Posts Tagged ‘God’

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Three Scenes from a School Day

September 14, 2012

“Svaardvaard” Bill Bornschein

For this post I’d like to share three distinct  Becker-related observations from a day at school. They do not  come together to form an overarching theme; rather, they demonstrate the breadth of application that a Beckeresque  perspective provides. Alternately, they may reflect my own focus since I recently told a friend that I divide my life into pre-Becker  and post-Becker. Whichever is the case, here goes:

#1) The first scene is from the classroom and reflects “intentional Becker.”  We have been studying the nature and function of myth in culture, Joseph Campbell-type material. Looking at both religious and secular mythology, we strive to understand the conditions under which myths thrive or falter. We learn that myths are strongest when they are unconsciously assumed and weakest when they are self-consciously held at arm’s length. As Campbell and others have pointed out, times of rapid change make people aware of the myth as myth. In the words of Walter Truett Anderson, “We are not so much possessed by belief as possessors of belief.” We inhabit our traditional myths in newly self-conscious ways in our postmodern age. I express this new experience by standing in the classroom doorway, one foot in, representing living within the myth, and the other foot outside the door, representing transcending the myth. The dilemma of the self-conscious society is the dilemma of the self-conscious individual writ large: namely, how to live with integrity in the face of reality. Retreats into nihilism and tribalism are options that are clearly present. Standing in the doorway reflects another option, living with traditional myth in a new way. Consider the traditional Biblical creation account, which is geocentric and anthropocentric. Now consider the current state of knowledge about our place in the universe as reflected in the following  flash animation. http://htwins.net/scale2/?bordercolor=white   What are we supposed to do with this? How do we appropriate tradition in light of such a new perspective? As Becker provides no pat answers, neither do I. The students wrestle with new questions of meaning and tradition and the hope is that the process itself will render them more compassionate and tolerant as they understand their own myths in a less absolute way.

#2)  Even as traditional myths undergo stress in the face of rapid change, so too there are newly minted myths that largely escape observation and critique and are quite robust. Chief among these new myths are the myth of progress and the myth of the technological fix. These two myths come together in a new piece of technology that many students own, the iPad.  As I strolled through the cafeteria at lunch I noticed a table of eight or nine students sitting with their iPads, each playing a different sports game, football, auto racing, basketball and the like. The students were talking to each other even as their eyes remained riveted on their screens. Two things occurred to me. One was that I was reminded of Becker’s description of philistinism and wondered what he would think of this new technology’s power to distract and trivialize. The second was that the students offered ample evidence of how malleable we truly are. We are training our flexible minds to do new things in new ways, for better or for worse.  Some observers like Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows, warn that the new technology is producing a jumpy human mind that now struggles with sustained focused concentration. Whether one sees the technological revolution as a blessing or a curse, the fact remains that we are remarkably adaptive. Becker warned against a New Age-style apotheosis of man, and yet it is our capacity for change that is  our wellspring of hope. We may be locked in to our mortal condition, but we do still have imagination and the capacity to change our direction, if not our fate.

#3) The third Beckerian scene is the most serendipitous. While in the teacher’s lounge I had a conversation with a young English teacher who was upset with a particular student over the creation myth he had composed. It seems the young man, in his story, had envisioned the world as created from the feces of a sacred animal. As it turned out, this was the younger brother of a student who had tried something similar a few years earlier, only making the feces from God directly. “But I didn’t make it God’s poop!” was the younger brother’s defense. The teacher saw disrespect. I saw Becker. It seemed to me that such a creation narrative was psychologically grounded in the human condition in a way that many creation myths are not. Whether or not disrespect was intended, the usage seemed pretty accurate. A quick survey of creation myths revealed what I expected, that creation from feces is a common theme from the Americas to Europe, Africa and Australia. Intuitively, the students were onto something, no shit.

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Steve Earle, Me, And Ol’ Causa Sui

May 26, 2011

"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

Musician and author Steve Earle has long traded in stories of limits and transcendence of limits. This is the case in his latest offering. Perhaps I should say offerings because he has simultaneously released a novel and an album of the same name, I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive. This title, in turn, is a Hank Williams song. The novel revolves around Doc Ebersole, a fictional friend of Williams who is being haunted by the singer’s ghost ten years after his death.  The novel has met with critical praise.

The focus of this posting is a particular song on the album entitled simply, God Is God. The lyrics follow.

God Is God by Steve Earle

I believe in prophecy
Some folks see things not everybody can see
And once in a while they pass the secret along to you and me
And I believe in miracles
Something sacred burning in every bush and tree
We can all learn to sing the songs the angels sing
Yeah I believe in God
And God ain’t me

I’ve traveled around the world
Stood on mighty mountains and gazed across the wilderness
Never seen a line in the sand or a diamond in the dust
And as our fate unfurls
Every day that passes I’m sure about a little bit less
Even my money keeps telling me it’s God I need to trust
And I believe in God
But God ain’t us

God of my little understanding, don’t care what name I call
Whether or not I believe doesn’t matter at all

I received the blessins
And Every day on earth’s  another chance to get it right
Let this little light of mine shine and rage against the night
Just another lesson
Maybe someone’s watching and wondering what I got
Maybe this is why I’m here on earth, and maybe not
But I believe in God,
And God is God

What I find interesting in these lyrics is the use of traditional religious symbols and images in a modern way that is consonant with Ernest Becker’s insights. Images of mighty mountains and burning bushes, of miracles and prophesy, singing angels and little lights that shine are juxtaposed with the wisdom of knowing that you don’t know. I associate the insight most clearly with Socrates but it is found in philosophy, religion, and psychology. Earle addresses a “God of my little understanding” and acknowledges “every day that passes I’m sure about a little less.” His search for meaning concludes “maybe this is why I’m on earth and maybe not.”  Undergirding all this uncertainty is the causa sui realization that he is not the ultimate author of his mortal fate. God is God. Earle’s response to this reality would draw a knowing smile from Becker. When he refers to every day as another chance to get it right and commits to let his little light rage against the night he gives expression to the existential faith of a Tillich or Kierkegaard. Beyond these insights, Earle’s way of believing is also important. It is a tentative faith that leaves room for doubt and stands in contrast to the ideological extremism that characterizes too much religious expression. At the same time, it is powerful enough to allow him to rage, and most importantly, to create. Living in this liminal space is perhaps a way forward. Steve Earle is a fine traveling companion.