Christianity in the Public Memory of the West

In most cases, Christianity emerges in the public memory of the West where it is artistically and culturally relevant. Enough people must have an inkling of the story that it makes a difference to the conversation. This is how most Christian narratives stay alive in Western culture. But the story itself is built on fragmentary evidence, the blanks all but forgotten. What would happen if we brought the fragments back into plain view, rather than explaining them away ... and why should we bother?


Cicero Denounces Catiline, by Cesare Maccari (1889). The scene is the Roman Senate House, the year 63 BCE. By rendering the scene nearly two thousand years later, Maccari participated in keeping this moment in history alive.

“History has to have a certain number of people who recognize it,” said Chinese artist and exile Ai Weiwei in his recent interview with Ian Johnson. “But no one recognizes what we do because we can’t reach the public sphere. So it has no influence. It has no influence on education. It has no use in our public memory.”

Here in the West we can point fingers at China’s censorship practices and applaud Weiwei on his bravery for carrying out projects like the 5.12 Citizen’s Investigation, but to do so is perhaps to miss a point that hits closer to home. In spite of the fact that countless bits and pieces of Christian lore have been regularly questioned, debunked, or in other ways undermined by historians, scientists, and philosophers for at least two hundred years—and in spite of the fact that hardly anyone reads the Bible, and that there are fewer actual Christians in the West than there once were—Christianity still has undeniable power in the public square. Speaking especially from the context of the United States, whether we personally identify as Christian or not, Christianity still has a direct and measurable impact on our lives, from birth control regulations to end-of-life decisions to the nature of marriage to the very notion of the American Dream.

Most of us, most of the time, don't even notice.

If you don’t know how a house is built, how do you fix a cracked foundation? If you don’t know which walls are load-bearing, how do you expand and improve upon the underlying structure? Likewise, if you don’t know the common ways a word is used in the English language, how do you employ it well in a new sentence? If you don’t know some uncommon usage—places where a word “plays the edge” of possible meanings—how to do you innovate with it, as artists do?

Embedded in every attempt to tell a history is a web of evidence, interpretation, desire, oversight, and purposeful acts of evasion.

History, too, has load-bearing sections and edges where useful play can happen. Embedded in every attempt to tell a history is a web of evidence, interpretation, desire, oversight, and purposeful acts of evasion. Some circles focus on the load-bearers (facts, evidence) and other circles focus on the edges (deconstruction, or simply a healthy dose of skepticism), but of course both are always implicated in the work. Would Ai Weiwei’s attempts to establish a public memory of the Sichuan earthquake have made any impact at all if he could produce only a story with no evidence? What if he had presented the evidence of 5000 student deaths due to faulty architecture in cut-and-dry statistics and measurements, with no story? What if the story he chose to tell simply wasn’t as compelling as the government’s reinforced silence?

“But I don't see the Christian story as that kind of problem,” one might say. “‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.’ That's compelling, and it gives people a sense of meaning for their lives. Why undermine something that gives a lot of people hope?”

“I have a different protest,” enters another voice. “We have no evidence—or very little—for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth. It is not history in the strict meaning of the word at all. The very idea of a crucified and resurrected Son of God is a myth, like all the other dying-and-rising god myths before it.”

In response to both, we must acknowledge that two stories have become woven together, the story of Jesus and the story of Christianity itself. Ancillary stories about the Apostles Paul and Peter, early Christian martyrs, and so on, form a bulwark around the creedal core story of Jesus. It’s a bulwark built by many, many hands. The story and its subplots are so deeply embedded in Western history that it doesn’t need any central power to pull the strings. A conspiracy theory is of no help to us here. Sonia Smith in “The Road to Damascus” had no Christian agenda in drawing parallels between kidnapped journalist Austin Tice and the fictional Damascus Road story of the Apostle Paul. It was artistically and culturally relevant; enough people had an inkling of the story that she suspected it would resonate. This is how most Christian narratives stay alive in Western culture.

Enough people have an inkling of the story… History has to have a certain number of people who recognize it…

Consider this translation of a poem by the Greek poetess Sappho, who lived around 620 bce. The translator, Guy Davenport, intentionally left blanks bracketed in the fragments to convey a sense of what has been lost:

[               ] slick with slime [                 ] [      ] Polyanaktidas to satiety [           ] [      ] shoots forward [                           ] Playing such music upon these strings
Wearing a phallus of leather [              ] Such a thing as this [            ] enviously
[              ] twirls quivering masterfully
[                                   ] and has for odor
[                 ] hollow [                                ] [                                                                  ] [                                  ] mysteries, orgies

Of this Peter Turchi once remarked, “Omissions, intended or unintended, provoke the imagination.” Is that not what Christian history has so often done to the Western psyche—provoked it with tantalizing fragments? Except we’ve dropped the brackets. You could say we've lost our creative license.

While this sounds like a metaphor, I mean it concretely. I almost hesitate to offer up Christianity’s most obvious example—the Bible—for fear that what I’m trying to communicate will be misread as yet another jab at taking the Bible literally. This is so much bigger than the Bible, so much bigger than fundamentalism and its milder cousins. Yes, the “literal” community has filled in blanks right and left, but to put it only in their corner is to suggest a fringe activity, an extreme act not taken by “the rest of us,” as though our appreciation of great art and literature and the strange posturing of candidates at presidential debates wasn't predicated on our understanding of Bible stories.


Rylands P52, John Rylands University Library in Manchester, UK, dated 117–150 CE.

The Bible is fragmentary in physical terms, monolithic only in cultural terms. What we see in everyday life are whole bound books on shelves, but bound Bibles and their modern children—searchable databases like Bible Gateway—are end products. They’ve been translated and constructed from artifacts like canon lists and the tiniest scraps of papyrus housed in libraries and museums spanning the world (the seven-line scrap of the Gospel of John, pictured here, is our oldest example). Canon lists, papyrus, mosaics, paintings, church architecture, and so on form the actual evidence, the facts, from which the compelling and nevertheless polyvalent narrative known as “Christianity” has been built over the years—a narrative over which no one person anymore has (or likely ever had) full control.

In most cases the artifacts are themselves attempts to tell a story. With no body to exhume, no fragment of a cross, no tomb, what remains to us is part memory, part story. And the memories may not be of what we think. It's possible, for instance, to see the emergence of Christianity not as the triumph of an individual visionary or messiah but as a community's response to social brokenness.

We have to contend with incomplete information, even lies. Ai Weiwei invited friends and family to send him recordings of the names of loved ones who died in the Sichuan earthquake. Those recordings came to form a personal witness that is powerful, but of course it’s at least plausible that one or two people compulsively made up a name or false relationship, much as Steve Rannazzi fabricated a story that he had been at the World Trade Center on 9/11. Weiwei has labored to establish that the earthquake and the deaths really happened, and conspiracy theories about 9/11 remain a constant source of public irritation, so we don’t like to admit elements of dissonance. But dissonance is a fact of human memory and human longing.

Dissonance in the Christian story came into its own at the time of the Declaration of Independence with Hermann Samuel Reimarus, whose 1778 essay “The Aims of Jesus and His Disciples” accused the disciples as out-and-out frauds. Of it, Albert Schweitzer wrote in The Quest of the Historical Jesus:

To say that the fragment on “The Aims of Jesus and His Disciples” is a magnificent piece of work is barely to do it justice. This essay is not only one of the greatest events in the history of criticism, it is also a masterpiece of general literature. The language is as a rule crisp and terse, pointed and epigrammatic — the language of a man who is not “engaged in literary composition” but is wholly concerned with the facts. At times, however, it rises to heights of passionate feeling, and then it is as though the fires of a volcano were painting lurid pictures upon dark clouds. Seldom has there been a hate so eloquent, so lofty a scorn; but then it is seldom that a work has been written in the just consciousness of so absolute a superiority to contemporary opinion. And withal, there is dignity and serious purpose; Reimarus’ work is no pamphlet.

But the dissonance has remained just that, a wavering on the fringe of an otherwise stable story. I feel a sense of disappointment that in the public square one does not regularly hear an alternative story of Christianity that overcomes what Weiwei mourned in his own context: “It has no influence on education. It has no use in our public memory.”

When Weiwei set out to form a story of the Sichuan earthquake, he was answering a systematic attempt to enforce silence by specific state actors. That’s not the situation of Christianity in the West. Where there is no enemy, merely something so amorphous as “popular culture” or “the market,” we are fighting only our own desires and memories. If a story serves us, we’ll go right on telling it. We need to be enchanted by the new story rather than by the promise of a scandal from a tell-all exposé of the old one.

Where there is no enemy, merely something so amorphous as “popular culture” or “the market,” we are fighting only our own desires and memories.

Christianity in the public memory of the West tells a crisis and redemption story. It promises delivery into a good future for those who deserve it. Since we all, at some point, face crisis, the stories well up naturally in response. But the stories include blanks filled in by tradition. Which stories are worth their own fragmentary nature? What vestiges will you retain so that listeners feel the thrum of familiarity behind your version of the story? Otherwise you'll struggle to make it matter at all in the public square.

What I will offer you is this: I'll gift you my blanks, as with Sappho.

[     ] Jerusalem Temple [                                           ] [          ] many thousands were crucified [               ] [          ] a shallow trench [                                          ] [     ] after a hard day’s walk [                                    ] Male and female they exchanged for a day’s bread
without implements for healing [                             ] [               ] light-givers [                                               ] [           ] pierced but not bleeding [                           ] [                                                                                        ] [                                            ] pearls for God's Empire

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.

Selective Religion Reading List – September 2015

A man may cry...

"A man may cry for more than one thing at once, and when you ask him why, he may not tell you. This appears to me to be the kind of thing that a novelist notices and that historians manage to ignore, generation after generation." Hilary Mantel, Art of Fiction No. 226, Paris Review

In the normal course of my work I find myself skimming, studying, and often puzzling over the state of religious studies and theology on the web. Much of what I read lacks the urgency of news, and yet to me these readings touch on some deep feeling or intuition about our world today. So, although this religion reading list reflects my highly subjective curation, perhaps it speaks to something you’re feeling, too.

Let's begin with the ancient Hymn to Dionysus, in which pirates kidnap the god of wine and merrymaking, and it does not go well for them. Although I laughed when I first read this, there is an undeniable dark side the the pirates' encounter with the god, invited by their own bad behavior. One may wish a similar ending upon the all-too-modern Syrian kidnappers of war journalist Austin Tice in “The Road to Damascus” as recounted by Sonia Smith. Although Smith treats the apostle Paul’s original Damascus Road encounter uncritically, her invocation of such a powerful myth adds depth to Tice’s brave but reckless attempts to bring the truth of what was happening on the ground in Syria to the wider world. The loose parallel with Paul adds a certain poignancy to Smith’s observation that modern-day Antakya (Antioch), once a hotbed of early Christianity, now serves as a stopover for diplomats, refugees, journalists, spies, arms dealers, and injured fighters, often crammed together in rented apartments and hotel rooms.

You’ve probably already heard about our newly discovered ancestor Homo naledi from Jamie Shreeve’s excellent National Geographic piece “This Face Changes the Human Story, But How?” While headlines have honed in on the fact that Homo naledi may have ritually buried their dead, a religious theme if ever there was one, I found the limited evidence (and with it, depth to the story) disappointing. Far more interesting to me are the questions implied by the fossils’ age:

If H. naledi eventually proved to be as old as its morphology suggested, then [Berger] had quite possibly found the root of the Homo family tree. But if the new species turned out to be much younger, the repercussions could be equally profound. It could mean that while our own species was evolving, a separate, small-brained, more primitive-looking Homo was loose on the landscape, as recently as anyone dared to contemplate. A hundred thousand years ago? Fifty thousand? Ten thousand?

Such tantalizing questions about our exact relationship to this ancestor speak to the deeper issue of what it means to be human. Sensing this, National Geographic followed up on their big Naledi news with an unfortunately abbreviated “12 Theories of How We Became Human.” If you’d rather read a more substantial but still recent essay on the subject, I suggest Daniel Mendelsohn’s “The Robots Are Winning!” Mendelsohn opens his exploration of human and robotic “life” beginning with Book 18 of the Iliad, in which Achilles’ mother, the nymph Thetis, pays a visit to the Olympian atelier of the blacksmith-god Hephaestus to order a new suit of armor for her son. The intertwined notions of “automation” and slavery serve as a much-needed primer before you delve into the recent (apparently unauthored) Economist article “Editing Humanity” about new technology that allows scientists to manipulate the human genome with relative ease, and the subsequent moral backlash.

The last essay I want to recommend is Leslie Jamison’s “Empathy Exams.” Jamison weaves stories about her work as a medical actor—to train medical students in proper diagnosis and bedside manner—with stories about her decision to have an abortion followed by an emergency surgery to repair her heart valve. I recommend this article with some reservations. Jamison’s haunted conclusion that empathy is quite probably a fancy version of self-pity—or self-longing, to put it more kindly—left me shaking my head. I don't like collapsing pity, even self-pity, into empathy. From my encounters with nurses and medical students and war vets in my ethics courses and with the more seasoned crowd that made up one hospital ethics committee, I have every reason to believe empathy is more possible than modern literature seems to allow. It is often more pragmatic, too. Jamison's essay called to mind this exchange between nonviolent communication trainer Marshall Rosenberg and one of his patients:

MBR: … Now I’d like you to clarify what you would like people to do that would fulfill your need to be loved. For example, what could I do right now?

Client: Oh, you know…

MBR: I’m not sure I do. I’d like you to tell me what you would like me, or others, to do to give you the love you’re looking for.

Client: That’s hard.

MBR: Yes, it can be difficult to make clear requests. But think how hard it will be for others to respond to our request if we’re not even clear what it is!

Client: I’m starting to get clear what I want from others to fulfill my need for love, but it’s embarrassing.

MBR: Yes, very often it is embarrassing. So what would you like for me or others to do?

Client: If I really reflect upon what  I’m requesting when I ask to be loved, I suppose I want you to guess what I want before I’m even aware of it. And then I want you to always do it.

MBR: I’m grateful for your clarity. I hope you can see how you are not likely to find someone who can fulfill your need for love if that’s what it takes. (Nonviolent Communication, 72)

I think we all long for the sort of closeness that delivers intuition. Jamison expressed the same longing when, post-abortion, she said of her boyfriend, “You want him to break with you. You want him to hurt in a womb he doesn’t have; you want him to admit he can’t hurt that way.” Rosenberg wasn’t denying our ability to develop that intuition, as his larger body of work makes clear, but he did think we need to help one another come closer to one another through good communication, without shortcuts.

Empathy at its best is not quite an open, unimpeded corridor with raw emotions running both ways. Two-way pain is still pain. The difference between the giver and receiver of empathy is not a matter of which person’s pain is loudest, drowning out the other. It’s a matter of which person has the capacity to take in what is welling up. We crave empathy in waves; we may fear too much of it coming at us at once only to be strangely rocked when it comes. Someone in this scenario needs to be big enough to embody an ocean. And I think there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, there’s something genuinely wonderful about living up to something so grand and intimate. People do it every day.

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.

Who cares about Christian history?

Korin Faught: “Echo” at Corey Helford Gallery. Learn more.

Korin Faught: “Echo” (2009) at Corey Helford Gallery in Culver City, California

Whenever I write about Christian history, I have a habit of writing with my former evangelical Christian self as my projected audience. It’s like I’m trying to save myself all over again from the frustration I experienced, especially in college, whenever I carried insights from my religion courses like small offerings into my Bible studies only to have them gently rejected.

That’s not to say my efforts weren’t appreciated. A couple years after I graduated, an old classmate asked me, “Are you still Christian?” When I responded, “I don’t think I am,” she said, “That’s too bad. You were my model of a thoughtful Christian.”

Maybe I linger with my old self, that thoughtful but naïve Christian, because of that conversation. Aren’t we all continuously responding to our old selves, justifying why we left them behind even as we use them as foils for our evolving identities? It doesn’t have to be that deep, of course. Sans analysis of any inner psychosis, there’s an obvious reason I write for her: I know she cared about Christian history. Her relationship with God was deepened by it. So was her sense of connection to the stories that had shaped her over her childhood. For a while at least, historical knowledge prevented spiritual burn-out. Sermons were becoming predictable and sometimes embarrassing, but books of early Christian history were guaranteed to offer nuances she had never heard from her small-town pastors, who, to be fair, had to worry about the repercussions of going too deep themselves.

That leads to another person I write for, the disillusioned member of the Christian alumni association, who delves into the history with a defensive goal in mind: “What did I miss, and how did I miss it? How can I respond to my relative/friend/former pastor when she or he asks why I wasn’t at church? What can be salvaged from what I've lost?” In those first days, months, and years after leaving, she’s the person who would drop her latest book onto the table with too much force and think, How could I have been so stupid? Or else, Why won’t you—my friend, my family, my enemy—at least hear me out on what I’ve learned? Christian history, for her, was a salve.

There’s a third person now, still in formation—the post-Christian. Immersed in an ocean of philosophies of life including but not limited to various forms of Christianity, lapsing only sporadically into old modes of thought but still sometimes lured to listen to Christian radio for nostalgic reasons, she reads Christian history with the sense that she is peering into an alien world. Like a good researcher, she senses the vastness of what she doesn’t know. Curiosity drives her, not personal salvation. Who were the people who wrote those texts? What did they think of themselves and the world around them? The sheer humanness of the texts bleeds through in a way it couldn’t when they were protected by a sacred sheen.

I remember and own each of these selves, who has cared about Christian history for different reasons over a lifetime, but these are hardly the only people who care. Who else do you see in the crowd?

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.

Creativity, the Child of Despair

Journey of the Universe

Mary Evelyn Tucker will be a featured speaker at the Westar Institute's Spring 2016 national meeting.

The final third of Journey of the Universe doesn’t say anything about the environmental crisis that you don’t already know, but the authors’ conclusion is quite interesting and could even be described as the basis of a nature-based spirituality. I wrote a few days ago about their incredibly moving meditation on how living things experience value in the universe; today I’m plagued in response to my reading by questions of crisis, apocalypse, “end times.”

Maybe that’s a natural feeling on 9/11. I still remember the horror I felt that day when, stumbling into sunlight after hours of shepherding stunned patrons of the Willamette University library past a makeshift television, I was accosted by a newspaper boy who tried to sell me a grainy photo of a man suspended mid-fall before the burning towers. From there I made my way to the “safe zone,” WU’s central auditorium, and listened to a seemingly endless buzz of voices that couldn’t seem to speak past themselves. Honestly, I was shocked this morning to read in Frank Rich’s 2011 article, “I discovered that the farther west I got, the more my audiences questioned me as though I were a refugee from some flickering evening-news hot spot as distant and exotic as Beirut.” After all, I was as far West as I could get in the continental U.S., and we were all walking around like zombies for weeks. Did he miss our stop?

This is the part of the ecological story most of us know. In the late sixteenth to early seventeenth century, humankind underwent a transformation, from awestruck serfs in a mysterious universe into enterprising kings of a mechanized one. Following upon the discoveries of individuals like Galileo and Newton, human beings for the first time allowed themselves to believe that we “with our vast intelligence had only to determine the laws governing matter for us to gain control over the entire affair” (105). A few hundred years later, we’re suffering the consequences of believing we could dominate and manipulate the very ground of our being.

That has a lot more to do with 9/11 than I think we want to admit. Sometimes terrorist acts are described as “symbolic” in the sense that the violence comes with a message, usually to inspire fear. Doesn’t that just scream mechanistic thinking? It is as though we become—as once befell the planets—no longer gods but mere “dead balls of matter” available to the scrutiny of more penetrating beings (104). At the same time, a terrorist act remains in keeping with the vast working of the universe, if in a disturbing way. Such violent acts do make room—real physical space but also a vacancy in the brain—for something new.

I occasionally have conversations with Westar’s academic director, David Galston, about human beings’ obsession with crisis thinking. We can’t seem to motivate ourselves without a crisis to address. So I naturally wondered how Tucker & Swimme would handle the natural crisis language that emerges from talk of the environment today. Yes, they employ crisis language, but they also make sense of it in terms of the dynamics of the larger universe:

It is in the nature of the universe to move forward between great tensions, between dynamic opposing forces. If the creative energies in the heart of the universe succeeded so brilliantly in the past, we have reason to hope that such creativity will inspire and guide us into the future. (118)

This led me to wonder what can be learned by exploring this dynamic in other points of crisis. I wonder if 9/11 and other moments in today’s “age of terror” aren’t too close to home still, both chronologically and emotionally. For me at least, I can’t go there, not yet, so I turned briefly to the Great Depression instead.

Miles Orvell, professor of English and American studies at Temple University, has described the Great Depression as “one of the great creative periods of our time.” This might seem counterintuitive. Until the day she died, my grandma stored ten times as much food as she would ever need, a consequence of the hungry years she survived as a younger woman. Similar pangs no doubt run through your family history. But Orvell points out that “the period … birthed several new genres, such as the melodrama, which laid the foundation for today’s soap opera, and it brought the detective novel to fulfillment, with the heroic detective stoically dealing with corruption and the underside of life in cities like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.” More obvious acts of creation came in the form of New Deal programs. Dr Charlie Wildman of the University of Manchester offers similar stories of creativity on British soil during the Great Depression: new housing, new transportation lines, a major renovation to the Manchester library that “accommodated one million volumes and seated over 300 readers in the Great Hall, making it the largest after the reading room of the British library.” Such activities on both sides of the Atlantic were by no means restricted to physical works, either; they included programs in the arts. You see how we reach for symbolic language to modulate our despair.

I think what’s tough about this—what we hate about this—is that none of the creativity can guarantee our personal survival. Sure, crisis language equals “important” and “worth your time” in a world full of distractions. But nothing we do is a total fix. As any Buddhist will tell you, the universe with its beautiful, terrifying creative-destructive nature cares not whether your molecules remain arranged as you. It will never reject you, but it will completely and unrelentingly remake you.

I’m not arguing with Tucker and Swimme, at least I don’t think I am. I’m wondering aloud how I feel about seeing myself as a collusion of vast patterns instead of a unique and enduring monument (in a word: a soul).

Clockwork Dreams

Clockwork Dreams by artist Vernon Tan

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.

This Passing World

Journey of the Universe

Mary Evelyn Tucker will be a featured speaker at the Westar Institute's Spring 2016 national meeting.

But suddenly mind overwhelmed by sense
You hear eternity in present tense—
The tree toads singing in the shallow pond,
Singing and dreaming of tall trees beyond.
—Robert Hillyer, “Hylidae”

Ecology is becoming increasingly dear to me as a subject. Nature formed a crucial lens in my complete re-reading of Paul’s letters last July, and led me to express dissatisfaction with Paul’s assumption that the natural decay of the world was directly related to moral decay, so much so that to Paul it invited cosmic war. This world is corrupt, so the standard Christian story goes, and even a radical reading of Paul retained that perspective. I just don’t buy into that.

In what sense is human morality to be associated with the natural processes of decay and destruction? New life comes from old life, as Paul also says, but we don’t have to agree with him that the old life was evil.

I found out not too long ago that Mary Evelyn Tucker of the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology will be headlining Westar Institute’s Spring 2015 national meeting in Santa Rosa, California. Tucker was kind enough to send me a copy of her little book of meditations called Journey of the Universe, coauthored with Brian Thomas Swimme. Most of the meditations are only a page or two long, on topics that straddle the scientific and spiritual, such as the birth of stars, nuclei and bonding, timing and creativity. Tucker and Swimme observe that from the very beginning, destruction goes hand in hand with creativity in the universe, and that of course this finds expression in human lives as well:

There is a deep ambiguity threaded throughout [human bonds] that may result not simply in communion but also in collapse. But isn’t this also the nature of the universe—both dangerous and inviting? How do we discover ourselves in forces that are simultaneously fearful and attractive? How do we live amidst shimmering disequilibrium? One thing seems certain: the universe, navigating between extremes, presses ever further into creative intensities. (31–32)

The language of intent and desire threads through these meditations, and it left me worrying and wondering. Can the universe be said to intend or desire anything? I suppose we can say “yes,” on the grounds that we human beings, who are tiny bits of universe, certainly feel both intent and desire, as do many other living things around us. Would I be arrogant if I suggest we are just anthropomorphizing the universe when we use the language of intent? After all, we inherited all we are from the universe, and not the other way around, so it may be equally fair to argue that we inherited desire from our mother element. At the very least, I’d rather say that there is no grand Intender (“God”), only that intent is more like a wave of water, local and dispersible. Tucker and Swimme seem to agree, in that they describe this desire as “preconscious,” implying that it does not belong to a single, knowing entity.

This is important to me because morality turns on intention and desire, which together invite or demand obligation. “Did you mean to hurt me, or was it just an accident? What sort of society do you want or hope for? What should we do about it?” We can’t exit the universe’s cycle of decay, destruction, and creation—we know that now. Tucker and Swimme are simply observing that desire is a “mover” of that cycle, and as such it drives us to assign value to only the very smallest slivers of the universe, on a scale we can comprehend. For instance, after describing the courtship behaviors of a male bowerbird, spider, and peacock, they write:

What is true of each of these males? Why does he throw himself into such activity, all of it costly and some of it life-threatening?

He is seeking to convey his deepest truth—that he finds her valuable. Life has shaped his mind in a particular fashion. He cannot see all the value in the universe, but he can see hers, and it might as well be infinite, for nothing matters in comparison. His great passion is to organize his life around the work of wooing her, of impressing her, of changing himself in whatever way he can so that she will look at him in admiration and will utter in her own wordless way the longed for magic contained in that one word, “Yes.” (74)

How lovely especially here is the observation that we cannot observe all value in the universe, but that we reach instead for our own muse to that fuller context in our smaller, passing world. The whole may only be touched through a precious single instance of value. To live means in some way to give oneself (up) to a value.

Here the moral dimension becomes more apparent to me. If desire and bringing forth of value themselves constitute life, then morality is defined as the pattern by which it is achieved. Morality isn’t about cleansing or purging the corrupt world but rather about drawing value from the rich matter of the world. And it’s not a single ultimate value, such as God, but some value that drives morality. It’s also not any arbitrary value but a particular value that belongs to a greater constellation of values, what philosophers for many generations have called the Good. I find it incredibly moving that Tucker and Swinne suggest that a particular value is not something abstract, like honesty, but rather an individual life, a beloved. We don’t invent value, we discover it naturally from what exists, even if only in hints, hopes and yes, instincts.

Moon, Yew Trees at  Stow-on-the-Wold

These two Yew Trees, which flank the door to the Church of St. Edward in Stow-on-the-Wold, England, planted sometime in the 18th century, were probably survivors of an avenue of trees that led to the door of the church. They now appear to grow from the building itself. Photo by Beth Moon.

This makes morality sound like an elaborate expression of survival of the fittest (I’m sure I’m not the first person to suggest as much). But I think it goes deeper than that. Consider: All living things are capable of perceiving value in the universe, unique to its own context but at the same time not arbitrary because it emerges from a greater whole. Sure, living things often seem to operate out of instinct more than anything else, usually to produce offspring, but obligation at some point can become love. At Stow-on-the-Wold in Gloucestershire there’s a famous church door held up not by stone pillars but by a pair of living Yew trees. Love is like that, a sort of happenstance that becomes structurally necessary. It was fated to take that form only in the sense that its form was possible in the material of the place.

What I’m trying to say is that “should,” the voice of morality, retains a degree of freedom when it both emerges from and upholds a value that matters deeply to you and to me. We all have varying degrees of that freedom in the sense of which values we may perceive, from the simplistic reproductive urge of a single-celled organism to the longings that produced Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. Nevertheless, morality becomes a means of expressing what is personal about the deep and abiding patterns of the natural universe.

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.