May 14, 1965 was a memorable day for me, but not primarily because it was my 25th birthday. That was the day I graduated from McCormick Theological Seminary and ended 19 years of continuous formal education. The hymn that ran through my head that day included the words, “Time like an ever-flowing stream, bears all its sons away. They fly forgotten as the night flies at the break of day.” I was very conscious of soon flying away from Illinois for distant Thailand, although I thought it was to be a brief tour away.
Now, rather than reminisce on a comparison between past and present which a person my age is wont to do, I want to ruminate on what I have observed that cannot be learned through comparing experiences.
It’s hot today, very hot. People say it’s the hottest stretch of unbroken high temperatures Thailand has had in more than 6 decades. But it is not proof of global warming. Climate change is a matter of centuries. Warming is calculated by thousands of temperature measurements from all over the world averaged month by month. Local extremes count for little. But the totals count for a lot. Two degrees rise in worldwide averages will show up in major ice melts, higher sea levels and coastal erosion. That has nothing much to do with “more tornadoes”, “less rainfall” or any other weather trend we think we might have discerned.
I’m a member of two national cultures. Both of these cultures are experiencing political dissonance. How else do you explain people’s relative apathy toward what’s going on at the political top of the two countries you know I’m talking about? But it’s not proof of intellectual decline. Even if educational systems’ failures have had some impact on people’s disinclination to do critical thinking, the willingness to go along with avalanches of absurdity is too profound to be the fault of schools alone. Comparisons do not help us get to the bottom of this. We cannot explain Trump by comparing the amount of homework American students have, compared to students in Finland. It doesn’t help to compare political indoctrination and intimidation in Thailand with North Korea. The dissonance between people’s values and life goals and their placid reaction to what’s going on is too vast and systemic to be the fault of some isolated thing that can be easily remembered and compared.
“You are high church,” a seminary classmate noted in May 1965. My ordination picture that month (above) is pretty clear about that. I did not disagree, since I understood “high church” to mean I trusted the institutional church to promote what is best for humankind, and to take appropriate corrective action when ecclesiastical change is needed. It was this ideal sort of institution that I felt committed to help lead. I am older and disabused of that idealism now. But it is not my disappointments and experiences that have convinced me that institutional religion is at a threshold. In fact, I tend to believe that institutional Buddhism is about to have a metamorphosis and institutional Islam is splintering even as Islam grows. What is developing and spreading is spiritual diversity, focused on a narrow range of personal attractions to particular objectives, leaving people free to sample and move around. There are Jewish Buddhists in Brooklyn and Chiang Mai, Hindu Catholics in Toronto and Mumbai, atheist Unitarians in Boston and Bangkok. We would be mistaken to see this as a post-modern phenomenon. It has been coming for 500 years and it is just beginning to take a new form.
The conclusion of this set of ruminations on my natal anniversary is that there are truths based on evidence too extensive for us to validate or disregard from our own experience. But we can decide to include the best informed conclusions on these things in how we do things. What we cannot conclude is that our actions do not matter. Tonight we may be gone and tomorrow forgotten, but our carbon imprint will linger.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.