Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Glen Canyon - Let It Flow

In memory of Edward Abbey

Sometimes a flood is a good thing. This evening's news revealed that the Colorado River is once again flowing from Glen Canyon -- at least for awhile. Stories include those from Rocky Mountain News, CNN, and Deseret Morning News.

This is extraordinary news. For anyone who has read Edward Abbey ("One of my favorite curmudgeons), it is hard not to think of Glen Canyon as a cathedral of sorts, one which was brutally desecrated as a result of the erection of the dam in 1962. The canyon, as existed before 1962, was immortalized in Abbey's writings, most memorably in Down the River.

The creation of the dam was the catalyst for much that followed in his life and work. According to one writer,
Perhaps the pivotal event that made Edward Abbey who he was occurred in 1962, when Glen Canyon Dam was first brought on line. Abbey had made two raft trips through Glen Canyon before the gates of the dam were closed. His love of the desert Southwest found its zenith in this exquisite canyon made up of narrow labyrinths with fern grottos and places with names like Music Temple and Tapestry Wall. With the closing of the gates at Glen Canyon Dam, this magical place was destroyed. Ancient Anasazi ruins and rock art, unfathomable formations and countless other sights and sounds and silence, along with the solitaire of the Eden-like canyon now lie under several hundred feet of water. Abbey found this an offense of the highest order....
from Kent Durrey, "A Man Hard to Talk About" at Desert USA.

No doubt today's news would have struck Abbey as too little, too late. The dam still stands and the water will only flow briefly in an experiment that hopes to temporarily recreate the effects of an untamed, undammed, free-flowing river. Nevertheless, it is a significant victory in a cause he fought so hard for during his tumultuous and cantankerous life. Edward Abbey was a man who left no doubt that he was made of clay, but his was a prophetic voice nonetheless.

Buffalo Creek Disaster

A belated anniversary prayer for the victims of the February 26, 1972 flood at Buffalo Creek, West Virginia. The basic story and links to fuller versions can be found at Wiki. One reason why I remember it is that the book written by Gerald M. Stern, The Buffalo Creek Disaster, was required reading for all first year students at the University of Wisconsin Law School when I attended. This says a great deal about the ethos that prevailed among those who gave me my legal education, to whom I will always be most deeply grateful.

Stern was an attorney who represented the victims of the flood in the litigation that ensued. As recounted in his book, the results were sobering, to say the least. That sobering reality was something we all needed to face, in full light of the ideals of those who strove for justice in the case. While the book later came to be assigned in various law school courses around the country, largely for the procedural details in the book, it was given to us, not long after it was published, as a reminder of what the legal system should be pressed to achieve, even when at times it falls short. Sometimes the only real victory is in the truth that is brought forward as the lies and cover-up are exposed. Even when monetary damages are awarded, no amount can ever truly compensate for the lives and homes destroyed.

What brought the whole story to mind was last night's episode of N.C.I.S., which referenced the PTSD symptoms experienced by some of the survivors of the Buffalo Creek disaster (see 1976 study). How soon or easily we forget how events like this and Katrina can impact people for years to come, both in terms of the horror of the "natural" disasters and the slow, numbing horror of incomplete and inadequate post-disaster responses. Let us pray that the memories of these events will survive and prompt better planning to avoid the critical man-made elements of such disasters.

Redeeming Religion in the Public Sphere

I have read Simon Barrow and Ekklesia from time to time, mostly as a result of links posted elsewhere. Last night I stumbled upon an article that raises a number of the issues I have begun to explore with regard with regard to secularization and the role it plays in controversies about the role of religion in public affairs. For now, I can only call attention to it, with my recommendation (FWIW) that it is well worth reading, both for its take on the general topic but also the particular context it has arisen lately in the U.K.

So, please take a look at Simon Barrow's, Redeeming Religion in the Public Sphere, a research paper originally published at Ekklesia on July 24, 2006.

Monday, March 3, 2008

The Secularization Thesis

Last week’s news included the release of a new survey from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, heralded as a “landmark” study of “denominational demographics” in the United States (see The Lead). Of course, what everyone wanted to know first was who was up and down in the numbers and how those numbers should or could be interpreted. The initial focus seemed to be on shifting affiliations, rather than simply net losses, but lurking in the background were the usual questions about the extent to which religion in general and Christianity in particular is in decline in the U.S. and elsewhere in the West, and, if so, what if anything should done about it.

What such discussions usually fall back on are versions of what some have called “the secularization thesis.” The theory is that Europe-America has become so thoroughly secularized that public, and ultimately private, space for religious beliefs, practices, and ethical norms is shrinking rapidly. Depending on one’s point of view, this threatens not only the fate of organized religions, especially Christianity (from which secularization has been historically derived), but the fate of civilization or humanity as a whole. For some non-Westerners, it is seen as an opportunity for advancing other religions, cultures, and political systems that resist secularization and the vices it supposedly engenders.

In this climate, the notion that a secular society – i.e. one that is politically structured in such a way so as to prevent religious officials from governing but to allow religious freedom of belief for all citizens – is good and desirable is not a popular one, at least not among elites who are deeply committed to religious beliefs and the institutions that further them. The public at large may sometimes think differently, as evidenced by the Pew data of increasing “fluidity” in religious affiliations and by the recent backlash against the Archbishop of Canterbury’s suggestion that sharia law might have a place within British society and political culture. Nevertheless, even the popular view in the West is that we are now living in a “secular age” governed by “secular values,” which may variously mean declining morals, increased individualism, and decreased commitment to community and society at large.

My personal bias is in favor of political structures that keep religious officials from ruling, those who by the very nature of religious belief are prone to uncompromising points of view and to succumbing to the temptation of using the imprimatur of divine authority to obtain and hold power. At the same time, however, as a Christian believer I am both troubled by the possibility that my tradition is headed for extinction and frustrated by the actions of religious leaders who, with their obsession with growth, numbers, and decline, seem to be hastening the demise of the institutions and beliefs they seek to preserve.

These concerns have led me to some wide-ranging thoughts and readings, including review of some of what I learned in law school about legal history, political structures, and moral values, and a sampling of recent lectures and articles written by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. It will be some time before I can pull together all my ideas on these subjects. However, I think a good starting point may be what I intuit is the source of many problems – the secularization thesis itself.

Much good discussion of secularity has been prompted by the recent publication of two books: Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age and Mark Lilla’s The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West (both the subject of a September 16, 2007 book review by Jack Miles in the L.A. Times). Extraordinary commentary on these on other works can be found at Immanent Frame: Secularism, Religion, and the Public Sphere, a blog published by the SSCR (Social Science Research Council). I hope to discuss several essays from that site and ultimately (if my muses serve me well) synthesize some of the thoughts expressed there. But for now, let me just point out one that blows the entire question open of whether or how there is anything like secularity and religion in the first place -- Tomoko Masuzawa’s The burden of the great divide.

To be continued……..

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Veritas est lux

Ephesians 5:8:14
For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light -- for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, because everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, "Sleeper awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.
This was today's second lesson and it seems especially appropriate in light of recent revelations about the life of the late Paul Moore, which will soon be published in the book written by his daughter, Honor Moore, The Bishop's Daughter.

I am afraid that I was much confused by the letter issued by the current bishop of New York, Mark Sisk, in anticipation of release of the book, in juxtaposition with the intitial reports of the book and the audio interview given by Honor at the New Yorker. Apparently, Paul Moore's sexual misconduct went way beyond the tragedy of being a closeted homosexual in heterosexual marriages. I did not get that at first, and due to that misunderstanding, I am afraid that I judged Bishop's Sisk's remarks harshly and too hastily when discussing them at Mad Priest's. I am deeply sorry about that. I am especially am thankful to Tobias Haller for setting the record straight, who shed more light so that the blind could see.

Update - March 5, 2008

Fr. Haller has written an extraordinary essay about Paul Moore and Bishop Sisk's letter, aptly titled Feet of Clay. I highly recommend it.

Finally, a note to Lindy: I am also deeply sorry for the pain and anger you have experienced as a result of Bishop Sisk's letter and for whatever part my comments (first criticizing the letter and then accepting it), may have added to those feelings. I would be the first to admit that I have little understanding of and no direct experience of what GLBT persons have had to struggle with in life, relationships, and, when they have dared to seek it, ministry in the church. All I can do is try to support equality and justice the best I can, while recognizing that there will always be much I do not understand.