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Archive for the ‘Lent’ Category

Starting this Lent, I’m committing myself [stickK] to start attending Old Catholic mass. Now, you might wonder what this “Old Catholic” is about; it’s a long story, so let’s talk about anti-charities first.

I first heard about it from Scott Aaronsson, made an experimental short-term commitment to exercise regularly, and proceeded to forget about the site afterwards. Until Radiolab’s episode on cutting deals with yourself, which discusses drastic measures people take to force themselves to stop smoking, finish a long-overdue book, etc. Then started a frantic effort to jog my memory to find the commitment site I used before — I could have saved the trouble by just checking the comment thread for that podcast, but where’s the fun in that? — which has the side-effect of rediscovering Scott’s blog, since I used to read it before “The Great Google Reader / Feedly Unification”, and it mysteriously disappeared during the transition. A friend of mine is getting interested in quantum computation, and Scott being a quantum complexity theorist, it’s a timely rediscovery.

Unlike the featured Radiolab personalities, who cut deals with themselves, with stickK you basically have an escrow — nominate who gets your money if you fail (a charity you like, a charity you dislike — i.e. anti-charity, a friend, etc.), how many instalments, and how much money is at stake at each. You can nominate a referee (but can’t change it without appealing to the site admins), presumably when you’re still full of optimism at the beginning and thus won’t think twice about nominate someone who won’t be swayed to cover for you; if either you or the nominee reported failure, or if you failed to report, the money for that particular instalment gets sent. Like Scott, I thank Dubya for so far being successfully committed!

… and now, on to the Old Catholics

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Peccantem me quotidie          Cristóbal de Morales (c. 1500-1553)

Peccantem me quotidie, et non me paenitentem, timor mortis conturbat me:
Quia in inferno nulla est redemptio, miserere mei, Deus, et salva me.

While I am sinning every day, and yet do not repent, the fear of death overwhelms me. For in hell there is no redemption. Have mercy on me, God, and save me.

Matins Responsory for the Office of the Dead [nationalcathedral.org]

Sin is a concept that Christians and post-Christians grapple with at all time, but especially during the Lenten season. As UU minister Rev. Ellen Cooper-Davis wrote in Why Religious Liberals Need Lent,

The season of Lent, beginning with Ash Wednesday, is an invitation to be honest with ourselves about the ways in which our lives, as lived, do not align with the love and compassion and wholeness of which we are all capable. It is an invitation to look at hard truths, to name our mistakes, and make a commitment to real, measurable change. And it’s an invitation to do this not just for a few guilt-inducing moments, but over a significant period of time–a period of time which is culturally mythologized as being long enough to make real progress toward changing something.

The various denominations rooted in the Christian faith have a diverse attitude towards sin — Catholics and conservative evangelicals emphasize personal sin, while differing not only in what are considered sinful, but also how one can be redeemed. Liberals — from Episcopalian all the way to UU — tend to put more emphasis on societal sins. From another Unitarian minister, Rev. Daniel Harper, in Reluctantly reexamining personal sin:

I have never thought all that much about personal sin. After all, I’m a product of Social Gospel Unitarianism. Sin, for many of those of us who were raised within the Social Gospel world view, is located outside the individual, in society. This is why people like me don’t spend much time worrying about our personal sinfulness, nor do we spend much time trying to achieve personal salvation. Instead, we spend a great deal of time worrying about the sin that is out there in the world, and we spend lots of time working for the salvation of the world. Prayer on bended knee admitting what nasty individuals we are? Nope, we don’t do much of that. Saving the earth from climate change, saving the whales, saving land from being strip malled? Oh yeah, we do lots of things like that.

Recently, I was talking to a friend, another religious liberal, who has been beset by small-minded people intent on doing damage to this friend of mine. My friend, in a moment of anguish, said something about the sinfulness of these small-minded people. This assessment contained the truth of my friend’s personal experience: these small-minded people were full of sin. The sin lay in two things: they did not treat my friend like a full human being, and when they had a choice about the way they could act, they chose to act hurtfully.

It is understandable that a lot of liberals have an allergic reaction to the word “sin”. UUism is rooted, among others, in New England Puritanism; and Episcopalians often defined themselves as “we don’t do Catholic guilt” — the hair-splitting of mortal sin vs venial sin. Yet we need to claim this language. Rev. Harper quoted his liberal friend arguing for the existence of personal sin; Rev. Ellen quoted from James Luther Adams (see linked post) on the hubris that occured when religious liberals ignore the concept of sin, a quotation that reminds me of the naïvité of Voltaire’s Candide.

I’d invite each of us to, instead of the pessimism of puritans and futurist eschatologist, and the unbounded optimism of early 20th century liberals, to adopt, to borrow another homage to Voltaire, pessoptimism (cf. Emile Habiby’s The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist). We are sinful creatures, often putting ourselves before others. Society is broken, in that its rules are often rigged to serve the powerful rather than the dispossessed. But we have to believe, to have faith, in our capacity to better ourselves. To strive towards bringing aspects of the ideal Kingdom to fruition, here on earth. With Christ as our guide — given our limited, imperfect understanding of him, whether as a historical figure, or as the metaphorical embodiment of the transcendent.

Going back to the communion anthem, Peccantem me quotidie, isn’t it the case that, whether there is an afterlife or not, we do care about our legacy — how we are remembered, how we raise our offsprings, what kind of world they inherit from us? Faith does not equate certainty (far from it!), and atheism does not equate nihilism either. There is too much that is sinful and broken; these problems ought to unite us, regardless of creedal differences. You don’t need (to believe in (the same)) God to be good — or to acknowledge that sin exists and to aspire to not be ruled by it..

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The day before yesterday, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of the Lent season. Like many other important days in the Christian calendar, its significance is best understood in the context of the seasonal changes of Europe.

Just as Christmas falls shortly after the shortest day of the southern solstice (winter solstice in the north), and thus the birth of Christ is associated with rebirth; thus Easter falls after the first full moon following the vernal equinox, and marks the fulfillment of the promise of Christmas. Which leaves us with the Lent period, the forty days preceding Easter. What, you might ask, does it symbolize?

Lent is a period of preparation — of prayer, penitence, self-denial — and it does, like the other two, have agricultural associations, to the period when food stored during the autumn is beginning to run out, what gardeners call the hungry gap. The day before Ash Wednesday, Shrove Tuesday (or Mardi Gras in French), is thus traditionally the last day for frivolities before people buckle down for the period of semi-fasting, so much that the name “Mardi Gras” often refers to the entire Carnival season, instead of the day itself.

We are blessed to live in a world where, for most people in developed and emerging countries, food scarcity is no longer a perennial issue (though that’s not the case as late as 19th century Sweden, which led to the interesting discovery of epigenetics. Genes aren’t everything, as it turns out). And yet, too many of us assume that therefore the reverse is true: that there is no scarcity of anything — some because of a blind faith in divine providence, and some a similarly blind faith in technological progress.

Our excesses already have measurable impacts, some of which are more severe than others. We caused ozone depletion, though to humanity’s credit the countries of the world managed to coöperate to rectify the problem. Our food supply is increasingly dominated by large agribusiness companies — Food, Inc. is a terrifying reminder of how far gone we are, with practices that torture animals, poison our land and food supply, and where GM contamination results in the victim being prosecuted for intellectual property violations, rather than the companies and the lack of proper regulation of GM use. And our carbon-burning lifestyle is causing our climate to get increasingly more erratic over the years.

We could use the transition from Mardi Gras to Ash Wednesday to contemplate a change in our lifestyle. Turn off that lightbulb when you leave the room. Set your electronic devices to sleep when inactive, and turn them off if you won’t be using them for a while. Don’t make symbolic changes that actually damage the environment more — such as turning in a decent used car for a new one that gets only slightly better mileage — but learn to drive more efficiently, and use public transport whenever possible. Eat less meat (especially those from large meat-packers), and avoid fast-food joints, who collectively created the demand for large meatpackers and thus the unhealthy industrialization of animal farming.

Some of these changes are costly, and will remain costly as long as government incentives favor our current agricultural regime. There were critical responses to the UU World’s call,  Thanksgiving 2008, to switch to organic turkey. We cannot be holier-than-thou in our effort to better ourselves, and must realize that for the poorer among us, the budget simply is not there. But we can act. By buying the right kinds of produce, thus sending the right signal to food producers and supermarkets (even Wal-mart is paying attention now). By writing our Congressperson or MP. By donating healthy food to soup kitchens and orphanages. By, if you’re Jamie Cullum, teaching people healthy cooking, and reforming prison diets.

And it’s not all about food, though, as Napoleon once said, an army marches on its stomach. Today marks the birthdays of Svante Arrhenius, the Swedish chemist who discovered electrolysis (1903 Nobel Prize in Chemistry) and formulator of the greenhouse law still in use today:

if the quantity of carbonic acid increases in geometric progression, the augmentation of the temperature will increase nearly in arithmetic progression.

ΔF = α ln(C/C0)

Fittingly, the discovery of electrolysis leads to the fuel cell, which might or might not form part of the solution in our impending transportation switch away from carbon-based fuels.

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