This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Monday, January 9, 2017

VR Goggles as a Metaphor for the Spiritual Life.

VR goggles are a very good image for the spiritual life. 
We humans are placed in a world of wonder, blessing, joy, and abundance, created by God and declared very good. 
Yet, due to the limitations of our consciousness we develop an ego-structure which functions like goggles, presenting us with a false projection of reality, which we proceed to live by. 
So we we flail around reacting to whatever our goggles are showing us, and unwittingly crash into others, whose goggles are instructing them to react.
And here we are.
The spiritual life, which is to say repentance, is about removing the goggles.
Maybe this is what Jesus means when he says what he says about eyes. Like: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away,” and “the eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!”

Thursday, January 5, 2017

What Is Truth?

Suddenly, words like “post-fact,” “post-truth,” and “fake-news” have come into our national conversation.  Not only do different political factions have different opinions, they now appear to rely on different facts and even different “truths.”  What is ridiculed and rejected as fake-news for some, is revered as the basis of others’ whole outlook.  What’s going on here?

When I was growing up, we all shared a basic understanding of history and values; we spoke the same language; we agreed with the same general outlook on life.  There were terrible, profound, and even violent disagreements and arguments.  But all our lives were built on the meta-narrative of the post-enlightenment West.  (A meta-narrative is an overarching story that presents a comprehensive framework for understanding various events, experiences, and phenomena, based upon supposedly universal truths and values.)  

We had only disgust and amazement for any views outside this framework, such as when Communist governments issued what were to us bizarre statements about events that we labeled “revisionist history.”  They were not telling the facts but skewed, cynical, self-interested lies made up to support their twisted and oppressive ideology.  The nadir of this approach was the 1959-1961 famine caused by Mao’s agricultural policies.  It turns out that the laws of biology supersede ideology.  Who knew?  But we would never do such a thing.  We were all about truth and real facts.  That was until scientific truth threatened our own lifestyle and economic order.  This is now happening with global warming.  Senator James Inhofe’s statement that he used to believe in global warming, until he realized “what it was going to cost,” is a perfect example of this.  Global warming deniers today are as revisionist and ideological in their refusal to accept scientific facts as Mao was.

So we see that our commitment to scientific truth and real facts eventually undermines the very meta-narrative we live by.  One classic example of this is the decline of Christopher Columbus from the heroic explorer and discoverer I learned about in school, to the depraved murderer, torturer, and enslaver of Native peoples, subsequent research has shown him to be.  Indeed, the whole superstructure of Western civilization is crumbling under the weight of the facts we are unearthing. 

One way to deal with this collapse would be to renounce (implicitly or explicitly) our commitment to scientific truth and facts, and proclaim and enforce an arbitrary ideological framework.  This is what global warming deniers are attempting to do.  It would require at least as massive a project of violent purging and enforcement as anything the Soviets or Nazis ever did.  

Another approach would be to separate into distinct cultural enclaves based on the particular constellation of truths and facts that each finds helpful and acceptable.  This would foreclose on much meaningful conversation and dialogue, since each interest group explicitly rejects the facts and methodology upon which the opinions of others are based.  If you don’t believe global warming is real, and you reject all evidence of global warming as a hoax, and rationalize whatever evidence you have to so it fits your ideology, then how do you have a conversation?  This would at best mean splitting a society into distinct, coexistent interest groups.  At worst it means civil war, as groups seek to impose its facts on others, and wipe out the ones whose lives are based on “lies.”

Post-modern philosophy has noted the fallacy of “objectivity,” pointing out how inherently ideological and biased is even the most “scientific” meta-narrative.  Often, claims to objectivity and universality are oppressive attempts by an elite to impose its self-interested perspective on society.  In our history it was the privileging of Anglo-Saxon culture as the pinnacle of human advancement.  All such top-down meta-narratives are violent, reductionist, lies designed to enforce social conformity and cohesion, cementing the elites’ privileged position.  But they are not true.  Indeed, some post-modern philosophy seems to question whether there is any single truth at all for us, and not just infinite different perspectives.

Which brings us to the question raised by Pontius Pilate in John 18:38, “What is truth?”  He, the official of the occupying Roman magisterium, cynically dismisses any “truth” except what his own weaponry can enforce by sheer terror.  The hearer knows that the real truth is standing there in front of Pilate: the beaten, tortured, humiliated, bleeding loser: Jesus of Nazareth.  He is “the way, the truth, and the life,” the only gateway to God (John 14:6).

We do not ever find the truth revealed in the self-serving, grand, ideological meta-narratives imposed by imperial fiat, sustained by State institutions, funded by its economic regime, and maintained by popular loyalty.  We only have access to the truth in the immediate and the embodied, particularly in those who suffer from the callous and gratuitous violence required to generate and hold up the false meta-narrative.

Jesus presents an alternative narrative, from below, in which coercion is replaced by compassion, retribution by forgiveness, diseases and disabilities by healing, scarcity by abundance, and institutional violence by God’s shalom.

So, as our society splinters into competing “truths” and oppositional sets of facts, it is up to the community of Jesus’ disciples to bear witness to his truth by living according to his example and teachings.


Thursday, December 15, 2016

MRTI Offers Pointless Resolution to Phillips 66.

On December 7, the Presbyterian Mission Agency issued a press release on behalf of the Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) committee of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  Here it is:  They proudly announce that MRTI had “submitted a shareholder resolution to the Phillips 66 Corporation on November 22 urging it to reconsider its investment guidelines as they pertain to the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) and future projects.”  Well, one might think, “Thank goodness MRTI is on the case!”  

The release then goes on to explain: “At issue with Phillips’ significant investment in the $3.8 billion DAPL project are the environmental and human rights concerns raised by those opposed to the pipeline, including the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.  The pipeline would run near the tribe’s territorial lands and under its waters.”

Then there are a few paragraphs describing what a shareholder resolution is, and so on, followed by some self-righteous, self-congratulatory rhetoric from two members of MRTI, John Hougen and Joseph Kinard.  They point out how splendid it is that we still own stock in this company because now “we know who to talk to” and we can “advocate” with them.  Being in relationship with such companies “creates positive leverage for change.  Kinard even went so far as to compare these efforts favorably with the example of the Lord Jesus, who engaged “people and corporations where they are.”  And Phillips 66 is to be commended because they have been so “willing to engage” with MRTI.

Then we get to read the resolution itself.  It merely asks that the company “prepare a report to shareholders, at reasonable cost and omitting proprietary information, that describes the due diligence process used to identify and address environmental and social risks, including Indigenous rights risk, in reviewing potential acquisitions.”  Then it stipulates what it wants this report to address, mainly that they should say who is responsible for this process, and how they deal with various risks and standards.  They are to indicate whether they have an exit option from the DAPL, and whether they will adjust its policies so this doesn’t happen again.

That’s it.  It does not urge the company “to reconsider” anything.  And this resolution will probably not be addressed until the next shareholders’ meeting sometime in the second quarter of 2017.  That is, before the end of June.

After that all talk about advocating for environmental, human, and tribal rights, and even following Jesus, did we expect the resolution, to be challenging, faithful, prophetic, and specific?  Forget it.  All MRTI is doing is asking the company a few polite questions.  This, apparently, is “engagement.”  It’s about “raising questions.”  We don’t want to jeopardize our relationship, I guess.

Why couldn’t the resolution say: “Phillips 66 will abandon its participation in the Dakota Access Pipeline project”?  Why couldn’t the resolution list the reasons why this project is an assault on God’s creation, deliberately routed around the white people in Bismarck, and thrust into Indigenous land?  Why couldn’t the resolution talk in some specifics about the track record of such pipelines?  Why couldn’t the resolution affirm that we have to leave this oil in the ground for the sake of the planetary climate?

No.  Instead we get: “Which committees, departments and/or managers are responsible for review, oversight and verification?”  Seriously?  

The forces building this pipeline have already announced that they intend to push ahead with this project as soon as they have a friend in the White House.  They’re not going to wait until some shareholders’ meeting.

Then we get to hear from “Rob Fohr, director of the Office of Faith-Based Investing and Corporate Engagement that advises MRTI’s work.”  His contribution is to say that, “We would like to see Phillips 66 lead the way by having the most transparent processes with respect to assessing and disclosing environmental and social risks so that these types of situations can be avoided on future projects.”

Future projects!?  The whole fossil fuel industry is one big environmental and social catastrophe to begin with.  Who cares if Phillips 66 is more transparent with their processes?  How much more transparent can they be?  They’re about making money finding, extracting, transporting, and burning fossil fuels.    

If anything, this press release demonstrates the futility of the MRTI process, and their relationship to this industry in particular.  (Our mission dollars are paying these guys, by the way.)  The General Assembly had a chance to divest from this industry last summer.  MRTI manipulated that process to ensure that we stayed “engaged” with them.  This press release, and the astonishingly ineffective and tepid stockholders’ resolution it promotes, is the result.    

Meanwhile, because we remain engaged, which is to say, benefiting from having stock in these companies, we, the PCUSA, remains part of the problem.  As partial owners of Phillips 66 we are directly responsible for the abomination of this pipeline.  I was bitterly aware of this fact as I stood with over 500 clergy in prayer against the project.  I was on one side of the barricade, but my denomination and my money was on the other side, with the petrochemical industry.

The press release has the gall to conclude by gratuitously, cynically, and inappropriately quoting out of context Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II, as if the tribe itself endorsed the “constructive engagement” option with these companies.  Archambault and his people have known engagement with these companies mainly in the form of water-cannons, rubber-bullets, and dog cages.

The PCUSA needs to move to a “keep it in the ground” strategy regarding fossil fuels, which will necessarily preclude owning stock in them, since it rejects their very mission.