Sunday, July 24, 2022

First Draft: Small is Beautiful


From my library

The Concord Monitor recently ran a column about the advantages of “learning to live with less” by Christine Platt who found: “Living more consciously has allowed me to regain control over my finances as well as my sanity. I have also learned to live more sustainably, which benefits me and the environment.”⁠1

I wrote a column on this same subject a few years ago in the Monitor, in which I concluded: “Rather than looking for the salvation promised us by the capitalistic gods of advertising – only to be slowly crushed under the increasing weight of shoddy and superfluous material goods – wouldn’t it be nice to escape all that and, instead, surround ourselves solely with those few items, in thought and deed, that define the essence of who we are.”

Returning to this topic today triggers fond memories of my old love affair with  “Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered,” a book written in 1973 by E. F. Schumacher – called at the time “a manifesto from a radical countercultural world.”⁠2 Fortunately – after being first pooh-poohed – and then forgotten for 50 years – his thesis is gaining support that unlimited growth is terrible for average folks and the planet, backed up most recently in the NYT by the lauded economist Herman Daly.⁠3

Schumacher was a truth-teller like the little kid in the Hans Christian Anderson folktale who was the only one to see that the emperor had no clothes on.  Walter G. Moss has detailed how Schumacher was far ahead of his time:

“Already in the 1950s Schumacher had been warning the world, and especially the United States, of the dangers of an over-reliance on fossil fuels like oil. Not only was he concerned about exhausting non-renewable resources, but he also decried the increasing pollution that accompanied escalating economic growth and consumption. He was concerned with the types of air and water pollution that Rachel Carson wrote about in her 1962 book, Silent Spring⁠4

Schumacher forcefully argued that bigness is impersonal, insensitive, and motivated by a lust for power; “smallness, on the other hand, is free, efficient, creative, enjoyable, and enduring –”⁠5  in the spirit of local farmers markets today.

He wrote how modern society has reduced employees to anonymous cogs in a colossal machine, sacrificing craft skills and human relationships to the single-minded pursuit of profit.“What Schumacher wanted was a people-centred economics because that would, in his view, enable environmental and human  sustainability.”⁠6

Can we build such a society? Daly, in that recent NYT interview, was not sure. However, he was positive that unlimited growth was a recipe for disaster. Perhaps, part of the answer, he ventured, involved spiritual improvement. “That gets you into fundamental religious questions: What is the meaning of life? Where did I come from? What’s going to happen when I die? These are questions people used to think of as fundamental. Now they’re marginal, unscientific.”⁠7

Schumacher’s philosophy also contains a strong spiritual component, suggesting the ultimate aim of life is about gaining wisdom. With regret, he noted, “the traditional wisdom of all peoples in all parts of the world . . . [has] become virtually incomprehensible to modern man.”⁠8

“He frequently refers to other religions or quotes varied religious thinkers and mystics like Buddha, the Muslim Sufi poet Rumi, Lao-tzu (founder of Taoism), as well as Christians like the medieval Thomas Aquinas and older Western philosophers such as Socrates, Plato [and] Aristotle. He even includes writers like Dante and Shakespeare as outstanding representatives” of traditional wisdom.”⁠9

Technological fixes will only exacerbate our problems, not solve them unless guided by wisdom. “From an economic point of view,” Schumacher says, “the central concept of wisdom is permanence.” Such endurance comes not from advances in science and technology but from studying Nature, which is “self-balancing, self-adjusting, self-cleansing.” When it comes to uncontrolled growth, the only example in  the natural world is cancer.

The major advantage of a human-sized society is that people matter, according to Schumacher. Conversely, I think much of America’s current discontent and polarization is because too many of us feel invisible and undervalued, lost souls in a mass society that richly rewards the elite while ignoring the human needs of the rest of us.

Luckily, following in Schumacher’s giant footsteps, the degrowth movement is now becoming a force again, unveiling intriguing economic alternatives that could make us ecologically sustainable while, at the same time, giving everyone a chance to live a fulfilling life. (For more on the degrowth movement, see my column from 4/20/22.)⁠10



1 Concord Monitor. 7/20/22. Page A7.



4 “The Wisdom of E. F. Schumacher.” © 2010 by Walter G. Moss

5 E. F. Schumacher: Changing the Paradigm of Bigger Is Better by Roli Varma. BULLETIN OF SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY & SOCIETY. P.1


7 Ibid.

8 “A Guide for the  Perplexed” by E. F. Schumacher. Harper & Row. 1977. p. 13

9 “The Wisdom of E. F. Schumacher.” © 2010 by Walter G. Moss


Monday, July 18, 2022

We Are All One

A bustling maternity ward of baby stars in space: 

The young, star-forming region in the Carina Nebula captured by 

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope 


Two recent happenings have blown my socks off. The first was discovering the Mexican American poet Ada Limón. She will be our next Poet Laureate and is vowing to use her position to help our nation “become whole again.”⁠1

"Dead Stars" is the extraordinary poem that first attracted me to her. At the poem's beginning, the speaker and another person are outdoors, pointing out the stars that makeup Orion's constellation. They talk about learning some new constellations, but more than that, the speaker says, they have forgotten their bodies are made of dead stars:

But mostly we’re forgetting we’re dead stars too, my mouth is full

      of dust and I wish to reclaim the rising—

to lean in the spotlight of streetlight with you, toward

      what’s larger within us, toward how we were born.

Look, we are not unspectacular things.

      We’ve come this far, survived this much. What

would happen if we decided to survive more? To love harder?

What if we stood up with our synapses and flesh and said, No.

     No, to the rising tides.

Ada Limon’s poem is a call for action to shake us out of our postmodern malaise. What if, instead, we stiffened our spines to survive more, love harder, and collectively put our shoulders to the wheel to curb climate change; what “if we launched our demands into the sky, made ourselves so big people could point to us with the arrows.”

My second epiphany, in concert with Ada Limon’s lyric call for action, happened when the new James Webb Space telescope was unveiled. Right on time, choreographed too perfectly to be credible in a novel, science has indeed “launched our demands into the sky!” This all-powerful telescope is a modern-day totem, which, coupled with Limon’s poem, is capable of restoring the mythic, mind-blowing wonder of being alive back into our myopic, soap opera, ad-infected, pedestrian  lives.

Ada Limon is a visionary like the revered astronomer Carl Sagon who was the first to impress upon us that “we are made of star stuff.” (It’s a fact: the matter in our bodies was created in stars at the beginning of time.) Like Limon, “He wanted people to know, we are marvelous, and our story is too.”⁠2 Furthermore, “Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return.”  

Telescopes allow us access to that ancient time, the earliest days of our story, to reframe the big questions we’ve been asking about the nature of life. Humans are explorers by nature, and it’s no surprise that we would explore stars, too. As Shannon Stirone has written in the NYT:“For thousands of years humans etched stars on rocks and painted constellations on cave walls. We’ve been looking up, echoing a cosmic gaze that is built into our bones, blood and history.⁠3

Inspired explorers of the mind like Carl Jung and Mircea Eliade have long been sensitive to the primal significance of dust and bone. As Eliade has written: "Indeed, for the hunting peoples, the bone symbolizes the ultimate root of animal Life… when they die their "life" is reduced to the essence concentrated in the skeleton, whence they will be born anew according to an uninterrupted cycle…By contemplating himself as a skeleton, the shaman does away with time and stands in the presence of the eternal source of Life."⁠4 

Now, for the first time, that eternal source has been made visible with the debut of our revolutionary new telescope, capable of looking back 13 billion years, almost to the beginning of time.  It’s virtually impossible not to share Stirone’s sense of awe at what the telescope brings alive:

“galaxies wrap around one another, swinging past and tearing their dusty, star-riddled arms apart in a violent ballet. Stars are born, birthing new solar systems full of planets; galactic glitter sprinkles the screen as if splattered with a cosmic paintbrush. Each speck of light in that image, each swirling swath of color, contains potentially trillions of planets, many of which are like ours.⁠5

Awash in our discontent from excessive navel-gazing and political posturing, this is a perfect time to step back and share this sacred moment brought into focus by two of our own: a poet and an astronomer. They are confirming what the great mystics have always preached. We should all take a deep breath and soak in the message.

We Are All One.





3 Ibid.

4 Mircea Eliade’s  book, Myths, Dreams and Mysteries: The Encounter Between Contemporary Faiths and Archaic Realities—see especially his comments on "bones," pp. 83-84.


Thursday, July 14, 2022

Christianity Out of the Barrel of a Gun

Only the Facade Remains
 St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Dover NH being demolished
CC Jean Stimmell: Winter of 2017

Religious beliefs have varied enormously over the centuries around the world, including in the U.S. today, where articles of faith differ radically between individuals. Ordinarily, one could argue this is good: that our breadth of views validates the complexity of the topic, proving, once and for all, the grand and sacred mystery of life.

Having a breadth of views is admirable, but it becomes disastrous when different dominations feel compelled to fight for their beliefs. While the old saying is false that  "More people have died in the name of religion than any other cause on earth," neither is religion an innocent party, as Alain de Botton, a philosopher, has observed: 

“None of this is to excuse the undeniable barbarity unleashed by religionists over the centuries. The misogyny, beheadings, terrorism, killings, beatings and cruelty are real. They continue. Today we see a growing battle in the Middle East between Shi'ite and Sunni; a Jewish state unleashing militancy against Christian and Muslim Palestinians; and an anti-gay crusade led by some Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders that threatens the sanctity of life itself.”⁠1

Continuing on this theme, Thomas Merton, the celebrated Trappist  monk, accused Catholics during the Cold War of being infected with worldly values for advocating military force, even threatening using nuclear weapons, to protect their power. He expressed sadness that believers did not take Jesus's non-violent ethics seriously. Merton’s point is relevant to the present moment in more ways than one.⁠2

A recent NYT article documents how far-right Christian candidates are pursuing power by mixing religious fervor with conspiracy theories, even calling for the end of the separation of church and state.⁠3  They encourage the violent overthrow of our government, urging citizens to arm themselves for the fight ahead.

A good example is Doug Mastriano, Pennsylvania state senator and a Republican gubernatorial candidate: he is explicitly promoting Christian power in America supported by an armed citizenry. At the opening of a far-right event where he spoke, "A robotic voice-over forecast a 'great awakening,' and an image of a guillotine blade accompanied the promise of 'executions, justice, victory.'"

No talk here about Jesus turning the other cheek.

Another example is extremists in the pro-life movement pushing for “abortion abolition:” “a move to criminalize abortion from conception as homicide, and hold women who have the procedure responsible — a position that in some states could make those women eligible for the death penalty.”⁠4

What is next: witch trials?

Elizabeth Neuman is a devout Christian raised in the evangelical tradition and a former top official at the Department of Homeland Security. She warns us that such violent extremism is not an aberration but "the troubling-but-natural outgrowth of a strain of American Christianity…having nigh-apocalyptic stakes and a strong authoritarian streak.”⁠5

Some Christian nationalists are overtly embracing war. A recent book, "Christianity at War, the Manifesto for Christian Militancy," takes it as a badger of honor that Christianity has been at war since the beginning of humanity; the author believes the last battle is now at hand: the final struggle between Christendom and the empire of Anti Christ.

Professor Andrew Whitehead, the lead author of the award-winning book, Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States, writes that Christian nationalism is a political theology that legitimizes the type of violence we saw on Jan. 6, not in service of democracy but instead for fundamentally anti-democratic goals.⁠6

The latest Supreme Court decisions have further enflamed these conservative religious zealots, causing them to escalate their venomous and violent rhetoric, divorcing them even further from Jesus’s Golden Rule. If nothing else, it proves the old proverb: “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”










Tuesday, July 5, 2022

The Mystery of Life


Seapoint Beach, Kittery ME
CC Jean Stimmell

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a positive voice raised against today’s doomsday handwringing. Krista Tippett also exudes hope for the future: She has become a leading spiritual voice of our times through her podcasts, interviewing exceptional people “whose insights kindle in us a sense of wonder and courage.”⁠1 

In her latest book,“Becoming Wise,”⁠2 she uncovers how wisdom is gained, not by denying the most tragic aspects of our lives but by facing them. Time and time again, she has drawn out stories of folks who have walked through darkness and hardship but “integrated them into wholeness on the other side.” They became not fixed   but “whole and healed,” not despite their trauma, but because “they let it become part of who they are.” 

Hope for Tippett is connected to her unique understanding of theology. While she says optimism is only wishful thinking, hope is a reality- based, spiritual force.“It sees the darkness. It takes that seriously. It sees the possibility for good and redemption. And takes that seriously. And it’s a choice. And it’s also — it’s an action. It’s something you put into practice.”

Redemption is a radical notion for Tippet. Although she doesn’t think humans are innately sinful, it is clear we all screw up. “Every single one of us. And collectively, we’re making massive mistakes.”⁠3 Despite our flaws, she believes we are all redeemable, relating the example of what Mother Teresa told a group of death row inmates at San Quentin Prison: “If you want to see the face of God, look at the prisoner standing next to you.” Then she adds, “I see the face of God when I look at you.”⁠4

She believes hope is fostered from practicing rituals within a community. “Hope, like every virtue, is a choice that becomes a habit that becomes spiritual muscle memory. It’s a renewable resource for moving through life as it is, not as we wish it to be.”⁠5 Modern neuroscience agrees that habits determine who we are: What we practice is who we become. One can become “more patient, being more hopeful, being more compassionate just like it goes for any other skill.” 

Tippett admits it was a turning point for her to discover theology has more to do with humans than god: While psychology can make sense out of part of who we are, only theology and philosophy explore in-depth “ our contradictoriness, and our complexity, and our beauty, and strangeness, and our possibilities.

Sadly, she relates how soaring political rhetoric, which traditionally helped hold us together as a nation, has sunk into a divisive, knife-throwing contest between parties. Generous and inclusive words, what some might call spiritual, have fallen by the wayside: “Peace is strangely divisive. Justice is somehow partisan.⁠6

None of us can know the ultimate truth, Tippet says, quoting the renowned physicist Brian Greene: “The fundamental nature of reality, as far as we can grasp it now is fundamentally hidden from us at this stage in our development as a species.”⁠7  While we may think our dining room table is made out of 100% solid wood, it is actually 99% empty space in a force-field of spinning atoms, just like our bodies. In other words, we are made up of nothingness. 

Children, Tippet writes, have a natural affinity for exploring this unknown: the inquiry, the enormous curiosity about this universe, and the hope that somehow those answers will come about.” What children and religion have in common is a burning desire to answer these questions. “Mystery is such an important part of it.”⁠8 

That’s my biggest takeaway from her book: Understanding spiritual practice as a mystery.

We don’t know any more about the big questions in life than our cave-dwelling ancestors. The difference is that the ancients worshipped the mystery of it all while we moderns, the sophisticated ones, deny it. Cutting across the myopia of our increasingly secular society, Tippet looks to theology as the one force that can bring us together on a higher plane, celebrating the holy mystery of life itself.

I will conclude with my own more pagan-like example illustrating the mystery of growing old that I once sent to my mentor, the psychologist Peter Baldwin: “Ah, isn’t life wonderful in its multifaceted mystery, so mind-blowing if we could just let go… fearlessly riding bareback into the sunset on a run-away stallion.”⁠9




2 Tippett, Krista. Becoming Wise Deluxe. Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition

3 p 215-216

4 p 207-208

5 p. 11.

6 Ibid. Page 16.

7 Ibid. page 183

8 Ibid 166

9 “A Memoir” by Peter Baldwin. Xlibris, 2017. page 53