Sunday, July 17, 2011

Solar Living (7/17/11)

Solar Living
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton Tennessee
July 17, 2011

“Red Letter Sayings: Ecclesiastes and Jesus”

Cast your bread upon the surface of the waters,
Because after many days you will get a return.

Don’t react violently against the one who is evil: when
someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other as well.
When someone wants to sue you for your shirt, let that person
have your coat along with it. Further, when anyone conscripts
you for one mile, go an extra mile. Give to the one who begs
from you.

Light is sweet.
It’s a joy for the eyes to see the sun.

Congratulations, you poor!
God’s domain belongs to you.

So if a man lives for many years,
Let him rejoice in every one of them.

Congratulations, you hungry!
You will have a feast.

Be happy, young one, while you are young,
And let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth.

Congratulations, you who weep now!
You will laugh.

Therefore banish anxiety from your heart
And cast off the troubles of your body,
For youth and its early vigour are short-lived.

Do not fret, from morning to evening and from evening to
morning, about your food—what you’re going to eat, or about
your clothing--what you are going to wear. You’re much
better than the lilies, which neither card nor spin.

Translations of Ecclesiastes by Lloyd Geering, Such Is Life (Santa Rosa: Polebridge, 2010) and of Jesus sayings by Jesus Seminar’s Scholars’ Version. Ecclesiastes 11:1; Matthew 5:39-42; Ecclesiastes 11:7; Luke 6:20; Ecclesiastes 11:8a; Luke 6:21a; Ecclesiastes 11:9; Luke 6:21b; Ecclesiastes 11:10; Thomas 36:1-2

One of the more interesting philosophers of our era is someone hardly anyone knows. He has written over 30 books, some of them published by Polebridge Press, the publishing company of the Jesus Seminar. Don Cupitt taught at Cambridge in the United Kingdom and was an Anglican priest and has moved on and beyond the Church of England.

His books, especially his more recent ones published by Polebridge, are accessible. They are not technical. They are written for non-specialists who have interest in religious philosophy at a popular and practical level. The sources for his philosophy are the things that people say and the concerns people talk about. It is the philosophy of ordinary speech.

For instance, in his book, Life, LifeDon Cupitt writes about various expressions people use involving the word, “life”.
Such is life.
That’s life.
Life is what you make it.
Life is short.
Life is good.
Life sucks.
Life is what it is.
Life’s a beach.
Live your life.
He found 100s of them. His thesis is that the word “life” and what it signifies has in popular language replaced the word “God”. For the most part, people, even those people for whom God is part of our language, will talk about life more than God. He isn’t making a value judgment on that. He is neither praising nor condemning this, he is simply observing that we in the West have been changing over the centuries. Our concern has slowly been shifting from God and from supernatural things to ordinary things, the stuff of life.

Ours is a religion of ordinary life.

This is what Cupitt has observed as both a philosopher and cultural historian of the West and in his own personal development. When I first heard him speak at a Jesus Seminar conference a few years ago, I found him to be disconcerting and I resisted what he was saying. Then I decided to go ahead and take the plunge.

Religion can be viewed on a spectrum or maybe a spiral with two poles, truth and comfort. Religion sometimes calls us to an unvarnished search for truth. Yet on the other hand, religion also promises comfort and mechanisms to cope. Comfort and truth are not necessarily the same.

When we lived in New York State our kids played with the boy across the street. John was his name. He was a bright kid. He is a bright man. I think he is now a graduate of Tufts University. The story his mother told us is that another little girl I think it was, was talking to John.

They are all around eight, nine, ten at the time. His mother is overhearing. The little girl is sad. She says,
“My grandmother died.”
John, shrugs and says,
“Yeah, well we all die. I’ll die. You’ll die. Everybody dies.”
That is true. Not sure whether or not that is comforting.

Religion has this pull and push, this dance between truth and comfort. It promises two things. 
“Come for the truth.”
“Come for comfort.”
Ministers are always, if they have any sensitivity at all, dancing within this tension between truth and comfort. Many ministers for various reasons try to have both and pretend that their comforting fantasies are the truth. These are the ones you eventually read about in the news:  minister snaps and is found jogging naked through the public park.

I didn’t find Don Cupitt comforting when I heard him speak. But I did find him truthful. So I thought I ought to read him. This can be said for the work of the Jesus Seminar itself. But the thing about comfort is that it shifts. After a while if we know something isn’t true, it loses its ability to comfort no matter how hard we try to hold on to it. So you might as well go with what you think is true and see what happens.

Anyway, I read a number of his books and found him to be saying many things that do ring true for me. And surprisingly, some of these things have turned out to be oddly comforting.

In particular, I like his concept and practical advice that he calls “solar living”.

I connect solar living to the via positiva in Creation Spirituality, the spiritual path of awe and wonder. Yet solar living is also connected to the via negativa the path of letting go and letting be. I also find that solar living resonates with the philosophy of the historical Jesus as I understand him.

Solar living to use Cupitt’s language means that we “pour ourselves out as the sun.”

The sun simply pours out its radiance. It has done so for billions of years and will do so for billions more until it pours itself out and is no more. As far as we know, it has no regrets or anxiety about it. It has no desire, as far as we know, to pour out forever, even as it will pour out for a very long time.

We, like the sun and because of the sun, have lives to pour out. Cupitt writes from his 27 statements of his religion of ordinary life:
By faith, and without any qualification or restriction, I should let life well up in me and pour itself out into symbolic expression through me. Thus I 'get myself together': we become ourselves by expressing ourselves.
But the thing we know about life is that it is short and it is transient. Cupitt calls solar living, “creative living by dying.” We die every day. We cannot cling to what we pour out. We cannot hold on, but are constantly letting go. Cupitt writes:
In solar living I live by dying because I am passing away all the time. In my symbolic expression I get myself together, but as I do so I must instantly pass on and leave that self behind. I must not be attached to my own life, nor to my own products, or expressed selves. My self, and all my loves, must be continuously let go of and continuously renewed. Dying therefore no longer has any terrors for me, because I have made a way of life out of it.
There is no need to build memorials for ourselves or to navel gaze or to compare our products to another’s products. All is transient. All burns and burns out.

Now we fight this. We resist this. We think that

  • if it doesn’t last forever,
  • if “I” don’t continue,
  • if life doesn’t get resurrected or reincarnated or something,
  • then it isn’t valuable.
Solar living is the opposite of that. 

  • The value is its transience.
  • The value is its “now-ness”.
Life is precious because it pours out and does not cling. In this philosophy the joy of life is not eternal as in eternal time, but in the quality of eternal found in the present. Cupitt says:
My symbolic expression may take various forms, as it pours out in my quest for selfhood, in my loves or my work. In all these areas, continuous letting-go and renewal creates joy, which on occasion rises and spills over into cosmic happiness. This 'cosmic' happiness is the modern equivalent of the traditional Summum Bonum, the 'chief end' of life.
You lifelong Presbyterians might recall the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism:
“What is the chief end of man?”
The answer according to the catechism is
“Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”
In solar living, if "God" becomes "Life" and "forever" becomes "living by dying" or "Now-ness", then man’s and woman’s chief end might be…

To glorify life and enjoy life as it pours itself out.
But Cupitt also says that even the supreme good is transient. He writes:
I, all my expressions, and even the Summum Bonum, the supreme Good itself, are all of them transient. Eternal happiness may be great enough to make one feel that one's whole life has been worthwhile, but it is utterly transient. Let it go!
How does solar living play out in terms of ethics? From the point of view of the late novelist and moralist, Kurt Vonnegut, it is quite simple—that is simple to sayHis ethic is this:

You’ve got to be kind.
If we want to say a bit more about it, we can talk about solar loving. That is “loving without clinging or calculation”. We “kiss the moment as it flies”. We might turn here to Ecclesiastes and the historical Jesus. Both seemed to resonate with the philosophy of solar living.

Cast your bread upon the waters.
Give to whomever begs from you.
Be not anxious about what you will eat or wear.
Congratulations you poor!
Life is sweet. It is a joy for the eyes to see the sun.
We recognize the holiness, the sacredness of what is in front of us, behind us, among us. The poet and the artist can help us here. The artist shows us the holy in the every day. She paints for us the ordinary in such a way that we see it as paradise. Because that is what it is. I included in the liturgy the poem by Billy Collins because he captures solar living so well. He falls in love with the highway through Florida, the wren, the dead mouse, the soap.
My heart is always propped up
in a field on its tripod,
ready for the next arrow.
That is the arrow from Cupid, of course, and solar living from Cupitt. Both Cupid and Cupitt are trying to help us fall in love with life as it is now pouring out like the sun.

But someone objects:
What about the suffering? What about Peak Oil, global warming, the debt ceiling, and Michele Bachmann for crying out loud? How can I embrace solar living amidst all of those atrocities?
Yes, yes. But they, too, shall pass. In the meantime:
You’ve got to be kind.
  • Solar living is not selfish living.
  • It is not indulgent living.
  • It is not perfect living.
  • It is pouring out.
  • It is shining like the sun.
  • Like the lamp on its stand.
  • Not anxious, but present.
  • Not needing to convert or convince.
  • Not needing to defend or defeat.
  • It is expressive and emotive and permission granting to self and to others.
Kiss it.

Kiss life as it goes by and pours out.

It is your life.


Sunday, July 3, 2011

God, Nature, Luck, Fate, or…? (7/3/11)

God, Nature, Luck, Fate, or…?
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

July 3rd, 2011

Selections from Ecclesiastes

I have observed the activities that God has provided
to keep humankind fully occupied.
First, he made everything just right for its own proper time,
and then he put the everlasting universe itself into the human
But in such a way that people cannot discover
from beginning to end what it is that God has done….

For to everyone whom Luck has blessed with wealth and
it has also given the power to enjoy them,
to accept his lot and find enjoyment in his work.
This is a gift from Nature.
but seldom will a person ponder the meaning of his life
when Luck fully occupies him with gladness of heart….

People say that the righteous, the wise,
and all their deeds are in God’s hands;
but whether things stem from love or hatred,
not a single person will ever know.
Everything they encounter is meaningless
because one Fate comes to everybody—
to the righteous and to the wicked,
to the good, the pure and the unclean,
to those who worship and to those who do not….

Consider the works of Nature and ask yourself
whether anyone can straighten what it has made crooked,
in the days when you prosper, rejoice;
and in the days you suffer adversity, consider this:
Nature is as responsible for the one as for the other,
and manages things in such a way
that we humans have no clue as to how it works….

I have come to realize that nothing is better for people
than to be happy and to do good while they live.
Indeed, it’s possible for all people to eat and drink,
and find satisfaction in everything they do.

Stand in awe of Nature and do what it requires of you,
for this is the whole duty of humankind.

Lloyd Geering, Such is Life! A Close Encounter with Ecclesiastes (Santa Rosa: Polebridge, 2010), 3:10-11; 5:19-20; 9:1-2; 7:13-14; 3:12-13; 12:13b, pp. 171-192.

This past week in the Kingsport Times-News a letter was written to the editor that made the connection between New York State’s recent action to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples and the floods, tornadoes and wildfires in the West, Midwest, and South. The author of the letter writes:
I believe it is judgment on our nation rained down by God because so many have embraced and accepted this sinful lifestyle.
I am going to go out on a limb here and suggest that few if any in this room would agree with the author. If you were the Jesus Seminar and could vote with colored beads on that statement, red, pink, gray, or black, I would wager that all the votes would be black, as in, “No not true.”

Why would you vote black? It could be because of the homophobia. This letter is a textbook example, by the way. Irrational fear. When prejudice is expressed through supernatural fantasies of revenge, it is safe to assume that someone has issues.

The other reason we vote black is that few of us I would guess think that weather events are caused by a supernatural being. Few of us would agree that God sends tornadoes…ever. Whether we are good, bad, or indifferent, tornadoes, floods, wildfires, sunshine, and foggy mornings are not the result of God or gods manipulating the heavens. None of the people we watch on the weather channel is doing theology. Earth and sky are indifferent to our passions.

When I was serving my first church, one Sunday before worship started, I was given a piece of paper. It was a prayer request. It said, “Pray for rain.” I wondered, “What am I supposed to do with that?” I had no idea what was in the mind of the person who made the request. I knew then as I know now that no amount of prayer by anyone anywhere will ever change weather events.

It is pretty useless to engage in an activity like that if you think that you will actually change the weather. Of course, I have learned to look behind requests like that and see in them an expression of concern or anxiety. Rituals that help identify our anxieties and give them voice can help us cope with the struggles of life (including weather events) and help inspire and express compassion and solidarity with one another. That is no small thing. Ritual prayer and worship is thus valuable. Prayer helps the community and the one who prays. However, to expect that prayers, rituals, sacrifices, offerings, or changing our behavior will manipulate God into changing the weather for us is a futile hope.

Someone might bring up that changes in climate are the result of human activity. One could say that the tornadoes and floods and so forth are a judgment on humankind for embracing the sinful lifestyle of carelessly using fossil fuels. That might be closer to the truth. But even then, we are still in the realm of physics and chemistry. We aren’t suggesting that a supernatural being is sending a punishment. The causes and effects are the result of natural laws and Nature is indifferent.

The idea that Nature is indifferent is counter-intuitive. Daniel Dennett, philosopher at Tufts University, suggests that early on in the course of human evolution, we developed the capacity to give agency to inanimate things. Human beings project agency on to animals, deceased relatives, trees, even our cars ("C’mon baby, start for me"). We give to inanimate things or to animals—personality and decision-making power. Our literature is filled with stories in which animals act like human beings.

Dennett suggests that this might be the start of what we would call primitive religion or primitive science. As our ancestors looked at the world, they saw the clouds and the lightning, the sun and rain doing their thing because each had a “will” do to them. There was an agent, such as the sun-god who drove his chariot across the sky each day. Stories were told about how rain falls because some agent wills it. Rituals, sacrifices, and prayers were offered to manipulate the will behind these forces to act in their favor.

A shaman dances for rain and by a stroke of luck, it actually does rain. The shaman makes sure folks remember that, and the shaman gets mojo points. But if he dances for rain and it doesn’t rain…well, if the shaman is quick he will explain that.
“It would have rained, but one of you has sinned. Until we have confession by and punishment of the sinner, then the gods won’t send the rain.”
Suddenly we have religion.

The person who wrote the letter to the editor reflects this ancient primitive religion/science that today we call superstition or magical thinking. A superstition is simply an explanation that has lost credibility. Whatever reason a climatologist has for recent tornadoes it is not because God is angry at New Yorkers.

Let’s fast forward 100s of thousands of years to 300 BCE. This is the period of history that historians of religion call the first axial age. From about 800 BCE to 200 CE the great religions came into being. Within what will become Judaism, it is a move toward monotheism.

Rather than the sun being a god or having agency, God creates the sun. The sun becomes an object as does the moon. This is especially seen in the Bible's first creation story. This story was written around 500 BCE, later than the second creation story. The Hebrew word, elohim, which is actually a plural for “gods” comes to mean God with a capital G. The seasons come and go not because of gods but because God orders it and has fixed it.

When Ecclesiastes writes in 300 BCE, he also uses the word elohim which is often translated God. This God is not YHWH who intervenes and makes covenants. This God does not change weather patterns. In fact, for Ecclesiastes, God has little concern for what we do. Listen:

People say that the righteous, the wise,
and all their deeds are in God’s hands;
but whether things stem from love or hatred,
not a single person will ever know.
Everything they encounter is meaningless
because one Fate comes to everybody—
to the righteous and to the wicked,
to the good, the pure and the unclean,
to those who worship and to those who do not…. (9:1-2)

The translation is from Lloyd Geering’s book Such Is Life: A Close Encounter with Ecclesiastes. What Geering discovered is that Ecclesiastes when he uses the term "God" has in mind what we might call "Nature".

In the ancient world, the dome above or the sky also called heaven was where the gods lived. The flat Earth below is where humans lived. The mountains were the pillars that held up the dome. The stars, sun, and moon all moved around the earth.

For Ecclesiastes, God replaces the gods and is in heaven, above the dome. Weather patterns did not happen because of a lightning god. The big God, one God, was in charge, but lightning, rain, and tornadoes, were independent of human behavior. For Ecclesiastes, rain is a mystery. God is in charge but will never let you know why.

When translating elohim, Geering often uses the word Nature instead of God. It makes more sense to us. Listen:

Consider the works of Nature and ask yourself
whether anyone can straighten what it has made crooked,
in the days when you prosper, rejoice;
and in the days you suffer adversity, consider this:
Nature is as responsible for the one as for the other,
and manages things in such a way
that we humans have no clue as to how it works…. (7:13-14)

Of course, modern science has given us somewhat of a clue as to how it works. For Ecclesiastes it was a mystery. Modern science was a long way off. What he learned, however, is what Jesus said a few centuries later, that the rain falls on both the wicked and the just.

For Ecclesiastes, when he uses the word elohim, it is as if he could have just as well used Nature, Luck, or Chance. There is no sense in Ecclesiastes that there is a being who listens and responds to individuals and thus changes things.

Ecclesiastes is thus a counter voice to most of the Hebrew scriptures. If we could go back and witness a debate between Ecclesiastes and the author of Deuteronomy through Kings, we would find two very different points of view. Deuteronomy through Kings, what we call the Deuteronomic History is the story of YHWH’s mighty acts. Everything from weather patterns to opposing enemy attacks is the will of YHWH. There is divine agency behind all of it.

Ecclesiastes doesn’t see it that way at all. For him, there is no rhyme or reason to our suffering or our prosperity:

in the days when you prosper, rejoice;
and in the days you suffer adversity, consider this:
Nature is as responsible for the one as for the other,
and manages things in such a way
that we humans have no clue as to how it works…. (7:14)

Ecclesiastes is saying this natural event or this political event has nothing to do with divine agency. That is significant because that insight is counter to most of the Old Testament Law and Prophets. The Torah, the Deuteronomic history and the prophets were all speaking on behalf of God.
God is punishing you for that. God wants you to worship like this.
Ecclesiastes says no. There is no divine purpose to life. It just is what it is.

This is why for modern readers, Ecclesiastes is a refreshing oasis. He is ahead of his time. It is incredibly liberating. Liberation is also frightening. It means we have our own decisions to make about what is a meaningful life, how to cope, how to find joy, and how to deal with adversity.

It is the discovery and celebration of the sacredness of what is. That is different and opposed to projecting sacredness onto a being in order for it to be sacred. In the words of Douglas Adams, author of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:
Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?
When I read the parables of Jesus I see him more like Ecclesiastes than Jeremiah or Isaiah. Jesus has the prophet in him, too, but his wisdom parables reflect a consciousness that has roots in the tradition of the great skeptic, Ecclesiastes.

Where is God?
Where is the Kingdom of God that is supposed to come with great might and power?

Jesus said,
The kingdom of god is in you.
It is a mustard seed that grows to a big bush.
It is a woman concealing leaven in 50 pounds of flour until it is all leavened.
There is no grand plan here. There is no rapture or apocalypse. There is no Divine agency manipulating every event. There is no Angry Santa making a list of the naughty and the nice.   There is no Thor sending down lightning bolts on the undesirables.

The Sacred is when the ordinary becomes awe-filled.

Such is Life.

We can, if we choose to do our part to make Life
  • more beautiful than ugly,
  • more gracious than capricious,
  • more simple than complicated, and
  • more loving than hateful.
What is the advice of Ecclesiastes amidst all of this?

I have come to realize that nothing is better for people
than to be happy and to do good while they live.
Indeed, it’s possible for all people to eat and drink,
and find satisfaction in everything they do. (3:12-13)

Stand in awe of Nature and do what it requires of you,
for this is the whole duty of humankind. (12:13b)