Our reading corner.
The framed picture on the wall was Van Loon's map of all civilized knowledge.
Believe it or not, I vividly remember the moment when I understood reading. I’ve described it before and there is a picture of me and my brothers in our “reading corner” about that time. It was an internal sensation, like the moment one begins to be able to ride a bike. I still had to ask about specific words, not so much because I couldn’t “sound them out” but because I didn’t know what they stood for in the world. I didn’t know that is what’s beyond just “reading” -- the construction of understanding what is symbolized.
It wasn’t until seminary that I understood that it was a CONSTRUCTION and not a reality, and not until maybe a decade later that I understood that reality is something that morphs and is either shared with others or denied by others. It’s a deeply rewarding feeling to share concepts with people who agree (though it always makes me a little nervous about whether they are just pretending, which people do all the time in order to get along) and much more challenging to try to see what those others are perceiving that makes them think differently. If I saw what they see, would I be different?
Yes. And that’s scary. For instance, not many people can grasp that by depending on Big People to run the world, instead of doing the work themselves, they are selling out, escaping back to childhood. It’s hell to realize that one’s whole college education, all the history and theory and processes learned, are now worthless because of the Internet et al which has triggered a total revision of everything, as well as revelations of what we didn't want to know. I know very few white men over fifty who can operate a computer. They are the television generation: turn the knob, sit across the room, and simply receive with the channel changer in hand. I do know some liberals who watch in couples or families and mock the news as having nothing to do with them. It's a defence. They are in danger and don’t quite know it.
I found a fascinating blog called nakedpastor.com who posts a cartoon every day. He’s starting an online support and discussion group for ministers who have left their calling after struggling to stay, so here’s what he “says” with his drawing.
Here are his words: “The difference between the first few times leaving the ministry and the last was huge.
The first times I always felt I was still in the game, and it was a matter of time before I’d find another opportunity to serve as a pastor.
But the last time I knew I was leaving for good, and it was devastating and traumatic. It took me years to transition. . . . The biggest factor in me leaving the ministry was the loss of meaning.”
The neurology people tell us that meaning is a PHYSICAL reality contained in cells (both in the mind and in the rest of the body at the molecular level) and this pain is a signal of change, possibly dangerous. Meaning is not a matter of logic, but of existence. My personal theory of how to recover meaning has been to return to the place where I was happiest — I mean physical place — and rekindle that relationship. That was 1999. It worked.
Humans are a phenomenon of humus, the earth beneath our feet. The earliest “we” rose up out of water and muck. Then the whole action was interaction with the environment and others like ourselves. We moved through it, we smelled it, we ate it. As time passed, we began to vary, and then the world kept changing so that some variations were better adapted and thrived and survived.
I used to explore “process theology” which was originally an effort to create a theology based on quantum mechanics, but it’s such a head trip and uses such rigid categories and definitions that it doesn’t really work. It’s god-centered, abandoning Jesus and Mary because they interfere with the sterile logic of equations. Anyway, it’s been overwhelmed by the incredibly powerful images of outer space and increasing knowledge of the subatomic world. We are gob-smacked, but not God-smacked.
The most fascinating story in the online science "feeds" this morning is that water is being created — that is, H2O molecules are created — by the chemical and mechanical pressures of the earth’s deep mantle acting on quartz, an abundant substance. There is a LOT of water, but it’s more than 1,000 miles beneath the surface. If there is a hell down there, it must be pretty steamy.
Our skins are our boundary, and also our access to the world outside us. But somehow our brains are able to do more than just receive and sort the coded electrochemical information it receives from skin. Somehow, some of us realize that print and images are code for an intense and trembling world to which we belong, Tillich’s ground of being. Of course it punks us all the time. Like this idea of GodPapa. just for one person or group. It’s not that this or that God is dead — most of all the crazed Valentine god of love that quickly converts to sex and then “polyamory” and then a credit card. Not that sleeping around is essentially evil, But it might not be a survival strategy.
Meaning is an integrating strategy that matches the context in ways that sustain life, defined as growth. It’s not just about humans or just about mammals or even about life, because it includes the mineral earth and the flowing air and a lot of bugs and the virome. Sid Gustafson, the Montana writing veterinarian, talks about the meshing of horses with humans, a grasslands phenomenon. He says horses require three things: abundant friends, forage, and locomotion. Humans need about the same things. So what goes wrong?
Some suggest that the humans ate all the horses in North America before they figured out they could ride them, so it was thousands of years before horses were reimported from Europe. It wasn’t the horses that evolved their vulnerability, it was something not in the North American humans that was in the people of the high steppes of Eurasia. Was it Denisovian genes? Maybe. In Africa there were zebras but they were too ornery to ride. Camels took the niche.
A vocation like ministry is a negotiable element of meaning. “Doing it” will change the doer and maybe reveal different choices, riding the horse instead of eating it. One of the criticisms of process theologies is that they don’t offer a moral context, recommendations about what to do or not do. The answer I finally came up with is that what a person does, where they go, “makes the world.” The guide is whether your action, your attitude, creates a better world, a broader landscape, or whether it takes you into a deadend — a cave where you can only see shadows.
Learning to read is a matter of shifting to a new paradigm, which leads to another one, and on and on. It’s a response as much as a skill. I love the visceral felt shift of understanding in a new way, a curtain drawing back, a sky that opens. Here on the prairie that’s a very real image — it means the Chinook wind is blowing and we can be warm again.