Thursday May 20, 2021
A few columns ago, I wrote that I had great optimism about individuals, but pessimism about humanity as a whole.
At the macro level, I lamented, we seem incapable, collectively, of changing our course on religious and racial prejudice, climate change, politics, etc.
On the micro level, I recall a train station, platform packed with commuters heading home. I asked the man next to me if he would watch my suitcase while I grabbed a fast-food burger. He nodded.
When I came back up, the platform was empty. Except for one man. And my suitcase.
“My train came through,” he explained.
“And you stayed?”
“I couldn’t leave your bag untended,” he said.
His camo jacket, his hat, his accent, suggested that he favoured Jurassic social policies. But he delayed his own trip home, to look after a stranger’s needs.
But a reader told me that my concept contained an inherent contradiction. Humanity as a whole is made up of individuals. Logically, therefore, I cannot be optimistic about individuals without also being optimistic about the whole. And vice versa.
I can’t agree. There are discontinuities in everything. Transitions, where one reality morphs into another.
Between the campfire that warms you, and the forest fire that destroys.
Between the child who thinks you know everything, and the teenager who thinks you know nothing.
The rules of sub-atomic physics don’t necessarily apply in carpentry or counselling.
And you never know exactly where, or how, those discontinuities occur.
Nancy Ellen Abrams wrote a book she called A God That Could Be Real. She starts not with historic doctrines, but with physical phenomena.
One chapter explored the notion that we humans can relate only to beings roughly comparable in size to ourselves. They might be anything from Robbie Burns “wee sleekit cow’rin” mousie to the great whales.
But we cannot empathize with bacteria, too small for our eyes to see. And very few of us can get our minds around black holes and dark matter – Abrams’ husband being one of them.
We deal with trillion-dollar budgets by lopping off all the zeroes, scaling them down to chequebook levels.
Between the extremes
Abrams’ work suggests to me that there may be many transitions. And that we live within them.
As I’ve written before, I define sin as taking something good, beneficial, healthy, and pushing it to an extreme. Too much, or too little.
Too much water drowns us. Too little causes death by dehydration.
Too little medication condemns patients to endless pain. Too much leads to addiction and overdoses.
Too much physical interaction between adults and children can turn into abuse. Too little, neglect.
Thus good shades imperceptibly into evil.
Tragically, we never know the transition point, until we have passed through it. We know what’s right only when we discover that things have gone wrong.
Invisible discontinuities only become apparent after we have experienced them.
My wife’s death a year ago was a clearly defined discontinuity. But a year later, I’m still working through the transition between being married, and not being married.
If the discontinuities -- between micro and macro, individual and universal, physical and emotional -- were clear and definable, life would be much simpler.
Copyright © 2021 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.
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Bob Rollwagen sent some fantastic photos of hummingbirds, both feeding and hovering.
Bob also commented: “I have been watching hummingbirds at my feeder. He and she each have their favourite perch. They hover, they perch, they drink and the actively look around, leaving their position and flying a distance away when they suspect danger, usually me, my reflection in the window as I move to get a better picture or lift a spoon while eating breakfast. They are very aware of the surroundings.”
The second half of Bob’s letter dealt with my rather simplistic claim that “Jesus’ prime human characteristic…was his vulnerability.”
Bob replied, “Genghis Khan ravaged Asia and it has been said you can find some of his DNA in 90% of the inhabitants. While he dominated in his time, he has been forgotten -- except for the impact of what might appear to be a strong aggressive DNA.
“Jesus was vulnerable, Gandhi was vulnerable, Mandela was vulnerable, and each of them changed their worlds in their own way and continue to be regarded as strong leaders. I have seen individuals with dominant personalities take power only to fail eventually when their ego leads to bad decisions and failure.
“I have also witnessed quiet consensus-building leaders use power to build strong teams that take the business beyond the original goals and create even stronger leaders. Power is always in the equation. There are many human traits. Vulnerability is only one.”
Laurna Tallman also challenged my comments about vulnerability: “Jesus exercised a power beyond ‘vulnerability.’ The way he managed to ‘disappear’ into an angry mob early in his ministry and many other abilities people call ‘miraculous’ demonstrate kinds of power he used constantly that you do not explore. Indeed, Jesus epitomized a use of power that can overcome violence, although in the end he chose not to use it again -- in obedience to the voice of God, whose will he had discerned at Gethsemane.”
Don Sandin, on the same subject: “I would like to add Gandhi to your discussion of Jesus & Genghis Kahn. His amazing life, message and discipline as it related to non-violence and peace (Ahimsa) was truly remarkable. He still has great influence all over the world.”
David Gilchrist questioned another basic premise in my column, that evolution always moves in one direction: "Maybe evolution has never been only in one direction. There have been many forks in the roads leading to creatures that survive in different circumstances: from lions and tigers to your pussy cat; from the polar bear to the grizzly; from the apes in the trees to the humans on the ground. So the perched feeder may find food where there is no room to hover in the air; and the hovering bird can feed on flowers too frail for perching. ‘Both-And’ evolution seems to me to be more likely than ‘Either-Or’."
Steve Roney told me “that you are not a Darwinian, but an advocate of Intelligent Design.”
“You write ‘evolution is a one-way street. It moves in only one direction – towards intelligence, from simple to complex, towards greater flexibility and adaptability to the environment. I can’t think of any examples of evolution moving backwards.’
“Darwinian evolution is not teleological. It does not have direction. It is a process of natural selection of random mutations. There is no reason to expect life to move from simple to complex, or unconscious to conscious, on this principle. There is no systematic survival advantage to being complex or conscious.”
Back to hummingbirds, Tom Watson wrote, “Hummingbirds are amazing! When we had our trailer, we hung out a feeder as soon as we opened up. Within minutes a hummingbird would be at the feeder. I noted the same thing at our daughter's Muskoka home. Seems the bird has amazing eyesight. It can also distinguish colours that aren't available to the human eye.”
Psalm 104: 24-34, for Pentecost Sunday.
24 You made everything, God.
You imagine it, and it happens.
You breathe on it, and give it life.
25 The oceans are the amniotic fluid of the earth.
In your womb we share our origins.
26 We like to think we look after ourselves
with trade and commerce.
With boats that plow the seas,
with trains and trucks and planes,
we braid the earth with busy-ness.
27 Yet everything owes its life to you;
Everything continues to depend on you for life.
28 You bring forth food from the earth, from the seas, from the skies.
By your bounty all are fed.
29 If you withdraw your favor, we will all perish.
Without you, we are no more than a collection of chemicals,
30 But you put your breath of life into us;
With each new generation, you renew us.
31 Our living bodies reveal your spirit.
May our living be acceptable to you, our Lord.
32 You create the volcanos and the earthquakes, the hurricanes and glaciers;
You shape the earth itself.
33 Yet you care about us.
We are no more than ants and sparrows in your creation;
we are overwhelmed with gratitude.
34 This is our understanding-- may it meet with your approval.
You can find paraphrases of most of the psalms in the Revised Common Lectionary in my book Everyday Psalmsavailable from Wood Lake Publishing, email@example.com.
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Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca He’s also relatively inexpensive!
I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom. She also has lots of beautiful photos. Especially of birds.
Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom (NB that’s “watso” not “watson”)
ALVA WOOD’S ARCHIVE
I have acquired (don’t ask how) the complete archive of the late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures. I’ve put them on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive. You’re welcome to browse. No charge. (Although maybe if I charged a fee, more people would find the archive worth visiting.)