Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Arguing with the Preacher

Years ago in Oakland, an hour or so after Sally and I had a rather vigorous discussion of our financial situation, two-year old Erin toddled into the kitchen, picked a stray penny off the floor and threw it into the kitchen waste basket in a perfect slam dunk. Without pausing from her work at the sink, Sally said, "She takes after you."

Well-timed and witty as her comment was, I claim that it was not entirely original. It is my contention that Sally obtained her ability to link me with character traits in our children from her dear departed mother. Cleo would watch her grandchildren hour upon hour, taking note of their behavior and predicting what kind of adults they might become. Anytime Cleo observed stubborn, headstrong, or selfish behavior, as is likely when watching three-year old children, she would casually note that they clearly took after me.

Of course my children do take after me, and after their wonderful mother, and after all those who went before us in our lines of descent. However, the kids are NOT me, nor Sally, nor anyone else that has ever been. Each of them is a unique and gifted individual, new and valuable in their own right.

I recalled Erin's slam dunk when I read a headline on CNN this morning: Is Obama a Carter or a Clinton? On the occasion of his 100th day in office, the pundits are desperate to find a pigeonhole in which to place Obama. It is as if we struggle to comprehend the present unless we can do so within the familiar confines of the past. We seem to hold tight, like the Preacher, to the notion:

What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.
 (Ecclesiastes 1:9)                                  

I fear that the concept of changelessness is the dominant worldview of our age. Opposition to teaching the theory of evolution in the public schools and opposition to the reality of human-caused climate change are each rooted in the view that nothing really changes; that all things are now as they always were, and always will be. World without end. Amen.

Of course, if nothing really changes, then there is no need to ask questions about ethics or morality. We need not consider arguments in favor of gay marriage, or physician-assisted suicide, or birth control, or women in the priesthood, because to do so would be tantamount to the admission that times have changed... that we know things now our forbearers did not... that seemingly "timeless" principles have become outdated.

We live in a new world, where a disease that breaks out in one corner of Mexico quickly spreads around the world. We live in a world where people of various religions and no religion live in the same neighborhoods. The old, tribal rules of conduct no longer protect us, but rather put all of us at risk. But opening the door to new principles and new ideas seems terribly risky to a people whose fondest vision for tomorrow is a recreation of their nostalgic longings for yesterday.

My kids are not me. And whether you like him or not, Obama is neither Carter nor Clinton. Tomorrow will be a new day, and not a rerun. It's time for us to embrace the notion that change is both real and relentless. We cannot avoid the future, but we can shape it, if we're willing to be free.

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