I have been reading Chris Jennings’ wonderful new book, Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism (Random House, 2016). 19th century America was filled with all manner of utopian movements, some that lasted a long time and others that were short-lived. The founders of each of the movements often had similar practical hopes but held them for different reasons. They often knew of the existence of other movements and in fact studied the pros and cons of others in an attempt to best found or improve their own.

Many had religious millennial expectations that the close of the age was near and pulled apart to create a faithful, ordered harmonious community in waiting. Others were purely secular, not only founding their ideal community for this-worldly reasons but naming religion as the problem. Most of them, in the effort to create a way of life that was a beautiful one, pulled apart from dominant culture and pursued a communal method of sharing property and responsibility and restructured typical familial relationships.

To consider the commonality and dissimilarity of movements, simply compare and contrast two utopian experiments. The Shakers and the followers of Fourier both believed that conventional understandings of marriage and family were a part of the problem and needed to change. But their prescriptions as to the reform were very different.

The Shakers, following Mother Ann, embraced celibacy. Men and women were strictly regulated in repressing any erotic inclinations. They were divided into separate dormitories. Children were raised by all adults in their own separate area.

The Fourier project dissolved traditional marriage and monogamy and believed that a more libertine approach to sexual desire was healthiest for all. This included a variety of sexual experiments and combinations.

Both of these utopian experiments thrived for a while. And they both came to an end for a variety of reasons.

The points of departure in this history are endless, but I would like to focus on one.

The industrialist and visionary Robert Owen created a utopian society in Indiana – New Harmony – an endeavor he could fulfill in the British Isles. His social progressiveness for workers was legendary. But his project to reform all of British society failed when it encountered a lack of support and great resistance. He bought an already existing settlement in America, one that had been developed by a German religious sect called the Rappities (following George Rapp). Theirs was a millennial movement that was very successful in this world as well. They eventually relocated back to Pennsylvania – not because they failed – but because their prophet thought it was time to move.

Robert Owen’s vision was for an Enlightenment, reason-oriented, community of learning, science, the arts and progressive education. He attracted free thinkers from everywhere. But his community failed after three years. It was simply not organized sufficiently to support all of its enlightened citizens. There are many causes that contributed to this failure, but I want to lift up one great contradiction.

Owen felt that three major social traditions contributed to distension and social misery: Private property, traditional marriage and religion. As far as religion goes he claimed that it was the bane of every civilized society. Eliminate religion and replace it with reason and your problems are over. The truth of the matter is that his secular community was filled with dissension and polarization. There were no clear lines of authority or a central highest value – other than humanity’s progress – that could unite them.

His predecessor’s community – the Rappites – was highly successful in almost every way. In fact, Owen lauded it for its accomplishments. It would be perfect, he said, if it weren’t for all the religious funny business. Whether one could subscribe to the Rappite beliefs – and few could – the combination of a shared religious perspective and mission, strong leadership that was accepted (like the Shakers), and German cultural identity and industriousness, made it work.

All of this is to say that whatever evil twisted religion brings to the world, and it has, it is certainly not the sole cause of disunity. One can’t blame it for everything. Owen didn’t know it, but his secular failure was evidence for the contrary; it is human nature that is always the problem.

A closing thought. There is a common perception that Utopianism is always propelled by fanciful imaginations and naive idealism. It might be propelled by those things in part – especially in some of the religious forms. But in almost every case of 18th-19th century Utopian movements they arose against a backdrop of social misery. The rise of depersonalized industrialization and the suffering masses often set the stage for wanting something different, another way to construe life. To understand the Shakers, for instance, you need to begin not with their ordered and prosperous communities, but with their origins in sooty, sickening, hopeless Manchester, England. There in the midst of the factories of despair and illness and injury and poverty arose the conviction that God would provide another way. I end with Jennings’ words that put it much better:

“It is common to attribute Utopianism to a surfeit of optimism, but the desire to totally overhaul civilization implies a fairly cynical view of the world as it is. Imagining a perfect future is, almost by definition, a way to organize grievances with the here and now.”(153)

Understanding this provides the right perspective to understand what came to be called the “Social Gospel” religious movement of the early 20th century. Surely God has better plans for this world than what what we see before us. And whether you believe this is tied to the consummation of history as we know it or mandates a pulling apart to create an ideal human society, there arises the conviction that the liberating and redeeming God is not satisfied with the massive suffering that characterizes so much that we have come to accept as normal.



I heard Phil Zuckerman interviewed in a special segment on the rising demographics of secular people in the world. From a religious standpoint, that is the fastest growing group in the United States, the non-religious and unaffiliated. Some of them are “spiritual but not religious,” that is they have some sensibility about ultimacy, some awareness of or belief in the divine. But many do not. They are naturalists, finding the meaning of life in the natural order that simply is – without benefit of knowing a God or gods or some benevolent presence behind it all.

Zuckerman is a sociologist that specializes in this constituency of seculars. He is a professor at Pitzer College and the author of Living the Secular Life (Penguin, 2014).

Though he surely studies a-theists – those who do not subscribe to classical theism – he finds that too negative, defining oneself by what one rejects. In the same way a-gnostic is a label that, however accurate, says one simply cannot know such things and is also defining things by a negative, what we cannot know.

As I closely considered his research and followed his arguments I found myself more certain than ever before that the divide is not necessarily between the religious and non-religious (though it is that), but between those who embrace the modern world and those who do not. For example, he and other seculars often characterize Christians as antithetical to science. Well, that is true in one slice of the Christian spectrum. But clearly not true in others who walk side by side with the insights of science. It really matters which Christians you are talking about. You could say the same about any religious group – which ones?

But let me share a few of the categories Zuckerman addresses.

One of the things that he attempts to correct is that a/theists are somehow immoral, without ethical compass. Most seculars establish their moral codes within their families and though it is not determined by a religious code of morals it often is characterized by something close to the Golden Rule = treating one’s neighbor as one wishes to be treated. For whatever reason – be it the survival of the tribe or another – this is the ethic that is practiced, one found in philosophers and humanists throughout time. This is generally translated into social morals based on the same principle, do good.

Responsible secular parents raise their children with moral codes built mostly on example. They identify what is healthy for child and for others. Psychological balance is important. This, again, is done without benefit of religion. In the same way the need for community that many find in congregations or religious gatherings is found elsewhere, whether the community group, the arts, children’s programs.

How do seculars face and cope with tragedy? Like many others – social support, courage, grieving – but without the perceived external aid of a God. How about inevitable death that lurks around every corner? They face death without an expectation of a future life, or at least an unknowing about a future life. What is known is how to live this life to the fullest. Death is parting and ending in the natural scheme of things. The meaning of people lives on in memory.

I was very interested in how Zuckerman described his experience of “awe.” Many of us would say that we have the very same thing – and maybe it is. We are taken with beauty, the sublime reaches of space, the depths of love. He says that seculars, far from living a gray life, flat and purposeless – may drink deeply from the cup of life. Here’s how he puts it: “Existence is ultimately a beautiful mystery, being alive a wellspring of wonder, and that the deepest questions of existence, creation, time and space are so powerful as to inspire deep feelings of joy, poignancy, and sublime awe.”(209)

At the minimum, we who grew up with a religious worldview need to try to understand a life perspective from another view. The millions who are secular today are not diminishing, but growing. Many we encounter along the way will be living happily with no sense of a God or religious faith. We need to think through how we will relate to them. At the same time, on the other side, we are framed by fundamentalist religious groups who have no room to consider any other perspective than their own. They are also growing worldwide. We often find ourselves positioned between the two. This is our lot. Welcome to the 21st century world.




As a part of a morning message I spoke about the whole area of resilience research. That is becoming a critical area of inquiry in the military right now as those who train and care for personnel ask what can be done to instill greater mental and emotional resilience. The recent crisis in veteran mental health begs the question.

The first moves toward moving away from only identifying pathology to instead mapping assets began in earnest through education, recovery programs, social work, and mental and community health. Friend Heather Harlan, on staff at Phoenix in Columbia, reminded me that the Search Institute began identifying assets for likely success beginning in 1990.  The greater the number of assets the more likely success. Building a compilation of assets in youth – whether at risk or not – increases their resiliency.

Examples of these many necessary assets include such markers as social support, community involvement, and the presence of mentors. Those external assets are then matched with internal ones – taking responsibility, following through, the art of collaboration.

In spiritual formation resilience is developed through engagement with a faith/theology/worldview/philosophy/value system that provides ultimate meaning, actual practice of that faith, and sharing all that in a communal setting. The research bears out that beliefs that are accompanied by actual practices provide more resilience than without practice. And the communal dimension adds even more resilience. In other words, a vital faith that is practiced and practiced in community fosters more internal resilience than one that does not do or have those things. There is a difference in the resilience – statistically speaking – between one who is spiritual without communal form (spiritual but not religious) and one who is both (spiritual and religious). “Religious” connotes a communal sharing of symbols and narratives, tradition, practices, rituals, common life and mission together.

One terrible event takes place. Two people respond to it very differently: one rebounds, bounces back and becomes stronger for it. The other is permanently shattered. What is the difference? The degree of resilience. What makes for that resilience? Research has already identified the markers. Faith and its practice are high on the list.


As we turn another page and begin another year – a relative exercise in the deep scope of time, I know – we pick up a theme from the writings of Thomas Merton, namely, that God shines through all of it. This is a very immanent view of God, that is, God is in everything. Our search for God becomes not the journey from nothing to something, but rather the discovery that God already is.

Revelation, then, becomes not a piece of information mediated from far outside to inside (where we understand) but an experience of the sacred abiding beneath the veil of consciousness. Prayer is not asking for what we don’t have as much as listening, letting go and uncovering what we do.

Unity, then, is not fabricating a structure or creating relationships as much as recognizing that everything is already one.

Mission is joining in where the Spirit is already at work and adding our heart and soul to the effort.

Evangelism is not taking God to someplace where God is not; it is us walking with people as they awaken to the God that is already there and them awakening us to the God that is already with us.

Jesus proclaims a reign and kingdom of God not because it is absent but because it is already present even if unknown. The realm of God draws near when we draw near to it. It comes when we receive it.

Just remove the unnecessary and noisy clamoring and listen to the sound of knocking on our door. Open it. There is more than enough light to go around.


Magi, King Herod, and Star Wars

Posted: December 22, 2015 in Uncategorized

The Christmas Story is much more like Star Wars than most depictions on Hallmark cards.

Jedi (Magi) Knights make perilous journeys to search out the latest manifestation of the Force. Opposition to the Jedi comes from the Sith, practitioners of the dark side of the Force. Kings such as Herod seek to destroy all rivals to his dark power and so when trickery does not work he deploys storm troopers to slaughter the innocents.

The Magi return home by a different way, steering clear of Herod and his designs. The darkness and light of the Force are integrally related and easily seep one into the other, as through a permeable membrane. Only the vigilant may resist.

It is out of this deep conflict and unrest that true heroes emerge and many true heroes perish. But in that struggle truth passes on in bold and quiet ways, undeterred even when temporarily vanquished. There is a tomb for the Jedi Knight but also a badge of honor, an eternal place in the Force.

And you thought it stopped with gold, frankincense and myrrh!

1st World Santa

Posted: December 18, 2015 in Uncategorized

This week my service club had a little generic harmless holiday cheer. I generally dread these kind of don’t offend anybody watered down Christmas pretenders. But okay, I can endure cultural Christmas a little bit.

Let me skip to the end and then I’ll go back to the middle.

The capstone of the morning was an appearance by the man in red, yes, Santa himself. This was a low energy Santa but he got the job done. But wait, there’s more! The gift passed out to each person in the room was a Missouri Lottery scratch off card. Yeah, that’s right. Right in the heart of the spirit of giving (and that’s how this mock Christmas was interpreted to us) is an indirect system of public taxation, one that often preys on the false hopes of the most desperate who squander their meager wages on a false bet. Ho Ho Ho.

But that was the end of the meeting. Back we go to the middle.

I love my friends in my club. They are fine and compassionate and caring people. Even at pretend Christmas they are all those things. It is important to say that before I talk about what came next. We were shown an inspirational video of an airline company that had a relationship with a third-world country. Over the past few years they have been building some houses there. What we were shown, however, was a big staged production of a Christmas party for them. Actually, it was a Santa party. They brought in video gear and set up an interactive “you can tell Santa what you want in your language and he will talk back to you” setup. So people sat in front of a screen and told Santa everything they wanted. Some things were predictable, such as the desires of children like skateboards. Adults had more serious requests like a motor or a horse. Okay fine.

Then the behind the scenes team scrambled to gather or assemble all these requests. This eventuated in a big Santa party on the beach in which the desires of all the townspeople were presented, one at a time. Their names were called out and the toy or motor or animal would appear. Santa was on hand, just like at our club. To their credit they also built a playground near a school.

All the while that my fellow club members were wiping tears from their eyes I was thinking to myself, “This is the perfect example of toxic charity, the kind of giving that harms people and creates the wrong kind of relationship.” Just think. Could there be a more indicting image than this: well-meaning 1st world people acting like Santa Claus? We’ve done that for decades and to the detriment of most of the developing world. It has not resulted in progress or lasting change or real sustainable development. If giving out stuff is all it takes to bring about transformation then the world would be different by now. This group dramatized the perfectly worst way you could ever relate to neighbors. Is Easter next? What, an Easter egg roll on the beach?

Let’s not jump to blame too quickly. We are all culpable. They simply dramatized what the rest of us have also done in one way or the other.

Our job is not to create unequal relationships of giver and receiver in which we pat ourselves on the back for what fine people we are to throw such a touching party. Our job is not to disempower people by forcing them into the grateful receiver role. Our job is not create in others the same consumer mentality that has wrecked our lives.

Stay home Santa. We’ll try to do something else all the rest of the year and try as best we can not to harm as we do it. Really, stay home.

I’m in the process of reading The Man Who Wasn’t There: Investigations into the Strange New Science of the Self by Anil Ananthaswamy (Dutton, 2015). The research delves into what we in the West have referred to as having a “self.” That idea would be parallel to the earlier concept of a soul, some inward territory that constitutes our identity as a person. It is taken for granted that we have one, this self. But those who investigate what actually happens in the brain and even our mind or consciousness pose deeper questions.

Certainly we have a perceptual capacity to monitor our environment through our senses. We have a parallel ability to scan ourselves – our own bodies, feelings, even think about our thoughts. This would be the classic divide between “being” a body and “having” one. We define ourselves socially through our interactions. We understand ourselves as being one kind of creatures among other creatures in a rather large palette of nature. But most of all we define ourselves by our narratives, our memories of our stories. In the deepest sense we even define our personal stories in relation to other stories – cultural stories and religious mythologies.

If who we are has most to do with our narratives, our stories, then memory is essential to self-hood. Who am I? I am the stories I selectively remember. And what if I lose my memory, such as through Alzheimers or some other dementia? Anyone who has witnessed that closely and personally knows; my identity as a person is lost.

But the past – as far as the brain knows and functions – is not just the past. Numerous studies have shown that “the very same brain networks that are responsible for remembering past events are also recruited when constructing future scenarios.”(45) What happens is that these key brain regions in the medial temporal lobe are used for both memory and imagining a possible future. We construct likely future stories out of the raw stuff of past experience. Those are the building blocks of future anticipation.

That is why those who lose memory lose both identity and any sense of hope. How can I hope if I don’t know what can be hoped for? Persons who have positive past foundations automatically assume that the future can manifest more of the same. Those who have disastrous past memories have difficulty imagining anything other than those. Memory and hope are integrally related.

As regards spiritual or theological dimensions, a vital hope may be limited or encouraged by powerful past dynamics. If past memory is an inhibitor when it comes to imagining a future, then healing and clearing the past is crucial to that happening. Many scenes in the Gospels include Jesus healing a person who has been stuck in time with some unseen spiritual bondage. They are freed to imagine another future and another self in the world.

The other spiritual intervention involves that same physiology and spirituality. If a new, compelling, comprehensive vision of life is absorbed and internalized then a new individual future becomes a possibility as well. The power of the imaginative future provides content that the individual “self” did not have from its own memory. A new story has been inserted and along with it hope.

If the same processor aspects of the brain are cross utilized for both remembering and anticipating, don’t they inform and shape one another? And if memory sets the stage for either hope or dread, can’t the reshaping influence of a compelling vision of the future work back the other direction? In other words, can’t a revolutionary future heal the past?

Memory may ground us in or chain us to our infinitely many past episodes. But a compelling vision of the future can set us free from what can seem like a life sentence.

O Come, O come Emmanuel … and ransom captive Israel …

These kind of things happen all the time.