Thursday, June 28, 2007

Dream Conference

I'm off to Sonoma State University for the annual conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams where I will be presenting a paper on myths, dreams and art. I will post a copy of the PowerPoint when I return next week.

Although I took up the formal study of dreams after I returned from Alaska in 2001 and have used dreamwork extensively in my ministry, the paper takes me away from the Church (I was only ordained in 1999) and back to my former life in the humanities, when I wanted to be the female answer to Joseph Campbell and reveal things he could not see about the Power of Myth and the Masks of God.

At about the same time the Power of Myth aired on PBS, my own dream teacher Jeremy Taylor told Jeffrey Mishlove in a television interview that dreams exist to subvert closed systems. Closed systems represent any kind of institutional view of the world, be it government or religion or monomyth or hero quest or anything that purports to tell us "the way things are." Dreams, in their magnificent incoherence, remind us that "the way things are" may be anything but obvious. Not surprisingly, this was one of the things Jesus, too, came to reveal. Quoting Psalm 78 he said, "I will open my mouth and speak in parables. I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world." Dreamwork opens this hidden, foundational world to anyone who dreams, and since we all dream, the secrets of all time are there, just for us, if we but have eyes to see, ears to hear, and words to tell.

Formal philosophies seek to limit and to tame the wild wonders of the truth so that we may "get on with it," whatever that means. As a wild woman, I'm going out with my little lantern, hopefully to shine some light on the truth that to be fully human is to be created male and female in the image of God, not male in the lead and female in her place, whether veiled in the burka or crippled by 5 inch spikes.

It's another reason my personal myth is the dog team. The huskies and the wolves both know this. Female and male they take us singing, all the way to Nome.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Big Oil -- Part Two

I remember from my childhood in the 1950's that the dad of the smartest kid in my class worked for what was then known as Standard Oil of California. Paul talked a lot about his dad during show and tell, what it was like to work at the stinking refineries in Richmond and, even more wonderfully, about the clubs to which his dad and the other top employees belonged.

I suppose I was drawn to Paul’s stories at first because my dad was a loner. He worked at a law firm whose clubby aspects were tied up with Old Money in San Francisco and on the Peninsula and as we were not Old Money, we weren’t really part of the tribe. A corporate outsider, I grew up longing for that social world that I could not have, even as my father lambasted its shallow values. Sometimes not having is more powerful than having. I never developed my father’s paradoxical scorn for “paternalism.” Even as a feminist, I love to see a man rule justly and use his strength and majesty for the good of others.

Thus it is not hard for me today to have some fond memories of the vanished corporate world of the 1950's. I know it had its ruthless moments, for members of my extended family were involved in some of those, but it also had a splendid connectivity. A man (and it was almost always a man in those days) would go to work for a corporation and expect to be there for his entire working life. He gave the corporation his loyalty and his skill and the corporation, in turn, took care of him: advancements, placements, medical care, vacations and retirement. An old rule was still in play: if you took care of the men, you took care of the whole society. Men generated wealth which cared for women. Women would extend that love and care to children, and as the children blossomed, so did the tribe blossom, deepening our wisdom and our skill, extending our species memory by yet another generation, layer upon layer, the strata of the human story as beautiful and intricate as the walls of the Grand Canyon.

A lot got in the way of that story, but for now I want simply to honor it. The company took care of the men. The men took care of the women, and the women took care of the children. As Joni Mitchell once sang, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve lost ‘till it’s gone. . .”

The well known environmental writer Rick Bass started out as an oil geologist. His first book Oil Notes takes readers on a quest my school friend Paul would have liked. The quest consists of three parts: a grail, a princess and the river of the Fisher King. The river of the Fisher King was, of course, the oil itself, which is not a river beneath the earth at all, but more like the puddles and pools by which the Fisher King in fact sat. As anyone who has read the Parsifal legend knows, the young knight Parsifal arrived at the castle of the Fisher King, a place of sacred beauty and riches, a place where Parsifal was given a glimpse of the Holy Grail, the chalice of wine which Jesus blessed at the last supper and from which, at least according to some variants of the legend, Joseph of Arimathea caught Jesus’ blood as it dripped from the wound in his side. Even surrounded by all this, the Fisher King lived in agony, for a perpetual wound festered in his groin which only the correct question from a pure young knight could cure. The wound was the outward and visible sign of the loss of generativity; the Fisher King was sterile just as the oil beneath the earth is sterile. Both very powerful, but incapable of giving life.

That is the first part of Bass’ grail legend. The second part is the princess. She is easy to spot. Don't be misled by the title. Oil Notes is a love story. It was written as Rick courted his wife Elizabeth, whose line drawings appear beside Rick’s words. Love makes the quest for oil bearing rock come to life as only being in love can do, when every dawn is the first in creation and the flashes of sunlight upon a pond become the stars that dance within a lover’s eyes, when oil is transformed into the mysteries of time itself and the geologist walks the strangeness of the Cretaceous.

Which leads to the third part, the part that I, as reader, entering the story saw so clearly. Somehow in the course of being in love and chasing oil, Rick Bass discovered the Holy Grail. He is not an oil geologist today. He and Elizabeth left the Southern Oil Fields and went north to Montana’s Yaak Valley which, if you’ve read Bass, you will recognize as the place that gave him his enduring voice, compass and ground. It was in finding the Grail that Bass succeeded where Parsifal failed.

Parsifal failed in his quest because he did not ask the Fisher King the question that would heal him. The question was a simple “How are you?” Not the how are you that we utter as we rush past one another, expecting the answer “fine” and becoming stupidly alarmed if the person says anything else, not the evasions of polite society which is more concerned for its own comportment than for the feelings of others. Parsifal’s “How are you?” was to be an expression of genuine concern for the sick king, the courage to face that the world was sick, that power ailed, that the king was no longer generative, that the fish in his stagnant pool were dying, that there was an oil spill in the adjacent kingdom.

But Rick did ask the question somewhere, at least in the mind of this reader, as he drove for miles and miles across the alligator barking south, and he asked it of the earth. And to this reader the earth, in pain from the driller’s bit and sick from the poison that poured forth when men opened her wells, said, “I am not well.” In the saying "I am not well," Earth became Grail, our holy vessel, that which really did absorb the blood of the Christ, which really did transform the blood of the Christ into wine and his body into wheat that makes bread and gives life. And our young man was then set free from his knight errancy in an an automobile to meet the ninemile wolves and the extraordinary Brown Dog of the Yaak and to become one of the most eloquent voices of the earth. Such is the legendary power of Big Oil.

I realize that I’ve gone a long way from elementary school and my friend Paul and his father who worked for Standard Oil of California, but perhaps not as far away as you might think. Just as oil provided the quest that became the backdrop of Rick and Elizabeth’s love story, so in Paul’s father’s world, oil became the quest that brought together a community of men who became a corporate body. All the clubs and the field trips and the things the Oilmen’s tribe did together were about community. Indeed, one of the most enduring dream groups that my mentor Jeremy Taylor ever founded was among a group of young middle managers at Chevron. The group has endured for over thirty years. It has endured transfers and promotions and continues to meet once a year at some fabulous destination from South Africa to the Swiss Alps to the Savoy in London where one of the men’s daughters made her operatic debut. To form a dream group is to acknowledge that being a corporation is about more than a paycheck or a leverage or whatever they say today. A corporation, a corpus, is also a body, is also about life, both inner and outer. A corporation is a tribe. A corporation is about people.

The money is merely the medium, but somehow we confused the medium with the meaning. Today everything is about money. And that, says the earth, says the Brown Dog of the Yaak, says God, is a dangerous love indeed.

To be continued. . .

Monday, June 18, 2007

Big Oil -- Part One

I was not present at the conversation that startled me out of my mind; in fact, I read it in a book, but we’ve all heard versions of this conversation hundreds of times. It’s a fact well established that Big Oil and Environmentalists are uneasy with one another. So the same old conversation between them is humming along, and then, just at the end, came the following, resigned, and perfectly extraordinary, remark, “Unfortunately, the environmentalists have limited resources and big oil has unlimited resources.” (1

This is such an outlandish statement that I actually gasped when I read it. Think about it for a moment. Big Oil has unlimited resources? What does it mean to have unlimited resources? I'm not just talking about copious resources, I'm talking about unlimited resources.

Everyone knows that Big Oil has lots of money. Even back in the days when gas was cheap, a producing oil well could generate over $1200 a minute for its owners. While the rest of the nation reeled from war in Iraq and a supposed decrease in oil supplies, ExxonMobil cashed in to realize a record $8.4 billion in profits during the first quarter of 2006 after a record $36 billion in 2005. Imagine if scarcity could make us all billionaires! Meanwhile, in the face of ExxonMobil’s profit. “Congress hastened to propose measures that would boost taxes on oil firms, open new areas to drilling and provide rebates to taxpayers but would not necessarily alter prices at the pumps.”(Washington Post, Friday, April 28, 2006) Even after destroying an entire ecosystem in Prince William Sound, ExxonMobil Oil wallows in wealth beyond an ordinary person’s ability to count. But is it unlimited? If it is, what does Big Oil know that none of the rest of us know? Has Big Oil discovered the Philosopher’s Stone? Are we in such awe of oil that we believe it is unshakable, unlimited, the wielder of endless, unbreakable power? Will heaven and earth pass away leaving only Big Oil alone in the universe? Is fuel the meaning of life in abundance? Can a fuel live forever?

There is something very wrong, even unhealthy, when we throw around talk about unlimited resources. The idea that somewhere there exist unlimited resources for the taking is what may be undergirding the strange American expectation that our Economy is forever: that in some godlike fashion it will keep growing year after year. We seem to forget that we are a consumer economy. We consume the energy of those who work for us. Each underpaid employee at Wal-Mart is expected to generate $3600 in profits to give to the wealthy owners. Big Oil is about extracting and burning. Fuels burn things up. When your economy is based upon burning things up, by its very nature, it cannot be unlimited, unless you plan to count the ashes at the end as gold.

Remember King Midas? Who loved gold so much that he turned his daughter into money? Somehow, Americans, even the lovers of the land, even those who would return to the earth, have become enthralled to Big Oil. They build summer houses and drive big cars. They fly all over the earth. One can be very moral, but if one has money, one will get into trouble. The temptations are just too great.

For millennia, the Gwich’in people of Alaska have lived off the land that Big Oil is now determined to exploit, supposedly in the name of creating jobs and incomes and livelihoods. Among the Gwich’in, stories, myths, are powerful instruments of truth. People receive their stories as they live their lives. My story is both my guide and my guardian along the unique path that is my lifeway. The wisdom that gives life is held in the words of the stories, and certain wise elders end up with many of them which they pass on as gift to those who need them. I cannot receive their stories because I am from another tribe. But I have learned from the Gwich’in that stories reveal things that other ways of knowing cannot. From the Gwich’in I have learned that Words are very powerful.

Knowing with the wisdom of the earth that oil is a deadly poison, that mother earth in her wisdom has hidden her poison among the rocks of the underworld, the Gwich’in seek only to preserve the life of the land that God has given them, the sacred grounds where the calves are born, the calves who will become the embodiment of wildness and freedom. Some will give their lives to become the wild food that gives good life. Others will lead the herd from the mountains to the sea. Others will become the caribou elders who pass on the wisdom that gives life. But Big Oil values money above life. Big Oil believes that Money gives life.

It is time to simply pause in the mad dash of getting from here to there and to ask whether Big Oil speaks truly.

1Jonathan Waterman, Where Mountains are Nameless, p. 152

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

On Being a Body

An essay by a friend of mine recently appeared in “The Daily Episcopalian.” It was a beautifully reasoned plea in the midst of our conflicted times that we stop applying labels to one another and engage in the real work of our life-long journey into God’s grace. He began his exploration with a gay couple in his parish who were tired of being reduced to a sexual orientation. They wanted to be “post gay.” After reviewing a number of other divisive labels, the author concluded by suggesting that perhaps we should be “post everything.”

All true. For the past hundred years and more we have hurled labels at one another like javelins and it has resulted in genocide, war, institutional rape and slavery. But I am not sure that any reasoned plea is going to help us get over it, because, alas, I am coming to fear that reason itself may be the culprit.

For the past three hundred years, Western Culture has lived with the idea that what makes us most truly human is our intellect. It is mental acuity, not, say hairlessness, or the ability to play baseball, that best sets humanity apart from all other forms of life. Intellect has made possible a network of human dominance, from the wonders of science and medicine, to the rise of wealth, of leisure and travel, to the information revolution that allows people in India to work in real time for American corporations. Even deeper than that, reason, or so we believe, has given rise to democracy, to the open society, to the free exchange of ideas. The current curricula of “No Child Left Behind” are entirely dedicated to “academic learning,” i.e. “hard reason,” as opposed to the “soft” skills of creativity, service and community. Reason is a sharp sword. One cannot argue with the diagnosis of fact.

Now I happen to like intellectual life. I am absolutely motivated by ideas and I am reasonably well educated. I take the life of the mind so seriously that I have dedicated most of my life to it. Living thus in my head, I have discovered both the strengths and the limitations of the path of reason. Reason tends to learn by dividing wholes into more workable parts. If I am a thorough scholar, I make careful attributions through footnotes, it can even have the unintended effect of allowing me to detachment from my own mind. In this way, at minimal cost to myself, my reason unlocks the mysteries of nature, classifies, measures, assesses. Reason looks at things in relation to other things. Untempered reason lets me skip over the hard work of integration and instead use relatedness as a tool of distinguishing one from the other: animate from inanimate, plant from animal, animal from human, male from female, adult from child, civilized from indigenous, light skinned from dark skinned. The primary sense organ of the "head trip" is the eye, the objectifier. The archetypal symbol of intellect is the sword.

Western humanity, that most literal of the human tribes, embraced reason as a way of bridling and controlling passions that in an explosive climate of reason-as-doctrine were tearing it apart. No one bothered, it seemed, to notice that the great religious wars were not about spirituality but about bad philosophy. After a century of bloodshed, people were just exhausted. It seemed a comforting thing at the beginning of the eighteenth century to turn God into a clockmaker who set the universe in motion and retired, giving daily control of it to humanity. Giving up our cosmic trantrums against God allowed us to imagine life on a purely human scale. As some witty Frenchman said, “The gods came down from the heavens and entered the boudoir.” Like the elegant salons and boudoirs of the Rococo, the Enlightenment intellect was a graceful construction. It was also a powerful one. It allowed me to work on myself one part at a time. Had we in the West been less relentlessly literal, less fearful and had we been able to treat the Enlightenment as a prayer, as a small symbol of the great Enlightenment that is Union with the Divine, the wisdom teachers among us could have built an interior castle, room by room to keep pace with the other one. And I have no doubt that prayerful women and men of the west did precisely that because there is always truth, even if the world does not hear of it. But in the outer world of history and fact, faith was sundered from reason. The interior castle became the interior of the smoking factory. The work of learning my soul one room at a time was too much bother when the sword of reason allowed me to project my undesirable qualities, my sins, or, in the language of suburban housewives my “guilt trips” upon the dark skinned slave, the reproductive female, the Native American savage, the Russian, the Muslim and in Germany, the Jew, and turn these rich and complex human beings into problems that I became duty bound to domesticate, bind and eradicate.

To sever the brain from the rest of the human creature is to wake up one morning in a dying world choking on its own pollution. To sever the brain from intuition, from feeling, from heart consciousness, from faith is to find only fear. And when I fear someone I soon come to hate them. And I will gather up my authority, my wealth and my power to hide in the structure of myself and to make sure that the feared object is kept always at bay.

I do not care whether you are liberal or conservative; whether you flaunt your inclusivity or flaunt your exclusivity. They are one and the same. To flaunt is not to welcome. To flaunt is to wave your sword and say “If you are not with me you are against me.” This is blasphemy.

In the Buddhist tradition the flame tipped sword is the attribute of the the Bodhisattva Manjushri’s discriminating wisdom. The sword is to be used on no one but myself. It is there to cut away the illusion of duality and projection of myself upon others and to awaken compassion and equanimity, the fires transforming my delusions as completely as fire reduces wood to ash. This may be the most deeply intellectual of all acts. If I am able to work from intellect, through reason, to wisdom, I have the chance to discover God’s great compassion for the whole sentient world. If, however, I use my sword in any kind of literal way, my reason will become a weapon and kill people. Make no mistake: the age of total war in which we now live is a direct consequence of the Age of Reason taken literally. Even the reasoned cadences of a democratic constitution will be, in the end, about power.

And so to return to the couple in my friend's essay. You are human! I am human! We are mammals in the image of God! All the other name calling in the Church and in political life is simply that: a brandishing of the sword of infantile reason. Name calling of any sort is wrong. Children call each other names. Children flaunt their cliquey pride and humiliate the other. Adulthood is about getting over that. We are one body: human, animal, plant, earth. That body has been sanctified by God. It is not mine to manage, analyze, classify or judge. If I do these things, God calls me to do so not to awaken control, but to awaken compassion. This world is mine to love with all the wisdom God gave me. It does not matter whether I approve of your lifestyle or not. If, in the name of reason, I allow my disapproval to become policy, I join those who crucified the Christ.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Taming the Animal

Reading C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain, I was oddly reminded of a passage from another classic of imaginative literature, Antoine de St. Exupery’s The Little Prince. Here it is. The Little Prince has just met a fox.

"Who are you?" asked the little prince, and added, "You are very pretty to look at."
"I am a fox," said the fox.
"Come and play with me," proposed the little prince. "I am so unhappy."
"I cannot play with you," the fox said. "I am not tamed."
"Ah! Please excuse me," said the little prince. But, after some thought, he added: "What does that mean-- 'tame'?"
"It is an act too often neglected," said the fox. It means to establish ties. . . . One only understands the things that one tames. Men have no more time to understand anything. They buy things all ready made at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so men have no friends any more. If you want a friend, tame me...Men have forgotten this truth. But you must not forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.”

The passage in Lewis that brought it to mind:
“Man was appointed by God to have dominion over the beasts, and everything a man does to an animal is either a lawful exercise, or a sacrilegious abuse, of an authority by divine right. The tame animal is therefore, in the deepest sense, the only “natural” animal – the only one we see occupying the place it was made to occupy, and it is on the tame animal that we must base all our doctrine of beasts. . . . If the earthly lion could read the prophecy of that day when he shall eat hay like an ox, he would regard it as a description not of heaven, but of hell.” (C.S. Lewis The Problem of Pain, 126-30, passim)

I must say something about both passages because I think it no exaggeration to suggest that one of the greatest areas of conflict in our age lies along the axis between “wild” and “tame.” We don’t usually use such antiquated, even charming, words to describe that axis; I doubt that the real estate developer, ripping up a birch forest while dollar signs gleam in his eyes, would for a moment consider that he was in any way establishing ties with the land. If he were feeling noble, the developer might consider himself an agent of Progress, and the buying and selling of land an act of strengthening the economy and making the world safer and more prosperous for women and children, but for him, clearing is an impersonal transaction in which wild and tame as relationship or even friendship figure not at all.

Most Alaskans that I know think that some development is a good thing, but I have seen a lump rise in even the most developmentally inclined throat when a shimmering birch forest is reduced to a gaping, red, pit. (I seem to be alone in shedding tears over the loss of orchards to computer fortunes in my own home state of California.) Love of the Great Land still runs deep in Alaska and, thanks to a large indigenous population, ambivalence toward establishing ties with anything by taming it can be felt in some surprising places and ways.

C.S. Lewis and Antoine de St. Exupery were able to see connection, relatedness, order, comfort and love in domestication, because they were always the ones doing the taming. As males, they were expected to shape the wilderness into their own comfortable image. St. Exupery never explores how the tame fox feels after the Prince promptly abandons him. I know many women who simply laugh at the idea that their husband has any divine right to tame them at all. Therefore, I am hardly surprised to discover that one person who took gentle umbrage with Lewis and his tame animals was no one other than the great Anglican mystic Evelyn Underhill, who called it “frankly an intolerable doctrine and a frightful exaggeration of what is involved in the primacy of man. . . . Your own example of the good-man, good-wife, and good-dog in the good homestead is a bit smug and utilitarian, don’t you think, over against the wild beauty of God’s creative action in the jungle and deep sea?. . .I feel your concept of God would be improved by just a touch of wildness.” (The Letters of Evelyn Underhill, 301, quoted in Colin Duriez, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship, Hidden Spring/Paulist Press, 2003, p.138)

As our developer proves by carving up what is wild simply for economic gain, “wild” and “tame” are not just names for animals; each represents a very different ideal. One of the complaints that indigenous people of the North have leveled against white industrial people is that the White Man has deprived them of wild food. Wild food keeps them healthy, they say. To eat what is wild is to live in right relationship with the world that sustains them, while processed food snuffs out the life force within. Wild food says something very different about the cost of life than the cozy world of tame foxes and sheep dogs beside the fire.

When the early missionaries arrived in Alaska villages they found not religion, but a relationship with the animals. In asking an animal to sacrifice its life to feed me, to give me its fur to keep me warm, to envelop me with its spirit, I entered a relationship with that animal at the borderlands between life and death. To receive the willing sacrifice of Caribou who gives his life to feed me and my family is no more and no less religious than receiving the willing sacrifice of Christ who gave himself to be killed so that his life could give life to the world.

Whether I am wild or tame defines my use and stewardship of the earth; it defines my attitudes toward life and death; it declares whether I consider myself to be part of the mysteries of creation or their manager. If I believe that I can manage what is wild, that I can “manage” “end of life care,” that I can run a community like some kind of well oiled machine, I risk substituting myself for God. And as Keith Miller writes in his intriguing guide to Christian formation The Edge of Adventure, “The practical problem with trying to be God is that evidently no one can coerce the kind of universal approval and success the ‘role of God’ calls for.” (p.24) Or as Carl Jung observed, “We have ideas about the godliness of man and forget about the gods.”

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Authentic Anglicanism

One of the most important themes of this Blog is that faith is an act of imagination. While systematizing what we believe or writing tracts on spiritual themes might serve to educate our imaginations, they are not in themselves any kind of substitute for that Truth that is only God's to give.

God's sled dog is highly unhappy at attempts to try and turn the Anglican Communion into a magisterial and ideological faith, complete with in-groups and the anathematized. A good musher works with the gift of her dog's animal nature; she does not beat living flesh into submission.

As a service to the faithful, I've posted a beautiful and nuanced response to the Draft Anglican Covenant from Frank Turner, the John Hay Whitney Professor of History at Yale University and a brilliant friend of the Episcopal Church. Please read, mark, learn and inwardly digest!