Walking the Labyrinth

labrynth1

I walked the Earth-Wisdom Labyrinth on our church’s property today. I’ve been attending the Unitarian Universalist Church of Elgin for almost two years and I’ve been a member for less than a year. Because this season of my life is so full and challenging, regrettably, my attendance there is spotty. I am always glad to have attended on those Sundays I make it. Today was my first labyrinth walk.

A few details about the labyrinth (copied from church website):

  • It is made up of over 25 tons of stone.
  • It spans more than 93 feet in diameter.
  • It winds in for 1/3 mile and out for 1/3 mile.
  • It’s one of the largest labyrinths of its kind in the world.

What did I learn on my walk today?

  1. That my mind is an obnoxiously busy place and has trouble shutting down the “constant dialogue” machine. My thoughts kept wandering to the comic. What would it be like if we had to navigate the labyrinth on unicycles? Is that Columbian Gold Minister Leslie is burning in the center (the answer is “no”)? If I suddenly hopped over a few rows, would anybody say anything? How fast could church member Todd get to the center and back on his bike (he bikes a lot)?
  2. The labyrinth takes longer to walk than I figured.
  3. Spiderman (or it might have been a very young churchgoer wearing a Spiderman jacket, I can’t be sure) does not recognize the implied constraints of the labyrinth, and yet he is not invulnerable to the slipperiness of the ice-coating on the path. Still, his powers seemed to protect him from harm (thankfully). Spiderman is adorable.
  4. As we walked in silence, the sound of our collective footsteps—as they softly crunched on the pavement and less-softly crackled over the icy areas—created a comforting, constant rhythm. It reminded me I was not alone on the path. It made me wonder what the experiences of the other walkers were like. Did some of them have the same trouble quieting their thoughts? Did some recite mantras? Did some pray? It made me reflect on the fact that even as we walked the same path, The Way was different for each of us.
  5. I encountered a few stones whose juxtaposed edges fit together nearly as neatly as puzzle pieces. That made me wonder if their placement was deliberate. It made me contemplate how things you might not think would fit together can (like atheists, Christians, and Buddhists—oh my). lab-2
  6. It re-confirmed what I’ve been thinking for a long time now. UUCE feels like home to me.

What a cool way to start the new year!

I will walk the labyrinth again. Wonder what I might learn next time…?

 

Why I’m Struggling with Wearing “The Safety Pin”

My church is full of loving, liberal-minded, enlightened people whose ideals match mine to a large extent.

I’m looking at the safety pin my church gave me on Sunday … it is still attached to a card made of thick paper.

pin

The Safety Pin Movement is a response to the perception (which appears to have some merit in light of current events) that Donald Trump’s election may embolden certain people, i.e. people who have negative, even hostile, views toward “minority” populations, to act out that hostility.

The card basically says that if I wear it I’m pledging to take action if I witness verbal or physical attacks on others. It says I should be prepared to intervene “with my physical body” if necessary. The card lists these potential victims: “women, LGBTQA, transfolks, people of color, those wearing religious garb, people speaking languages other than English, those who are visibly different—anyone.”

My first response is to think, “What a wonderful, simple thing to do to show solidarity with, and a willingness to come to the aid of, others who may be thought to be disenfranchised or under threat by certain segments of society.” I think, “I can do that.”

Wear a pin? Yes. I can do that, obviously. Place myself (potentially) in harm’s way to protect others? Well…

That’s a far harder question, isn’t it?

I mean, I totally want to wear the pin. The principle behind it is a good one, the intention is awesome and laudable.

I ask myself: Would I, in fact, risk harm to myself to stand up for this principle of unity?

The answer: I don’t know.

I ask myself: Have I ever stood up for someone before?

I can say, yes to that.

A time or two. In very small ways. In grade school and in high school I can think of two times I stood up for kids who were being picked on at school for being “different.” The kids doing the picking on were just being mocking, they weren’t trying to beat up anyone. Nor were the perpetrators particularly “dangerous” fellows. And in both cases, we were on school grounds—so there was pretty much zero real physical threat to me.

What if it had been at night in an alleyway, far from the safety of adults in authority? What if there had been pushing, or worse? Would I have acted?

Doubtful. Maybe run for help. But intervened? Sadly, probably not. I wasn’t at all a tough kid. I’d never been in a serious scrap. Wasn’t athletic. Wasn’t particularly courageous.

I’m 56 and none of that, regrettably, is any different.

So, would I stand up, today, for someone if I thought there was pretty much no possibility of violence? Yeah, I would. Would I be happy to be a friend and support to someone in one of these categories who came to me distraught? Yep, I would. Would I call 911 from across the street? You bet.

But am I going to risk real physical harm to myself? Probably not. That’s just the unfortunate truth of that.

Does that make me a coward? Maybe.

But wearing it without feeling certain I could follow through with the pledge that the pin represents? Well, that presents its own moral dilemma, doesn’t it?

I feel like I just got jabbed with a pin that I haven’t even put on.

Maybe that jab wants to teach me something. (Like, now is the time to take that self-defense class you’ve always wanted to take?)

Am I doing the right thing by not wearing the pin?

 

 

Thanks Science, Thanks Religion

Nature is amazing. The stars. Animal life. Microscopic life. Forests. Oceans. 

Science has done astonishing things with its ability to deconstruct nature, explain it to laymen (sometimes in terms we mostly understand). 

Science is useful when its analyses lead to good medicine and a more thoughtful approach to the use of natural resources.  

But science is forever USELESS when it comes to the things that we yearn to know. Most of what truly matters to people in life remains entirely outside the domain of its relevance: love, friendship, the “high” we experience in an encounter with literature or film or music or any kind of art that moves us, the transcendent sense of awe we feel before nature, the search for purpose. 

Such pursuits are not the job of science, never have been. When we try to make science a God, we have made a horrifying error bound to result in things like sterilizing races we deem as inferior or using unwitting people in tests without any thought to the morality of doing so. 

Yes, the USE of science can accomplish great moral good too. Feed more people. Teach us how to live sustainably. But scientific principles, when applied, are only as “good” as the souls of the people behind their application. 

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The same is true of religion. Its application is only as good as the hearts of its leaders and adherents. Religion can spread brotherly love or divisive rhetoric. It can elevate us or turn us into groveling idiots. 

People can be beautiful and noble. Sadly, they can also be really fucking dangerous. Power in the hands of people is the most dangerous thing of all. In the guise of religion or atheistic totalitarianism or socialism or communism or democracy … humans having power over other humans is the great bugaboo of all suffering and tragedy. 

And this boils down to intent. Do those in power want to minister to the people or manipulate them? Do they want to serve them or make them subservient?  

These are moral questions, not scientific ones.  

So, thank you science … for heart transplants and AIDS treatments and flat screen TVs. 

Thank you religion … for prayer that brings connection to the sacred, for the dissemination of ideas that lead us to give to others, to love mercy and to seek justice and peace. 

Just watch your hearts, atheists and theists and agnostics. This is where all future hope will come from. This is where our doom will come from.  

Consider well what manner of thought and belief you deposit and nurture therein.

(This post inspired by another blog post: https://writerswithoutmoney.com/2015/08/04/the-surgeon-on-the-mount-or-science-the-theology-after-god/comment-page-1/)

 

Dear Mr. Spong

I have a feeling I’d like you if we met. Perhaps we’d chat over a cold beverage (something imported, let’s say from Holland). We’d talk about life and death and spirituality and science and man’s search for meaning.

Since that’s a very unlikely proposition, I am instead writing this letter that you’ll never read. Because I can.

spong

You, sir, I will necessarily concede, are a whole lot smarter than I am. Your level of formal education far exceeds mine, as does your extensive life-experience and study. The accomplishments of your career are significant and impressive. I would have no prayer of winning a philosophical argument with you, and I’d probably hesitate to try if I were in your presence. I’m sure a lengthy talk with you would be fascinating, enlightening, and a pleasure for me.

But, since you aren’t here to gently decimate my arguments, I am going to argue with you. In a friendly, respectful way. I hope you don’t mind.

At the beginning of your book, Eternal Life: a New Vision, you go very much out of your way to convince the reader how plainly obvious it is that we (humans) are a product of many accidental events.

I have to propose that this is not plain at all. I have to suggest that there is an entirely different way to view our arrival on planet Earth … as quite dramatically and irrevocably inevitable.

It’s not that complicated an argument, really. It can’t be. Because, like I said, I’m not that smart.

Let’s start with a simple illustration.

Suppose Billy bats a baseball intended to land somewhere in the vicinity of his friend, Tommy (presumably so that Tommy might catch the ball and throw it back). However, when bat and ball meet, the ball’s trajectory sends it flying into and through Billy’s neighbor’s (Mr. Johnson’s) living room window.

As it turns out, Mr. Johnson is a very reasonable fellow and, when he catches up with Billy and Tommy (who have run off out of sheer terror), he assures them he is not mad and only wants them to talk to their parents and get the window fixed. More interestingly, Mr. Johnson excitedly invites them over to his house to take a look at something he tells them is, “Really quite spectacular.” That something is the hole left in his window by the ball. As they stand before it, the boys’ mouths drop in amazement.

The hole in the shattered glass looks precisely like the profile of Abraham Lincoln’s head and torso. Uncanny. Beyond improbable. A freak accident if there ever was one.

Or is it?

Yes, you might make a lengthy, complicated argument stating that any of countless, tiny adjustments in Tommy’s throw, Billy’s swing, the wind, the ball, the bat, the curvature of the Earth (you get the idea) … and that hole would have looked like any other random hole in a glass window. And you would be right.

However.

Your point is moot. All of the circumstances and nuances of nature and that moment were exactly what they were. And, from the beginning of time, that outcome—the one that left an Abe Lincoln-shaped hole in Mr. Johnson’s living room window—was absolutely unalterable and completely certain. Put another way: because that event did happen, it had to happen.

Now, apply this notion to humanity’s rise from amoeba to ascendance.

All those events, those “accidents” you describe so eloquently? That infinitely dense ball of matter (the “cosmic zygote,” if you will), the arrival of one-celled living things, sea-life making its way to land, the fall of the dinosaur, the evolution of a primate to modern man? Because those things did happen, they had to happen.

Again, yes, I know, if the sun were in another position, if the dinosaurs hadn’t been wiped out …

But this is conjecture on what might have been, nothing more. It’s like arguing that the team that won the Super Bowl would not have won if only Quincy the Quarterback hadn’t thrown that boneheaded interception in the fourth quarter. (He did. It’s done. Get over it.)

The fact is that, hyper-complex cosmic circumstances being what they were, mankind was most assuredly inevitable. You, dear Mr. Spong, were inevitable. Precisely you. Exactly as you are, with your height and eye color and hair color and temperament and potential for intellect. You had to be born. As did I. And my neighbors, and their ill-tempered wiener dog, Puddin’.

This doesn’t necessitate God in any way. Ours may indeed be a purely material world. Blind matter, and a universe without intention, making absolutely sure that you and I (and all our ancestors) came into existence. Conditions being what they were, we couldn’t not happen.

And yet. No. I don’t buy the random non-intention of that scenario. Not really. Maybe that’s the truth of things. But it sounds wrong, doesn’t it? There’s a cause and effect problem of epic proportion there, in my estimation.

And this is where I invoke God. Not because I can prove God. I can’t. No one can. But I would suggest that the idea of God is (at the very least) no more absurd than mindless matter incrementally building the human mind, leading to consciousness and ultimately self-consciousness. The cosmic zygote came from … where again? Exactly. You don’t know. No one does.

You pick your unlikely conclusion. I’ll pick mine.

Religion is a different matter. I’m not talking about religious ideas of God (that would be a separate and more dubious undertaking, though I certainly have my beliefs); I’m talking about God as the uncaused cause, the unmoved mover. The one utterly inexplicable, irrational, incomprehensible thing that explains everything else. Here at least, as crazy as the notion may sound to some, the cause is sufficient to produce the effect. In a purely material creation you have to have a virtually infinite string of inexplicable materials and events where the spinning of spontaneously-appearing inanimate particles leads to living beings who contemplate their mortality, write poetry, compose symphonies, transplant vital organs, and build ships that carry them into outer space; beings who sing and dance, laugh and weep, hope and despair, love and hate, create and destroy. Fascinating accident, indeed.

Or is it?

B.Y.O.G.

It sounds a little crazy, I know: Bring Your Own God to the party.

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But, in fact, we do already.

Even if you go to a church where very specific theology is taught, very specific creeds invoked … I can guarantee you that not every member/attender embraces every word of what comes from on high.

We come into church service with slightly different versions of God informing our faith.

As Rob Bell says, “We shape our God, then our God shapes us.” (Love Wins, p 97)

Exactly right, Mr. Bell.

In my church, the Unitarian Universalist church, that truth is not just acknowledged, it is encouraged and celebrated. The Baptist sits between the Buddhist and the atheist. Each is pleased to let the other believe what they do (or don’t) believe.

When I look back on the evolution of my faith, I can see that I have moved toward a God that continues to become less and less punitive until, finally, “he” (the language of accommodation) isn’t a punisher at all, but full only of compassion and grace, light and love.

Faith is a weird thing. It surely can divide us. The divisions can be lethal, tragically. Or our desire for “higher truth” and “enlightened selves” can lead us to a place of magnificent unity and community. It would be my prayer that this is The Way we choose…

Namaste.