Sunday, March 16, 2014

Who Are We? (3/16/14)

Who Are We?
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

March 16, 2014
Second Sunday of Lent

Geering and the Psalmist

When I look up to the heavens,
the work of your fingers—
the moon and the stars
that you set in their place,
I ask, “What is humankind?
Why should you remember it?
Why should you care for mortal humans?”
For you have made them little less than gods.
With glory and honour you have crowned them.
Psalm 8

This feeling of awe, once experienced by our spiritual forbears with respect to the supposed Creator God in the heavens, has not vanished with the ‘death of God’; it has simply been transferred to the self-organising cosmos itself, for that is what has brought us forth.  We see the same universe they did, but through a very different cultural lens.  Ancient talk of the gods and later talk of God reflected the way our ancestors personalized the forces of nature by projecting their own subjective attributes onto the world around them.  What most amazes us about the self-organising universe is perhaps its propensity to bring forth ever-more complex wholes…Jan Smuts called this creative power of the universe holism and explained that this universe is not a static and changeless thing, but rather a self-creative and evolving process.  The process of evolution is itself the supreme miracle—by which I mean it is a phenomenon that leaves us in wonderment.
Lloyd Geering, From the Big Bang to God, p. 155.

It has only been in the last 150 years or so that humankind has been able to discover, comprehend and articulate the Great Story.   That is the Great Story of the Universe and of Humankind’s place in it.   

Previous stories including the Christian story have had great influence in our self-understanding but all have them have been eclipsed by the emerging story.   As wise as our religious and spiritual traditions have been and still are, nonetheless, each of them is from a pre-modern era.   We have a passed a threshold of understanding due to our insatiable curiosity and a method of uncovering knowledge that is trans-cultural and global.    It matters not what language we speak or what religion we may have practiced or still practice or with what ethnic traditions have shaped our identities, we are now children of science.    

That doesn’t mean that science is the final word or the final method of discovery.  It is, however, the method that across all disciplines of learning that has achieved the best results.    Our universities around the globe are not based on revelation or traditional religious teaching.  They are based on reason.    Even religious colleges despite a veneer of piety must base their curricula on science if they are going to accomplish anything.

I graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary.  It is a block away from Princeton University.  If the seminary wishes to communicate with the university, and it does, it must do so through the language of reason and science.    To try to make any case on any authority whether it be a bible, a creed, or some form of apostolic succession is nothing more than special pleading.   It will be dismissed as quaint and irrelevant.

Obviously there is great resistance to the advent of reason.  Those who still wish to define the story of the universe and of humankind through the Bible, for instance, either have to resist science outright or incorporate science within the overarching narrative of the Bible.  The results are awkward at best.       

My great, great grandfather, John Shuck, a Presbyterian, born in 1800 would have understood the universe and humankind within the narrative of the Bible.   He would have had no reason to question the first chapters of Genesis, or any of the Bible for that matter, at face value.    He likely would have affirmed that a loving, yet just judge and creator with a command created earth and the heavens and all of life in five days around six thousand years ago.    He would have affirmed that human beings were formed from clay on the sixth day as the apex of creation, the image of God.  He would have affirmed that these humans were yet tarnished beyond recognition by sin requiring the god/man Jesus Christ to die for the sins of humanity and thus restore not only lost humanity but the creation itself.  The promise of a new heaven and a new Earth would come at any moment.  Eternal life would be granted to those predestined to receive it and eternal damnation for all others according to God’s righteous love and sovereign mystery.

His son, my great grandfather, also named John Shuck, also a Presbyterian, probably would have affirmed similar things, except that he was educated after the Civil War.  He would have had to wrestle with the observations of Charles Darwin and the science of the 19th century.    He would have somehow incorporated that into the narrative of the Bible.   Perhaps he would have lengthened the days of creation or regarded some passages metaphorically. 

His son and my grandfather Gordon Shuck, graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1906 with a degree in electrical engineering.   He, from what I know of him, would have respected his religious upbringing and accepted its moral teaching.   He was even a member of the University Congregational Church in Seattle, Washington.  He taught electrical engineering at the university and he likely would have dismissed quietly theological affirmations.  He was clearly a person of science.  He would have accepted as did science at that time that the universe was the Milky Way galaxy.   The Bible had little if anything to say about it.

My father, also Gordon Shuck, also a man of science, was less polite about the Bible and about Christian teaching.   He embraced no religion and regards it for the most part as superstition.    “False” is his word for it all.  He looks to reason and science for answers to our questions.   I don’t think he finds science to be particularly comforting, however.  He does attend church for the social interaction and because they let him play his clarinet.     

Then there’s me.

I trace these generations to show through my male Shuck ancestors the shift that has happened within a relatively short period of time.    It is a shift in the Christian west from the Bible containing the story and meaning of the universe to the universe containing the story of the Bible and the Christian religion as one cultural product among many.    

Not only has this shift happened generationally, for many of us it has happened within our own lifetimes.  I grew up in the church.  My mother taught me about the Bible and to love Jesus.  I still do.    My adult life has been a struggle, a wrestling with God, so to speak, regarding faith and reason.  

When the Bible and Christian creed defined us, we had a place and a purpose.  We also had a divine father to bless us.   Now the magnificent Great Story of our 13.7 billion year journey may leave us with a sense of cosmic loneliness.    I don’t think the answer to that cosmic loneliness is to reject or to ignore the Great Story.    I think we have to live with that loneliness.   It may take time before this Great Story can be emotionally and spiritually satisfying.     

This weekend I was invited to speak at the Holston Presbytery high school retreat. The theme was “Behind the Mask”.   Find and embrace the you behind the masks that we make to protect ourselves or to fit in and so forth.    My approach came from a different angle.  I noted that the words mask and person come from the same word prosopon, a term from the ancient Greek theater.   The actors would use masks or prosopa to show emotion or character.  

Drawing from Greek theater, early theologians wrote about God.  That word,prosopon, was used for the persons of the Trinity:   Father, Son, Spirit.    Father, Son, Spirit, are really, literally, masks of God.   These theologians were suggesting that God is really hidden from us, but self-reveals to us through these masks.   Masks reveal as they hide.   I told the youth if mask-making is good enough for God, it is good enough for us.

The title of my talk was “The Drama of Re-inventing Ourselves.”  Life is not about stripping away our masks to find the real us, but to create, modify and integrate our various identities or masks.   Life is a series of trying things out. 

This doesn’t end at adolescence.  Throughout our lives we have to redefine ourselves.  We are thrust into roles:   son, daughter, sister, brother, husband, wife, career, and so forth. We look to role models and try to imitate those we like until we make these identities our own.   We have to try on identities, prosopa, and see what works and what doesn’t.  We accept, reject, and modify.   

The unifying aspect of this is to integrate our various roles to promote flourishing, that is the flourishing of ourselves and of others.   Life is the ongoing drama of recreating or reinventing ourselves to respond to the various roles in which we are thrust and to do our best to live whole and integrated lives.   

We have to recognize what our masks do for us.   If we create a mask, that is a personality, that helps hide our pain, or shame, or helps us fit in, that’s OK, that is sometimes necessary for survival.  But as we realize that, and we realize that masks both reveal and hide, what are we needing to sacrifice and to hide in order to be loved or accepted or appear strong or whatever the mask does for us?  What is really being loved and accepted?  Is it us or is it only this part of us? 

Our flourishing might require us to take a risk, to dare courageously, and to allow that hidden part a place on the stage.   I shared with the youth some examples of my own attempts at this mask-making, and the integrating of these masks, a task that is ongoing.    Of course when you reveal what is hidden, that requires vulnerability.   That takes heart or courage.   Even though this can be frightening, risky, and possibly painful, the payoff is human flourishing.   

I closed with this quote from Teddy Roosevelt.    I learned of this quote from author, Brene Brown, who was on my radio program and wrote an important book calledDaring Greatly.  The title of her book comes from this quote that Roosevelt delivered in a speech from 1910: 

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

That was my talk with the youth.  What does that mean for this sermon?  
We, too, need to dare greatly.    We have been thrust onto a cosmic stage.   

Who are we?  We are the product of chance and natural law.  We are connected biologically with all of life.  We are connected through chemistry with all that is.  We are stardust.  We arrived 13.7 billion years after the universe sparked and 4.5 billion years after our sun and earth was formed.   One planet among hundreds of billions in our galaxy.  One galaxy among hundreds of billions of galaxies. 

Everything we are is the result of natural selection.    We are made of Earth.  We come from Earth and to Earth we shall return.    We arrived very late on the scene and when we leave the stage that is both individually and as a human race, Earth will continue to spin and the universe will continue its dance. 

What a stage! 

The masks that we have inherited from our religious traditions while helpful may yet be incomplete for the task.   They must be greatly modified at least.  We must re-invent ourselves.    

Who are we?  We human beings are the universe becoming conscious of itself. One of our tasks is to tell the truth of what we see and hear without flinching.  As part of that, as an inheritor of a religious tradition, I think we need to speak of God and to try on words and explore images and create spaces and rituals that help us express the Holiness or the Sacredness of life. 

Who are we?  We are the aspirations to great virtue.   Look around and notice the courage and the love and the sacrifice and the tenderness and the care.  We do that.   We are the creators of music.  We told every tale of every god.    We know the suffering and anguish and disappointment of life.    None of it is lost.    All is gathered gently as we tell our truths.

Who are we?  We are hopelessly possible.   Hopeless romantics.  Hopeless hopers.   Daring to smile, daring to say there is a chance this might work out.    We are those who try again.  We are poetry, art, parable, and dream. 

Who are we?  We are members of God’s body, that is Earth.   It is home.    Ours to protect.  Ours to love.   Ours to cherish for as long as we have the stage.  

For that, for all that is, we dare greatly.


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