the unity of all things” summarized their broad view of religion.  The Unity Men also promoted ethics as the proper focus of religion, in which character (ingenuousness) blended with what we now call social justice.

William Channing Gannett wrote the great compromise, “The Things We Hold in Common” that allowed the Christians and the emergent not-just or more-than Christian liberals to stay in one Unitarian denomination.    His essay, “The House Beautiful,” inspired the magazine of the same name thanks to the efforts of his good friend Frank Lloyd Wright.  And his plan for our Church-Home has shaped generations of Hinsdale Unitarians over one hundred, twenty years.

Before I present this year’s awards, I want you to think about Mr. Gannett’s signature phrase “domestication of the infinite.”  The ideals we recognize (and you might see them in terms of the great categories of the good, the true, and the beautiful), if they are our ideals, are necessarily compelling—so compelling that we must implement them in our self and our world.  This is a process of domestication—of household and home infusing our larger world.  The doors open in and welcome the worthy; the doors then open out and infuse the world with the warmth, intimacy, and values of the home and the home-like.

I’ve been greatly influenced by William Channing Gannett, through his writings and through his sculpture in wood, brick, and stone, this Church-Home, that he was instrumental in designing.  In his honor and memory I once again lift up the excellent in our common world.

The I and M Canal

I have neglected an obvious choice, The Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor.  Here’s a summary of the Corridor from the official website:

The Illinois & Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor is a 100 mile long cultural park between Chicago and LaSalle/Peru. It is a geographic area of about 322,000 acres within the counties of Cook, DuPage, Will, Grundy and LaSalle. On August 24, 1984, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation establishing the region as the nation's first National Heritage Corridor. It thereby recognized the historic importance of this region and the waterway that connected Lake Michigan and the Illinois River. The goal of the Corridor is to preserve, protect and interpret its rich natural and cultural history while fostering economic growth in the region. The Corridor is not owned or governed by a single authority. Its creation involved the partnership of federal, state, and local governments in cooperation with private industry and interest groups. The corridor is an on-going partnership between the public and private sectors created to achieve a successful mixture of preservation, public use and industrial activity.

I've known about the I and M national historic corridor from its onset, thanks to a church member, Stan Johnson, who died a few years.  From its outset, Stan was deeply involved with the civic authority that joined the various municipalities along the old canal’s hundred mile length.

The history of the I and M Canal is integral to the history of Chicago. It was constructed from the early 1820s through the late 1840s, beginning in Bridgeport on the south side Chicago, reaching ever-further West to Lasalle/Peru, connecting Lake Michigan to the Illinois River and eventually the Mississippi. It helped Chicago become, what one historian has so aptly described, Nature' s Metropolis.  I recommend that you review the canal’s history – an easy Internet search.

And with the history and perhaps lore of the canal in your imagination, visit a remnant stretch of it. The most accessible stretch is within a few miles on Willow Springs Road near Archer Avenue.  But even more, I recommend a very beautiful stretch of the old canal that's in Morris – a pleasant drive of the some 60 miles. Today is a good day to stroll the towpath, because you can also take in the last day of the Grundy County corn Festival in downtown Morris, a remnant shire town along the Illinois River. (The Corn Festival is one of my favorite agricultural celebrations. I'm especially fond of the roasted ears of corn.) You can follow a towpath from the foot of Morris's main street and walk southwest. Within a half mile or so, you'll enter a serene section of the canal, towpaths on either side, canopied by graceful trees, and with mirror like water. This time of year, autumn-painted leaves float and slowly eddy, while the water reflects those on the trees. When I'm there, I like to imagine the convergence of nature and history.

A good day trip, or perhaps weekend trip, would follow the course of the canal (along blue highways, of course) with visits to surviving sections. For example, at canal’s end in LaSalle you can board a replica towboat pulled by a mule from the towpath. 

Joliet Public Art

I award my second Gannett to the city of Joliet for its public art. I have a perverse fondness for Joliet – one of America's many aching post-industrial cities. Perhaps Joliet reminds me of my 5 1/2 years in Youngstown, Ohio before I came to Chicago. Joliet is a city supported by the notorious penitentiary, Statesville, two casinos, and a regional hospital. It has a history of corruption. Like many other struggling cities it tries all sorts of things to keep it viable – creating, if only an illusion, of vitality.

The recent history of Joliet's public art has an interesting parent, joining local artists – many of them women, if not feminists, – with public money, is now driven by a not-for-profit organization known as Friends of Community Public Art, organized in 1996.  Their website offers this narrative: FCPA is dedicated to the creation, planning, promotion and preservation of public art increase the awareness of the communities rich historical and cultural heritage. FCPA was formed to the an artist run, multiracial, intercultural organization that represents the economic diversity.. F CPA captures communities history and culture through site-specific, audience responsive art work.

FCPA specializes in murals, mosaics and sculpture…

The FCPA traces its origin to 1975, when a group of women painted the first mural on a concrete viaduct, titled " Downtown is Our Town." This was followed by a major project, a large mural painted in the then recently renovated railroad station downtown, circa 1991. Between 1994 and 1997, 42 original works of art were created on walls around the Joliet area, using public funds set aside for viaduct beautification. The friends of community public art, founded in 1996 and incorporated in 1998 as a not-for-profit corporation, embarked on an ambitious program of painted murals, mosaics, and sculptures. Many of sculptures were placed on column-like, mosaic decorated pedestals distributed throughout the city of Joliet.

I like these sculptures a lot. They are didactic – sculptures with clear messages, lifting up collective values. Here are a few examples: Planting The Seeds: Children And Education;  An, Informed Mind Make Better Choices;  History Clings Like Ivy;  Education Is The Window To The World; A Teachers Gift.

You can spend an interesting day visiting the various pieces of public art in Joliet. (The Friends of Community Public Art has an informative website with images of the art and their locations.)  You might plan to eat lunch in the downtown Renaissance Center restaurant operated by the Joliet Junior College.  Nearby is the Route 66 Museum. And if you drove to Joliet via Archer Avenue, you will pass through Lockport, where you can visit a peaceful of stretch of the I and M Canal and one of the better restaurants in the area, the Gaylord Building.

Minor League Baseball

Joliet has another gift for our common world – a minor-league baseball team, called the Slammers. The city, a few years ago, built a downtown stadium, White Cross Field, not far from Union Station in the old downtown. The stadium seats nearly 6000.  Parking is close and free. Libations are relatively inexpensive. The best seat in the house costs only $10.

I long ago lost my interest in major league baseball; the Cubs and the Sox in my quarter-century here have only occasionally captured my interest. So when I get an urge to watch a game, I now go to Joliet to watch aspiring, young athletes play what used to be called America's pastime.

Joliet's Slammers are typical of the minor-league baseball's revival that's taken place across the country in the last couple of decades.  In these venues, the atmosphere is family centered; the kids always seem to have a good time in a fan-friendly atmosphere. The games are entertaining and between every inning is entertainment.  By the way, the Slammers, two weekends ago won the championship of the Frontier League.

So my third Gannett goes to minor-league baseball, especially my champion Joliet Slammers.

The Contrary Farmer

Last year I presented a sermon based on a curious novel, Pope Mary and the Church of Almighty Good Food, by Gene Logsdon.  Gene bills himself as The Contrary Farmer.  A former editor of the Farm Journal magazine, for the past 30 years or so, he's operated a small farm in Sandusky, Ohio region and has written prodigiously. His passion is the small family farm; his farming philosophy incorporates responsible environmentalism and traditional values, along with a progressive outlook.  He has a host of qualities of what I call a wise elder.

I read his blog, The Contrary Farmer, with every post.  (I recommend it to you, if you have an interest in rural life, as well as provocative ideas.)

He recently wrote something in his blog that I adored.  He advocated small family farm of 300 acres over the industrial farm of 5,000 acres as a partial solution to our national economic crisis.   I’ll let him tell the economics as he sees it:

The 5000 acres of industrial corn, which is employing two people, could be providing jobs and homes for about 17 family farmers and their wives and children. Run all the figures and all the farmland out to a logical mathematical conclusion and the number of new jobs created by restructuring agriculture is unbelievably awesome. There are about 90 million acres in corn this year. That would make 300,000 family farms of 300 acres each. That means 600,000 parents would be fully employed and let us say two teenagers who are trying desperately right now to find part time jobs,— a total of 1,200,000 new jobs. If we take into account industrial soybean, wheat, and cotton acreages as well and divide all that land  into 300 acre family farms, the number of new jobs created rockets to somewhere in the three to five million range.

Gene’s line of reasoning fascinated me.  Not feasible, I first thought.  But then, I wondered, why not?   What a wonderful combination of traditional, down- to-earth-thinking and radical, out-of-the-box-thinking.   (This combination reminded me of his advocacy of manure, including human excrement, over chemical fertilizers, that he wrote about in his recent book Holy Shit.)

For his humane and reasonable advocacy of the small family farm, Gene Logdson receives my fourth Gannett this year.  I’ve begun to think of him as a national treasure, along the likes of Pete Seeger or Wendell Berry.

Tony's Breakfast Cafe

I usually have one food oriented Gannett to give each year. I don't like to think of myself as foodie, in part, because of my contrary nature. I'm drawn not to the trendy and expensive, but to the honest and simple, and, yes, the off-the-beaten-track, if not obscure.

Surrounded by choices, last Sunday, Ellie and I considered many possibilities of where to have Sunday dinner –either sit down or take out.  Not that we go there often, we decided to go to a smallish family restaurant in Brookfield on Ogden Avenue called Tony's – the sort of place that has a seven or eight page menu with inserts, including a senior citizen’s insert.

The place suited our criteria: fast and efficient service, friendliness, a big menu with comfort foods, and just enough busyness to make for a cozy feeling.

We each ordered a complete meal from salad to desert with beverage included. I could only eat half of my plate, Ellie too.  So we took our leftovers home in Styrofoam boxes-- dinner the next day. And the total bill was under $20.

There still are plenty of such family restaurants, sometimes I call them greeky spoons, because their often run by Greek families, in the Chicago area.  Tony’s, “over-the bridge” in Brookfield, is one of the type, but better than most. And Tony’s certainly seems to try hard with basic food and attentive/fast service, and even a certain cheerfulness.

So my final Gannett of 2011 goes to Tony’s in Brookfield a truly traditional, old-school restaurant, a good example of all the warm, fragrant, embracing, comfort-food places you’ve been in throughout he years—the sort of place you might hope to find in a small town along a blue highway when you want to be in the midst of real people and never have your coffee cup be empty.