Theme Talk (20th August 2018 at Hucklow Summer School)
Part One: ‘We’re All Going to Die’
The theme of this year’s summer school poses just about the biggest question we humans can ask ourselves: ‘How, then, shall we live?’ I take this question to have several questions implicitly wrapped up in it: ‘How shall we live knowing that – sooner or later – we are all going to die?’; ‘What constitutes a good life anyway, in this troubled and chaotic world?’; ‘What are we meant to be doing in our all-too-brief span?’; and ‘What’s the point?’… Now, I can’t say I feel especially well-equipped to answer these questions… but then, who is? So I’ll give it a go. Seeing as I’m here.
I thought it might be wise to bring a companion along with me this morning, though, to help in my exploration of these vexing questions that accompany us all in life. The person I’m bringing with me this morning is someone known only as Qoheleth. I know some of you – those Biblical scholars out there – have already met him. He is credited with writing the Book of Ecclesiastes, one of the Wisdom texts in the Old Testament, and he was wrestling with these questions – the same ones we’re considering this week – about 2,500 years ago. Qoheleth isn’t really his name, by the way, it’s a pseudonym meaning something like ‘preacher’ or ‘teacher’ or ‘gatherer’.
An evangelical friend of mine first nudged me to read Ecclesiastes about twenty years ago, just before I’d discovered Unitarianism, when I was still what you might call a freelance agnostic (and I suspect his then-minister might have coached him into doing it, in hope of converting me, because I hear it’s supposed to be ‘the book of the Bible that speaks to atheists’). As I understand it (and – don’t get your hopes up – I’m no great Biblical scholar) the Book of Ecclesiastes only just made the cut into the Bible. It’s a book for outsiders. When the authorities sat down to decide what texts were included in the official canon it sounds like it was just a quirk of local politics that kept Ecclesiastes in despite the odds. It sticks out a bit and a lot of people still seem to regard it as something of an oddity.
In this short book, Qoheleth, who’s described as a king, a powerful man, reflects on his life. He’s seen and done it all. He’s amassed wealth, and lived it up along the way… and now what? Let me share these famous words with you, from the opening of the Book of Ecclesiastes:
The Book of Ecclesiastes (NRSV), chapter 1, verses 2-11
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south, and goes around to the north;
round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow.
All things are wearisome; more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be, and what has been done
is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”?
It has already been, in the ages before us.
The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any
remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them.
I suppose, at first glance, Qoheleth comes across as a glass-half-empty kind of person…
‘Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.’ This word – ‘hebel’ – that is famously translated as ‘vanity’ – it runs through the whole of the book. But apparently it’s a tricky one to translate. Taken literally, ‘hebel’ might be translated as something like ‘breath’ or ‘vapour’. Alternative renderings of the word include ‘absurd’, ‘pointless’, ‘meaningless’, ‘mysterious’, ‘ephemeral’, ‘contradictory’, ‘incomprehensible’ and ‘empty’. ‘Life is utterly absurd!’ he’s saying. ‘It’s pointless. What do we even have to show for all the work we put in, all the suffering we endure, during our brief life here on earth? We’re here, and then we’re gone, and all too soon we are forgotten, just like everybody else.’
Qoheleth is someone who has done well in life. He’s looking back over his achievements. He has applied his mind to gain great knowledge and wisdom (practical, worldly know-how). He has taken pleasure in food and drink and all the delights of the flesh (nudge nudge). He’s built houses, planted vineyards, and made great works, and made a name for himself. But over time he has come to realise that none of it will last, and one day he too will be gone. It’s the lot of everyone who lives, and everyone who has ever lived, throughout the generations, though most of us avoid thinking about it too hard on a day-to-day basis. Understandably so. Qoheleth says: ‘It is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with… For in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.’
Now at this point some of you may be thinking that Qoheleth is an insufferable miseryguts. But I reckon we can take some important guidance from him. Qoheleth’s first lesson for us is this: We need to live with our eyes open – and our wits engaged – to face reality as it really is. There is something to be said for having a clear-eyed awareness of our predicament. The human condition. The way things really are, warts and all. And life really can seem quite warty sometimes.
Of course that’s not the whole story. In most lives we can identify things to be thankful for. Even in the worst of situations people have been known to find moments of goodness and beauty (and it’s quite a good strategy to try and make a practice of noticing the good in our lives). There’s no need to catastrophise or make out things are worse than they really are. But all the same it’s no good going into denial about the very real suffering that exists, and which can cast a shadow, even over lives that seem to be brimming with good things.
It’s not just Qoheleth. ‘All is dukkha’, as the Buddhists say, the first of their Four Noble Truths. That too – like hebel in Ecclesiastes – has many and varied translations and connotations. ‘All is suffering, all is pain, all is hard, all is struggle… all is impermanent, nothing lasts’.
I don’t know about the rest of you but when I find myself struggling – for much of my life I’ve struggled with periods of depression and high anxiety, sometimes connected to particular life circumstances, sometimes more free-floating, arising for no apparent reason but incapacitating me, to some degree, for weeks or months on end – and when I’m struggling like that I don’t find it particularly helpful to hear from cheerful people. At least not in the first instance. When I’m really struggling I find it more consoling, strangely, to hear from someone like old Qoheleth who seems to say: ‘You’re right. This sucks. I too have struggled to get out of bed in the morning to face another day.’
Something else has to follow this, if we’re going to pick ourselves up, but I find that an honest acknowledgment of how things are for us – that’s both us being willing to name it, and others being willing to hear it with kindness and compassion, without brushing it aside and changing the subject, without suggesting we take up a gratitude practice, or otherwise trying to fix us – such simple, honest acknowledgement of our pain may enable us to remain authentically connected to others – to the world – at a time when we most feel like disconnecting and shutting ourselves away. Such authentic connection might be the lifeline that helps us find our way into a better place, to find a way to cope with life as it is, even if our material circumstances are unlikely to change.
. . .
Maria Popova, curator of the excellent Brain Pickings blog, recently shared the story of a young neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi, who at the height of his powers was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. He died within two years of his diagnosis, aged just 37, in 2015. Maria Popova introduced her telling of Kalanithi’s life and death with these words: ‘All life is lived in the shadow of its own finitude, of which we are always aware – an awareness we systematically blunt through the daily distraction of living… [Kalanithi’s memoir] is a sobering revelation of how much our sense of self is tied up with our sense of potential and possibility — the selves we would like to become, those we work tirelessly toward becoming… [His reflections] illuminate the only thing we have in common — our mortality — and how it spurs all of us, in ways both minute and monumental, to pursue a life of meaning.’
In the same piece, Maria Popova used a phrase which so succinctly names our predicament. Paul and his wife Lucy had a child, a daughter, during the time of his illness. Popova referred to her as ‘this brand new being, blessed and burdened with her own infinite potential for an inherently finite life.’ Isn’t that perfectly put? And aren’t we all? Each of us, blessed and burdened, with our own infinite potential for an inherently finite life. And as the years pass – consciously or unconsciously – this paradox will likely loom larger for us.
. . .
Some years ago, in my day job at Essex Church, in Notting Hill Gate, I was working on a project to liven up the old ‘wayside pulpit’ – the noticeboard outside the church where we can display inspirational quotations about life in the hope that they’ll provide a sort of drive-by ministry to the people going past on buses or waiting at the stop just outside the church (and maybe, just maybe, entice someone to come in, one day). I’d picked out a bunch that appealed to me from a long list – pages and pages – of Unitarian-friendly quotations I’d found somewhere on the UUA website. One of the quotes I got printed up was attributed to George Eliot: ‘It is never too late to be what you might have been.’ I was in my early 30s and had just made the leap to chuck in my old job – which was making me miserable – and to try and make a new life for myself working on something that I cared about, with people who treated me with dignity. The quotation seemed to affirm my own choice to start afresh and follow a new dream. I found it encouraging, and hopeful, and I thought the world could do with an uplifting message.
But when I went to put the poster up, Sarah, our minister, vetoed it. She laughed when she saw it and pointed out, not unreasonably, that it’s one of those quotes that sounds lovely but it isn’t really true. And it sounds less and less true the more years you’ve spent on the planet. If we could wind the clock back – there are all sorts of things I ‘might have been’ – I might have been a medical physicist – that’s the most plausible ‘other life’ for me which never came to pass – but in theory I might have been an artist, an astrologer, a gardener, a bus driver. As a teenager my (modest) ambition was to play guitar in a band that topped the indie charts. As a child I don’t really remember having any thoughts of my life as a grown-up… though I briefly entertained thoughts of being an Olympic triple-jumper – and this was before women were even allowed to compete in the triple jump – I was ahead of my time, I tell you!… All of these might-have-been-s of my early life are clearly now going to stay that way. Whatever window of opportunity I might have had to pursue them has now closed. And I imagine that near enough everyone in this room has their own set of might-have-been-s.
I’m not just thinking of the top-level choices – about relationships, careers, and so forth – all those lists of ‘a hundred films to watch before you die’ – no chance. I’m too far behind. I picture in my mind’s eye the walls and walls of shelves and stacks of books that cover every surface in my house and realise even now, aged 43, I’m never going to read them all – of course I don’t suppose that will stop me stockpiling further. I’m a lost cause on that front.
As we go through life, though, ‘way leads on to way’, as Robert Frost once said. Each time we come to a fork in the road, a decision point, however seemingly small or insignificant, we make our choice, and of course new possibilities emerge and open up to us as a result, but other possibilities, other turnings, are left behind each time, gone – perhaps – forever. Sometimes, it is too late. There are some might-have-been-s that surely now will never be.
. . .
There’s a particular metaphor for life that really appeals to me – it comes from a reflection by the UU minister Gordon McKeeman – and it’s called ‘Leftovers’. He speaks of going to the fridge, rummaging around to see what’s there, surveying the decidedly mixed bag of leftover ingredients it contains, and asking ‘what can I make of it?’ We might just as well open the door of our past – our life so far – survey the scene, and ask ourselves the same question. As McKeeman says: ‘In making a life, we’re all cooking with leftovers from childhood… The longer we’re at it, the more leftovers there are… Each day you open the door, and you are faced with the question, “What can I make of it?”’
In all of our lives, by the time we are old enough to start shaping our own destiny in any significant way, all sorts of external influences will already have acted upon us, shaping our sense of what’s possible, beginning to form our outlook, our identity, setting down those deeply-rooted habits of thought and behaviour which sometimes serve us well… and sometimes not so well.
Many things which we never had a part in choosing have a huge impact – for good or ill – on the way we have turned out: At the most basic level, the random shuffle of genetic inheritance deals us a certain hand, a collection of physical attributes and dispositions. Then, the virtues, vices, and peculiar quirks we picked up from our families and caregivers in early life will, to some degree, influence the way we operate later on(not to mention the effect of any stories they might have told us about ourselves while we grew up – stories we might still be carrying with us).
And the times we were born into – the political climate and prevailing social attitudes that surrounded us in our formative years (and the environment in which we find ourselves now) – these will have affected not just our opinions and world-view but also our life opportunities. We may have experienced this influence in a positive way or a negative way – at times each of us may have benefitted from the prevailing systems of privilege – at times we may have found ourselves being discriminated against and disadvantaged; We may at times have been swept along with the majority view and conformed with it – or we may have reacted against it and defined ourselves in opposition to the masses. Either way the larger political and social tides will have played a part in shaping who we are. Every time my own tendency for perfectionism kicks in, and I’m tempted to beat myself up over some imagined shortcoming or another, I try to remind myself that these accidental factors, internal and external – which ‘aren’t my fault’ – are to some extent already tying my hands. And I try to remember that, and show a bit of compassion and solidarity, when I think about other people’s lives and limitations as well.
So when we attempt to answer the question – ‘how, then, shall we live?’ – we should perhaps begin by bearing in mind the serious constraints that each of us operating under. Before we are in a position to even ask ourselves the question… our life is already well underway. Choices that we’ve made already, or that have been made for us, by family or society, and elements of chance, have formed us, to some extent, and limited or expanded our opportunities. But even if we were extremely fortunate, and dealt a great hand by life… the clock is still ticking.
And if we think back to Qoheleth for a minute – it’s worth bearing in mind that his insights are coming from a highly privileged position – he was supposed to be a king, after all – so he wasn’t even subject to the sort of hardship and oppression that so many ordinary people have had to overcome (or endure) throughout most of human history. But still, he suffered, because nobody is exempt from disappointment, impermanence, loss – eventually loss of self – because in the end we are all mortal. Such is the human condition. Death is our companion – as it was for the duck in our story earlier (‘Duck, Death and the Tulip’ by Wolf Erlbruch) – with us wherever we go.
Each of us is blessed, and burdened, with our own infinite potential for an inherently finite life.
Part Two: What’s a ‘Good Life’ Anyway?
What does it mean to live a ‘Good Life’? Especially considering its finitude, and all the other constraints and limitations I’ve just been talking about. That’s the central question of ethics, one that’s kept philosophers busy for millennia, so I hope you won’t be to disappointed to hear that I’m not going to give you a comprehensive answer to that question in the next half hour. It’s a bit big for a theme talk. But I’ll say this: There’s no way I know of that you can work out how to live from first principles, completely neutrally, as if the recipe for a Good Life could be determined quasi-scientifically. If you look at any ethical system closely you will find it rests on some basic assumptions which can best be described as ethical ‘intuitions’. It’s a bit like ‘leftovers’ all over again. Everyone, even the great philosophers, is born into a particular culture and inherits its values. As we get older we can choose to consciously accept, reject, or refine what we’ve inherited. Even if you don’t consciously base your way of life on a set of commandments writ in stone you will at some level have picked up your sense of right and wrong from your elders and forebears.
In recent years my way of thinking about the ‘Good Life’ has been shaped by Aristotle, and a string of philosophers who have followed his lead more recently, on the path of Virtue. Unlike some of the other major ethical theories that are out there, the ones which seem to require complex moral calculus and cost-benefit analysis in every situation we meet, Virtue Ethics (as the tradition inspired by Aristotle is known) has quite a different approach. On the path of virtue you don’t ask ‘what should I do?’ Instead you ask ‘who should I be?’ According to Aristotle, the point or purpose of life is human flourishing. Our own and others’. By ‘flourishing’ I think he means something like a combination of basic material well-being, and something more, like fulfilment of at least some of that infinite potential we are born with. Think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, if that’s something you’re familiar with, where we all have the most basic needs for physical nourishment and safety, then needs for relatedness and connection, then dignity and achievement, and eventually self-actualisation. A Good Life, according to Aristotle, and also according to me, centres on this sort of flourishing. And as we flourish, we support the flourishing of others. It’s a non-negotiable part of the package. It is, for each of us, a life’s work to consciously develop ourselves in virtue and practical wisdom.
One of the things I like most about virtue ethics is that it acknowledges from the off that the world is complicated and contradictory (as are the variously flawed humans that live in it). In contrast to other ethical systems it doesn’t collapse what matters in life to a single variable: ‘benefit’ or ‘duty’. It acknowledges there are a whole range of human values that matter to us. Kindness. Honesty. Courage. Generosity. Sensitivity. Enthusiasm. Reliability. The list is long. And we might each have different key virtues that we value more highly (or that we embody). But the idea is that these are all qualities that we humans generally consider to be worthwhile. And over the course of a lifetime, we should aim to consciously develop these traits, these virtues, perhaps by attempting to emulate ‘moral heroes’, the people we most trust and admire. It’s about striving towards excellence as a person (without giving ourselves a hard time). It’s taken for granted, in virtue ethics, that we’re always learning – and that we have a responsibility to keep learning, and working on ourselves – but it’s ‘progress not perfection’. This notion of human flourishing is both an ongoing process and an ideal to draw us onward.
Something to note about the path of virtue – and I think this is a feature and not a bug – is that virtues can be in conflict with each other. They can seem to pull in opposite directions. For example: there are occasions where honesty might prompt you to say ‘no, that haircut looks absolutely ridiculous, and I really wouldn’t recommend you go out like that’ whereas kindness might lead you to say ‘well it’s very… provocative’ (or perhaps better say nothing at all). But that’s how life is! There’s a time and place where both of those responses are alright. There’s not always a clear-cut, universal, right answer, no one-size-fits all. The ‘right thing’ to do at one time might be, on balance, very much the ‘wrong thing’ to do at another. I really like the fact that the path of virtue acknowledges that apparently contradictory things can both be simultaneously good and true and valuable. It’s a very Both/And approach. Speaking of which. It’s time to bring in my mate Qoheleth again. Let me read you his greatest hit.
The Book of Ecclesiastes (NRSV), chapter 3, verses 1 to 8
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
The paradoxical nature of life is right at the heart of what Qoheleth has to teach us.
Do you remember the idea that did the rounds a few years back, popularised by Malcolm Gladwell, that to truly master a skill you have to put in 10,000 hours of deliberate practice? Whether it’s playing a musical instrument, programming computers, playing a sport, etc? Well, you could say something similar about the path of virtue. You’ve got to stick at it. There is one virtue that stands above all others, according to Aristotle, and his followers – the master virtue, the one that governs all the others – and that is practical wisdom. Practical wisdom is what enables you to decide which of the virtues take precedence when two or more seem to be pulling you in different directions. It takes a certain sensitivity. And it’s the sort of knowhow that only slowly emerges over a lifetime of dedication, if you are care about, and are committed to, reflecting on your place in the world. You will know when it is a time to break down, and when it is a time to build up. And the more you develop in practical wisdom, the more you can trust your moral intuition.
It strikes me that developing, strengthening, deepening this moral intuition is particularly important right now – in the world we’re living in – I want to say ‘this wicked world’. In a world where wilful misinformation, propaganda, and bias seem to be rife; where the most basic of shared human values now seem to be up for debate; and there sometimes seems to be little solid moral ground on which we can stand; it seems every more important for us to hold firm to an inner sense of the Good – to strengthen our moral compass, you might say, develop our own moral sturdiness – so that we are not too easily bamboozled or led astray by people acting in Bad faith; by people who have no interest in mutual flourishing, or the common good, but are just looking out for their own regardless of the cost to others. This inner sense of the Good – which is the primary way in which I experience God – I reckon it needs to be tuned in to, cultivated, and nurtured, made a priority in life, perhaps through prayer, or journaling, or whatever other means we have at our disposal. Who knows? Perhaps by meeting together, and making our churches places of mutual flourishing.
We live in such a complex web of interdependence that every action we take (or fail to take) is likely to have effects which ripple out far beyond what is obvious and immediate to us. ‘How, then, shall we live?’ Well, perhaps another aspect of the answer is that we should strive to develop in virtue, and in practical wisdom… that this may lead to mutual flourishing. But we should also expect to live in creative tension, in a world of paradox, in the ‘Both/And’. Martin Luther King, Jr, once observed: ‘life at its best is a creative synthesis of opposites in fruitful harmony… It is pretty difficult to imagine a single person having, simultaneously, the characteristics of the serpent and the dove, but this is what Jesus expects. We must combine the toughness of the serpent and the softness of the dove, a tough mind and a tender heart.’
Part Three: Discovering Our Cosmic Calling
The American writer and journalist Roy Scranton recently published a book entitled: ‘We’re Doomed. Now What?’ And I was tempted to nick that for the title of this talk. There are signs of doom at almost every scale of our lives if we’re so minded to see it. We’ve already talked about the most fundamental form of doom, in a way: mortality. Subjective doom, the end of us as an individual thinking, feeling, being, our non-existence. And I’m setting aside thoughts of an afterlife (at least, an individuated afterlife) for now. Not in a dismissive way. It’s just the ultimate unknowable, for me. And I like to be pragmatic. Then there’s community-level doom – seeing as we’re a bunch of Unitarians here today – we could think about the struggle to thrive (to flourish!) as a denomination – the awareness that many congregations are shrinking, some closing, and that shifts in religious and spiritual expression are making a positive future ever harder to imagine. Depending on your position in relation to Brexit you may feel we’re facing doom at a national level. And international politics – particularly across the pond – is looking undeniably doom-y for anyone of a progressive bent. World events of the past few years have been shocking – especially for those of us in the west who have arguably led quite sheltered lives for a while. It’s harder than it ever was, I reckon, to wholeheartedly believe in the myth of progress – ‘onward and upward forever’ – which used to be central to the Unitarian approach.
Roy Scranton, the author of ‘We’re Doomed. Now What?’ has in his recent work been considering perhaps the doomiest of all the dooms: Human-made climate change. He’s writing from the perspective that climate change has already gone too far – we’ve already done the damage – and there’s no sign of humanity changing its ways (but it’s too late anyway). He says: ‘The middle and later decades of the 21st century — my daughter’s adult life — promise a global catastrophe whose full implications any reasonable person must turn away from in horror.’ If we accept this as true – we’re not just talking about our own non-existence, but potentially the non-existence of our species, as the planet progressively becomes uninhabitable. And we’ll likely take a bunch of other species and habitats down with us when we go.
What if all this doom-mongering is spot on? Or even close? If this is what we’ve got coming? The planet has had it. Humanity is on its way out sooner rather than later. And the death-throes are going to be painful in all manner of ways. Our church is on its way out. Our nation is going to go through huge upheaval. Ultimately, we and everyone we know will no longer exist (we know that bit is definitely true). As Roy Scranton so succinctly puts it: ‘We’re Doomed. Now What?’
. . .
You know that moment in the story where the Duck wakes up and says ‘I’m not dead!’ (with a hint of surprise) and then gets on with doing her duck-ly business? Occasionally when I’m feeling particularly low, preoccupied with bleak thoughts, I’ll wake up – sad – and I’ll lie there in bed thinking: ‘Well, I’m still here.’ And then I’ll often follow that with a short but heartfelt prayer, something like: ‘God, help me face the day I’ve got coming, and help me do whatever I’m meant to do.’
Let’s turn to Qoheleth one last time for guidance that’s more uplifting than you might expect:
The Book of Ecclesiastes (NRSV), chapter 9, verses 4-10
Whoever is joined with all the living has hope,
for a living dog is better than a dead lion.
The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing;
they have no more reward, and even the memory of them is lost.
Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished;
never again will they have any share in all that happens under the sun.
Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine
with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do.
Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head.
Enjoy life with the wife whom you love,
all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun,
because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun.
Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might;
for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.
Qoheleth reminds us that we should enjoy ourselves while we still can. It’s later than we think. We’re still allowed – encouraged – to take pleasure in life… even if it means we’re dancing to the music of a band that’s playing on as the ship goes down. To start with, he seems to be saying something like: ‘where there’s life, there’s hope’. But by the end it shifts to something more like ‘where there’s life, there’s still something to be done.’ If you’ve woken up again this morning, there’s still a job to do, even if it’s only to try and make one little corner of the world a little bit more liveable for ourselves and others. ‘Whatever your hand finds to do, do with [all] your might]’ as Qoheleth says.
In an essay entitled ‘Raising My Child in a Doomed World’, Roy Scranton says this (this is quite a long quotation but I think it’s rather perfectly put so I want to share it):
‘Living ethically means understanding that our actions have consequences, taking responsibility for how those consequences ripple out across the web of life in which each of us is irrevocably enmeshed and working every day to ease what suffering we can. Living ethically means limiting our desires, respecting the deep interdependence of all things in nature and honouring the fact that our existence on this planet is a gift that comes from nowhere and may be taken back at any time. I can’t protect my daughter from the future and I can’t even promise her a better life. All I can do is teach her: teach her how to care, how to be kind and how to live within the limits of nature’s grace. I can teach her to be tough but resilient, adaptable and prudent, because she’s going to have to struggle for what she needs. But I also need to teach her to fight for what’s right, because none of us is in this alone. I need to teach her that all things die, even her and me and her mother and the world we know, but that coming to terms with this difficult truth is the beginning of wisdom.’
Words by Roy Scranton, from his essay, ‘Raising My Child in a Doomed World’.
. . .
There are very many different ways of imagining our place in the great scheme of things. Many different cosmologies and theologies, metaphors and stories, to help us understand. Here’s one that works for me, that rings true, that doesn’t promise too much, but helps me to live. See what you make of it. It might be one that appeals to you too. There’s a potential inherent in all that exists. All matter and energy. A potential for becoming. Joining and combining. Evolving and co-creating. Maybe it’s related to what we think of as consciousness. Maybe what we call ‘soul’. Perhaps it’s what we euphemistically call ‘sparks of the divine’. I like to call it God. God is within and without everything that is, and ever has been: quarks, leptons, and bosons; rocks, rain, and mud; trees, bees, buffaloes, bacteria. Human beings. Including us. And all our relations – animate and (apparently) inanimate. God experiences Godself – simultaneously subject and object – as the universe unfolds. Everywhere in the universe all at once is a point of consciousness, of soul, of God.
There’s not – in my understanding – a single coherent mind directing the show. Not an all-powerful super-being that’s existed, fully-formed, for eternity. But I reckon there is a collective, connected, consciousness emerging from it all as we go. All forms are impermanent – the potential within is continually recycled and rearranged – but each and everything that exists or has ever existed is part of the unfolding oneness. As individuals, as communities, as nations, as species – we come and go – but we are part of something bigger that’s too vast to fully comprehend.
And I believe there’s an orientation to the universe that points us – calls us – towards Goodness. That’s how we’re most likely to experience God, I’d say. Through encountering Goodness in all-that-is – and recognising it – whilst living ‘towards the Good’ ourselves – in the knowledge that we too are particles of God. That’s my working hypothesis. The cosmology, the theology, the story that helps me to live. To slightly mis-quote some words attributed to Saint Teresa of Avila: ‘God has no body now but ours. No hands, no feet on earth but ours. Ours are the eyes through which God looks compassion on the world. Ours are the feet with which God walks to do Good. Ours are the hands through which God blesses all the world.’
A couple of lines from a poem by Mary Karr called ‘Wisdom: The Voice of God’ have been rolling round my mind while preparing for today. She writes: ‘The voice [of God] never panders, offers no five-year plan, no long-term solution, no edicts from a cloudy white beard hooked over ears. It is small and fond and local.’ The voice of God… is small, and fond, and local. Perhaps that’s our final hint as to how we should live: with the intent to find our calling – small, fond, and local, as it may be – our unique contribution to the unfolding of Good in the universe. To make meaning despite the predicament of finitude in which we find ourselves, by discerning how we are called to do God’s work in the very place where are – to claim our purpose as God’s hands, feet, ears, eyes, and voice – to relieve suffering, create beauty, overturn oppression, to bless one another and, as Qoheleth says, ‘whatever our hand finds to do, do it with all our might’.
Talk by Jane Blackall
An audio recording of this talk is available: