James Ishmael Ford
10 April 2016
Pacific Unitarian Church
Rancho Palos Verdes, California
It wasn’t all that long ago that the right wing entertainer Rush Limbaugh declared with full on pontifical certainty that “global warming is a religion!” You should feel the exclamation point. It reminds me of that old story where the kid goes up to the pulpit and looks at the minister’s notes resting on the lectern. In the margin she sees the notation, “weak point, shout.”
Weak point or not, Mr Limbaugh is playing a variation on an old theme. In The Unpredictable Species, Brown University professor, and incidentally, Unitarian Universalist, Philip Lieberman notes how some “forty percent of Americans and twenty-five percent of Britons say they… don’t ‘believe’ in evolution.” Looking at the surveys, Professor Lieberman observes how, “The word ‘believe’ is significant because a statement affirming belief may be relevant if the question concerns the Virgin Birth or the Tibetan deity Mahakala, but the acceptance of the theory of gravity rests on whether it correctly predicts observable events.”
The same is true, one would hope obviously, for evolutionary science as well as for tracking global warming. Observing and predicting and with that the possibility of falsification are the hallmarks of modern science. Confusing science and religion might be useful to the likes of Mr Limbaugh who is trying as hard as he can to win an argument, and mixing science and religion up and introducing the idea you can believe or not, certainly muddies the waters. But, here’s the deal. As, Philip K. Dick famously observed, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” And the temperatures continue to rise.
Now, it is messy. I have no doubt religions are repositories of many truths, some of them of enormous importance to us as human beings. And. Religions are also magpie collections of many things of lesser value. For our purposes one of the most complicated areas are origin stories, the myths we tell about how we became what we are. To get to brass tacks, clinging to a literal seven days of creation and a literal Adam and Eve turns ancient, sometimes compelling and powerful myths into flat out lies.
The problem is sorting. In my view the critical work of religion is fostering the quest for meaning in the face of our fragile lives caught up in forces greater than any of us. This world we live in is filled with hurt and violence and every imaginable cruelty. It breaks the heart. And. This world is also so astonishingly beautiful and precious and run through with the mysteries of love and compassion, that it can take our breath away. This strange mix is what we actually encounter in the world. The work of religion is squaring that circle, finding our place in the great mess. And it is unspeakably important.
We currently are caught up in a terrible ecological catastrophe. We, by our own actions, have poisoned our planet. The climate is shifting, and dramatically. Whole areas of the globe where we now live might even become uninhabitable by human beings. How we act in this world is more important than ever. In fact our very survival as a species may hang in the balance.
Now, if science tells us the how of things, religion, our spiritualities, if you will, when understood correctly tell us who we are, and with that give us a compass, a north star to guide us in our actions. Attending to the matters of the heart give us the perspective to act in this world in ways that are more likely to be useful than harmful. So, religion, spirituality, is of critical importance, as important as science, not as a substitute, but as a partner.
Now, using the great heart discipline of religions, of spiritualities, a couple of stories.
First, a story of the nineteenth century Hindu saint, Ramakrishna, a priest of the goddess Kali. I read it when I was fifteen, maybe sixteen. Until I’d discovered Ramakrishna through the writings of Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood and their associates, my idea of what gods looked like was informed by my conservative Baptist upbringing modified by my father’s bare and no doubt reductionist atheism. Anyway, Ramakrishna prayed constantly for a vision of his goddess, Kali, the Divine Mother. He wanted to know her as she was, desperately. I personally understood this prayer. It was my own longing from some aching place in the pit of my being, to know whether God was true, was real.
I never got that response to my prayers. But his were answered. One day unbidden, she came to him. In a vision as he watched she arose out of a river and walked toward him. As she walked the goddess swelled out in pregnancy, gave birth and then ate her child. Witnessing this he slipped into a fever of ecstasy. As a young man, really, still a boy, I was shocked that this would be a turning point in this revered saint’s life. It seemed so awful. However, I filed it away in the depths of my heart, and never completely forgot it.
And with that, the second story. A long time after reading about Ramakrishna and Kali, shortly after I’d left the Buddhist monastery I’d been living in for several years, I went to Oregon to visit my brother. He lived in a rural area, and I found myself at the edge of a genuine wilderness. I sat down in the shade beside a creek. I can still taste the air from that day; I can smell the warmth and the vegetation. At the very same time the area was deeply silent and abuzz with life. Then in the midst of it all something caught my attention. On a sunny spot on a good-sized rock in the middle of the creek I watched as a large fat toad, hopped up, settled down, and sunned itself.
All was right with the universe.
What I didn’t notice until just as it struck was the snake. My heart leapt into my throat, I was frozen to the spot as I witnessed it all happen. In a bloody moment snake and frog fell behind the rock, mercifully for me, out of sight. Minutes later the snake slithered up onto the rock to the same place, with a large swelling in its middle, and lazed in the same sunny spot.
In another unbidden moment, I recalled Kali and Ramakrishna and that horrific, and now somehow for me, personally, deeply beautiful vision. I felt my heart grabbed like that snake grabbed the frog. And, more important, most important: I felt myself swallowed whole by the goddess of life and of death. I realized sitting there in the shade witnessing it all, that I, too, was swallowed by the world itself.
The intense moment passed. As all things do. But, something lingered, a subtle shift in my being that has never quite left me. In fact, it redirected my spiritual path, it led me on a quest to understand what all this, life and death taken together might possibly actually mean. The path for me was one of not turning away, of being open to the whole of it, of allowing my heart to break, and my mind to search. Lots of sitting down, shutting up, and paying attention almost certainly helped, as well. It was a path of presence. It is.
So, how to understand this? One way is to see it is all red in tooth and claw, and the devil will indeed take the hind most. But, that’s not it. That’s not what I found. And, so a third story, one I believe can help sort this out. It’s an anecdote collected in two twelfth century Chinese anthologies of spiritual guidance, as chapter eighty-nine of the Blue Cliff Record and as chapter fifty-four of the Book of Serenity.
Yunyan asked Daowu, “How does the Bodhisattva Guanyin use those many hands and eyes?” Daowu answered, “It is like someone in the middle of the night reaching behind her head for the pillow.” Yunyan nodded, “I understand.” Daowu asked, “How do you understand it?” Yunyan replied, “All over the body are hands and eyes.” Daowu said, “That is very well expressed, but it is only eight-tenths of the answer.” Yunyan responded, “How would you say it, elder brother?” Daowu said, “Throughout the body are hands and eyes.”
This turns on a conversation between two Zen monks who are also brothers. They studied and taught between the end of the eighth and through the first half of the ninth centuries. If you know Chinese history, these were harsh times. In this anecdote, the younger, Yunyan asks his brother who has already walked the way a great distance, “Why is it the Bodhisattva Guanyin, the archetype of compassion, of caring in this world, of love manifest, why is it that Guanyin has so many hands and eyes?” And the conversation continues relentlessly to that assertion the body of the world is filled with eyes and hands.
Taking these three stories together, what I found was that the world and I are both separate and one. We are, in the last analysis woven out of each other, created and creating. The world is a mysterious dance of energy or matter, call it what you will, the stuff of our being, what we all are.
Eventually I came to understand the way people often describe this stance in the world that was becoming my place was called pantheism. The word was coined by an eighteenth century writer John Toland in an essay about the philosopher Spinoza and brings together two Greek words meaning “all” and “god.” All and everything is the divine. What precisely this means seems to be up for grabs. There are those who think that the universe is a spiritual substance, sometimes it is said that everything is mind, usually with a capital “M,” Mind. Another view is essentially dualistic, with matter and spirit intertwined in some mysterious way.
But the kind of pantheism that has caught my heart, and imagination, and which I think lies very much at the heart of what we’re about in this community, is sometimes called naturalistic Pantheism, where there is one substance that makes up the world. Call it matter. Call it spirit. Think particles and waves. From one angle it looks like everything is discrete and separate, while from another it is all one thing, waves on an ocean.
This is near the pantheism of Spinoza and Toland and before them of the Greek Stoics and, I would suggest, near that of Taoists, at least the so-called philosophic Taoists like the author of the Tao Te Ching and Chuang-tzu. We see something close to it in many forms of Buddhism, particularly Zen. And most important for us this perspective is also close to the spiritual stance of many Transcendentalists, Emerson and particularly Thoreau, come immediately to mind. My old mentor Joanna Macy called it an ecological consciousness.
And finding that consciousness has consequences. It’s pretty obvious we, as human beings, have a deep visceral need for each other, for nurture, for language, for survival. And, as individuals we look out for ourselves, and can cheat. I think these twin realities generate creativity and offer possibility in a world that might otherwise remain static. The problems arise when either our need for each other or our looking out for ourselves gets out of hand, out of balance. Finding this ecological consciousness puts these contending forces in perspective with each other.
This deep ecological consciousness brings with it an ethic, a morality, a call to a way of life. The ethic of a religion of unity is very much found in how we relate to each other and to this world, our mother. Here religion and science walk into the world hand in hand.
And so very much as creatures walking on this planet who can see what’s going on, can observe, and test, and reflect, we find that comes with responsibilities. It matters how we treat each other. It matters how we treat the world and everything in it. Human beings were born to care, for ourselves, for each other, for the world. It is who we are. It is what we do. There is no place to look at the mess of the world and our human hand in it and to simply say, mistakes were made. We are responsible. And, we can act.
This is our ecological consciousness. It is the wisdom found in the religions, it is the wisdom of Ramakrishna and Kali, it is the Wisdom of Thoreau, it is the wisdom of your own eyes and ears and nose and feeling into the world.
And what does acting from that place look like? Well, it becomes like someone sleeping, in the night, reaching behind her head for her pillow. We allow ourselves to be swallowed by the snake and we discover we are the goddess, that we really are the body of compassion. Your eyes, your hands, my eyes, my hands, our eyes, our hands are the body of God.
The body of the world. The eyes and the hands of the world.
It’s that simple. It’s that hard. It is that important.
So be it. Blessed be. And, amen.