THE POPE’S CALL TO ACTION–MUCH THAT IS GOOD, AND SOME THAT IS LEFT OUT

By Paul M. Lewis

Pope Francis’ encyclical, “Laudato Si” (meaning “Praise be”), is a stirring reminder of the harm that human beings are doing to the environment in which we live and a call to action for us to change. In doing so, he has incurred the ire of climate change disbelievers, who claim that there is no credible evidence at all that the globe is warming, or that, if it is warming, it’s because of normal climate cycles as seen in the past, and that humans have nothing whatsoever to do with these changes. Pope Francis addresses these criticisms upfront when he says: “Numerous scientific studies indicate that the major part of global warming in recent decades is due to the high concentration of greenhouse gas…emitted above all because of human activity.”

It should be noted that the pope is speaking as a religious leader with a specific point of view, using the language of scripture and of Catholic theology, and not necessarily as a liberal politician or climate change activist. That said, it is true enough that there are times when the ideas, and even the terminology, of these various groupings may overlap and agree with one another. And this can only be for the good. An example of such a convergence is when Pope Francis talks about the grave implications of climate change. “Each year,” he points out, “sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost forever,” or again when he says that access to safe drinkable water is “ a basic human right.” These are areas of concurrence wherein politicians (most, at any rate), scientists, and climate activists can readily agree with the leader of the Catholic Church. Even so, it’s worth noting the essential anthropocentric nature of the pope’s statements. Animals are presented as creatures that humans will or will not see, not as creatures with their own right to live and prosper apart from human concerns, and water is a thing for human consumption. This may sound like mere quibbling within the larger context of the aims of such an important encyclical and the ultimate good it may bring about, but it does shed some light on a particular point of view. Humans may be the source of the problem, and of the solution, but they are nonetheless still very much at the center of things.

The major environmental argument used by the pontiff, the encasement in which it is packaged, is essentially a moral one. This fits in quite well with the general themes of his papacy, namely, care for the poor and dispossessed and respect for life. He points out time and again in the encyclical that those most affected by the disastrous warming of the globe, initially so at least, are those who live on the margins of society, those who do not have the time, the money, or the resources to work on mitigating the ill effects that will come, in ways that the more affluent of the globe might be able to deflect (again, at least until things get to the point where even the rich are overwhelmed). He castigates—rightly so—the selfishness and greediness of human beings in wanting more and more, far beyond what is needed even for what might be called a normally comfortable life, and for living in bubbles of technology that ever increasingly cut us off from most of the natural world. And as such, although it may not be easy, he urges us to make changes in how we live and in the amount we consume: “Every effort to protect and improve our world entails profound changes in lifestyles, models of production and consumption, and the established structures of power which today govern societies.”

The ethos of the modern world, in general, comes in for blistering criticism. There is, the pope tells us, an ever-increasing desire on the part of human beings for instant gratification, and a growing self-obsession that always puts the individual first, not just before other people, but well in front of any other living creature. He blames this on the excesses of individualism, and on the insistence that the “I” must always come before the “we.” Happiness is too often seen as depending almost entirely on the fulfillment of one’s own needs and desires, rather than on any kind of open and sharing inclusion in the collective. I have no quarrel with any of this. I also believe that we humans have far too often overshot the boundaries of our own impulses and cravings. The world, as a result, can no longer sustain the growing demands of individuals who are inordinately and unhealthily interested in acquiring more and more, in order to feel as though they are full and complete.

But what I do hold issue with in regard to the pope’s environmental declamation is what he leaves out. Nothing is said in the encyclical, for example, suggesting a cutting back on the consumption of meat, which would immediately decrease the number of animals raised for human consumption. Not only are current practices unsustainable at present rates in terms of how to feed these animals (in general, it takes 20 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of edible beef), but it also does not address the enormous problem of the emission of methane from animal waste. Estimates at the lower end of the range suggest that livestock account for a minimum of 18% of global greenhouse gas. Some experts put that estimate far higher—at close to 50%. And don’t forget that methane has 23 times the global warming potential of CO2.

Even more importantly, the pontiff omits any mention of the overwhelmingly devastating effects that the sheer numbers of people have on global ecosystems. Nowhere in “Laudato Si” do we read that it is time for humans to have fewer children. Nor does the pope say a word about the Church’s continued emphasis on banning all forms of artificial birth control, or indeed, on its unyielding insistence that such methods are outrightly sinful. How can he in good conscience leave out such an obviously crucial component in a rational, and even a moral, effort to argue against the human-induced warming of the globe? The world currently has 7.3 billion people in it. Realistic projections regarding growth put the global population at 9.6 billion by 2050, and at somewhere between 11 and 12 billion by the end of the century. How, in anyone’s calculations, can it be said that this squares with the “basic human right” for drinkable water, or for the “thousands of plant and animal species” which our children will never see? Are uncontrolled rates of birth not their own kind of excessive human self-centeredness?

Clearly, this is an important omission, as it obviously does not align well with Catholic doctrine or belief. And yet, in spite of such an extremely unfortunate exclusion, we must pleased with what the pope has said. Very few global leaders have taken on this vital issue as head on as he has, and he is to be congratulated and thanked for doing so. We can only hope that the moral authority of his person and his position will bring about an open and honest dialog regarding what we need to do and the changes that must be made. The poor surely are at greatest immediate risk, to say nothing of the creatures of the earth who have every bit as much a right to live and prosper as do humans. But beyond that, all life—human and non-human alike, that of the rich as much as that of the poor—is potentially threatened. As the pope aptly concludes: “Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age. But we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made, but also to recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur.”

This has been said before, but perhaps never more forcefully, or with such moral authority. The pope is right. Now, not later, is the time to act.

HAPPY BLOOMSDAY–JUNE 16

By Paul M. Lewis

“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:

Introibo ad altare Dei.

Halted, he peered down the dark winding stairs and called up coarsely:

Come up, Kinch. Come up, you fearful Jesuit!”

These are the famous opening lines of James Joyce’s Ulysses, one of the great seminal works of the literature of the 20th century. Begun in 1918 and completed in 1920, it was first published by Sylvia Beach in Paris in 1922. All of the events of the seven hundred plus pages of the novel take place on a single day—June 16, 1904. This day is, therefore, the day that lovers of literature have long celebrated the great work, starting in Dublin in 1954 with the 50th anniversary of the events taking place in the novel. It’s reported that this small, initial celebration, wherein several individuals played a few of the main characters of the book (Stephen Dedalus, Leopold Bloom, Simon Dedalus—Stephen’s father—and Martin Cunningham), ended early in a drunken brawl in a pub. Subsequent celebrations of Bloomsday in many cities of the world have been longer, and have had happier, if not necessarily less drunken, endings.

The book was not officially printed in the United States until more than ten years after its initial publication in Paris, due to an obscenity trial during which the presiding judge famously referred to it as “the work of a disordered mind.” If that were so, then the world ought to have rejoiced at such astoundingly original, fecund and inventive disorder, and do all in its power to eschew and lament the tedious boredom and dreary ennui of the more orderly mind.

Let us lift a glass (alcoholic or not, as you choose) to James Joyce and to the astounding breakthrough in both form and subject matter that Ulysses represents. Long may this great novel be read, and long may it continue to wildly instill its elemental creative disorder in our otherwise overly ordered, humdrum and sometimes all-too-prosaic days!

ICON AND MASK: WHEN IS AN OBJECT SACRED AND WHEN IS IT ART?

By Paul M. Lewis

Forty or more years ago, I purchased a late 17th century Russian icon of the type commonly referred to as the Mother of God of Kazan (Kazanskaya Bogomater). It depicts the Virgin Mother, holding her infant son, Jesus, who is facing directly outward, with His right hand lifted in a gesture of blessing. I have no idea as to the provenance (i.e. the exact origin and history) of this particular piece, how it left Russia (in the hastily thrown-together luggage of a wealthy aristocrat fleeing the Bolsheviks?), or how it eventually wound up in Chicago, where I bought it. But it’s not a stretch to think that it may have originally resided in a church somewhere in central Russia. Whatever its exact origins, it was undoubtedly an object of worship. People would typically come before such an icon, stand there in silent prayer, imploring the Mother of God for help or favors, or thanking her for gifts already bestowed. Nor would it have been uncommon for devout parishioners to bow low before the icon, reverently crossing themselves in the Russian manner. People did so especially before beginning a journey, sometimes a perilous undertaking in the late sixteen hundreds in Russia, asking for protection along the way.

Today, hung on a wall in our home here in Long Beach, California, it is no longer an object of worship. At least, I do not bow low before the Virgin, nor do I ask her for protection before leaving the house to go on a trip. And no one lights candles in front of it. Instead, anyone who visits us and sees the painting surely assumes that it is displayed as a piece of art. As such, it does have its own great beauty. The expression on the face of the Holy Mother is one of sublime quietude, exuding a kind of peace that comes only from the inner certainty of knowing who one is and of being unfailingly comfortable with that knowledge. The Child Jesus, on the other hand, looks more like a miniature adult than a young boy. Was this because the icon painter was depicting Him as born mature and fully developed, mentally, emotionally and of course spiritually, or was it a simple issue of artists of his day not knowing how to portray children, as children? Icons, at any rate, are always painted in a highly stylized manner; that is their nature, their greatest beauty and, to some, their greatest drawback. People sometimes complain that they do not look realistic—of course not, they were never intended to! Icon painters meant to portray the figures they painted as beings who reside on a far higher and more elevated plane of consciousness, well above the tediousness and pettiness of the quotidian.

But the principal question that concerns me here is not icons per se. Rather, it is this: When is something a sacred object, and when is it merely (unless that word is thought to be offensive in this context) a piece of art? Just last week, an auction took place in Paris in which a number of sacred masks of the Hopi Nation were on offer. The sale took place in spite of pleas by tribal elders, as well as on the part of US embassy officials, not to allow it to happen. Traditional Hopis consider such masks not mere representations of spiritual beings, but as the actual embodiment of them. Even taking photos of them is considered highly questionable. When under tribal control, they are never displayed casually, only ceremonially, at a time when these sacred beings are experienced as actually visiting the people and offering assistance. No self-respecting Hopi would ever dream of hanging such a mask on the wall, as a piece of art. Yet, there is little doubt that most buyers intend to do just that. Nor is this the first time such an auction has taken place in Paris.

So, are these masks, which undoubtedly possess a profundity and an utterly mysterious beauty all their own, to be considered as art (merely), or as sacred objects that should be returned to the tribe, where they are part of millennia-old cultural and religious traditions? The government of France ruled that they could be sold as art, to the great disappointment of the Hopi. Again, the question remains, when is an object sacred and when is it a piece of art? And, if I’m being frank about it, I suppose another similar question might also be asked: How do the Hopi masks differ in any substantive way from the icon of the Holy Mother of God, displayed on the dining room wall of our house? Are my partner and I guilty, too, of religious and cultural insensitivity?

In a very interesting article in the June 25, 2015 edition of the New York Review of Books, Julian Bell discusses a recent work depicting a long conversation about the nature of art between Philippe de Montebello and Martin Gayford. De Montebello was the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City for thirty-one years, and Gayford is a well-known British art critic. In the book, entitled Rendez-vous with Art, the director of the Met makes this provocative statement: “I don’t believe art has redemptive qualities.”

What can be made of such a statement, and what connection, if any, does it have to the question of distinguishing between the sacred and the artistic? The concept of redemption certainly sounds religious. It would seem to imply the need for, or the act of, being saved from something. Sin and evil are the usual suspects. Or did de Montebello mean to make reference more to ignorance than to sin? But if art saves nothing and no one, sacred objects, on the other hand, are purported to have redemptive power, at least for those who believe in their transcendental efficacy. I remember once reading that the great Yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda, founder of Self-Realization Fellowship, said he had been asked if a picture of a particular Indian saint would be a protection for an individual who held it. His reply was: “If you believe it is a protection, it is a protection. If not, it’s only a simple photo.” Should this suggest to us that the sacredness of an object is not inherent within the object itself, but rather within the consciousness of the person coming into contact with it? Perhaps so. Or is it too much to think that art in and of itself, at its best, really ought to be considered sacred? In fact, can an object ever be both sacred and artistic, or must we think of them as one or the other?

We are conditioned, most of us anyway (ISIS fighters not withstanding), to have at very least a special kind of reverence for art. This is so whether we think of it literally as sacred or not. The Giotto altarpiece on the wall of a museum in Florence, the seated statue of the Lord Buddha taken from Angkor Wat by French explorers, and the Maya bas-relief of Quetzalcoatl ripped from the wall of a temple in the Yucatán all were once considered to be sacred objects. Displayed in museums today, or in the homes of wealthy art collectors, they appear to have lost that connection to the sacred. Or have they, and does it matter how the viewer perceives the objects, how she or he thinks of and interacts with them?

To most modern people, the answer may be as simple as knowing that once an object is in a museum, it is—more or less by definition—considered to be art, and therefore, not sacred, at least not in the normal meaning of that term. Although that still may depend on one’s religious beliefs. Devout Christians might consider the Giotto altarpiece sacred no matter where it is displayed, though probably not the Buddha, and certainly not Quetzalcoatl. Even so, if we think back to the original etymology of the term “sacred,” it refers to a thing that possesses power, and this power could be considered either as holy or as accursed. In this sense, who is to say that art, as we think of it today, doesn’t have its own kind of secular sacredness?

I know that I still think of the icon of the Holy Mother of God of Kazan as having its own brand of power. I don’t necessarily think of it as a depiction of the Virgin Mary of Christian lore. But I do think of it as a kind of illustration of the feminine aspect of the Divine Spirit. And if even that is too much, why not as a representation of universal motherhood, or the enormous mystery and power of creation itself?

Sacred or not, if art is to be felt at all, it surely has to have power, that is, a numinous kind of mystery about it that cannot ever be fully explained by the things of the intellect. Otherwise, what potency, and what effect, does it have? This is not in any way meant to argue against the Hopi, who I believe have every right to sue the French government for infringement of their rights. But it does speak to the question of whether or not there is a clear-cut distinction between the sacred and the artistic. Depending on your point of view, in the end, that may truly be a thing that resides in the mind of the beholder.

FACING FACEBOOK: THE TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS OF A LUMBERING LUDDITE

By Paul M. Lewis

In case you may be unfamiliar with the term, a Luddite is someone who is resistant to new technology, a definition that could all too well be applied to me over the years, especially when it comes to the latest forms of electronic communication.

But, I have to ask, who knew Facebook could be so difficult? I’ve been on it for several days now, and only slowly do I seem to be getting the hang of things. True to my Luddite roots, I resisted for years, but now that I’ve published a novel, I’m told I really should become familiar with the social media movement, since this is one of the best ways of getting word out about the book. I understand that, and I even appreciate that it puts me in contact with whole lot of folks whom I would otherwise never know. But all this comes at something of a price. Maybe because of my inexperience—some might say because of my resistance—the learning curve has been a steep one, and things have taken much longer than I thought they should.

Just the mere process of signing up on Facebook was harder than I expected. But with the patient help of my partner, who is far more computer enabled than I, we were able to successfully achieve this first step. Then came the concept of friending people, which, I have to admit, I found a little strange. This notion of connecting with people I know, and then with friends of theirs, and sometimes with friends of friends of friends, people whom I don’t know and will probably never meet, was a concept that took some getting used to. But it does stand to reason that a friend of a friend could become a good acquaintance. So, I accepted offers of friending from a number of people whom I’d never met, except virtually.

The very term “friending,” in fact, seemed telling to me, rather than the more traditional notion of creating a friendship. But then, the idea of friendship designates a deeper relationship, one that usually presupposes an actual face-to-face, in the flesh meeting of individuals, taking place over a period of time, even years sometimes. It assumes a gradual getting to know one another at some deeper level, a modicum of shared values and interests, and a whole set of any number of other indescribables that unconsciously go into connecting two people who know and like each other. Is it possible that this level of mutual knowledge could take place solely online, where messages for the most part are customarily reduced to a few lines of text? I suppose that miracles, which are by definition rule-breakers, are always possible, although I don’t necessarily count on them.

When I was an adviser to international students at US universities many, many years ago, these foreign students (as we called them then) would sometimes come to me and complain they had a lot of difficulty forming deep friendships with American students. “They’re very pleasant and they smile a lot and ask me how I’m doing,” they’d say to me, “but I never feel I really get to know them.” My ready-made answer was always this: you can’t push a friendship. It has to develop naturally, and for most of us this happens when we’re not really looking, when we’re not even thinking about the idea of making a friend. It happens when you work or study side by side with somebody, or when you join a club that promotes an activity or an ideal you believe in, and maybe you do a project together. Friendships sneak up on you and take you by surprise, mostly while you’re doing something else. And before you even realize it, if you’re lucky, you’re sharing things about yourself and learning about the other person by giving each other the time and emotional space to reveal yourself at a deeper level to that person, and allowing her or him to do the same with you.

To be fair, though, I have been told that this notion of friendship isn’t the real purpose of Facebook. What it’s designed for, on the one hand, is more of a quick way of keeping in touch with people you already know, of finding out what is new and intriguing in the lives of those whom you don’t necessarily get a chance to see all that often, and so more or less of keeping up to date with how they are. And of course there’s nothing wrong with that. Another reason for Facebook is to connect with people whom you may never have known, but who might share similar interests, concerns, or worldviews as you do. Again, nothing at all wrong with that. In fact, it’s good to know that there are folks out there who agree with how we see things and to know that we’re not alone when it comes to how we view important issues, like what to do about global warming. So, if in the process, we also see umpteen pictures of somebody’s grandkids, or yet another photo of Hello Kitty, or of a stranger sipping a grandemochafrappuchinolatte at some generic Starbucks, what’s the harm?

Any longing for the supposed good old days of frequently seeing and talking with people you know and love is maybe overblown and over-romanticized anyway. We all lead busy lives and have less and less time or opportunity to spend hours chatting with friends. And in an ever-increasingly mobile world, friends and relatives move away in order to find jobs, to be near their kids, or to live in places where their money stretches a little further.

As you can probably see, what I’m trying to do is to argue myself into accepting the good that is in Facebook, while simultaneously attempting to wind down the whining about what can, admittedly, be some of its more superficial aspects. As they say, the tool isn’t to blame when it’s misused. So, here’s how I’m going to approach things: I’ll make a valiant attempt to capitalize on the strengths of this technology, which—as I see them—are the ability to get quick, efficient word out to a whole slew of people about a specific topic (usually, one simple message), and to remind folks of subjects that have some importance to me, and maybe to them too. Next, really along the same lines as the first, I’ll use the power of its reach to let people know about the novel I’ve written, to inform them of how they can learn more about it and how they can buy it, if they so wish (see my website at www.paulmlewis.com). And I’ll probably also occasionally browse the information people send out and see what so-and-so is up to of late, especially if I haven’t had the chance to see him or her in quite a while. Really, are her grandkids that big already? Although, I think I’ll pretty much have to draw the line at Hello Kitty.

I get it that the creation of deep friendships is not the forte of Facebook. And that’s fine. In a way, I’ll think of it as advising myself (as I used to advise international students), only this time more or less in reverse. Not every paintbrush is designed to create an amazingly revelatory piece of art. Sometimes, you just need to paint a wall with it. So, I’ll do what I can with this new technology and hope for the best. Maybe one of those miracles might even take place, and I’ll get to know some people better, more deeply, than I ever thought possible. In the meantime, this particular Luddite will try to lighten up, just a little. After all, I’m here to admit to you, I’m on Facebook now, and who knew that could ever happen?