Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #102. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Jan. 2, 2016; in print Jan. 3

How to welcome 2016?  There’s so much spillover from 2015 — death, hate, fear, unhinged rhetoric — it’s hard to come up for air.

Two things I learned last year provide some buoyancy.  I hope the memory of these breakthroughs will keep my spirits up during what is shaping up to be another fraught year.

These two stories seem at first glance to bear no relation to each other: a man walks across the world and Orthodox rabbis issue a declaration.  But at a deep level of history and human flourishing, they resonate.

Pulitzer Prize journalist Paul Salopek is spending seven years walking 21,000 miles (30 million footsteps) in a project called “Out of Eden.”  He started in Ethiopia and will finish in Tierra del Fuego.  He is retracing, on foot, the migration of our ancestors across 2,500 generations.

Salopek started walking in 2013, but the first I heard about it was Nov. 10 in a "PBS NewsHour" segment.   He was about 4,000 miles into his journey, in the Republic of Georgia, which he identifies as “one of the great crossroads of the world: the Caucasus.  An ancient and embattled bridge — between Asia and Europe, between East and West, between Christianity and Islam.”  As he further notes, human groups were encountering each other at this crossroads tens of thousands of years before writing was invented.

In the report, Salopek was doing what I later learned at is his standard practice: “Engaging with the major stories of our time — from climate change to technological innovation, from mass migration to cultural survival — by walking alongside the people who inhabit these headlines every day.  Moving at the slow beat of his footsteps, Paul is also seeking the quieter, hidden stories of people who rarely make the news.”

As a journalist, he posts accounts and illustrates with pictures and videos.  Once a year he does a full-length story in "National Geographic" magazine.

Children in classrooms around the world are following him, asking questions, offering suggestions.  Online learning at its creative, innovative best!

Why do I take heart from Salopek?

There is the sheer fact of his project — an act of imagination on par with that of the great explorers who crossed oceans and continents and of the explorers yet to be, to Mars and beyond.  Yes, he has GPS, but “being found is overrated.  Being a little lost is good, because it keeps you alert … and you are not sleepwalking through the world.”  The blessed craziness of what Salopek is doing is a wakeup call.

Even more heartening is this report of what he has discovered: “The world is, by and large, a hospitable place.”  In the Republic of Georgia he was welcomed into homes, though he was a total stranger.  And he learned archaeologists have unearthed, near where he was staying, the mandible of a human ancestor from 1.8 million years ago that is plausibly interpreted as showing a community’s altruistic care for one of their own who was disabled.  The world was a hospitable place even way back then.

The other news report that boosts my spirits is from Vatican Radio online Dec. 12.

“For the first time since the Second Vatican Council changed Christian teachings toward Judaism and the Jewish people 50 years ago, a group of Orthodox rabbis have issued a public statement advocating partnership with Christians and appreciating the religious value of Christianity.”

Acknowledgement that the council actually “changed Christian teachings” on such a momentous subject is itself noteworthy.   Even more mind-boggling is the statement by the Orthodox rabbis, titled “To Do the Will of Our Father in Heaven: Toward a Partnership between Jews and Christians.”

It’s not just about addressing together “the moral challenges of our era.”   It is about theological affirmation.

Citing two medieval giants of Jewish tradition, Maimonides and Judah Halevi, the 25 rabbis from Israel, the United States and Europe declare: “We acknowledge that Christianity is neither an accident nor an error, but the willed divine outcome and gift to the nations.”

The Catholic avowal of “the eternal Covenant between God and the Jewish people,” a doctrinal position of many other Christian denominations as well, is the precondition for the opening of the rabbis’ statement: “After nearly two millennia of mutual hostility and alienation …” and the conclusion: “We Jews and Christians have more in common than what divides us.”

“The world is, by and large, a hospitable place.”  “More in common than what divides us.”  Our ancestors nearly 2 million years ago appear to have had an inkling of this.  After 2,000 years, Jews and Christians have finally caught on.

Here in Central Minnesota, we could make 2016 a case study in hospitality, shifting focus from what divides us to what unites us.  As St. Thomas Aquinas used to say, “If it has been done, it must be possible.”

Happy New Year!