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Tom Chaney: What we need is here

Of Writers And Their Books: "What We Need Is Here." Tom reviews An American Gospel, Erik Reece's attempt to reconcile doing good on earth with escaping to heaven. This column first appeared 31 May 2009.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: So Open to Infinity

By Tom Chaney

"What We Need Is Here"
--Wendell Berry

Leo Tolstoy observed that one cannot believe in both the Sermon on the Mount and the Nicene Creed. The Sermon on the Mount begins with the beatitudes and Jesus charges his audience to "love their enemies, turn the other cheek, give to those who beg, and avoid hypocritical judgments." The Creed is an assertion of the need to escape the world through sacrifice.

Thus Erik Reece begins his new book, An American Gospel: On Family, History and the Kingdom of God, [Riverhead Books, 2009] citing Tolstoy's essay "the Kingdom of God is Within You."

Tolstoy argues that either one accepts the requirements of the Sermon on how to live life in the world, or the Creed as a means of escape from a wicked world. Tolstoy observes that "The man who believes in salvation through faith in the redemption or the sacraments, cannot devote all his powers to realizing Christ's moral teaching in his life."

It is this dichotomy which Reece explores in the life of his own family and for which he offers a resolution in the works of American writers such as William Byrd, Thomas Jefferson, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James, John Dewey, and Lynn Margulis.

No student of colonial American literature can escape the wrath evident in the sermons of Jonathan Edwards or the religion-induced guilt of the poet/minister Edward Taylor. Sinners held over the blazing pit of hell; guilt, blood, sacrifice. For the puritans the native Americans were imps of Satan surrounding the city on the hill where the redeemed were bivouacked in their circle of redemption.

Temporal life according to the established church -- of whatever persuasion -- is mere proving ground for the afterlife. Escaping to heaven is its aim.

Reece has worked much of his life to free himself from the fundamental -- Baptist view of the world -- a struggle which he has shared with many of us. Like Brer Rabbit working to get away from the tar baby, total extraction is most difficult.

The American gospel he sees in The Jefferson Bible and Whitman's Leaves of Grass relies much on the early Gospel of Thomas and has much in common with the teachings of Buddha.

Jefferson's religion was a most private matter. He left us The Jefferson Bible which boils down the story of the New Testament -- eliminating the miracles and claims of divinity -- leaving just the teachings of Jesus.

According to Jefferson the world's values are upside down. "Material riches do not constitute real wealth; . . . being true to one's self is more important than being loyal to one's family; . . . the natural economy that birds and lilies follow is superior to the economy based on Caesar's coinage or bankers who charge interest."

Whitman sees the divine in the leaves of grass and perceives the cosmic nature of his fleshy self.
"Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touched from;
The scent of these arm-pits is aroma finer than prayer,
This head is more than churches or bibles or creeds,
If I worship any particular thing it shall be some of the spread of my body...."
The American gospel which Reece delineates is comprised of "the oldest and newest myth that the natural world is a holy realm where 'there is no God any more divine than Yourself' because there is no separation among Creator, Creation, and Yourself."

In a previous book Reece described the devastation of mountaintop removal -- blasting the tops off the oldest mountains in the world to get at seams of coal. He calls this "merely a local example of our country's disastrous refusal to understand the Creation as the work of a divine Creator in whom ninety-five percent of Americans say they believe."

In An American Gospel Reece attempts to recover this radical, democratic "alternative to where we are right now." In the process he recounts a personal narrative aimed at finding that Gospel, explaining how it appears in the American writers mentioned above.

Grandson of a fundamental Baptist minister in Tidewater Virginia, Reece deals with that theology and the guilt it engenders -- in part responsible for his own father's suicide.

With a shift in the view of this world from that of a prelude to glory to that of all of what we need, the American gospel might lead to a reinvention of oneself and the American landscape in ways that "are truly more meaningful, more reverent, more just."

Perhaps in the natural world and in our natures we can find "two mirrors that infinitely reflect the kingdom of God. There we might find our refuge and our calling."

But, as Reece notes, it is hard to disentangle oneself from the world view set forth in the old gospel song, "This world is not my home, I'm just a passing through."

Can we, perhaps, understand the words of Wendell Berry?
". . . And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart and in eye
clear. What we need is here."

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2014-06-01 05:45:35
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