The Spiritual Challenge of Our Past

21 Feb

The United States faces deep spiritual challenges in acknowledging and coming to terms with its past, specifically with evils that are embedded in its history, and with understanding how the past affects our present. These challenges go to the very heart of it means to be American. Since the churches are called to be communities of God’s Spirit, they have a role in the spiritual life of the societies in which they live and as such can point to what ails or heals the spirit of our common life. While much commentary on society proceeds from political, sociological, and economic perspectives, I want to focus on these spiritual concerns.

Coming to terms with past history: one might think that history just happens, fades into the past, and that’s that. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past”, as William Faulkner wrote in his 1951 novel, Requiem for a Nun. Much of world literature, across cultures, is preoccupied with the passage of generations. The psychology that is exemplified by the towering work of Sigmund Freud, has attempted to transform this passage into both science and therapy. We understand a great deal about how individuals must come to terms with their past, since that past never goes away, but lives on, possibly to the detriment of our lives. Pastors are accustomed to helping people navigate their personal spiritual journeys.

We understand much less about the ways the past plays a role in society’s life. Sometimes we hold societies accountable–some would say when we defeat them in war: Germany twice in the twentieth century, at Versailles and Nuremberg, Japan under Douglas MacArthur. But notions like “corporate sin” and “corporate guilt” are hotly disputed. I am concerned with this corporate or societal struggle with the past.

Many nations have great evils in their past that continue into their present: Japan in its treatment of South Koreans and Taiwanese during the Second World War, Germany in its anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, Turkey in its genocidal acts against the Armenians, beginning in 1915. Of these nations, only Germany has willingly acknowledged its historical evils and tried to come to terms with them. Turkey and Japan will not even allow factual accounts to appear in their schoolbooks. Germany continues to be plagued by neo-Nazi groups

In the United States, we also suffer from historical amnesia and denial–not driven by governmental policy, as in Japan and Turkey, but bottom-up from the grassroots, planted in the ethos of white people and in the cultural systems they have put in place. I call attention here to the particular evils attending the treatment of African-Americans, Native American Indians, and Japanese-Americans during World War II, because we confront in our history a disturbing recurring trait, not just a series of painful missteps.

I start with an anecdote from my own city. In 2013, the mayor and the school board in Chicago closed fifty public schools. Most of these schools were in African-American neighborhoods, thirty-seven of them in a relative narrow strip on the the South Side. The prevailing interpretation is that these were underperforming schools closed in the interest of improving educational standards. Any suggestion that racism was involved is met with denial and even anger. A friend said to me, “Nothing makes me madder than hearing that these closings involve racism.”

I cite this anecdote to make the point that we tend to be blind about the ways in which the past shapes and deforms our lives today. I will generalize this anecdote to say that it represents a basic American denial of the evil in our past.

Let me explain: for a century, Chicago has ghettoized African-Americans, manipulated this segment of the population and discriminated against them in terms of employment and housing. In the 1950s, Chicago built a string of public housing high-rises in a strip that was only a few blocks wide, but nearly ten miles long from north to south. The notorious Robert Taylor and Cabrini-Green Homes–thirty buildings, each housing approximately 1,000 residents–were located in this strip. African-Americans comprised the overwhelming proportion of residents. Politically, this was a shrewd move, because it confined the African-Americans to a small number of wards, thus reducing drastically their voting power in the city council and in the state legislature. Through astute manipulation, the democratic political machine maneuvered the election of aldermen who cooperated fully with these machinations.

Not coincidentally, the area of the school closures in 2013 conforms remarkably to the footprint of this strip of public housing–which has, in the last ten years, been demolished. These neighborhoods were underserved in every respect; it goes without saying that they were saddled with poverty and poor schools; residents who could afford to live outside the area encountered housing discrimination–they could not leave the politically structured south side reservation. How could one not see that racism is powerfully involved in the low educational standards in the contemporary schools? Only someone who is either ignorant of this Chicago history or in denial. Past and present racism created those schools to be substandard. Such Chicagoans are merely the local representatives of those millions of white Americans who say, “I don’t owe blacks anything, I never owned slaves, I’m not racist.” Even the Supreme Court seems to believe “color-blind” racial policies can be instituted today with no regard that for 350 years, the racist policies of the United States have marked our society indelibly. The fallacy is the assumption that we can live our societal life with a fresh slate–we cannot. The trauma of the school closures in Chicago proves that.

The two centuries of slavery may seem to be far in the past, along with the struggles and failures of Reconstruction following the Civil War, but their consequences are very real today. Some of our most distinguished universities, for example, are just now owning up to the fact that the wealth that made them great (and enabled them to give superior education to generations of whites) was obtained from the back-breaking labor of black slaves. Early presidents and leaders of Harvard, for example owned slaves, while Emory was actually built by slave laborers. (See It is also becoming clear that the conflict between police and African-Americans in late 2014 has its roots in a history of racism, exemplified by the role of police in the fight against the civil rights movement in the south in the 1960s and by the fact that black communities are policed by largely white officers. The Great Migration (1910-1970), in which six million African-Americans left the south for northern cities was an attempt to escape racism, but now it is clear that north is as tainted as the Old Confederacy, albeit in different forms. Isabel Wilkerson writes that the migrants fled lynching and Jim Crow laws in the south, only to end up in the “hypersegregation” of northern cities. In 2000, for example, Detroit was eighty percent black, with all its urban problems, while Dearborn next door was affluent and ninety-nine percent white. (See Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, 2010).

We must also face up to historical amnesia concerning the outrageous treatment of Native American Indians. Public myth views the first European settlers as a chosen people inhabiting the Promised Land, patterned after the biblical account of the Israelites possessing Canaan. Scripture seldom acknowledges the rights of the various Canaanite peoples who were conquered in the process–the label “pagans and idolaters” suffices. A few psalms (Psalms 111, 135, 136 for example) even praise God for dispossessing those nations. So, too, the original peoples who inhabited North America remain largely overlooked, except when they are depicted as savages in film or viewed by romantics as a paradigm for environmentalism. Our violations of treaties and our actions dispossessing native Americans go unmentioned. The ideology of “manifest destiny,” like those psalms, held that the destiny of the Europeans was to be master of the land, while the destiny of the Indians was to submit. This history with native Americans lives on today in their miserable existence–poverty, unemployment, and poor health care and education–visibly on the reservations and invisibly in the cities. This history tells a sordid story, a type of oppressive colonialism, which results, as well, in a huge loss of human resources for the body politic.

Recent articles have drawn attention to the lynching of Mexicans in our Southwest. As with the native American Indians, we took the land away from the Mexicans and then lynched them when they remained in their home territory.

During World War II, we stripped Japanese-American citizens of their civil liberties and imprisoned them on the basis of their ethnicity alone. We separated families—separating fathers, in certain camps, from mothers and children in others. They lost their place, their home, their ties, and in some cases memories of children growing up.

There is deep, evil flaw of character revealed here. This past lives on in our societal life in ways sometimes overt, sometimes subliminal–always complex, interwoven with economic and other demographic factors. This is authentic America, “as American as cherry pie”–to recall the words of H. Rap Brown in 1967–even though in our ignorance and denial, we don’t want to admit it. “The Greatest Generation” is also the generation in which the foundations of hypersegregation were laid in cities like Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis. It is very painful for white Americans, descendants of the European settlers, to hear this about themselves. We insist on our leaders trumpeting with regularity the mantra of “America is the greatest nation in the history of the world.” Until we acknowledge this other side of America, we do not know ourselves–and that is a miserable state–a state of spiritual misery. As long as we define ourselves primarily as a “band of brothers”–so long will we carry in our hearts the unacknowledged shame of racism and tyranny that lie in our collective past. Our future is stymied, even a false hope, if it cannot embrace our true past.

Can the churches, as spiritual communities, contribute to the nation as it deals with its spiritual challenges? Can the churches acknowledge their own participation in the problem? Our churches might contribute most by undergoing their own process of repentance and seeking absolution. We do have examples to follow: The ELCA action towards the Jews in 1994, with the statement, “Declaration of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to the Jewish Community” and the educational measures that support it. The Japanese Christians who traveled throughout the Far East, offering apology for the atrocities committed by the Japanese army during World War II. The Presbyterian Church of Canada carries out an ongoing program of “Healing and Reconciliation” toward the Aboriginal peoples of Canada. In 1995, the Southern Baptist Convention apologized for its history of condoning racism. The Presbyterian Church USA did the same in 2001. The Vatican provides several examples: in 1994, Apology for inaction during the Holocaust; Pope John Paul II sought forgiveness in 2000 for sins committed against Jews, heretics, women, Gypsies, and native peoples; he also apologized for the Inquisition in 2004. To this date, congress has not passed any resolutions of apology for slavery and racism.

In February of this year, the presidents and deans of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America seminaries issued a resolution promising prophetic measures ( on issues of race. This is a promising step, but it does not articulate the spiritual misery that is my concern here, nor does it specify outreach activities that respond to that misery in our churches and in our nation. I am not unappreciative of this statement, but prophetic speech and apologies, though necessary are just a first step–as shown in the ELCA response  on anti-Semitism and the Canadian project. Follow-up educational activities and programs of forgiveness and reconciliation are also required. Apologies come after self-examination, and they aim at renewal and changing hearts. As the prophet Ezekiel reminds us, God wishes for our hearts of stone to be replaced by hearts of love–not only within the church but in the body politic, for the commonweal of our nation. This is a matter of spirituality, over and beyond ethics. The churches must work to help our society as a whole come to repentance and renewal. Since we are not talking about a distant and abstract challenge, the calling to re-form our nation’s spiritual situation is every bit as relevant to congregations and synods as it is to the church wide representations of the denominations. The commonweal is as close as our neighborhoods, our local schools, our local police departments, and our local governments.

Poems from a Partisan

12 Jan

Poems from a Partisan

In the long interval since I last wrote, I have been rather busy at my poetry. I am discovering that inspiration comes from many sources. Sitting in my wheelchair, I spend a considerable amount of time reading newspapers online and watching television news. You might think that this would dampen my poetic urge, but on the contrary, it moves me to write.

This blog installment consists of three poems that grow out of recent events. I know there are risks in sending these poems around–not every reader finds poetry appealing and not every reader will agree with my perspective on these current happenings. If you disagree, perhaps you will at least agree with the editor of our house monthly newspaper, who says: “These poems make me think, and that’s why I’m publishing them.”

As a foretaste of what might come in the future: I’ve just discovered a group of “Disability Poets,” whose work I find very interesting. By the way, I have also just published an article of my intellectual autobiography. If you would like a copy, let me know.

The poems that follow are labelled “partisan,” and they are sent out with my best wishes for the new year that has just gotten underway.
An Image Problem

[In mid-September, 2014, several professional
football players were charged with assault
on women and children.]

He hit her–hard
a greek god in
perfect shape
no problem dragging her
unconscious body
from the elevator

What’s the issue here
an image problem say
the pundits says the
league say the

Dollars, where do
they fit in

He’s an all-star they say
They’re a loving couple
they say

He pulls in the dollars
they say

Adonis beats the
little boys who adore him
welts and scars that
last forever

We’ve got an image problem here
to be sure

Whupped him like
my daddy did to me
made me a better person
another says

Dollars must be safeh
a bottom line belief

Running is his game
and he’s good at it
record books prove it
An image problem
no right and wrong

Forget the women
sent by the blows
into oblivion
made up now in
black and blue

Dismiss the boys
they’re on their way
to becoming better men
they bear not scars
so much as badges
of spiritual forming

Run, run, run

At all costs, keep
the silver coming in
safe always
dollars always safe

this is America’s game

(c) Phil Hefner 9/16/2014
Poetic Themes

must be chosen with care these days
beauty be redefined
angst of heart enlarged
order and reason conceived and
shaped anew

the times when living rhymes with dying
oblige poets to walk a different road

Chorus One: “workers be damned, it’s profits
that count!” “We never meant to pay a Iiving wage,
we just offer a chance to work!”

money profits that’s what counts
not a thing of beauty
no grace there–
for single mom
high school dropout
anyone down on their luck

never meant as living wage
job may not rhyme with life but
we wish you well

Chorus Two: “new law mandating retirement
pension for every worker? Just another assault on
American business!” A screed well known today.

you didn’t get it
making profit is what it’s all about–
transform that into iambs
with sustaining cadence
go ahead if you can

Chorus Three: “I can’t breathe!” “Hands up! don’t shoot”
insults every man and woman with a badge
disrespects those who serve and protect.

insult how terrible
for darren and eric and sean and amidou
tamir twelve years old with toy gun
a man of ninety-two name unknown
mindless in a nursing home h
it was their last sigh
now at rest beneath the earth
it offends you when we

Chorus Four: “When all the facts are in you
will surely understand why no shooter need
stand trial need defend their deed.”

gun culture embedded
to our core have a gun shoot
your supreme
and protection

american as god and mother
(used to be)
Chorus Five: Players protest, “Hands up, don’t shoot.”
“We draw a line. Who buys the stuff you advertise? It’s us,
cops, the good people. If you don’t stop, we’ll step in.”

what serves these times best
ode sonnet rhymed or free
epic lament or dirge

these are ordered forms
the times shatter form

are poems real in this time
is this a poem

if not poems what

is ours
the age
after poetry

[Choruses taken from newspaper accounts.]
(c) Phil Hefner 12/6/2014


The men in black had to ask
an innocent good-natured man
for directions–how to get to
number ten

Journalists stayed on
rooftops, wary of
what was ugly on
their arms–Kalashnikovs

Zeroed in on second
floor pops and moans
all around weekly
charlie reduced to bodies

Who was murdered
on one seven fifteen
not charlie live bodies
and cartoons made
their wednesday appearance

Bodies by the thousands
sprang up in republic square
death was disinvited
there on one eight
je suis charlie showed up

Freedom to speak, said one
civilization said another
these have not been

Meanwhile in new york
and atlanta editors
said charlies

gratuitous offense
does not conform
to our
editorial standards

(c) Phil Hefner 1/9/2015

Wolfhart Pannenberg–Theologian of God’s History

8 Sep

Wolfhart Pannenberg: Theologian of God’s History

Theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg died at age 85 on September 4, 2014, in Munich, where he had taught for thirty years before his retirement in the mid-1990s. For those who were familiar with the man and his work recognize his death as the passing of a monumentally significant Christian theologian.

This is a personal reflection, brief and not intended to be comprehensive. It grows out of my study and interaction with the man, which began in 1960, when I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Our contact ebbed and flowed over the years. He and his wife, Hilke, visited with us in the States, we visited them in Germany. He lectured several times at my school, I lectured twice at his. I am writing out of my interaction with him and his thinking. I will say at the outset that I was always awed by the man, always aware that I was in the presence of an extraordinary man. I will not focus on my personal relationship with him. Rather, I describe what I consider to be the basic ideas that he contributed to us. This the most fitting tribute I can offer–appropriate, since he considered thinking and reason to be central to his theological work. I hope my enduring affection and esteem for Wolfhart Pannenberg shines through.

Pannenberg proposed an original idea of revelation as history. I will describe that idea itself and then show how he applied that idea to the interpretation of Christian tradition–our understanding of Jesus Christ–and to his dialogue with secular science.

In the late 50s, I was writing my dissertation about the idea of history and the role it played in 19th and 20th century German theology. My final constructive chapter appropriated that understanding of history for my own theological work (published in 1966 as Faith and the Vitalities of History). The source for me then was the early work entitled Revelation As History (published in Germany in 1961), in which Pannenberg and a group of colleagues–who came to be known as “the Pannenberg circle” –proposed an alternative to Karl Barth’s theology of the word. It hit the theological scene with great impact, and became a breakthrough publication for Pannenberg himself.

The idea of history presented in this work was fleshed out over the years: (1) History is a continuum, a narrative, with a beginning and an end. (2) The meaning and purpose of this narrative becomes clear only at its end; the end, therefore, becomes the hermeneutic for interpreting the whole–history is what it is by referring it to its end, the end reveals the meaning. (3) The continuum is made up of contingent moments in time, to which the term “historicity” is sometimes applied. The book’s title states the proposal that revelation is constituted by this history. To say that meaning and purpose is revealed at the end is also to say that it lies in the future. Other theologians used the term future, including many liberation theologians. The power of the future is God; so that the concept of history reveals the purposes of God.

It would turn out, by the time Pannenberg wrote his great work on Christology, that Christ is the appearance, in proleptic fashion, of the end of history–that is, Christ is the foretaste or first fruits of the end. To be in unity with Christ is therefore to be in touch with the meaning and purpose of history, which turns out also to be the will and purpose of God.

Jesus–God and Man (1964 in Germany) is a powerful interpretive tour de force. It has two major components. (1) The first is Pannenberg’s use of the apocalyptic framework. He argues that the apostolic witness presents Jesus as the key figure in the apocalyptic world view. Apocalypticism presents an interpretation of cosmic history that takes place in the hand of God, in which the turning point, the revelatory axis, is the coming of the Son of Man. All that history aims at is present in this figure. This worldview is not credible in the 20th century, but it can be translated into a viable framework, and Pannenberg does exactly that–by asserting that the idea of history that I elaborated above is in fact what the first century apocalyptic intended to convey. Thus he presents the apostolic witness in contemporary thought forms. (2) The second component is an argument concerning the resurrection as historical fact. Pannenberg will have nothing to do with a resurrection that is available only to the eyes of faith. On the contrary, the resurrection is public historic fact. An event is considered to be historical fact if the entire network of events that comes afterwards requires it. The network of events that is relevant here is the emergence and ongoing persistence of the church. There is no explanation for the appearance of the church and its history without the resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection is evidence that Jesus is the proleptic presence of the end of history–the foretaste of its meaning and purpose.

The book on Jesus demonstrates how the idea of history that Pannenberg set forth early in his career throws light on a central piece of Christian tradition. The same idea of history was employed in dialogue with the sciences. He argues that both science and Christian faith are concerned with empirical fact. Science presents a secular rational interpretation of this empirical reality. By scientists’ own admission, their theories are provisional representations, occurring in a deeper matrix which is continually revealing itself in new and surprising ways. Scientific theories of quantum physics, as well as those of evolution, exemplify this description. As it approaches science theology attempts to explore that deeper matrix and reach a less provisional understanding. In his words, “theology seeks to take the measure of science.” While science assumes that events of nature are contingent events within a larger continuum, theology suggests that this larger continuum is the continuum of history unfolding towards its end. The events of of nature occur within the field that is in fact God. Some scientists consider Pannenberg’s thinking at this point to be credible and provocative (Frank Tipler, for example), while others considered it to be a mistake from the outset (John Polkinghorne).

Pannenberg insisted that reason is part and parcel of faith, faith is not something that is understood only in an enclave of pious believers–rather, it is open, public affirmation to the world and in the world. It is an affirmation the world should be able to understand, an affirmation that can be elaborated and defended in the public square. Traditionally, we have spoken of the content of faith, the creed (fides quae), and the energy of faith or trust which relies on God (fides qua). Pannenberg held firmly to this traditional bipolar understanding of faith. He devoted his brilliant and profound theology to understanding and clarifying the content of faith–in order to make the believers’ trust in God a more viable and public witness.

This is what justifies the claim that he is great, a monumental thinker: the brilliance and comprehensiveness of this framework, and the freedom it gives to Christian faith and its witness in the world.

Philip Hefner

Not a bang but a whimper

26 Jun

Not a bang but a whimper

If you have been reading my blog, you know that I have been living through a sort of medical adventure these past seven months. Many tests – imaging of several types – and examination by nine doctors really became something of a medical thriller for me. Complication after complication came to light. At one point an exotic term was used to name my disease. The big question was whether some kind of surgery would be undertaken, to set the complications right and to relieve pain. This amounted to a kind of cartography – mapping out the terrain of my body, highlighting the bones, nerves, and muscles. As a neurologist said, we are peeling the onion all the way down, to see what’s there. That same doctor concluded, after that process was completed, that he had a good understanding of what was wrong with me, but really no idea as to what caused it all. Finally the doctors judged that in one way or another the problems are consequences of my birth condition – spina bifida.

I received two opinions, from two top-flight surgeons. Both came out at the same place, that the surgery would be too risky, that it might give rise to problems worse than I am presently experiencing. A third surgeon said to me that when a doctor, highly trained to practice the craft of surgery and accustomed to seeing the gratifying benefits that can be brought to the patient–when that doctor concludes that surgery should not take place, the decision must be taken very seriously.

All those doctors, all those weeks taken up with high tech, miraculous examination procedures, the exotic character of the disease–I felt that it was an exciting adventure, and that it was leading up to a big bang. But with the surgeons’ final decision, things took another turn, leading directly to what is called a “boot camp” for pain management and physical therapy. This will be time-consuming, challenging grunt work. The payoff is less pain and more mobility. It will be very satisfying in its own way, as I know from several years of experience in physical therapy programs. But, to use T. S. Eliot’s phrase, it will be more of a whimper than a bang.

However, there is much to be said for the whimper. In my case, the surgeons decided that not operating was a much safer course. My present condition, you might say, is the condition that is known, and even though the future results of physical therapy are not fully known, they are well winnowed procedures that we understand very well. The condition that might emerge after surgery is an unknown; it could be even more complicated, more difficult to deal with, and even less likely to have a successful outcome.

The difference between a bang and a whimper can be exaggerated. The bang may indeed describe a intervention that enables a new direction, while low-key whimper-like measures are required to make that new direction a concrete reality. In 2007, I underwent an amazing operation, that surely qualifies as a big bang event. I was the oldest person at the time ever to undergo surgery to untether the tethered cord that accompanied my spina bifida. This surgery , never performed until 15 years ago, is a regular procedure now for newborns and young children who suffer from the birth defect of spina bifida. Since a precise diagnosis of spina bifida was impossible until the late 1970s, when MRI scans became available, people in my age group mostly simply suffer with the consequences or consider what is basically a pediatric surgery. It was a seven hour operation, with my body in a “V” position, which put life-risking pressure on my lungs and eyes. Fortunately, I had access to one of the most brilliant pediatric neurosurgeons in the world, at the University of Chicago medical center.

What followed that big bang surgical intervention? Low-key whimper-like measures for the next four years. Hundreds of hours of physical therapy, exercises and fitness training. The results were wonderful. Not only did I reach the point where I could walk a mile without any assistance whatsoever, but I was in better physical condition than I have ever been in my life. I owe an enormous debt to one of the finest rehabilitation centers in existence, the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. The doctors, therapists, and trainers that worked with me for those years are still vivid in my mind for their competence, understanding, and a gentle persistence that drove me as hard as a Marine drill sergeant. Their guiding rule seemed to be: “If you are not today surpassing yesterday’s performance, you’re not progressing; you’re not doing well enough.”

I have been away from that environment for four years now, and even though I have reservations, I know that it is high time for me to get back to it.

Whether that stunning surgical intervention was really necessary, is still an unanswered question. My personal opinion is that while the therapy and fitness training might well have brought some good results even without the surgery, other spina bifida symptoms were ameliorated only because of that operation.

Months of examination and consultation by the finest doctors available have brought me this considered opinion: it may seem like a whimper, but it is the best course, and at age 81, it may bring at least moderate results. In my situation, “moderate” is good. I won’t be walking a mile, but walking in my apartment and using the wheelchair only when I go out, will be a big bang–let me tell you.

Those of you who read this are not in my situation, to be sure. But there may be a wider validity to this understanding of how big bang and whimper are related. If you have never yearned for a big bang, you are well acquainted with living a lower-keyed existence. Others of you may have considered a whimper to be too little; my advice to you is to remain open to the possibilities that may only exist at that level of living.

NOTE: This imagery of bang and whimper comes, of course, from T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men.” For Eliot, the whimper is an image of emptiness, superficiality, the bitter frustration of life’s desires and ambitions. Eliot’s poem stands as one of the most vivid pictures of the empty life in all of literature. You may say that I am taking Eliot’s images out of context and severely re-interpreting, even mis-interpreting them. Indeed, I am doing just that. I admire Eliot’s poem more than words can say, but I do not think that the images of the big bang and whimper are bound inevitably to the poem, nor are their meanings limited to those of the poem. At the same time, there may aspects of aging and disability that Eliot’s poem captures for some people. There is ago deal of syrupy, cheerful talk of aging that seems to me to be simply denial. I am not writing out of Eliot’s despair, however, but rather out of a realism that abhors denial and tries to be open to possibilities. I am trying to be true to this blog’s title, “Liftthescreen.”

(C) Phil Hefner. 6/25/2014



In Our Age of Shape-shifting, Where Is Wisdom?

16 Jun

In Our Age of Shape-shifting, Where Is Wisdom?

I began this day engaging three ideas that are still bouncing around in my head. One of the ideas is ancient, from the tradition of Scripture. The other two are as current as you can imagine–although I describe one as a word from tomorrow, the other as a word from yesterday.

The first, which I read early in the morning, is from the apocryphal Book of Wisdom.

“God of my ancestors, Lord of mercy, you who have made all things by your word and in your wisdom have established humans to rule the creatures produced by you, to govern the world in holiness and justice and to render judgment and integrity of heart, give me wisdom. Send her forth from your holy heavens and from your glorious throne dispatch her that she may be with me and work with me. For she knows and understands all things and will guide me and safeguard me.”

A short time later I flipped on C-Span to catch my favorite weekend book discussions. I was just in time for Susan Wojcicki’s (CEO of YouTube) commencement address at Johns Hopkins University. Her message: the times are a’changing so fast that the graduates must be prepared for the ground they are standing on to take on significant new shapes right under their feet. A few of her admonitions: make your plans in pencil, not ink, so you can change them quickly; the job you should seek may not even exist today. Most of all, remember: “You can be the crazy kid who changes the world.” I might add that at age 45, Wojcicki ranks high on several lists of Most Powerful Women, with a net worth of more than $300 million.

C-Span also furnished the third idea: Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings’ address to the graduates of Southern Methodist University. Rawlings, who was CEO of Pizza Hut prior to becoming mayor, was much more conventional and preacherly than Woicicki, and he dispensed solid advice about learning, leadership, and love. He began his remarks: “I’m still on my long journey and it’s been a wonderful one,” and ended with “Travel well my friends on your journey and never forget, have fun while you are doing it.”

Wojcicki is clearly tomorrow’s child, as refreshing as anyone I have heard lately–be prepared, she says, that everything will be different from what you expected. The mayor of Dallas is an achiever, too, but he sounds like the very best of yesterday’s children. Things may be tough on your journey, he says, but basic values like leadership, learning, and love will get you through. A much safer world, even comfortable in its way. Tough I might be able handle, totally unpredictable shape-shifting is something else.

Now the words from Wisdom. It’s addressed to God: “You have called us humans to be responsible for what you created, to govern the world in holiness and justice. Frankly, we’re not up to it, because we lack wisdom–no lack of technical skill or motivation–but comprehension and judgment. Send wisdom to me that she may be with me and work with me.”

There’s no attempt to turn back the future–it’s God’s creation. There’s no attempt to tame the spinning, shape shifting of the world. There is also no exhortation to tough it out and “have fun.” The Wisdom writer recognizes that there is more at stake here than toughing it out and more than keeping up with the spin so that we can change the world. There’s the recognition that we are responsible for governing this world–and to do so with holiness and justice.

The two commencement addresses are devoted mainly to encouraging the graduates to get into the game, run in the competition–something the grads are probably eager to do anyway. They are not calling for modesty and wisdom. Yet wisdom is so clearly needed. What is technology for? Or business or government? How are we to chart our future in the midst of the mind-boggling plurality of our society?

Here, I’m just raising the issue. Where is wisdom in our public discussion? Perhaps enigmatically, In a prayer, I also offered this praise to God–“You add days and years to our lives, in order to bring us to wisdom.”

Phil Hefner

Something Bigger than Myself

19 May

“The weird thing with being a veteran, at least for me, is that you do feel better than most people. You risked your life for something bigger than yourself. How many people can say that?”

These are the words of an Iraq war vet in Phil Klay’s book of short stories from the war, entitled, Redeployment (Penguin, 2014). As I read those words, I am confined to a wheelchair, still waiting, after eight months of examination and consultation, for a team of doctors to come up with a diagnosis for what has turned out to be a complicated hip problem. Let me tell you that this situation does a marvelous job of focusing my attention–on myself, on me. Narcissism is a constant reality. It prompted this poem a couple of months ago:

Cars and Snakes

Cars used to have floorboards.
You could pull back the mat,
Part the panels,
See the road beneath.

Narcissism lurks in my soul,
Like a snake slithering
In through those floorboards.

Cars don’t have floorboards any more,
But the snakes are there–
Still slithering in.

Narcissism can be comfortable–that’s the worry. At the same time, it is tedious. It’s not only that focusing on yourself can be very boring, it’s also demoralizing to think that there’s not something bigger in your life, to lead your thinking to a higher level.

For most of you that may be a strange thing to say, because you’re serving something bigger everyday–working in the church, working for the betterment of society, for the common good, for your families, for the company. The handicapped, particularly those who are severely so, have more temptation of narcissism. For one thing, we’re focused on our limitations and our inability to get up, get out, and be physically active. We’re frustrated, and frustration is powerfully self-focussing. We also have to ask for help, we’re more dependent than “normal” people–that’s another pressure to put ourselves at front and center, especially when the helper has to put out a lot of time and effort to meet our needs.

The handicapped person is an epitome of all people–one doesn’t have to be disabled to be prey to an obsessive focus on self. Our society fosters narcissism in all of us, often driven by the engine of consumerism. The market looses a barrage of products and techniques for massaging our bodies and our psyches–to combat illness, sexual inactivity, boredom–and also offers to satisfy our envy, greed, lust, and desire to impress those around us. Our manhood and our womanhood are laid before us, for us to grasp. Christopher Lasch’s book, Culture of Narcissism (1979), goes to the heart of this situation–that’s why it has become a classic. Pleasure-seeking is a part of what afflicts us, but even deeper is the demand that unless we meet certain norms, conform to certain images, our selves will not be affirmed. The pleasures on offer match us to these images of self. Our search for self and for affirmation come together–enticed by pleasure, consumption, and the quest to be the beautiful people that society fosters. I’ve always thought that the ads in the Sunday New York Times Weekly Magazine offer a handbook of consumerist-based narcissism.

However, the needs of our fellow humans are also reported to us–the poor, the sick, the persecuted, the marginalized. How to get involved in the larger communities?–that is the question. Phil Klay’s soldier enlisted to fight a war in Iraq for freedom, to improve human lives, to root out terrorists, really big causes. Most of us, especially we handicapped, cannot sign up for a larger cause as easily as these vets did. But when they return, Klay’s vets find civilian life boring–the mall shopping, for example, a symbol of our ceaseless efforts to satisfy our narcissisms. No image is inculcated more vigorously today than the Good Consumer. From Thanksgiving to Christmas, for example, we receive daily reports on how much we are buying and how that will revive our economy. In Germany, “Black Friday” designates the day on which Jesus was crucified (Good Friday in the U.S.). In our society, it refers to the opening day of the Christmas shopping season, on which we try our best to put American business “in the black.” The average American can do nothing greater to help our country than to buy–and buy as much as possible.

Making ourselves physically beautiful is a key image that is set before us. In 2012, Americans spent $10.4 billion on a total of 14 .6 million cosmetic surgery procedures. 13 million of these were devoted to re-shaping our bodies to be more “beautiful.”

For some, retirement brings out the serpent narcissism, because we are no longer working for a “career”–in church, education, public service, or business. Previously, the realities bigger than ourselves were always present. Our society pictures successful retirement as the quintessence of gratifying our endless desires–it’s the culmination of “happiness.” The cover of the AARP monthly magazine sets the image of the happy retiree before us–glossy, glamorous, and in full color. If the New York Times gives us a Bible for upscale consuming, our retirement association sends us a monthly poster to tape to our mirror.

The recitation of this particular cultural landscape, by itself, with no further elaboration, voices the tedium and shallowness, the rock-bottom emptiness, which is a starting-point that circles back upon itself to become end-point, as well. Narcissism has no redeeming value whatsoever.

It may be that my handicapped condition poses in sharp relief the struggle that many able-bodied people face in more subtle ways–to admit that narcissism, the ever-present snake under the floor boards, is boring–and to find ways to relate to the something bigger that calls to us.

Several of you readers have told me that my postings and poems are opening a, window to the condition of the handicapped. This piece does that, too. However, I continue to believe the boundary between the handicapped and the normal is a blurred one, and I continue to understand myself, not on the fringe of the human community, but rather an epitome of men and women in general.

Any responses to this idea?




My Grandma Neanderthal

31 Mar


My Grandma Neanderthal

If you thought the previous version needs some gender-bending, you may prefer this one. In any case, I hope you find a mixture of seriousness and fun in it all. Stereotypes abound, of course–not only gender stereotypes, but also those that picture Neanderthals as brutes dragging women by the hair. Provocative that the stereotypes all end up being about us–who we are today. The Gee Whiz (which is how this all got started) brings with it a fundamental revision of stereotypes.

My Grandma, Neanderthal

Thanks to you
i survived god-knows-what
my lungs hollowed out
from outdoor living
in the dank
and cold

In my ignorance
i knew not what
seeds to plant
nor what
herbs served as

i surpassed you
to be sure
but when
great great great
grandpa met you
you held the cards

You had the genes
i lacked
to fight those
unseen bugs
that well may have
struck me down

You possessed
the knowledge
nay wisdom of
daily life
what to plant
how to hunt
and build

No one would say
you were the great
your group life
was well

We moderns
like to think we
were the cutting edge
most diggers
into the past
would agree

But you broke
the mold
god be praised
that night
in a cold
siberian cave

You caught
great great
great grandpa’s
the rest is

(C) Phil Hefner
3/31/2014 #1



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