Totally Unprepared: March 30, 2016
“Put away your notebooks. You’re not allowed to take notes in this class.” Not take notes? Well then what in the world were we supposed to do in Religion 101? Apparently, we were supposed to engage in conversation with each other and with this intriguing, twinkly-eyed professor, who clearly enjoyed our discomfort.
Dr. Gerald Smith was known to a few friends, and, I’m assuming, to his wife, as Jerry. But to the rest of the campus he was Smith. That moniker was the only simple thing about him. He reveled in and challenged tradition; valued history and embraced technology; sported true empathy and a wicked sense of humor; lectured and listened with attentive curiosity.
Apparently, shockingly, he’s retiring. I had no idea that would be allowed. I reckoned he’d be more like a vibrant Hogwarts ghost; a professor that somehow dies without anyone noticing and goes right on provoking generations of students.
I loved Smith. Stalked Smith. I wanted to be Smith.
I think, instead, I married him. Everything I thought I loved about Smith I got in spades with Mark, who is also a brilliant provoker, an engaged listener, a charismatic teacher. Such a whirlwind of energy and so beloved that the campus tries, fails, to contain him in a nickname.
But Smith was my first academic crush and the one who offered a vision of academics as beautiful, exciting, worthy. Plus we often had class outside.
My college preserved the ancient tradition of wearing academic gowns to class. Smith’s was a half-length tattered mess, though he had another he wore ceremonially. And he was very ceremonial—often the one in charge of formal chapel proceedings, walkie-talkie firmly in hand. I liked that one could be both a flaunter and a respecter of tradition; that one could interpret the tradition for oneself without polluting its depth. Tradition did not have to mean stasis. That, too, was new for me. A reframing that changed my life.
Reframing has been on my mind lately.
I’ve been reading a lot to prepare to be a study leader at a United Methodist Women event this summer. Mission u is “an opportunity to study current issues impacting society withparticular attention to the responsibilities of women in fulfilling the mission work of the church.” I’m helping with the Climate Justice track. Two books have been particularly helpful.
Jeffrey Sachs’ marvelous textbook, The Age of Sustainable Development, presents a compelling history of how the world arrived at this crisis and why the Millennium Development Goals are a credible way forward. The goals address four objectives of a good society: economic prosperity, social inclusion and cohesion, environmental sustainability and good governance. I completely agreed with his analysis even without the pleasure of abundant graphs, charts and maps. But the skeptic in me hesitates.
We can only agree to work on these goals if we believe that they encompass our story—if we, people all over the world, agree to define ‘a good society’ with this holistic vision. I like that the book is both rigorously researched and a practical roadmap. One of the best sentences in the entire 500+ pages is this: “The essence of sustainable development in practice is scientifically and morally based problem solving.”
So what is a sincere Christian who’s worried about Climate Justice to do? How can Christianity help with scientific and moral problem solving?
Smith taught me to think about Religion in all aspects of life. Religion in the World and the world of religions; how religion is interpreted and lived out in the Southern USA; how religion interacts with and sometimes creates place. I graduated with a major in Religion and another in Philosophy and still logged 26 hours in Science. I spent 6 weeks on a barrier island studying ecology and every day I was thinking theologically—baby theology, maybe, but definitely nascent.
It was my Senior year that I asked Smith to let me do an Independent Study with him. My plan was to get up early, hike somewhere, sit quietly for a time and then journal about the experience. I wanted to think about nature and faith, to meditate and then write about it. He didn’t dissuade me, but he didn’t agree to the Independent Study either. I don’t blame him; he probably feared, rightly, that I wanted to take up a lot of his time being all Walden Pond with him. But I was right to want the accountability; it took me another 24 years to start this blog.
After college I earned an MA in Religious Studies and my master’s thesis was, “Toward an Environmental Ethic: James Bay and the Religious Society of Friends.” (I also discovered Quakerism at Sewanee.)
Then I worked with the South Carolina Christian Action Council, the statewide ecumenical organization. Most of my career there I focused on justice and advocacy issues and was an early voice to include environmental stewardship. I wish I could find the picture of this 1998 event: Rabbi Sandy Marcus, Imam Omar Shaheed, Rev. Dick Massey (PCUSA) and Paula Randler, a Catholic USC student, all riding together in a first generation Prius. Smith would’ve like the imagery.
An important public health lesson I learned from Smith: “Don’t come to my class if you’re sick. And if you miss my class, don’t come to my office to tell me you missed class because you’re sick.” These were the days when only the military had internet. My dorm had one pay phone per hall. Smith probably likes cell phones.
He embraced technology and was an early adapter—pioneering paperless classrooms and once eagerly gushing about his computer getting a new brain. Science and technology always being a source of wonder and of hope.
So much of the current talk about sustainable development and reducing/reversing global warming hinges on the wonder and hope of technology. But again, the success of sustainable development will be decision making that is both scientific and morally based.
“Now, on the brink of environmental degradation and social collapse, we must reconsider our roles as responsible earth stewards.” So I claimed in my 1993 Master’s thesis.
This brings me to the second book: Everything Must Change: When the World’s Biggest Problems and Jesus’ Good News Collide, by Brian D. McLaren. It’s a very accessible book with short chapters and group dialogue questions and Mr. McLaren does an admirable job of laying out the environmental problems without belaboring them. Leave that to the scientists and to economists like Mr. Sachs. But he gives enough foundation to show that whatever the scientific or economic reasons for how we got to this crisis, for people of faith it’s the underlying belief system that matters.
Mr McLaren asks us to consider: what is our framing story? What’s the story we tell ourselves that motivates and guides our actions? He proposes, and I agree, that humanity’s current framing story is failing us.
Our story is too often about power and fear, about scarcity and violence, about us vs. them. It’s about overwhelming problems and trouble enough at home. It’s staying in my own viewpoint bubble bolstered by the media and social media filters I choose.
I don’t believe this is the calling of God, the example of Jesus, the witness of the Spirit.
Neither does Mr. McLaren. “I am convinced that Jesus confronted the framing story that drove the society of his day and offered a radical alternative, seeking to turn their trajectory from a downward arc of self-destruction to an ascending spiral of transformation and hope.”
In fact, we have cast Jesus inside our failed framing story. To confront the current global crisis, we must begin “by reframing him outside the confines of our dominant and largely unquestioned assumptions.”
Amen. Jesus has been hijacked out of his gauche, upside-down living testimony and dressed up in the presentable robes of proper society. He is no longer the liberator; he’s the liturgist.
Perhaps I’m cynical.
Fr. Richard Rohr says this so much better when he talks of God having a bias from the bottom.
“Once you idealize power and being at the top, you tend to emphasize the almighty, all-powerful nature of God, who is made into the Great Policeman in the sky to keep us all under control (or at least everybody else under control!). Frankly, you are totally unprepared for Jesus. He is a scandal and a disappointment.
Now you see how revolutionary God's ‘new idea,’ revealed in Jesus, really is. Suddenly we have a God who is anything but a police officer. This God finds grace for those who break the law and finds life and freedom among the lepers and the sinners who do not have good manners. This is now an upside down universe (Acts 17:6).”
This upside down universe is surely the world-view (the universe-view) we need in order to reframe the global discussion about sustainable development, about climate justice, about claiming to be a follower of Jesus.
Be the reframer for someone else. The world is counting on you.
We are the ones who can help define a good, global society as one that embodies economic prosperity, social inclusion and cohesion, environmental sustainability and good governance.
We are the ones who can offer both scientific and moral problem solving.
If we can take even one step in that direction, to loosen fear’s grip and believe in God’s abundance, then God will more than meet us halfway. “Peter, do you love me?” Lord, you know I love you. “Tend my sheep.” Then Jesus told Peter about his (Peter’s) death. And then he said, “Follow me.”
Jesus was in the business of reframing. “You have heard it said…but I say to you…” He didn’t throw out tradition; he interpreted and reframed tradition for the new reality.
If we’re lucky, we have a couple of people in our lives who reframe us.
I’ve been lucky.
My four years at the University of the South were formative and transformative. I learned how to engage with life, with ideas, with people. I learned to respect and to challenge traditions, assumptions, and problems. I studied, admired, quarreled with, emulated, revered and was exasperated with this man, Smith.
I was so lucky and I remain so very grateful.
Smith. Thank you. May your retirement be yet one more reframing for you, and you a continued blessing to the world.