Wonder and Tragedy: Thoughts Inspired by “The Tree of Life”

At the heart of the nature of things, there are always the dream of youth and the harvest of tragedy.  The Adventure of the Universe starts with the dream and reaps tragic beauty.  This is the union of Zest with Peace: – That the suffering attains its end in a Harmony of Harmonies.  The immediate experience of this Final Fact, with its union of Youth and Tragedy, is the sense of peace.  In this way the World receives its persuasion toward s such perfections as are possible for its diverse individual occasions. (Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 296)

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? (Job 38:3)

Here we are – mere mortals in the immensity of the cosmos.  Galaxies are born and die in the maternity ward of evolution.  Our automobiles drink the fluid of the great dinosaurs that roamed the earth. At just the last moment in this immense cosmic journey, we came upon the scene, creating and destroying and creating again – given the power to be partners in evolution but often turning the gift into a curse by our greed and consumption.  Still on rare moments, we get over ourselves and shiver as we ask, like the wise one gazing at the heavens “what are we that you are mindful us?” (Psalm 8)

Glory is all around – heaven and earth are filled with God’s glory – and heaven and earth are perpetually perishing, evolving, emerging, dying, and being reborn.  And, once in awhile we notice, take off our shoes, at the holiness of it all, cells as well as souls.

Have we, as the film “The Tree of Life” suggests, dishonored God’s glory by our failure to be amazed?  Radical amazement is at the heart of spirituality, so says Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and yet we walk through the day, living in black and white when rainbows and fireflies surround us, and when every breath is a miracle.  Like Jacob, every so often we awaken from the dream of our preoccupations and exclaim, “God was in this place and I did not know it!”  This place – every place – is Beth-El, the gateway to heaven.  We are the gateway to heaven.

Life is perpetual perishing, as the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead asserts, and the greatest evil is the reality that nothing lasts.  If we try to hold onto the moment, it slips through our grasp only to be succeeded by another unique moment – “time like an ever-flowing stream bears all its children away.”  These days, boomers, like me, are discovering our mortality.  Of course, we’ve been living by the illusion that aging happens to other people – that our redefining of aging doesn’t include infirmity and death.  But, we are swept along in the stream of life that will eventually take our planet and solar system.  Our friends are dying of cancer and we fear the onset of Alzheimer’s whenever we forget an acquaintance’s name.

Tragedy abounds amid the wonder.  It is a wild universe.  Beauty and suffering live side by side in our lives and in the evolutionary process.  A number of my closest friends have incurable cancer.  And, of course, children die daily of starvation and violence, even in our own land.

Take notice, number your days and gain a heart of wisdom. But, yet there is great beauty amid the perpetual perishing and, though we are inconsequential in a universe of 125 billion galaxies, we are yet divine stardust, carrying the image of the Great Adventurer.  The doctrine of divine omnipresence reminds us that every place is the center of the universe and every cell the object of God’s care.  In a world of perpetual perishing, we perish and yet live evermore in God’s memory.  Perhaps, more than that, we continue an adventure in God’s companionship, evolving in relationship to our creaturely companions as well as earlier versions of ourselves.

When Mary Oliver gazed transfixed by a grasshopper, she discovered the meaning of prayer – pausing, noticing, opening, and yielding to the amazing uniqueness of this grasshopper viewed by this persons at this unrepeatable moment of time.  Still amazed, she asks herself and us, amid the swirling the universe and the death and birth of each moment, “what is it that you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

If doctrine is worth anything, its role is to awaken us to the wonder of the world, to enable us to experience the holiness of each breath and every moment, and to respond as partners in bringing beauty to our world.  Living doctrine – and most doctrines are more dead than alive – gives us life and hope and refreshes our spirit for our adventures ahead.  Emerging faith aims to be lively, experiential, and life-transforming.  It points at the divine, without claiming to encompass God, and discovers God through all the senses.  The whole earth is full of God’s glory!

About Bruce Epperly

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, and Pastor of South Congregational United Church of Christ, Centerville (Cape Cod), Massachusetts. He is the author of twenty five books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study,The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age, and Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He has served as chaplain, professor, and administrator at Georgetown University, Lancaster Theological Seminary, Wesley School of Theology, and Claremont School of Theology. He may be reached at drbruceepperly@aol.com for lectures, workshops, and retreats. His latest book is Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel (Energion).