It’s hard to get too excited about Advent when your partner’s mother just died, and now it’s time to euthanize the cat (peacefully done), but at some point, the holy season does seep in. We’ve got the Nativity Scene that Lynne made in high school art class, which her mother always used to display. We’ve got some holiday music that plays when the alarm goes off every morning. The Spode is on the table and the tree is twinkling in its corner.
But Scripture, this year… not so much. Social justice has been on my mind for years now, more about humanism and chaplaincy than scripture and liturgy. My soul yearns for going to church in this season, but it’s the only time all week when my partner (for whom I am the full time caregiver) goes out safely and I get the house to myself.
But somehow, reflections have arisen anyway. Christians are not just waiting, hoping, preparing for a baby, but for a Prince of… what? In the 1960s and 1970s, the Prince of Peace language resonated strongly. Yeah! Jesus is coming and he wants to end the war. He wants to end apartheid. He wants us to be nice to each other; that might even be enough.
Before that, in the era now known to economists as The Great Compression — in which union power, the Civil Rights movement, regulatory energy, and a certain amount of religious shaming forced the to maintain both floors and ceilings on how much money a household could bring in during any earning year. We Unitarian Universalists expressed this with humanist liturgical rhetoric about the oneness of all humanity. The ways we’re all alike. Not wrong, but a little over-homogenizing.
And then came the Prince of Opportunity, the king of riches unleashed. There is plenty of Scripture about abundance, which a different religious theory oversold as fully as we liberals, in the 1960s and 1970s, oversold the lion lying down with the lamb. It has been a time of binary ethics. You’re either at one pole or the other, when it comes to religious aspiration, and never the twain shall meet.
So what are we looking for now? What is Jesus calling us to work on, offer up, provide and protect in the public realm?
Not just any math, but the language of math as a tool for reopening conversations about economic justice by showing us how to read continuums. Continuums make philosophers crazy, because they inhabit the gray space between extremes. The dynamics of each system, each ideal, each group make contributions. The question about that contribution is, “What is the right amount?” And they take something from the other’s assets. Again, the correct answer is, “How much?” During The Great Compression, the goal was not to find a perfect mid-point, but to lay out a range of improvements. Each side was called upon to set aside its highest possible achievement and work to find the floor below which it could not function.
And this was where religious shaming came in. Everyone thinks they need more. I spend an entire evening of my life the other night perusing the website of Tiffany & Company. Ostensibly, I was looking for a wedding ring, but I lingered even longer over earrings, necklaces, even bracelets. I would never wear most of them, never have a place for any of them. But what about that one really simple gold set that I’ve admired since I was a teenager? Is it really too late for me to hope for that, just to make my teeshirts look like a backdrop instead of an after-thought?
But then the religious shaming kicks in. What about the miners who brought this metal out of the ground? What about the money I should be putting aside for emergencies? What about my friends who struggle to pay children’s tuitions? It is religion in its broadest sense — my sense of being tied to all these folks — that raises these questions for me.
But since not everyone feels that intimacy, more and more, protest turns to the unemotional language of math. There’s a lot of emphasis these days on reclaiming our nation’s mythical mathematical primacy. The New York Times has had two articles which support the idea, but challenge the way that primacy is being defined. Should we abolish algebra? Andrew Hatcher asked last summer. He made a provocative argument, that we alienate students from math at an early age, by presenting a series of arcane, complicated tricks as the necessary craft. In a sort of follow-up yesterday, the Times editorial board returned to the question, pointing out that students quickly take from their encounter with these “skills” the double negative that they cannot do math, and that much of it is probably not relevant.
Not only is The Times right to bring this up, but they make a point that takes the matter past patriotism to the essence of religious expression. “Religio,” of course, means “tied together.” But math looks at known science, not to predict — a hazy business, as any cleric will aver — but to determine how many units of one agent are required to augment or counteract the units another agent exerts in, or from, an opposite direction. In this vision of accomplishment, not one or the other, but the way they is the catalyst. each must meet with enough strength to retain its core of being after the encounter has extracted or exploded some measure of inherent energy.
So that’s my Jesus this Advent: neither a lion nor a lamb, not a serpent, not a dove. Instead he’s got a blackboard and a multiplication chart. He’s here to remind us exactly what each of us is made of — made, I might mention, by God — and to challenge us to interact in such a way that each goes home with most of their sacred essence intact.
Science now knows the defintion of that integrity. It is a certain number of calories — of certain components — consumed at certain intervals. It is a certain amount of sleep, a certain amount of certain kinds of energy. It can expect a certain amount of degradation — illness, injury, insult — over its lifespan, and requirements for recuperation will vary according to environmental and biographical details.
From that data set — the floor of human requirements for healthy living — mathematics lays out certain numbers that become the ceilings for avarice, greed, lust.
How much money must a government take in to sustain the social programs its people require? What does that money buy?
What is the total debt payment per month of a college graduate compared to the monthly wage they can expect to earn upon graduation?
How many trees does it take to offset the carbon output of the jet emissions you bought for your vacation?
How much water can a healthy root system — including a beachfront wetland — absorb during an inundation emergency?
So that’s my Jesus this year. Not the king of pretty pictures, not the rabbi with difficult questions, but the teacher with a blackboard, chalk, and eraser. The one who makes you write out your long division, leave your calculator at the door and pick it up on your way back out. The one who has you stand in rows and recite the multiplication tables. The one who sits down and helps you reason out your word problems, listen to the question and write each element. Probably not a man, this time, but a woman. Probably not in her prime, but tired from grading papers and writing, “You got the wrong answer but you did the process correctly. 4+3 is 7, but you wrote 8, even though you saw that the factors were 4 and 3. Half credit for that.”
Isnt’ that really the reason an avaricious government likes to keep us discouraged about math? The easier it is, the harder it will be for — as Jesus put it — the rich man to enter heaven.