Stirring the Pot

November 08, 2015

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister


Psalm 1 and Matthew 18

I don’t claim to know what the Pope is doing with his still under estimated encyclical Laudate Si. I do know that he is reframing theology and I also know that I want to understand it. If you don’t mind a minor leaguer take on a major league subject, let me suggest what I think is going on. He is changing the starting point of Christian theology from the Christ Event, as expressed in what we call our bible, to a starting point in creation or cosmos, as expressed in the new physics. He is going way back to go way forward. He is grounding his appreciation of the Cosmos in the multiple learnings of physics and astronomy about just how large the world is. He is seriously undermining the words law, both physically and spiritually. He is not doing this just to support his personal political views on either the economy or the environment, which he has linked beautifully. Many of us do scripture this way, including me. We proof text because we want to justify something. In the Still Speaking slogan, we did great theological work. We were also justifying a position.


The Pope is, I think, less manipulative or at this stage of his work, less conscious of the consequences of he and his writer’s internal logic. He is undermining monotheism, which includes Christianity, by starting with what we know about the created world.

Consider some touchstones like the “law of gravity” and the “law of God.” We toss this word law out with some frequently and we who are progressive substitute the words way or path or karmic truth or some other less judgey word. But we still imagine with the Psalmist that there are ways for the human. Those of you who know your bible will see that this lovely translation of Psalm 1 parallels the King James Version. There we are told

1 Blessed is the one that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.

2 But delight is in the LAW of the LORD; and in LAW do the meditate day and night.

3 And this one shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth fruit in season; the leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever is done will prosper.

In other words, if you find the right way, the righteous way, your life will prosper. If you don’t find the right way, the law of that good old boy friend, the Lord, you will be like chaff that the wind blows away. I’d like to think that is true. I could then revert to what I still believe, that God’s law is love, if you follow that law you will prosper. I could sit down and we cold get to coffee hour sooner.

With the Pope, however, I am afraid that the Cosmos has upended the laws. Surely, there are traditions and cultures of laws. But there are no laws. Even gravity is not a law. It is instead an expression of the pattern of the cosmos. It is just one expression. You read in the meditation quote about the scientist quarreling with the scientist about the nature of gravity. You might also read a poem by Victor Aguilar, in which he also uses the word marble. “(We are) A little blue marble, lost in the vastness of space . . . Yet for billions of years we have walked this tightrope, Between 32° to 212° ocean temps and avoided the worst.”

My six-year-old grandson is really good at certainty. It is delightful in him and I know that life will eventually thrash it out of him. I asked him what gravity is and he said, gleefully with that early achiever syndrome he has, “Gravity is what holds us down. Otherwise we’d fly all the time, like Mary Poppins.” I delight in his certainty. And I think the Pope is undermining certainty. He doesn’t even know, I personally think, how much he is undermining certainty, like the certainties of scripture and the certainties that have polluted Christ for so long. But he is.

Moreover, I think we may be living in the year of our Lord 2015 but we are about six years old theologically. I encourage you to enjoy this idea. It is so much better than its companion certainties of atheism because religion is so stupid or agnosticism because who can know anything. Understanding yourself as a baby cosmic Christian allows for you to wake up tomorrow morning and try the golden rule again and experiment with it.

Before you tell me that Teilhard de Chardin did this long ago, in his book THE COSMIC CHRIST, let me assure you that I read that book this summer, certain that I could let him lead me back to certainty. But then I found out that the Vatican threw out this magnificent priest and that he died alone and broken in New York City in 1953 in a modern version of being a heretic burned at the stake.

De Chardin made the argument also that Christ is a version of Cosmos, there in the beginning as a kind of thread and way and law and universal certainty, who will also be there at the end of time, no matter how time ends, again as a version of a thread and way and law and universal certainty. He was also a scientist and even before Hubble and other wow factors, knew how large the universe was and how small our marble is.

So why does it matter that we call gravity a law or love a law? It matters because law is a non-consensual word. You don’t agree to keep it. You just get busted if you don’t. Think Karma. What goes in goes out. Or gravitationally speaking, what goes up goes down. I love the language of the new Psalm One we just read. Heed or be heedless. Listen to the twisted and twist.

In both the new version of the psalm and the old one, likewise in Jesus’ rendition in the golden rule, where a law becomes a rule, we are guided to a way to be, which is understood to be THE way to be. (By the way Jesus was not alone in the golden “rule.” Never impose on others what you would not choose yourself. Confucius

Regard your neighbor’s gain as your s and your neighbors loss as yours. Lao Z

And good old Seneca, Expect from others what you did to them.

I want to stir this pot. I want to use the Pope’s theological spoon.
If you move into the Cosmos as your starting place, you move out of certainty into swirl. You move out of even good and lovely certainties into the experience of swirl. You also move out of a moral frame – do this and all will be good and do that and all will be bad – into a praise frame. It is no accident that Laudate Si means praise be. Praise does not wag a finger or tell you what to do. Praise stops at the pause of awe. Praise marbles you, bringing out colors already there. Praise enlarges the size of the original impulse or creator the way great theologian Yoda said: “You must unlearn what you have learned.” I like the theology of the force that the Jedi masters enjoy. It has the great advantage of making believe it is fiction – and therefore not having the kinds of histories most religions have. “Try not. There is no try,” he also said. Also note, if you are loving me because you think it is the way, rather than choosing to love me, please go love someone else.

(From Whitney Bauman)

“There is much to be commended in the Pope’s recent Encyclical on “the environment.” He clearly did his doctrinal, historical and philosophical homework on issues of human-earth relations. There is much one would expect to find in the document: such as the reference to St. Francis in the title, couching of creation-care in terms of “the common Both of these points participate in what Jack Halberstam calls “The Queer Art of Failure.”

In The Queer Art of Failure, Halberstam writes:

"Under certain circumstances failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world."i

The creativity of abject identities, of those who have failed to live up to the norms of hetero-normative or homo-normative, anthropocentric capitalism, is indeed the source of creativity for seeking a different planetary future. In other words, failing is precisely what we need in this day and age if we are to find our way forward through the problems brought about by globalization and climate weirding. Pope Francis hints at this in his critique of modernity found in the Encyclical.

He writes (and here I quote at length):

"§107. It can be said that many problems of today’s world stem from the tendency, at times unconscious, to make the method and aims of science and technology an epistemological paradigm that shapes the lives of individuals and the workings of society. The effects of imposing this model on reality as a whole, human and social, are seen in the deterioration of the environment, but this is just one sign of a reductionism which affects every aspect of human and social life. We have to accept that technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups. Decisions, which may seem purely instrumental, are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build."

What the Pope is critiquing then is the current “productionist paradigm” which is being exported through western dominated globalization as itself “natural."ii The current measure for individual success and for the “development” of other countries is literally leading to a world in which many of our lives are so sped up and removed from their eco-social consequences that we are outstripping the carrying capacity of the planet.iii   Some prefer to name this the anthropocene but it might be more aptly called the fossil-fueled capitalocene.iv   On the one hand, not all humans are equally guilty for contemporary eco-social crises, and on the other hand human begins do not hold all agency for solving the worlds problems. The world, after all, is not dead matter—as the Pope readily argues in his encyclical.

In an important sense the Pope is arguing that in light of this context we all need to practice “failure”: or that which disrupts the “business as usual” notion of progress as solely economic and technological. I’m not suggesting this Pope is queer-friendly (or even feminist-friendly), but I am suggesting that the deeply Catholic understandings of the “common good” and “social teachings” are, in the face of the productionist paradigm, queer. To further add to this failure, he then argues for a type of unknowing, or epistemic humility in the relationship between religion and science.

Again, he writes:

"§199. It cannot be maintained that empirical science provides a complete explanation of life, the interplay of all creatures and the whole of reality. This would be to breach the limits imposed by its own methodology. If we reason only within the confines of the latter, little room would be left for aesthetic sensibility, poetry, or even reason’s ability to grasp the ultimate meaning and purpose of things."

The suggestion that values and religious ideas ought to be taken as serious as science may make some climate scientists and fundamental atheists of the Dawkins stripe cringe. But this statement stands firm when one considers that we have had the science and technology to deal with ecological problems for years, yet these problems just keep getting worse. The position the Pope argues for in the Encyclical exemplified in the above passage is one that depends heavily on the apophatic and negative traditions within theology in at least two ways.

First, he is doing much in this Encyclical to undo the seemingly solid and separate terrains of scientific and religious ways of knowing. Many have argued that a large portion of the blame for our eco-crises lies at the feet of religions, which promote forms of human exceptionalism, if not domination.v   While this is partially true, it does not mean that science and technology do not suffer from the same pitfalls. They were, after all, in large part reared in the monotheistic cultures that they want to claim complete separation from. The notion of a single good creation easily morphs into the notion of a nature based upon universal natural laws; the notion of humans as having dominion over or being “special” easily morphs into the idea that all non-human life can be manipulated via science and technology; and the notion that we will be saved from the cycles of predator/prey, life/death, morphs easily into the idea that science and technologies will save us and help us to forget we too are creatures. In the end, science and religion may have different methods for approaching the world and one may produce more persuasive results (here and now), but they are both human adventures and they are historically always already tied to one another.

Second, and related, he is asking for epistemic humility in current dialogues between multiple parties as we search for possibilities for future becoming. There is no extant form of human thinking that was created during a time in which we are dealing with global climate change and the “acceleration” caused by  To claim that we might be able to know the answers means that we are projecting the past onto the future. Rather than participate in this form of colonizing, we might enter into a space of unknowning, which allows for multiple voices to be heard, and thus unthinkable possibilities for future becoming to emerge. To quote from Catherine Keller’s Cloud of the Impossible, this is a move from “the unspoken and the unknown tilt from the hierarchical verticality of the Neoplatonic being beyond being, toward the horizon of our collective convulsions.”vii  (All be it from the top of the catholic church!)”

As Gary Wills said, “When Priests Marry,” the New Yorker Review of Books, November 19, 2015, “How it clears the mind to have at last a Pope who is unafraid.” One of the reasons we insist on finding the WAY or the RULE or the LAW of nature is that we are scared stiff. What would it mean to swirl in the swirl and not be afraid?

So what would a move to praise out of morality mean for you today or tomorrow? Or what would the end of monotheism mean for you today or tomorrow?

You could live beyond destinationism. You could become less of a destinationalist and live now. Instead of saying “My October was crazy,” you could realize that all your months are crazy. You exist in swirl, not stability. Nature is not going anywhere different than where it has gone before. Neither are you. Beware the progressive and productionist paradigms. Pulease. Nature circles around itself. It works like a circle of marbles, circling. Gravity circles too in a lovely push and pull. If there is a way to imitate, it is the way of the circle and the cycle, not the getting better in every way every day b.s. that rather prevails.

Living in a circle is living with gravity and its ups and downs and ins and outs. It is also helps you understand how you can be married to the same person three or four times.

When you get in a fight with somebody about something, you could choose to follow the guidelines of Matthew 18. You could feel less guilty about taking your business to the crowd or the water cooler, less guilty about the fights you cause by participating in absurd on line fights. You could choose to engage your neighbor. You could choose. You could be less of a law-abiding citizen and more of a fully developed citizen.

You could be less scared of the future because there is very little you can do about the future anyway, besides to join, consensually in its orbit.

And because so many of you prefer stories to sermons, as perhaps does the Cosmos, let me conclude with some stories. I am working with on a program called “Spiritual Entrepreneurship: Regenerative Leadership.” It is not based in the encyclical but imitates it by arguing that we need regenerative not progressive leadership. Progressive leadership follows moral laws. Regenerative leadership follows cosmic and/or ecological and/or organic laws. It circles and cycles and also understands that the person of the leader and the process of the boss are as important as the product.

Of the 22 very gifted business people in this first cohort, one is developing an alternative to Braille because Braille is only accessible to five per cent of the people who are blind. Another is developing “Handles”, cookware for people who are disabled. A third is developing 100% organic cotton underwear because she learned that most underwear that women wear has chemicals in it that cause cancer, especially when absorbed by areas that are moist. Of the 150 applicants we had for the first cohort, these 22 most embodied businesses which respected their employees ad were dedicated to being not just less bad but genuinely good. I will tell you about Tylea. She starts her kick-starter tomorrow and if you want to know more about her company, I will tell you. For now, note Tylea has bright blue hair. Her company is called Thundress, because she wants women to feel powerful when they put on her clothing. Her business all began, accidentally, in an interview.

She tells it so well; I wish I could tell it with her. Anyway she wanted to work in textiles and she knew design and sewing. Like many people in their mid thirties, she was alive in the swirl but also wanting to settle down. She was a both/and when it comes to the Way in a Wayless World. She interviewed with an old school garment industry magnate in midtown. You can imagine his accent and his posture and his size and his shape. Just think midtown garment industry. He had a big military contract and was making uniforms and tested her during the interview about whether she could follow instructions, make different sizes, use computers etc. She thought she was doing well. Then he suddenly shifted the conversation and said to her, “Are you wearing underwear?” She was rightly appalled. He was unaware of his gaff. He didn’t bother to hear the answer either. He went on to say that the next textile industry is going to be getting the chemicals out of clothing, especially clothing that lives close to the body. He said that the way we make clothes is second only to fossil fuels in the way we pollute the earth. She went on to create Thundress which is bringing clean clothing to a vagina near you.

Tylea might not save the world. But the good news is she isn’t even trying. She is entering its process, with the same consent we give or don’t give to the law of gravity.

You might do the same and regenerate yourself. It is not THE way. But it is a way you are free to choose. There is also only one God and world religions know very little about this force. Because we can choose to praise, enjoy and regenerate, we don’t have to know much. And in times, like these, the best thing we can do is unlearn what we have learned.

i Judith Habersham, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham, NC: Duke University Press), 3.

ii Paul B. Thompson, The Spirit of the Soul (New York, NY: Routledge).

iii Teresa Brennan, Globalization and Its Terrors: Daily Life in the West (New York, NY: Routledge).

iv I discuss at length my reasons for this in the article: Whitney Bauman, “Climate Weirding and Queering Nature: Getting Beyond the Anthropocene” in “Religion and Ecology in the Anthropocene,” Religions, 6 (2015): 742-754.

v This is the infamous “Lynn White” Argument: “The historical roots of our ecological crisis” in Science 155:3767 (1967):1203–1207.
Brennan, Globalization and Its Terrors.

vi Catherine Keller, Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2014), 214. “

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