Love and Exclusivity: A reflection on the lessons of Nerdcon, and their potential for interfaith work

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend the inaugural Nerdcon: Stories, a convention organized by brothers John and Hank Green around the subject of “Why Stories Matter.” Around three thousand people showed up at the Minneapolis Convention Center for two days of panels, signings, and storytelling, along with an all-star cast of guest speakers. The guests ran the gamut from published authors to professional musicians, successful actors and actresses, and respected social media gurus. The attendees themselves proclaimed their allegiance to specific fandoms (such as Harry Potter or Star Wars) with buttons, bags, and graphic tees.

Many conventions have reputations of exclusivity. Perhaps it is a result of being the ‘uncool’ kids in high school, and a life-time of being labeled a nerd; perhaps it is because many fans have a developed identity of being the expert on a particular subject in their friend group. Whatever the case, many people in fandoms have ridiculously high standards of what it takes to be a ‘true’ fan. It is a constant battle of who knows the most, whose interpretation is the wildest, who is the most passionate. Fans can become vicious in their pursuit of weeding out the unworthy from their midst. All it takes for expulsion is a missed fact or an incorrect opinion.

Nerdcon was different. One thing joined all together, varied attendees and honored guests alike; a passion for the institution of the story. The group that gathered in the Convention Center was not shy about expressing their enthusiasm and they did so without exclusivity. We sat down at tables with each other, strangers but that we knew that we all loved storytelling.

Each conversation was an exploration, an acknowledgement that said, “I love this with all the force of my being, so much that I can barely contain myself—and you also love something with all the force of your being! How amazing! We both love stuff!” It did not matter the medium of the storytelling, only that we loved the craft.

Celebrating the Harry Potter Alliance’s 10th Anniversary with (left to right) Maureen Johnson, wizard rock band Harry and the Potters, and Jackson Bird.

What made this group of people so different than the stereotypical convention-goers? Maybe the relative smallness of the convention; maybe the maturity of the attendees; maybe even the location in a good, ‘nice’ Midwestern state. Whatever it was, it baffled the guest stars, who remarked repeatedly on the openness and kindness of the crowd. There was a real feeling of humanity and of respect which resonated throughout panel discussions, from diversity in storytelling to storytellers as activists to the portrayal of sex and sexuality in our books.

Everywhere, hundreds to thousands of people at a time were speaking and listening to frank conversations on supposedly antagonistic subjects, and the feeling of mutuality and eagerness for intelligent discussion was overwhelming. There was no awkwardness or embarrassment. No one was shamed for what they did or did not know.

Near the end of the first day, I was struck by the difference between what I was experiencing at Nerdcon and what I have experienced in interfaith work. Why is it so easy to get caught up in the nuances, in an effort to be recognized as the most holy (or even, sometimes, the most sinful), to the point where we easily shame not only those of other faiths, but those of our own traditions? How often have we had the conversation about those in our Church who are not progressive enough, not traditional enough, too whiny or too quiet or too wishy-washy? In other words, how have we been caught up in the effort to prove that another is not a member of our exclusive inner circle of ‘true’ fans?

I challenge us all, whether we are interacting with those of a different faith or simply those with a different interpretation of our own precious beliefs, to walk into every conversation with the attitude that says, “I love this, my faith, with all the force of my being—and you also are living your faith with all the force of your being! How amazing! We both love!”

May we be joined together in our passion for the greatness of God.

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Written by Elea Ingman, SJW
Justice Office Program Assistant

Altruism: Courageous survival or just bats in the belfrey?

This past weekend I went to the bluffs to camp. Nature in many ways informs my sense of wonder in the divine, and always assures me of the impermanence of all things. The greatest lesson of impermanence looked a lot like a disturbing encounter with my own fragility. I am awakened to my intolerance for crusty pots and pans laced with dying bugs, my reluctance for adapting to the reality that I can’t control the temperature at the tip of my finger and my discomfort for sleeping on imperfect terrain. Independent control freak doesn’t even begin to describe my disposition.

On the car ride down I was soaking up one of my favorite podcasts, RadioLab. “The Good Show” explores Darwin’s theory of natural selection and survival of the fittest as it interacts with the capability of niceness and altruism in nature. The popular scientific understanding suggests that niceness is a disguised selfishness, a motivation to aid our genes … just in another body. So maybe we aren’t really all that altruistic ?

ˈaltro͞oˌizəm/

Altrisum picYet, this show listed endless examples of humans going above and beyond what would look like a selfish act. Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich feature the story of a man who jumped on a subway track to save a stranger in immediate danger of being hit by a train, meanwhile, his children stood watching him from the platform! The man described this experience as sort of a spiritual calling, being in the right place at the right time and that it was an intended call to action from God. I think about the CSJ community and the ways Sisters, Partners in Mission and Consociates have gone above and beyond to meet the dear neighbor. Darwin must’ve been distressed by this… how then does this attest to the notion of survival of the fittest in a dog-eat-dog world? Clearly, some caring is going on, and there is a lot of mutual movement toward it.

That driving force can be looked at from a variety of perspectives. What I liked most was another example from a RadioLab Short from the behavior of vampire bats. Vampire bats exhibit a similar sort of niceness toward one another. For being quite gruesome in their mammalian blood thirst, they actually caress and feed each other! They will even feed a starving stranger, and not exclusively their relatives. This was looked at as an active choice in friendship networks, initially. Yet, Jerry Wilkinson (chair of Biology at the University of Maryland College Park) on the show suggests that it can also be seen as the only option for them as a species. Nearly 40,000 years ago they were happily fed, but as resources declined they were inclined to really help one another to survive.

Perhaps my disguised selfishness assumes I may feel good from the exchange, or maybe I subconsciously want to expand my social network of Facebook friends. But after meditating on the theme of this podcast during a retreat in nature, I like to believe the active and visceral choice (self-motivated or divinely inspired) to move always toward profound love of God and neighbor without distinction is an evolutionary act simply because … well, isn’t that the most ideal condition for existence? Even the most unlikely subject of vampire bats can teach us about the rewards of altruism in nature. After all, I eventually acclimated to the crunchy surprises in my food, and this warm (non-regurgitated) meal was gifted to me from another beloved human animal. I couldn’t have adapted without their fitness! When I thought I frankly couldn’t survive on my own in the woods, the circumstances of altruism allowed me to see otherwise.

Where do you experience niceness? Where does it come from? Why are we so inclined and called to help one another when we are distressed?

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This post was written by Megan Bender, Justice Associate

Darwin, God, and our spiritual obligation to the Earth: Review of Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ

Elizabeth Johnson Kabeya Pictures 9.25.15 speaking
Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, Kabeya Pictures

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Last Friday, I was able to check off one of the many boxes on my bucket list when I was privileged to see, in person, the great theologian Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ.  The topic of the night asked “Is God’s Charity Broad Enough for Bears?” and it seems that several hundred people, myself included, were interested in finding out the answer.

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Sr. Elizabeth is well-known for her work in feminist, ecological theology. According to her faculty profile, she is interested in “the problem of suffering; the dialogue between science and religion; creation and ecological ethics; and all of the above as related to the human dignity of women and articulated in feminist theology”. I think it’s safe to say that she hit all of the above points in her lecture, with a special concentration on the relationship between science and religion and the ever-persistent question about why an all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful God would allow so much suffering throughout creation.

After giving us a brief recap lesson in evolutionary theory, Sr. Elizabeth posed her audience with the question: “How can we foster a spirituality that makes loving the Earth an intrinsic part of our faith in God, rather than tacked on?” She suggested that we require a major shift in three aspects of our lives and spirituality, which she calls “turnings.”

The first of these turnings is intellectual. We need to turn from a human-centered consciousness to a creation-centered consciousness, developing a “new theology of human persons as an intrinsic part of one splendid community”. With the background of evolutionary theory, we can clearly see how interconnected humanity is with all of creation, and this interconnectedness calls us to greater solidarity.

Second, Sr. Elizabeth suggests that we need to make an emotional turning; to “turn from the illusion that we are isolated human beings.” While we might intellectually understand that we are interconnected with creation, we need to feel that connection. It is easy to feel empathy for our fellow creatures when we can recognize how they are similar to us; we can see humanity in the cry of an lost chick, the joyful reunion of elephants, or the grief of a gorilla with a dead baby. Sr. Elizabeth challenges this empathy, encouraging us to feel for others not because they are like us, but precisely because of all the reasons they are not like us. This is a teaching that should apply to many aspects of our lives, and has the potential for making great change in our relationships.

Finally, we must make personal and physical change, a practical turning from living on and off the Earth, to living with and for the Earth. This requires a “vigorous moral reconsideration of human life,” one that affects every aspect of what we do. From how we make business deals to what we eat to if we vote to how we use transportation, everything should be done in the knowledge of our relation to all of creation.

As much as I would like to simply recreate Sr. Elizabeth’s entire lecture here, she has (fortunately) already done so. Her newest book is entitled Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love. As you go about your day, ask yourself: What is one way I can better foster the love of Earth in my own spiritual life?