Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Beauty, The Fear (5/5/13)

The Beauty, The Fear
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

May 5, 2013
Pluralism Sunday

I see the sun’s set
to go down soon, yet
tomorrow’s light may
glow as yesterday,
and all future dawns
will merge with the ones
long ignored; it’s clear
why a mountaineer
awaits, curious,
heaven’s nebulous
design: to face it,
hoping to trace it,
an amorphous shape
that’s on the brain’s map,
clouding the center
of a torn paper
from a worn bible,
hardly visible;
because of it I,
buried beneath sky,
dream now of flying
beyond what’s trying
to keep me bound here—
the beauty, the fear.

If outer foes are destroyed while not subduing the enemy of one’s own hatred, enemies will only increase. Therefore, subduing one’s own mind with the army of love and compassion is the Bodhisattvas’ practice.
--Ngulchu Thogme Zangpo

You have heard that it was said, “You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But what I tell you is this:  Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven; for God causes the sun to rise on bad and good alike, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.

A true yogi is unaffected by praise or criticism. By always dwelling in the Atman he is unruffled by hatred, contempt or anger. According to the Gita, a true yogi is a person who is expansive in his heart. He has risen above the joy that comes from praise or the hurt that comes from bitter criticism.

Perhaps God will create affection between you and those among them with whom you were at enmity, for God is Omnipotent, and He is All-Forgiving, Compassionate to each.

The first Sunday of May has been designated as Pluralism Sunday by The Center for Progressive Christianity.  Our congregation is an affiliate and we affirm The Eight Points of ProgressiveChristianity.  This is point two…
Affirm that the teachings of Jesus provide but one of many ways to experience the Sacredness and Oneness of life, and that we can draw from diverse sources of wisdom in our spiritual journey…
The mission statement created by this congregation that has guided our work here for the past decade or so, says that we are to…
Honor our Christian heritage while we explore the knowledge and wisdom of multiple religions, science, philosophy, humanities and psychology to deepen and enrich our spiritual journeys.
These statements, similar, yet not derived from each other, show a consensus emerging in contemporary spirituality.   I have seen this in my interviews over the last months on Religion For Life.   More and more thoughtful people are questioning the exclusivist claims of their own religious heritage.  They are interested in what other spiritual traditions have to offer.   They are finding common ground by sharing their experience and in working cooperatively for our collective good.

Coming up on the program is a conversation with Theologian Sallie McFague.  She taught at Vanderbilt for 30 years and has dedicated her work to the intersection of religious language and ecology.   In her latest book,Blessed Are the Consumers: Climate Change and the Practice of Restraint,she writes:
As a Christian theologian, I take my starting place with Jesus of Nazareth—to be a Christian is to be called by that name, the belief that “Jesus is the Christ,” a way to God, a way to know and talk about God.  It is certainly not the only (and it may not be the “best” way), but it is an ancient way that has served many people for a long time, a credible way that has made sense to many people, and I would assert, a way that is good for the planet and its life forms.  P. 176
Notice the openness of her language.  She is not saying as we all too often hear that Jesus is the only way and that other paths are wrong and so on and so forth.   For her, Christianity doesn’t have to own the table, or even sit at the head of the table.   We join our common place with the rest of humanity around a common table.   

Sallie McFague reminds us that the language and the metaphors that we use are of crucial importance.  How we understand ourselves in relationship to God, to others, and to our shared home, Earth, has consequences in the way we treat one another and Earth.   

Are we primarily souls trapped in bodies,
needing to endure this awful place, Earth,
longing for the day to be beamed up to some other place,
perhaps a place where God lives?  
If that is the way we understand ourselves, God, and Earth,
how are we going to treat this material Earth?  
How will we treat each other? 

If our religions are in competition for souls,
to see who can escort the most into their own version of heaven,
each proclaiming that its way is the best or only way,
in the meantime,
what is our ethic toward Earth
and toward the long-term future of humankind on Earth?

In his last book, A Man Without a Country, the late Kurt Vonnegut wrote of this legacy:
The crucified planet Earth,
should it find a voice
and a sense of irony,
might now well say
of our abuse of it,
"Forgive them, Father,
They know not what they do."

The irony would be
that we know what
we are doing.

When the last living thing
has died on account of us,
how poetical it would be
if Earth could say,
in a voice floating up
from the floor
of the Grand Canyon,
"It is done."
People did not like it here.
The great sages of our traditional pre-modern religions, Krishna, Buddha, Jesus, Mohammad, and others, had a more expansive view than their followers.   But if you look at the texts and the practices of our religions, an argument can be made that they are primarily about escape.  

Earth is not my home,
says the old hymn,
I’m just passing through.   

While there may be some subtlety and comfort in that, it is no basis for an ethic.   It is as though Earth is little more than a Motel 6.   How sacred is that? 

Sallie McFague has suggested that 
we think of Earth as God’s body.   
The sacred is the body. 
The dirt and bugs of Earth are holy sacraments.  
We human beings are made of Earth. 
We are born of God’s body, Earth.   
So if Earth is God’s body, Earth is also our body. 
There is no other place for us.   

All of this is in our religious traditions as well.    You have to search for these voices.  These creation spirituality voices have often gone unheard in the competitive quest for control and escape.   

Sallie McFague quotes poet, Gary Snyder:
“I have a friend who feels sometimes that the world is hostile to human life--he says it chills us and kills us. But how could we be were it not for this planet that provided our very shape? Two conditions--gravity and a livable temperature range between freezing and boiling--have given us fluids and flesh. The trees we climb and the ground we walk on have given us five fingers and toes. The "place" (from the root plat, broad, spreading, flat) gave us far-seeing eyes, the streams and breezes gave us versatile tongues and whorly ears. The land gave us a stride, and the lake a dive. The amazement gave us our kind of mind. We should be thankful for that, and take nature's stricter lessons with some grace.”  Pp. 175-6
It is also important to note that none of our ancient religious sages would have known that human beings could threaten life on Earth.   
  • Jesus did not know about nuclear weaponry, fossil fuels, and climate change. 
  • Neither Krishna, Buddha, nor Mohammad knew about the age of the universe, DNA, or evolution. 
  • Aristotle and Plato didn’t know about gravity and that the sun was the center of our solar system.   
We have to appreciate the wisdom of the sages in their context and time.   Religious pluralism recognizes that all religions have context and that all claims at truth are contextual.   You can’t get outside or beneath your context and see from an absolute vantage point.     

We are embedded in our senses, in our bodies,
and no trick of the mind can move us out of that.   
We don’t have bodies.  We are our bodies.   
Our bodies are sacred.  Our body is Earth. 
And to put it theologically, Earth is God’s body.

From that perspective we can draw wisdom from our sages, religious and otherwise.  We have not only the freedom but the obligation to draw from these rivers of wisdom selectively.     We are also obligated to use our Earth-evolved and God-given creativity to think and to imagine and explore possibilities for life together on Earth in a most perilous time.

I can guess what you are thinking. 

This may be true but this is all so big.  What can I do?   

The sages here can guide us.  They, too, lived in what they believed were perilous times.  As Ted Olson wrote in his beautiful poem, “Revelations,” they, like us, lived with “the beauty, the fear.”   The wisdom of the sages was to live with it, but not be ruffled by it.   According to Krishna:
A true yogi is unaffected by praise or criticism. By always dwelling in the Atman he is unruffled by hatred, contempt or anger.
We may not be able to do anything individually or collectively that will prevent great suffering.  We may not avert collapse of our energy grid and of distribution of food supply and all the rest of it.   But we don’t know that.   We may not be able to prevent military escalations and the use of weapons of mass destruction.  But we don’t know that.   We may not slow the rising temperature of Earth.  But we don’t know that.

I saw a joke.  A guy is wearing a sandwich board.  It says,
Bad news.  The end of the world is not coming.  You’ll just have to cope.
One of the ways to cope is to live with intention and imagination.  

Intention is to be present to what is real and to avoid falling into pitfalls of escape in whatever form they may take.     When I say real, I don’t mean the news on the internet.    I mean the reality of the food you eat, your relationships, your work, your play, and in this season in this part of the world, the greening and growing of the leaves.    

The intention is to be present to what is real.

The sages teach us that we do that by letting what is real have space so that our egos, our desires, our anxieties take up less space.   The term is kenosis.   It is self-emptying to make room for what is real.   The opposite of kenosis is to fill up all space with us. 

This is from Isaiah 5:8:
Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land.
That is the opposite of kenosis.   Kenosis known in the Christian tradition through the self-emptying of Jesus, is known also in other traditions and in nature itself.   It is a recognizing that everything is interconnected and we are always giving and receiving.    There is always room for another.  We will take up less space.    It is the practice of restraint, of hospitality. 

That is intention.

To live with imagination is to use these magnificently evolved brains to imagine a future in which human beings live in balance with one another and with Earth.   Think of the Hebrew prophet Micah:
Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the LORD Almighty has spoken.
That didn’t mean, “I got my fig tree, stay off my property.”  That meant that everyone would work and enjoy the fruits of labor.  All would have enough. None would hoard.   That is a vision of sharing, of interdependence of giving and receiving.

Religious pluralism is about sharing our sages and our wisdom and receiving as well as giving.  It is making space at the table for others including the views and practices of others.  Because in doing that all of us benefit.  

There is no need to offer specifics of 
how to live with intention or imagination.   
The doing comes from the being.  
Can we see Earth as God’s body?
Can we see Earth as our body?
When I say see it,
I mean see it in the way the sages taught us to see,
That is with insight.     
Sacred Earth is our body, our home.   It is us.  
If that is real,
then we only need to do what comes naturally.   

Every day we wake up and we forget who we are.  
We need to be reminded.  
We need to be intentional.   
Earth is my body and your body. 
Earth is my blood and yours.   
Earth is God’s body and blood.    
I seek to live my days in holy reverence 
for this sacrament of life. 


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