Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Culture of Homelessness

I went to the library the other night to return a book. While I was there I saw several acquaintances from the local weekly overnight shelter across the street. They didn't recognize me--didn't acknowledge my wave--and I was in a hurry (and a little embarrassed), so I didn't interrupt them to introduce myself. As I made my way back to my car I noticed some local kids skateboarding their way to the park that some of these homeless folks were using as their base of operations for the moment, and just for a moment I thought, Here comes a clash.

Public parks are often the base of operations for homeless people and teenagers; they're centrally located, easy to access, comfortable--even featuring benches and tables--and generally free to the public. But public parks serve different purposes for different clientele. Lilacia Park is next to the library, where homeless folks can get out of the rain, access information about jobs and services, check their e-mail and read, even use the bathroom. Across the street from the park is the train station, which dramatically increases the reach of the homeless community, taking them into Chicago or out to the outlying suburbs, and between the rotating sites for overnight shelter. A short walk from the park is a social services office with job referrals and other resources. Public parks like Lilacia are a social utility for homeless people, a nerve center for their daily activities.

Public parks like Lilacia offer kids a place to hang out, recreate, skateboard, meet up with friends or get away from their parents. Parks have a similar social utility to kids, but nowhere near the strategic import that homeless folks assign to them.

Here's something to chew on. Homelessness requires a completely different fluency from what a friend of mine calls "homefulness." Different ways of perceiving and organizing visual cues, different ways of calculating value, different locuses of activity, different ways of getting from locus A to locus B--these and other cultural markers distinguish homeless culture from the homeful cultures that occupy pretty much the same space. And when two such dissonant cultures attempt to occupy the same space, clash is almost unavoidable. And when clash is unavoidable, power wins.

I doubt anything came from the convergence of kids and homeless adults on that same park. I have no way of knowing, to be honest, because I was heading back home to my own locus. But I gave that moment a lot of thought anyway, and it's helping me to think differently about how I approach ministry to homeless folks. It's essentially crosscultural: I have no idea what it's like to be homeless; it requires a fluency that I haven't achieved. I wouldn't know how to get from one shelter to the next. I wouldn't know how to get a bus pass or voucher, how to get a phone number to give potential employers, how to do anything, really. Homelessness as a circumstance comes to people for any number of reasons, from folly to bad luck to personal calamity. Homelessness as a way of life is learned behavior--a coping mechanism in the face of a circumstance. I'm reminded of the couple I met during their first breakfast in a homeless shelter: I can only hope that some kind, seasoned homeless person showed them the ropes and helped them to grasp the parameters of their new culture.

As for me, in my encounters with homeless people I need to be less confident that I can solve their problems (which is to say that they could solve their problems with a little creativity and initiative), and I need to be more alert to the realities that press in on them as they make their way through each day. I need to seek to understand, which is a way of loving.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The End of Precision

It started out innocently enough. I wanted to quote from Understanding Media by Marshall McLuhan, but I couldn't think of a way of conveniently including bibliographic data. So I settled on linking the name of his book to its page, with the presumption that interested readers could "search inside" to find the particular page number of the quotation. Here's the tricky thing: Amazon, so far as I can tell, doesn't list the edition that I got from my library to read, so I just picked one of the editions available there and linked to it instead.

Then I wanted to "tweet" quotes from the book on Twitter. There I'm limited to 140 characters per entry. "Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media" is itself 37 characters, which means I could quote roughly twelve words at a time while giving a sort of baseline bibliographic reference. So I settled for shorthand, depending on how long the quoted material was: anywhere from "Marshall McLuhan, UM" to "MM." I counted on the sheer volume of quotations, archived together sequentially in my Twitter feed, to acclimate readers to my source material.

But then occasionally I couldn't even recover two measly characters to anchor a particularly long quote with "MM." Heck, I couldn't even complete the quote. I was in negative Twittertory. So I had to get cre8ive: I took out spaces between punctuation, between lowercase and uppercase letters. I digested two pages of material with ellipses. And then I did it: "at" became "@"; "to" and "too" became "2"; "for" became "4"; & so on & so 4th.

But w8--there's more. I was reading in the car during a road trip and wanted to take notes, but I hadn't brought a pen or paper, and remember, this was a library book. No prob--I pulled out my iPhone and used the "Notes" app to jot down quotes using the touchscreen QWERTY keypad. Oops! I misspelled something! No problem--the iPhone autocorrects miskeys, even going so far as to guess the word you're spelling so you don't have to waste so much time hunting and pecking. But all of a sudden--Oops! Marshall McLuhan misspelled something! It turns out the third printing of the 1964 McGraw Hill hardback edition of Understanding Media has a scandalously large number of typos. It also turns out that it's painfully difficult to intentionally misspell something on the iPhone. My notes, it turns out, inadvertently serve to cover over the infelicities of the original edition. Portrait artists, I'm told, used to do that when painting royalty, conveniently neglecting to paint warts and scars and mustaches onto the gentlemen and ladies of the court. But that was so they would get paid, or even so they wouldn't get their own heads cut off. Now we do it inadvertently, accidentally. Here's a sample text from Understanding Media in two forms--first in its original form (page 353 of the 1964 McGraw Hill edition) and then as it might appear posted from an iPhone to Twitter--in two posts, because it's too many characters for one:

Let us not forget that nationalism was a mighty invention and revolution that, in the Renaissance, wiped out many of the local regions and loyalties. It was a revolution achieved almost entirely by the speed-up of information by means of uniform movable types. Nationalism cut across most of the traditional power and cultural groupings that had slowly grown up in various regions. Mutli-nationalisms had long deprived Europe of its economic unity. The Common Market came to it only with the Second War. War is accelerated social change, as an explosion is an accelerated chemical reaction and movement of matter. (Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media [New York: McGraw Hill, 1964], p. 353)

Nationalism…wiped out many of the local regions & loyalties.It was a revolution achieved almost entirely by…uniform movable types.McLuhanUM

Multinationalisms had long deprived Europe of … economic unity. … War is accelerated social change. Marshall McLuhan, *Understanding Media*

Note that mutli-nationalisms is corrected in its spelling and omits the hyphen. Elsewhere character spacing has been sacrificed, and an ampersand replaces the word and. The digital age has ushered in the end of precision, I tell you. What's an editor to do?!?

When I was a kid, during the years when preadolescents worried about global thermonuclear war, a girl I liked loaned me a manuscript of a postapocalyptic novel. In it the main character, a little girl who had survived an atomic explosion, was learning to subsist by herself in a hostile environment. She journaled her way through it and decided, for the sake of efficiency, that she didn't need to use articles and other grammatical devices in her writing. "The dogs are coming for me" became "Dogs coming 4 me"; that sort of thing. It doesn't take an apocalypse, however, for this utility to become commonplace. Precision in prose--even the full development of a thought--has given way to the utility of text. "Dogs coming 4 me" is just the sort of thing a frightened child might text to her mom as she ran away from the neighbor's pit bull. Our communication patterns are catching up to the immediacy of our media, and along the way a little precision simply has to go by the wayside.

That's not all bad--not by a long shot. The more exciting aspect of this is that such a message presumes a response. No word is the final word. Mom might text back "Throw ur bk bg at it" or "Shout for hlp frm some1." Should I post an incomplete thought from McLuhan or someone like him, someone might very well tweet back "What page is that quote on?" There's a feedback loop in the digital age that makes precision less pressing, complete thoughts less requisite. I would imagine McLuhan himself would have a thought or 2 @ the subject, but the bottom line, I think, is this: Reading does not have to be, nor necessarily should it be, as secluded an exercise as we have come to think it is. Precision is a value, to be sure, but a lack of precision doesn't shut down a discussion, which is where all communication, I think, is headed.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Solidarity Prayer

Yale law professor and elusive political commentator Stephen Carter has offered a helpful check against a blanket affirmation of empathy, in this case as applied to President Obama's search criteria for Supreme Court Justices, and particularly to Carter's former classmate Sonia Sotamayor:

I respectfully disagree with President Obama that "empathy" is an important characteristic in a judge. Had the President said what I think he probably meant--"patience" or "a willingness to listen and learn"--I would have agreed. Judge Sotomayor has both in spades. But "empathy" is an empty standard. For example, a judge who always rules in favor of investment banks might have empathy for Wall Streeters; and, during the civil rights era, there were plenty of Southern apologists who described the working-class whites of the South as the truly oppressed in America.

I've been enamored of late with the concept of empathy (along with its ethical companion solidarity). On its face empathy sounds so good: a predisposition to understand and appreciate those we come across. But Carter rightfully points out that some things are not meant to be understood or appreciated--only confounded and confronted. That being said, empathy for the person need not be understood as endorsement of the idea or act. Seeking to understand the racist who stands defiant of the arc of justice, or the ethically shallow Wall Street investor who operates under the assumption that "greed is good," or--for that matter--the cloistered suburbanite who sees no neighbor beyond his immediate surroundings--is part of the ministry of reconciliation we're called to by such prophets as Martin Luther King Jr. Maybe we need a solidarity prayer to parallel the serenity prayer:

God grant me the empathy to embrace those I do not understand,
the will to resist that which must not be embraced,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Innovation, Outering & Equilibrium

Any innovation threatens the equilibrium of existing organization. In big industry new ideas are invited to rear their heads so that they can be clobbered at once. The idea department of a big firm is a sort of lab for isolating dangerous viruses. When one is found, it is assigned to a group for neutralizing and immunizing treatment. . . . No new idea ever starts from within a big operation. It must assail the organization from outside, through some small but competing organization. In the same way, the outering or extension of our bodies and senses in a "new invention" compels the whole of our bodies and senses to shift into new positions in order to maintain equilibrium. A new "closure" is effected in all our organs and senses, both private and public, by any new invention. Sight and sound assume new postures, as do all the other faculties. (Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media)

I could, I suppose, draw comparisons between this observation by McLuhan about the politics of innovation and Jesus' observation that "only in their own towns, among their relatives and in their own homes are prophets without honor" (Mark 6:4 TNIV)--but given my recent effusion over McLuhan here and elsewhere, that would probably cause some people to worry that I'd joined a cult. Here, actually, I'd like to argue that what McLuhan sees as a pitiable reaction against innovation is actually a constructive approach.

If sustainability is a reasonable goal for organisms and institutions, which I think it is, then equilibrium--a steady stability that fosters harmony and even predictability--is a reasonable value. That value is of course held in tension with what I think is also a reasonable value: innovation--the impulse to change our circumstances for the better. Sustainability implies an ongoing flourishing even as the environment we inhabit changes, which almost demands innovation even as it seeks equilibrium.

So then, what do we do when innovation and equilibrium, as competing values, clash? We can do a couple of things:

1. We can cordon off the innovative impulse, setting up the lab McLuhan suggests as a way of filtering potential changes until they are rendered reasonably innocuous--not to mention isolating the innovators who might otherwise get their peers riled up about the need to change something right away.

2. We can send innovators away, either temporarily or permanently, so that their tinkering with the status quo doesn't mess anything up.

It's worth noting that both of these are options for the innovator as well. Sarah Palin, supposedly, has left government in order to change government from the outside. Barack Obama, presumably, has charged any number of people in his administration to change the financial and industrial infrastructures of U.S. society. In both cases, the desired outcome is equilibrium, the promotion of the general welfare and the securing of blessings of liberty. Equilibrium + innovation = sustainability.

Most of innovation, at least in media as defined by McLuhan, exists in this notion of "outering," whereby we deputize wheels for the functions of our feet, television for the function of our eyes, newspapers for the functions of our ears and, he foreshadows, the Internet for the functions of our central nervous system. We are actively outsourcing our intellects and sense perception; we are persistently employing external hard drives for all our information. We are actively outering.

The hidden notion in McLuhan's comment above is that we find being acted upon easier to manage than acting ourselves. It's better, for an example from my industry, publishing, to wait for Amazon or Google to force the issue of digital publishing than to actively and unilaterally pursue a digital publishing program. But we are always, arguably, "innering" as well--observing our changing environment, reflecting on its significance for us, calculating an appropriate response that will lead us not into perplexity but deliver us to equilibrium. So, like seemingly everything these days, we're not talking about things but processes: even equilibrium is not static by dynamic.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Joys of Being Out of Your Depth

I was born in a small town . . . and I live in the suburbs. I have a curious intellect with only a modest education. I have precious little aptitude or comprehension of the insights and methods of the hard sciences. I spell good and smith words and otherwise enjoy a reasonably simple life. That's pretty much the sum of me.

This weekend, however, my wordsmithing profession got me sent to Osprey Point Retreat Center on Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, where I hobnobbed with world-class physicists, bioethicists, neurologists, chemists and policy specialists. My thanks to the Trinity Forum for making me feel so welcome there.

I knew pretty quickly that I was going to be out of my depths here. I'm accustomed to rustic retreat centers in midwestern milieus at which I'm the adult chaperone to carloads of adolescents. I'm accustomed to bulk quantities of pasta and mass-produced toast. Not so here: the "buffet lunch" awaiting us during our trip from the airport was, not the sneeze-guarded stuff of the Sizzler set, but a choice between two plates: a veggie sandwich plate or a salad with chicken breast. I took the salad and had to remind myself every now and then not to freak out at how good it was. Dinner was no different, nor were breakfast or lunch the next day. Even my napkin was made of cloth.

Here's a picture of my room, which was, I remind you, for one person. Also, please note, there's no TV. (My one complaint. :)

It had a big step right by the door, which was appropriately noted by a big shiny sign, but which I repeatedly stumbled over nonetheless. Feeling scientific, I came up with two theorems: (1) If you don't step down, you're more likely to fall down; (2) If you don't step up, you're more likely to trip up.

Even the undergrad interns were pleasantly intimidating at this event, but everyone was remarkably gracious and inviting, and the things we discussed--the intersections of scientific and religious inquiry, their points of conflict and strategies for how they might synergize in the quest for truth (or veritas, simply because using Latin makes me feel more competent)--made clear the notion that the chasm between scientists and theologians simply must be bridged for the benefit of the human community. In order to achieve that reconciliation, both sides need to make a fresh appraisal of their limits and recalibrate their inquiries toward a point beyond both: knowledge, as philosopher Dallas Willard contended, rooted in humility. (I sat at his table for dinner. I know that's name-dropping, but I'm still a little wigged out by it.)

The Trinity Forum is developing a curriculum to facilitate this conversation among college students and laypeople; that's why we all came together. This isn't the only subject matter they explore, and they're looking to establish pockets of discourse throughout the country. If you're interested, you should really check them out.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Qualities of Comic Books

I did not expect Marshall McLuhan to give any space in Understanding Media to comic books. I was, therefore, pleasantly surprised as I read page 158 and forward about the comic book as cultural artifact, with its own historical context. It's becoming increasingly clear to me that Scot McCloud's wonderful Understanding Comics--which I should probably read again in light of this reading--was deeply influenced by McLuhan. If you like media studies, trust me, you'll love Understanding Comics.

McLuhan sees comic books as being similar in production values and perceived worth by the cultural elite as nothing short of the pre-Gutenberg block-printed Biblia Pauperum--"Bibles of the Poor," something I've never heard of. "These cheap and popular prints, despised by the learned, were not preserved any more than are the comic books of today." That's right, you naysayers: comic books stand in the tradition of not only the stations of the cross but a missional version of the Bible itself. I'd like to get my hands on one of them.

As despised as the Biblia Pauperum and other such visually oriented media may have been by the literati, "the woodcut, and even the photograph, were . . . eagerly welcomed in a literate world." Beyond their remedial function as onramps to conversations for those who were less educated than the elite--a picture, remember, paints a thousand words, which means a thousand words fewer to read or, more significantly, recognize--pictorial sources of information stressed the participation of the "reader."

The old prints and woodcuts, like the modern comic strip and comic book, provide very little data about any particular moment in time, or aspect in space, of an object. The viewer, or reader, is compelled to participate in completing and interpreting the few hints provided by the bounding lines. (McLuhan, Understanding Media, p. 160)

McCloud picks up on this idea from McLuhan as he deconstructs the comic medium. McLoud gives insight into how one "reads" the space between frames (the "gutter," if I recall correctly) in a comic strip or comic book: in these gutters scenes change, time passes, conversations are processed, or drama is intensified by means of the gutter's "pregnant pause." No matter how empty that gutter space appears on the page, it's endowed with quite a bit of assumed meaning. It's the responsibility of the reader to decipher that meaning.

So visual media offer nonverbal communication in ways that pure print media simply can't. McLuhan thus compares comic books not to pulp fiction or other literature but rather to other more participatory media:

Not unlike the character of the woodcut and the cartoon is the TV image, with its very low degree of data about objects, and the resulting high degree of participation by the viewer in order to complete what is only hinted at in the mosaic mesh of dots. Since the advent of TV, the comic book has gone into a decline. (McLuhan, Understanding Media, p. 161)

Good point there. "From Life to General Motors," McLuhan goes on to say, "and from the classroom to the Executive Suite, a refocusing of aims and images to permit ever more audience involvement and participation has been inevitable" (p. 166). Hence comics extended into TV and film and action figures and costumes and conventions. Participation is the coin of the new realm, and the degree to which products and services--from books to churches to families--fail to facilitate active participation of their audience, is the degree to which they render themselves irrelevant.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Primal Technologies

I'm reading Understanding Media (1964) by Marshall McLuhan as a way of better understanding Flickering Pixels (2009) by Shane Hipps--a book which I fell in love with and will be facilitating discussion of in August. Hipps gives major props to McLuhan (known and perhaps misunderstood for his phrase "the medium is the message") early on in the book as a prophet of our current technological malaise--we can do seemingly all things, but we remain largely blissfully unaware of what all we've signed over of ourselves in the process. So Hipps, following McLuhan, is looking for ways of recalibrating our symbiotic relationships with our technologies, such that we remain masters rather than servants and users rather than worshipers.

McLuhan was writing in the early days of the "electric age," when television and film were on the rise, when computers filled rooms and launched objects into space. It's hard in such times not to settle into starry-eyed wonder or horror-filled apprehensions about new technologies, but McLuhan managed to step back far enough to put the electric age in context. He argues that in the same way that technologies have always served to simultaneously extend and render obsolete human capacity--the wheel, for example, extended the capacity of the foot but made walking embarrassingly quaint--the electric age is distinct in its extension of not just our limbs and senses but our central nervous system. In the electric age, he suggests, it's possible to relocate all sensory experience and its interpretation outside of ourselves. We've given ourselves external hard drives. We conduct our lives increasingly not directly but through avatars. Whoah.

To embrace the thesis of either Understanding Media or Flickering Pixels requires embracing an expanded definition of technology. That's given some of my friends, particularly those who consider themselves especially spiritual, a great deal of pause. Both McLuhan and Hipps would argue that our spirituality can be understood technologically; for example, to be Jewish is to have adapted our spirituality through the technology of Torah, so that the Ten Commandments organize our ethics, and the stories of the Patriarchs establish for us how we relate to one another, to God and to the world. To be Christian is to extend the technology of Torah via the New Testament, so that now instead of hearing "Thou shalt not kill" and thinking that murder is bad, we hear "Thou shalt not kill" and consider it wrong to harbor hate for another person. The technology of the gospel--Jesus' life and death and resurrection and ascension--eliminates the need for the more complex technology of Torah; as the writer of Hebrews suggests, Jesus becomes our once-for-all high priest, and his once-for-all sacrifice fulfills the ongoing sacrificial system prescribed in the Old Testament.

So our formal relationship with God is a function of a kind of technology. So, arguably, are our relations with one another. If, as McLuhan suggests, technological advances are propogated as a solution to some perceived stress, then it's reasonable to perceive marriage, as presented in Torah and elaborated on in the New Testament, as a kind of technology. "It's not good for the man to be alone," says God, and so God takes one of the man's ribs and makes a helper for him--literally an extension of his person, flesh of his flesh. The apostle Paul is quick to remind us that thereafter man comes from woman, so that the technology of relationship is truly symbiotic. This technology becomes totalizing: to separate a marriage is to tear it asunder, and to isolate individuals from a larger community is to subject them to "excessive sorrow" (2 Cor 2:7).

Sin, it's often observed, separates. The person who sins created distance between herself and God, herself and other persons, even herself and herself. The sinner experiences what Adam and Eve experienced: exclusion from the garden of Eden, where fellowship with God was direct and intimate. The sinner experiences what Cain experienced: restless wandering with no friends, a punishment that is "more than I can bear" (Gen 4:13). So the engine of the technology that God extends to us is reconciliation. The gospel extends our reach, so that we can once again have direct interaction with God. The gospel recalibrates our vision of one another, so that we're not competitors for God's affection but members of God's body, bricks in God's temple, priests in God's court.

But reconciliation is totalizing, as well. We are instructed by Jesus to pray, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." We are encouraged by Jesus to leave our gifts to God on the altar when we're not yet reconciled to the people God has connected us to. We're confronted by the apostle John with the notion that to the degree we can't love the people around us, we can't love God. Like any other technology, reconciliation takes as much as it gives.

Unlike many technologies, however, reconciliation comes from God, and God makes stuff good. This, I think, is a way of understanding Bonhoeffer's notion of costly grace: we're handed it and promised an infinitely better life by way of it, but it "demands my soul, my life, my all."

There's more to be explored here, and Hipps has another book coming that will deal with some of it: the technologies, for example, of prayer, Scripture, praise, sacrament and so on. But in the meantime, it's worth considering that technology is the lingua franca of the electric age, and so to speak meaningfully of the gospel here and now is to understand it technologically.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Here's to You, Marshall McLuhan

Something to chew on from Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media.

In terms of the ways in which the machine altered our relations to one another and to ourselves, it mattered not in the least whether it turned out cornflakes or Cadillacs. . . . Fragmentation . . . is the essence of machine technology. The essence of automation technology is the opposite. It is integral and decentralist in depth, just as the machine was fragmentary, centralist, and superficial in its patterning of human relationships.

This is in part what he means by "The medium is the message." Of course, I've so far only quoted pages 7 and 8, so I'm sure I'll have more to quote and, one would hope, a better sense of what he's talking about in days to come.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Book Review: Ubuntu--I in You and You in Me

Ubuntu is all the rage in my circles these days, it seems. An African worldview roughly characterized by John Mbiti as "I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am," ubuntu is of late regularly lifted up as a potential corrective against the dehumanizing elements of individualism running rampant in the West, among which are surely the rampant entitlement and self-absorption I critique in my book Deliver Us from Me-Ville. Having swum in these Western waters all my life, I was glad for the opportunity to read and review Ubuntu--I in You and You in Me by Michael Battle, which was offered me by the fine folks at Seabury Books.

Battle, currently living in LA as a theologian at the Cathedral Center of St. Paul, was ordained by Desmond Tutu and served for two years in South Africa as a parish priest. One of my favorite essays ever was an address by Tutu to a graduating class of new priests, and I can picture Battle sitting in that class, beaming as Tutu paints an endearing picture of pastoral ministry. I began reading Tutu's No Future Without Forgiveness--his chronicle of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission in post-Apartheid South Africa--earlier this year; he writes briefly there about ubuntu as a distinctly African context for understanding Christianity. Battle picks up this brief sketch and delivers a full-length treatment here.

Battle is clearly a disciple of Tutu; 82 of his 189 endnotes are Tutu references. This was distracting for me, I admit; many of the quotations I had read quite literally a week previous. I was struck, particularly early on, by Battle's starry-eyed devotion to Tutu, which threatened to extrapolate out to an uncritical wholesale appropriation of ubuntu for a Western context. Here ubuntu comes to save the day, I sang in my head, in an admittedly sarcastic tone. But the book gradually turned from paean to a nicely integrative analysis of how ubuntu might reasonably manifest in the West: what are the problems that ubuntu would confront, where would ubuntu prove inadequate, and so on. While the book falls short of being terribly practical--there are no incremental steps toward an ubuntu-driven church, for example--it is helpfully analytical and synthetic, even bringing Simone Weil into the mix in a way that makes me want to take her up and read for a while, if only my pastor would stop assigning books to us.

Some key insights that (a) contextualize ubuntu in its original setting and (b) showcase its offering to the West:

1. Self-identity is not optimally formed through competition.
2. Community is elusive and requires skill to see it. . . .
5. The development of a "communal self" requires practice. (p. 6)

*Ubuntu reveals that all of life contains the possibility of meeting God. . . .
*Because of God's communal nature, God is not limited by any single word, image, idea, or experience. . . .
*Any form of spirituality must always be reflective of relationality. (pp. 108-9)

"Unlike many Western forces which seek to 'establish' who a person or community is," Battle observes, "Tutu's Ubuntu excludes Western tendencies of grasping competitiveness. The beauty of Ubuntu is that instead of being manipulative and self-seeking that person is 'more willing to make excuses for other' and even discover new meaning in other persons" (p. 35). Well, bully for ubuntu, I thought. The harumphing Western cynic in me quickly called up mental images of intertribal violence and tyrannical governments that seem to run rampant on the African continent. Battle is not naive about these realities, and indeed it's here where the shortcomings of an African worldview not baptised Christian come into view, just as Western worldviews not run through a Christian wash become cultural crises: In Africa, for example, personhood is progressive--one's personhood is only gradually realized. "For many African people," Battle writes,

you are not human merely by being an [sic] biological entity. To grow in personhood is to become more of a person and hence to become more worthy of reverence and respect.

When people are not believed to be people, it is relatively easy to justify doing them harm. (p. 130)

So, yes, ubuntu can't in and of itself come to save the day. Neither, I hasten to add, can Western worldviews. Battle rightly observes that for many Westerners, "their schedules could never create the coincidence of life together" (p. 24). For all its ballyhooed advances in technology made possible by Enlightenment sensibilities, Battle observes the West through the eyes of ubuntu and, borrowing from Albert Borgmann, comes up with some insightful theological questions, among them

Why do 90 percent of all families or households watch TV after dinner? Is it because they decided that's the best way to spend their time? No, something else is at work here. . . . [W]hat happens when technology moves beyond lifting genuine burdens and starts freeing us from burdens we should not be free from? . . . Consider the burden of preparing a meal and getting everyone to be at one place at the same time. Or the burdens of being honest, reading poetry, exercising regularly, writing letters--gathering our thoughts and setting them down in a way that will be remembered. . . . These are activities that have been obliterated by the readily available entertainment offered in a technological culture. (p. 18)

Christianity offers both ubuntu and Western sensibilities a redemptive corrective to their respective blind spots. In the Eucharist and in baptism, we experience communion--empathy bordering on identity--with God. Because God is, therefore we are (p. 21). And other Christian practices such as confession and forgiveness recalibrate our sensibilities so that we identify less with our stuff and more with our brothers and sisters--not to mention seeing one another as brothers and sisters rather than, as with an abused ubuntu, not-yet-humans who will merit our full engagement only after they achieve some level of maturity or sophistication (p. 139).

Ubuntu is an appealing idea, exactly the sort of thing that a starry-eyed Westerner would be tempted to appropriate and incorporate uncritically. To do so is to degrade ubuntu itself and really to be all the more uncritically Western. Battle offers a good introduction to ubuntu that ultimately reminds us that it's the life and ministry of Jesus, not the worldviews that we unconsciously latch onto, that ultimately lead us in the way everlasting.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The Logic of Love

From St. John of the Cross, in Dark Night of the Soul, which has nothing whatsoever to do with Batman:

It is a characteristic of the power and vehemence of love that all things seem possible to it, and it believes all men to be of the same mind as itself. For it thinks that there is naught wherein one may be employed, or which one may seek, save that which it seeks itself and that which it loves; and it believes that there is naught else to be desired, and naught wherein it may be employed, save that one thing, which is pursued by all.

Such is the logic of love, I guess, that it colors our perception of the world. What we love becomes the standard by which we measure everything we love less. That's why my dear mother didn't think (or at least didn't acknowledge) that I was a hopeless nerd as a child; if in fact I was a nerd, then the whole world ought aspire to the same nerdiness.

John of the Cross here refers to Mary Magdalene as a model of "the inebriating power and the boldness of love"--not words that traditionally evoke a cool, rational mind. And yet he suggests that Mary, in humiliating herself before a crowd by washing Jesus' feet with her tears and drying them with her hair, in frantically combing a cemetery for some sense of where Jesus may have been taken, comes closer than all of us to a true sense of how the universe is ordered. Love is totalizing, tyrannical even--a rebuke to the detachment that logic aspires to. It's under the logic of love that God's giving his only son to a world that was predisposed to killing God would make sense.

Of course, when love is so totalizing, it becomes all the more important that we know what we're loving and that we are sure it merits our love. It's one thing to think your kid merits the emulation of all other kids everywhere; it's quite another to think that of your music collection. There's an ethical quality to both our love and our logic. More often than not, however, we give love a pass and give logic our devotion. We often judge love by the extent to which we can call it logical. Instead maybe we should judge logic by the extent to which we can call it loving.