June 2007

Barbara J. King


Tikkun: To Transform the World, Issue by Issue

In the May 13th New York Times Book Review, Michael Kinsley welcomes Christopher Hitchens’s new book God Is Not Great into the crowded fold of militant-atheist attacks on religion: “Hitchens notes tartly that if any one of the major faiths is true, then the others must be false in important respects -- an obvious point often forgotten in the warm haze of ecumenism.” Kinsley glows on: “Disproving the existence of God (at least to his own satisfaction and, frankly, to mine) is just the beginning for Hitchens.”

As Kinsley would have it, Hitchens reveals to us litmus tests for the world’s religions and for God’s existence itself, all for the price of a single volume. Is this -- Hitchens's book, Kinsley's book review -- really what passes for public intellectualism on religion in the U.S. today? It’s way too unoriginal to pull the F word on guys like these anymore, so let me ask a question that relates to, but differs from, a charge of fundamentalism: Is a simplistic dismissal of religion any more relevant to our real world and its troubles than are exhortations grounded in WWJD or the “scientific” analyses of just how many animals Noah could have squeezed onto the Ark? (A pair of true facts according to Ken Ham, Director of Kentucky’s just-opened Creation Museum: All animals on our 6000-year-old Earth were originally herbivores. The Ark had enough space for all the kinds -- not species, but kinds, whatever that means -- of dinosaurs. See full article by Stephen T. Asma in the Chronicle of Higher Education, May 18, 2007).

Despite this new norm, something forcefully different does exist in that space where religion and public intellectualism come together. The real world is abundantly present and problematized in Tikkun, a magazine devoted to politics, spirituality, and culture. “Tikkun,” short for “tikkun olam,” in Hebrew means to mend, repair, and transform the world. Edited by Rabbi Michael Lerner, and an anchor publication of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, Tikkun combines incisive writing by a plurality of authors with ideas for change rooted in spiritual principles. (Disclosure: Recently I was asked to consider submitting an article to Tikkun. Too addled with end-of-semester tasks, I’ve done nothing concrete with this invitation.)

In the March/April edition, Lerner’s editorial, “How to End the War in Iraq,” combines a blunt assessment of failed U.S. foreign policy with a call for action rooted in repentance. It explains a campaign crafted by Lerner and Evangelical minister Tony Campolo:

“Its basic message: the U.S. must apologize and repent for the violence, killings and destruction we’ve unleashed in Iraq, replace its troops with an international force from the Arab League, and must not only provide massive reparations for Iraq but also must launch a Global Marshall Plan.”

This statement was widely disseminated in the media, in the form of an ad petition. In the editorial, Lerner writes, “While the ad emerged from religious leaders, we are hoping that you, our readers, will also sign it, since its contents can just as easily be endorsed by anyone who has an ethical consciousness, whether or not they believe in God or identify with any religion.”

This Strategy of Generosity, as Lerner calls it, springs from a unique mix of grim awareness and bedrock optimism:

“We reject the view held by some left-wing circles that the U.S. is so tainted by its imperial past and present that the only good thing it could do is stay out of the world entirely. That underestimates the goodness of many Americans and writes off a society that has much to offer the world if it could overcome the influence of corporate capital and its desire to dominate the world, and instead insist that corporations act in concert with the highest ethical and spiritual instincts of the American people.”

To shift Americans' grasp of the possible: that's what I take Tikkun's goal to be, and it's more sorely needed now than at any other recent period.  

Following the editorial comes a longer piece by James Bernard Quilligan that serves to flesh out the strategy’s third pillar: “This Global Marshall Plan involves two broad areas -- an emergency program for the world’s poorest nations and the environment, and a plan for restructuring the international economy, its policies, and institutions.”

Most helpful to my grasp of the Plan is Quilligan’s call for Congress to consult with NGOs, the G8, the IMF, the World Bank, and other agencies to pass legislation in support of 22 specific proposals, including these: cancel the debt owed by the world’s 60 poorest nations; increase foreign aid to 1.5-2% GDP; amend the UN charter to expand the present Security Council to include other major world powers and abolish the current use of the veto power. 

Most stirring to my engagement was this: “It is not our intent to spread an ideology. Let others say that America is the hope of the world; we say that the world itself is our hope.” As a scientist working as part of an international organization on global issues, I find beauty in that last sentence. 

This March/April issue veers in a number of directions. Two articles deal with science-and-religion. Tikkun interviewed physicist Bernard Haisch, author of The God Theory, and proved there’s a joy to behold in the pairing of incisive thinkers. After Haisch invoked the Kaballah in discussing his ideas of a primary consciousness, Tikkun commented: “There’s a version of the Kaballah that has a different analysis that says that it’s because that fundamental consciousness is not just a consciousness, but also a loving consciousness, that it desires love and companionship, that it desires an other. That the fundamental birthing of the universe comes out of the desire for connection with an other. So the tilt of the universe is toward making loving connection more and more possible.” In a sort-of-interesting response, Haisch more or less agrees; Tikkun comes back with, “But is it ever really an other if it’s part of the same?”  

My favorite question posed to Haisch was, “But this Big Bang came from something, what banged?” Haisch’s answer carries its own punch: “I would say it was the idea of consciousness.” Too bad that Tikkun had to include an entirely predictable, and to my mind, not so necessary, question: “What is your belief in God?”

In the second religion-science article, Charles Hayes describes the potential “portal to heaven” of magic mushrooms. He left me itching to run straight into the arms of the nearest rationalist. Noting that, “Some of us require a little nudge to take the leap toward faith,” Hayes welcomes the coming psychedelic renaissance. I’ll leave him to it.    

May/June’s Tikkun continues the pattern of mincing no words. Iraq, once more, is a central focus. Two statements, one by Noam Chomsky in an interview, and the other by Michael Lerner in an editorial, sum to a cogent grasp of the war’s moral cost.

Chomsky: “The United States committed the supreme international crime when it invaded Iraq, and it differs from all other crimes in that it encompasses all the evil that follows. That means the horrifying crimes in Falluja and in Abu Ghraib, the sectarian violence, the Samarra atrocities, anything you can think of…”

Lerner: “The war… has led to a decrease in global solidarity, an increase in violence and in validating violence as the way to handle disputes (not only between states, but also between individuals or groups without state power), a decrease in respect for law and legal institutions, and a despair about every being able to create a rational order in the world.”

This Lerner can turn a phrase. Writing about how the “washed-out national Democratic constituency” must be compelled to “actually stand up” and embrace an anti-war stance, he notes, “This must be done in stages so people don’t freak out and think ‘we’re abandoning the troops in the field to be murdered.’’’ 

In The Contrarian column, co-publisher George Vradenburg argues vehemently against specifics of the Lerner-Campolo Global Marshall Plan that were laid out in the previous issue. The core problem for Vradenburg is the proposed routing of development assistance through the UN’s General Assembly. This body, he notes, is composed of “non-democratic and/or poorer-functioning regimes with neither the incentive nor the competence to improve the well-being of those living in their own countries.” Vradenburg offers viable alternative ideas, including the creation of private non-governmental structures to bypass this barrier.

Unsurprisingly given a magazine so diverse, I felt lukewarm about some contents. “Why Torture Continues” is a major theme of the current issue. Larry Dossey’s long article on physician compliance with international torture is effectively written and eye-opening. I wasn’t as moved as Tikkun clearly expects readers to be, though, by Fernando Botero’s Abu Ghraib Series of paintings, and an essay-memoir of torture left me surprisingly conflicted. The hushed drama of Dianna Ortiz’s piece worked against the weight of her message. Explaining why she feels pulled to tell the story of what happened to her in Guatemala years ago, she writes, “And so, what did happen in that place; what did happen to me? I will tell you some of it, some -- but not all, not nearly all of what was done in that place.” Yet who, in the end, would wish to judge anything but Ortiz’s robust courage in her work on behalf of other torture victims, and in her very survival?

Relief came in a flood when, with the turn of a single page, I was transported from the torture series straight into Donna Schaper’s “Getting Real about Food,” and an anecdote about eating pizza on the New York State Ramapo Thruway.

Tikkun isn’t always an easy read. And it shouldn’t be; for the overwhelming majority of humankind, the world it reflects is no easy place to live. Among Tikkun’s most uplifting aspects are its insistence on extending moral equivalence to people of faith and people of no faith, and its religious plurality. The current issue alone contains articles on Buddhism, Hasidic teaching, and Hinduism. In the latter, Nathan Katz writes of “the unshakeable Hindi conviction that all religions are paths leading to the same goal. Metaphors to make this point abound, but it is a cultural bedrock assumption in India…”

Tikkun is a welcome antidote to the reductive roundabout of God-is-Great, God-is-Not-Great. It renews itself every 2 months, and its hope to renew the world is one to share.   

-- Quiz: Why does Barbara J. King suspect that her newest book Evolving God is not among the reading material at Christopher Hitchens’s bedside?