A culture melts like a glacier, imperceptible, then inevitable. You can see the ice going away where it meets the sky, as on the top of Africa where Kilimanjaro hikers see brown rock where there was ice a few years ago. Or watch at the ocean where platoons of scientists are measuring the retreat of Greenland ice by the mile. We know what is passing, but not what comes next.
Cultures melt more quickly, but you can still look to the edges where ritual meets crowds who are confused where they once found coherence. Early Christmas morning I sat in a church with bells, scent, nods and callbacks that made no sense at all, most obviously to the priest who chattered his way through a sermon he would have disdained in seminary. He then bellowed through the ritual following the ancient preachers’ rule: “weak point, shout here.” I sat in classic 21st century complexity between my wife and her former husband enjoying their daughter sing, kneeling and nodding along with the crowd.
Way back when I was in seminary I interviewed members of an Episcopal church and found a crazy stew of incompatible ideas held inside the same devout skulls; astrology, Jesus, pure luck, all kinds of bargaining with angels and spirits. This was before the tide of ecology permeated the culture and long before we knew the planet was on fire; decades before we came to see sexuality as an ecology beyond naming and long before anyone knew there were billions of planets, which made it a simple numbers game that others beside our blue marble had life, too. How to make sense of it all? Although the world is shrinking to where we our thoughts are only nanoseconds separated we have no integrating myth which could like gravity hold us to the ground as we moved through our handful of years. We once that in the absence of superstitious believes (including Christianity it was assumed), we would become more reasoned. Instead we are less coherent, less tethered to any reason at all.
It turns out that when we have no common belief, we do not cease believing, we devolve to believing just about anything at all, easy fodder for the cynics and the madmen. The entrepreneurs don’t care; happily making money fixing, or at least selling, this and that. Politicians love the vacuity, finding it easier to stir the most trivial and tribal fears to split us apart against our common hopes.
The lack of common belief does not leave us without spirit. Indeed, in a similar way that the loss of the glaciers reveals the underlying bedrock, so too we are seeing the utter and complete interweaving of spirit within the human phenomenon. Stripped of common creed, vocabulary, ritual and frameworks of meaning, we can see beating like a heart in every human something best called Spirit. Suicide bombers and billionaires give away their lives and wealth, while acts of common kindness and decency persist among those who have every reason to be bitter. How do we talk about that most common, fundamental, primal and profound human capacity?
Spirit is beneath language and hard to speak about, but not impossible. Many are trying, but I’ve listened very carefully to Doug McGaughey and Jim Cochrane, Fellows in the Leading Causes of Life Initiative, focus their prodigious intellect and heart to the task of understanding the “spiritual capacities.” Their technical intellectual work is made urgent by the need to understand violence and radical disparities we see in health. What is missing is a workable idea of what humans are made of and how we are together in complex human systems called families, neighborhoods, cities, regions and the melting world.
I found myself with 10 hours in the airport yesterday so was able to receive a special gift from Jim and Doug, a complete draft of their collaborative book on Spirit. I found it as shockingly unexpected as the Zoroastrian Maji found Jesus in the manger. They go beneath the deceiving diversity of spiritualities to find Spirit as the core of humanness itself. They insist that “Spirit is not simply a ‘part’ of what it means to be human; it is how we are human. Seeing this is decisive for our life together with others, and for the world its other creatures, too.’”
I’m urging them to get their book available as quickly as possible as I believe that Doug and Jim are on to the thread that may tie us back together, that may help us find ourselves even though it really may be too late. But maybe it is not too late; maybe we are just in between the grey confusion and wakefulness.
The second gift of Christmas was just as unexpected, shared also by Jim from the German equivalent of Nazareth, the tiny village of Göttelfingen in the Black Forest where Renate, Jim’s wife is its last pastor in an almost unbroken string of 450 years. You can really see how tiny the world is become by seeing how linked are our tiniest most remote towns. Jim describes it: “From the East, not that far from Bethlehem, from Aleppo, Homs, Damascus and Kurdistan, 24 Syrians have arrived in what was until recently, a no longer functioning guest house. Millions on the move, but that means that here, since yesterday, 12 parents, 12 children (two born on the run, a month old, twins) arrived. On Christmas Eve Pastor Renate has spent hours with them helping with the practicalities of hospitality.
“Now some of the younger folks have come to the parsonage to find a Wifi connection. None of them can speak either English, German or French, only Arabic, though two “children” in the early twenties have a tiny smattering of English. But connection is life, so incredibly important.
“They are clearly middle-class families or artisanal, and one can only feel deep sympathy for what they have lost and what they have had to leave behind. But there is room in the inn… and new stoves, fridges, beds, bedclothes, baby stuff, and more that has been supplied by the state or provided by local people.
“They are still, cut-off, in almost every sense. Yet not entirely alone. They find some coherence, in part thanks to local Germans who really are going astonishingly out of their way in a manner that warms me and I can only admire. How it develops over time we shall see, when these folks clearly are deeply traumatized if remarkably dignified, given that this is far from what they would choose .”
Christmas came with a clue as profound as any shepherd’s cry. The Syrians’ arrival coincided with the traditional evening service led by Renate that was not only her last before retirement, but the close of a continuous 450-year period during which Göttelfingen has had its own pastor in residence. The glacier met the sea on Christmas Eve.
“It was the classical service, with children doing the nativity play up front, a Christmas tree (pagan or not) on the side. The service was about to start, the church was full … and all of a sudden, having been invited by Renate, the Syrians arrived. All of them. Women and children included, and not separated. All Muslim, of course.
“It was unthinkable to turn them away. But how to fit them in? So cushions were fetched and all the children in the church asked to sit up front on them to make space for the Syrian families. Right up front, before the Christmas tree. The guests were deeply dignified, thoroughly absorbed by the nativity play and the singing, though of course they could not understand a word. They were humans with not only Spirit, but cellphones. During the benediction, because some of them had forgotten to shut cellphones to silent, lo and behold (appropriate words), their phones began simultaneously to play the Imam’s call to worship. Embarrassed, they quickly switched them off.
“But what a symbolic moment and what a symbolic presence. Göttelfingen will never be the same, never. Their last Christmas service with their own pastor shared with a group of Muslim families. Not just Christmas – but the future has arrived. It is the best moment of my year, not even a question.”
Jesus would have loved it. The fact that so many people are using his name to magnify difference instead of commonality is another signal of the advanced melt of the culture that has lost His way. And why his Way remains so promising and generative. The future isn’t done, yet.
A call to prayer in the midst of the benediction makes no sense, but all the sense the world so deeply needs. We are one, with capacities that make it possible for us to find our way out of the gross violations of war and the gross violations of the physical limits of the planet. We must find a way into a place where none of us have ever been, unlike the past and probably unlike our imaginations, too.