Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
Reflections on Doha climate negotiations: Thousands of Filipinos died in typhoons five years ago. Many thought it the will of God. Concerned about the impact of climate change on the poor, the Vatican asked local priests to tell parishioners that “it is man who disordered everything and we are suffering the consequence". WSJ 15 Oct 2007.
Similar stories from local communities in South Asia, Australia and around the world. The last two were previously posted on the blog Towards an eco-economy. Warning that we "cannot negotiate with the laws of nature", Bill McKibben, James Hansen and others are now engaging in civil disobedience to stop man-made climate change.
|Typhoon floods in Manila area 2009 - from a Filipino blog|
Human beings have many senses. We can detect and interpret numerous (but not all) chemicals in air and in water solutions. About one octave of the electromagnetic spectrum, a small section of the total, is detectable to our eyes; all the rest is darkness. We are sensitive to vibrations in the air within the limitations of our ear bones and nerves. The human frame can detect its own position and the force of gravity; the skin is aware of touch, radiant heat, pressure and stretching. Our gut tube continually supplies information about the degree of stretch or collapse of its walls.
But there are important physical components of the world to which we are oblivious. Dangerous radiation goes unnoticed. We have no feeling for the earth’s magnetic field. These forces are detectable only by instruments whose invention is central to the history of science. Humans also have no sense mechanism for spiritual energies. No one has invented an instrument to detect them and there are those who claim that they do not exist. (A possible exception may be the work of the Menninger Institute which measured electric fields generated by reputable spiritual healers.)
However, there is a long history of experience which can only be explained by thinking that human beings are able to feel something best described in mystical language, like “hearing the light.” Mystical language is maddening because its terms can’t be connected with more concrete reality. But somehow mystics recognize the experiences they share even when expressed in exotic terms. Poetry is better at this than prose.
Such experience might be thought to belong to a supernatural or paranormal realm. But given what we know about nature and the cosmos as a whole, I find it impossible to think that any-thing exists which is not part of nature. Poorly understood experiences aren’t supernatural or miraculous because we don’t know how they work.
These experiences get lumped together as “the will of god.” This is language common to the three monotheistic religions of Western Asia (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). The expression is used to explain otherwise inexplicable events such as a child being run down by a runaway bus. It even has legal standing as “an act of god” in some contracts. Many spiritual communities have developed techniques which they believe will enable them to discern what god’s will is.
|US drought 2012 - from Farmers Guardian|
Being dissatisfied with “the will of god” I need to find another way to understand and express this widespread human experience of being touched in some way by influences that are beyond our senses and our rationality. We know that chance, randomness and unpredictable dynamic chaotic systems are part of the universe. It’s hard to think that there’s personal god who has a will that directs events whether great or small. It’s hard to think that there is a god who wants us to guess what it is that she wants. Yet I’ve had the experiences that demand some sort of explanation, however shaky.
In a Quaker meeting we sit in silence with worshipful intention. Some call it expectant waiting on “xyz”, where xyz stands for words that have spiritual meaning for the speaker. Anyone in a meeting may rise and speak as they feel moved. Such speech is meant to be inspired at the time rather than planned. It is not unusual for such speeches to evoke reactions from others present. “I had exactly the same thought,” or “That was just what I needed to hear.” Of course coincidences happen but not this often. In another context, when Quakers are struggling to make a difficult decision that all can agree to despite strong differences in beliefs, it is not unusual after much earnest talk and listening, interspersed with periods of silent waiting, for a course of action to emerge that no one had thought of. Where do such evens come from?
My current guess is that humans, alone or in groups, can tune themselves to the power of the universe; that power which is present within and among every part of the cosmos. Practiced and gifted individuals find it easier to feel these “nudges of the spirit,” as I think of them. Groups with common intent and focussed silence are even better than individuals. The analogy of iron filings in a magnetic field appeals to me. We have no sense for detecting magnetic fields any more than we have a sense for the power of the universe. But when we sit, it’s as though we were allowing our selves to be aligned with a universal spiritual field.
Another appealing analogy is that the power of the universe is like a great river. This idea originates in Chinese literature where the unspeakable power of the universe, called tao (sounded roughly “dow”), is likened to running water. The metaphor appeals because it connects a diversity of experiences. A strong current carries us along with it; there is no doubt what the course before us is. But if the current is weak, directions are unclear. Sometimes, when the current is strong there are resistances and contrary influences; just like the rocks and eddies in a swift river. The tao, “the watercourse way,” flows on and wears down resistance just like a river washing away its banks and eroding the hardest rocks. The power of the universe, like the proverbial mills of the gods, may be delayed, but never denied.
Quakers have an expression “the promptings of love and truth.” This suggests a more down-to-earth understanding of the search for what is right, “god’s will.” Most of us have experienced love. We know that there is deep truth in our affairs which exists despite the layers of denial that bury it. The discernment of god’s will is finding and acting on the promptings of love and truth.
There are experiences which we call “spiritual.” These are common enough to be considered a normal, natural part of the world. We attribute these experiences according to our understanding of the nature of the universe. Because there is no sense organ for the cosmic influence we have no sensory language to describe the experiences or their source. There remains only imperfect analogies and sometimes precious silence. “The tao is spread out over the earth but no one knows it is there.”
See also the Kabarak call to peace and ecojustice (April 2012) at http://saltandlight2012.org/FollowTheConference