Stanley Dundee

Theological Engineering

I guess the nature of our oldest ceremonies was thanksgiving. Our ancestors were being grateful. Those were the two instructions we had: Be thankful and Enjoy life. We build nations around those instructions. [Chief Oren Lyons in Huston Smith's A Seat at the Table, p. 174]

2020-11-17 v. 1

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in 2001, I found myself in a condition of profound disorientation. My comfortable, conventionally successful life to that date had relied on comfortable, widely shared assumptions of scientific and social progress. Watching those towers fall, I had to wonder if these assumptions were tenable.

I embarked on a program of enquiry back then. There were some breakthroughs along the way. Eventually my attention was drawn to the spiritual void at the center of modern, secular life. What had seemed like progress in abandoning the superstition and arbitrariness of conventional religious beliefs in favor of objective science was coming to look like a drastic mistake that was having tragic consequences. A society with nothing to hold sacred beyond the interest and identity of each individual was one that was starting to look hopelessly doomed.

In the time we are in now, cultures and industrialization are causing people to uproot, to be constantly moving. What is happening is a result of colonialism. You have this idea that there is a constant frontier. There is always a new place to go, a new place that is going to be better. This is a belief that totally pushes against who we are as indigeneous people. Our teachings say this is the place where we are, and that we are okay here. What happens through this process of constantly moving ahead is what you see today—an ecological crisis—which you and I know is what's happening in the world right now. . . . All around the world you have this crisis as a consequence of a larger spiritual crisis in society, of not having a place to call home, to be responsible for. [Winona LaDuke, in Huston Smith's A Seat at the Table, p. 50]

What to do? I wondered if religion (or lack thereof, or a failure of recognition, as in the worship of Mammon) was at the root of the matter. Maybe what we needed here in the USA was a new religion that would fill that spiritual void with something benign, give us some purpose in life beyond struggling for money, power, and prestige. I'm an engineer: I had a career building models in software and using them to transform information. Maybe there's something analagous in religion; I would call it theological engineering. Attempting to engineer benign social outcomes through transformation of spiritual media. I know, not exactly a humble pursuit but I was only half serious and it was about entertainment and intellectual growth as much as healing the harms of American society.

I undertook a study of comparative religion, figuring there would be recurrent elements that could be borrowed in hacking up something useful. I was especially impressed with the writings of Eric J. Sharpe and Huston Smith. Smith taught religion as wisdom tradition, in which the most valuable insights into human life were channelled, preserved, and transmitted. I accepted that paradigm, and proceeded accordingly.

But it was really the example of my dad that gave me the kernel of insight that is the foundation of this project. At the bedrock of my dad's understanding, he knew that he had been the recipient of enormous blessing: escape from the Nazis, reunion with his sisters, two loving wives, children, grandchildren, all of his extended family, including in-laws and step-family, health and vigor, professional satisfaction and recognition, material abundance, so much blessing that he could only shake his head in wonder.

He didn't fool himself that he'd somehow deserved all that. He had done his duty with his enthusiasm for hard work, diligence, and empathy and sincerity towards all. But he never imagined that somehow his blessings were earned. They were bestowed, and he knew it. And who was the giver? Mysterious.

So he was grateful! Everyone who knew him had heard him speak of his privilege. Unearned, bestowed gifts! So, I like to imagine, based on his moral integrity, he simply set out to try to be worthy of his blessings. He set himself to service, giving, and loving, and so he made the world a better place for others and lived in full himself.

His life thus in many ways provided the inspiration for the mysterious gift:

We find ourselves in the midst of blessing: the span of life stretching from womb to grave, moment by moment, lived in the earthly embrace. This is the Gift. We didn't earn it. We don't deserve it. It was given, in mystery. May we cultivate worthiness in gratitude: Live and love and care for all.

and the blessings:

Blessed who serves. Blessed who is served. In serving and being served, the shared blessing. By service, not by profit, shall work be sanctified. Praise the server. Serve and be served.


Blessed the bountiful earth, all its dwellers, and the good works thereon. Blessed the mysterious gift. Blessed all the dwellers to come. Blessed who strives to be worthy of the mysterious gift. Serve in the sacred. Care for all.

These are two of my earliest exercises in theological engineering, somewhat refined over the years.

Sharpe places the recognition of the sacred at the heart of religious enquiry:

. . . the study of religion is first and foremost a matter of learning to recognise and respect what is (or has been) holy in the lives of individuals and communities. (p. 60)

This has a powerful resonance for me, and helped to put some shape on that spiritual void that haunts Western humans. Part of what we are missing is a clear commitment to sacrament. But, westerners that we are, we can't just agree on sacred stuff! We have to hash it out. So while I propose certain practical sacraments bearing on care for all, I also suggest that the enquiry, deliberation, and provisional determination of sacred, profane, and accursed is one of the key aspects of a religious practice, and that elaboration of sacrament should be a transparent process.

Indian nations were never wealthy; they never acquired a lot of things. They share; there was an ethic of sharing, which profoundly antagonized the American government. They were always trying to break our idea of common land. They said that was not right: You have to learn how to look after yourself. You have to grow up and understand about being an individual. Well, we have great individuality, but we have a different perspective. Our perspective is responsibility, responsiblity to the family, responsiblity to the public, responsiblity to your future. [Chief Oren Lyons in Huston Smith's A Seat at the Table, pp. 180-181]

Readers here know that I have been particularly concered with post-capitalist studies, and with finding a gentle, peaceful transition to a post-capitalist world. One of my tentative conclusions, inspired in part by monastic traditions, east and west, is that a gradual shift of emphasis from private property, profit, and ownership to public enterprise, democratic sovereignty, and stewardship could do much to alleviate the difficulties of laying capitalism to rest. Accordingly, I developed some principles of stewardship.

Nowadays, I don't do so much theological engineering. It was Huston Smith who first steered me to consideration of Native American religious thought. Once I started down that path, I felt less need to work from scratch. It seemed to me that our older brothers and sisters of Turtle Island had already done a better job than I could hope to do. So I mostly think about how we can absorb their wisdom and put it to work fixing our busted society. For example, I will take a Green New Deal seriously when it places indigenous elders in a sovereign role. Meanwhile, we muddle along. Thanks for reading, and, if you got this far, you would honor me by dropping me a line of correspondence!

I think that people who immigrate to other lands should try to become native, which means to adapt to the land as the native people have done. I think that colonialism resulted in a number of settlers who failed to adapt to the places where they lived. Instead they imported their cultures, their languages, and their religions and marginalized the natives and their culture and religion in the places where they lived. A lot of newcomers remained aliens or strangers to the places where they lived. I think that is a challenge for all the people who immigrated to America. I'm not asking them to leave by any means. That's certainly not realistic. But I think to adapt as the native people have done to the place where they live is to make peace with the people and the land. [Walter Echo-Hawk, in Huston Smith's A Seat at the Table, p. 34]