Humans are meaning-seeking creatures. We want to know, or at least want to seem to know. We want coherence and congruency. We want to know what is, why it is, and how to live in it.
By “it” I mean this obvious manifest material world. We find ourselves born into a family and culture, living in a body that grows and ages. We cling to life and see that those who pass from it do not return, except in memory and dreams. Occasionally we encounter the departed in visions, making us wonder if this life is all there is or whether there is an invisible realm not easily or reliably contacted from our material world. Anxiety about death and yearning to connect past it gives rise to hopeful ideas that this is not all there is, that there is a spiritual reality beyond the one we know. We tend then to want to believe those shamans and spiritual authorities who claim to know the ways of the beyond that elude us.
Whether via after-life heavens and hells or reincarnation, we want to believe that this life we know is not all there is. “There’ll be pie in the sky,” we hope. Much of humanity holds to such ideas despite their elusive proofs. Thinking that this is all there is offends teachers and believers alike.
It is not just death that makes us want to know ultimate reality; it is the fact and nature of this world in and of itself. Why is there something rather than nothing? How is this place put together? Does someone put it together or is it self-creating, and if so, why? Mythic explanations orient us, saying why the world came to be and how we’re to be in it. But as we discover the inherent makings and workings of our physical universe, world, and bodies, those former mythic explanations take on a quaint quality, no longer reliable for orienting us in reality. Shame, blame, and pain here – pie later? The Bible and its God no longer seem so correct or convincing. What then?
What if there was no God or meaning? What if matter, energy, happenstance and evolution raised us up, but for no reason? Would we despair, get wild, give up? Such questions scare some, but we UU’s can face the facts and the void with gratitude and glad purpose. We can take life as it is and make it into a gracious and grand home.
It interests and amuses me how tenaciously and adamantly people hold to old cosmologies and mythologies. The feeling of “I just know” or “I believe” is strong in people. I can see why. Being at the center of the universe, watched over by God, is a comforting stance, especially for our mammalian nature, wired for connection. Seeing our whole earth as a mere mote in an enormous universe isn’t cozy. Knowing that the atoms that make it up are mostly empty space doesn’t help either. We’re adrift between enormity and eternity, so I can see how people cling to imagined importance and meaning. What it all means and how we should therefore act is tied up with an old cosmology far more puffed up and tucked in than we may be the truth of things.
If God neither judges nor cares, why try? Why be good? If the atoms that make us up and the starry skies up above are all just there, why care?
Let’s assume there is no inherent meaning or purpose in existence. From the sub-microscopic to the beyond-macroscopic we have only matter and energy to make us up. Large though our planet seems to us, its thin skin of a biosphere rides precariously beneath the electromagnetic shield that protects it from lethal solar radiation. Pull out away from earth and it recedes into invisibility. Pull farther away and our sun is lost in vast emptiness, one of a trillion more, utterly insignificant. The stars will shine no matter what we do. Who cares what we do and why?
We care. Our lives are long enough to learn both history and geo-history. We know our brief lives will be lost from knowing or caring from the few who now know us. All our efforts and concerns which seem so big to us will fade into insignificance. We aren’t noticed by many, and even then, we will be forgotten. Yet while we are alive we have a chance to live up to life. There may be no observer keeping track of what we do other than ourselves. We know whether we partake of life and culture gratefully and generously. We know whether we move in our circle of influence ethically and kindly or not. Those who know us are influenced by who and how we are. The kind of character we exhibit matters in the short run, and how we live contributes to the long run of culture and earth-life. Even if there is no God watching or Saint Peter’s book keeping tract, who and how we are affects our circle, and how we do with that persists in us as our character. Collectively, our combined characters make for a gracious society living sustainably or a greedy one self-destructing. How should we tend this lovely garden? Maybe no one is watching other than us. We should care, and we do care.
In this year celebrating Charles Darwin’s life and work we find those resenting his work still clinging to a cozy cosmology of humans involved in a divine drama having little or nothing to do with the facts of life. Evolution is derided as offensive to faith. Faith assumes a fallen nature needing the redeeming gift of grace. This supposed fallen nature rests on a faulty judgment about it, but that is selectively supported by some facts from nature. Apes were assumed to be only cruel and selfish. Via observation and imagination, hoarding, violence, and even war were assumed to be our animal inheritance, justifying it in us before excusing it as part of God’s divine plan to have us transcend our lowly animal traits. Missing from this “bloody tooth and claw” rationalization are all the cooperative and caring aspects of nature. Gorillas using sign language show grief and caring. Chimps may be patriarchal and violence prone, but their bonobo cousins across the Zaire River are matriarchal, communal, sexy, and kind.
Our human natures inherit not only the indifferent survival instincts of the reptile, but the motherly bonds of the mammal. Those bonds apply not only to our children, but to children in general, and mates, fellow citizens, and even distant foreigners. We may be built of reptiles and mammals but we’re also human, capable of knowing and caring. Suddenly, the facts of life are larger and more demanding. Our place in evolution is knowing about it and incorporating it in our religious stance. It causes us to face three aspects to our material existence: it is precious, precarious, and promising.
Search though we do through the heavens for planets with water or any likelihood of life, we find none. The heavens are a vast expanse of ice, fire, and emptiness. As far as we know, earth is our only home and our only hope for continuing to exist. The thin layer of ocean, land, and atmosphere rides in delicate balance, an interdependent living system that is as precarious as it is precious. But it is also promising, for knowing the ways of weather and life allows us to modify our practices to quit injuring and depleting life and begin augmenting and sustaining it. We could live here on earth far longer than we have lived here so far, and well, were we to care. And we do care.
The current economic meltdown against the backdrop of an even more important ecological one alerts us to the dire and daunting task of changing the way we do business together. Not only are we exhausting ourselves trying to keep the rich richer, we’re exhausting earth’s life as we do it.
When I speak of valuing the materialism that makes us up I do not mean the materialism of a shallow, consumerist society. The goods of sunlight and eyes I affirm; the goods of designer sunglasses I tolerate as long as the making and disposing of them doesn’t injure and exploit our primary goods. We miss out on the former by being enamored of the latter.
Bill Bryson writes of the latter form of materialism as exemplified in the 1950’s:
“By the closing years of the 1950’s most people – certainly most middle-class people – had pretty much everything they had ever dreamed of, so increasingly there was nothing much to do with their wealth but buy more and bigger versions of things they didn’t truly require: second cars, lawn tractors, double-width fridges, hi-fis with bigger speakers and more knobs to twiddle, extra phones and televisions, room intercoms, gas grills, kitchen gadgets, snowblowers, you name it. Having more things of course also meant having more complexity in one’s life, more running costs, more things to look after, more things to clean, more things to break down. Women increasingly went out to work to help keep the whole enterprise afloat. Soon millions pf people were caught in a spiral in which they worked harder and harder to buy labor-saving devices that they wouldn’t have needed if they hadn’t been working so hard in the first place.
“By the 1960’s, the average American was producing twice as much as only fifteen years before. In theory at least, people could now afford to work a four-hour day, or a two-and-a-half-day week, or a six-month year and still maintain a standard of living equivalent to that enjoyed by people in 1950 when life was already pretty good – and arguably, in terms of stress and distraction and sense of urgency, in many respects much better. Instead, and almost uniquely among developed nations, Americas took none of the productivity gains in additional leisure. We decided to work and buy and have instead. “
A half a century later we find us all working even more and having even less. The satisfactions of consumerist materialism once seemed real advances. Clean water supplying indoor kitchens (and bathrooms!) are luxuries much of humanity has not known until recently. Houses easy to heat, cars fast to get around in, phones and computers connecting us to each other – all these are likely to be desired and obtained by humanity.
But after such materialism meets our needs it goes on to undermine them. It may profit the manufacturer, shipper, wholesaler, and retailer to create a mop that will fall apart after a few uses (causing the consumer to buy another one) but it depletes resources and energies re-creating disposable “goods” in a way that wears down our real goods. Our time, money, and resources are spent frittering away our life’s time on wasteful systems. We should feel satisfied, but we actually feel spent.
The “this, at least” I would have us cherish is closer to us than any gadget. In the East, two phrases speak to the cause I would have us consider and embrace. “Neti neti” means “not this – not that.” Satisfaction is not found in any external thing, for it is inherent in our being. “Tat twam asi,” means “thou art that.” What you look upon you become. Who you look at is a part of yourself. When we look upon cheap materialism we become it. When we look at the rich one or the poor one, we are one with them.
Are humans incapable of choosing the good unless a punitive God demands it? I reject such shallow, simplistic thinking. Built into us is more care and intelligence than the former religions acknowledged. The new view of the universe – how big and small it is – and our precious, precarious, promising place in it calls for a maturing of our religions. Carl Sagan once wrote that, “… a religion that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.”
As a banking system built on enriching a few the most for contributing the least falls apart against an even direr backdrop of global climate upheaval, we best reevaluate both our economy and our ecology. We need leaders who exemplify and engage the care we really have within. Hubert Humphrey once said, “the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy, and the handicapped.” Tat twam asi, for neti neti.
We aren’t fallen fools feigning frantic faith. We don’t need ever cheaper consumerist items – from faulty mops to empty foods. We don’t need high-end designer logos to make us feel worthy inside. We need humans to take themselves seriously and sensitively in such a way as to affirm our inner being by activating our intelligent, caring natures.
We need to care for our home planet and all the interrelated life on it. We need to cherish our lives and celebrate life itself. We need to praise, protect, and promote the basic goods of life, not the counterfeits foisted on us instead. “Take a breath; it’s springtime,” shouldn’t sell cigarettes, but breathing and air. We need to look out for each other in compassionate, creative community towards a future that is not only sustainable, but likely to flourish ever more beautifully and abundantly. Come alive in yourself, for this is your time, and you have a right to life it fully.
This, at least, we have – our bodies built for health and ability over a lifetime, each other related by interdependent caring, our planet brimming with variety and abundance, the laws of existence shaping our limits and offering freedom within them. You are the crown of creation, the living incarnation of all the effort and success of all your ancestors, human and pre-human. Inherent in the ancient fairy shrimp was the makings of all subsequent evolved life. It once seemed such a limited plight. But persist. Take what is at least, trusting that more than you know will emerge. Try when you must. Rest as you need. Make joy when you can. Be kind as you are able. What we are, at least, is much more than we have been noticing.
I want religions, western and eastern, to have the humility to be grateful and responsible for this obvious, given, tenacious, glorious realm. Why pine for pie in another imaginary one while precious people go hungry here? Why be greedy for more when the given is already beyond our comprehension much less our understanding or ability? Take this home gratefully, and gladly make it gracious. This half-full glass is heaven enough.
Eat pie while you are alive. Live so that others have theirs too. And when we die…? Maybe there’s nothing, not even anyone to know they’re gone, in which case there is the glory of this universe to have lived in and the gift of life to learn, live, and love within it. If there is anything at all I imagine Saint Peter meeting us at the gates, looking out at Earth and the universe, asking, “Did you love this, at least? Were you awed by beauty? Did you know sweet excess? Did you care for the needy? Then come in, and rest.”
Reverend Brad Carrier
For the UUFGP
© March 1, 2009