25 August 2017
I suggest that most of our contemporary issues, concerns, and problems — involving religion, gender, race, patriotism, and politics — focus on personal and group identity in a changing world. The great constant of course is change, and our changing world is changing ever more rapidly.
My entire life I have been an “American” a citizen of the USA. My paternal ancestors arrived in Pennsylvania in 1682. I am proud of that. My American identity, however, has changed and evolved over the years, just as the world identity of the United States has changed over the years…. My entire life I have been a Christian, of the Roman Catholic variety. My Catholic identity over more than seventy years has changed tremendously. Yes I am a critical Catholic but I still identify with the Roman Catholic tradition, as that tradition continues to change and evolve. (And I try to give it a little push from time to time.)
Perhaps the real constant in my life is the realization that I am on a life journey, along a road that sustains me and keeps me going with occasional wonderful surprises; but there are bumps and unhappy twists in the road as well. Change. A fact of life.
Yesterday I finished reading a fascinating book about our changing world: The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan. While one could perhaps question a couple interpretations here and there, the historic panorama that Frankopan depicts is magnificent and provocative in every good way. Peter Frankopan is a senior researcher in Oxford and director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research.
While for many of us the traditional historic view has been that Western civilization descended from the Romans, who were in turn heirs to the Greeks, who, in some historic accounts, were heirs to the Egyptians, Peter Frankopan argues that the Persian Empire was the center point for the rise of humanity. A fascinating perspective, which he presents very persuasively. He begins his 636 paged analysis in Mesopotamia in the sixth century BCE. He then guides the reader through cycles of human creation, destruction, and re-creation right up to our contemporary twenty-first century global transformations. The element that continually stared out at me was how, over millennia, people have turned other people into international slave-trade commodities. Packaging people for the big sale. Or slaughtering them when they were of no practical use.
Frankopan points to periods of wisdom, insight, and discovery. Unfortunately — and far too often — to periods as well of savage brutality executed in the name of God, country, and the world’s great religions. Christians, by the way, have not always been paragons of virtue.
In the book’s final chapter, titled “The New Silk Road,” we find Frankopan’s predictions for tomorrow: “The age of the West is at a crossroads if not at an end….The world is changing around us….networks and connections are quietly becoming knitted together across the spine of Asia; or rather they are being restored. The Silk Roads are rising again.” The world’s center of gravity is shifting East and away from Europe and the United States. Back to the East with all the economic, political, and religious implications arising from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey, etc.; and China of course. I am not fearful but solidly realistic. They may have some contemporary importance; but today’s really big issues are far greater than Trump tweets or tantrums in the White House. Another galactic shift is well underway.
So where does one find identity and security in our tremendously changing global environment? Probably where we always did: in a lived sense of personal dignity and worth reaffirmed by those whom we love and who love us. I offer no pious or romantic platitudes. We need other people to be a real person …. and they need us.
We are all time travelers, but occasionally we forget THAT part of our reality. In a delightful discussion with a group of university students last week, all of a sudden it hit me. My experiences and dreams in the 1950s and 1960s helped to shape my identity. In fact, however, the 1950s and 1960s, today, make about as much sense to these bright young women and men as the stories of the ancient Greeks and their search for the Golden Fleece. We either live in the present or we die in the past. God bless my students. May they live long with critical reflection, insight, and inner contentment.
Change is a fact of human life. The challenge is clear. If we are incapable of respecting and loving those around us here today, we are doomed to end our lives in desperation and violent destruction. This is our contemporary truth message (with nothing “alt” about it). It rings true down the street, across the country, and around the globe.
Our perspectives do change over time, if we are alert time travelers. My theological understanding of reality, for instance, has changed tremendously. Terms like “supernatural” and “metaphysical” are no longer part of my vocabulary. Reality is a unified whole, with many dimensions. Space, time, and spiritual dimensions …and probably many more! And far more exciting than a magnificent solar eclipse.
God is not “up there” or “out there.” God, “divinity,” “the sacred,” “the holy” is as close to us as the air in our lungs and the poundings in our hearts. God-with-us is the greatest source of security for time travelers. We need to listen, think, and explore a bit more. We are not alone.
A final reflection about living in sometimes turbulent times, whether in Charlottesville, Barcelona, or the shopping mall across town: Time travelers will have a more contented and a more optimistic journey when they keep their eyes open, their minds receptive and alert, and – like people packing suitcases for a big journey – when they only only carry with them the values and attitudes that sustain and support human life. The rest should be discarded as unneeded and unhealthy baggage.