Check in here occasionally for new fragments, whole essays, progress reports
What is reimagining?: A long while back, in the late 1980’s/early 1990’s, I began to move, again, away from my childhood faith, a Midwest Methodism caught not taught. I began to wonder about a new way of thinking about, experiencing faith. In particular I wanted to explore a faith that engaged directly with creating a sustainable human presence on this earth. Thomas Berry calls this our civilization’s great work. And I believe it is just that.
Reimagining Faith is my working title and it reflects my dream of a Way, a path of faith, that leads us or locates us or holds us in a direct and unmediated relationship with the universe which created and sustains us. Our most immediate linkage to the universe is this planet which has birthed us, so a reimagined faith will, by necessity, have a substantial focus on how we live with and on it.
I have some general themes that keep surfacing as I’ve thought about this: emergence, complexity, becoming native to this place, direct revelation, the Great Wheel, shinrin-yoku, gardening, an ur-faith, hunter-gatherer lifeways. But how to knit them together, how to find the other ideas that are needed, that’s the work ahead.
This year I’m going to devote considerable time to this project. It has become more urgent for me as I’ve gotten older. And, it fits with a personal commitment to do work only I can do.
How to Become a Pagan
Start religious life on a hard wooden pew under a stained-glass window of Jesus praying at Gethsemane. You know, father if you’d just as well, I’d prefer to pass on the whole crucifixion thing. Years and years of sermons, Christmas eve services, Easter services. Enough to create a solid if unremarkable Christian theology. Small town religion in the 1950’s Midwest. What else were you gonna be?
As your brain develops and your education expands, you might find yourself beginning to ask questions. Resurrection? Really. How does that work? Methodist. Nazerene. Missouri Synod Lutheran. Synod? Roman Catholic. Bible Church. So many brands. Why is that? Couldn’t they just agree?
How about that Reverend Steele who ran off to California with the organist?
We haven’t even hit 1965 yet. Maybe in a search for more information you go to the Roman Catholic priest in town and ask for instructions in how to become a Catholic. If he’s smart (yes, he, always he. I mean, Jesus was a guy, right?), and noticing the kind of questions you’ve come with he might introduce you to some proofs for the existence of god.
Like that one where this thing causes that thing and we spend a lot of time going backwards, if this thing caused this then what caused this? Until we reach the universe itself. Bingo! Has to be god, right? Who or what else has the metaphysical moxie to be the cause behind the whole universe. The Prime Mover. Or that other one for example by that guy Anselm: God is that which there is nothing greater than can be conceived. Sort of obvious that one.
Maybe college comes next and you choose to enroll in Philosophy 101. The professor smokes a pipe with tobacco pre-rolled in paper covered plugs. Wears tweed. Quotes whole passages from Plato. In Greek no less. None of those high school teachers held even a small votive candle to this guy.
And he demolishes Anselm and the Prime Mover. Who wants to worship a first cause? I mean, come on. So what if there is something greater than anything else that can be conceived? What does that prove? It’s just an exercise in fuzzy thinking.
Oh. You say. Well. I see. And wander off to Albert Camus who’s much more appealing than Jean-Paul Sartre. Camus later will remind you of Ram Dass who said we’ll all just walking each other home. Sorry. A digression there.
After a while the whole Christian story doesn’t add up. Too many contradictions. Too much bloodshed. Too much bigotry. And it gets shoved off to the side while other matters, more immediately germane, take precedent.
Like the Vietnam War. Or feminism. Or Anthropology. Or dope. Or alcohol. Or contract Bridge.
Wait though. Kierkegaard. He was an existentialist, right? Like Camus. Interesting. Well, maybe you decide, I’ll give it a look after all this college stuff finishes up.
Later, say a year or so out of college, drifting from a department store job to selling life insurance to cutting up underwear in a papermill to make rag bond paper, Kierkegaard comes back. Leap of faith, wasn’t it?
Yes. Instead of figuring faith out, act like you have it. See what happens. Before your 7 am shift starts at Fox River Paper, you take to reading the Bible. Writing verses down on notecards and sticking them in your shirt pocket to be read over a baloney sandwich at lunch.
Then this minister. United Church of Christ. Didn’t have that one back home. Turns out he’s opposed to the war, too. That’s a head twister. Not your small-town religion anymore.
You’re really, really bored. Cutting up underwear was not your dream job. OK, maybe you didn’t have a dream job, but that wasn’t it for sure. That wife you married in a rush on that Indian Mound turns out to be sleeping with other guys.
Ooff. You need to get out of this small conservative slice of Wisconsin. Joe McCarthy’s buried in a nearby cemetery.
That minister says. Try seminary. Nah. Why would I do that? Cutting rags no. But minister. Not a chance. Do you even know me? Drugs, sex, and rock and roll. Why not? If you don’t like it, quit. But at least you’ll be somewhere else.
Well, maybe. The application comes in the mail. They offer you housing and food and tuition for the first year. Huh. That wife gets the Volkswagen van. You sell the house, make a little bit. You get some cash and off you go to Minnesota.
Five years later you’re working as a Presbyterian minister. Building affordable housing. Supporting labor unions and immigrants in search of green cards. Challenging standard philanthropy practices. Taking food out to Wounded Knee. Organizing the unemployed to create new jobs, legislation.
Not bad. Making money, hardly anything, but doing things you find important, worthwhile. Significant, in a small way.
Decide to get an advanced degree. A Doctorate. While writing your thesis discover you’ve written one hundred and twenty pages of a novel instead. Even the Gods Must Die. Oh. A clue there.
Your spiritual director, a fussy little guy, but insightful says during one session, “You’re a Druid!” You’ve been reading Celtic mythology, remembering that professor with the pipe. Slipping away from the fold.
One morning you wake up and realize you really don’t buy it anymore. Probably hadn’t bought it for a while. The political work was too good, too solid, too in synch with your heart. You stuffed the doubts and the fact that you represented this religion.
Skip forward a few years. A new wife. Flower gardens. Vegetable gardens. An orchard. Bees. A woods. Wolfhounds and whippets. No longer a minister.
Thinking about a tactile spirituality. A spirituality that goes in and down rather than up and out. You realize the life you nurture in the gardens, the dogs, your small family. That’s real. No fancy philosophy required. Right here. Hands in the soil digging up carrots and beets and onions. Life. Its cycle.
The seasons. The Great Wheel of the Seasons. Putting away apocalyptic linear time for good. Everything has its season. Yes. Everything.
The bees. Are you more important than they are? Is Celt, that 180 pound goofy, loving dog less significant than you? Oh.
Life begins to look less complicated.
Later, much later, that wife dies. And that’s part of the Great cycle. Maybe you get cancer and find solace in the Mountains of your new home. How short your life is compared to theirs.
You begin to live with the seasons, with life as it comes. Not pushing against it, not privileging that life over that. Extending your understanding of life to include the Mountain on which you live. And the ones which surround it.
You find your wild neighbors communicating to you. Welcoming you, including you.
Reimagining Faith: a work in progress
“The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe, to match your nature with Nature.”
Reimagine Faith. There is a turn I sense, one from the abstract and transcendent, to the particular and the incarnational, the natural. I believe we can align ourselves not with the words of ancient texts, but with the rhythms of this world. The great work, creating a sustainable human presence on the earth, will benefit directly if we can put the same energy now devoted to religious institutions based on interpretation of the history of others into an affectional and intellectual embrace of mother earth.
the start of an introduction:
In the world of new atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris there is no need for faith, only an unflinching acceptance of the essential flatness of our world, a world beyond which nothing lies. And, they could be right.
However, as the aphorism has it, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Their flat no metaphysics world is too bright, lit up by reason functioning as a flood lamp that obscures rather than reveals. Dazzled by Nietzschean skepticism and the hot flames of empiricism they have concluded that the long human experiment in imagining a world beyond this one is bankrupt, a series of constructs with no ontology. And, they are probably right.
The dizzying variety of sacred worlds from Osiris in pieces to bodhisattvas delaying nirvana, the Otherworld to jinn, makes it clear that they can’t all be right. So, why bother with any of them? A very good question.
Even so, the same diversity represented by say, the Koran, the Tao Te Ching, the Diamond Sutra and the New Testament reveals the deep, universal hunger for some sort of knowledge, esoteric or mundane, that can explain this mystery that is life and the abyss that death seems to be. Must we abandon this vast poetic attempt to understand our species and its ultimate fate, an attempt evidenced in the red ochre of even Neanderthal burials, just because Wittgenstein said “Whereof we cannot speak, we must be silent.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, in the introduction to his essay, “Nature,” says: “The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?” This book will bracket the beholding of God as an instance of a particular religious tradition and therefore outside its scope. We will however try to understand what it might mean to behold nature face to face, how we might do it, and, further, whether such an intimate relation might yield a new faith, a reimagining of the very meaning of faith.
No, neither pantheism nor panentheism. This is not an attempt to put new wine into old wine skins. We have no interest in bursting old wine skins. This will be an attempt to do what Emerson proposed, to discover an original relation to the universe, one appropriate to our time, new wine for wine skins being made now.
Why even attempt to reimagine faith? The old understandings of faith aren’t working too well for many of us. The sectarian struggles of the Middle East are paradigmatic of this point, but hardly exhaust it. The U.S. has the Christian right, devoted to its One Way version of that faith tradition. The Hindu Nationalists in India want to swat down other faiths and impose their own version of religious truth on a vast nation. Even Marxist influenced struggles like the FARC in Colombia, the Shining Path in Peru, and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua can be seen as secularist attempts to impose a dogmatic view of reality, in this case materialist, on a people. The point here is not yes or no to any religious conflicts, but to ask the question, is there another way, another perspective that even such diverse groups might find compelling and congenial?
If we are successful here, we will ask no one to displace their current beliefs, we will only ask them to consider another sort of faith, one that might bind us all, all Earth’s peoples, together. This reimagined faith will be a sort of ur-faith, a grounded faith, literally grounded in the soil of our mutual mother, the earth herself.
Each of us has our own pilgrimage story, how we started with what we found at home, then leavened that with experiences as young adults, some times in college, some times in the work place or in a new family. Many of us have found that the version of metaphysics we learned at home seemed off somehow, perhaps too narrow, perhaps too permissive, but definitely no longer useful for the journey on which we found ourselves.
Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let us sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is discord, union;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
—Attributed to Francis of Assisi, Quoted in “A Treasury of Traditional Wisdom,” edited by Whitall N. Perry (Simon & Schuster, 1971)
“Drink your tea slowly and reverently… As if it is the axis on which the earth revolves. Slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future. Live the actual moment. Only this moment is life.
When you touch one thing with deep awareness, you touch everything. When you touch one moment with deep awareness, you touch all moments.”
~Thich Nhat Hanh~
Lughnasa and the Moon of the First Harvest
I have reimagined faith. At least for me. Didn’t realize I’d done it until I began work on answering my friend’s question about joy in being. (see post for Aug. 2). And did it long ago. It was my philosophical/theological bent that kept me from seeing it. Ironic, eh?
Awe is a key component. Awakening awe. Awe not confined to the Grand Canyon or birth or pretty flowers or innocence. Awe seen in the magic of decay, decomposition. Awe for the water coming from the shower, pumped up from fractured granite beneath our land. Awe for the skills of the snow plow drivers who keep Black Mountain Drive clear. Awe for the gradual changing of seasons, of plant life’s reaction to the subtle changes, of animals dancing to the rhythm of the change. Awe for the years of intimacy and love with Kate, with Joseph, with SeoAh, with Ruth and Gabe, with Jon. Awe for friends who reach across cyberspace. Awe for inventors of concrete. For stonemasons. For quilting. For the CyberKnife. For the kindness of strangers.
Why is awe critical? Because it answers the implicit question in this line from Emerson’s introduction to his essay, Nature: “Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us?” Yes. Yes. Yes. But. How do we find revelation? Do we need gold tablets like Joseph Smith? Do we need special access to “G-d?” Do we need an angel whispering in our ear?
No. And we never have. Awe is the answer. It peels back the mundane layer from things simple and complex. When we experience awe, we see into the world and our part in it. This peeling back removes the false accretions our hurry and our anxiety and our fear have laid over the sacred in the ordinary. We can see the universe emerging through that compost pile, in that child’s laugh, in that gas flame on our stove.
Awe leads us to the altar of gratitude where we kneel in thanks for all these, our many gifts. Gratitude is a prayer lifted up when our hearts find the soul in the other. Namaste. Awe opens the door. Gratitude shows we have walked through the door to what the Celts called The Otherworld.
The Otherworld is not far away. It is not in a hoped for future or a golden past. It is now, here. Right there. Look at your hand. Touch thumb to fingers. Awe. Evolution of the prehensile thumb. Breathe. Awe. We can take oxygen from the air to fuel our bodies. Eat. Awe. We can transform, transubstantiate, carrots and lettuce and a rib eye and a potato and watermelon and popcorn into a human. Walk. Awe. Sleep. Awe.
Do we need to write a new bible to let others know? No. Our reimagining responds to Emerson again: “…why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe?”
Awe and gratitude. Revelation and grace here and now.
This project stumbles along as I go from idea to idea, class to class, book to book. As I hike, drive, watch through the Mountains. As I read Chekhov. As I dream. When I wake up and find an 8 point Buck among the Lodgepoles in the back.
In short though it stumbles along from a written perspective, it flourishes in daily life. Each time I say I’m a pagan. Each time that Red Fox running u the Hillside like I did just this morning. Each time Fog hangs below in the Valley as I head down the Hill. The Seasons come and go, friends of Michelangelo. Sorry, T.S. Beauty springs first from the Earth, not that finger in the Sistine Chapel.
Someday I will sit down, wrassle the words together to say all this in its Taoist/Pagan/Mountain/Ocean/Midwest vernacular. Perhaps in some home with a view of the Pacific, looking toward the Bering Straits.