Pope Francis and Climate Change

Pope Francis has continued to ruffle the precedents of history by pushing forth a campaign urging world leaders to address the perils of climate change, and particularly how it disproportionately affects the poor worldwide.

Expectedly, this initiative has unsettled Catholic lawmakers and interest groups on the right who have historically aligned their religious affinities with skepticism of human-induced climate change. For one, the Heartland Institute, supported in large by the infamous climate-denying Koch Brothers (for whom, ironically, an environmental/cultural exhibit on human origins at the Museum of National History in D.C. is named) has pledged to hold events in Rome protesting the Vatican initiatives.

Critics contend that the Pope has been led astray by the “unscientific” agenda of particular climate “experts.” In so doing, they are effectively taking issue with the use of his platform for moral commentary in addressing a conclusively identified problem they continually polarize as inconclusive.

These critics’ rigid attachment to antiquated belief systems that impede meaningful action to address climate change is one important issue.

But it’s also worth commenting on the contested role and responsibilities of His Holiness himself, who has garnered much attention for his active stances in the political arena since his ordination in 2013. I wrote a previous post in January about Francis’ timely visit to Sri Lanka, where he delivered an unequivocally political message of ethnic reconciliation. Is the Pope by nature a political figure? Is Francis somehow overstepping the moral mandate of his position in endorsing specific political measures to tackle an issue like climate change?

To the extent that power is involved, I would argue that religious institutions are inherently political. The Vatican has both an internal power structure in upholding hierarchies between priests, cardinals, and other officials with distinct privileges and responsibilities, as well as the enormous external power of influencing global opinions on issues like gay rights, human trafficking, income inequality, or even charitable giving to the poor. To the extent that these “moral” issues do concern the distribution of power across people and institutions, they must be political.

The Vatican has had a long history of posturing in the political realm, and though precedent is never necessarily a justification for perpetuating the modus operandi, Pope Francis is warranted in recognizing that his religious platform has an indispensably political dimension, and may well even demand it.

It’s just too bad for those on the right who have historically buttressed outdated beliefs by appealing to the papacy, leaning on the conservatism of this long-standing religious institution to perpetuate ideas anchored in the past. This is a pope who actually listens and honors other authority figures and sources of knowledge around the world, and can disassociate from wedges constructed historically between science and Catholicism that have cast doubt on the latter’s relevance in the world of today. Francis is leveraging his inherently moral and political relevance to take a stand on a 21st century issue that is most certainly moral and political in nature, and in so doing, demonstrating an eagerness to ground the papacy in the world of today.

The Pope may not be the complete political paragon–his unwillingness to seriously consider letting women become priests, in my opinion, challenges that–but he is showing us how power structures grounded in history and tradition might be deployed for necessary, progressive change in the world of today. This is an “inconvenient truth” for those who conflate Catholicism with the rigidity of past social and political conventions, but a welcome stride toward tackling the greatest problems we face today.

Source: The New York Times

An App for the Stars?

I’d like to take some time to follow up on my recent post, “The Pace of Life,” which concerns the implications of technology for culture, human relationships, and values in the world of today.

This post expands on these concerns by addressing how technology mediates our experience with the mysterious.

The story begins a few weeks ago in Yala National Park, in the southeast corner of Sri Lanka. I was going on an overnight safari with my mom and stepdad, who were visiting me in Sri Lanka, and we had the privilege to stay at a “luxury camping” site inside the park. I had some suspicions going into the trip about hoards of jeeps converging upon a not-so-wild leopard, but I was excited and grateful to have the opportunity to experience this unique natural environment first-hand.

We did the first of two safaris on the afternoon we arrived, and I have to say, the experience was little short of magical. Our driver took the three of us on a less trodden route where we could glimpse the ecological vitality of this place, which reminded me of the African savannah–a stark contrast from the lush, high-altitude wet zone we had descended from that day. My mom and I still reminisce about stopping at a particular watering hole at sunset, where we experienced a beautiful symphony of sight and sound as bathing water buffalos, storks, herons, crocodiles, and other bird species converged here under the setting sun. It was perhaps the closest thing to an untouched, biodiverse wilderness I’ve ever witnessed, evoking a humbling sense of awe in displaying the interconnectivity of life so visibly.

We returned to our campsite that night, and gathered with the other guests around an outdoor, long table for dinner. I was impressed with how the camping outfit was able to prepare such a gourmet meal in the midst of the jungle. At one point, the director of the outfit asked us to pause, announcing he had a message for the group. He proceeded to blow out the candles lining the table, directing our attention up to the explosively starlit sky. With little light pollution, the sight was astounding. We laid witness to the vibrant milky way, the southern cross, and what appeared to be the planets Mars and Venus, amid seas of stars and other celestial bodies.

It wasn’t long after this stunning and silencing shift in focus that one of the guests pulled out her iPhone, beckoning our attention to her “SkyView” app, which labels stars and constellations when pointed to the sky. Admittedly, the app is pretty impressive in delineating particular forms and patterns across the night sky. And in considering its content more critically, it also reflects particular cultural understandings of how people have conceived our galaxy through time.

But I had to wonder, in watching my fellow guests vying for a glimpse of this starlit sky through the prism of an iPhone, if something profound was being lost here. After all, a more direct, creative experience of the night sky has been a source of great inspiration as well as an inducer of humility in humans for millennia, situating our modest place on this colorful rock floating through space, while also prompting us to wonder what it all might mean. This experience was certainly a seedbed for the Greco-Roman religious imaginaire, manifesting in powerful deities such as Saturn, Jupiter, Venus, and Mercury, as well as an inspiration for the Aztecs, who conceived of the northern stars as a signification of the central deity, Tezcatlipoca. It’s perhaps the closest things we earth-dwelling humans can glimpse of that paradigm shift astronauts are said to experience when they first see the earth from space–the realization that all our greatest triumphs, challenges, and joys are contained within this comparatively miniscule “pale, blue dot.”

What does the SkyView app represent? Or, perhaps more appropriately, what does our fascination with SkyView seem to represent? That we humans can effectively comprehend something as mysterious as the night sky or, at least, that an encounter with the sublime is better filtered through the more comforting, “known” prism of technology.

I don’t intend to denigrate the tremendous achievements of science and technology, which have made revolutionary contributions to our understanding of the universe and our place within it. Where I take issue is the notion that science, and more precisely modern science, is omniscient enough to render curiosity, mystery, or wonder as obsolete in the world. In fact, I would argue that that very exclusion is actually unscientific in nature.

And it’s a worrisome prospect. Because as Albert Einstein wrote in his book, Living Philosophies,

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead–his eyes are closed.”

In a world that casts humans so visibly as the primary actors of the universe, a direct experience of the night sky offers a most salient vestige of not only the humbling unknown, but of a truth we increasingly know, that our universe has a vastness and dynamism beyond comprehension. Switching off our iPhones, and simply gazing up, we’re able to glimpse a universal order that transcends the ego-consciousness telling us over and over again that we are the absolute epicenter of cosmic life, or that this mysterious expanse before us can be encapsulated within the bounds of technological ideation. For most of us subject to the trappings of ego, it’s an uncomfortable prospect, for it challenges our identifications with ultimate importance, solidity, and form as “lawyer,” “well educated,” “popular,” or “athletic”–conventions based on earthly-bound constructs that are, like all things, unstable and subject to cessation.

But in awakening to the relative tininess of self, and perhaps even experiencing the existential realization that as I have originated from the suchness of planets and stars, so I will return, we align ourselves with a whole far more truthful and ultimately powerful than the rigid finitude of self. So we join the milky way, the southern cross, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter–indispensable streams of consciousness occupying unique confluences of space and time, joined inextricably with the totality of it all.

So keep your Snapchat, and your Instagram, and your Google Maps (though the ability of the latter to explore Loch Ness is for another story!). But when it comes to the night sky, just look up.






Letter to a Friend

“…Well it’s a true pleasure to sit down and reconnect. If I had to offer any closing words, I would ask you to join me on this journey to extend unconditional love and compassion toward ourselves, not a concrete or reified sense of self, but the indispensable and uniquely beautiful spirits that join interconnected with the fabric of all things. No past life, present reality, or confusion of spirit can change our origination and ultimate destiny in the suchness of planets and stars, and what a joy it is be here for the journey.”

Letter to a friend, April 23, 2015

Is That So?

“The Zen Master Hakuin lived in a town in Japan. He was held in high regard and many people came to him for spiritual teaching. Then it happened that the teenage daughter of his next-door neighbor became pregnant. When being questioned by her angry and scolding parents as to the identity of the father, she finally told them that the father was Hakuin, the Zen Master. In great anger the parents rushed over to Hakuin and told him with much shouting and accusing that their daughter had confessed that he was the father. He replied, “Is that so?”

News of the scandal spread throughout the town and beyond. The Master lost his reputation. This did not trouble him. Nobody came to see him anymore. He remained unmoved. When the child was born, the parents brought the baby to Hakuin. “You are the father, so you look after him.” The Master took loving care of the child. A year later, the mother remorsefully confessed to her parents that the real father of the child was the young man who worked at the butcher shop. In great distress they went to see Hakuin to apologize and ask for forgiveness. “We are really sorry. We have come to take the baby back. Our daughter confessed that you are not the father.” “Is that so?” is all he said as he handed the baby over to them.”

Taken from “A New Earth” by Eckhart Tolle

The Pace of Life

I’ve been thinking a lot about technology as of late, particularly as I navigate this 21st century liminality between (relatively) instant access to information, and this unique chapter of my life in a small, agricultural village in Sri Lanka. I consider myself someone with a global identity–someone who identifies with people, place, and experience from very different realms of life–and I am committed to building a sense of wholesomeness and connectivity across those different realms as I move forward. Technology can help with that.

But, I have to admit, it sometimes feels disingenuous to have friends and family from such formative chapters of my life accessible through the click of a button.

Time matters. I heard an adage recently that the most valuable gift you can give someone is your time, and I think that’s largely true.  A lot of people say “time is money,” but I think that simple calculus fails to value time in its ephemeral nature that makes it so precious. After all, time can’t be earned back or reproduced like money or (most) material things can.

About a month ago, I returned to the Fulbright Commission office in Colombo for a meeting with the rest of the Fulbright crew. When I arrived, the front office clerk told me there was a letter waiting for me that had been there for some time. I went over to the mailing area, and discovered a paper envelope addressed from a familiar name from a familiar place. I was completely awestruck. This was a handwritten letter from an old classmate and friend–in fact, he is a current inmate who took part in our “Citizenship and Religion in America” course at the Maine Correctional Center last spring.

In that short period, I couldn’t sit down and properly do justice to the four pages of thoughtful human expression in my hands. I tried to stay present as our group shared experiences and caught up with one another, but I couldn’t help but be cast back so vividly in my mind to a chapter of life that tested my capacity for compassion, and dramatically changed my concepts of human possibility, education, and connection with others.

I ended up reading the letter slowly on a train ride to Kandy, every line wrenching at my heart and mind like the forceful twist of a waterlogged shirt washed meticulously by hand near the paddy fields of Ekiriya. I read it, and I read it over again, humbled by the tremendously reflective nature of my friend, who took the time to sit down and write this long message, which moved in physical form through time from the confines of a cold prison environment enveloped by a frigid Maine winter, across the world to its destination on this small island in the Indian Ocean, and into my hands.

You can’t recreate the past, or encapsulate the essence of an experience through the prisms of words, sounds, or conceptualizations. Even a letter like this couldn’t reproduce the profound, face-to-face convergence of life trajectories that took place within the walls of that prison during our class.

But yet, the time and thought so clearly embedded in this letter made me pause, reflect, and meaningfully re-engage with that so very special chapter of my life that contributed to my dynamic journey here to Sri Lanka. I may not be back in Windham, Maine, but I think the time invested in this letter did justice to the gravity of our shared experience last spring.

I have to admit, when a Facebook message from a friend pops up on my iPhone, alongside a New York Times news alert and the daily birthday notifications of friends, the time and depth of my connections to these people and experiences feels somewhat cheapened. It’s comforting to keep informed from afar, and be able to reach people when I might like, but sometimes I wonder if the instant accessibility I have actually diminishes the authenticity and depth of my relationships. I’d like to at least feel some extent of that excitement, novelty, and humility I felt in opening that letter in most every correspondence I have with friends and family from afar, because I think it reflects a certain recognition and harmony with the space and time that mediates and gives divergence to our lived experience. But I don’t.

For me, there’s something about the saturation of an email inbox or a Facebook newsfeed that trivializes human connection, casting us into a digital medium permeated with so much stimuli that we are forced, or more aptly, force ourselves, to make constant decisions about what bits of information or exchanges are worth engaging in.

As funny as it may seem, I really appreciate watching elderly people use technology, which is often the source of much youthful frustration and/or humor. In my experience, there is a degree of caution, examination, and slowness in using technology that, I think, more appropriately investigates how such devices meaningfully incorporate into our lives. After all, elderly people have lived much longer without the degree of dependence we have technology today. The digital mirror reality we so often assume is not taken as a given, but approached with the kind of scrutiny and intentionality worth deploying toward anything we use in our everyday lives.

I’m careful not to give technology a determinative level of agency, to say that social media necessarily “cheapens relationships,” or that technology “pulls us apart.” To my understanding, technology can be reduced to complex algorithms that amounts to little that is persistently interesting apart from its relevance and use in human lives. It is how we use these tools, not the tools themselves, that really matters.

I confess that the burden’s on me to do a better job of managing technology in my own life. It’s on me to do something about that juncture I feel when I wake up to a beautiful sunlit morning in Ekiriya, and rather unconsciously gravitate to the artificially lit screen that stays close to my side. Maybe it’s trading my iPhone for a simple device. Maybe it’s deleting my Facebook. Or maybe, and perhaps with more nuance, it’s having the constant discipline, judgment and awareness to manage technology in a way that contributes to what’s really important at the end of the day.

Because it’s not the phone, or the laptop, or the camera that ultimately determines how we live, but us. And if indeed what matters at the end of the day is what David Brooks calls our “eulogy values,” then we should really think hard and be intentional with how we use technology everyday, and how it might somehow enrich those connections with others that make life worth living. Maybe, just maybe, we should slow down, and watch how our grandparents fiddle with the newly minted iPhone.



Perspectives from the Inside-Out

I wanted to share this video here on my blog, offering a short glimpse into my experience in a class called “Citizenship and Religion in America,” taken with 12 Bowdoin students and 12 inmates at the Maine Correctional Center last spring. I’ll reiterate our group’s resounding message that we hope this video captures the common humanity within the walls of these institutions, and suggests what it could look like to be a part of a larger human community.

California, Water, and Civilization

I recently stumbled across a NY Times article, which quite prophetically captures the breaking point facing the state of California, and I think, offers a greater omen for the state of civilization today.

This issue has a good deal of personal resonance with me. For one, I spent last summer working door-to-door sales for a co-op of organic farms in California that delivers fruits and vegetables directly to people’s homes. In a time when we are all too often alienated from the sources of most basic needs, and the life-begetting cycles that sustain life on earth, this company uses the modern paradigms of technology, branding, and scale to reconnect people to healthy origins in the land. In a lot of ways, it epitomizes the “techno-fix”–rather than going “back to the land” directly, and adopting a holistic lifestyle of engagement with the earth, the company is leveraging the force of  technology to fulfill a void that, many would argue, was given rise by the advent of technology itself. It is the National Park revealing “nature;” the processed, middle-aisle trail mix bar boasting “natural;” and in many ways an exposé of the posh and pricy trademark of “organic.”

We’ve known for some time that California is suffering one of the worst droughts in history, but as long as our faucets kept spewing with infinitude, and we can keep dousing our seductively green lawns in the middle of the desert, we could comfort ourselves with the self-assuring sense that the problem was “out of sight, and out of mind.”

But Gov. Jerry Brown’s mandate of a 25% reduction in total water use signals an alarmingly different reality. Not only is this a top-down recognition of our need to conserve water, imparted from a barren stretch of the Sierra Nevadas once laden with snow, but it is an omen of our times that the unbridled “growth” and “progress” of civilization alone may be insufficient in solving our most basic problems in life.

In many ways, California can be seen as our world’s pre-eminent laboratory of human aspiration set against the natural limits of the earth. As Gov. Brown explains,

“For over 10,000 years, people lived in California, but the number of those people were never more than 300,000 or 400,000. Now we are embarked upon an experiment that no one has ever tried: 38 million people, with 32 million vehicles, living at the level of comfort that we all strive to attain.”

But the unmistakable irony of it all is that a mandated reduction in our most life-begetting substance–water–demonstrates that the seemingly limitless aspirations and concerns of the “California reality” are ultimately empty and literally fruitless if they ignore the fragile yet absolutely essential sources that make life possible.

I have spent most of the last four months living a rather simple life in the rural, predominantly rice-cultivating village of Ekiriya, Sri Lanka. I eat rice and curry three times a day with a wonderful family–rice that is growth entirely within the village, and vegetables that are plucked from home gardens, the natural environment that abounds, or kindly offered by the neighbor next door in the midst of harvest. I live in a friend’s old house, with a simple outhouse squat toilet, and an outdoor tank of water which I use for boiled drinking water and to bathe. My friendly neighbors help me cultivate 20 different fruits and vegetables on this land, which I hope to contribute to our collective sustenance–the first crop of green beans, tomatoes, and cucumbers will be harvesting shortly.

I realize I am far from the culture I know, and I can’t deny the ties that bind me to an American 21st century reality. I took a fossil-fuel-guzzling airplane flight to get here, and I’ve been financially and operationally supported by the Fulbright program, which largely derives from hard-earned American tax dollars.

But I am learning to live with less, and to recognize the ultimate futility and waste of a lifestyle that trivializes our most important concerns of food, water, land, and community as a relic of the past–an indispensable context of our existence we have somehow moved beyond.

California is learning this lesson the hard way–from the top down, from a government waking up to tell people that we need to change, even we can’t see see it for ourselves. I’d like to think that the organic farm delivery service I worked for can be on the right side of history, or that emergent technologies such as drip irrigation, waterless urinals, or fuel-efficient automobiles can help. But I question if “techno-fixing” alone can cure our most basic problems– in a world where the hegemony of “more” is imposed on the reality of “enough,”– and if it can salvage the disconnection and alienation that plague this modern character.

I’ll leave that to ponder in the farm fields of Ekiriya, alongside my neighbors, planting new seeds in the soil, raising our hands in worship of the new life to come.