Sorting through my books in order to discard as many as possible, it becomes clear that my seminary education is almost thirty years old. I’m gob-smacked. During the fourth year I was working as a transcriber for the U of Chicago Law School, an entirely different sort of people than the Div School crowd in two different ways. The professors (among them Scalia, Zimring and Sunstein — Obama wasn’t there yet) were brilliant (just ask them) and part of the elite national establishment. The support staff were female, middle-class, more dutiful than competitive. Some were black. At least one loved Sting.
Computers were barely coming into use. (This was 1982.) The professors were just learning by closing their office doors and playing “asteroids”. The computers were actually work stations with a mainframe in the basement somewhere. Among the many things computers and the Internet just then began to transform (you might not realize this) was the ability to work with ancient texts, since fragments could be pieced together onscreen, vocabularies in various languages could be kept at hand, and the fear of destroying something priceless, owned by people who wanted to prevent access, was much less. This meant a leap in knowledge about recorded antiquity.
I’m reading “The Silk Roads: A New History of the World” by Peter Frankopan, a documented account of how the Eurasian continent was transformed by trade and travel which brought together contrasting cultures, fed and shaped empires, and carried exotic luxuries everywhere as indexes of success and power. This is a much earlier religious account than Karen Armstrong’s “Axial Age” when today’s major religious institutions were founded and began to struggle with nations. “The Silk Roads” — at least as far as I’ve read — is about tribes who still locate the Sacred on the closest mountain and are just beginning to consolidate under major personalities, a pattern that is related to monotheism and intolerance. The main hint of this that I got in seminary was the suggestion that the New Testament and the message of Jesus came about because he spent time in the East learning Buddhism.
Somewhere (maybe even on my shelves) are books that compare the cultural development of the Eurasian continent to that of the Americas. There are always hints and mostly the discussion comes down to geology, the existence and placement of mountain ranges and major rivers, which are the result of plate tectonics and drive extreme weather. There were no Silk Roads because of the Rockies. There was no Mediterranean basin but instead the Mississippi Valley. There were major civilizations, as early and elaborate as Egypt, but they were destroyed by drought — just as they were prevented in Australia by fire. This is Jared Diamond’s kind of thinking and I find it revelatory, though some people get so angry that one person wrote an academic article entitled “Fuck Jared Diamond.” Diamond does not address written culture, but rather the underlying ecology.
The people who resist plate tectonic theories of history want to believe in their elitism, the idea that Roman and Greek culture are the source of science, enlightenment, and progress and justify every privilege of being white, male, Euro-rooted and technologically dominant. Unfortunately, many of the people who believe in this privilege and superiority are not good examples of it, being themselves less educated, less compassionate, less politically adept. They brag of the wardrobe but stand in the marketplace naked, only accessing a tiny part of it on their handhelds. They are totally unaware of what they don’t know and claim it doesn’t exist.
The upshot of addressing all this with my decades-old education is that the denominationally defined classes I took are obsolete, the U of Chicago Law School social classes have gone to the top but toppled over, and the U of Chicago Div School principles of inquiry are now central, though their confidence is shaken. I just answered another one of those abominable questionnaires, half-market research and half-how-ya-doin’? The bottom line for them is mostly “why aren’t you sending more money since you’re an alumn. How are humanities to survive if all the money is going to science and commerce?”
Of course my answers didn’t come close to fitting the questions so I had to write a little essay. Here it is: how my Silk Roads always lead back to the grasslands and never to the cities, as was expected by the university. Part of the answer is that now the biggest city of all is the Internet and it is world-wide. (This is somewhat edited.)
I came to seminary late in life through the Unitarian movement (First Unitarian of Portland). I turned forty while I was at seminary so my classmates rang the bell at First Unitarian of Chicago forty times. They were red-faced and puffing by the end. We were technically Meadville/Lombard students, meant to satisfy a trust requirement at the Div School that a certain percentage be preparing for ministry. My first ministry was in Montana, circuit-riding among four fellowships in Bozeman, Missoula, Great Falls and Helena for three years. I lived in a Ford F150 van.
Then I took an interim ministry across the lake from Seattle, and next went to Saskatoon for two years. I made almost no money at any point. Though Seattle loved my message they were prevented from hiring me because of interim protocol. Saskatoon was not a good match and I left the ministry.
. . .
Now I barely have enough SSI and pension to survive, partly because of low-pay jobs, partly because my marriage in the Sixties meant not paying SS during that time, and then eight years total of being a student also meant no SS contribution. The pension is from the City of Portland: $200 a month.
But because of the internet, the availability of low-cost second-hand books, and my U of Chicago Div School education which was about METHOD more than content, I’m as happy as Br’er Rabbit in the briar patch.
For the last decade or so, parallel to blogging, I was co-writing with Tim Barrus . . . His lifework has been special education and since the coming of AIDS, special pediatric care for boys who are HIV-positive, including those who have accompanying problems such as emotional trauma. Some, like himself, struggle with avascular necrosis (bone death) and many have recurring lung infections. Some were needle drug users and many did sexwork as pre-adolescents as a way of survival because of abandonment and abuse.
My input, unpaid, was exploring ways of understanding all this. Christian ideas worried them. They expected me to hate them though I’d never met them. Some had been abused and infected by priests — this is an international group so some of the concerns overlap with the systemic problems in the Irish and British churches as well as American . . .
Unitarian Universalists are proud of their principles, but they are based on the Enlightenment. Now we are in Post-Enlightenment times. The “principles” are just too old-fashioned and peacefully academic for teens . . . in search of something solid. Anyway, congregations and denominations are sociologically homogenous and UU’s are educated upper middle class. Until recently, they assumed prosperity.
What do you say to a boy who was surviving behind a downtown dumpster by sucking cock at five bucks a pop? What does God portrayed as a powerful old man mean to a boy who has been taken as a toy for political leaders onto yachts for parties that can end with tossing a boy overboard? These are not things that preoccupy Div School professors. Most people have no idea. . . .
Recently two dawning thought systems have influenced me. One is our post-taxonomizing understanding of existence: how interwoven we are at the electrochemical molecular level and how much environment shapes life, which is close to the heart of evolution. The other is the frankly evolving Deep Time (pre-literate, recorded in geology and biology) understanding of what it is to be human. The neurological fMRI research is especially fascinating because the boys often have organic anomalies created by abuse and malnutrition. But traditional psychotherapy is also effective if it is with someone who has “been there/done that” in contrast to the “nice lady” convention of social work.
These ideas merge into what I’m reading about as a kind of scientific mysticism — they say that congregations are actually forming in some places with the right population. Deep space explorations provide images more powerful than any theism. So I am pursuing a theory that is not about salvation as a perfected version of what “is,” but rather the idea of inclusion at every level. Once you have happened, you are eternally in time as both an effect and a cause. It’s the social level that’s tough. No one wants bad boys, except tricks.
. . . I’m writing a theory of worship design that responds to my change in theological thinking. (It’s no longer theology since there’s no theos.) It is actually an extension of the thesis I started at Meadville/Lombard.
The Div School was a terrific place, but I was a cat attending a picnic — mostly a watcher. The work that I wanted and needed was sometimes just outside the curriculum: Eliade, Lakoff and Johnson, Victor Turner, Gendlin, Csikszentmihalyi — all that fabulous new thought was synthesizing right then about what I had learned earlier about Stanislavski’s method, Blackfeet concepts, and a kind of poetry of being (natural history). I write all day every day and think constantly about all this, but there’s no money in it. If I stop writing and try to promote or publish, I will short-circuit where I may be able to go with it in the future. Born in 1939, I feel the pressure.
Blogging is what works. From my keyboard to the eyes of the world. I talk about the U of Chicago Div school all the time. As far as I’m concerned, Meadville/Lombard is dead, merely a correspondence school for nice people. I feel as though I took difficult jobs that repaid them for their very real monetary investment in my education. I read Sightings and Criterion and the alumni mags, but there is no way for me to send money and my estate will be worthless. But they tell me that anything that’s blogged to the internet is eternal. Maybe.