OIL ILLS HAVE NOT BEEN FOR THE PELICAN BRIEF

This past week I was listening to a woman being interviewed on NPR.  She has been volunteering for some weeks now cleaning the thick oil off the pelicans in Louisiana.   Her voice faltered several times as she described the heartache of watching several of them die or struggle with wings to laden to lift.  I hear the weary gratitude when her scrubbing efforts with simple dish soap and water restore a number of these birds towards health.

The photos of oil slicked birds display in Technicolor detail what havoc we humans can wreak on the rest of the animal kingdom in our insatiable need for more. Even if you are the unusual “bird” who doesn’t get too emotional about animals or feel a kinship with nature, amongst the gazillion other lessons we can glean from this disaster, one is the absolute necessity to put our environment before the profits and desires of big business.

We are discovering the hard way that this paradigm of short term gain is actually putting the “people on Main Street” out of their small businesses and livelihoods that have been a family’s source of pride for generations.  We all have become accustomed to being an active consumer in a consumer society (myself included).  So, to a degree, we are all complicit in the continuing crisis.       

One of the sources of healing, that can change our thinking and shift the collective perspective is the wisdom of Celtic spirituality.  Theirs is a language that can guide us to a new or remembered perspective about the creatures (on land and sea) and the landscape we inhabit. As John O’Donohue relates in his book Anam Cara- A Book of Celtic Wisdom, we are the newcomers here: 

“The animals are more ancient than us.  They were here for millenia before humans surfaced on the earth…Animals live outside in the wind, in the waters, in the mountains, and in the clay… (They) know nothing of Freud, Jesus, Buddha, Wall Street, the Pentagon, or the Vatican.  They live the politics of human intention…The Celtic mind recognized the ancient belonging and knowing of the animal world.  The dignity, beauty, and wisdom of the animal world by any false hierarchy or human arrogance.”

Instead, Celtic spirituality was a reservoir of stories that told of the union between animals and humans.  These tales fastened us to the wild landscape, grounding ourselves as a part of the circle of life, not as apart.  

My friend Kim has a saying she often uses for when her deepest intuition guides her to make a difficult decision or leads her to a clear perspective.  She says, “I know it in my knowings.”  That’s what Celtic spirituality calls us to.  Not to heed the heated and divisive mob mentality, but to listen in stillness to a saner, less selfish approach. 

Instead of “drill baby drill”, what we have gotten is “spill baby spill”.  This too shall pass (with a heavy toll for years to come), but LET’S LEARN THE LESSON IT IS TRYING TO TEACH US.

SAINTS ARE SINNERS WHO KEEP ON TRYING

I admit it; I am enamored with saints.  I am fascinated with those who have reached the pinnacle of spiritual freedom, unity with God.  Regardless of their religious traditions, these are men and women who are deemed “scientists of holiness.”  We can learn from them. They are not only guides to the grail of enlightenment but they teach us how to live in a practical and substantive way that can enrich our everyday living. 

Saints never think of themselves as such.  Each has had their own personal demons to face down.  It is in choosing not to run away in the million ways we humans do, but utilizing their trials and struggles for personal growth and focusing on the inner life that they demonstrate another dimension of human potential.  Recovering a bit of the asceticism that has always been the foundational gristmill for spiritual advancement can help us tremendously.  What I mean by this is we don’t need the severe self-denial and austere lifestyle of a Gandhi or a Buddha or a St. Francis, but to give up the current wave of entitlement, to be able to say no to our temptations on occasion, is freeing.  We become able to resist our own compulsive consumption.   

People need to experience God, not be told about God.  Living examples, being very much in the world, do that by inspiring the lives of others.  These are not “feel good” pseudo-spiritualities or for the spiritual elite, but for everyone. Our experience of the Divine informs the self and yet continually needs to be balanced with community.   Reaching out to others is both a natural progression and a means for necessary connection. Indeed, those with spiritual depth often understand social service to be as important, if not more important, than the more traditional activities of preaching and teaching. 

Saints would probably also scoff at the idea of them being mystics, though that is what they are.  Yet mystics are not so mysterious, rather I’ve heard them described as “ones who see into the depth of things through the fissures and fragments of our human experience”.  With single-minded purpose, these friends of God (or to the ALL that IS) are granted a special way of seeing, a heightened awareness of a presence or absence. 

Casting the mystical net wide as the awareness of some sort of ultimate reality that transcends all religions; religion can unify instead of divide.  We can recognize that different traditions can learn from one another, if one if grounded in one’s own tradition and open to another. Christian, Sufi, Buddhist, all can enrich each other’s practices.  For instance, Thomas Merton, a Trappist Monk, was influenced by the teachings of Zen Buddhism.

It is not the visions or miracles attributed to those regarded as saints, during their lives or posthumously, that should be the reasons for  reverence.  In fact, that kind of thinking leads to idolatry rather than the harder working of following by example.  It is the spiritual practices and articulated paths that are to be learned from.

That is not to say that we should disregard profound and unusual human experiences. It’s just that without a conscious effort to seek out these mystics, both past and present, their voices quickly become drown out by the difficulties of daily living, the heroes who win World Championships and are given parades, and the Hollywood stories of celebrities.  In an effort to reclaim the saint, human foibles and all, we are being re-called to something larger than ourselves.

QUANTUM PHYSICS AND GOD

Science as a discipline often eluded me in school.  Basic botany and geology were OK; I was good at memorizing Latin names and identifying basic stone and strata.  However, my mind would begin to spin and whirl at the thought of light years and black holes, the calibration of physics, complex chemical compounds, and the formulas that made up the anatomy of well, everything.   

Yet while I couldn’t quite grasp these ideas, they intrigued and fascinated me.  Why do things do what they do?  How do they do them?  What is out there?  What is in here?  In the last hundred years, we have taken giant leaps in understanding and explaining a bit of the workings of this wide and wonderful universe of ours.  As a theologian, I guess you could say that I was born at a good time in the evolution of science.  These discoveries have also come to inform and inspire running streams and rivulets of conversation in religion. For that, I am truly grateful. 

As Rebecca Parker comments in her book A House for Hope, “Up until the birth of relativity theory and quantum physics, Western science conceived of the “stuff” of reality as tiny bits of hard matter that built up into structures from atoms to rocks….at it’s foundation, the “real world” was formed from an aggregation of atoms…in keeping with this scientific worldview, God’s reality was imagined to itself be like that of an ordinary rock: solid, unfeeling, unchanging, able to affect other things, but not itself affected.”

Today we live in a world of complexity that has taken us beyond many of the predictable concepts that Sir Issac Newton put forth.  Atoms, DNA, the building blocks of our universe are not static pieces of matter after all but rather ever-moving infinitesimal activities.  Parker says, “Science now reveals to us a world that is relational, interactive, codeterminate, chaotic, intermittent, and ever-changing.”         

Through the ongoing work of science, religion is enriched and provided with new and life affirming paradigms to re-imagine concepts about God.  Theologies do not necessarily need to be taken down to their bare studs.  Rather they can be renovated in a way that creates space to include more people of diverse backgrounds and ideologies. For instance, if God’s qualities reflect what quantum physics is telling us about the nature of the universe, then God is not just Creator, but the Creative Process itself.  Codeterminate, Relational, and Perennial Changing can be ways of thinking about God.  These kinds of attributes will expand our connections with others and with God without limiting God within a doctrine or dogma.

If we find that we have outgrown some of our older, more cumbersome theological “apparel”, we can cast off the worn out and oppressive garments that have sometimes served to divide us, weigh us down, or competitively identify our religious “team” without fear of recrimination.  Instead, like the constant and lively movement of all matter, we too will make room to move and be moved.  Theologies CAN be fluid enough to not mandate uniformity or require a litmus test of  identical creedal statements.  Instead, our faith can settle into uncertainty and be surprised by new discoveries. We contain DNA like both rock and tree, and we too can be steady and strong in the storm while adapting to locate shelter and shade in the seasons that blister and to steer towards clear open light when darkness pervades.

I affirm the slogan of the United Church of Christ, “God is still speaking.”  And we are still asking questions. In this manner, both science and religion will continue to grow and flourish.