1. "Awe" -- a Sermon Delivered At Unity Temple, Oak Park, Illinois
First Reading: from "Self-Reliance" by Ralph Waldo Emerson:
It must be that when God speaks, he should communicate not one thing, but all things; should fill the world with his voice; should scatter forth light, nature, time, souls from the center of the present thought, and new date and new create the whole. Whenever a mind is simple and receives a divine wisdom, then old things pass away, -- means, teachers, texts, temples fall; it lives now and absorbs past and future into the present hour. . . . This is and must be. If therefore a man claims to know and speak of God, and carries you backward to the phraseology of some old mouldered nation in another country, in another world, belive him not. Is the acorn better than the oak which is its fullness and completion? Is the parent better than the child . . .? Whence then this worship of the past? The centuries are conspirators against the sanity and majesty of the soul. Time and space are but physiological colors which the eye makes, but the soul is light; where it is, is day; where it was, is night; and history is an impertinence and an injury, if it be anything more than a cheerful apologue or parable of [our] being and becoming.
Second Reading: from Scientific American, October 1996:
During the 1980s, seismologists examining earthquake waves that pierce the inner core made a startling find. Rather than being "isotropic" (the same in all directions) in its physical properties, the inner core of the earth proved to be somewhat like a piece of wood, with a definite grain running through it. Geophysicists have struggled to explain why this grain, or seismic anistrophy, should exist. Researchers are now probing what may turn out to be the most curious small body the solar system has yet presented for scrutiny: a globe the size of the moon that appears to be a single well-ordered crystalline entity. Two seismologists have just shown that this strange crystal sphere is turning slowly within the rocky and liquid metal enclosure that heretofore has kept it hidden from scientific investigation. According to researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology and the Carnegie Institution of Washington, "The very strong texturing indicated by our results suggests the possibility that the inner core of the earth is a very large single crystal."
Third Reading: from Scientific American, October 1996:
Long-standing scientific dogma held that the subsurface of the earth was essentially sterile: the enormous pressures and lack of water and other nutrients posed a clear and insurmountable obstacle to the existence of life at any significant depth below the surface. We have now recovered organisms (fungi, protozoa and bacteria) from depths approaching 2 miles below the surface, where temperatures are as high as 167 degrees Fahrenheit. Samples obtained from 400 meters below the surface can contain as many as 10 million bacteria in each gram of rock, with higher concentrations living in sediments beneath the ocean floor. Topsoil typically contains more than one billion bacteria per gram of dirt. Because of increasingly compacted sediment and diminishing pore space as one goes deeper, small colonies or even individual cells live well separated from one another within the rock. Little organic matter, necessary for the existence of life, is available within subsurface igneous rock formations, and so researchers were surprised to find that microbes could flourish in basalt. They eventually discovered the secret: the bacterial communities living there include so-called autotrophs: organisms that synthesize organic compounds (proteins, fats and carbon-rich molecules) from inorganic sources, typically involving iron or sulfur. After ingesting inorganic material, they excrete simple organic compounds that other bacteria in turn consume. Some microbal communities must be at least several million years old.
It seems we live on the midpoint of a sphere that starts in crystal and ends in ether. Between the ending and the beginning is a teeming mass of life. And we only just begin to understand how much weve never known.
If there is a fundamental, basic doctrine of Unitarian-Universalism, for me it is found in those words of Emerson I read earlier. Ours is a spiritual tradition in part built upon rejection: rejection of the phraseology of some old mouldered nation in another country, in another world, and an embracing of the new, the self-discovered; truth unfolded from within each of us in our own experience of the world as it is now, rather than revealed from without by teachers, prophets and priests.
Ours is a spirituality that should ask, "What is true today?" What expresses the spiritual truths we see around us now, in the waning days of this tired millenium. How do we express our spirituality in a way that conforms with who we are and what we know and how we live now, not in a way that dutifully follows forms and rituals that may have held meaning once for other people, in another place and another time.
Ancient wise and thoughtful people constructed a profound spiritual universe based on the world as they found it. If the world is a plane resting on the back of a turtle, or floating in an endless ocean, then the cardinal directions are intensely important, and define everything. The north, the south, the east and west are vital to organizing and making sense of the universe and our place in it. The planting and the harvest, the wax and wane of the moon, are all tremendously important to a people whose daily existence is tied to the land, whose cycles of homelife and worklife, recreation and regeneration, eating and sleeping and procreating are linked clearly, logically and obviously to the cycles of nature, the motion of the stars and moon, the movement of the tides and the coming of the rains.
But we are, it seems to me, for better or worse, untied from those cycles forever, or at least for the foreseeable future. We turn night into day and violate the natural cycles of sleep and waking. We build cavernous workplaces filled with shadow, and then artificially illuminate our artificial night into an artificial day in the midst of the daylight. Level upon level of artifice. We eat fresh green vegetables in February, and here in Illinois we savor the fruits of California and Florida, South America and Israel, citrus in and out of season. It isnt even special anymore. It just is. We procreate when we want to, and not when we dont. Our link to the great cycles is tenuous at best, although we cant escape the moon. To many, to me, to many of you, it is a great sadness of our age that we have so distanced ourselves as a culture from the rhythms of the earth, but we have done so.
Ours is not an earth defined by the four directions or the festivals of harvest and planting. We know we are are clinging tenuously to a particle among countless particles, spinning our way through space that knows no up or down, much less east and west. Our universe is larger than any peoples before us. I wonder, then, how we can escape forging new spiritual directions.
We have only to look around us to find new spirits, new magic, new possibilities and new cosmologies. There are the creatures living deep beneath our feet, as wholly ignorant of us as we once were of them, happily eating iron and creating oxygen inside their microscopic bodies. Not perhaps, anyone to carry on a conversation with, but life nonetheless, and miraculous. A while ago I talked about the strands of energy that bind the galaxies together in a very real cosmic web. And then imagine this: beneath our feet, beneath the feet (or whatever they have) of the little iron-eating microbes living in microscopic crevices in rocks two miles from the nearest sunlight, is a swirling sea of liquid minerals surrounding a crystal the size of the moon: a spinning crystal that may be misaligned from the planets angle of rotation just enough to keep the magnetic fields stable. When we know these things, when these gifts are given to us freely by the simple act of looking hard enough and long enough (and with the right equipment) what do we need from any place, any time, or any one else? We mustnt ever abandon the wisdom of the past, but we must recognize that we grow from it. Does this mean rejection of ancient wisdom? Of course not. We should seek and embrace the poetry of the past even as we build the spirituality of the 21st century, guided by the oracles of Concord as well as by Vishnu and Allah and Jehovah, by Ezekiel and John, Isis and the Buddha and Mohammed and Jesus, and Ceres and Ilmatar and Vesta and Loki, the Grandmothers and Grandfathers. In Emersons words, we stand on the shoulders of giants. But we are giants, too. We should seek the inspiration of our predecessors, honor the wisdom of the brilliant spirits of other times and places, but recognize that the flame has passed from them to us and in passing, has extinguished itself. We were never meant simply to be its guardians, but to kindle it anew: the flames that lit the catacombs of Rome and the Druids grove are not the light for Unity Temple. If none of the revered religions of the past were content to carry on traditions more ancient than themselves, there would be no great array.
We have a choice: we can embrace the present and create our own meanings, our own moments of intense feeling, or recreate feelings felt by others.
As Emerson suggested 100 years ago (and looking to Emerson, of course, raises questions about me in the "long dead prophets and mouldy ancients" catagory. We need to find our own way, not cling to the ways others have found before us. The gods of the ancients -- the Egyptians and the Greeks, the Romans and the Roman Catholics, the Christians and the Jews and what we call indigenous peoples by which we mean those who used to live here before we killed them or drove them off the lands to which their spirits were tied -- explained their world in a profound and intensely feeling way. But when we recreate their rituals, when we recite their wisdom not as the beginning point of something we can grow and develop ourselves we are doing just that: re-creating. We should not, any of us, be in the spiritual business of re-creating the experience of others; we should be making our own new spritual experiences that explain the world as we know it, now, today. If these evolve from the ritual and experience of those who went before, fine. But to lift them whole and transplant them to today, what does that say about ourselves and our ability to, in effect, think for ourselves. We shouldnt be afraid to look around us, to look ahead, not behind. We are the prophets, we are the ones whose holy duty it is to look at the world and make spiritual sense of it.
There are those whose hobby it is to re-enact battles of the civil war on summer weekends. In many cases, the reenactments are precise in every detail of uniform and armament, with recorded troop movements and casualties recreated exactly. And when its over, the North still wins the war. Nothing has been changed, nothing has been created, no ones condition has evolved beyond what it was when they set the VCR to tape the Bulls game before they put on their pre-muddied uniform and loaded blanks into their rifle. Thats the sort of thing, in a spiritual sense, that Emerson, and two centuries and more of Unitarians and Universalists struggled against. And we still struggle today, for I know its certainly easier for me to go through motions than it is to think of something new, and its frightening to embrace the unknown when the known, the tried, the established, offer so much more certainty.
I have, unfortunately, no sensible, concrete spiritual matrix. What I am developing, more and more over time, is a sense of wonder and how little I can ever know. And that, in a strange way, is almost enough: no rules of procedure, no spiritual dance diagrams on the floor, no preprinted text, no words guaranteed to call down goddesses or scattered bones to foretell my character. Wonder, awe: perhaps its time to re-appropriate the Christians expropriation of agape: standing in wonder at the workings of the universe. To me, ancient rituals and theologies separate us from the universe, because they invoke a time and world that is gone. They can be powerful (my experience with the vision quest was deeply meaningful for me, but why not find a similarly meaningful ritual that arises from the experiences of concrete-dwellers?), but so can the adrenilin rush felt by an accountant facing Shermans cannons, even if theyre only firing sacks of flour. So much of what we do we do because weve always done it that way, or because someone else did. I am too fond of traditions to say throw them out, but we need to consider our own alternatives. There is clearly a human need for a festival of light in the depth of winter, even for us who illuminate the winter night and make it indiscernable from a summer evening (until we go out into it). We should dedicate ourselves to creating new ritual and new theology based on our own learning and comprehension, our understanding and observation. Otherwise we are no different from the Catholics or the Baptists who move through the liturgical year by rote and rememberance, and find their comfort, if not their growth, in that. I am also not a fanatic of science. Much of our ravished world has science to thank for its condition.
We find ourselves in equipoise on the midpoint of a sphere that starts in crystal and ends in ether, balanced between the sunless depths of rock and the insubstantial air. Between the ending and the beginning is a teeming mass of life and miracles waiting to be seen and wondered at and loved. And we only just now begin to understand how much weve never known.
The world gives up its miracles freely, today and yesterday and tomorrow, for us as equal spirits among the vaster spirit from which we emanate, shining like the stars, glowing like a crystal deep inside the rock. What more do we need than what is freely right in front of us? What more do we need than this?
2. from The Memoirs of Dr. Anton Feldspar
Notations The First; by way of An Introduction
It has come to my otherwise divided attention that the individual who is constructing this website, and whose personal obsessions are now to be displayed far and wide across the world wide web, is not unknown to me. In fact, his past has been, to my considerable and eternal regret, the subject of my too-often diverted attentions. Now it would appear that once again he has resurfaced to inflict his vile, execrable torments upon my normally serene person. O villainous fiend! O darkest dread of my midnight terrors! O monstrous, freakish, unnatural devourer of my hearts' few joys!
But I digress.
My role in this purported and no doubt doomed (not to mention most likely illegal) endeavour, as I understand it from his at best inscrutable and otherwise usually barely intelligible ravings (heralded to me from the street below my window, where I normally sitby the window, that is, not upon the streetto peruse the most ageless writings of the nobler literati, or scan the scientific papers for the newest discoveries and the occasional awe-shrouded mention of my name, not unknown in serious circles as the progenitor of much of modern scientific and philosophical thought), is to offer, through the forum of this his embarassingly weakminded and universally disappointing foray into the Current Information Age, my invaluable Insights and Observations on the issues that confront us today. This I shall, reluctantly, do. Whyso? Reluctantly, I say, for he wields over me certain, shall we say, "persuasive" powers of a not-at-all elegant nor admirable character involving (as I shall certainly not go into detail here) certain heretofore undisclosed personal weaknesses on my part which I have, in the past, exercised unwisely in the presence of both witnesses and photographical equipment. One does pay eventually for the indiscretions of ones youth, it seems. Or of ones middle age. Or later.
I am assisted in this endeavor by my ever-devoted confidant and secretary, Mister Pierce Flambois, OpCit, ID, who, always at my very elbow to transcribe for the ages my each muttering mumble about the state of the jellyjar being inexcusably meagre, or the evils inherent in the leaving of ancient toastcrumbs on the butterdish, nay, even my every digestive rumbling, as well as those profounder observations I am wont to vent upon the Nature of God and the Whole History of Panamerica (the which is, one will be interested in knowing, wholly capable of reduction to a matter of seventeen pages in Mister Flambois Journaliad Felspariat). Nonetheless.
Ponds, you say? What of them? Whyever my Tormentor decided to focus his energies on the digging of deep holes in his property (with a handshovel no lesswhatever did he think God hath, in His Holy Wisdom, put swarthy gardeners on the earth to do? Recline upon their elbows in the heather and warble the works of Mssrs Rogers and Hammerstein in their squeaky foreign voices? I think not! To Garden, the answer would be, of course. Or diggers. Would he have swaggering, muscular, shirtless diggers perform in all their glistening, sunburnt splendour whatever functions it is that all the obtuse and self-serving verbiage strung together in his so-called vita allegedly suggest he himself has, with what meagre brainage the Good Lord has bestowed upon him, achieved? Again, I say No, and No Again! For we are as we are labelled; placed upon this earth with certain Jobs given down to us from above (in support of which eternal veritas I reference in their entirety the Arcana Coelestia of Emanuel Swedenborg), or if the human resources department happens to be downstairs, then below. The point being it is against the very laws of nature and of natures God for a person who is not a Digger Of Holes to dig holes! Make him stop, for heavens sake! No, Pierce you fool dont write that last bit it makes me sound Deranged. I said, Pierce, not tooh hell. As we can now all observe, the Price of wisdom is high, its burden heavy to bear by those so gifted. Did you get that? Good.
Ponds. So he digs a hole in the yard deep enough to bury himself in (and O if only he had done so, how peaceful would be my life today with him embraced within the dark, enfolding soil!) and lines it with a great piece of Rubber (and delighted was the plucky UPS delivery fellow, too, one may imagine, with the 150-pound folded rubber sheet in his truck) and fills it up with water! Then he puts in lillies and other plants, and fish to swim about, and the water pumps up through a hose and back down in what he optimistically refers to as a waterfall, and he proclaims his backyard not only a virtual Walden of wilderness delight, but worthy of exposure unto the entire world via this hideous technology. (Dr Feldspar observes, as an aside, that he has in fact enjoyed the rare gin-and-fizz in a gardenchair by the side of the aforementioned waterous body and found the experience not entirely unpleasant, particularly those times during which his host excused himself to venture back inside the house to attend to whatever matters required his then immediate attentions, however limited they may be. This observation is offered to both provide a little humorous and humanizing color to the Doctors sage observations, and to demonstrate that his contact with his Tormentor is not altogether ghastly in nature.)
What are you writing there, Flambois? What are you scribbling down while Im being quiet? Have you taken to describing my physical attitudes now?
"Lo, the Doctor has assumed a posture not unlike that of Rodins Thinker, albeit one more mdestly arrayed, and is gazing out the glass upon the street and pleasant public garden below, lost in thought the nature of which such as we cannot venture to guess" sort of thing? Let me see that. Damn it, Flambois, I hate it when you get this way!
I shall speak no more for the moment. Later, perhaps, I shall continue my reflection.
--Tinley-on-Prugh, by way of Vfensterbergen, Kleimveldt, GV2; August 2000