Tag Archives: goodness

Civilizing Civilization

booksThis last week I packaged my latest version of The Fire Trail, my sixth novel, and put it in the mail to one of several publishers. It felt like sending a child out into the great wide world. 

Much of my work has revolved around the idea of truth, how we find it, how we recognize it, how we know it’s opposite, falsity. And so the search for what is real and true is a theme of The Fire Trail. It is a search that many have made before me, explorations recorded in the literature of mankind, going back to the first scrolls. 

The mind of man has long journeyed into and through the great questions: What is right and what is wrong? What is love? What is goodness and beauty? How do we live together peaceably, respecting one another’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? We call the result, our effort at creating a civilized culture, a civilization. We have come to realize that man is not born civil or civilized, but must be taught and trained and encouraged in the art of selfless love for his neighbor. He must proffer this hope to his world, offer a way forward. 

With the ebbing of religious faith and thus the ebbing of hope in a future, a tsunami of despair has flooded our culture. We are doomed, many say. So it was with great satisfaction that I noticed this last week several optimists, those hope-sayers, who countered the pessimists, those doomsayers. 

Lord Lawson, Chairman of the Global Warming Foundation, writes encouragingly in his recent review in the Wall Street Journal of Ronald Bailey’s The End of Doom: Environmental Renewal in the Twenty-First Century. He describes Mr. Bailey’s list of current scares: overpopulation, the end of natural resources, global warming, genetic modification. Mr. Bailey challenges such scares by pointing out that global living standards are higher than ever and population trends will actually be reversing; genetically modified grain (a GMO), produced by a better breeding technique, feeds the hungry worldwide; fossil fuels are far better for the poor than wood fires, and the contribution to climate change minimal. These visions of hope have triumphed, he notes, because of free market capitalism. 

Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, weighs in with “The Green Scare Problem” (Wall Street Journal): “Making dire predictions is what environmental groups do for a living… they exaggerate… Pesticides were not causing a cancer epidemic…, acid rain was not devastating German forests…, the ozone hole was not making rabbits and salmon blind.” Remedies for scares can be costly and lethal, particularly in regards to GMOs, climate change, and nuclear power, the current fears. 

The truth is that mankind throughout the Western tradition has been inspired and driven to solve problems as they arise. We have used our minds to help one another live better lives, to survive poverty and cure disease. The fears of doomsayers Paul Ehrlich (over-population) and Al Gore (global warming) are without substance and even harmful with their necessary policies, especially hurting the world’s poor. We have every reason to believe that we may be hopeful about the future, not only of the planet, but of human survival. 

That is, if we continue to be inspired and driven to solve problems, if we continue to search for truth and recognize it when we see and hear it, if we continue to teach the rich tapestry of the history of the Western world to the next generation, that tradition of civilizing inquiry. But with the loss of this “civil” education in high schools and colleges, we may have every reason for unease. With the loss of religious faith – and mystery and wonder – we may have reason to lose faith in mankind. We must equip the next generation with what works and what doesn’t (history) and with inspiration to create (the arts). 

John Agresto writes in the Journal about “The Suicide of the Liberal Arts.” While he recognizes the value of an education that will train the student for the workplace, he believes the student must also be trained to think, to ponder the meaning of life, the pursuit of truth, the definitions of beauty and goodness. The classic liberal arts curricula aimed to do this, to inspire us and “teach us how to marvel.” And when we marvel, we admit we are less than marvel-ous, we are not gods, that we have something to reach for outside ourselves. We become creative. We use our minds to help others. Mr. Agresto writes: 

“Some (literature) holds up mirrors labeled ‘courage’ or ‘friendship’ or ‘smallness of soul’ to see if we can see ourselves there… books… can show us and lead us to examine creativity and desire, love and treachery, giddiness and joy, hope and fear, and facing death… (we) ponder law and justice, the nature of innocence and causes of moral culpability, forms of government and the ordering of societies that can preserve and refine our civilization.”

And so as I handed my weighty manuscript, sleeping in its slick Priority envelope, to the postal clerk, I said goodbye and wished it well. I prayed it would find a home, that it would be midwifed into the world of readers, birthed onto white pages or tablet screens. I prayed that my little novel, a (suspenseful) love story set in Berkeley in September 2014, would be my small offering to our culture of despair, a way forward on a path to a more civilized society, one of truth, beauty, and goodness, and one of safety and sanity.

I prayed that we keep well tended that fire trail protecting civilization from the wilderness.

A Dry Season

hills2It’s a dry season here in the Bay Area. Brown hills holding their gnarly oaks roll east from the Pacific toward the Sierras. “We need rain,” a friend said. “As always,” I said. “Tahoe was down fifteen feet,” someone else told me. “No snow pack I guess,” I lamented.

Man has always battled the natural world, has always been subject to “Mother Nature,” a fickle mother. When we are dry, she doesn’t always give us rain, and we have learned to store water in great basins carved from our mountains and valleys. We do not want to be prodigal with the gift of rain; we must ration it for the future.

And as Joseph instructed the Egyptian pharaoh, we build storehouses for our grain. We use our intellect to breed better crops to feed not just ourselves, but the world. We invent better machinery to deliver food from farm to table. But even so, we can’t control the weather. We still do rain dances; we pray and plan in the full years to be ready for the lean ones. We have savings accounts, or wish we had. We buy insurance or wish we had. “A penny saved is a penny earned.” “See a penny, pick it up, and all the day you’ll have good luck.”

We are little people doing battle with the the great universe. And yet we have these huge egos, believing we can fly close to the sun with waxen wings. We are the boy David facing the cosmic Goliath with a sling and a stone. We are full of hubris, pride that goes before the fall, the Greek nemesis. We want to be our own gods. We do not see our wings melting.

I sometimes wonder how these great contrasts between reality and unreality, between who we are and who we imagine we are, live together in our souls. I suppose such pride can be good, for it propels us forward, encourages us to create as God creates, drives us to better our world and its peoples using a mind that reflects God’s own, made in his image. Somewhere deep inside, beyond politically correct and cool and longing for acceptance, we want to be good and true. There is a kernel of humility in each of us, a mustard seed that we want to water to grow to be fully good.

Christians explain this dynamic between good and evil, humility and pride by pointing to our innate goodness having come from our very creation, being made in God’s image, birthed by his love. We point to our sinfulness – our desire to disobey God – as having come from our fallen nature. Somewhere deep within our human beginnings, deep within the garden we call Eden, so long ago, we made a wrong turn, and that turn led to other wrong turns, which led to others.

The saints are those who try to correct those wrong turns, those who try to re-turn onto the right path. We want to learn from them for they know the way, opening themselves to God through prayer and sacrament. They scour their hearts through confession and repentance, re-turning. They prepare a place for God to live, to dwell within. We tell the stories of the saints to one another and to our children. We tell of saints from the past and the present, yes even some who live among us, so that we might touch the hem of their garment, so that we might learn how to re-turn onto the right path as they have done.

As Christians, we have a way, a path out of the jungle into the light into God himself. When we are thirsty, we have sacramental fountains and scriptural rivers of water and life that make sense of all the dry seasons. We store our water and grain in the heart of the Church, so that we will not thirst or hunger.

We have a way forward as we move among one another, healing and loving as God heals and loves, allowing him to work in and through us. So that the natural world – with its storms or lack of storms, with its heat and its cold, with its lions that devour and bears that maul – is set in perspective. It is a good world, but a not-always-friendly world. Yet its goodness lies at the heart of each seed sprouting to the light. We know this is true. So it is good for us to use our talents as best we can to be good caretakers, producing foods and storing water for a hungry and thirsty world.

We are in the dry season. Fall is coming soon. The leaves will die and turn and drop to the earth in glorious color. We too will die and turn and drop to the earth, our ashen flesh becoming dust, our souls bursting in their own glorious color as they wing to the light. We watch and we pray and we give thanks for it all, for the goodness of even the dry times, for the harvest of God is always plentiful.

The Fire Trail in Our Hearts

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My good friend Bishop Morse often said, “God wins in the end.” As I age, my years and my tears tell me the same thing, for I see darkness exposed by light more and more often. 

Each of us has a border that runs though our hearts, dividing the dark and the light, the evil and the good. Only when we illuminate that dark side can we become whole as we are meant to be. It takes courage to shine light on the cancer growing in those corners, the red raw wounds of deeds and misdeeds, that done and that left undone. It takes God’s spirit to embolden us to confess our sins. 

And so as I write and rewrite The Fire Trail, a novel in many ways about that line running through each of us, between the uncivil and the civil, I am reminded that I am not immune to the dark encroaching on the light, to the barbaric crossing that border in my heart. None of us are. 

Our culture does not encourage us to be humble, since humility lowers self-esteem. But true humility allows God to wash our hearts clean, and even if the soap stings, only then can we begin to heal. C.S. Lewis said, “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” And what a relief it is to think of others and not oneself, to turn outward and not inward, to dwell on the miracle of each of us, of all creation, and not just the miracle of me. Such turning toward the light strengthens us, doesn’t weaken us, as our culture claims mistakenly. Turning toward the light, toward the commands of God and the demands of true sacrificial love, makes us larger and more real, pulls us toward certainty and sanity. 

And so when I repeat the forceful and almost-embarrassing words of the General Confession in our Book of Common Prayer each Sunday, I am encouraged to admit I have not loved enough this last week. I have withdrawn my heart when I should have opened it wide. I have forgotten my prayers, and particularly my intercessory prayers. I have squandered time, that precious gift on loan to each of us, the gift of life itself: 

“We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty, Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent, And are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; The burden of them is intolerable.”

Is the burden truly intolerable? Must I bewail my wickedness? The dark part of me says no, I didn’t really do anything wicked this week. The light part, on the other side of that fire trail through my heart, says that because I know God and have the benefit of scripture and sacraments and the Church I am held to a closer accounting, a higher mark. To whom much is given, much is required. God is, indeed, wrathful and indignant because I did not say my prayers, because I squandered my time and treasure, because I know better. They may be venial and not mortal sins (no murder involved), but even these “little” sins allow festering in the dark corners of my heart. And one sin leads to another, like cancer. 

A terrible crime is committed in my novel, The Fire Trail, near the Berkeley hills Fire Trail, the wide break that protects the town from wildfires. Other crimes cross the trail and hurt the townspeople, destroying the peace and setting fires in neighborhoods once safe. And we hear of worldwide breaches, of wars and rumors of wars, of beheadings and bombings and massacres, of eruptions of lava and ash spilling into our communities. 

Humanity will always carry that scar, that jagged line running through its heart; it will always need to tend the firebreak so that the wild will not devour the tame, so that the fires do not breach the lines, do not leap into our towns, countries, and world. 

I suppose my little novel is merely a reminder that this is true, that we must not fall asleep on this crucial watch. The guards in our towers must be awake and alert so that they can spot the first flames coming over the hill, before our people are engulfed. 

And so it is with the making of laws, good law that builds upon good law, laws that our children may in turn build upon. We in the present carry this great burden, responsibility, and honor, to watch – even demand – that this happens. We must weave the good and the true of the past into the present, so that our children may one day do the same with their inheritance. What we do, how we vote (each one of us), matters. History matters. Liberty matters. The Constitution, the rule of law, our three branches of government, all matter. Who we are as a free people in a world of unfree peoples matters. 

We will be answerable for our inheritance, whether we have squandered it, whether we have hidden it, or whether we have increased it with goodness and wisdom. 

One of my characters seeks goodness, beauty, truth, and transcendence. A reader of my manuscript, The Fire Trail, an Anglican priest, explained this week to me (forgive my paraphrasing, Father) that goodness (virtue) can only come from truth (veritas), truth being God, that without God goodness denies itself, for it becomes self-serving and proud, no longer good. It is union with God that allows the fruits of virtue to grow and flourish. St. Maximus the Confessor (580-662) wrote about this. 

This is the question of our time. Can we be good, virtuous, civilized, without God? Or if all of us cannot manage belief in God, can those who do not believe see the need to respect those who do, support those institutions that will bear virtuous fruit through the building of schools, hospitals, and other endeavors devoted to the common good? 

In the early 1980’s Father Richard John Neuhaus wrote a book called The Naked Public Square, pointing out this great need in our nation’s public conversation. Os Guinness has written The Global Public Square, pointing out the need for such conversation in the world, the need for the Judeo-Christian perspective on culture creation.

But it begins with and in our own hearts. It starts with that line dividing the dark and the light. It begins with Sunday worship and confession and union with God. Only then can we turn to our communities and countries and world and shine the light in the dark corners. 

And, as Bishop Morse reminded me, God wins in the end. We need merely be faith-ful.

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

u.s.mapLast week we celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This week we worry about building a wall along our southern border high enough and in time enough to stop the flood of illegal immigrants. And we worry about a president who disregards our laws.

Walls wall people out, and they wall people in. The Berlin Wall, a part of the “iron curtain” separating the Communist East from the free West, walled people in, imprisoning them. The purpose of the border is key. The quality of freedom and the degree of tyranny on either side is key.

America, as a free society, allows freedom of travel, albeit with the legal documents to do so, documents that protect not only the traveler, but the citizenry at home and abroad. We cross borders and checkpoints, and walls seem to disappear for legal American citizens. Those of us fortunate enough to be born here must never take this for granted. Those of us who have come here legally will, to be sure, never take it for granted. Those who crossed our borders illegally however have harmed both themselves and us, for the rule of law, our justice system, is integral to America’s very definition. Illegals would not be coming to America if it were otherwise. But their breaking of our law has also harmed those legal immigrants who have waited in line patiently. Their breaking of our law has harmed the millions of law-abiding workers whose wages are challenged by an influx of a low-cost and illegal labor force.

I have found in my sixty-seven years on this earth, that personal walls are useful parameters in my life. We call such walls self-discipline. I build walls around my time, boxing in an hour to write this blog post on a Sunday afternoon, imprisoning an occasional day to write a another scene in The Fire Trail, my novel-in-progress, or fencing in a morning to worship God in church.

I don’t always feel like going to church. I confess there are often other things I would rather be doing. But my time wall tells me it’s time, it’s Sunday, and since this wall is one of the Ten Commandments, I had better have a good reason for breaking this commandment. I don’t always feel like writing this blog, but see it as a good discipline, an exercise in words, rather like my stretching exercises each morning. Who wants to exercise? We do it because we know we will feel better, that we will prevent injury by strengthening muscles and pumping the heart. If we ignore this time wall, we hurt ourselves.

Likewise, when I skip Sunday worship I don’t feel as happy as when I honor the Sabbath. A friend once said to me that there are no mentions of happiness in the Bible. I wondered about that. It turns out that each time the word blessed is used, it can be translated as happy. The difference seems to be that blessed means that the happiness is a gift from God, rather than happiness self-induced through drugs or a good dinner or any of the short-term highs we laud today.

So building that wall around Sunday morning, i.e. reserving that time for worship of God with his people, the Body of Christ, makes me blessedly happy all week. I’ve also found that morning prayers bless each day, and evening prayers bless me with a good sleep. I often tell insomniacs to try reciting the psalms… the rhythm, the worship, the letting go of oneself in the pool of God’s love is very relaxing. The best way to sleep is to let go of your self.

When I ignore those daily and weekly boundaries of time, I find a curious unease settling around my heart, as though I have starved my spirit. Studies have recently shown that church-goers are less likely to be depressed. How true.

Since the sixties, our culture has torn down boundaries and mocked moral discipline, has destroyed all kinds of walls. Deviancy has been defined down; crime has risen. Standards of dress, behavior, academics, work, and many other areas of social interaction have sought to be inclusive so that no one be offended by beauty, truth, goodness, excellence or wealth. Our culture has mainstreamed variation, including everyone in one main stream. When this happens, when walls no longer define excellence, when borders no longer define truth, goodness, and beauty, their edges smudge and we find ourselves living in a tepid gray area along with everyone else… wearing the uniform of sexless comrades in a steely city, a dystopia growing more familiar each day.

It is as though we have mistaken inclusivity and warm-heartedness for love. But God’s love, true love, loves the uniqueness of each created being, warts and all. He sees into the dark corners of our hearts; he wants to teach us how to love as he has loved and will always love; he wants us to clean out those dark places and let his light in. And so he arranged for each one of us to be created through an act of love, a union of two unique persons, complementary in gender and unique in genes, and thus we are wondrously born to be only ourselves. We can be no other. Love rejoices in these differences, doesn’t deny and merge them, hoping they will disappear in a gray land without borders.

And as we rejoice in our human differences, whether they be race, gender, beauty, or talent, let us also rejoice in the borders defining our nation, a land that is just and free, boundaries that celebrate legal crossings and prosecute illegal ones. This is the America that immigrants desire. This is the America we are proud of. This is the America we are honored to fight for in a world of shadows and merging grays.

In Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall,” the narrator repairs a common-border wall with his neighbor, who states, “Good fences make good neighbors.” The poet considers what this means, asking,

Why do they make good neighbors…
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out
And to whom I was like to give offense.

His neighbor doesn’t consider why, just repeats his slogan. But Mr. Frost is right, it is good to answer where and why we build walls, consider who’s outside and who’s inside and possible offenses caused by our defenses, for there are good reasons.

Let us build a just wall along the borders of our nation that will  no longer invite illegal entry. Let us encourage those already here illegally to become legal through due process and to stand in line like everyone else. And let us keep the wall repaired to protect us all. Let us be good neighbors.