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The Second Coming of The Lorax (Or, the Day after May 21) May 22, 2011

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in A New Kind of Question, Childhood, Christianity, Environment, Nature, Saving the World, Through the Looking Glass.
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For a while, when I was about five years old, I would wake up each morning around 5 or 6 am. My room had an east-facing window through which I could see the masses of cloud lit with the flame-bright colors of sunrise. It was so beautiful, I thought, that maybe – just maybe – this would be the day that Jesus returned.

I was raised in the Seventh-Day Adventist church, which strongly emphasized the Second Coming. Any moment could be the magical moment when it would happen – and we had to be sure that we were prepared. Of course, the church insisted that nobody could “know the day or hour”, a caution born out of its predecessor’s disastrous fling with Rapture mania in 1844.

At any rate, I was determined to be ready, and I read my children’s Bible with great fascination – particularly Revelation, with its mysterious beasts, angels and fiery cataclysms. If Jesus did return in my lifetime, I was pretty sure it was going to be during such a brilliant sunrise, when the sky was already so majestically illuminated. And so each morning I watched in breathless anticipation…and mixed disappointment and relief as the sunrise faded.

Similarly, I watched yesterday as the world crossed into 6 pm, May 21, 2011. No earthquakes, no crowds rising into the sky, no cars or trains suddenly colliding due to Raptured drivers. Of course, I really hadn’t expected anything to happen. Much less did I want billions of people to die in a fiery Apocalypse. But once again, somewhere inside me was…just a tiny little sliver of disappointment.

Disappointment? Why?

*******

Last week Kristy (a fellow Tweeter) and I were discussing Revelation and the Second Coming. She wasn’t a member of the May 21 movement (she describes herself simply as a “born-again Christian”). But she was adamantly certain that Jesus would return, probably very soon, and when he did, everything wrong with the world would just…vanish. We’d live with one another in perfect harmony, free from any temptation to treat each other badly. Our devastated planet would be replaced by a pristine paradise, untouched by human greed. And Satan himself – the source of all evil – would be destroyed forever.

She spoke about her hopes for a new earth. “Personally, I look forward to a new one. I don’t want to keep this one with what we’ve done to it. It will only get worse as time goes on….I would love to start all over again.”

But, I argued, isn’t this a sort of a cop-out? Like a little kid going to their math teacher and saying “this assignment is too hard – just give me the answers?” And what about the suffering that we’re causing for countless millions (or billions, as things get worse) due to our misuse of the Earth’s resources?

My mind came back to our conversation several times that week. Yes, it’s understandable to want someone to come solve our problems. Clean things up and give our world a fresh start. I think we’ve all had that feeling of being overwhelmed by all the things that are wrong with this world, to the point where we feel like just throwing up our hands: “Someone else can deal with this mess – it’s not my doing.” And yet, even if Jesus did return to fix things for us…wouldn’t this be too easy?

Thinking over the environmental aspect in particular, my mind went to one of my favourite children’s books, The Lorax…the tale of a natural paradise, once perfect, now turned to a wasteland by human greed for profit. A young child listens as the “Once-ler” responsible for the devastation tells his story of the Lorax. The long-vanished Lorax who “lifted himself away” into the sky “without leaving a trace”, and would one day in the future – just maybe – “come back”…

…Wait.

*******

“The Lorax said nothing. Just gave me a glance…
just gave me a very sad, sad backward glance…
as he lifted himself by the seat of his pants.
And I’ll never forget the grim look on his face
when he heisted himself and took leave of this place,
through a hole in the smog, without leaving a trace.”

The Lorax: a mysterious figure that appears miraculously to warn the greedy Once-ler about the consequences of his thoughtless actions. But his words are disregarded until “the very last Truffula Tree of them all” is chopped down (a symbolic martyrdom of the one who “speaks for the trees”). Finally The Lorax vanishes into the sky leaving behind only a strange, enigmatic prophecy that someday he will return…the Second Coming of the Lorax.*

Robert L. Short, in his book The Parables of Dr. Seuss, argues that reading The Lorax as a book only about environmental issues misses a major part of the point – and I agree. As we listen to the Once-ler’s tale, it becomes apparent that his rampant destruction of the environment is merely an accidental byproduct of his utterly egocentric worldview. In his quest for riches he is eager to manipulate everyone he can into buying the ridiculous (yet, for advertising purposes, highly “spinnable”) Thneeds. Long after his business empire has collapsed, he still exacts a petty and useless toll from a child – “fifteen cents and a nail and the shell of a great-great-great-grandfather snail” – in exchange for the privilege of hearing his story. He utterly disregards the suffering that his actions have caused; he allows himself a cursory moment of “feeling bad” for the starving, child-like Barbaloots, but concludes that “business must grow/regardless of crummies in tummies, you know.” Like those who run so many of the world’s major corporations, the Once-ler is a deeply psychopathic individual who can only see the world and others through the lens of profit.

And, inevitably, his actions lead to an Apocalypse. The water is poisoned, the trees cut down, and the sky darkened with “Smogulous Smoke”. Seemingly abandoned by both the Lorax and his family, the Once-ler goes into denial. Hiding in his Lurkem from the hellish wasteland outside, he endlessly waits for something to change, thinking about the moment when the Lorax left. Might he someday return to fix what went wrong – to make the Truffula Trees regrow, the sky blue, the water clear again? To magically undo the Once-ler’s mistakes, re-creating the paradise that once existed?

“And all that the Lorax left here in this mess
was a small pile of rocks, with one word…
“UNLESS.”
Whatever that meant, well, I just couldn’t guess.
That was long, long ago.
But each day since that day
I’ve sat here and worried
and worried away.
Through the years, while my buildings
have fallen apart,
I’ve worried about it
with all of my heart.”

But the prophecy of the Lorax remains hopelessly obscure, no matter how hard the Once-ler tries to decipher its secret code…until a third person enters the picture.

The child listening to the tale.

“But now,” says the Once-ler,
“Now that you’re here,
the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear.
UNLESS someone like you
cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better.
It’s not.

“SO…
Catch!” calls the Once-ler.
He lets something fall.
“It’s a Truffula Seed.
It’s the last one of all!
You’re in charge of the last of the Truffula Seeds.
And Truffula Trees are what everyone needs.
Plant a new Truffula. Treat it with care.
Give it clean water. And feed it fresh air.
Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack.
Then the Lorax
and all of his friends
may come back.”

If the Lorax is a Christ figure in this “parable”, and the Once-ler represents the worst in human nature, who is the child? Us. Every one of us alive today who has the potential to change things, to undo the bad that has been done and sow the seeds (Truffula seeds!) of good.

Inspiring, right? Well, yes…when I read it as a child. This time, though, my first impulse was to shout furiously at the Once-ler. “Someone like me?? Why not someone like YOU! I didn’t make this problem. You guys did, now you fix it. It’s all very well and good for you to shout “Catch” and happily toss me and my generation the responsibility. Why should we clean up your mess?”

Indeed, why?

“We didn’t start the fire”, the Billy Joel song insists. We didn’t put the hole in the ozone layer, spark the centuries-old ethnic conflicts that continue today, force young children to work in a sweatshop. Other people did. Why is it our job to fix their mistakes?

Well, on one level it *is* our doing. Merely by living in the society we are born in we find ourselves complicit in its collective actions. We get into the car, or even take public transit, and automatically contribute to climate change. We throw out a plastic bag and add to the ever-growing Great Pacific Garbage Patch. We stroll into a clothing store in the mall and buy a  $60 pair of jeans that a young child, halfway around the world, earned a few cents for sewing. We don’t deliberately choose our actions to have these consequences. But often they are an inescapable part of the economic and cultural system we find ourselves in. If we want to eliminate our individual contribution towards an impending planetary Apocalypse, this will have to involve working to change the system as well.

But, on a more pragmatic level…it doesn’t matter whose “fault” it is. Nobody but us is going to fix it.

The Once-ler won’t. He doesn’t have the knowledge, or vision, or optimism. (In many cases, he might not even be alive anymore.)

The Lorax won’t…because unless we learn to solve our problems ourselves, “starting over” would do us no good whatsoever. (Sure, give the Once-ler another “Eden” filled with brand-new Truffula trees – just how long would that last?)

_Nobody_ is going to fix our planet except us…and if we sit waiting for Jesus, or somebody else, to do it, we’ll still be waiting when the world burns, and nobody comes to save us from the very real, literal Hell we’ve created for ourselves.

Jesus is not going to come back and give us a new planet to pollute and consume as we did this one. (Sorry…)

Jesus is not going to come back and magically end all the wars and generations-old conflicts between ethnic and religious groups.

Jesus is not going to come back and stop human beings from exploiting one another for greed and profit.

Jesus is not going to come back and instantly change us all from self-absorbed, anger-prone, judgmental individuals to perfect beings who can live together in peaceful community.

Jesus is not going to come back and fix our problems for us. If He comes back, it will only be after we fix them ourselves – and, in doing so, become the sort of people who are able to live in Heaven for eternity without destroying it…or each other.

*******

In a book by one of my favourite Christian authors, Brian McLaren, the character “Chip” describes how, to him, Christianity had always been mainly about two key questions:

1. If you were to die tonight, do you know for certain that you’d go to be with God in heaven?

2. If Jesus returned today, would you be ready to meet God?

But now, Chip explains, two different questions have become equally central to him:

1. If you were to live for another fifty years, what kind of person would you like to become – and how will you become that kind of person?

2. If Jesus doesn’t return for ten thousand or ten million years, what kind of world do we want to create?

As I think back to those early childhood days of reading Revelation, my favourite part – despite all the excitement of the middle – was, of course, the ending.

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new Earth, for the first heaven and the first Earth had passed away…Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

A beautiful image – who wouldn’t long to live in such a place? But wait…

In my childhood church (and nearly every interpretation of Revelation I’ve ever read) we’d always been told that God would create this perfect paradise for us, and all we’d need to do is sit back, relax, and enjoy it. But the first line doesn’t read “Then God created a new heaven and a new Earth, while humankind watched passively…”

Perhaps we’re meant to play a part in creating this new Earth? Perhaps we’re even required to? Isn’t it likely that UNLESS we take on some responsibility and at least attempt to change this world for the better, God is not just going to do it for us?

But if we do…then it could truly become a Rapturous place to live. 🙂

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

*Of course, I’m hardly the first one to notice this similarity, as a quick Google search revealed. See Heinz Fenkel and Robert L. Short‘s writings for more on the subject. (I find Short’s argument the most convincing of the two…but Fenkel’s is interesting as well.)

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…But How Can We Modernize? August 7, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in A New Kind of Question, Environment, Nature, Philosophy, Saving the World.
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(…A follow-up to yesterday’s post, “On Being a ‘Modernized’ Society.)

“Suppose that you are in a room studying; after a few hours you feel that the atmosphere is a little stuffy and you need to change the air and you open the window. You let the fresh air enter the room, after a while you close the window, that’s all. That’s evolution. You are in a room and you feel that you need a change of air and you take a stone, put that through the window and break the window, of course the fresh air enters, but after that you have to repair the window. That’s revolution. I don’t see myself the need to break a window; I know how to open it!”

– Maurice Ravel

Yesterday a very interesting question came up in the comments to my post “On Being a ‘Modernized’ Society.” I had argued that the Western lifestyle, far from being the “modern” way of life we seem to assume, is actually profoundly un-modern in that it is founded on principles (limitless growth, infinite resource supply, fossil-fuel technology) that do not reflect the most recent developments in science, economics or technology. In contrast, a “primitive” lifestyle like the Bushmen’s is actually more modern since it is sustainable given the current scientific model of our planet’s ecology.

Danya wrote in response:

…just to take it to the next level – what kinds of practical steps might we take to “modernize,” so to speak, like the Bushmen? The discrepancy that currently exists between their lifestyle and ours is so great that we can’t simply drop everything and immediately begin acting as they do.

I found this an extremely relevant, in fact essential question. If we’re to make any practical use of the new data we do have, how can we remodel our society to bring it into line with our modern ecological and technological findings? I think there are two possible routes (one more desirable than the other) and they both lie in a major paradigm shift: moving from an open-system to a closed-system model.

*******

Most of our current societal systems (the modern corporation, our banking system, our political models, our methods of transport, our engineering and design priorities, etc) were founded based on open-system models. In an open system there is – theoretically at least – an infinite resource supply (water, trees, food, land) to draw upon and infinite capacity for absorbing waste products (i.e. pollution). Logic, of course, tells us that no system is indefinitely open, but until very recently the limitations imposed by our planet itself were not recognized for practical purposes. (European colonialism and expansionism played a large role in this: until less than a century ago it really did appear  – from the viewpoint of aspiring developers and manufacturers – that there were vast amounts of land and resources simply waiting to be “used up”.) In an open-system model, maximizing profit will always be seen as a higher priority than preserving a renewable resource base, since more resources can be readily be obtained from outside the system.

In contrast, the Kalahari is a pretty obviously closed system and the people who live there have developed a lifestyle that recognizes its limitations. In this model, preserving a renewable resource base is automatically prioritized over acquiring money, luxuries, or personal possessions. Money is not intrinsically necessary for survival and once used up is gone; food and water are essential and, unlike money, are renewable if used wisely. To trade the essentials of long-term survival for cash is lunacy; if you deplete your long-term land base or food supply for quick returns now, you and your people will starve the next year.

Therefore each system has a “non-negotiable” principle. In a closed system it is to ensure renewability of resources; in an open system to maximize profit. It’s pretty obvious that our society and global economic system currently adopt the obsolete “open system” model. Preserving our global resource base falls a distant second (at best) behind maximizing profit, which most companies view point-blank as a non-negotiable value. If we are to successfully modernize and move to a “closed-system” model, we need to change our value system as well so that preserving our global environment (and thus ensuring our collective survival), not profit, becomes the non-negotiable priority. Anything else is collective insanity.

I see two main alternatives for how this paradigm shift could be done. Let’s take an analogy: it’s the late 1970’s and you own a factory that manufactures record players. Business is great and your product is in high demand. A few years later, cassette tapes and then CDs come along; suddenly, your product is obsolete. You can either throw up your hands, tear down your whole factory and start from scratch. Or – if you’re innovative – you can try to convert your existing machines and protocols to produce something different, a product that is in demand.

In the same way we could, theoretically, jettison our whole societal structure, our obsolete political and financial and industrial and social systems, and build them up again from scratch on a better (global) model. In other words, we could have a global revolution. Unfortunately this sort of transition would almost certainly be extremely difficult to achieve smoothly; it would likely involve a great deal of societal and violent conflict. In addition we might well end up with something even worse along the way (a global totalitarian regime or nuclear/biological war). So I’m going to propose we use the second method: to retain most of our existing societal “infrastructure”, harness its existing strengths and tweak it to remove or limit the weaknesses that make it and its intended product (uncontrolled expansion, consumption, and waste production) obsolete in today’s world. In Ravel’s words as quoted above, I think we should work towards evolution, rather than revolution.

This is the moment when readers will undoubtedly get cynical. How, they will ask, can we possibly hope to persuade governments and corporations that sustainability is a non-negotiable priority? I agree that it is a substantial task, but it is by no means impossible. As a parallel situation, consider this: our Western society does, in fact, have a number of non-negotiable priorities valued even above profit maximization. Some examples:

Safety. It is illegal for a company to construct unsafe buildings, violate traffic laws, sell food or pharmaceutical products containing dangerous substances, or order employees to operate dangerous equipment or work under hazardous conditions.

Individual and child rights. A company may not use slave labour or child labour (at least not within the country) to increase its profits. It can’t make its employees work for less than the minimum wage or in substandard conditions.

Minority and gender rights. A company may not discriminate against handicapped workers or against women, or use racial slurs in advertising its products.

This is just a small sampling of the rules that corporations must respect in our society. These laws are there precisely because, if allowed to operate unfettered by such limitations, most corporations will discard all other considerations in favour of profit. (This is simply a consequence of the Western capitalist model, based as it is on competition). Obviously none of these values became “non-negotiables”, valued even over profit, automatically or by default. There was a time when none of them were recognized and they each required years or decades of hard-fought, bitter campaigning against entrenched interests within the industries in question, to be made into law. However, they are necessary since the safety and basic rights of citizens must be protected, even over corporate interests.

Environmental sustainability needs to become a non-negotiable issue in the same way: a set of limitations placed upon companies’ freedom in order to protect all the citizens of our society and our world. Right now when a residential or commercial building is constructed, by law it needs to meet certain safety codes which are enforced by inspection. Why not make it mandatory to meet “environmental codes” (sustainable building materials, rooftop solar panelling, efficient water use, etc) as well? Any farming or food production facility is regularly inspected to ensure its products meet health standards; why not require it to meet substainable agricultural standards as well? To speed development of electrical/fuel cell/hybrid vehicles, why not simply levy a per-vehicle carbon offset tax for each “traditional” (gasoline-consuming) vehicle manufacturers produce, while providing tax breaks to companies which produce “clean” vehicles? And to finally end that scourge of sustainability – planned obsolescence – require companies to meet minimal design/compatibility standards and provide repair services for older models rather than simply telling consumers to upgrade.

The industry will fight the changes, no doubt. But after all the wailing and enraged protest and “sky is falling” predictions of imminent economic collapse, a funny thing will happen…the industry will adapt. It always does. This is the greatest strength of our capitalist economic system: that corporations are amazingly innovative and versatile when it comes to ensuring their own survival. (It’s the flip side of the weakness I mentioned earlier.) It’s this versality we need to harness and direct, not towards maximizing our GDP, but preserving our global environment.

Perhaps in this new scenario with sustainability as the non-negotiable value, profit margins will not be as ridiculously high or ensure instant wealth for the lucky few. But there will be profits, and products will still be manufactured and sold, and customers will continue to buy them because, in any model, people still need food, clothing, housing and other essentials. Bringing our runaway, snowballing, expansion-oriented economy under control will not cause it to collapse. Instead it will adapt to the new situation (as complex systems have a way of doing) and will serve our societal needs better than before. We will not need to “throw out” our technological developments; instead we will finally be able to make most efficient use of them.

And once the Western world leads, the rest of the world will follow, as it has followed our “modernization” patterns in the past. Few countries, after all, want to be “left behind” following an outdated system (nor is it to their advantage in global trade for their products to be obsolete or non-exportable to the Western world).This is the blind spot in all our collective wrangling at Kyoto and Copenhagen: if we are to modernize our world to adjust to the model science gives us, somebody must lead the way. At this point in time, it is Western countries that have the necessary technology to do so. And, when you think about it…would we Westerners really be satisfied in being “second-best” at modernization? 😀

Thoughts and comments are, as always, welcome. 🙂

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

* The Botswana government in fact offered many of the Bushmen cash or food handouts if they would cooperate with the enforced resettlements. Their response: “Being given food is not good. You don’t know how long that person is going to keep giving you food. We know this land, we know what to do. We would not know what to do in Kaudwane [the resettlement camp]. In Kaudwane, if you don’t have food, you have to go and beg the government for it. Here, if we are hungry, we all go out and find some food.”

Witnessing for…Humanism? July 25, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in A New Kind of Question, Christianity, Iranelection, Philosophy, Saving the World, Through the Looking Glass.
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A New Kind of Question, Part 3

Note: This was a personal experience, not a book, but it goes so well under my “New Kind of Question” category that I decided to post it here. 🙂

I was at our local anti-stoning protest today, June 24, the International Sakine Day Against Stoning. As I live in one of the most politically indifferent cities on the continent, I didn’t expect more than the usual handful of diehards like myself to show up at our local event. When I got to the protest location, though, I was somewhat surprised to see (in addition to the small cluster of Iranians and some interested-looking passers-by) a group of about 6 people wearing matching T-shirts:


I went over to the group. Was another protest happening here at the same time? “Oh, no,” a friendly looking man around my age explained to me. “We’ve just come out in solidarity.” He explained that they were the local Humanist/Atheist Association. Seeing my interested look, he handed me a brochure about their group. “There’s all sorts of meetings if you want to join, or give it a try…”

I took it and quickly skimmed it to be polite, but told him (with more than a little trepidation) that I believed pretty firmly in God and that it wasn’t likely that I’d become an atheist anytime soon. “But,” I hurried to add, “I really admire a lot of what you guys are trying to accomplish – your goals, making the world a better place.” And then the last thing I expected happened.

*******

He smiled warmly. “What we’re really just aiming for is to get people to ask questions,” he explained. “Why do they believe in God, or not? What are their reasons? We just want everyone to think about their beliefs, so that things like this -” he pointed to the Save Sakineh signs behind us – “like a country deciding to stone a woman to death for religious reasons – don’t happen.”

I was amazed. I’d been expecting debate, arguments against God’s existence, assertions that religion poisons lives and cultures, all the usual rhetoric. Not this sort of…quiet openness. It made me think. This was, I realized, an example of a humanist group doing what Christians are always “supposed” to be doing: witnessing. And doing it more effectively than most Christians.

Often so much of the time atheists and Christians see each other, ironically, in very similar ways. As combatants. Hardcore, closed-minded fundamentalists out to beat and bludgeon the other side with any ammunition at hand into accepting “the truth.” Christians hurling verses and texts and commentaries, thumping their Bibles, blustering and ranting about hellfire and damnation and eternity, interrogating passersby with “Are you saved”? And atheists returning a volley of “scientific facts” and statistics and anti-religious rhetoric, brandishing their copies of God is Not Great or The God Delusion, demanding belligerently, “Don’t you know you’ve been brainwashed?”

I think it’s time for both sides to maybe drop our respective weapons, calm down, pick up some olive branches and just…ask questions. Like the humanist I met at the rally. Not questions designed to interrogate or intimidate or set up philosophical traps or to preach. Just sincere, real, open-ended questions. And to answer in the same spirit: not trying to “convert” the other side to our own belief system. (It doesn’t work anyway, only drives them further away.) Just…to talk.

I think most of us will find we’re not nearly so far apart as we tend to think on what really matters: helping others, fighting for human rights, making our world a more just and equitable and peaceful place. After all, we’re all human beings…who can have different beliefs on religious matters and still be kind, sincere, caring people. Not lost souls doomed to unending hellfire. Not brainwashed peons hypnotized by primitive superstition. Just people. 🙂

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

The Divine Conspiracy (A New Kind of Question, Part 1) July 17, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in A New Kind of Question, Christianity, Saving the World.
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Question: By following Christ’s teachings, can we make an observable, profound, positive change in both our inner lives and our day-to-day interactions with the people around us?

“Imagine, if you can, discovering in your church letter or bulletin an announcement of a six-week seminar on how genuinely to bless someone who is spitting on you…or how to quit condemning the people around you, or be free of anger and all its complications. Imagine, also, a guarantee that at the end of the seminar those who have done the prescribed studies and exercises will actually be able to bless those who are spitting on them, and so on.
In practical matters, to teach people to do something is to bring them to the point where they actually do it on the appropriate occasions. When you teach children or adults to ride a bicycle…you don’t just teach them that they ought to ride bicycles, or that it is good to ride bicycles, or that they should be ashamed if they don’t…Imagine driving by a church with a large sign in front that says, We Teach All Who Seriously Commit Themselves To Jesus How To Do Everything He Said To Do.”
– Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy

Let’s face it: the vast majority of us are not living the sort of lives we’d like to. Much of the time we find ourselves behaving in spiteful, angry, deceitful, selfish and deliberately hurtful ways when ideally we would like to be calm, generous, honest, and caring individuals. We resolve to take control of our own actions and to live as better people, but somehow the combined forces of habit and societal pressure always seem to pull us back into “default” mode. The consequences to ourselves (our health, our relationships, our happiness), the people around us, our society, and our planet are all too obvious. Can Christianity offer a practical solution?

Unfortunately, as Willard discusses, most Christian institutions tend to skirt the problem. Generally, they give one of two unsatisfactory answers:

Answer 1: We can solve the problem of evil by making sure we have eternal life in heaven (this involves believing that Jesus has died for our sins and accepting him into our lives.)

Answer 2: We can solve the problem of evil by working to create a just and peaceful world for everyone (this involves eliminating poverty, hunger, racism, disease, discrimination, and violence from our society).

These solutions, Willard argues, are not so much “wrong” as incomplete. What’s the point, after all, of “getting into” a perfect paradise for eternity if we remain the same selfish, quarrelsome, and discontented individuals? Shouldn’t accepting Christ have a real, positive impact on our inner lives and our actions now? Likewise, how can we hope to create a just and peaceful society if we, internally, are not just and peaceful people?

We can see there is an essential practical step entirely missing from both approaches: how can we become individuals capable of – both now and for eternity – living in harmony with those around us, with ourselves, and with God?

*******

Well, Willard asks, how do we learn *any* practical, hands-on skill – such as swimming, piano, carpentry, or speaking French? First we find a good teacher who knows the discipline and has experience passing it on to others. Then we repeatedly practice the skills required (butterfly stroke, playing scales, cutting and sanding wood, conversational drills) until they are part of not only our conscious knowledge but are ingrained, automatic actions which we can perform without thought. We are not learning isolated facts (“the capital of Portugal is Lisbon”) or purely abstract theories (such as atomic theory or free-market economic theory). Rather, we are learning various patterns of behaviour which we can reproduce and apply in our own lives.

One of the things I most admire about Willard’s approach is his recognition that evil (or in Christian terminology, “sin”) is mainly unconscious habit. Most of the time when we gossip or put others down or exaggerate the truth or are carried away by an explosive blast of furious anger, we do not deliberately choose to follow these behavioural patterns (who wants to become angry, after all?). We do so because we have no others in our repertoire, or none ingrained enough to be automatic; we are like a computer running a “default” program. We may intellectually recognize that there are more positive ways to interact with others, but unless we have previously made a sustained, conscious effort to put these principles into practice, we are like a music theorist trying to give a concert without having ever touched a piano; our abstract understanding simply won’t help much on a practical level.

Much of the dimension of personal blame and condemnation (which many find the single most off-putting aspect of contemporary Christianity) is thus removed. We are not “bad people” but rather, simply, human beings who through observing others and reproducing their behaviour have copied these patterns of interaction into our own lives. In a very real sense, we “don’t know what we are doing”; once we have a clear insight into its destructive effect on our own lives and those of others, we will not choose to live that way. This is an extremely empowering message; we don’t have to (indeed it is pointless to) sit around twiddling our thumbs, waiting for God to magically transform our personalities. Rather, we must learn a better sort of existence through focused, applied effort on our part together with his guidance and help. Which leads to the next point…

*******

If we are to learn to live in peaceful fellowship with others and our own selves, Willard proposes, the first thing we must do is to find a teacher. (Otherwise, for all our good intentions we probably won’t get too far). In the Christian tradition (obviously there are others!) the ideal teacher of this skill is Jesus himself, as reflected in his life on earth and his words that others have recorded. Only by consciously following his instructions and by consistently, deliberately applying his principles in our own relationships with others and ourselves will we become the kind of people we want to be.

Next Willard gets down to the the “nuts and bolts” of the matter, which makes up the core of his book. Taking the Sermon on the Mount and the Lord’s Prayer as the two most unified, detailed records of Jesus’ teaching available to us today, he outlines the basic principles of Jesus’ approach. This begins with the recognition (the “Beatitudes”) that the ideal life – one of love, forgiveness, and infinite potential rather than hatred, condemnation and self-limitation – is available to all, right now. It doesn’t have to wait until some idealized future utopian society or a bodiless after-death state. This is the essence of Jesus’ “Gospel” or “Good News”: realizing that the sort of life God intended for us is open to every human being.

Next Jesus outlines the behaviours that prevent us from living this sort of life and which cause conflict within ourselves and our society: anger, contempt, revenge, hatred, condemnation, and manipulation of others for our own ends. (Willard discusses each in detail and why it is so destructive.) If we are to become the sort of beings we were meant to be, we need to step by step, consciously remove these factors from our interactions with others. Setting aside time for interacting with our teacher (God) through prayer, meditation, solitude and careful study of Christ’s own words is an important part in this process (it’s impossible to learn a skill if you never meet with your teacher!) In a larger sense, by applying these principles of active discipleship to Christian churches and communities, Christianity can be a relevant, powerful force for change within our society and our world.

*******

To sum up: this is the sort of “self-help” book we need to see more of: one that consists not of comforting statements and feel-good rhetoric, but a practical “how-to” manual that teaches us how to really make a difference in our own lives. Which is, when it boils down to it, the essence of what God wants for every one of us: to “have life and to have it abundantly.”

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

Post 1 of the “A New Kind of Question” series. For an Introduction click here.

* C.S. Lewis’ novella “The Great Divorce” provides an insightful and compelling glimpse into what such an existence might be like.

** As Willard describes: “We hear cries from our strife-torn streets: “Give peace a chance!” and “Can’t we all just get along?” But you cannot give peace a chance if that is all you give a chance. You have to do the things that make peace possible and actual. When you listen to people talk about peace, you soon realize that in most cases they are unwilling to deal with the conditions of society and soul that make strife inevitable. They want to keep them and still have peace, but it is peace on their terms, which is impossible. And we can’t all just get along. As a major part of this, our epidermal responses have to be changed in such a way that the fire and the fight doesn’t start almost immediately when we are “rubbed the wrong way.”

A New Kind of Question (An Introduction) July 12, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in A New Kind of Question, Christianity, Saving the World.
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I’ve decided to begin a new series of posts highlighting a number of excellent books I’ve read in recent years dealing with Christianity as expressed in our contemporary world and our lives. These are all great, thought-provoking reading for people of any background: Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, agnostic, atheist…”non-religious”… None of them are antagonistic, polemic or have as their goal winning converts to Christianity. So keep reading, whoever you may be 🙂

I titled this series “A New Kind of Question” after Brian McLaren’s “A New Kind of Christian” trilogy which has had a large influence on my own way of thinking (and which I’ll cover in a few weeks’ time). More than anything, these books ask new questions – try to open up new avenues of thought and new issues that Christians should consider and apply to their own lives.  (Sometimes they’ll venture possible answers as well, but stating opinions or defending intellectual positions is not at all the point. They want to get conversation going if possible…not shut it down.) As a “recovering debate-aholic” 😉 and someone who loves using the Socratic method (ask questions and then more questions!) in both teaching and my own discussions with others, I find this approach an refreshingly open and accessible one.

One could say that all the books I’ll be discussing here present different facets of a single, essential question: How can we as Christians be relevant to our society and our world today? How can we be a force for positive change, both in our own lives and societies and all over our planet? How can we avoid falling into old patterns of disagreement, debate and antagonism and instead work together to create the sort of world in which God’s ideals of justice, peace and love for one another are continually reflected?

So, here goes. Feedback and discussion is, of course, extremely welcome!

– The Contrapuntal Platypus