Visionary Stuff

Leftish Roman Catholic monk and priest Richard RichardRohrOFM-from-wcRohr proposes ‘we need apocalyptic literature‘ (and refers to Luke 21:5-19), which years ago discouraged me from such an interpretation, saying that the Earth’s cataclysmic end is part of the divine plan. It’s a vision of Earth separate from Heaven, humanity from divinity. He notes the impermanence of all things and quotes the Buddha: ‘Gone. Gone. Gone.’

sallie mcfague-from-soundcloudHowever, Sallie McFague, Protestant eco-theologian (see below), imagines a different, non-apocalyptic vision, where humanity and divinity intertwine, where the Earth is the divine body. A few years ago she met with the Dalai Lama, Buddhist leader. Like Buddhism, McFague and others say ‘all of nature, including humans, are intimately interrelated. Each utterly depends on the other.’

By Rich Bowen from Lexington, KY, USA (Dalai Lama  Uploaded by SunOfErat) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia CommonsThe Dalai Lama ‘slowly appears to be shifting his emphasis from individual transformation through “mindfulness” to wider societal change.’ McFague ‘would like to see more people move away from the “conventional model” of individual self-fulfillment, which is based on building up more possessions and prestige, to an emphasis on “the universal self.” ‘ The fate of one is the fate of all, or as Christ put it, ‘Whatever you did to the least of these, so you did to Me.’

' Front cover of the 2001 album booklet, reflecting Harrison's environmental concerns at the start of the 21st century; copyright Gnome Records.'Eventually, however, All Things Must Pass (the title of an album by George Harrison, reflecting his interest in Eastern spirituality, originally released in 1970–pictured is the cover of the 2001 anniversary booklet, showing his environmental concerns). If even so, what do we do before things pass? McFague calls for less material possessions, which echoes Buddhism’s universal self and the new Pope’s austerity. Rohr, like the Pope, extols Francis of Assissi. What is his vision? What is his hope?

The_Limits_to_growthHope springs eternal in the human heart, but not in computers, which rely on mathematical models. One such model was World3, whose results were published in 1972 as the best-selling The Limits To Growth. Growth here, is material, not of the heart. 42 years on (so far), it is surprisingly accurate. Initially it had its critics; however, it has stood the test of time. In 2008 Peter Victor wrote ‘that Limits to Growth has had a significant impact on the conception of environmental issues and notes that the models in the book were meant to be taken as predictions “only in the most limited sense of the word”.’

Dennis_L._Meadows,_Massachusetts_Institute_of_Technology_MIT_-1972,_Dartmouth_College_-1988,_University_of_New_Hampshire_-2004,_The_Limits_to_Growths,_Club_of_Rome-from-wpOne of the modellers, Dennis Meadows (pictured), forty years later offered his perspectives on The Limits of Growth.There are other people, each with his or her perspective. Some people are optimistic about our species’ future, such as David Suzuki, Wade Davis, and Jane Goodall. Some, such as EO Wilson and James Lovelock, are less so. Some even think life itself can end, but I think life, found in nuclear fuel rods and deep sea thermal vents and under ice shelves and has been around for billions of years, is tenacious and incredibly resourceful. chess-outside-grounded-2There may be life elsewhere in our solar system, in our galaxy, in our universe. Right now, the distances are too great and our techniques too limiting, and we may never know. Like divinity, it’s a matter of faith. My faith is firmly rooted, it seems, in science–science, not technology that might save us or trap us, but science that’s part of our quest to find out, our curiosity. That’s both comforting and unhelpful (pictured is me playing chess from my recumbent on the sidewalk outside my favourite coffee shop). My haphazard chess and checkers abilities are a testament to my personal limits, to my vast ignorance. How can I know the global limits, whether by modelling or by revelation?

Viktor M. Vasnetsov [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsWhich brings me back to divine apocalypse: how could I tell if it’s really happening? Guess I gotta trust someone, like god/dess. I vowed to be optimistic. An apocalypse is hardly optimistic, but as Rohr points out, the last lines of the scripture reading are

But not a hair of your head will perish! By standing firm, you will win your souls.

which is pretty optimistic–if you believe.

Belief 8th-fire-anim-from-cbcis what Kierkegaard called a necessary leap of faith but Camus called intellectual suicide. He preferred what he called the absurd, the absurdity of the human compulsion to look for meaning when we can’t possibly find any, but I wonder if that too, the belief in the absurd, requires a leap? (For that matter, doesn’t a belief in everything’s connected require a leap?) What about non-Western points-of-view and prophecies, such as the Big and Little Brothers of a South American tribe or the Eighth Fire of the Anishinaabe? Who but the shaman knows? Meanwhile, might as well smile and enjoy the ride.

Van_Gogh_Twelve_Sunflowers-from-wcBy Tangopaso (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsI’ve known for years of Van Gogh’s sunflowers  (1888-1890, pictured, left), but recently I learned of sunflowers’ symbolism in Art Nouveau (1890-1910, pictured, right), where they represented natural growth and the sun’s energy, a vision that still entrances and sustains. We haven’t come that far in a century, have we?

William_Blake_by_Thomas_Phillips-from-wpLike Van Gogh, Blake (pictured) was hardly commercially successful in his lifetime and often viewed as mad. Also, like Van Gogh, he was intensely religious. Towards the end of his life, he began illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy. ‘Blake shared Dante’s distrust of materialism and the corruptive nature of power.’ As we get past the materialism of Black Friday and of Christmas, as we have both a mayor and a Prime Minister who seem overly consumed with power, maybe we should reconsider Blake’s vision.

Chocolate-from-wcBlake decried the mills and child labour of his day, but is it much different today? Sure, gone are the mills and the child labour from London, but instead the mills have been replaced by corporate towers with global reach, and the child labour still exists overseas and can be found in the clothes we wear and the chocolate we eat.

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. 	 Attribution: new pope, Francis, Times‘ Man Of The Year, warns of capitalism’s materialism. However, so did the old pope (Benedict XVI). A Roman Catholic vision may include the poor, but does it exclude gays, lesbians, women, the divorced, and non-Catholics, which is most of us? ‘Pontiff’ means ‘bridge-builder’, and while Pope Francis is committed to dialogue among people of all backgrounds, beliefs, and faiths, he affirms the present Church teachings on abortion, contraception, and homosexuality, though he notes the greater need for tenderness, mercy, and compassion. Michael Tracey wonders if he is building bridges so non-Catholics can cross over. Does the Pope really brook dissent? Dissent, says David Burkus, especially in the form of the Devil’s Advocate (a papal innovation started a few hundred years ago but abolished by John Paul II) makes better policy, whether papal or parliamentarian.

video_game_consoles-from-wcLoyal dissension, like loyal opposition, requires a certain compassion. Shouldn’t compassion be a part of everybody, and everything we are, and everything we do? Today my monitor died, so we went to the shopping mall to get another. Not only was the purchase without compassion, the whole experience was without compassion. But with a hint of violence. As I waited (and waited and waited) in the aisle by the monitors, I faced a bin with video games. On the bin was an image from a video game of a soldier in helmet and bullet-proof vest, carrying a futuristic, high-power gun. FLASH-MOB-IN-MALL-SING-2The president of the US has been called the Assassin-In-Chief, for the US’s use of military drones, but long before, when Blake was a little boy, America was born in war. Is that America’s vision, that might makes right, to speak softly (?) and carry the biggest stick? Or maybe it’s more complicated. Afterall, flash mobs are singing Christmas carols in malls. Did Blake ever envision that?

By User:KAMiKAZOW (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsGeorge Lucas’s vision of the Star Wars universe is that it is permeated by the Force, which has a light side and a dark side. The two sides are sometimes thought of as good and evil. But, the dark side may not be wholly evil: ‘While the original films depict the dark side as a general concept of evil, the prequels and Expanded Universe material elaborate on its nature, explaining that it may stem from all strong emotions, both positive and negative. In other words, both sides make up the whole (what Bruce Cockburn has called the mystical unity in ‘What About The Bond‘).

The Star Wars vision is a fantasy, but it can guide us in imagining our real future and our purpose. By Caroline Webb, (Wikipedia:Contact us/Photo submission) [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia CommonsThomas Berry, like Richard Rohr, was a Catholic monk and priest. His vision is described in The Dream Of The Earth. He sees our purpose as valuing all of life (what he called biocentrism), not just the human (or anthropocentrism), which takes us back to three fundamental principles guiding the development of the universe: differentiation, subjectivity (or autopoesis), and communion. Until we learn these three principles, we will be in crisis. He sees four possible responses to our crisis, what he calls:

  1. the new entrepreneurs (anthropocentric, positive, technology-friendly)
  2. humanist critiques of technology (anthropocentric, negative, critical of technology)
  3. the integrity of nature (biocentric, negative, confrontational)
  4. the healing of the earth (biocentric, positive, restorative)

The new entrepreneurs are now dominant. They have almost no sensitivity to ruining the earth. They seek domination of nature through the expansion of technology. Critical of technology are humanist critiques, but these are still anthropocentric, seeing humans as apart from nature. Seeking integration with nature are organizations such as Greenpeace.svg-from-wcGreenpeace and Earth First!, but they tend to be negative and confrontational. Berry seeks a biocentric and positive model that heals the earth, told in a new story. He says that ‘the evolutionary process is from the beginning a spiritual as well as a physical process. The difficulty so far has been that this story has been told simply as a physical process.’ However, traditional religion isn’t up to the task. ‘We need a new type of religious orientation … [a vision that comes] from our new story of the universe.’ A vision that embraces difference, subjectivity, and communion (or connectedness). The_Earth_seen_from_Apollo_17The old stories emphasized personal redemption, salvation, and a non-earthly paradise. The new stories, however, must emphasize planetary creation, integrity, and our earthly paradise.

sallie mcfague-from-soundcloudOne such story is definitely not apocalyptic in its vision. Just the opposite: in treating the Earth and ourselves, we treat the divine. The new year is upon us and we’re hitting the gym, losing weight, quitting various excesses, trying to look fab–all about the body. But what the Big Body? The planet? Why take care of ourselves so much and the Earth so little? Sallie McFague (pictured) thinks of the planet as the divine body, with its emphasis on the interdependence of all life. In this story she says,

  1. ‘God is not a distant being as in the monarchical model, but the One in whom we live and move and have our being.’
  2. ‘We would overcome a very important dualism in the Christian tradition — the split between spirit and body, with salvation totally concerned with the former. Salvation would be as concerned with such basic needs as food, clothing and shelter as with matters of the spirit. Salvation would be a social, political and economic matter and not just a matter of the spirit’s eternal existence.’
  3. We ‘can choose or not choose to join with God in conscious care of the world.’

Leonardo da Vinci [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsCaring for this body may seem over-whelming at times, but it’s like dropping five pounds. By each doing a little, together we do a lot. Start small, be gradual, stay committed. Both you and the planet will be healthier!

Coltrane-from-cbcFor some, it’s more auditory than visionary, but is there a word for that sort of thing? JRR Tolkein wrote of Illúvatar, ‘the supreme being, God’, creating with music. John Coltrane played the sax, seeking the divine with music. In the podcast, A Love Supreme: God in the Music of John Coltrane, Reverend Jamie Howison explores Coltrane’s music, which is sometimes wildly inscrutable and seeks more than beauty. As Howison points out, there is also agony, sorrow, and the sublime, which we sometimes diminish as we pursue beauty and try to forge a safe path in our spiritual journey: ‘Part of what this music says is, “Watch out! It’s not always so safe.” ‘

By User:Pmx [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsStephen Harper’s vision of Canada seems opposite to mine, and it seems he’s doing everything in his power — which is considerable — to realize it, whereas I have little or none. The long-long-long range view may offer me solace, but what about now? Must I suffer now? Do I have a choice, being relatively powerless, or are truth and time on my side, if I keep the faith?

This file by Duc is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.Certainly science and Christianity have been a source of faith for me. So have music and Buddhism. Monk, writer, teacher, and activist Thich Nhat Hanh (born 1926), once nominated by Martin Luther King for the Nobel Peace Prize (saying, ‘His ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity), envisions ‘non-violent solutions to conflict’–although he grew up in Vietnam. In 1966, Nhat Hanh created the Order of Inter-Being, to promote ‘the Buddhist principles of impermanence and the nonself characteristic which reveal the interconnectedness of all things.’ He combines Buddhist traditions and Western psychology ‘to offer a modern light on meditation practice.’ He ‘has also been a leader in the Engaged Buddhism movement (he coined the term), promoting the individual’s active role in creating change’, which combines individual transformation societal change.

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