Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Eternal Questions are not Easy Questions

When we begin to ask the questions of ourselves—seriously ask them—we begin the work of theology, the work of religion, the work of spirituality, which is aligning ourselves to the transcendental ground of our existence, the thing beyond time and space (or not). We begin to align ourselves to the something that is larger than our struggle for hourly, daily existence. We begin the work of weaving our lives around our ultimate concerns

The work of theology has many facets—tradition, authority, speculation, personal experience, mystery. . . Some of us have experienced a good deal of grace, having felt that nature or reality or deity has been on our side most of our lives. Others of us have felt cursed a good deal of the time by whatever powers may be. Others have felt blessed, until a certain event. . .

After all, it is well to remember that it may not be truth we are after, but peace of mind. Again, knowing ourselves is not easy, though perhaps it is required.

First we must ask the questions. “Doing” theology is at once mind-numbingly complex and painfully simple.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Your Cosmology is Showing

There are certain inevitables in life: death and taxes often get mentioned. These are things that happen to us, whether we have an opinion about them—or a theory about them—or not. Our theory about the meaning of death informs how we live; or, more commonly, we decide not to think about it until we have to. Certainly we’ve seen recently that how we feel about the taxes we inevitably pay defines how we act in the world.

An inevitable that we perhaps think about even less often is our cosmology. I, for one, don’t often sit down to ask myself: What is the universe really like?

Yet our actions in our lives on this planet flow from our beliefs concerning how this universe works.


Imagine a world that is as flat as a pancake. The pancake sits on the shoulders of a god who is being punished for something or other. Or perhaps the pancake sits on the back of a couple of elephants. Below that is the world of the dead; perhaps a place of active and brutal punishment; perhaps a place of general discontent and boredom; perhaps a place where those killed in battle get to drink and carouse and everyone else gets to be generally discontent and bored.

Above the pancake sits the sky, perhaps a large glass dome; perhaps another pancake, again held up by a god being punished for something or other. Or perhaps there are some very large pillars somewhere. Above that dome is another world, much like our own, except that the beings there are immortal.

Then there is the pancake itself. In the center is land. The rest is water. And in the center of the center of land is us—the people who the gods above love. We are surrounded by dangerous people unlike us. They are held at bay, these dangerous people; and the dangerous chaos of storms, plagues, and droughts is held at bay only so long as we honor our gods and our king, who lives in harmony with the gods and pleases them.

That’s the flat earth. There are many variations. The sun rises and sets; the seasons come and go.

Dangerously, I think, many people in the world today still live on that pancake earth, with a good us and a bad them; with gods to please through inherited practices; with rulers charged with holding back chaos not with wise policy but with religious obedience. In the John Donne poem I read earlier, reflect on what Donne is really concerned about:
'Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone,
All just supply, and all relation;
Prince, subject, father, son, are things forgot,
For every man alone thinks he hath got
To be a phoenix. . .

It is social order that is threatened: hierarchical “relation” of ruler to ruled. The concern is about hierarchy, and we might also notice. . .PATriarchy. Donne was NOT correct about the universe “being out of joint.” What was changing, at least in some European societies of the day, was the attitudes about who got to be in charge. Donne was correct that his position was in danger.

A lot of people still live on the pancake world; and a lot of people have John Donne’s fears.

I’m not a cosmologist. Or a scientist. And I hope you don’t think I’m trying to be. I understand the poetry of John Donne considerably better than I do the equations of Einstein. Despite that mental quick, I take science seriously. I read the popular books that come along, trying to grasp with my non-mathematical mind what the latest thinking is. Because I believe that if there’s anything “out there” that we can legitimately call “god” or “divinity,” science will be the branch of human knowledge that will find that.

Like John Donne, who became a minister later in life, I have spent my life on poetry and religion. I believe these are important pursuits; but also, my mind works that way. I am an intuitive thinker. The details confuse me and make me tired.

Yet I am convinced of this: Art and religion have created some beautiful stories about gods and afterlives and how we can best live on this planet, given our circumstances. But for me the important and beautiful thing about art and religion is that every human being has had roughly the same materials to work with. Moses, Homer, the Buddha, Jesus, Marie Antoinette, George Washington, Albert Einstein. You, me. We all go from the silence of the womb to the silence of the tomb. And we all experience the noise that occurs in between. We each have consciousness. And a few days in the sun. And we do something with it. Something. Some good. Some bad. Some indifferent. But something.
It’s another inevitable: how we live and what we do. Yet everyone who has ever lived has worked with the same material.

When considering the work of past human beings, I find this both more believable and more interesting: The human problems, and the human heart, have remained the same.


What HAS changed is the science. . .

Physicist Leonard Susskind calls what happened in the early Twentieth Century a “wholesale breakdown of intuition.” Whatever we call it, the universe is no longer understood by merely looking at it.

The authors of The View from the Center of the Universe: Discovering our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos are not talking to pancake-earth people. They are talking to people with some knowledge that the universe is a very strange place, from the Big Bang, to Black Holes, to dark energy and dark matter, to String Theory and the expanding universe. Some of us know just enough to be dangerous, as the old saying goes, but more importantly, most of us falling into the camp of existentialists when it comes to our understanding of the universe. It is the beliefs of Carl Sagan with his “billions and billions of stars.” That is, that many of us have developed a cosmology in which human life, and our earth, aren’t all that important. This can lead to the attitude that philosopher Bertrand Russell articulated:

Only on the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.

This has been my cosmology for many years: We are happy—and sometimes unhappy—accidents of the Big Bang, living as we do on a small planet circling a small star in a small solar system in a small galaxy in a universe—that may or may not be one of many—expanding at something like 380 million miles an hour.

Unlike Bertrand Russell, I don’t despair about it. For me it helps put humanity—especially mine—into some perspective. The pettiness of my pettiness, if you will. Or as ee cummings put it, the bigness of our littleness. Cummings concludes that poem by saying,

listen: there's a hell
of a good universe next door; let's go

The authors of The View from the Center of the Universe: Discovering our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos,Joel R. Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams are trying to convince people like me to see the universe in another way.


Art and religion are not about the universe, at least in a descriptive way. All I can do when I see a number such as ten to the negative twenty-fifth power is say, “Wow. Cool. That must be really small.” A concept such as ten to the negative twenty-fifth power is useful in describing reality, but it isn’t a way to RELATE to reality for most of us.

Our relationship with reality is really fairly simple. Take taste, for example: we can sense four or arguably five flavors: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and perhaps “umami.” That’s it.

“Really big” and really “small” are like that too. The way I think, there’s “really big,” then, “really, really big,” but those concepts don’t have much real value for understanding reality, whatever that is.

For me, someone who does not comprehend numbers (frankly, I’m innumerate), the only way I can imagine the cosmos—even in a rudimentary way—is to work with metaphor. So, for me, when someone says, “imagine a marble on the fifty yard line in a football stadium,” I can somewhat grasp the idea through the metaphor. That’s why Einstein appears clearer to many of us than he probably should: We can understand, to a point, his thought experiments, without understanding the equations. We understand Einstein’s metaphors of trains leaving stations and falling elevators. This kind of metaphorical understanding is what the authors of The View from the Center of the Universe are trying to get us to do. Numbers can DESCRIBE the universe in ways that scientists can use, but they don’t help most of us EXPERIENCE the universe.

The flat earth, the pancake world, can be experienced: the gods are up there; the dead are down there; and our existence depends upon balancing cosmic forces here on the pancake. But the expanding universe? Well, in the expanding universe, the galaxies are like raisons in raison bread as it bakes. . .

That metaphor is not nearly as compelling as one in which the wraiths of the dead rise like black smoke from the earth at midnight!

Infinity? I know that mathematicians look to set theory. Yet for me, the “Net of Indira” makes much more sense:

Once the great god Indra, as gods will, wished to possess the most beautiful of all things. And so she ordered Vishwakarma, the cunning artificer of the gods, to make her a marvelous net. And just as Vishwakarma had built all the worlds that are, he built a net that stretched, in all directions, to infinity. And at each juncture in the net Vishwakarma set a precious stone, so that, just as the net was infinity, so was the number of precious stones. And so it was that each stone reflected every other stone, an endless reflection of stones, each reflecting each and all, an infinite regress in reflection. And the net of Indra was so fine that a touch to any part sent the whole shivering.

Perhaps this story does not help me see what infinity “really” is, but by thinking about it, I EXPERIENCE infinity. (At least in my own small way.)

Ten dimensions? Falling into Black Holes?

Humanity has been through a lot of cosmologies. What the successful ones have in common is their compelling connection to the human scale, to things we can understand. We can understand a man and a woman in a garden. It feels good to have a good that creates us in his image. We know more about the universe now, yet we do not have to live in a universe of “unyielding despair.” We can live in a universe in which we know that our metaphors are metaphors, but that they are keys to ultimate reality. The universe is not a snake swallowing its tail. But perhaps it helps to imagine it that way. The arc that bends toward justice may or may not be bent by the “hand of God.” But perhaps it helps to imagine it that way. As long as we control our metaphors, as long as we do not bow down to our metaphors as if they are idols, the metaphors themselves keep us warm in a universe that fits to a human scale. And we—as we must—find our way to live in the cosmos.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Beauty, Transcendence, and Mercy Ahead of the Curve

It doesn’t take long working as a hospital chaplain in a large urban hospital to see a great deal of mortality. Where I worked, we averaged eight deaths every twenty-four hours. Amid the gunshot victims, car accident victims, heart attacks and strokes, not to mention the slower deaths by cancer and what-have-you, the persistent question I heard from the dying and the bereaved was, “Why?”

Why is God doing this?

There were also of course the narrow escapes often called miracles.

I am a Unitarian Universalist minister. I came to that profession late in life, after being a Unitarian Universalist layperson for many years. I take seriously the commitment in my religious tradition to honor all religious traditions. It was through that lens that I comforted the dying and the grieving. Muslim, Buddhists, Hindus, Christians of every stripe; the atheist and the true believer. Young, old, and in-between.

Fact is, a pattern did emerge: all religions fail and all succeed in those difficult times. The difference is the individual. Some people handle their deaths calmly; others do not. Some people handle the deaths of loved ones calmly; others do not. The flavor of religion or irreligion matters not at all; it is the depth of commitment to one’s beliefs that matters.
To me, this is an important religious insight: it is the depth of commitment to one’s beliefs that matters.

The conscience must have integrity.

Being part of a creedless faith tradition, Unitarian Universalists have been a bit ahead of the curve in grappling with questions that people of all traditions will sooner or later have to struggle with:

What if no particular religious tradition has a monopoly, or perhaps even a claim, on Truth?

What do we do when we no longer find meaning in the religion we grew up in?

What if sacred scriptures are not divinely inspired, but are, rather, fallibly human?

What if there is no God, or at least a god of the type we wish there to be?

What is the meaning and purpose of human life?

Are we accountable to others and to the world?

A common answer to questions of this sort is to give up—to reject all religions and seek meaning elsewhere. This is one answer.

Another answer is to believe harder, rejecting all evidence contrary to our chosen belief system.

Perhaps neither of these, however, is the best course. As with other amputations, these reactions often lead to feelings of lack, not resolution or wholeness. If we choose materialist scientism, we cut away the ancient voices that resonate in us. If we choose unquestioning faith we must cut off. . .well. . . all the questions.

My chosen path is a middle way, between questioning rejection and unquestioning faith. I have learned to take mystery seriously.