Shelf Talks is a series of interviews in which writer and librarian Oleg Kagan asks interesting people questions inspired by the contents of their bookshelves. Daniel Wolpert is a public theologian and a student of the spiritual life. He lives two blocks from where George Floyd was murdered.
OLEG: To begin, I’ve been perusing your shelf for the last ten minutes — just staring at the book spines and dreaming about how neat it would be to sit near it without interruption for a few months, on a retreat of sorts. You have books covering multiple religious traditions there so maybe you have an opinion on this: Ritual can be a comforting presence in a tumultuous life, do you see a difference (or should there be one) between ritual and routine?
DAN: A few thoughts: Ritual can certainly become routine and a routine of ritual isn’t necessarily a problem. The issue, for both, is that of awareness: am I bringing a quality of attentiveness and connection to either or am I simply ‘going through the motions’ and not using either one to help me become more alive and more human?
In the most basic sense, routine is simply a description of a repetitive action or pattern of action. So of course anything can become part of my ‘routine’: making coffee in the morning, my workout, how I go through my work day, or a regular pattern of religious or spiritual activity.
Ritual, in the spiritual sense, has to do with actions that can connect us to the transcendent. They are activities that can open us up to something greater than ourselves. Often this does happen through a routine of ritual, as in the monastic rule which details a highly repetitive worship schedule.
Again, though, either of these can be ‘dead’, if done with little awareness, or ‘alive’ if done with attention and a fully embodied spirit.
OLEG: Thank you for that straightforward and meaningful answer, I’m almost certain I’ll come back to it in one of the next few questions, but before that I’m curious about K-Pax, it’s one of the only pieces of fiction on your shelf and you have both the book and the movie. What draws you to that work?
DAN: You are very observant! I don’t remember how I first found K-PAX, but I was introduced to the movie almost 25 years ago. I love the movies, it’s one of the only ways you can tell I’m from Los Angeles, and I love science fiction. When I first saw the film I was at Seminary. The movie had been a commercial flop and so I’d never heard of it.
When I watched it I was immediately struck and taken by it, for it was the best portrayal of what it would be like to encounter Jesus I’d ever seen, even though the film had, on its surface, nothing to do with Jesus or religion at all.
I did some research on the film to try and see if that was their intent, but found nothing. For some reason, I didn’t even think about the book, but several years later a colleague and I found the book, tracked down the author and learned that this was indeed his intent in writing K-PAX.
I’ve used the movie dozens of times in retreats, in worship, and classes. I also used it as one of the main examples in the book I co-authored on praying with visual media.
OLEG: I don’t know if many people see science fiction and religion in the same panorama, but I can think of quite a few sci-fi books where religion plays an important role (a few examples: Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, and Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, the latter two of which even have a holy book). With that in mind (and slight nod to R. Buckminster Fuller’s Spaceship Earth), I have an entirely speculative question: If a group of humans travelled for several generations aboard a large space vessel, a traveling city of sorts, and assuming there were some Christians aboard, how do you envision their connection to the bible as a book and Jesus would change over that time? This within the context of a people totally disconnected from Earth who might have trouble imagining biblical stories in their original settings.
DAN: Yes, lots of sci-fi and religion overlap. I love Octavia Butler! As to your question: I think one great recent view of an answer is found in the show The Expanse. Although that is more political than religious, it does show how humans, and particularly human culture, would evolve in space over time. The Belters are still human, but they definitely do not identify with Earth and they have their own culture, language, and mythology. I imagine that something similar would happen with Christianity over time ‘off earth.’ And, if we look at what’s happening ‘on earth’, we can see that even one generation of ‘non-churched’ folks can completely detach people from the Bible, even if they have some idea about Jesus as a positive figure. So, in all likelihood, the Bible itself would probably fade out pretty fast with Christianity not far behind (unless the ships were filled with folks specifically intent on missionary activity and they actively worked to keep these things alive!).
OLEG: So, while a specific religion might be lost, the human predilection to seek transcendent experiences through common beliefs, rituals, mythologies, practice will remain even in space. I find that comforting, though I’m not sure that’s warranted if it’s one like Philip K. Dick’s Mercerism. Next to Octavia Butler on your shelf, you have the excellent time-travel novel Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, which jumps back and forth between the time of the Black Plague in England and 2054/55 Oxford hit by a Pandemic (reading that book did not prepare me for COVID!). If you could go back, blend in, and study any time period, which would you choose?
DAN: I’d like to answer this question from the perspective of Kindred, the Octavia Butler book you mentioned. I don’t know if you’ve read that one, but it also is a time traveling novel, about a black woman who finds herself involuntarily brought back in time to a slave plantation in South Carolina. I was recommending that book recently to a friend and we got talking about how even the concepts of time travel, and time travel stories, have often been co-opted by white privilege. White folks think and read about time travel and it’s often quite positive, assuming that they could just fit in, have some adventures, and come home. In Time and Again [by Jack Finney], the guy even decides to stay in the older, ‘simpler’, ‘better’ time. But for those who’ve been colonized, exploited, and oppressed, it’s likely that time travel is the last thing they’d want to do. I wonder how our stories and views of time and history would change if we embraced this reality? And also how that might shift our view of the present and the work that needs to be done?
For me, I have often thought that my interest in time travel wouldn’t be to experience other human societies, but rather to experience the rest of the natural world as it was before so much human exploitation and degradation. I’d love to see really old growth forests, New Zealand before it was clear cut and turned into the English countryside, the ice sheets as they were receding north and people were kayaking along them from Europe all the way to Lake Superior. That sort of thing.
OLEG: That’s an excellent point about the privilege involved in time travel stories, one that I hadn’t thought specifically about, and you are correct: A person of color would not have the luxury of traveling to most historical locations in the western world and probably beyond. I have read Kindred and was moved by it’s raw portrayal of the protagonist stuck in terrible circumstances (Doomsday Book is similar to that general description, but the danger there is biological, not the very worst of human cruelty).
Your time travel choice has a very John Muir feeling about it, where you go out on your own and just take in the natural world without distraction. I wonder if you’ve heard of the graphic novel Here by Richard McGuire. It illustrates the same spot over the course of geologic time. It’s not a novel or narrative at all, really, except that the images have a sequence. I found that it expanded the boundaries of my time sense well beyond humanity, unobtrusively putting us into our place, so to speak. My final question relates to that, as well as something you wrote in your first response, “Ritual, in the spiritual sense, has to do with actions that can connect us to the transcendent.” I’d like to ask this as simply a yes or no question, but I’m not sure that’s be fair: Knowing what you know about human beings, do you foresee it becoming possible far into the future that all humans will be able to achieve collective transcendence (a spiritual singularity) through a joint act or ritual?
DAN: Your question immediately got me thinking about the movie Transcendence, another one of my favorite films, as well as the whole genre of science fiction which is exploring what futurists have been describing as the ‘singularity’: what happens when human intelligence makes some sort of evolutionary leap? This is also the topic of a large percentage of so called “New Age” teaching and reflections. It is obviously something that’s been around as a notion at least since the Buddha and the current Easter season is also a story of transcendent intelligence. I just got done teaching a course on Howard Thurman, and in the aftermath of the second world war, he was talking about the need for the evolution of consciousness without which we will destroy each other. Do I think that this will happen with ‘one’ ritual? No. Do I think that there is the possibility of a break through, an evolutionary leap into a state where we are aware of and actively participate in non-material consciousness? Yes. We are within a generation, two at max, where we will be micro-chipping our kids. At first that will be for benign reasons such as location, payments etc. But for me, the point at which we are somehow able to be on the internet by thinking about it, will be a breakthrough moment because we will have, outside of deep contemplative experiences, some random dream states, and other ecstatic states, a real experience of disembodied consciousness and action.
Of course all of this is fairly speculative, and, given that the earth is a material structure that will one day be swallowed by the red dwarf star our sun will become, I hope that such a shift in the experience of consciousness is possible.
OLEG: Thank you for the interview! I appreciate you being willing to answer my questions and notably bring the subject of inclusivity and diversity into the discussion. Your books indicate some deliberate focus there, which is important.