Sunday, September 12, 2010

All Creation

Every once in awhile the Church does something that must leave people wondering, “What on earth was that all about?” I suppose you might ask, “So what are you smoking that would have you thinking that it is only ‘once in awhile’?” Those of us who plan liturgies, who preach, who are the “professionally religious,” together with those who as someone has aptly put it have church as their hobby, frequently make the mistake of imagining that what we do is crystal clear to all who come. Or we sometimes have been known to think that a little mystery is a good thing—that it never hurt anybody to puzzle a bit about religion.

Probably the most frequent remark I have heard made over the years about sermons, for instance, is something akin to this: “I want a sermon to connect with what is happening in my daily life.” I hear it as a more general ache that somehow religion might try to come into our lives and connect with us rather than work to get us out of our lives and into some ethereal space in which, for heavens’ sake, we can’t do much earthly good.

I would say it is precisely for that reason that we are embarking today on a six-week venture to focus on probably the most quintessentially relevant topic you could imagine: the future of this planet. We are calling it “A Season of Creation.” Rather than have you after one, two, or all six weeks shaking your heads wondering, “What is all that about?”, I’d like to answer that at the outset.

The future of the planet is, of course, rooted in the past. In order to understand what is at stake, we have to look at how we got to where we are. One of the most interesting accounts of human history is the recent Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond. Diamond’s research shows how civilizations have grown up in relation to the spread of plants for food; and how they have died because invading conquerors, notably Europeans, brought germs that debilitated whole societies. Weaponry is probably the biggest single development ensuring the ascendancy of some humans and the demise of others. Human history is complex, as is the more general geological history of the planet, and there is much we don’t know. What we do know is that throughout the world, peaceable peoples have been no match against marauders. Perhaps not all invading tribes of all times have been arrayed against the natural world—the Celts come to mind as a particularly nature-centered group—but the truth of the matter is that in the Western world ultimately there came to power a civilization that understood itself as being fundamentally different from, superior to, in control of the natural world. That is the irony of Western culture, both its gift and the seeds of its destruction.

Christianity has done more than its share in aiding and abetting this western proclivity to power and domination over creation. There are several reasons why that has been true. First, there is built into Judaeo-Christianity the notion that God is primarily interested in human beings, not so much with the rest of creation. And human beings have long told themselves the tale that the natural world is their playpen and its goods theirs for the taking. Second, Christianity and its Jewish parent long ago bought into some eastern dualism that essentially saw the world sliced into two: the material world and the spiritual world, the physical seen as clearly inferior to the spiritual. A third reason why Christianity has frequently fed a deep suspicion of the worth of creation is that there has been an element of thought—sometimes a major one—that holds to the notion that this world is passing away, soon to be replaced by a better one. One version of that belief is the notion that what human life is about is principally getting into heaven, that other world, not about fitting into this world.

This is not all there is to Christianity, however. Some of our formative stories, frequently misunderstood as support for the domination dynamic, are anything but that. The creation stories in Genesis, for example, make clear that human beings are set within a larger context of the natural world. Not only that, they are given a permission (eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden), a prohibition (except the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil), and a vocation (till and keep the garden). Clearly there are limits on human beings. While it is true that in the first creation story, God gives dominion over the earth and its creatures to humans, it is clear that humans are accountable to and subordinate to God.

Without an appropriate understanding of creation, Christianity gets into a heap of trouble. We need to understand that, as today’s epistle puts it, everything in creation is good. Not just the purple-headed mountain and the river running by and the tiny little wings of things bright and beautiful. Included are the snail that eats your caladium’s leaves, the wasp that stings, the copperhead lurking behind a log, the wind’s tempestuous shocks, the hurricane’s high tides. The creator made them all and pronounced the whole thing good. There is nothing the matter with matter. It is not inferior to spirit or to energy. This is key to our understanding of the work and nature of Jesus Christ. When we say in the Creed “by him all things were made,” we are talking about the Second Person of the Trinity, namely Jesus. We perceive him to be the Word, the creative expression of Godhead, who existed long before all worlds, the one by whom they came into being. Why is that important? Because when we discuss who he is in the flesh, it is critical to proclaim that the human body of Jesus was as important to his identity as his spirit, his soul, his personality, his divine nature. That is why the bookends of Christian theology are the doctrines of incarnation and resurrection. Both have to do with the physical. Both have to do with the body. Both are interlaced with a doctrine of creation that holds that the one who made all things was the one who thoroughly identified with creation by becoming a part of it and who thoroughly healed it by uniting not only human nature but the whole physical world to the divine life he embodied.

Don’t think that we are talking literally and historically here. We are instead talking on the plane of symbol and metaphor. But that is not a cheap brand of language, less reliable than the language of fact. It is exactly by means of the language of Christology that we are able to paint a picture of how the created world is intimately connected with God and humanity.

You might well be wondering if I’m not straining at gnats and swallowing camels here. Why the fuss? Is it not quite enough to assert that we have an obligation to be stewards of creation? Actually, that is not enough, and I am not sure that “stewards of creation” adequately describes what our calling is. We are, by reliable accounts, standing on the brink of environmental disaster. Some argue that we have already gone over the brink. Species are struggling to stay alive. Oil is running out. We are so committed to fossil fuels that we cannot extricate ourselves from their use without seriously damaging our fragile economy even further. Climate change wreaks havoc in weather patterns. Land use becomes more and more problematical as the need to house and feed the planet’s human population becomes more difficult each year. Potable water is still a serious problem in much of the world, the poorest regions being the most vulnerable to polluted and disease-carrying water.

What’s a body to do in the face of so much planet-wide distress? Over the next six weeks we are going to be looking at that question and trying on some answers. One thing is to take care that we are living in a way that reflects the value that our faith tradition places upon the natural world. Another thing is to work towards amassing sufficient political power that we can together make a difference in the future of the world. A third thing is to practice living out of the context of Sermon on the Mount, which is the source of the gospel for today.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you--you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

That is where and how Jesus solidly comes down on the side of living in simple harmony with creation, which is the alternative to living in a spirit of acquisition, control, and domination. It might be that we simply do not believe that we can live differently—and for people whose whole culture is based upon domination (of resources and people) that is a great challenge. But the life of earth depends upon it. And the vocation that God gave humans is still the same: till the garden and keep it.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2010

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Real Presence

Psalm 139

Q: What is the most frequently read book of the Bible?
A: The Book of Psalms. It is read at nearly every liturgy in nearly every church, at Holy Eucharist, Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, Noonday Prayer, Compline. Monasteries and convents use the psalter four or more times a day. And since the Psalms belong to both Jews and Christians, it is quite likely that no other book is quite so widely read the world over.

Strange, then, I say to myself, that in nearly forty years I cannot remember ever preaching a sermon on the psalms. But today I break with precedent and offer to guide you in reflecting on one of the most beautiful poems ever crafted, and hands down my favorite psalm of all the hundred and fifty: Psalm 139. Some years ago I spent something like a month daily poring over the verses of Psalm 139, savoring them, using them as grist for meditation, as launching pads for journaling. As I frequently do when I find myself attracted to a poem, a song, an object, a place, or a person, I wonder what it is that my soul is rising to respond to. What do I see there, feel there, hear there that speaks to me deeply and powerfully?

It is a profound sense of Presence. We have no way of knowing just how or when the consciousness of humans developed to the point of imagining that the gods were not remote from human life, or localized in some particular place, or capricious deities that darted in and out of human experience leaving us baffled and fearful. But the composer of Psalm 139 clearly has grasped the idea that God is spirit, unlimited by time and space, pervading all creation. God is closer to us than the air we breathe.

That is not necessarily good news for those who believe that “God” is purely a convenient construct with no objective basis in reality. Nor is it especially happy news for those who imagine that God is essentially a moral police officer interested in keeping score of all the good and mostly the bad things that human beings do. Having God pressing upon us behind and before, laying a hand upon us could be a terrifying thought. (Which is enough to nudge the skeptical into the camp of thoroughgoing unbelievers.) But for me, and maybe for you, it is good news that the universe is not just the physical world. There are other dimensions of reality, too––probably more than we can count. And at least one of those dimensions we may call “presence.” There is something intensely personal that responds to us out of the vastness of the universe.

I am not asking you to believe that if you already don’t. Or at least I don’t think I am. Some of us seem to have receptors for such a Presence and some of us clearly do not. A few years ago I read The God Gene, by Dean Hamer. His and a book by Nicholas Wade called The Faith Instinct both discuss the possibility that human beings have a certain genetic predisposition to religion. Hamer had to admit that there is no conclusive evidence for a “God gene,” but that there is plenty of reason to suppose that there might be. It could be that, if there is such a gene, religious meaning might be limited to those human beings who carry the gene. Exactly what the gene does or might do is not at all clear. Wade, on the other hand, sees that religion has a kind of utilitarian purpose in the whole evolutionary scheme of things. He argues that we are social because we are religious, not religious because we are social. In other words, religion helps people get over things like selfishness in order to live in community. Whether he is right or not, his arguments certainly seem to occupy a very different space from what we believers would say we experience, both negatively and positively. All this is very interesting, but what is the point? The point is that if our minds and eyes are open to the possibility of the Presence of God, we can begin to understand and to appreciate that that Presence is at once something that far transcends our individual selves and is also something quite intimately connected with us.

Like the Bible, I am not interested in asking the question of whether God exists. I am interested in asking this question: God exists; so what? If God makes no difference, I cannot see the point in wasting time worshiping, pondering, worrying about, musing about, imagining God, any more than I could justify inventing the notion of a Great Big Rabbit, let’s say, and building one’s life around something that is fundamentally optional to say the least. But in fact, the God that exists is not a million light years remote from my world; God is in my very being. And yet God is not just another name for the stuff of which I am composed. God is Presence. “Lord, you have searched me out and known me,” says the psalmist. The older I get, the more I know that there is something at the bottom of my being that is the bedrock of my spirit, my soul, my personality. And I’ll bet that is true for you, too, be you believer or skeptic. When we are young, we imagine that we know a good deal about ourselves (I seem to recall). When we grow older, we become at once more familiar with ourselves and simultaneously more surprised at parts of ourselves which surface unexpectedly. (I’m thinking of the mid-life crisis, which is no more a joke than adolescence is a joke.) Thus the notion charms me that there is a Presence so thoroughly knowledgeable about and conscious of me that I can say of that Presence, “you have searched me out and known me.” I do not know myself all that well; but you, Lord, know me perfectly. You see the coherence of my various parts, often clashing discordantly, that leave me confused and bewildered. “So what?” is a question that has an answer. And the answer is: so there is a Presence that understands me. And thus there is the possibility that I might come to understand myself, or at least live with myself in a more or less peaceable way.

The Latin Vulgate, incidentally, translates that first verse in a way that has been rendered into English as “thou knowest my death and my resurrection.” Imagine! God has in mind your death as well as your life, and already holds in the eternal mind, as it were, your own eternity, your own resurrection. The psalmist then builds on this experience of intimacy. “You trace my journeys and my resting-places, and are acquainted with all my ways.” He means that there are no back alleys that he can go down, no racetracks he can cut loose on, no secret passageways that are hidden from the all-seeing Eye. I used to think that such a thought served to put the so-called “fear of God” in me, to make me scared not to keep my nose clean. Now I understand that the “fear of God” is not at all about being afraid—it is about living in awe that this strange and wonderful Presence never leaves me. I am as close to God in the DC Eagle as I am in church, as near to the divine in Bed, Bath, and Beyond as I am in Sunday School. Why? Because there is not a word on my lips (including my curses as well as my prayers) that God does not know. And the Presence is the one dependable thing in the midst of so much that is undependable, a whole lot of which is fast passing away.

Such knowledge, I will admit, is too wonderful for me. It is high. I cannot attain to it. In fact, thinking about it moves me to tears. I cannot fathom living in the presence of such a Presence! And stranger still is the idea that I am living in the hand of One who, though knowing everything about me, loves me as if I were the only being on the entire planet. I cannot flee the Presence, because the Presence will not flee me. If I climb up to heaven, lo, God is there. And (as the King James Version puts it) if I make my bed in hell, God is there. That is an astonishing thought! Don’t you wonder what all the folks who are forever threatened by hell, and threatening others with it, make of that? Neither heaven nor hell, neither sea nor darkness, neither night nor day can separate us from the Presence of the one who created our inmost parts, who knit us together in our mothers’ wombs.

But, so what? To believe, or even to consider believing such a possibility as the psalmist’s sense of trust, is almost certainly to move towards seeing that we are as present to God as God is present to us. I don’t mean that as a simple tautology, but as a way of pushing the thought of the psalmist to a new level—one that I hope is not incompatible with his majestic poem. The psalmist edges beyond the comfort zone of his culture and his religion by seeing that God is both transcendent and intensely personal. But we now can see that ours is (if we allow it!) the consciousness gazing back at the Presence which is gazing at us. It is not unlike what we say about icons. They are windows through which the Divine beholds us and through which, just as really, we behold the Divine.

In their book entitled Presence: An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Organizations, and Society, Peter Senge and his fellow-authors play with the idea that the whole is manifested in its parts. A human organization is not a whole that is made up of many parts because living systems, such as your body or a plant or a river or an eco-system, create themselves. They are constantly growing and changing. They note that for the 19th century German writer and scientist Goethe, the whole is “something dynamic and living that continually comes into being ‘in concrete manifestations.’” That is not far away from Psalm 139. The Presence which we know as the all-embracing God is not apart from the creation, but dispersed throughout it. And we creatures, in turn, can practice that Presence by gradually opening ourselves to its gentleness and its power, letting go of our fears and defenses, and becoming more like the Presence that embraces and loves us.

Maybe that is what impels the psalmist to say, at the end of his poem, “Search me out, O God, and know my heart;; try me and know my restless thoughts. Look well whether there be any wickedness in me and lead me in the way that is everlasting.” The entire point of the Presence is that all the parts of creation, including you and me, can in fact become more and more like the one who made and knows and cherishes us through and through.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2010