The Renaissance

Yesterday I was asked to post my reflection here. I do this with some reluctance, because for everyone who wants me to do this there is surely someone who wishes I hadn’t. The internet may be limitless but there is a lot of wasted space on it and I don’t want to contribute to that. As well, a manuscript that serves as guide for spoken words doesn’t always translate well to prose.

As I was asked though (by several people), here is a version of yesterday’s reflection, with the promise that in the future I will not post anything someone clearly asks me not to.

Psalm 19 (The Message)

God’s glory is on tour in the skies,

God-craft on exhibit across the horizon.

Madame Day holds classes every morning,

Professor Night lectures each evening.

Their words aren’t heard,

their voices aren’t recorded,

But their silence fills the earth:

unspoken truth is spoken everywhere.

God makes a huge dome

for the sun—a superdome!

The morning sun’s a new husband

leaping from his honeymoon bed,

The daybreaking sun an athlete

racing to the tape.

That’s how God’s Word vaults across the skies

from sunrise to sunset,

Melting ice, scorching deserts,

warming hearts to faith.

The revelation of God is whole

and pulls our lives together.

The signposts of God are clear

and point out the right road.

The life-maps of God are right,

showing the way to joy.

The directions of God are plain

and easy on the eyes.

God’s reputation is twenty-four-carat gold,

with a lifetime guarantee.

The decisions of God are accurate

down to the nth degree.

God’s Word is better than a diamond,

better than a diamond set between emeralds.

You’ll like it better than strawberries in spring,

better than red, ripe strawberries.

There’s more: God’s Word warns us of danger

and directs us to hidden treasure.

Otherwise how will we find our way?

Or know when we play the fool?

Clean the slate, God, so we can start the day fresh!

Keep me from stupid sins,

from thinking I can take over your work;

Then I can start this day sun-washed,

scrubbed clean of the grime of sin.

These are the words in my mouth;

these are what I chew on and pray.

Accept them when I place them

on the morning altar,

O God, my Altar-Rock,

God, Priest-of-My-Altar.

Roots of Contemporary Christianity: The Renaissance

Occasionally this year we’ve been taking a look at some of the historical influences on Christianity.

Zoroastrianism, one of our early progenitors, brought its emphasis on dualisms of chaos and order, evil and good, Satan and God. Belief in dualism leads to people wanting to be, and claiming to be, on God’s side. Others are happy to encourage that, and profit from the chaos.

Like a Provincial government.

The problem is that dualism lets us passively shrug our shoulders because sometimes the bad guys win.

Medieval Catholicism centralised power in a patriarchal hierarchy. A small cadre of powerful people mediated access to a better life. The Church became another economic influencer and holder of wealth, exclusively dispensing favour with God. Mostly to men.

Calvinism and Arminianism were antagonistic philosophies that created a conflict between predestination and free will. Putting the question of whether we are helpless or preprogrammed, or our choices matter.

To its benefit, and to its detriment, the Church adopted the conflict created by all these approaches in its self-understanding and has spent millennia trying to ignore or resolve the conflicts.

Today we look at a more positive influence, the Renaissance. As it relates to Christianity, it centres on the declaration that faith has a brain.

Let’s start with a quick art test. Who’s in the picture and who’s the artist? [Vitruvius Man, God and Adam, David]

These examples of art that arose from the Renaissance testify to its values. The Renaissance was a part of European History of the 14th to 17th centuries. Arguably it began in Italy, then spread to rest of Europe.

We ought to ask what was happening in the rest of the world. It’s a great question, ensuring we aren’t Eurocentric in our world view, however, I’m trying to deal with roots of contemporary Christianity, which remained a largely western faith tradition until 200 years ago. That is not to say that nothing of intellectual or cultural import happened farther east or in the pre-colonial Americas.

Renaissance thought was based on a type of humanism, through a rediscovery of Greek and Roman philosophy.

You could say that its motto was “Man is the measure of all things.” While that sounds like hybris, it’s better understood as we ought to measure everything. Twice, before we cut. As it developed, it was seen as a new way of seeing faith, Like these words from Psalm 19:

Clean the slate, God, so we can start the day fresh!

Counter to the largely inaccessible Catholic faith of the day, controlled by priests and monastic orders, it developed using the vernacular, the common languages of the day.

Renaissance Humanism was a method of learning as well as a philosophy. In contrast to medieval scholasticism, which focused on resolving contradictions between authors, humanists would study ancient texts in the original and appraise them through a combination of reasoning and empirical evidence. Humanists sought to create a citizenry able to speak and write with eloquence and clarity, people capable of engaging in the civic life of their communities and persuading others to virtuous and prudent actions. Like these words from Psalm 19:

The revelation of God is whole

and pulls our lives together.

The signposts of God are clear

and point out the right road.

The life-maps of God are right,

showing the way to joy.

The directions of God are plain

and easy on the eyes.

Which brings us back to the Vitruvian Man. Da Vinci believed the workings of the human body to be an analogy for the workings of the universe, evidenced in perfect proportions. The Created Universe is perfect and our task is to mirror it. Which is wonderful until someone uses their interpretation of perfection to make Procrustes’ bed.

Then we have David. The purpose of humanism was to create a universal man whose person combined intellectual and physical excellence and who was capable of functioning honorably in virtually any situation; then transcend to the afterlife with a perfect mind and body, which could be attained with education.

We haven’t let that go with our ongoing belief in the importance of self actualisation. Think about how much energy we spend on trying to attain what we have convinced our self is who we are at our most fulfilled. We are quite capable of being ploddingly susceptible to others telling us what we need. Picture the finger of Adam reaching to touch an iPhone.

Renaissance humanism held to “the genius of man ... the unique and extraordinary ability of the human mind,” the Renaissance contributed to an approach to science that increasingly relied on observation and inductive reasoning.

Remember that theology, the study of our understanding of God, was considered a science. We learned to test things, assumptions, even interpretations of our faith that allow others to take advantage of people. To describe life as it really was, To understand it rationally.

Humanism developed against a Christian backdrop. Many of our foremost theologians were followers of the humanist method: Erasmus, Zwingli, Thomas More, Martin Luther, and John Calvin. The return to the original Greek of the New Testament promoted by humanists Lorenzo Valla and Erasmus, helped pave the way for the Protestant Reformation. Erasmus and Luther proposed reform to the Church, based on humanist textual criticism of the New Testament.

Again the words of Psalm 19: unspoken truth is spoken everywhere. Minds were opened to deeper understandings of the world and of faith.

The Renaissance has been described as problematic. It embraced a time of nostalgia for the past, arising from pessimism about the present. For all it’s beauty its proponents weren’t perfect.

One more picture—the Last Supper. Plautilla Nelli is the artist. Who was just in the last century recognised as a gifted renaissance painter. There are Renaissance women and men.

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Torn

I want to write more about Winnipeg and my time with our Indigenous Brothers and Sisters, but this blessed Municipal election keeps sucking up my time and energy. I’ve started to ration my checking Twitter to once a day so I can stay off blood pressure medication.

The good news is that Faith in the City and Commitment to Community working with Social Planning Toronto continue the campaign to get candidates for Councillor and Mayor to sign a pledge to commit to funding and implementing the City’s Poverty Reduction Strategy. You can read more about it here.

And if you have the time and inclination you can consider what it costs to better care for marginalised people in our city and what you are prepared to pay by doing this budget exercise.

Today I am not going to talk about the rise of populism and the movements that endorse leaders to wield their power. And more on Winnipeg to come.

Continuing Education

The last week in August I was in Winnipeg expanding my understanding of our First Nation sisters and brothers. I spent time at a "Living off the Land" retreat, a day at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, a morning at the offices of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, a morning at the Treaty Claims Office for Manitoba and then did a walk through a largely Indigenous neighbourhood in the North end of Winnipeg. I was welcomed with great hospitality everywhere I went (including two places where I was not expected). I'll be posting about each of these experiences, starting with Salsa at the retreat.

The Sandy-Saulteaux Spiritual Centre is a camp.  With a dining hall and cabins and a firepit.  And a teepee and a sweat-lodge.  It is operated by a board in partnership with the United Church of Canada.  It’s primary purpose is to train pastors for work in Indigenous and Settler communities.  The students come for two weeks four times a year and do practicums and homework in between, during their five year course of study.  They may have other jobs, family responsibilities and roles in their respective community. Studying there is a major commitment.  They learn their history and traditions and how to integrate these into expressions of faith as community leaders. Among other challenges (e.g., pressures to sublimate their traditions once they are practicing in churches) are the stories of trauma they hear and respond to in their communities.  A possible future theme of the Centre is to provide more intensive training for trauma-care.

The Centre also is used for retreats and other gatherings. For example the “camp” this past week when a group of settlers who live nearby and are committed to living off the land gathered with a group of indigenous families from across the country to explore together what it means to live off the land.  They learned bee-keeping, how to make salsa and how to dress a deer. They also shared their stories.  Among the group were young women whose children were “in care”, i.e. not living at home.  These parents spent two weeks supported by others there, and their children came for supervised visits for two of the days. What they learned may lead to a program of supportive care across Manitoba.  It would take 400 such gatherings to assist the mothers to care for their children. 

One of the ways indigenous communities are attempting to address trauma before it escalates also focuses on community.  If (a) parent(s) is/are acting in ways that are harmful to children, the current model is to take the children away from the community and foster them. There are 30000 children in care in the Province.  90% are Indigenous (far out of proportion to the population). The parents may then lose the grant money that allows them to rent a home large enough for their family. The children won’t be able to return.  An alternative being studied in some communities has the parents being removed from the family home and taken out on the land by elders to learn how to parent.  The children remain in their homes cared for by grandparents or cousins or another close relative. The families are reunited once the elders determine that the parents are ready to parent with community accountability.

Although I arrived at the end of the retreat, just in time for the closing conversation about how much the participants appreciated the week and each other, I was made welcome.  Each person was given either a jar of honey or a jar of salsa made from ingredients grown at the Centre.  I was given a jar of salsa as a welcome and appreciation for my being there.  I made sure the salsa made it home to Toronto intact.

 

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