Monday, September 16, 2013

Language of Reverence: Spirit of Life (September 15, 2013)



What makes us different from a smart phone?

What is it that we have in common with a tree?

Or let’s just ask the question at the heart of the matter- what is life?

We know it when we see it, right? When you see a tree in spring bursting out in those luminous bright green leaves, you know right away that something different is happening there than in the wooden fence that runs right by it. 

Now I know there  are some ambiguities on the margins of life that scientists and philosophers have been debating for millennia, but today I want to talk about life that is unmistakable. A child bursting onto the playground at recess. A turkey defending his territory. Us, here in this room together right now. 

Some have argued over the centuries that we, and other animals, are not that different from a machine- from a toaster or a smart phone. I think that is a semantic argument. Even a child can tell that we, and a turkey and a tree are different from a smartphone. Just because we have trouble explaining it doesn’t mean we don’t know it in our guts. 

One way I try to wrap my head around this is using systems theory. This is the way of looking at the world not as a collection of disparate parts, but as whole things. One principle of systems theory is that parts come together to make a system. Cells make up a body. Bacteria and beavers and fish and plants make up an eco-system. People make up a church. One of the characteristics of a system is that it has “emergent properties.” These are properties that the whole has that individual parts together don’t have. So for example if you put a bunch of brain cells in a petri dish, you don’t have  a brain. If you put a collection of organs together you don’t have a living being. A random collection of 30 people at bus stop is not a church. 

Lately when I hear the phrase “Spirit of Life” this is what I think of- that special quality that living things have that a toaster does not. Maybe  the “spirit of life” is an emergent property --  that which emerges from a system that does not emerge from a collection of disparate pieces.

Each Sunday in this church for the past several years we have sing “Spirit of Life” just as we did today. I suspect that not all of you thought of the emergent properties of systems when you sang that. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that each person in this room imagined something different when they sang those words. But in all the time I’ve been serving UU churches no one has ever complained that when they sung that song that they felt like a hypocrite.  There is a spaciousness about those words that leaves room for a lot of different beliefs.

For the past year we have been talking about a “Language of Reverence” for Unitarian Universalists -- a language that we could use to express deeper truths. We have wondered together whether the language we use shapes our ability to understand and communicate such truths. We have talked about words like “Prayer” and “conversion” – some of which are sticky words that bog us down with their layers of meaning and history. We’ve talked bout reclaiming those words as our own- they are part of our 400 year history, and they are ours as much as any other.

But today I suggest that there are also words that express important religious truths that feel a lot less sticky. Phrases that feel like ours. Yes, not only do we have the choice to reclaim those sticky words -- those traditional theological words --but we can build our own language of reverence. A colleague of mine, Scott Prinster, explained to me that the phrase “Spirit of life” (which I had assumed was  something UUs came up with in the 60s) has actually been used by Unitarian writers as early as the 1830s, and  that the phrase existed well back into the 1700s. 

One of the things I like about this phrase is that it is grounded in the world- in the life that we know. The first source of our living tradition is “direct experience” and life is something each one of us has experienced directly. Ours is a tradition that suggests we have a right to expect our own experience to harmonize with our theology. Ours is a faith that doesn’t require a leap between what we know and what we believe. 

“Spirit of life” draws a wide circle, one that can include atheists, agnostics and theists.  If someone from the church down the street here asked if I believed in God, I would not know whether to answer yes, no or maybe, because the word “God” means such a specific thing in each religious tradition. People have been killing one another for centuries over the exact meaning of that word. 

But I know with some certainty that I believe in the spirit of life. I’ve felt it every day. And I have seen it go- like when I saw the life pass from my dog Sandy – it was like a light had gone out in her eyes. It was unmistakable- it takes no theological leap to believe in life. 

But I do, in fact, make a theological leap- I believe that the divine is not separate from life. This is called Pantheism (a favorite heresy for both Jewish and Christian traditions)  -- God is all that exists, and this universe is not different from God. I recognized myself as a pantheist the first time I heard it from the pulpit at a UU church some 30 years ago. Then a teacher in Seminary introduced me to “Panentheism” which means that the universe is a sub-set of God—that is to say, God is the universe plus something more. When I was introduced to Systems theory, I got excited by the idea that the “something more” of panentheism is the emergent properties of  the system of all that is. Does the universe have consciousness?  I don’t know.  I am agnostic on that point.  But as a Universalist I believe in the one-ness of everything,  and when I hear that phrase “Spirit of Life” I don’t feel like an agnostic, because I have felt that spirit of life in my own body  and in the world every day. It is a phrase that brings us back from heady theological explorations -- back into the lived world we know and share. 

This summer, over in our historic Sheshequin meeting house, our worship team showed short films about the history of the universe, about its evolution. When you consider that epic story, it begins to seem kind of amazing that life not only came to be, but that it has persisted for so many hundreds of thousands of years. It has persisted through biological crises that killed off 70 or 90% of all life on our planet.  For example, photosynthesis only emerged 2,800 million years ago, a dramatic change that both saved and endangered life. You see, the oxygen freed in photosynthesis entered our world in larger and larger amounts,  changing the chemical composition of  the atmosphere, the oceans, the very crust of the earth. Oxygen not only degraded the food supply, but also broke down the membranes of cells, causing the helplessness and even the combustion of these early cells.  Then a new life form emerged with a mutation which allowed respiration.  Because oxygen was so plentiful, this new life and its offspring thrived.  The very oxygen which was poisoning the planet created a combustion which powered these new life forms’ activities. What an amazing story of life on earth snatched back from the brink of annihilation!

When I was studying the history of the Universe on my previous sabbatical we were introduced to the radical idea that the actual scientific story of who we are and where we came from could be as powerful as those myths and legends of our traditional cannon. I suppose I should not have been surprised by this idea. Growing up UU I had always been taught that the findings of science could be considered a source of wisdom--  the wisdom of the life we observe all around us.  

When Carolyn McDade wrote the song we sing each week, late one night in the early 1980s, she was driving her close friend Pat Simon home from a meeting for Central American solidarity...  What she remembers most clearly was the feeling she had. “When I got to Pat’s house, I told her, ‘I feel like a piece of dried cardboard that has lain in the attic for years. Just open wide the door, and I’ll be dust.’ I was tired, not with my community but with the world. She just sat with me, and I loved her for sitting with me.” McDade then drove to her own home in Newtonville. “I walked through my house in the dark, found my piano, and that was my prayer: May I not drop out. It was not written, but prayed. I knew more than anything that I wanted to continue in faith with the movement.”[i]

Spirit of Life, come unto me.
Sing in my heart all the stirrings of compassion.
Blow in the wind, rise in the sea;
Move in the hand, giving life the shape of justice.
Roots hold me close; wings set me free;
Spirit of Life, come to me, come to me.
In this song, in this very personal prayer, here is the point where our conversation turns from an abstract one about theology to a more practical concern- what do I call on, what do I turn to when I am “like a piece of dried cardboard that has lain in the attic for years?” What can we turn to not only for ourselves, but so that we can continue to live with compassion and work for justice in our world? Can we who are Atheist and Agnostic about a traditional understanding of God, can there be some hope for us in life itself?

In considering the emergence of  life forms that first photosynthesized or breathed air and whether or not these life forms had any consciousness of this amazing process, scientists Swimme and Berry write that “A primitive eukaryotic cell would, for instance, be able to detect a temperature gradient, turning itself toward warming regions.  It would possess a limited ability to sense nutrient densities and orient itself to their thickest direction.”[1]  So even our most basic ancestors must have been guided  by some life-sustaining drive. 

This drive brings to mind the words of Lebanese poet, artist and writer  Kahlil Gibran “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and the daughters of  Life's longing for itself" … Life’ s longing for itself. I know that feeling. I have experienced it in my bones. I don’t understand it, but I know it. For me that longing of life for life is bound up in the phrase “Spirit of Life.”  One of the things we know for sure about life, is that it fights with great tenacity and creativity to keep on living. Not only the individual fighting for its own life, but our shared desire that even when each one of is gone, that life itself should persist.

 I find genuine hope in the indisputable fact that when life on earth was running out of food and on the brink of collapse, somehow photosynthesis was born. And when Photosynthesis inundated the earth with  this poisonous gas called oxygen, life learned to breathe it. That’s the spirit of life. Seeing a tree (that for all the world looked dead during the winter) begin to burst out with those amazing spring green leaves- that requires no leap of faith. It is hope embodied.

Here’s another fact- you are alive. Right now.  Right in this moment. Whatever it is that brings a tree out of dormancy in the spring, whatever it is that evolved photosynthesis, that “spirit of life”  is indisputably within you. So how much of a leap is it to believe that we can call on that “spirit of life” – not as some transcendent spirit from above, but as that which is intrinsic to all living beings –we can reach down deep into ourselves as a tree reaches down deep into its roots at the end of winter, and we can call it up when want to come back from our own winter, when we are dry as a piece of cardboard. 

The Unitarian writers who were using the phrase “Spirit of Life” in the 1830s did not yet have the benefit of Darwin’s “Origin of Species.” They undoubtedly would not have explained it the way I just did. But that’s part of why this is part of our vocabulary of faith – because it is expansive enough to include the old traditional theologies, and all that science has uncovered in the last century or so. Regardless of your theology, this song reminds us that there is something larger than ourselves we can call one when we are dry, when we need hope. It is laying in your own beating heart right now.


[1] Briane Swimme and Thomas Berry, The Universe Story. New York: HarperCollins, 1992; p. 104.






[i] http://www.uuworld.org/life/articles/35893.shtml Carolyn McDade's spirit of life By Kimberly French
Fall 2007 8.18.07

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