Tuesday, May 24, 2011

For every action...

There are lots of things that I’ve forgotten from my high school science classes but one thing that has stuck with me is the proposition that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction - Newton's third law of motion.

There are lots of everyday examples: you hit a ball with a bat and the distance the ball travels depends on how hard it was hit, the angle, the wind conditions; you ride a skateboard and use your foot to propel the skateboard forward; an airplane pushes back on the air and the air pushes forward on the plane. One thing leads to another in predictable and inevitable ways.

Since 1687 when Newton published the three laws in his work PhilosophiƦ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, these laws have helped us to understand and predict the effects of objects acting on one another.

There is a sort of comfort in the predictability of objects. And as much as I might like surprises and the adrenalin rush that comes from successfully navigating random circumstances - the curve balls of life - I realize that everyday life would be totally overwhelming were it not for a degree of predictability. But having said that, I am so incredibly thankful for the unpredictable and even the chaotic. The things that come at us out of the blue. I suppose that we have an innate tendency to want to maintain balance - or, if thrown off balance, to regain it.

Life wouldn't be much fun if everything was predictable, routine, according to plan. I sometimes worry that heaven - a place where there is no sin or sorrow or suffering - might actually be a little boring. It's hard to imagine a place or time when people will always act with integrity - always do the right thing for the right reasons and in the right way - and the outcomes will always be such that they don't produce pain or suffering, for anyone. I don't actually spend much time thinking about that though, because life at this moment is a long way from that. A very long way.

Life in the present moment is riddled with unpredictability. People act and react out of all kinds of motives - some selfish and others quite philanthropic. Our actions have impacts that we can't possibly even trace, let alone predict.

When the French philosopher, August Comte (1798-1857) first used the term sociology, he had in mind that this new science would identify the natural laws governing social behaviour. The search for these laws, however, has proved futile. When it comes to the social world, Newton's third law of motion - for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction - is clearly NOT applicable. The reaction may be neither opposite nor equal to the initial action. In the social world, all bets are off. What may seem like a negative outcome, may, in the long run actually prove to be have a positive impact, and vice versa.

The ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, said that "you could not step twice nto the same river." In other words, even though you may go down to a river at the same time every day and step into exactly the same spot, neither the river with it's flowing water, nor you with your ideas and attitudes, can be exactly the same. The social world is always changing!

Another French sociologist, Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) argued that society is equal to more than the sum of its parts. Sociology became the social science that is concerned with that nebulous field of the "more" - the ever changing, shifting, sometimes incredibly beautiful and sometimes immensely ugly "more". The interstitial spaces between philosophy, history, economics, psychology, anthropology, political science, etc.

For those who like predictability and certainty - those who like things to be well ordered and neat and tidy - sociology must surely be incredibly frustrating. But for those who thrive on the edges of uncertainty - who love seeing the complex web of uncontrollable, rogue variables - the sociological study of society is immensely gratifying.

I am a sociologist. I'm also a person of profound faith in a triune God who, it seems to me, is also equal to more than the sum of the parts. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not simply three unique beings who share one mind and one throne. And the reality that they preside over is not two dimensional and systematic. As the river is ever changing, so too is our reality as we make our way through the maze of physical, social and spiritual life on a capricious planet. God's grace is new every day because our need for grace is in constant motion.

Many Christians have an uneasy suspicion of sociology. I suspect that they may be the very Christians who prefer to define and defend a God who they have reduced to the level of complexity that they are comfortable with, which frankly, isn't much. They're people who don't like the messiness of a world where it's hard to tell with any degree of certainty what will happen as a result of their actions, or the actions of others. They're likely to be people who will opt for programs with proven results, rather than to boldly (even recklessly) act on the principles of conduct described so eloquently in the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).

This new way of life was taught and modelled by a Messiah who, when the chips were down, overcame the very real temptation to opt for safety and security and as a result, found himself on a cross with only his vision of another world - a more just world - to sustain and comfort him. Greater than the physical agony of a brutal death was the spiritual anguish of being wrenched from the trinity and left on his own - a solitary figure, beaten and ridiculed - but ultimately not destroyed.

If Newton's third law of motion were applicable to the actions of men then we might expect that the crucifixion of Christ would be countered in his resurrection - an equal and opposite reaction. And I suppose that there are those who see it this way. But I believe that the resurrection of Christ has a magnitude of impact that is far greater than we can even imagine, let alone understand. It was a game changer in that it opened the door to a whole new dimension - a reality where the separation between God and man is bridged and we, mere mortals, are invited to live by the principles of a different Kingdom and in the presence of the King, eternal, immortal, invisible (1 Tim. 1:17).

When Christ ascended, he took his place (once again) in the trinity, but more than that, he declared that we are eternally united with him as joint heirs of the Kingdom (Romans 8:17). No wonder Paul urged the Ephesians (and us!) to live a life worthy our our calling!

Monday, May 16, 2011

The elusive happy medium...

I've always thought that if I were ever to write a book, I would call it The Elusive Happy Medium. Pretty self explanatory. And in my experience, almost a truism that finding that medium (which is purportedly "happy") is inevitably a wild goose chase. I'm not, first of all, convinced that the medium - the middle ground - is particularly "happy". I tend quite naturally to be a pretty middle of the road kind of person - always weighing the arguments and evidence on both sides of an issue - and I have to say that that can be immensely satisfying, but it can also be immensely frustrating.

It might be more fitting to call it the "sober medium" or the "subdued medium". It's certainly not a place of innate passion. It's not a place for risk takers, pioneers or those that like to push the envelope. No, the middle is safe, predictable, cautious, biased toward the status quo. It's warm, tepid, neither hot nor cold. I suppose these things might make some people HAPPY, but as much as I appreciate the importance of those who inhabit this place, I aspire to be the kind of person who thrives on more colour; more excitement; more danger. So I find myself in a paradox (certainly not the first time!). I simultaneously long for stability and instability. Passion and predictability. Excitement and routine. I long for more of the same at the same time that I long for change.

Maybe this is the fulcrum of the pendulum. The pendulum swings back and forth, always pivoting around the middle but never resting there. I wonder if this is even a principle of life as we know it in the physical realm as well as in culture.

As I look out my front window at the Bay of Fundy, I'm very conscious of the extremes of nature. We've had rain for days. The tv news channels are covering the floods along the routes of the Assiniboine and Mississippi Rivers. And yet I just returned from Kenya a month and a half ago and am haunted by the effects of persistent drought in areas of sub saharan Africa. When it comes to rain, the medium between drought and flood would be a happy place, I think! And if we look at cultures and the history of their development, we can usually track a pretty erratic route as excesses in one direction are corrected by excesses in the opposite direction.

On the other hand, there are religious extremists. Surely that's not a model to emulate, but yet neither is it desirable to practice our faith dispassionately, soberly.

What if this whole tendency to think in terms of dichotomies is the problem? What if the reality is that we don't have to choose between extremes but rather that life is more of a kaleidoscope - ever shifting, perpetual, colourful motion - that bids us let go of the impulse to control events, circumstances and possibilities. That bids us to simply enter into the mysteries of life. For me it's not a natural thing. I like to know what to expect.

I like to have confidence that there is a plan and that things "make sense". It's hard for me to let go of those things. Faith in a god who so often seems capricious, is not natural. It requires us to look past the reality that is before us and to trust in a reality that is beyond us. It's not predictable and it's not safe - or maybe it is safe - if, in fact, God is good and to be trusted. But that only is a possibility if this world - with its floods and droughts - it's extremes of all kinds - is not the final story. If what we see is NOT what we get.

The elusive happy medium? I don't know. For now it's all I can do to hold on tight to the pendulum as it swings back and forth!

Friday, May 06, 2011

The girls... and boys... feminism has left behind

I've often shied away from identifying myself with the "feminist" movement. And yet I'm grateful for many of the changes feminism has brought about in our society. I have no doubt that my life is very different than life was for my grandmothers and great grandmothers. And I'm thankful for that. For many women today, life IS better. We vote, get educated, have careers, juggle family and work, run for political office, enter the ministry, get married - or not, play sports, own property... It may still be a "man's world", but women can hold their own. At least some women.

Having traveled in several developing countries I'm quite conscious of the fact that the majority of women around the globe do not enjoy many of these privileges. Despite the fact that women often draw on deep reservoirs of strength when faced with horrendous situations, enduring unspeakable hardship and abuse, the everyday reality for these women is oppressive on many levels. And yet, development specialists readily acknowledge that women MUST be involved in development initiatives if they are to succeed. The United Nations, in defining the 8 Millennium Development Goals, recognize the critical importance of promoting gender equality and empowering women (goal #3) if the goal of eradicating extreme poverty is to be realized. Stephen Lewis, former UN special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, has often noted - in his passionate and articulate style - the role that grandmothers play in holding Africa together. I've seen with my own eyes the incredible strength of Kenyan women, as they mobilize their communities to engage in community development projects and care for AIDS orphans. I applaud efforts to empower women, but I'm also just a bit uneasy.

I worry about the messages that we are giving to girls - YOU can make a difference! YOU can solve the problems in your society! YOU are the heart of your community! YOU can pull your family out of poverty! These are the messages of the Because I am a Girl campaign (see http://plancanada.ca/becauseiamagirl?WT.mc_id=BIAAGFY11GS18). It's not that I don't believe these things. I DO believe that girls can make a difference. I know that they have enormous potential for good when they're given half a chance. I fully support efforts to ensure that girls have the opportunity to attend school. My concern is this: what do these messages - intended to encourage and inspire GIRLS - say to BOYS? Do they imply that boys can't make a difference? Can't solve problems in their society? Can't be the heart of their community or pull their family out of poverty? Because they are boys, they CAN'T be counted on?

Can we foster gender equality and empower girls and women without DISEMPOWERING boys and men? And another thing: if we look at the ways that the feminist movement has impacted our own society, we have to be brutally open about looking at both the successes AND the failures. There may be some debate about how to define success and failure, but for me the successes are the things I listed above - voting, education, jobs, etc. On the other side of the ledger though, are lots of other things that indicate that girls are still trapped in unhealthy ways of seeing themselves and their role in society. Things like: the rates of eating disorders amongst girls and young women; stories about middle school girls performing oral sex for money at lunch time; accounts of girls - individually and in groups - bullying other girls, either online or in person; the rates of abortion in our society and the way that abortion is defined as a "women's right"; and so on. I can hardly turn on the television and flip through the channels at any time of the day or night without being confronted with reality tv shows that depict women as manipulative, conniving, vengeful, stunningly beautiful but somewhat dull-witted chameleons.

Are THESE women the heart of their community? Are THEY pulling their families out of poverty, making a difference, solving their society's problems? The way I see it, they are products of a feminist movement in our country. I'm not BLAMING feminism. I know that this is NOT what the early feminists had in mind when they sought to empower women. But we need to face the fact that these issues have somehow evolved out of the primordial soup of feminism.

Have these women been left behind by feminism? And what about boys and young men around the world - from the most developed to the least developed countries? Everywhere I look I see young men - boys 14 or 15 years old to men of 25, even 30 - who are restless, angry, dangerous. Males who do not know who they are. Males who have somehow failed to live up to some unwritten standard or code. Males who may seek meaning and an identity by banding together with other lost males, in gangs and militias and (maybe even) armies. Is it possible that these too, have been left behind by feminism?

On a recent trip to Kenya our team encountered a young man of 25. He had graduated from high school - a feat in itself in Kenya - and yet here he was on a Saturday morning, unemployed, drunk and wandering the streets. He had been trying to get into the military for several years but didn't have connections or money to bribe his way in. As hope leaked out of his life, he was giving into the temptation to let alcohol numb his pain.

Later in the same trip we had a meeting with some Christian youth leaders when we attended a networking session around HIV/AIDS awareness. The youth took turns reporting on their activities and discussing the merits of working together. These were all very bright young people, but amongst the young men, there ran a strong current of resentment and anger.

How many angry and resentful young men are there? What kinds of situations or events might cause that anger to flare up?

I can't help thinking that with all of the international attention going to the cause of gender equality and empowering women, these young men may be left behind... and that could prove to be very dangerous for all of us! Development experts recognize the need for engaging women in development efforts, but I would love to see development agencies also find ways to give these young men a purpose and an identity that will channel their ambitions and energies in a positive direction. The challenges facing our world are great and we will need all of the resources and energies and talents at our disposal - from both women AND men - if we are to grapple with them effectively. Yes, we should work for gender equality and empowering women, but not by dismissing or grinding down or disempowering men. Both men and women need to see power, not as a weapon to wield for personal gain, but as a trust to be used in order to create a future where no one is left behind.