How can we respond to the climate change crisis from disciplines that aren’t in the sciences?

Climate change is both a wicked problem and a grand challenge. These are OSU Dance Professor Norah Zuniga Shaw’s words, and, as she pointed out to the Ministerium a few weeks ago, most people don’t feel personally equipped to do anything about wicked problems and grand challenges. We all know that climate change is a reality, but, beyond recycling and watching our energy footprint, most of us feel that there’s very little that we, personally, can do about it. Particularly at a time when we are overwhelmed by change. New technologies, new social behaviors, and the collapse of old institutions can leave us feeling lost at sea. But for Norah, this means that it’s time to take stock of our gifts, abilities, and choices, rather than to despair.

“What do you do to respond to uncertainty and change?” She asked us, and then asked us to list out some answers to that question. This was what she calls a “priming process,” in which a problem is stated (we live in a time of great change) and people are invited to name the agency they already have (list the responses). As a pedagogical method, these priming processes come out of the world of dance, and especially out of the work of one of Norah’s mentors, the West Coast dancer Simone Forti. They allow groups to have a certain kind of conversation and then see what kinds of associations arise from those conversations.

Having been primed in this way, we were then asked to think about that huge, overwhelming question of climate change, and relate it to our own disciplines. Since most of us in the Ministerium are clergy, lay religious leaders, and theologians, it came as no surprise that many of our disciplines had to do with God and community. But Norah pushed us to think beyond our work and consider our practices and our identities as well. She handed out a worksheet that had three simple questions, and space to answer them.

How do we confront ecological crisis through __________? (Make a quick list of your disciplines, working methods, experience you bring, and who taught you.)

What are your practices of taking action/making/doing and what role might your practices play in activating alternative futures? (List your practices and where you learned them, try not to edit yourself, just write what comes.)

What do you know already about climate change as a _____________ and who else can you turn to for answers? (List your relevant identities, relevant geographies, disciplinary groundings, relationships, and what you already know from these positions.)

Norah used these methods with dance students to create the piece “Let’s Make Climate Change.” She found that bringing the topic of climate change into the studio helped students engage with it. Suddenly a wicked problem was scaled to a size where they could respond to it by using their gifts, not just as dancers but as students, young people, women and men, children, romantic partners, and everything else that comprised their identities. And the things that they already did, those daily practices that we all have, could be brought to bear on the problem.

We’re all in the position of those dancers. We have gifts and positions within our wider culture that help us address any problem. We have daily practices that have great power. Solutions to any problem arise when a great number of people bring their diverse abilities to bear on it, when they name their personal responses and bring these responses together into grand collaborations.

How can we respond to the climate change crisis from disciplines that aren’t in the sciences?

Climate change is both a wicked problem and a grand challenge.  These are OSU Dance Professor Norah Zuniga Shaw’s words, and, as she pointed out to the Ministerium a few weeks ago, most people don’t feel personally equipped to do anything about wicked problems and grand challenges.  We all know that climate change is a reality, but, beyond recycling and watching our energy footprint, most of us feel that there’s very little that we, personally, can do about it.  Particularly at a time when we are overwhelmed by change.  New technologies, new social behaviors, and the collapse of old institutions can leave us feeling lost at sea.  But for Norah, this means that it’s time to take stock of our gifts, abilities, and choices, rather than to despair.

“What do you do to respond to uncertainty and change?” She asked us, and then asked us to list out some answers to that question.  This was what she calls a “priming process,” in which a problem is stated (we live in a time of great change) and people are invited to name the agency they already have (list the responses).  As a pedagogical method, these priming processes come out of the world of dance, and especially out of the work of one of Norah’s mentors, the West Coast dancer Simone Forti.  They allow groups to have a certain kind of conversation and then see what kinds of associations arise from those conversations.

Having been primed in this way, we were then asked to think about that huge, overwhelming question of climate change, and relate it to our own disciplines.  Since most of us in the Ministerium are clergy, lay religious leaders, and theologians, it came as no surprise that many of our disciplines had to do with God and community.  But Norah pushed us to think beyond our work and consider our practices and our identities as well.  She handed out a worksheet that had three simple questions, and space to answer them.

How do we confront ecological crisis through __________?  (Make a quick list of your disciplines, working methods, experience you bring, and who taught you.)

What are your practices of taking action/making/doing and what role might your practices play in activating alternative futures? (List your practices and where you learned them, try not to edit yourself, just write what comes.)

What do you know already about climate change as a _____________ and who else can you turn to for answers? (List your relevant identities, relevant geographies, disciplinary groundings, relationships, and what you already know from these positions.)

Norah used these methods with dance students to create the piece “Let’s Make Climate Change.”  She found that bringing the topic of climate change into the studio helped students engage with it.  Suddenly a wicked problem was scaled to a size where they could respond to it by using their gifts, not just as dancers but as students, young people, women and men, children, romantic partners, and everything else that comprised their identities.  And the things that they already did, those daily practices that we all have, could be brought to bear on the problem.

We’re all in the position of those dancers.  We have gifts and positions within our wider culture that help us address any problem.  We have daily practices that have great power.  Solutions to any problem arise when a great number of people bring their diverse abilities to bear on it, when they name their personal responses and bring these responses together into grand collaborations.

Does God play dice with the universe?

The study of physics has had an indelible effect on human affairs and philosophical thinking. The 20th century was no exception as physics experienced two revolutions: Einstein’s theory of relativity and the revolution in our understanding of atoms and other elementary particles. This latter topic is usually called quantum mechanics and the subject is the source of much discussion in philosophical and theological circles since it involves a variety of truly mysterious and paradoxical phenomena.

Chris Orban, who is an assistant professor of physics at OSU, gave us an overview the physical and philosophical thinking that came prior to the advent of quantum mechanics in the early 20th century. As Chris discussed, after Newton and Laplace, the earth and the cosmos were understood to be a kind of “world machine” or “clockwork universe” that operates in a highly predictable way according to the laws of physics. This understanding led many church-goers in the 18th and 19th centuries to an idea of God as a kind of watch maker who created the world and set it into motion, but who may or may not need to intervene as this universe takes the course it was designed to take.

Chris argues that this idea has had a profound effect. By creating a detached and distant picture of God, this would have helped lay the groundwork for the Enlightenment. The “clockwork universe” idea may also have had a strong effect on the past and present reluctance of American audiences to accept evolution as fact. The first American interlocutor of Darwin’s theory of evolution was a Harvard botanist and protestant church member named Asa Gray. In defending Darwin’s theory to religious audiences, he had the unenviable job of explaining that this clockwork universe must have been designed by God from the very beginning to use scarcity and competition as a means for producing biodiversity. “Nature, red in tooth and claw” as Tennyson would say.

Although Einstein was not an especially religious man, he too had an idea that God (or whatever God is) determined the laws of physics at the beginning of time and set the universe in motion. Einstein’s goal was to understand the symmetries of nature so well that he could understand whether God could have made the laws of physics in any other way than they currently are.

The phrase “God does not play dice!” is attributed to Einstein in a series of discussions he had with the physicist Neils Bohr over the way that quantum mechanics introduces a degree of randomness into the world. Quantum mechanics removes the absolute predictability of the “world machine”. Einstein once said that he found quantum mechanics to be so strange that he spent more time thinking about it than his own theory of relativity. Chris drew from a chapter on Niels Bohr in Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb to explain that although Bohr too was not an especially religious man, he dismissed Einstein’s assertion. He argued that the universe can operate however it operates. Decades of subsequent investigation have continued to confirm the notion that the affairs of atoms are intrinsically unpredictable on the smallest scales, which was the scientific basis of Bohr’s response.

The ramifications for this understanding of the world are as far reaching as the clockwork universe idea that came before it and Bohr spent time considering a renewed understanding of free will and other concepts in the light of quantum mechanics. Bohr once said that “[Philosophy] was, in a way, my life”, which is a reference both to his contributions to quantum mechanics and to the philosophical discussions he experienced growing up as a child of a biology professor at the University of Copehagen. A collection of Bohr’s speeches and writing can be found in his book Atomic Physics and Human Knowledge.

Does God play dice with the universe?

The study of physics has had an indelible effect on human affairs and philosophical thinking. The 20th century was no exception as physics experienced two revolutions: Einstein’s theory of relativity and the revolution in our understanding of atoms and other elementary particles. This latter topic is usually called quantum mechanics and the subject is the source of much discussion in philosophical and theological circles since it involves a variety of truly mysterious and paradoxical phenomena.

Chris Orban, who is an assistant professor of physics at OSU, gave us an overview the physical and philosophical thinking that came prior to the advent of quantum mechanics in the early 20th century. As Chris discussed, after Newton and Laplace, the earth and the cosmos were understood to be a kind of “world machine” or “clockwork universe” that operates in a highly predictable way according to the laws of physics. This understanding led many church-goers in the 18th and 19th centuries to an idea of God as a kind of watch maker who created the world and set it into motion, but who may or may not need to intervene as this universe takes the course it was designed to take.

Chris argues that this idea has had a profound effect. By creating a detached and distant picture of God, this would have helped lay the groundwork for the Enlightenment. The “clockwork universe” idea may also have had a strong effect on the past and present reluctance of American audiences to accept evolution as fact. The first American interlocutor of Darwin’s theory of evolution was a Harvard botanist and protestant church member named Asa Gray. In defending Darwin’s theory to religious audiences, he had the unenviable job of explaining that this clockwork universe must have been designed by God from the very beginning to use scarcity and competition as a means for producing biodiversity. “Nature, red in tooth and claw” as Tennyson would say.

Although Einstein was not an especially religious man, he too had an idea that God (or whatever God is) determined the laws of physics at the beginning of time and set the universe in motion. Einstein’s goal was to understand the symmetries of nature so well that he could understand whether God could have made the laws of physics in any other way than they currently are.

The phrase “God does not play dice!” is attributed to Einstein in a series of discussions he had with the physicist Neils Bohr over the way that quantum mechanics introduces a degree of randomness into the world. Quantum mechanics removes the absolute predictability of the “world machine”. Einstein once said that he found quantum mechanics to be so strange that he spent more time thinking about it than his own theory of relativity. Chris drew from a chapter on Niels Bohr in Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb to explain that although Bohr too was not an especially religious man, he dismissed Einstein’s assertion. He argued that the universe can operate however it operates. Decades of subsequent investigation have continued to confirm the notion that the affairs of atoms are intrinsically unpredictable on the smallest scales, which was the scientific basis of Bohr’s response.

The ramifications for this understanding of the world are as far reaching as the clockwork universe idea that came before it and Bohr spent time considering a renewed understanding of free will and other concepts in the light of quantum mechanics. Bohr once said that “[Philosophy] was, in a way, my life”, which is a reference both to his contributions to quantum mechanics and to the philosophical discussions he experienced growing up as a child of a biology professor at the University of Copehagen. A collection of Bohr’s speeches and writing can be found in his book Atomic Physics and Human Knowledge.

“What we are sculpting is ourselves” – Duane McDiarmid on Art & Action

Start with two images, both from the Vietnam War, both famous. One is an Eddie Adams photo of a South Vietnamese police chief shooting a man in the head. The other is Malcolm Browne’s photo of a Buddhist monk setting himself on fire to protest the war. For Ohio University art professor Duane McDiarmid, these two photos became symbolic of two different approaches to action. Duane believes that life is defined by action, and that there are always ramifications for the actions that people take. During our February luncheon, he told the Ministerium that art is the action of the artist, and not only those discreet actions that take place in either the studio or gallery. Instead, the art is found in any action that an artist takes. For Duane, this means that no action can go unexamined, and surety is always problematic. The South Vietnamese police chief is very certain of his point of view, and acts on that certainty. The Buddhist monk understands that all action exerts a price, and he’s awesomely and terrifyingly willing to feel the effects of his activities on his own body. Duane aligns himself with the monk. He wants to acknowledge the effects of his artistic actions on his own person, even as he hopes that they will have effects that reverberate beyond his personhood.

I first met Duane when some of his pieces were featured as part of a social practice art show at the EASE Gallery. He told me about his “Mismatched Drapes Project,” which began during a long drive from Athens to Santa Fe. Feeling sleepy, he pulled into an empty lot and fell asleep in his car. When he woke in the morning, he found that he was parked outside of an abandoned church, and went in to explore. He discovered graffiti and debris left by a motorcycle gang that was using the church as a headquarters. He was curious to find himself judging the gang, people he’d never met and knew nothing about, beyond the fact that they littered drug paraphernalia about on the floor and defecated on the carpet. Noticing some old orange velvet curtains that were torn down from the wall, he acted on an impulse and took one. Then he got back in his car and resumed his drive to Sante Fe, thinking about what he’d done and why he’d done it.

A little ways down the road, he passed an old abandoned hotel, and decided to stop and check that out, as well. He found that it was being used by vagrants and by gay men who were seeking anonymous sex. Again, he found himself facing his own judgement of these men, and again he discovered a found object, in this case a pornographic magazine, that he took without really knowing why. Back in the car, he thought about judgement, and proprietorship, and the way that groups work. Who really had ownership of the abandoned church and the hotel? Weren’t the people who were actually using the spaces the true proprietors? Could he think of the groups that were inhabiting these places as true communities? And which of the communities that he belonged to had taught him to look down on and exclude these people?

It was from these experiences and thoughts that the Mismatched Drapes Project was born. Arriving in Santa Fe, Duane decided that he would make a new curtain for the biker gang, and a quilt for the men in the hotel. He wanted these objects to refer back to the original proprietors (the church that hung the drapes, the hotel when it was functioning) and to speak to the current proprietors. When he delivered these two pieces of art, he did so at a time when no one was in the spaces, and with the understanding that he was truly giving them away. He could have no further investment in where they went or what people did with them. He wanted the arrival of these objects in the church and the hotel to be seen as a mystery, even as a miracle, to the people who would receive them. And he designed private rituals that he enacted as he was giving the art objects away. His intention was to join these communities of bikers and gay men without ever meeting them. Join them through giving as an act of communion.
Duane told us over lunch that one of the ancient roles of art is “to displace trouble, so that you can look at it and heal it.” One of the troubles that he’s trying to displace is the kind of deep prejudice we experience when encountering the truly other. Later, he found an abandoned indian trading post, and found himself engaging in a project that displaced a different but similar trouble, that of the unjust trade relationships that led to the subjugation of Native American peoples. As he worked on turning a half desiccated God’s Eye that he found in the ruins into a blanket that he would return to the site, he thought about his own participation in these trade relationships, and that the very act of taking an object from a place and making an object to replace it involved him in a kind of trade. He realized that there is a very thin line between participation and manipulation.

As he talked to us, it became clear that his mind is always dwelling on the ramifications and implications of the actions that he takes. It’s a very full, and also a sometimes exhausting, way to live one’s life. It’s also, in essence, a spiritual way of living, as self awareness and examination of motivations are a deep part of any authentic spirituality. Duane tells his sculpture students that “what we are sculpting is ourselves.” In the end, that’s true of all of us, and the tools Duane uses – introspection, self-awareness, creativity – are the tools of the Buddhist monk and the saint.

“What we are sculpting is ourselves” – Duane McDiarmid on Art & Action

Start with two images, both from the Vietnam War, both famous.  One is an Eddie Adams photo of a South Vietnamese police chief shooting a man in the head.  The other is Malcolm Browne’s photo of a Buddhist monk setting himself on fire to protest the war.  For Ohio University art professor Duane McDiarmid, these two photos became symbolic of two different approaches to action.  Duane believes that life is defined by action, and that there are always ramifications for the actions that people take.  During our February luncheon, he told the Ministerium that art is the action of the artist, and not only those discreet actions that take place in either the studio or gallery.  Instead, the art is found in any action that an artist takes.  For Duane, this means that no action can go unexamined, and surety is always problematic.  The South Vietnamese police chief is very certain of his point of view, and acts on that certainty.  The Buddhist monk understands that all action exerts a price, and he’s awesomely and terrifyingly willing to feel the effects of his activities on his own body.  Duane aligns himself with the monk.  He wants to acknowledge the effects of his artistic actions on his own person, even as he hopes that they will have effects that reverberate beyond his personhood.
I first met Duane when some of his pieces were featured as part of a social practice art show at the EASE Gallery.  He told me about his “Mismatched Drapes Project,” which began during a long drive from Athens to Santa Fe.  Feeling sleepy, he pulled into an empty lot and fell asleep in his car.  When he woke in the morning, he found that he was parked outside of an abandoned church, and went in to explore.  He discovered graffiti and debris left by a motorcycle gang that was using the church as a headquarters.  He was curious to find himself judging the gang, people he’d never met and knew nothing about, beyond the fact that they littered drug paraphernalia about on the floor and defecated on the carpet.  Noticing some old orange velvet curtains that were torn down from the wall, he acted on an impulse and took one.  Then he got back in his car and resumed his drive to Sante Fe, thinking about what he’d done and why he’d done it.
A little ways down the road, he passed an old abandoned hotel, and decided to stop and check that out, as well.  He found that it was being used by vagrants and by gay men who were seeking anonymous sex.  Again, he found himself facing his own judgement of these men, and again he discovered a found object, in this case a pornographic magazine, that he took without really knowing why.  Back in the car, he thought about judgement, and proprietorship, and the way that groups work.  Who really had ownership of the abandoned church and the hotel?  Weren’t the people who were actually using the spaces the true proprietors?  Could he think of the groups that were inhabiting these places as true communities?  And which of the communities that he belonged to had taught him to look down on and exclude these people?
It was from these experiences and thoughts that the Mismatched Drapes Project was born.  Arriving in Santa Fe, Duane decided that he would make a new curtain for the biker gang, and a quilt for the men in the hotel.  He wanted these objects to refer back to the original proprietors (the church that hung the drapes, the hotel when it was functioning) and to speak to the current proprietors.  When he delivered these two pieces of art, he did so at a time when no one was in the spaces, and with the understanding that he was truly giving them away.  He could have no further investment in where they went or what people did with them.  He wanted the arrival of these objects in the church and the hotel to be seen as a mystery, even as a miracle, to the people who would receive them.  And he designed private rituals that he enacted as he was giving the art objects away.  His intention was to join these communities of bikers and gay men without ever meeting them.  Join them through giving as an act of communion.
Duane told us over lunch that one of the ancient roles of art is “to displace trouble, so that you can look at it and heal it.”  One of the troubles that he’s trying to displace is the kind of deep prejudice we experience when encountering the truly other.  Later, he found an abandoned indian trading post, and found himself engaging in a project that displaced a different but similar trouble, that of the unjust trade relationships that led to the subjugation of Native American peoples.  As he worked on turning a half desiccated God’s Eye that he found in the ruins into a blanket that he would return to the site, he thought about his own participation in these trade relationships, and that the very act of taking an object from a place and making an object to replace it involved him in a kind of trade.  He realized that there is a very thin line between participation and manipulation.
As he talked to us, it became clear that his mind is always dwelling on the ramifications and implications of the actions that he takes.  It’s a very full, and also a sometimes exhausting, way to live one’s life.  It’s also, in essence, a spiritual way of living, as self awareness and examination of motivations are a deep part of any authentic spirituality.  Duane tells his sculpture students that “what we are sculpting is ourselves.”  In the end, that’s true of all of us, and the tools Duane uses – introspection, self-awareness, creativity – are the tools of the Buddhist monk and the saint.

Why do even the poorest people make art?

A year ago, Jim Miner, who’s on the Ministerium planning team, suggested that we tour the Schumacher Gallery at Capitol University in lieu of meeting for lunch this December. He’d recently visited the gallery and was very impressed by their collection of Inuit art. As we talked about it, we began to wonder why the Inuit made art, given that, historically, they were always living on the edge of survival, in one of the harshest environments on earth. Jim set out to find someone who could answer this question, and was fortunate in striking up a conversation with David Gentilini, who is the assistant to the gallery’s director.

When we met in the gallery, David told us that art is the first form of any human tradition. It communicates both practical and religious ideas, and as an example of this he showed us several soap stone sculptures made by Inuit artists in the early twentieth century. These sculptures vividly illustrated some of the religious ideas of the Inuit shamans, whose role was both to pass on practical knowledge, like where to hunt, and to ritualize the lives of their people. The Inuit people believed that human beings were composed of three equally important parts: a body, a name, and a spirit. Some of the sculptures showed all three, combined in amazing, convoluted shapes – a spiritual idea rendered in stone.

In addition, David told us, art can become a way to have control over something, when little else in one’s environment is controllable. Watching as something takes shape in your hands is an incredibly reassuring experience. All of the worries and anxieties of life disappear while one is involved in the act of creation. If this is true for relatively wealthy and secure Americans, how much more true it must be for people who’s existence is always in danger? The artists who made the soap stone statues in the gallery, and the generations of artists who came before them, knew that some part of who they were and what they believed would continue in their work, regardless of what happened to them after they created it.

How do we develop experience-rich language?

Language can open the world to us. This is always true of descriptive language – by describing people and things we come to know them better. But it’s also true of language that isn’t trying to describe, but to convey a meaning or assert an opinion. Something about the world and our relationship to it is expressed in the way we say things, and something about ourselves is revealed in the words that we choose. This became apparent to Erin McGraw as she thought about the way that people express themselves in cyberspace. Often there is a gleeful meanness in the ways that people talk to each other while online, but its not hard to discover deep insecurities at the base of this meanness. People use phrases like “If you’re a student of history, as I am,” to assert their superiority over whoever they’re arguing with, and tell each other that “you’re opinions are just stupid.” And anyone who tries to express a reasonable perspective in the midst of an internet debate will be attacked from both sides, because the dialog isn’t really about learning from each other, it’s about winning a kind of competition. To Erin, these conversations belong to first order imagination. They follow scripts and rest in cliches and are always obedient to a rhetoric of dominance. How, she wondered, could we move beyond such rhetoric to second order imagination, which challenges cliches and moves us to words and ideas that are clearer, more thoughtful, more original, and maybe even wise? How can we use language to open the whole world to us, instead of just the scared little corners we’d like to hide in?

Her answer is that we must relearn the art of revision. When she and I got together to plan her talk to the Ministerium, we knew that we’d want to ask our members to revise a piece of writing as an exercise in avoiding cliche. Erin generously decided that she’d create a piece for us to pull apart. She sent it to me in advance, and I laughed out loud when I read it. It was full of every cliche about suffering and providence that I could imagine, and reading it felt a little convicting, since I’ve heard, and maybe even spoken, some of the platitudes on offer while in worship.

During the meeting, we realized as we were revising Erin’s document that people of faith have to battle cliche on two levels. Being part of the world we live in, we’re immersed in the languages of society, the internet, politics, pop culture, etc. Being part of our faith communities, we’re immersed in the received languages of our traditions. Such language isn’t necessarily bad, but it can become so insular that it loses all ability to communicate beyond the doors of our churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples. More, it can become shallow, not because the original ideas or formulations were shallow, but because we’ve repeated them so often that we’ve ceased to think about them. A piece of writing, Erin told us, is like a piece of clay. The more one works it, the more malleable it becomes. Revision allows us to sharpen ideas, or to shift them, to disrupt an old way of thinking and allow a new way of thinking in. It allows us to stop merely saying the things that sound good, and start saying the things we really mean. Solid and believable, she told us, is better than flashy. Deep considerations are better than empty ones.

She offered us some principles to guide revisions of our thoughts and statements. Revision, she said, requires patience. When revising, we should be wary of all-or-nothing statements, and entertain the possibility that different points of view might be valid. What we really want is dialog, and it’s hard to achieve this when we use a dominating rhetorical tone. We should keep in mind that cliches started as surprising and new formulations of ideas. They weren’t cliches when first uttered, and Erin pushed that idea to say that cliches were the very first things that human beings made. They were invitations to more creativity and a deeper pursuit of truth. Our problem is that we allowed them to become resting places.

In occurred to me, as she talked, that she was describing revision as a kind of spiritual discipline. One of our members, Michael Jupin, pointed out that the revision process challenges each of us to become more of a self. Cliches don’t differentiate us from the worlds that we inhabit. But to cultivate patience, hold ourselves open to mystery, and invite real relationship with a willingness to be vulnerable and, even, wrong, is to develop that deep humility that the mystics always describe as the key to knowing God. Something about the world and our relationship to it is expressed in the way we say things. Hopefully, when we move beyond cliches, we’ll find ourselves expressing our real beliefs and hopes as honestly as we can.

How do we develop experience-rich language?

Language can open the world to us. This is always true of descriptive language – by describing people and things we come to know them better. But it’s also true of language that isn’t trying to describe, but to convey a meaning or assert an opinion. Something about the world and our relationship to it is expressed in the way we say things, and something about ourselves is revealed in the words that we choose. This became apparent to Erin McGraw as she thought about the way that people express themselves in cyberspace. Often there is a gleeful meanness in the ways that people talk to each other while online, but its not hard to discover deep insecurities at the base of this meanness. People use phrases like “If you’re a student of history, as I am,” to assert their superiority over whoever they’re arguing with, and tell each other that “you’re opinions are just stupid.” And anyone who tries to express a reasonable perspective in the midst of an internet debate will be attacked from both sides, because the dialog isn’t really about learning from each other, it’s about winning a kind of competition. To Erin, these conversations belong to first order imagination. They follow scripts and rest in cliches and are always obedient to a rhetoric of dominance. How, she wondered, could we move beyond such rhetoric to second order imagination, which challenges cliches and moves us to words and ideas that are clearer, more thoughtful, more original, and maybe even wise? How can we use language to open the whole world to us, instead of just the scared little corners we’d like to hide in?

Her answer is that we must relearn the art of revision. When she and I got together to plan her talk to the Ministerium, we knew that we’d want to ask our members to revise a piece of writing as an exercise in avoiding cliche. Erin generously decided that she’d create a piece for us to pull apart. She sent it to me in advance, and I laughed out loud when I read it. It was full of every cliche about suffering and providence that I could imagine, and reading it felt a little convicting, since I’ve heard, and maybe even spoken, some of the platitudes on offer while in worship.

During the meeting, we realized as we were revising Erin’s document that people of faith have to battle cliche on two levels. Being part of the world we live in, we’re immersed in the languages of society, the internet, politics, pop culture, etc. Being part of our faith communities, we’re immersed in the received languages of our traditions. Such language isn’t necessarily bad, but it can become so insular that it loses all ability to communicate beyond the doors of our churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples. More, it can become shallow, not because the original ideas or formulations were shallow, but because we’ve repeated them so often that we’ve ceased to think about them. A piece of writing, Erin told us, is like a piece of clay. The more one works it, the more malleable it becomes. Revision allows us to sharpen ideas, or to shift them, to disrupt an old way of thinking and allow a new way of thinking in. It allows us to stop merely saying the things that sound good, and start saying the things we really mean. Solid and believable, she told us, is better than flashy. Deep considerations are better than empty ones.

She offered us some principles to guide revisions of our thoughts and statements. Revision, she said, requires patience. When revising, we should be wary of all-or-nothing statements, and entertain the possibility that different points of view might be valid. What we really want is dialog, and it’s hard to achieve this when we use a dominating rhetorical tone. We should keep in mind that cliches started as surprising and new formulations of ideas. They weren’t cliches when first uttered, and Erin pushed that idea to say that cliches were the very first things that human beings made. They were invitations to more creativity and a deeper pursuit of truth. Our problem is that we allowed them to become resting places.

In occurred to me, as she talked, that she was describing revision as a kind of spiritual discipline. One of our members, Michael Jupin, pointed out that the revision process challenges each of us to become more of a self. Cliches don’t differentiate us from the worlds that we inhabit. But to cultivate patience, hold ourselves open to mystery, and invite real relationship with a willingness to be vulnerable and, even, wrong, is to develop that deep humility that the mystics always describe as the key to knowing God. Something about the world and our relationship to it is expressed in the way we say things. Hopefully, when we move beyond cliches, we’ll find ourselves expressing our real beliefs and hopes as honestly as we can.

What does it mean to be wise in today’s world?

The night before, someone had asked me if I thought that life was primarily comedy or primarily tragedy. I said comedy, without really knowing why. Then, as sometimes happens in the most surprising way, I found myself sitting at our Ministerium lunch the very next day, listening as Rabbi Roger Klein supported my sense that life is more comic than sad. Rabbi Klein was talking about wisdom. He had just finished speaking about Richard Sewell’s book, The Vision of Tragedy, in which Sewell asserts that wisdom is a recognition of the tragedies and problems of life, with a corresponding refusal to avoid them, and, most importantly, refusal to submit to them. Now he was speaking about Socrates. Socratic wisdom, he told us, has two main aspects. The first is humility. The second is the sense that life is comedy.

Not, the Rabbi assured us, comedy in a “laugh out loud” mode, but comedy as an ordering principal. He described tragedy and comedy as two species from the same genus. Comedy reflects a fundamentally ordered universe. Tragedy reflects a fundamentally disordered universe. Tragedy reflects the unacceptable contradictions of life, comedy the acceptable contradictions of life. I’ve been taking improv classes for awhile now, and I instinctively understood what he meant. When an improv actor steps out onto the stage, she doesn’t know what prompts she’ll be given or what her scene partners will say or do. She steps out prepared to create a scene from whatever comes her way. She has dedicated herself to the task of finding order in the raw materials of words and emotions and movements, and when we find improv funny, it is not only because of the incidental jokes and ridiculous situations that arise. The true joy that we take in improv arises from the fact that we’re watching order take form out of chaos, and the form that order takes is surprising, sometimes even shocking, but also deeply reassuring, because we human beings can do this. We can, through the simplest actions, reflect a fundamentally ordered universe.

Before talking about Sewell, Rabbi Klein led us through an investigation of David Brooks’s thoughts on wisdom, and Robert Nozick’s. He described Brooks’s point of view as primarily theoretical, given that Brooks is more concerned with thinking through what wisdom is than what it does. There’s a need for the cultivation of factual information and knowledge as we grow to be wise, but also a powerful need for experience. Knowledge gives us the capacity to create and evaluate, but the cultivation of wisdom takes time – it emerges from experience, and, unlike knowledge, it can’t be taught or transferred simply from one person to another. Differing from Brooks, Nozick is more interested in the practical aspects of wisdom. It comes about when we make meaning out of the practical truths that we encounter in the world, and through doing so change our perspective on life. Some of these practical truths are revealed when we attempt to achieve certain goals. We craft means of doing so, become aware of lurking dangers, and eventually come to accept unavoidable limitations. Through this we gain glimmers of self-knowledge. But also through it, if we’re truly wise, we detect, and even participate in, a current of joy. The wise person takes delight in wisdom itself and loves to share it, so that wisdom becomes an overflow of love.

All of these aspects of wisdom are found in scripture. Scripture speaks of the cultivation of the virtues as part of wisdom – do good deeds over and over again until they become your disposition, part of your temperament, inseparable from who you are. Scripture speaks of the transformation of loss, which is part of wisdom. The right response to loss, scripture tells us, is holiness – the redemption of the bad by turning it into something sacred. But most appealingly to me was the idea of comedy. The Bible, Rabbi Klein told us, is comedy, not tragedy. Again and again in both the Jewish and Christian scriptures, the contradictions of life are reconciled and a necessary order is reasserted, even in the face of violence and horror. The Sinai event is a comedic act, an act of creating a new order out of a devastatingly destructive old order. Resurrection is a comedic act, the act of reconciling the contradictions of life and death. In all cases, these acts of God are an overflowing of love, and in the grand comedy, creation itself flows out from God’s wisdom, and we are invited to learn and imitate it.