Two Rivers, One Spirit

In the Middle Eastern wilderness of the Jordan River, in the third decade of the first century, the Holy Spirit is said to have appeared at Jesus’ baptism in the form of a dove. In the African wilderness of the Ogawe River, in the second decade of the twentieth century, this same Spirit, I submit, reappeared to an unorthodox follower of Jesus in the form of a herd of hippopotamuses. Despite the intervening two millennia of doctrinal dispute about the third person of the Trinity, a debate which shows no sign of abating, one thing seems clear: the Holy Spirit is attached to animals. Such is the natural segue into the subject of this essay: Albert Schweitzer’s concept of reverence for life as an inbreaking of continuing revelation.

As Schweitzer’s river barge avoided a hippo collision near his jungle hospital in equatorial Africa, the missionary doctor had an epiphany that, he believed, completed the teachings of Jesus as those teachings had completed the law and the prophets. As in its first visitation, the Spirit’s message was liberation from the world by more intimate connection to it, but now came an elaboration amid the carnage of the First World War. Confined to human society, focused solely on how people treat one another, ethical standards had withered in the raging fever of global conflict. Schweitzer had been forced to face the obvious: “The Christian ethic has never become a power in the world. It has not sunk deep into the minds of men. What has been presented as Christianity during these nineteen centuries is only a beginning, full of mistakes, not full blown Christianity springing from the spirit of Jesus.”

Suddenly, however, Schweitzer understood why traditional ethical teachings had failed to root in human hearts and minds. Ethics were not essentially rules of personal and social behavior but something of far greater scope and magnitude: “an inward relation to the world, a reverence for the mysterious will-to-live which is in all things.” Despite its awe-inspiring grandeur and intricate interconnection, nature was an enigma, “a ghastly drama of will-to-live divided against itself” in which one life form fed upon another. Yet Schweitzer grasped the significance of the fact that “in me the will-to-live has come to know about other wills-to-live. There is in it a yearning to arrive at unity with itself, to become universal. By making me think and wonder, it leads me ever upwards to the heights of reverence for life, in which we stride out beyond all knowledge of the world.”

For one in whom this reverence has taken hold, “life as such becomes sacred. If in summer he is working by lamp light, he prefers to keep the window shut and breathe a stuffy atmosphere rather than see one insect after another fall with singed wings upon his table. If he walks on the road after a shower and sees an earthworm which has strayed on to it, he lifts it from the deadly stone surface and puts it on the grass.” This is not sentimentality. Schweitzer is instead envisioning a subtle, overlooked avenue of mystical experience through solidarity with all living things. “And this ethic, profound and universal, has the significance of a religion. Reverence for life is the ethics of Jesus, philosophically expressed, made cosmic in scope.” Here, Schweitzer was certain, lay the path to “liberation from the miserable obsession we call reality,” which had culminated in the realpolitik of world war.

Regardless of its sweep of vision and elemental clarity—or rather because of them—reverence for life as explained in Schweitzer’s masterwork, Philosophy of Civilization, made barely a ripple in the first half of the twentieth century. A new barbarism reigned, in which the masses were reduced to “merely raw material” from whom was expected, and who expected of themselves, nothing but “vigor in productive work.” The polymath, who by the age of thirty had earned several doctorates and authored seminal works on wide-ranging subjects from the music of Bach to the Jesus of history, found himself “a stranger amidst the intellectual life of (his) time.” Reverence for life, grounded in idealism and mysticism, could gain no traction in a new world order where historical forces were seen as fixed and irresistible, where “one fact merely followed another as a kind of natural happening.”

And there were personal as well as social impediments to living with reverence for life. It contained inherent tension and contradiction, the discomforting awareness that one unavoidably caused injury and death in the course of everyday existence by breathing microorganisms, eating meat or vegetables, or stepping on tiny insects as one walked. A sense of futility also haunted such a way of life, and Schweitzer himself gave it voice. “What is the use of it? you think. Your most strenuous efforts to prevent suffering, to ease suffering, to preserve life, are nothing compared to the anguish remaining in the world around you, the wounds you are powerless to heal.” Schweitzer was well aware that in a blizzard of pain and death, the temptation was strong and persistent to give up and “sit in the snow.”

If Schweitzer was right, however, that civilization is built not only upon material progress but even more upon ethics universally understood and experienced, then reverence for life, difficulties notwithstanding, remains for us what it was for him: “the light that shines in the darkness.” Indeed, it was this light that inspired Rachel Carson, in the second half of the twentieth century, to write Silent Spring and launch the environmental movement from her deathbed. In this movement, we hold our future in our hands, for it will either prevail and lead to a sustainable world or fail and allow our suicide by ecocide. Carson caught her own fire from Schweitzer’s words: “Man can no longer live for himself alone. We must realize that all life is valuable, and that we are united to all this life. In no other fire than that of the mysticism of reverence for life can the broken sword of idealism be forged anew.”

Did Schweitzer’s encounter with the holy hippopotami open the door not only to environmentalism but also to a new metaphysics? No more than did the Jordan River visitation by the heavenly dove, but it did crack open a door to a new mode of being human—one tenderly, yet tenaciously, in touch with creation and the full capacity of compassion latent within us. Reverence for life “does not build up for itself a complete philosophy, but resigns itself to the necessity of leaving its cathedral unfinished. It furnishes the chancel only, but in this chancel piety celebrates a living and never-ceasing divine service.” So may we in this 21st century finally come to worship in this cathedral of the Holy Spirit, ever under construction by continuing revelation. There may we find our salvation from the death-grip of “reality” and its violent realpolitik, find liberation—and true civilization—in loving and bonding with all living things, including each worm we gently return to the grass.

Note to the reader: Some Schweitzer quotes are spliced for increased readability, but nothing is taken out of context.


The Answer of Christmas

A baby cries in the night. The mother awakes and takes the baby in her arms. She rocks the little one and whispers over and over, “It’s all right.” While this would seem to be merely a commonplace event, it actually poses a question about the ultimate context of our lives. Is the mother telling the truth? For Christians, the answer has to do with another baby born long ago in a manger.

When I was in college or seminary, too many years back to remember which, I came across this vignette. It has stuck with me, because it raises the core religious question in such a simple, poignant way. We look about and see order and beauty…but also suffering and death. We know how much mothers love their children, but also that some children die. Indeed, in this world, everything dies, sometimes prematurely or painfully.

That’s not a world which, in and of itself, appears to be all right. We find it hard enough to accept a mother’s death, even if she lived a happy life and was able to hold her grandchildren. But how do we accept a child’s death or other unspeakable tragedy? As we know but routinely repress, these tragedies happen all the time and seem to be random, senseless. A friend once told me that if you were able to comprehend, for only a moment, all of the suffering in a single hospital, you’d fall apart.

Which brings us back to that baby in a manger. Angels were there, the story goes, and told shepherds that they need not be afraid, that this baby was bringing good news, great joy. When that baby became a man, he spoke of his Heavenly Father, who created the world and watches over it, feeling even the fall of a sparrow.  He told us that nothing good is ever lost but will be renewed and eternally transfigured. Tears will be wiped from our eyes, suffering and death will disappear, the lion will lie down with the lamb.

For both believer and non-believer, the core religious question is the same, and it could be stated in the terms and stories of any religious tradition. Were the angels telling the truth to the shepherds? Was that baby in the manger telling the truth when he grew up? Is that mother telling the truth when she whispers those words of comfort to her baby? Is it all right, really all right, or isn’t it?

Christmas, no matter how it’s been secularized and sentimentalized, is essentially an answer to this question, an answer that has been heard through the centuries. It’s not an answer that makes sense in this world. No, it’s an answer that makes sense of the world. And when we hear it anew, we lift our voices, whether we believe or half-believe or can’t believe: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, goodwill toward men.”

my little blog is born

After struggling for days, I’ve finally put three essays on here. My hope is to publish the occasional essay, as the spirit moves, and to comment more frequently on issues that grab my attention and might mean something to someone else. Whoever you are out there, thanks for inviting me, if only for a moment, into your mind.

I’m the proud owner of the perfect car. I make this boast to give a boost to other men transitioning from midlife to three quarter-life crisis.

Growing up in the era of the muscle car while lacking the bread to buy one, I had to turn off “Shutdown” and “409” and turn instead to college, career, marriage, children, and the attendant ownership of sensible vehicles. My car life became a sequential monotony of family sedans and station wagons—competent, reliable rides but nothing like what was once parked in that Pasadena granny’s rickety old garage. 

Then one day while cruising the web, I came across a company called Hahn Racecraft, at that time just a short drive from my Chicago area home. Hahn transformed ordinary cars into fire-breathing beasts by installing custom-designed turbo systems. One such car was the Chevy Cobalt SS, a four cylinder compact that was quick, not fast, in stock supercharged trim. Hahn pulled the supercharger and squeezed in a turbo, upping the horsepower from the low 200’s to the high 300’s. I had to have one before I hit the nursing home. 

So I spent a few weeks on internet car buying sites and found a well maintained, one-owner, five-speed 2007 Cobalt SS coupe offered for sale in a small Wyoming town. I did the title search, had the vehicle inspected and test-driven, and when it passed muster, agreed upon a purchase price and had the car trucked to Illinois. You can’t beat these car buying sites for convenience, all of these steps having been accomplished on the keyboard. I then delivered the car to Hahn Raceraft for its monstrous makeover. 

Total out-of-pocket came to a shade over twenty grand, and what did I get? A time machine on wheels, an American mini-muscle car that would have blown away almost anything on the street in the 60’s: 0 to 60 in less than five seconds, standing quarter in less than thirteen, close to 30 mpg around town to boot. When you add in the creature comforts—leather seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel, sun roof, seat warmers, premium sound system, etc.—you’ve got the most automotive fun for the least money that I can imagine. 

I see an open stretch of road, downshift to second, press the pedal…and I’m gone! Unrelenting acceleration, tires struggling for traction, blow-off valves adding percussion effects, scenery blurring like a shift to light speed in the Millennium Falcon. That V8 pony car pulling next to me at the stop light doesn’t have a prayer, and if we’re both in the mood, he’s in the rear view mirror while I’m still in third, easing back with a smile and a belated bow to public safety.

Somewhat dangerous? Yes. Rather childish? Sure. Politically incorrect? Obviously. But at some point in this nanny state, which will soon have us walking around in foam rubber body suits lest we fall, an aging boomer should consider doing something crazy to recapture the exhilarating freedom repressed so long ago. The lyrics have changed, but the Beach Boys still rock in my autumn years: “She’s my little Hahn Cobalt, you dunno what I got.”

The question is rhetorical, as it would be if posed about Matt Dillon, Lucas McCain, or any other hero of the old TV westerns. Running through those post-WWII morality plays were common themes of courage and decency, a manly code of honor. Only bounty hunters, always depicted as a despicable breed, played it safe and deliberately brought ‘em back dead instead of alive. Real men, the heroes that boys of that era (like me) looked up to, wanted to grow up to be like, risked their lives to capture the bad guys, no matter how vicious and dangerous. And once captured, the bad guys were to be brought in to stand trial, even if that meant you had to stand up to a crowd of otherwise law-abiding citizens itching to stretch a rope.

No matter how mythological this Old West code of honor may have been, it reflected an ideal of American society that survived into the 1970’s, a value system internalized by members of a generation who later fought for civil rights and refused to fight an unjust war. As has been noted, the best part of the counterculture, the idealism as opposed to the hedonism, judged America by American values and found it wanting. Watch again those old westerns and what do you see when Native Americans, Blacks, Mexicans, or other miscellaneous “foreigners” appear as characters? Generally, they are virtuous and deserving of respect. Often, they are noble victims of small town white American ignorance and bigotry.

The Navy Seals who shot an unarmed man in the face in front of his family, rather than capture him so that he could face trial, did not grow up with Paladin, Matt Dillon, and Lucas McCain. A more militant code of honor had become popular, with a coarser kind of courage. While willingness to risk your life was still admired, only a fool failed to maximize his odds and seek every advantage. Overwhelming force was always to be preferred. And if decency might increase the possibility of defeat, then you chose to win ugly. The new hero was no longer the man of principle who hated violence and used it only as a last resort. No, the new hero was a fierce warrior who gloried in being “a lean, mean fighting machine.”

As a man moves into his autumn years, it is natural for him to become nostalgic, to remember what seem to have been better days and lament what has been lost. Thus I find myself sitting on the couch, watching reruns of the westerns of my boyhood. Inside, little has changed. I still see men that I aspire to be like, living by a code of honor that continues to call to me. But outside, much has changed. The ideals and myths of manhood that a boy takes into his heart and hopes someday to embody have been altered to the point that I feel like “a stranger in a strange land.” It makes me less regretful that the leaves are falling and the cold wind has begun to blow. As necessary as they may be, as hard as it is to become one, I want no part of a Navy Seal-worshipping world, celebrating assassinations.

So when I cash in my chips, they will not have to pry a gun from my cold, dead hand. In my day, there were other ways to fight the bad guys. But they will have to pry a remote.

Ever again at this time of year, we focus our attention on a tiny baby in a manger and celebrate the humble birth of the messiah who will become, for believers through the ages, the way and the truth and the life. Sentimental feelings of tenderness and religious feelings of adoration blend into a wistful and hopeful Christmas spirit that pervades the better, noncommercial aspects of the holidays. Surely, there is much in this manger scene to keep us gainfully occupied, as we contemplate the quiet and peaceful entry of the divine presence into our noisy and turbulent world.

But if our attention stops at the birth of the infant messiah, if we fail to pay even closer attention to the man he became, the life he lived, the fate he endured, then we miss not only the full impact of Christmas but also, much more importantly, the full message of the religion that claims him as founder and proclaims him as savior. Without any intention to dampen the glow of the holidays, to which I look forward as much as everyone, I offer some observations about the essential nature of the Christian life.

The life of Jesus, as we encounter it in the Gospels, moves quickly from birth and boyhood into the ministry of a man acquainted with suffering. The baby becomes a prophet and more than a prophet, whose life is characterized by compassion and conflict—compassion toward the meek and vulnerable, whom he heals, and conflict with the proud and powerful, whom he challenges. His acts of mercy, curing the disease-stricken and forgiving the conscience-stricken, endear him to many, but his acts of confrontation, condemning the injustice and oppression of the civil and religious leaders, create mortal enemies. Had he stuck with compassion and skipped the conflict, he would have been loved by the masses and tolerated by the leaders, but he refused to be a band-aid.

No, he chose instead to bring a spiritual sword that opened social and political wounds, to wage a verbal war against the hypocrites in high places who pretended to honor the prophets they stoned and pretended to serve the people they exploited. He kept at it, relentlessly, even when many turned away, even when his closest followers began to lose their courage and conviction. When he marched triumphantly into Jerusalem and cleansed the temple, recalling the revolutionary acts of the Macabees, he was a dead man. The Roman officials and their cronies in the temple priesthood would not tolerate rebellious conduct in the volatile outpost of Israel.

So the tiny baby ended up on a cross between two thieves, with a sign over his head mocking him as king of the Jews. He died as a criminal agitator, condemned by society, wondering aloud why his heavenly Father had deserted him. Meanwhile, his mother, who had given him birth in the manger and watched him grow in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man, now had to watch him twist in agony, taunted by executioners, until his final breath. And it would all have come to naught as an obscure tragedy had another event not happened which looms on the horizon of every genuine Christmas celebration, allowing believers to rejoice in a seemingly ill-fated birth. He rose, and the light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness cannot extinguish it.

What am I getting at with this heavy message at this happy time of year? What I’m trying to say, however blunt my words, is that there are two sides to the Christian life that followers of Jesus must strive to embody, however imperfect their efforts. Whether we like it or not, the Gospels call us to a life of both compassion and conflict. We are to heal the personal wounds of our fellow human beings, while opening the social and political wounds that are a necessary part of the perpetual fight against injustice, exploitation and oppression. Only when we walk down this difficult double path do we begin to follow in the steps of Jesus and find the way and the truth and the life that set us free.

Our favorite holiday classics understand this harder edge of Christmas. George Bailey sacrifices his dreams of travel and glory to battle Mr. Potter and preserve decency in his small hometown. Chris Kringle stands against the materialism that mars the holiday spirit and finds himself the target of a prosecutor in a commitment proceeding. Mr. Scrooge must undergo a macabre and menacing ordeal before he is willing to pay Bob Crachett a living wage and realize that his business is humanity. So Merry Christmas, my friends, and let us ponder the meaning of the Christian life as we look upon the little baby in the manger. As Tiny Tim would have it—and Scrooge too when he saw the light—may God bless us all, every one.