Thursday, October 23, 2014

Thursday's Reflection: The Entangled Bank

Once upon a time a young girl who was a freshman in college was taking a biology class because she had to--in order to fulfill the distribution requirements for graduation. In her mind, it was better than taking a math course. One day while working in the lab dissecting a fetal pig or at least attempting to, the professor, who seemed ancient to the young girl, looked at what she was doing and very quietly asked, "Miss Jensen, what is your major?" She replied, "English." He said, "Good," and moved on. Somehow the young girl passed the class, but from that day forward science was not part of her personal curriculum.

Until now. That same young girl--now a woman over 65--is taking a theology class in which Darwin and his theory of evolution as explained in his famous treatise, On the Origin of Species is being explored. She still feels overwhelmed by some of the vocabulary and the ideas and the applications and implications of the theory, although she fully accepts it. The difference between then and now is not only that she isn't getting a grade, but she, too, has evolved and is more willing to struggle with what she doesn't understand easily. 

That young girl, obviously, was me, and I am the old woman now taking a theology class in which questions about the the value of the natural world within the framework of religious belief is being explored, and I find it fascinating. How about that, Dr, Lofthus?? The book we are studying is Ask the Beasts, Darwin and the God of Love by Elizabeth A. Johnson, the brilliant academic who is perhaps best known for her book She Who Is, The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. She is not afraid to challenge what has been accepted or hidden or considered unimportant by the church. In her most current book she probes the idea that "love of the natural world is an intrinsic element of faith in God and that far from being an add-on, ecological care is at the center of moral life." 

Discussions at the Monday night class are always provocative and lively and even though I often feel totally overwhelmed, not only as a non biologist, but also as a lay theologian sitting with a group of intelligent and dare I say, radical Catholic sisters who have devoted their lives to the service of God and study of theological issues, I show up week after week, and I am learning so much.

In the last paragraph of Darwin's On the Origin of Species he writes beautifully of the world around him. 
          It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank,
          clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds
          singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting
          about, and with worms crawling through the damp
          earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed
          forms, so different from each other, and dependent on
          each other in so complex a manner, have all been
          produced by laws acting around us. 

The class has been encouraged to notice "entangled banks" around us, as we walk in our gardens or in a park or while driving in the countryside or along the nearby Mississippi River. The natural world is an amazing mix of life and growth, and I am in awe and grateful. Because I am who I am, however, the phrase, "entangled bank," has raised in me an additional response. A metaphorical response.

I think about the entangled banks in my own life. Foe example, my bookshelves. The bookshelves in my garret shelves are teeming with life--my version of plants of many kinds, 
birds singing, insects flitting, worms crawling. These shelves show my spiritual and theological history. How surprising to find Elizabeth Johnson sitting next to Robert A. Johnson who wrote the seminal book on dreamwork or my, oh my, Julian of Norwich is next to Jon-Kabat-Zinn, the famous proponent of Buddhist mediation in our everyday life. The author of Wherever You Go, There You Are. I suspect they have been having fascinating conversations all these years. Bishop John Shelby Spong of the Episcopal church and Malidoma Patrice-Some from West Africa, who wrote The Healing Wisdom of Africa, Finding Life Purpose Through Nature, Ritual and Community, no doubt have enjoyed their alphabetical companionship. Books by Thomas Merton, who died far too young, is next to a book about creative aging. On the first shelf eleven books by Karen Armstrong spread out, knowing how important they have been in my personal theological development, and they know I will make room for any future books by her. 

I see great beauty in the mix of topics and ideas and backgrounds and practices and tools. All of these books reflect my interests and my spiritual and intellectual growth and change over the years. But there is also some chaos --the stacks of books I have yet to read and have not yet found their place on my shelves. Will other books need to be eliminated in order to make room for the new?

The flow of my life. My own entangled bank. 

My bookshelves are a visible and tangible entangled bank, but I think about other areas in my life over the years where there has been gradual change; where I have embraced diversity. At times the Big Picture has taken precedence over the specific, the particular. At times it has been difficult to sort through what feels like chaos in order to see the beauty and the potential. Right now, for example,  I am in an entangled bank of my own interests --all the things I want to do in this stage of my life. 

Darwin, much to my surprise, offers some guidance and reassurance, "There is grandeur in this view of life." To recognize and appreciate and honor the entangled banks of life keeps us stretching and growing.

An Invitation
As you move in the natural world, the outer world, notice the entangled banks. What do you see? Then think about the entangled banks in your own life? Where has there been diversity and change? Perhaps even some chaos? What looks different in your life today than it did a month ago or even yesterday? I would love to know.  

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