Wednesday, April 19, 2017



Faced with the task of reporting the news while suggesting what it might mean, Rachel Maddow was flummoxed yesterday and so was everyone else.  She called on Michael Beschloss, historian of presidents, to see if he could suggest some precedents.  He could not.   

People go to the Cuban Missile Crisis which was a close call that I remember vividly.  But in that case we had an admired president and Russia had a shrewd leader who was not KGB.  And no one said the aircraft carriers were where they weren’t.  And no one thought the president’s daughter would make clothing line deals at the dinner table with the Premier of China, though her father's fav situation room was the dinner table at Mar-a-Lago.  So, to put it mildly, what in the Sam Hill is going on?

Sam Hill was one of a family that built railroads, part of the huge paradigm shift of the industrial revolution.  It also shifted attention from the sometimes lovely pastoral world of the New Testament back to the pre-ag world of the Old Testament tyrants.  Government subsidized railroads underlie today's vast wheat crops of the prairie, but they also wiped out the bison and destroyed the world of the indigenous people.  There were a lot of evil deals.

I’ll try to be more plain, since the above sidebar is a personal preoccupation.  My UU seminary, the one that used to include the U of Chicago Div School but abandoned that because it was too hard — thereby eliminating the tradition of the “learned ministry” and discarding its main virtue — sold its building to the U of Chicago.  Now it is occupied by the Neubauer Institute, which considers cutting edge issues.  Very hard thinkers.  You can’t make a razor out of cheese.

Here’s the squib for the afternoon conference happening day after tomorrow, April 21, 2017:

Imperial Interstices: Religious Elites

In the first millennium CE, regions in the interstices of the Mediterranean, the Near East, and East and South Asia gave rise to merchants, political elites, and religious specialists who stimulated social change across Eurasia. The Neubauer Collegium project Imperial Interstices aims to shift our historical perspective away from the Roman, Chinese, Iranian/Islamic, and Indian civilizational centers toward the places in between, such as the Central Eurasian steppes, Indian Ocean ports, and the passes of the Caucasus and Hindu Kush, as centers of economic, political, and religious innovation. This workshop, the third in a series of three, will focus on religious actors and institutions between empires in the first millennium. 

This is the level of understanding one needs to interpret what’s happening in the news.  It’s on the level of moving the Emperor-as-God to God is Dead.  We're in the midst of the Thomas Kuhn principle that when the economics and knowledge of a people change so much that none of their assumptions work anymore, an enormous sea change — uncontrolled and unwanted — will sweep the planet.  That’s what’s happening.  The phrase, “sea change” comes from “The Tempest,” a play for a sea-going country, England, in fact -- which is right now searching for its own new paradigm.  In America we were trying to elect Prospero and got Caliban instead.  Illusion and ugliness.

We have now begun to abandon the ideas of the Eurasian mercantile interstices.  Few are still trying to “sell” God, though in terrifying times it’s always much easier.  To create a new paradigm that works, we need to settle on new “norms.”  But one of the uses of religion is creating and guiding the norms of culture, and our understanding of religion is still stuck in bookkeeping.  Institutions.  Hoarding behind walls.  Who’s the top.

Ending the industrial paradigm is a complex of idea shifts, many of them coming from science.  The website feed of ideas called offers subscriptions to daily quotes from books that discuss these issues.  The most recent post was a review of our changing view of time, from local solar indicators like "noon", to town clocks regulating the hours of prayer (the Christian version of the Muezzin in his tower), to chronometers for use at sea, to pocket watches, to atomic clocks coordinating multiple-split seconds everywhere.  (The Pursuit of Power by Richard J. Evans.)  

The quote before that was from Coal: A Human History by Barbara Freese,  which traced the fate of England as it went from a wooded isle to a quilt of fields because sheep’s wool was so valuable a trade commodity, and then to exploiting the deep ground itself, the coal on which the island stands, which meant suffocating smog and miserable miners’ lives, justified by class, contaminating work pushed off onto those who did it in order to eat and then were blamed for being dirty.

The only universal continuity is the fact of constant change as new patterns emerge writhing from the old -- painfully birthed.  If our old religions of Eurasian trade and resource use have become exhausted, where do we go next?  (There’s always a next.)  Science is often claimed to be a religion, and it is.  But it is also a source of poetry and pattern that can give us “stars to steer by,” not least because it also changes and every change traces and triggers paradigm shift.  (Stars wheel through the sky and occasionally fall or explode.  Or are born.  And some claim to “see” black holes.  But we need to give up thinking it's all about us.)

I subscribe to , British Empire dignified daily wordsmithing, which always includes video essays.  I’ve happily spent a decade following Cinematheque, a group of boys who have done that in a rock ’n roll high-indignation style.  Between the two (and others) my thinking is now less in words and more in images of sea creatures, geology, and the remnants of cultures of the past.  The ineffable and the inexpressible.  “The Mysterium Tremendum”

But we need far more than gaping at the landscape and kissing the sea anemone.  When our leaders use power in cruel self-serving ways, when destruction and contamination are worldwide, when the economics fail small prairie towns and megacities spread all the way down our coasts, and the people of everywhere else come to live next door, we need guidelines about how to react in an ordinary daily way.  

Is it more polite to look into the Other’s eyes, or better never to meet another's gaze?  What subjects are safe to talk about?  How can our children get along together in school?  What foods should the store stock?  How do we restore ourselves after episodes of near-nuclear war?  What use is a democracy when the majority of people don’t vote?  And why do they elect fools, believing — as one young woman said — “I thought that no one like that COULD be president.”  Japan has had better luck with their God-Emperor, in spite of huge losses, including two cities atomically obliterated.

My grandfather Pinkerton, in old age, made a bad second marriage.  My unsympathetic aunt said,  “You made your bed.  Now lie in it.”  My grandfather, never at a loss. retorted. “No law says I can’t stand up and shake out the sheets now and then.”

Hurry up, please.  It’s time.

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