Beltane Sumi-e Moon
Rev. John Ackerman, my spiritual advisor in the mid-1980s, now dead, said to me during a session with him, “Charlie, I think you’re a druid.” This was while I was still an Associate Executive for the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area, responsible for urban mission and congregational development. That made me pause.
I had just started a Doctor of Ministry Program that I had organized and brought to the Twin Cities, one taught by professors from McCormick Seminary of Hyde Park, Chicago. The full program was largely unremarkable; but when it came time, three years later, to write my doctoral thesis, one documenting the decline of Presbyterian membership over the century, I sat down one day and came up a week or so later with 40,000 words of my first novel, Even the Gods Must Die. That surprised me.
Raising Joseph, born in Calcutta, was also challenging my theology. I was always suspicious of monotheism, if there are more than one one God, doesn’t that negate the whole idea, but with Joseph my suspicion had an existential bite. If Joseph had been raised in the rural village of Bengal from which he came, he would likely have been Hindu. And outside the pale of salvation. I loved him and would have loved him as a Hindu, too. If Christianity would not have allowed someone I loved into eternal peace, then Christianity was wrong.
All this was problematic for continuing to work as a clergyman. In Christianity, unlike Judaism, belief in God is a job requirement. Otherwise we’re in Grand Inquisitor territory. Kate (not fate) intervened. I was already on my way out of the Christian ministry, but I couldn’t figure out what to do next. I was 41, mid-career, and leaving the only long term job I’d ever had, while being responsible for raising Joseph, seemed impossible.
Kate allowed me, in a move that was typically generous of her, to resign from the Presbytery and take up writing. Those novels had me pretty excited. I left the Presbytery on good terms. I’d moved away from Christianity, but I didn’t bear the church any animus. I had, I guess you could say, fallen out of love, but I remained friends with my ex-faith.
Later, when I had trouble selling my writing, I regressed and transferred my credentials to the Unitarian-Universalist Association, thinking I could pick up work familiar to me in a context friendly to my changing, evolving theology. In 1996, in Phoenix, I became a fellowshipped clergy in the UUA. I say regressed because I was done with church leadership, but wasn’t ready to admit it. I preached on occasion for a small UU congregation, Groveland, sometimes frequently, and I enjoyed that opportunity to write about my religious thinking.
When we moved to Colorado in 2014, I delivered a final sermon at Groveland, in my mind ending my ministerial career at last. That was 44 years after I entered seminary.
Influenced by the feminist reimagining movement in Christianity from the 1980’s, I decided to reimagine the idea of faith itself, a project I’ve worked on in spurts for 15 years. At first I thought I would create a new theology, something I called for a while, Ge-ology. My idea was to find a way to express in a coherent system the kind of sentiment underlying Thomas Berry’s Great Work.
Berry was a Passionist monk, a deep ecologist and author of a little book called, The Great Work. In it he proposes that the great work of our time and, in specific, the great work of our Western civilization, as creating a sustainable human presence on this planet. It’s important to note that this is not about saving the planet. The planet will be fine. The question was, and is, can we humans devise a way of living here that does not destroy our species.
What, I wondered, would faith look like if we could focus it on that which sustains us. What sustains us? The sun. The sun and plants. The sun, plants, and the soil. The sun, plants and the atmosphere they supply with oxygen. All these and the animals which nourish us, but are themselves also nourished by the plants. Yes, we humans have a rich inner life, one that allows us to imagine gods and heavens, but as animals, we can only have that rich inner life if we live. And living requires these complex interrelationships we call the web of life.
Over the years I’ve generated bits and pieces of a reimagined faith and added to reimaging, reconstructing and reenchanting. Reenchanting means becoming aware and responsive to the forces and powers that sustain us, but as beings in and of themselves. When the residents of the Big Island refer to the new Kilauea eruptions as the work of Pele, the Hawai’ian goddess of volcanoes, they have been enchanted; and for many, haoles (non-native Hawai’ans, often white people) and native Hawai’ians, reenchanted.
Another example of reenchantment was the visit I had from three mule deer bucks in October of 2014. I had come here for the closing on our purchase of the house on Black Mountain Drive. I went out in the yet unfenced back yard and encountered the three bucks about a hundred feet from the house. They stood there. I stood there. We looked at each other and I felt a distinct connection with them. The connection felt reciprocated. After a while, they left and I went back to the mechanics of taking possession of the house and property.
On reflection I felt I had been visited by the spirit of the mountain, that I had been given permission to live here among the forests and wildlife of the Rocky Mountains. The mule deer were the messengers, the angels, of this new world into which we were moving.
Or, bee-keeping. I kept bees for six years in Minnesota. It was early in the process that I felt a partnership with the bees. The colonies themselves and the surplus honey they produced that Kate and I could harvest was a collaboration. We were working together toward a common end. The closer I got to the bees, the more I understood the mystical nature of the hive, a super-organism created from apparently individual bees engaged in the world as one entity.
The final R of my new 3 R’s, reimagining, reenchanting and reconstructing, I have borrowed from Congregation Beth Evergreen. Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, said, “The past gets a vote, but not a veto.” In the Jewish ambit within which he remained though a convinced non-supernaturalist that meant taking the tradition and reconstructing it for contemporary life.
Reconstructing faith is, in my current understanding, a similar work. The traditional religious faiths get a vote, but not a veto. We can pick up strands from various traditions and rebuild them into a new faith, what I call an ur-faith, one we can all embrace, not as a replacement for our tradition if we don’t want that, but one expressing a new/old faith, one that trusts in the sun, in plants, in photosynthesis, in the sustaining powers of the soil.
Or, without visiting the old religions, we can create this new faith inductively from our lived experience. The miracle of new plants each spring. The wonder of soil complexity and its role in sustaining that miracle. The snow and the rain that bring fresh water to us, to replenish our rivers and aquifer. Consider the tomato on your table or the steak on the grill. They both store the energy of the sun and pass it on to us through the true transubstantiation as food becomes our body. The close, intimate bond between humans and animals that live with us like dogs and cats.
Stand outside at night. Look up. Stars and galaxies and planets. All there. So far away. Yet we are a part of them and they are a part of us. We need no other mystery, no other miracles, no other metaphysics.