I have a book on my desk by the now retired Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams called Tokens of Trust (Westminster John Knox Press, 2007.) It is a small book attempting to answer a big question. If we complain about faithlessness in American society our political parent is way ahead of us. The British press has a great time putting down religion in most every form, especially Christianity. In this one Williams attempts to make God-Talk in secular terms. The message of the book is, “In spite of what the press says, talk about God is worth it, because God is trustworthy.” It’s a good read, and in spite of William’s vast learning, it is accessible to anyone who picks it up.
In spite of the moaning and groaning of religious communities (something that has been part of the human story since people gathered to pray, it seems!) there is a lot of God-Talk in American society today. I submit, however, that it is not really God-Talk. It is political rhetoric dressed in the garb of the Church. Whether its Universalism, New Age, Fundamentalism or Left-wing Inclusivism, it always seems to be spoken from a political position that is not exactly center. It usually speaks clearly, confidently and often coherently, and it has something to say to the world.
Now here is my problem. The great mystics of every religious tradition of the world all agree that the closer you get to the mystery the LESS there is to say, not more.
I’m in the slog of my dissertation. That’s the part between the end of the research and the submission of the almost-final draft where you spend hours and hours poring through sources, extracting quotes and dropping out things you think you knew but you can’t support in the literature. It’s not that I don’t know what I know. What I don’t always know (and this is the big thing here) is who else, more illustrious than I, has also thought of what I know and said something about it. That’s humbling, for sure, but it’s also the safeguard of the educational process. If I can’t ground what I know in what others know I am a lone ranger, and lone rangers come up with crazy ideas with no one to check them. As a bishop I knew once said, “When you’re the Lone Ranger you have Tonto for a sidekick,” and he would add that “tonto” in Spanish means “fool.”
The racial slight there notwithstanding, it is true. We learn in community. We grow in community. We are lost in community and we are saved in community. Our Western, American ideal of the rugged individualist has gotten a lot of people in real trouble. Jim Jones and David Koresh were lone ranger fools, products of religious individualism that would not submit to the community. The tragedy is that they took others out with them. We Americans read holy writ of whatever kind we might seek out from an individualist point of view forgetting that for ALL of them the context of their writing was NOT our Western, American ideal of rugged individualism. Self-sufficiency is an illusion and the so-called “self-made man” is a fairy tale.
So here I go, trying to prove to the world that my ideas fit into the community of ideas out there. And here we go, trying to fit our egos into the community of egos out there. What we need is to figure out how our spirits fit into the community of spiritual people out there.
Mircea Eliade in his seminal book, The Sacred and the Profane, (1957) makes a very interesting comment in the introduction. He speaks about the human soul being approached by the numinous. What he means by that is that we often set out to “find God,” “find religion,” “get close to God,” etc., as if God is sold at Walmart and for the right price we can have a religious feeling. What he calls “primitive religion” sees it the other way around. We do not create sacred space, we discover it. We do not set aside sacred time, we find that we have been caught up in it. God is not found. God finds us. We find ourselves again and again on the great Threshold of the real. We are approached by the numinous.
Gerald May in his book, Will and Spirit, (1982) would challenge Eliade in only one point. “Primitive” is now. We are primitives. We are those whose spiritual experience does not fit well into an empirical and rational world. We are those who, finding ourselves approached by the numinous, stumble around wondering what to do with it. Many of us hide the experience, thinking that others will think us crazy if we shared it. Some of us worship the experience, and measure everyone else by whether or not they have had our experience. Most of us try to tame it into theological or psychological language.
The worshipping community should be the place where these experiences find their proper context. Unfortunately, egos get out of hand in worshipping communities as quickly as anywhere, and too often those communities have been the first to theologize or psychologize these experiences into tame irrelevance. The approach of the numinous, if it does anything to us at all, sets our ego in its proper place. What if the gathering of believers saw themselves as those whose great inner work it is to be ready to be approached? What if these people saw their great outer work to be to live humbly into the wisdom of the vision?
Night clouds are spirits that do funky things in the dark. If there is a good moon they cut the moon’s face into fantastic patterns, and reveal its light against their sides. Under a good moon they are mighty blue-white gossamer swirls. Under a dark night they are holes in the sky where there are no stars. Sometimes they weep upon the earth in the night, suddenly and without warning. Lightning is their epiphany, however, showing them in instant flashes where otherwise they hide. Day clouds and night clouds seem to be different species. Day clouds are always there. Whether they are white puffy harbingers of halcyon days or mounds of dark promise reaching to heaven, or a blanket of cold, drippy cotton that obliterates anything above, day-clouds pull no punches. They rain where they are going to rain, and they don’t where they aren’t going to. They are bigger than mountains and small enough to wisp down the arroyo in front of my house.
Those who know (whoever “they” are,) say Day Clouds and Night Clouds are really the same inside. They are both made of water droplets hanging together in the sky, and whether by light or by dark, they do the same things. Maybe that’s true, but it doesn’t look that way from where I stand. From my corner of the world, the way they impact me, my lived experience is of two very different things.
From where some stand a turban is a sign of a bad person, but not from where I stand. From where some stand south of the border is scary, but to me it is inviting. From where some stand blacks, whites, reds and browns are different species, from which to expect different behaviors. From where I stand it’s more complicated than that. Everyone has the place on which they stand. There are many places where people stand. Though all of us would like to think we do, nobody can see everything from where they stand.
Maybe me walking a mile in your moccasins might help me learn something about some of the places I can’t see from where stand.
This morning a Hummingbird sat on the guy-line that stabilizes a big agave flower that I have propped up in front of the house. The feeder hanging from one of the flower’s branches has her in the area, and she took a moment to sit on the line. Again, I was struck by the fact that she did not have to sit there. She usually doesn’t, but this morning she did, sitting there in her amazing, iridescent colors, shining in the sun. I marveled, as much at the magnificence of the little bird, as at the fact that there she was. She didn’t HAVE to be there, she didn’t even HAVE to be at all, but there she was in all her isness.
It is what it is and ain’t what it ain’t, and that’s all she got. That’s more than just a way of adjusting to realities in life one finds undesirable. It is a statement of the way things are. Aslan says at the end of “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” “We’re never told what might have been.” As humans we have the ability to imagine what might have been. The fender bender last week—what if the driver had put on the brakes a hair-second sooner? What if the car in front had not stopped? If the Japanese response to the Potsdam Declaration by Western heads of nations in 1945 had not been mistranslated would the A-bomb been dropped? We’re never told what might have been. Even blaming fate doesn’t answer the question. There is an Islamic story about a man who was told that he would die on a given day. To avoid death he fled to another town and met death as he entered the city. What if he had succeeded in cheating death? What if he had not left his own town? We’re not told what might have been.
Why, then, do we have this capacity? Whether we like it or not, our capacity to imagine is part of our humanity. Like all other aspects of our being, we can use it for ill or we can use it for good. We can fret over the fender-bender, and we can bemoan international misunderstandings that lead to massive loss of life, but we can also imagine in other ways. Imagining what might have been can yield wisdom for what might be. Imagining what might be gives clarity on what to do. Clarity on what to do gives the wherewithal to gather around in common effort. Common effort can change the trajectory of the world from what we imagine could be destructive to what we can imagine to be life-giving. Imagination is part of the creative side of us that shares in the Divine Creativity from which we all spring.
Never let anyone tell you that you have too vivid an imagination!
I just watched her stride noiselessly to the edge of the cliff and look over, surveying her kingdom on silent haunches. She is queen, but not in the pretentious sense. She is just queenly. She owns the world, she knows it, and if you don’t know it, you’re the worse for it, because that doesn’t change the fact that she owns it. She is one of the three Church Cats and her cliff is the edge of the apartment building roof next door. Woe to the Church Mice.
T.S. Eliot, one of my favorite poets, wrote a whole play about cats. I’m not really a cat person, but I get that there’s something about the presence of a cat that is different than that of a dog. We know all the sayings, “You’re nobody until you’ve been ignored by a cat.” “Dogs have owners, cats have staff.” Some people believe that in the beginning cats chose to live with people because farming produced abundances of grain, which when stored drew mice and rats—in other words, cats domesticated people, not the other way around. A dog is all about dedication and surrender. A cat is about presence.
Presence is life. Too many of us drift through our relationships with no presence. We do our duties, we fulfill our obligations and we are good people. We help when we are supposed to, we follow the rules, written and unwritten, but we never stray from the path. If all we do is what is expected of us then who is it that is doing it? Our real presence, our inner energy, the colors our soul paints life in, these go muted and hidden away—from ourselves most of all. Our relationships only become real, full and healthy when we show up in them.
Conformity is the hallmark of an ordered society, but conformity does not create a healthy society. Healthy societies are built on presences in the presence of one another.
On Saturday I have been invited to make a presentation on Neotropical Birds. That’s a little like talking for 30 minutes about the two World Wars, or highlighting the geography of North America over a cup of coffee. Ecuador (where I grew up) alone has more than 1600 species vs. the 914 found in the United States. To put that into perspective, the US has 3.1 million square miles, and Ecuador has 109 thousand. I read in a National Geographic Magazine article a hundred years ago or so (when I was a kid) that more species of hummingbirds are found around the capital of Ecuador than anywhere else in the world—more than 140.
How does one get one’s mind around this? More poignantly, why do we want a talk about Neotropical Birds in this area of the world? Yes, we occasionally get a Neotropical species that wanders up here and causes a big hullabaloo among hard-core birders, like the time that a Collared Forest Falcon spent some time in Bentsen State Park in south Texas and people from all over the US hounded that poor thing until it fled south again, but I kinda think it has more to do with the exotic than the immediate. There are a lot of exotic birds in the Neotropical region (Central and South America.) Many of them are found only there. I’m sure some of these people might even go birding in Central or South America and have a good time, but many will not.
The exotic is what is different, and appears interesting and exciting because it is unknown, especially if it is colorful and flamboyant. The exotic is, however, only seen from without. If you live in Ecuador hummingbirds are everywhere and they are not exotic. If you live in Ecuador our own Spotted Towhee would be exotic. When it comes to people, as soon as we call them exotic we hold them at arm’s length. We put them in a mental museum where we can gawk at them for their apparent difference, and where we do not have to wrestle with our common humanity. It is already an abuse that leads quickly to things like the 14 countries that the Genocide Watch lists as bent on extermination of a people.
Yes, differences matter, and we must learn to make them into a source of richness, but they will never be unless we first find our common humanity.