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.
New work as of 12/14/2022
75 years old. Living on a Mountain top. Kate dead. Alone except for Kep, my thirteen year old Akita. Several manuscripts gathering Lodgepole Pine pollen in the loft over the garage. All fantasy. Not this one. This one’s a thought, a work of consummation.
Over with hemming and hawing. Now down to it. After all, on Valentine’s Day next year, I’ll be 76. My checkout date no longer lies far, far away.
Anyhow. Somehow religion and spirituality, of the old fashioned sort has been a steady part of my life. Plenty of formal education, including that Philosophy major. Lots of work experience. Plenty of reading, meditating. Analyzing and reflecting.
But as Dr. Astrov says in Uncle Vanya, “Even the wisest and weightest…suffer from analysis and reflection.”
So this will include some analysis, reflection, yes, how could it not, but it will mostly be a hands-on manual.
But about what, you might ask. A natural and appropriate question.
At one point I called it reimagining faith. Or reconstructing it. Even, reenchanting it.
Today though. This moment. I’d lean more toward how to become a pagan and live happily ever after.
Where to start though? We could go through the theological weeds, looking for small plants that might grow if we talked about them together. Tried that a while back and I found systematic writing boring, not something that sustained my attention, nor, I imagined that of any possible readers.
I’m thinking more of a conversation, one starting not with texts or apologetics or critiques, but with the day to day. What the Catholics charmingly call ordinary time.
Let’s see. When was the last time you grew your own food? If never, then when was the last time you went for a long walk in the Woods? Or, up a Mountain? Along a Stream? Went barefoot.
When did you last have a flesh to Soil contact with Mother Earth?
Why? Because the foundation of a tactile spirituality lies in contact. With the Soil. With a Dog. With another person. With a Cat. With a Tree. Or. With a chocolate. An Asparagus Spear. A Carrot. A Steak.
What’s that? I haven’t mentioned a tactile spirituality? Oh. I see.
Three decades and a half ago I jettisoned any stray strand of Christian theology still lodged in my mind. That made the Presbyterian ministry a tough way to earn a living. Thanks to my wonderful wife Kate I was able to vacate that job. I said retire but they said I was too young. Whatever.
I’d started work on a doctoral thesis (Doctor of Ministry), and discovered instead of staying on topic I’d written one-hundred and twenty pages of a novel, Even the Gods Must Die. As you can tell, it was time for me to move on. That doesn’t preach very well.
My spiritual adviser, also a Presbyterian, had declared me a Druid. I’d spent a lot of time with the Celtic Christian Church and the lives of the Celts before the Roman Catholic church invaded the British Isles.
Though I could, and might, say a lot more about that adventure, right here what’s most important was its introduction to me of the Great Wheel of the Seasons.
Many different forms of paganism use the Great Wheel as a guide through the year, through life. The Celtic Great Wheel begins at Samain, or Summer’s End. In the original Celtic calendar there were only two holidays: Samain and Beltane. Beltane marked the beginning of the growing season on May 1 while Samain marked the end of the harvest on October 31st. A fallow season and a season of growth.
Later the Celts added solar holidays. Equinoxes and solstices. When they did that they also added Imbolc, February 1, to celebrate the freshening of the ewes and Lughnasa, August 1, to celebrate the first harvest. The Summer Solstice and the Winter Solstice (Yule in some pagan circles) marked the midpoints of the growing season on the one hand and the fallow time on the other. The Spring Equinox, or Ostara to some, celebrates Spring, as the Fall Equinox, or Mabon to some, celebrates Autumn.
The temperate latitudes of course.
After I moved my inner life from Christian triumphalism (over nature, over human desire, over death) to the turning of the Great Wheel, life began to open up for me.
When Kate and I moved to Andover, Minnesota, my first time in the exurbs, we bought a house with two and half acres. About a third Wooded.
Our part of Andover lay on the Great Anoka Sand Plain, a Shoreline remnant of the Glacial River Warren, which drained the huge Glacial Lake Agassiz and created the Minnesota River. That meant our Soil had good drainage.
After cutting down several Black Ash Trees, thorny and scrubby, space for a large vegetable garden opened up in a sunny location. Our son Jon built raised beds for us. We added Compost into the sandy remains of River Warren for a rich, well drained Soil.
As we created furrows for tiny Carrot Seeds, for sharp edged Beet Seeds, for Onion Sets, for Kale and Collard Greens, all heirloom seeds, I began to wonder about tactile spirituality. These furrows were wombs, were they not? Our hands were agents of a reproductive dance between Seeds and Soil.
Sometime during that year’s Imbolc, the August 1st Great Wheel holiday that spawned U.S. county and state fairs, as our Cherokee Purple, Black Krim, and Brandywine Tomatoes gained weight and wrinkles, as the Onions plumped up, and the Bean Pods hung down, the true story of what was going on here took shape. The Soil and the Seed, in close partnership with the Sun and the Rain created food.
Kate would put on her bandanna, get her hori hori knife from the shed, and become the Ninja weeder. She helped the vegetables gain as much nutrition as they could from the Soil. I plucked insects off by hand, picked off dead or diseased leaves, poured an organic tea around the bases of our plants. We worked for hours in our garden each day during the growing season. Many chores with which you are familiar, I imagine.
Then we harvested. Dug up the Carrots. Cut leaves of Kale and Collard Greens. Pulled the Onions from their spots in the raised beds. Took the Tomatoes in hand and twisted them off the plant or cut them off with pruning shears. Washed the Vegetables off with a garden house in a wire frame basket.
Inside in the sink everything got washed again. Remaining Insects removed. Rotten leaves cut off. Carrots scrubbed.
Then we would eat. Maybe not right then, but soon. Fresh Tomatoes with a sweet, acidic bite. Onions that could be eaten as a snack. Carrots that were. Collard Greens and Kale boiled soft, covered with vinegar. No need to be fancy.
And there it was. The tactile spirituality. The true transubstantiation. Soil and Water and Sun and Seed turned into a human body.
That was when I began to realize that the Great Wheel was, for me, a true and complete liturgy. A way of living with the seasons of the year as they go on in endless song, from the early days of Spring to the decaying, decomposing times of Samain and Winter and Imbolc.
For many years my work consisted of organizing people to solve problems. The unemployed to find jobs and pass legislation that would help them. The poor to create affordable housing according to their own designs. Non-profit organizations to have a voice in the legislative process and to provide each other with best practices. Immigrants to have enough money for green cards. Labor unions to achieve better contracts. That sort of thing.
When I retired from that work at 43, I wondered what might come next. I wrote everyday, yes, but I couldn’t leave the political life alone. Too abrupt a stop. Two events coincided to give me a new direction.
On a solo trip to the West I stopped for a while in Cody, Wyoming. While there, I visited the spectacular five in one museum, the Buffalo Bill Center of the West Museum, and read at night in my motel room at the Cody Cowboy Village. A small book, titled The Great Work by the Passionist priest, Thomas Berry, occupied me.
The Great Work of our time Berry suggested lay in creating a sustainable human presence on Mother Earth. That idea became a grain around which I grew a new idea of how to be human.
A year later Kate and I drove down to Iowa City to attend a conference of the Physicians for Social Responsibility. This was in the mid-1990’s. The topic was climate change. Oh, I realized. These were the particulars for building a sustainable human presence.
A lot of the information now common knowledge had not yet surfaced. The impact of all these learned folks talking about the hockey stick curve, the role of carbon emissions in global warming, the possibility of disease vectors following a warming climate made me see the future of my own political work.
Economic justice issues like I’d worked on before would have no traction if there was not a way for humans to continue to live on our only home.
That week I contacted the Northstar Chapter of the Sierra Club and began work on its Political Committee. After a year of electoral work I shifted focus to the Legislative side and chaired the Legislative committee.
This was Great Wheel work. Even the seasons of the year had begun to undergo dramatic changes. I focused on climate change work.
A move to the Rocky Mountains in 2014 presented real life obstacles to the work. Cancer, Kate’s illness, stepson’s divorce and then a few years later his death. Not to mention the thirty plus miles to Denver for face-to-face meetings.
Movement then toward a more creative approach. Setting down my thoughts. That’s this writing. Seeing the Great Wheel through as many lenses as I could muster.
What did it mean as a map for the human story? Imbolc, in the belly, at least in some understandings. Gestation. Spring. Birth. Beltane the beginning of serious growth. Summer, the period of learning. Lughnasa, the first harvest of skills and wisdom generated in real world experience and in education. Fall. The full harvest of a matured, educated (in whatever way) person. Contributing the wisdom only you have to offer. Precious work. The waning of a career, family dispersed. Samain. A time of rest, of considering what life has meant. Mentoring. Becoming the elder generation. Winter. Approaching the end. Leaning into death, into the question of what it may be. What it might mean.
Then. After Winter comes Imbolc, new Life. And the cycle continues. Suggesting, at least to me, that we get plowed into the furrow of existence, only to fertilize the next year’s crop. Perhaps even to grow again in another form, another time.
What else? As a view of the life cycle of our planet, our solar system, our universe. Gestation. Growth. Harvest. Fallow time. An end. Followed by a new beginning. How? No idea.
Or the creative process. Gestation. Work. Send it out into the world. After a while influence fades, until it fades away.
Life’s long chrysalis effect. The Plant grows. Flowers. Goes to Seed. Its Seed falls to the ground where decomposition, decay form its temporary home. Over the dark fallow time the Seed waits for the right combination of Sun and Water. Who could imagine an Oak from seeing an Acorn. A Beet from its thorny Seed. A Maple from the helicopters of Autumn. An Iris from its Rhizome. A Lily from its Corm. A Tulip from its Bulb.
How about the Jack Pine which grows in Northern Minnesota. It waits for Fire to open its Cones. Who could see the Jack Pine wind barrier in a scattered, random dispersal of cones. Perhaps there year after year. Waiting. For Flame.
Yet this is the Great Wheel, too. A time of abundance, greenery, growth followed by maturation, fruiting. Harvest. Transformation of the Plant into its tiny essence. Seeds traveling. Then a long cold time, dark. Unfavorable for the Plant. So. Patience. Perhaps absorbing some nutrients from the soul as many perennial Flowers can do even in the midst of Snow and Ice
In Japanese culture the Tea ceremony changes with the seasons, seasons realized in granulations smaller than the cross quarter holidays of the Celtic Calendar. A finer tuning of life to the journey from the emergence of Spring to the season of death and decay.
Different Teas. Different candies. Different art. Different flowers for the tokonama. Even different teaware. From cups to kettles to whisks. The Way of Chado.
Cultures of the temperate latitudes have to follow seasonal changes because Mother Earth imposes their differences upon every living thing. Snow affects the Mule Deer, the Elk, the Moose, the Fox, the Snowplow Driver, the Ice Fisherpersons. Water freezes. Fires of gas or Wood heat homes. The Ermine turning white. The Beaver swimming below the Ice of their Ponds.
Greetings of the season. Whichever one you’re in right now.
Let’s shift our attention for a moment to the idea of emergence. When I was in college, thinkers in the social and biological sciences planted their flags in one of two camps: vitalists or mechanists. The mechanists held that any organism was nothing more than the sum of its parts, running along like an organic machine. Vitalists on the other hand believed that any organism was more than the sum of its part. When that something left, the organism died.
Vitalists are, by definition, emergent thinkers. Life from the vitalist perspective emerges from an intricate combination of organic chemicals and processes, much as the first organism came alive out of the primal soup billions of years ago. When an organism ceases to function, dies, all of its chemistry and processes available in the moment prior to death are still there, but can no longer animate. Why? Because life is an emergent property which contains within itself all of the properties from which it emerged but is not coequal to them.
Take the Butterfly or Moth. Contained within that Caterpillar eating your Plants Leaves lies something that cannot be deduced from its appearance. A Butterfly is an emergent property of a Caterpillar.
Bern Heinrich, the famous Raven scholar, characterizes it in a different but related way: “[T]he radical change that occurs,” he says, “does indeed arguably involve death followed by reincarnation.”[ https://www.npr.org/sections/krulwich/2012/08/01/157718428/are-butterflies-two-different-animals-in-one-the-death-and-resurrection-theory] What he suggests is a controversial idea which would not qualify as emergence, but helps clarify emergence.
The death then reincarnation idea comes from a notion that far back in time a wormy Animal and a flying Animal mated. Their dna became entangled, but only becomes untangled at the death of the wormy organism whose dead cells provide the stuff from which the flying Animal can emerge.
In this case it would not be emergence because the Butterfly’s dna lies dormant until the death of the Caterpillar. If this is not the case, and few biologists think it is, then the Butterfly does emerge from the prior organism containing the whole of Caterpillarness yet within a completely different animal.
Might death be an example of emergence? Perhaps. But we have no evidence from the other side to suggest it is. Think of water. And, ice. And, water vapor. Can you predict ice from liquid water? No. Water vapor from liquid water? No.
Could our Self be a continuously emergent property of mind and body? Unlike the Buddhist who insists on no Self I wonder if the Self that writes this emerged perhaps moments ago from the one that wrote the paragraph above. If this were true, then our current Self would be a layered thing possibly running deep into the womb.
Consider the bee hive. The book Superorganism: The Strangeness and Elegance of Insect Societies[ https://www.amazon.com/Superorganism-Beauty-Elegance-Strangeness-Societies/dp/0393067041/ref=sr_1_2?crid=10HGNR6BUQTR3&keywords=superorganism&qid=1670866385&sprefix=superorg%2Caps%2C134&sr=8-2] offers many examples of the emergence of complex insect communities that rely on but cannot be reduced to each ant, or bee, or termite.
I want to use the idea of emergence to make a radical claim of my own. The more you see something, the more sacred it becomes. The sacred is, I’m saying, an emergent property of careful and loving observation.
Perhaps we could use the Jewish theologian Martin Buber’s idea of I-Thou and I-it here. As we see our beloved the more beautiful and amazing they become to us. We take in the whole of their lives, the way they respond to us, they way they respond to others, and from that seeing a sacred bond grows deeper, enriched. Love allows us to see the sacred nature of the other and to make with them what Buber calls the I-Thou relationship.
What I’m proposing is that we can enact this process of making sacred, or, maybe reenchantment, by seeing our Dog. That Lodgepole Pine. That Mountain Stream. That Great Lake. The Sky. Shadow Mountain. Seeing them in the same way we do our beloved. Taking in the whole of their lives, the way they respond to us, the way they respond to others. This kind of seeing, deep seeing, requires us to move well beyond the casual glance, the superficial, the momentary into a loving look. An embrace of the Tree or the Rock or the Lake or the Dog with as much empathy and love as you bring to human relationships.
We are not bound to the reductionistic, empiricist way of seeing assumed by our culture. We can see and feel our way toward the sacred nature of the world around us.
I have spent the last eight years working on seeing, feeling Shadow Mountain, the Mountain on which I live. It is dear to me, steady. A source of stability. This Mountain collects Water from the Snows and holds it for my pump. It lowers my resting heart rate thanks to its height. Shadow Mountain was once beneath the crust of the Earth only to get roughly shoved above it by the Laramide Orogeny, the Mountain building process begun tens of millions of years ago by plate tectonics.
Shadow Mountain provides a home for Mule Deer, Elk, Mountain Lions, Fishers, Pine Martens, Marmosets, Canada Jays, Magpies, Foxes, Rabbits, Voles, Mice as well as Lodgepole Pines and Aspens. Along its Streams like Maxwell, Cub, and Blue Creek, Shadow Brook, grow Willows and Dogwood. The interaction among all and the constant changing seasons erode the bulk of the Mountain, slowly, but inevitably, sending its sediment to the World Ocean.
Yes. And humans, too. With our driveways and lights and fences and houses. We live here with our wild neighbors and in the main we try to live lightly. To not habituate the Bear or the Deer or the Elk to our food because that way lies death. To celebrate the presence of our wild neighbors, posting pictures, watching the sides of the road when we drive.
It is an honor each time we see a Black Bear or Mule Deer, a Bull Elk or a Cow. That Red Fox darting down the culvert. The Raccoon waddling through the wet Grass in the Summer. The Trees cut down by the Beavers. The carcass of a Mountain Lion’s kill.
Then there is the Snow. The Winds. The dry Season when Wildfire threatens us all. The dark and starry nights turning round the Pole Star. All this on Shadow Mountain. Seeing is not only this instance, but many instances placed in memory, added to each other until the whole becomes richer, fuller.
As I grow more aware, more at home here, Shadow Mountain emerges not as a lone instance of Mountain, but as a particular Mountain. It has that quirky knob of Stone visible only from far away. It rises slowly from the Valley through Jefferson County 73 runs toward Evergreen. At its base is Flying J Ranch, now a Denver Mountain Park. Just across the intersection where Shadow Mountain Drive and 73 intersect is a large Mountain Meadow, a southwestern boundary.
Shadow Mountain grows in height as the road variously named Shadow Mountain Drive and Black Mountain Drive curves its way past rocky outcroppings, never dipping down, running past another Mountain Meadow threatened by a mountain bike park, until it reaches the level spot at the top where my home and my neighbor’s homes sit.
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.