I spent twenty-nine years as an ordained person in the Christian Church. Three thousand sermons and homilies. Three thousand. I still have copies and notes.
A leave from ministry to work through a personal crisis enabled me to think deeply about this vocation and its tasks. After several months of deliberation and discernment, I renounced my orders. I did not cease to be a Christian, only an ordained leader in a community of faith—a representative mouthpiece for what I have come to understand as ecclesiastical Christianity. Ecclesiastical Christianity is Christian tradition that has been formed and promulgated through the unique and historic culture and practice of various communities (ecclesiae).
Preach? No. Here’s the why.
I hear the voice of my beloved seminary dean saying that Christian tradition cannot be known or shared without ecclesiae. As I have experienced it, however, the Christianity that comes through the precincts of the historic communities of faith is too much concerned with its survival and authority and not with the vision, teaching, and organizing principle, of its founder. Certainly, I understand tension between ideals and the way these hit the ground. Such tension exists in all communities and is often expressed in the argument between conservatives and progressives (to change or not to change, that is the question), but given our time in human history—and particularly over the past two centuries—I believe it is not only possible but necessary to understand the importance of Jesus beyond our consecrated perimeters. To be blunt—Jesus has become the golden calf, a freeze-dried idol, suffocated by an overlay of rare gold leaf. His prophetic perspective has been domesticated and is mostly mute. It is an historic fact that he was murdered because of a challenge to the habits and thinking of the established religious authority of his own ecclesia, the first century Jewish community. His voice echoes those of the eighth to fifth century BCE Hebrew prophets who did the same (and were likewise condemned). My beloved seminary dean also taught me this.
This prophetic voice is increasingly known in communities outside the dictates, doctrines, and buttressed stone walls of religious institutions. All movements of social and political liberation, ecological awareness, disarmament, and compassion for human suffering, all articulate this perspective. Seventeen-year-old Greta Thunberg’s, “Blah, Blah, Blah” (her three words that interpreted the 2020 discussion of international leaders about climate change at COP26 in Glasgow), are part of the continuing thread of this tradition. Without a non-traditional ecclesial Christianity not bound by a zeal for the preservation of its authority and survival—fear of resurrection—our faith communities become museums with struggling social service departments overseen by well-meaning philanthropic patrons. The celebrated Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, (d. 2000) evoked this idea in the following short poem.
The Place Where We Are Right 1
From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow
in the spring.
The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a yard.
But doubts and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
where the ruined
house once stood.
Yes, without the ruin of the house, he states, no whisper can be heard.
There is No One Story
The cardinal sin of this Christian tradition, in whatever ecclesial body contains it, is its insistence and reliance upon (attachment and addiction to), a, one, singular, narrative.
Over my years in ministry, I became increasingly aware that I had been sanctioned to deliver a narrative. Yes, clergy stand and walk with folks in times of transition—good times and bad—and clergy preside at all the rituals with the unique role to pronounce divine forgiveness, consecrate bread, wine, and water, bless in the Lord’s name, and preach the verbum caro factum est (the word made flesh), but all of it is tied to a single narrative. The pastoral ministry is not primarily about whether or how much I might care about, understand, or share a person’s sadness or gladness, rather it is about helping persons put their hand in the hand of the man who stilled the water. Same with an outreach ministry (food, clothing, shelter), ditto the sermons and religious education. It is always about helping persons locate themselves in the singular exposition of this narrative. The faithful are meant to live within (and share) this one story of salvation.
Even to use the word salvation to characterize this narrative is get ahead of myself here because, in the first place, it is the danger of the single narrative. Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, the contemporary Nigerian novelist, wrote a short piece that became a TED talk—now with thirty-five million views—in which she addresses this issue as a novelist (storyteller). Here is a relevant quotation from her text:
It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is “nkali.” It's a noun that loosely translates, “to be greater than another.” Like our economic and political worlds, stories too, are defined by the principle of nkali: how they are told, who tells them, when they're told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.
Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make a definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story. And to start with, “secondly”. Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.2
The Christian narrative wants to tell the human story through an interpretation of Jesus—son of Joseph and Mary and God. We will address the particulars of this perspective in a moment, but to claim that this is THE story, that it holds some sort of privileged place among the many narratives that tell of human identity and purpose, is to bury one’s head in the sand. It is to abandon a critical mind that challenges the notion of any one community having a superior narrative—a truth with the capital ‘T’. Critical thinking in our post-modern era has led to a discovery and appreciation of many narratives, each with its own unique answers to the basic questions of human existence, and in a context of a large ecosystem that does not necessarily place one above or below another, but, like a buffet table, allows each to co-exist, to be consulted and shared (tasted), and to express truths without the capital ‘T’. This is the start of a democratization of meaning, and an expression of human dignity—getting there is what Amichai means about the ruin of the house.
So, in the first place, this one narrative in Christian ecclesiastical tradition subjugates those within it and sets up boundaries or battle lines with other narratives and the institutions that hold to them. I cannot preach this anymore because I do not live within it. One of my very good seminary friends told me recently that when he arrived in Cambridge forty-five years ago, he wasn’t sure who was the more important historical character, Shakespeare’s Hamlet or the Church’s Jesus. Good question.
Three Legs of the Christian Table
This One Story can be summarized by three words, each connected to the other in a progressive melody or dance: creation, fall, redemption. Human beings were created. Human beings disobeyed their creator. Human beings were offered a way to be rescued/saved. This short mantra is the chorus of ecclesiastical Christianity and is based on a simplistic interpretation of the Christian Bible—it begins with creation, ends in individual (and cosmic) judgement and redemption, and in-between records a kind of spiritual experience of those who disavowed (and were expelled from) paradise. The main act of Christian worship, the Eucharist, begins with the praise of the creator, a confession of human sinfulness, and the celebration of redemption by participation in divine life through the body and blood (consecrated bread and wine) of Jesus Christ.
This ubiquitous single narrative has been dominant for nearly two millennia. And, of course, it is a profound and powerful one. But are there not other ways to interpret this tradition, ways to uphold a common table? And the metaphor of the table is significant because it is about communion.
Since the first two notes of the mantra are based upon an interpretation of the story of the both the Biblical Creation Myth and of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, let’s look more closely at these.
Be bereshit Adonai’, in the beginning God(s)—the first three words of the Book of Genesis and then John 1:1,14, the Christian rephrasing of it, ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God… and the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.’ That’s it. God did it. And then God became incarnate in a young carpenter from Nazareth. This is how those from 1500 BCE to 100 CE wrote the myth of creation. A mysterious entity with the name Yahweh, and later Yeshua, brought the entire universe (and all life) into being. It wasn’t a proposition but a truth, not a point for discussion but a holy fact—an explanation to be swallowed—the ultimate suspension of disbelief.
But aren’t creation stories, myths of origin (and they have been told in every time, place, and among all peoples), meant to be about the hearer? Stories of origin, like the story of a person’s birth where a time, place, and other persons, create both the child and the person the child becomes, don’t these situate a child in a certain context, one that is referred to for the person’s entire life? How often do we tell others about the circumstances that surrounded our birth? Karen Armstrong, the English historian of religions, defines myth as something that happened once and keeps on happening.
The Biblical creation myth is focused on the power of a creator. Yes, on the sixth day humans were created in the likeness (?) of Yahweh and given dominion over every living thing, and 1600 years later, humans are defined as the ones who did not receive the true light that came into the world, whose task was to behold the lamb of God 3 but isn’t this mostly about what or who did it (and God rested on the seventh day) and who or what that could not be received? And just how is it that we are to have control over everything that ‘moveth’ upon the earth and to behold an incarnate Divine Word?
The beauty and power of these ancient texts is in their survival. They have aged and fermented within monotheistic cultures for millennia and are as familiar as a setting sun, but no longer do they graft hearers into a living narrative. They are ancient treasures to be collected and displayed but no longer do they inform, guide, or infiltrate us. They seem to belong to someone somewhere else and can be described by Shelley’s vast and trunkless legs of stone, a decayed “colossal Wreck, boundless and bare”4 standing in a vast desert sand. Back to Amichai’s whisper.
Everything grows and grows and grows, including essential myths—often like roses that grow from the cracks in the concrete—and as these are heard, seen, and captured, creation recurs. Time after time. And how are these perceived? Like so many things that are difficult to describe, we seem to know them when we see them. One that I (and many others) now recognize and are beginning to live with is the story of cosmogenesis.
The most significant change in the twentieth century, it seems, is our passage from a sense of cosmos to a sense of cosmogenesis. From the beginning of human consciousness, the ever-renewing seasonal sequence, with its death and rebirth cycles, has impinged most powerful upon human thought. This orientation in consciousness has characterized every previous human culture up to our own. During the modern period, and especially in the twentieth century, we have moved from that dominant spatial mode of consciousness, where time is experienced in ever renewing seasonal cycles, to a dominant time-developmental mode of consciousness, where time is experienced as an evolutionary sequence of irreversible transformations.5
Cosmogenesis is constructed on the foundation laid by Charles Darwin in his paradigm-shifting work, ‘The Origin of the Species’, published in 1851, perhaps the greatest work of scientific literature ever published. Here is Darwin’s famous last paragraph.
It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.6
For the last two centuries we have both heard and composed an ‘Earth Story’ that tells of humans as part of many billions of years of bio-geological history. The cosmologist Carl Sagan (and later singer Joni Mitchell) proclaimed, ‘we are stardust’, meaning that the actual physical material that was produced at the first flaring forth is carried in our minds and bodies. Put another way, the Earth is our home—a great retreat and refuge in which land and sea and air and nations and all other-than-human forms of life—dwell. This modern Earth Story is a myth of origin. The trilobites are our ancestors. The dragon fly is a relative. It explains and creates human identity and purpose. And for me, the distinction between science and revelation (religion), and of holding to the idea that each must be a distinctive way of knowing, is not helpful because the importance and authority of a myth of origin is whether it informs existence—is it about us now—and not whether it fits into our categorizations of knowledge. Myth transcends such categories.
So, the first of the three legs might be named gratefulness. Gratefulness is the response to the narrative of the gift of a home in which we know ourselves to be part of a massive, living, historic, time-space continuum, that feeds the body, enlivens the mind, and inflames the spirit—that creates us.
The second limb of the table might be described as imagination. The serpent rightly interprets the consequence of eating of the fruit of the tree that, was good for food…pleasant to the eyes…to be desired to make one wise...7 when it said (should they eat it) that their eyes would be opened and that they would be as gods, knowing good and evil. And the Lord concurs, Behold the man has become one of us, to know good and evil.8 In this narrative about the essence of human nature, the author(s) declaim we are imaginative—free to make decisions and live with consequences—to create our world. The twenty-four verses of the Third Chapter of Genesis are written from East of Eden. They state that humans are not unconscious, not automatons without desire or ability to transform themselves or the world given to them, but rather free to negotiate and renegotiate a world beyond the flaming sword of cherubim guarding Eden’s gates.
Stained with an indelible corruption that requires some outside agent to cleanse us? Really? The so-called ‘disobedience’ interpretation is but an affirmation of our ability to have agency. Thankfully, Eve had the presence of mind not to obey the serpent, to open the door, and then the generosity to drag Adam along…
Baptistery wall painting: Christ Healing the Paralytic, ca. A.D. 232, Paint on plaster. Yale-French Excavations at Dura-Europos, Syria
The Christian story of the Nativity, the birth of the babe in Bethlehem, is understood in ecclesiastical Christian tradition as the birth of the Messiah, the (only) son of God, born of a virgin and conceived—with words of the Archangel Gabrie l9—by the Holy Ghost. Jesus is defined by the early ecclesial bodies as a unique supernatural being, a wonderworker, fully God and fully human. One of the earliest visual images of Jesus comes from a baptistry in a small third century church in Dura-Europos (Syria) in which he heals a paralytic 10, placed there, presumably, because of how it informs an understanding of the ‘miracle’ of baptism. Many of the early church paintings are of the supernatural healing power of Jesus. There are over forty references to miraculous healings in the Gospels. Why this ascription of the carpenter from Nazareth, born of human parents, who walked in a land we still walk in, and who was put on trial, condemned, and put to death in Jerusalem, (because of some sort of collusion between the Jewish religious authorities and Roman officials) as preternatural—cabalistic? Why? And I know this can be a complicated question, it is called Christology in theological discourse, but what or in whose interest does such an ascription now serve? And why is it threatening to even raise the question?
How about an interpretation of Jesus’s birth as that of a proto-typical person (an everyman) whose birth is about the sanctity of all human life. This night-birth in the stable builds on the anthropology expressed by the rainbow following the great flood—that people are to be trusted and empowered (Be fruitful and multiply…I will not again curse the ground anymore for the man’s sake…neither will I again smite anymore everything as I here have 11)—and not only to be free but also fragile and blessed. And again, this interpretation is not primarily about the one who blesses or who is born, but rather about us. Could not this idea of the holy child as God with us (Emmanuel) mean that we carry the universe within us, that each of us is the other—just like water circulating through the hydrologic cycle throughout all time (we could be drinking the water Abraham and Sarah used to make wine)—that we are connected to all life and, especially, with all human life of all times and places? Stardust and the everyperson surrounded by the baaing and bleating in Bethlehem, where the stable represents the planet? How about that?
It is said that Abu Huraira reported that the Prophet Muhammed said: O Allah, turn not my grave into an idol that is worshipped. Allah has cursed people who take the graves of their prophets as places of worship.12 Jesus, I believe, would have said the same. Both were not concerned about starting a religion or creating a holy cult-legacy around themselves. Jesus encouraged Peter, James, and John, not to linger or think of erecting a monument to him after the vision on the Mount of Transfiguration, but to keep moving towards Jerusalem.
Fall? No. It is a rising. It is being able to dream, to choose, to work and to fashion a world. As for mortality, we know nothing else. We can imagine a state of eternal bliss—is there evidence of this in the story of the Garden of Eden (they obviously weren’t satisfied)? Is not knowing one’s nakedness a characteristic of immortality? Huh? Isn’t being part of the God gang (one of us) as good as it gets? Hasn’t the ingrained emphasis on a surrealistic Jesus been like a crown and scepter in the hands of ecclesiastical Christian leaders (then and now)?
Pain is probably the broadest common denominator in the human race. Who among us has not experienced it? Pain is a great democratizer. . . It does not distinguish between rich and poor, between strong and weak, between renowned and anonymous, between Jew and Gentile, between Black and White, between ruler and subject. There are those whose pain has extenuating circumstances and those who are more and those who are less fortunate, but nevertheless, pain is probably the most comprehensive experience we all share. From this I derive a simple moral imperative: Cause no pain.13
Compassion must stand as a final support for the communion table. When the first man and woman left Eden, it was stated that Adam would have to toil and sweat to survive, that Eve would ‘in pain’ bear children, and that, in the end they would turn to dust and return to the ground. Life is demanding, short, and to be seen through the prism of death. Alas, poor Yorick 14, Hamlet’s well-known stare at the exhumed skull of his former friend and court jester, is a snapshot of human mortality. Amos Oz’s statement above about the ‘broadest common denominator’ and his imperative to cause no pain, is a recognition of the mystery and fragility of life. And not just among human beings, but throughout the entire living ecosystem as well. Jared Diamond, geographer and physiologist at UCLA, is quoted in an article in which he describes the story of Rapa Nui, Easter Island, as a parable of our time.
“In just a few centuries," he wrote in a 1995 article for Discover magazine, "the people of Easter Island wiped out their forest, drove their plants and animals to extinction, and saw their complex society spiral into chaos and cannibalism. Are we about to follow their lead?" In his 2005 book Collapse, Diamond described Rapa Nui as "the clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources.” 15
Delicate and transitory human and other-than-human life (and its abundant systems), calls us to compassion and not cannibalism—to cause no pain, to protect, nurture, and celebrate life. In our time we have the singular awareness of nature’s complex chains of cause and effect, to quote Robert Redford’s character in the 1990 movie ‘Havana’, a butterfly can flutter its wings over a flower in China and cause a hurricane in the Caribbean. 16 And we live with the inconvenient truth that humans are causing destructive and irreversible warming of the planet by unregulated emissions of greenhouse gases—mainly carbon (CO2) and methane (CO4).
Causing no pain means to find non-violent ways to settle disputes within and among nations. Perhaps the more realistic way to state this—to define compassion—is to cause less pain, to minimize violence. Violence is a rot that infects and collapses the third leg. Compassion is a saving brace.
Table is an important metaphor in this discussion because it was a distinguishing characteristic of the early Christian movement. Early Christians identified themselves when they sat together at table with others, all others, especially with ‘sinners and tax collectors’ who often sat at Jesus’s table. Jesus violated the honor codes that prohibited obedient Jews from associating with persons who were defined by the Law as unclean (viz. the Parable of the Good Samaritan). Though much ink has been spilled on understanding the historic and theological significance of the Eucharist, I like J. D. Crossan’s short summary of it:
The Christian Eucharist has two intertwined layers. First, it is bread and wine, the standard summary of a Mediterranean meal, the normal synthesis of Mediterranean eating. It is, in other words, about food. Throughout his life, Jesus insisted that food, as the material basis of life, was to be fairly and equitably distributed to all God's children around God's table. He imagined God-as-Householder (he said "Father" but that was patriarchal normalcy) of the House-World or Homemaker of the Home-earth. And his question was--as in any well-run family--whether everyone had enough or some members had far too much while others had far too little.
Second, none of that was about compassionate charity but about distributive justice. (The Roman Empire did not crucify you for insisting on the former but for insisting too much on that latter.) So Jesus, having lived for non-violent justice died from violent injustice. . ..
In forging the magnificent eucharistic ritual, those twin layers were inextricably linked together to proclaim this: if you live for justice very strongly you could die from injustice very swiftly. When those earliest Christians participated in that ritual, they understood all too well what it meant and to what they were committing themselves. They were pledging themselves to a way of life by participating in the life (definitely) and death (possibly) of Jesus.17
Though this is a somewhat radical interpretation of a ritual that many Christians have come to understand as a pledge of eternal life—the bread of heaven—the table itself, as metaphor, is about the viability of the tradition (movement). Either we believe that humans belong to one family or there are separate tables that compete (war) for the same bounty. My argument here is that the ideology (legs) that supports the one table—that acknowledges communion—cannot belong to one tribe and its narrow interpretive support system. I offer my interpretation as another way to think about these things.
B. Heaven and Earth
Central to ecclesiastical Christian vocabulary is the word heaven. Or everlasting/eternal life. Or world without end (Amen). It is like the salt of the Christian liturgy. After God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, it is the next most potent noun in Christian worship. It is where God and Jesus dwell (and reign) and it is the expressed destiny of believers (our heavenly home). It is a second aspect of the narrative of this Christianity that I cannot share.
Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, famed American folk musicians of the 20th century American social justice movement, formed a group (with Millard Lampell and Lee Hayes) in 1941, called, ‘The Almanac Singers’. The story goes that they chose this name because in most working homes there were two books, the Almanac and the Bible—one for this world and one for the next.
To place this idea of ‘the next world’ more deeply in Christian tradition, let’s look at one of the most enduring of Christian hymns, ‘Blessed City, Heav’nly Salem’. The Latin text dates to the 6th century (set to Gregorian Chant) and it is found in the Sarum Breviary of the English Church from the 11th to the 16th centuries and is also found in the Paris Breviary of 1736. In all cases it is used for the Offices of the Dedication of a Church, and as such expresses an understanding of ecclesia—the place and the people. In the 17th century, the English Renaissance composer, Henry Purcell, set the text to a tune that is still sung in Anglican churches around the world. The one below is J. M. Neale’s 1851 English translation of the Latin text. It is regarded as one of the most beautiful hymns in the English choral tradition. Take a listen.18 The stunning musical setting and its ancient text are a paean to the idea that the earthly temple is the heavenly city because it is the place of consummation between Jesus and his bride, the ecclesia. Whenever an earthly temple is dedicated, so the text states, it is a marriage of heaven and earth.
Blessed City, Heav’nly Salem,
Vision dear of Peace and Love,
Who, of living stones upbuilded,
Art the joy of Heav’n above,
And, with angel cohorts circled,
As a bride to earth dost move!
From celestial realms descending,
Ready for the nuptial bed,
To His Presence, deck’d with jewels,
By her Lord shall she be led:
All her streets, and all her bulwarks,
Of pure gold are fashioned.
Bright with pearls her portal glitters;
It is open evermore;
And, by virtue of His merits,
Thither faithful souls may soar,
Who for Christ’s dear Name, in this world
Pain and tribulation bore.
Many a blow and biting sculpture
Polish’d well those stones elect,
In their places now compacted
By the Heav’nly Architect,
Who therewith hath will’d for ever
That His Palace should be deck’d.
Laud and honour to the Father;
Laud and honour to the Son;
Laud and honour to the Spirit;
Ever Three, and ever One,
While unending ages run. Amen.19
And as much as I understand the importance of sodium in one’s diet and have been inspired by the transcendent orientation of this idea of a next life (expressed so beautifully in word and song for centuries), it has become a pollutant in our conceptual environment. I do not live in a world seen through the perspective of the ‘Blessed City, Heav’nly Salem’, and I certainly cannot suspend my disbelief enough to accept that the Christian Church is where or when I enter an eternal wedding service and reception. Heaven is a metaphysical mistake. This world, not an amorphous next one, calls for our song.
Finitude and Limitation
Earthrise photograph was taken from lunar orbit (240,000 miles from Earth) on December 24, 1968, by a highly modified Hassalblad 500 EL with an electric drive. The camera had a simple sighting ring rather than the standard reflex viewfinder, a 250 mm lens, and was loaded with a 70 mm film magazine containing custom Ektachrome film developed by Kodak. It is a proclamation of human consciousness, meaning that we can see our world from beyond it. It is not separation, but (and this is hard to explain) is it dream? I use the word dream because one of the most compelling expressions of the nature of consciousness comes from Chuang Tzu, a 4th century BCE Chinese philosopher, about whom is told the following story.
One-night Chaung Tzu went to sleep and dreamed that he was a butterfly. He dreamt that he was flying around from flower to flower and while he was dreaming, he felt free, blown about by the breeze hither and thither. He was quite sure that he was a butterfly. But when he awoke, he realized that he had just been dreaming, and that he was really Chuang Tzu dreaming he was a butterfly. But then Chuang Tzu asked himself the following question: "Was I Chuang Tzu dreaming I was a butterfly or am I now really a butterfly dreaming that I am Chuang Tzu?"20
This idea may be analogous with the concept of Christian heaven except that the focal point of Earthrise is on our planet and not on a boundless dwelling place of the ‘Most High’. This tiny blue dot tells of finitude and limitation, not infinity or limitlessness—and limitation here does not mean incomplete (that something is missing) no, it is about boundaries. The boundary at the sphere’s edge and the visible natural boundaries of atmosphere, land, and water. Note there are no political lines.
In 2001, 1000 scientists at the European Geophysical Union meeting signed a ‘Declaration of Amsterdam’ that began with the statement that the earth system behaves as a single, self-regulating system with physical, chemical, biological, and human components. In his 2009 book, ‘The Vanishing Face of Gaia’, James Lovelock (founder of the Gaia Hypothesis) wrote:
The Gaia Theory posits that the earth is a self-regulating complex system involving the biosphere, the atmosphere, the hydrospheres and the pedosphere, tightly coupled as an evolving system. The theory sustains that this system called Gaia, seeks a physical and chemical environment optimal for contemporary life.21
These systems are boundaries in the same way as the complex systems that interact to sustain human life (respiratory, nervous, digestive, reproductive, venal, skeletal, muscular, etc.), and if any of the components of a self-regulating system is weakened or breaks down, the entire organism suffers. Earth is not only limited but fragile. Seeing it float in space signals vulnerability.
And if this science seems questionable, indigenous communities throughout the world have been speaking about conservation and the delicate relationship between humans and nature with such ideas as understanding our actions from the perspective of the seventh generation (ahead of the present—take what you need and leave the rest)—since non-Indigenous people have begun to listen. Or just read the paper or consult the media streams—we are hyper aware in our time that humans are destroying and not nurturing the natural systems of the Earth that sustain all life.
Henry David Thoreau understood the potency of the concept of infinity when he wrote: While some men believe in the infinite, some pond will be thought to be bottomless.22 In other words, belief systems soaked in infinity, blind us to what is finite. Walden Pond is not and never has been, bottomless.
But heaven, really? Isn’t this mindset due to 18th Century Romantic individualism leading to technological giantism, or a corporate capitalist culture based on an economic force unleashed by the Industrial Revolution that created the narrative of economic growth and human progress? Yes. But I want to suggest that the primal metaphysic—our ideological domicile—can be summed up in these phrases from the following well-known and lovely funeral prayer, written by Rossiter W. Raymond, a 19th century American mining engineer, legal scholar, author, theologian, and orator.
We seem to give him/her back to thee dear Lord who gave her/his life to us…and life is eternal and love is immortal and death is only a horizon and a horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight…and while thou dost prepare for us a happy place, prepare us also for that happy place, that where thou art we also may be, for ever and ever, Amen.23
What if we could just return a life that has ended back to the womb of earth, from which we have evolved (humans share identical DNA molecules with the soil and in the Biblical Creation myth didn’t God create the first human from the dust of the ground) ever aware of the great mystery that attends our living and dying but without having to name, memorize, explain, or worship, it?
We return him/her back to the earth, to be reconnected in an indescribable way with the great life that is within and beyond us. And we give thanks for the gift of this life to us. Amen.
Wouldn’t this orientation make us more aware of our place in this world? And couldn’t the mystery, known both in awe and memory, inspire compassion for life?
Originally, I was not thinking about heaven as bounty or just-reward but more as a pervasive escapist idea concealing the fragile limitations that define human existence (and survival). But on second thought, the heaven and hell mantra (proclaiming binary eternal judgement on human life) is very much part of the ornate and flowing fabric of ecclesiastical Christianity. As such, it needs a few words. This came to mind as I watched the 2019 Italian film, ‘The Two Popes’, an extended and intimate conversation between Benedict XVI and Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (now Pope Frances) in which each, in the presence of the other, comes to terms with their religious vocations. The most intense part of this dialogue takes place within the Sistine Chapel, under the great fresco of Michelangelo di Lodivico Buonarroti Simoni’—his last great work that finished the Chapel (1534-41)—Il Giudizio Universale or ‘The Last Judgement’.
Before providing a description of the mural, consider both its position in the chapel and the significance of the Sistine Chapel itself. This 15th century chapel is in the Papal Residence and is the private place of worship of both pope and the Papal Court. It is where a pope’s body is laid out before burial; it is where cardinals gather to elect a new pope. Its walls and ceilings are covered with frescos, described by Pope John Paul II as . . . frescoes that . . . introduce us into the world of the contents of the Revelation.24 It is an, if not the, central spiritual place in Western Ecclesiastical Christendom.
Il Giudizio Universale measures forty feet wide by forty-five feet tall (about the size of a square four-story building), is situated on the East wall over the altar facing the celebrant and congregation and is the grandest and most imposing of all paintings in the chapel—THE visual focal point, and especially during the Mass. In many churches throughout Christendom, various depictions of the Last Judgment are found on the West wall—facing worshippers as they leave the sanctuary after worship. In Eastern Orthodox Christian churches, the face of Christ, Christ Pantocrator, is painted on a dome in the ceiling above the altar, looking down. Pantocrator means, creator, savior, and judge. That Christians are under the divine judgement of Christ in this life and in the afterlife has been a clear, constant, and frightening message of ecclesiastical Christianity. It is said (believed?) that priests, in apostolic succession to St. Peter (upon whom Christ established his church), hold the keys to heaven and to hell.25
Looking more closely at Michelangelo’s great work, we see three hundred overly muscular and mostly naked human figures (three hundred). Christ is in the upper middle, head turned toward the left with his right hand over his shoulder as if ready to strike those on his left. All those on his left are the ‘Damned’. Ugly demons beat and drag the condemned ones towards the waters of the underworld. Their collective facial and bodily expressions are of terror and despair. One of the most arresting and familiar of these is of the man covering his left eye with one hand while the other eye stares out in horror and recognition as two husky demonic creatures wrapped around his legs pull him down; a third, serpent-like, bites into his chunky upper left thigh.
On the right side of Christ, mirroring the ‘Damned’, are the ‘Elect’. These persons are being raised up—from the ground through the air—to a place crowded with those who carry the remnants of Christ’s passion—cross, crown of thorns, and white linen burial cloths. Though some ‘Elect’ are fought over by demons and angels, most are rising, and their facial and bodily expressions signal relief and rejoicing.
Below the figure of Christ, in the lower middle of the wall, Michael the Archangel reads from the Judgement Book, surrounded by ten angels with puffed cheeks, blowing long trumpets to wake the dead for their final sentencing (guidizio) at the end of time.
Though it is difficult to write a few words about this enormous fresco with its fascinating detail and color—fleshy human tones set against a blue-sky—interpreting its meaning within the confines of ecclesiastical Christianity is simple. First, unlike the other images on all the walls of the chapel—visual representations of the life of Christ and various Biblical stories—this image confronts the viewer. It is difficult not to consider on which side of the mural one belongs. And what it says (and how) is terrifying. Il Giudizio Universale is not meant only as a sixteenth century artistic masterpiece, but as a reminder that (my) humanity is in the hands of a godman created by some of Jesus’s followers in the years following his death and disappearance. There is no mention of Jesus as God in any Christian writing until John’s Gospel in the last part of the first century. The divinity of Jesus has not been disputed within the ecclesiae since the Council of Nicaea in the early fourth century. To me, all images of Jesus Christ as the divine judge of one’s eternal existence are meant to enforce the authority of ecclesiastical Christianity (interesting that the filmmaker of ‘The Two Popes’ thought of this setting to meditate on the papacy).
Unfortunately, this authoritarianism and the fear it creates, continues to the present. Again, for me, this is not a worldview that informs my sense of the identity and purpose of human existence. As mythic images, meant to convey Christian truths, these should be covered up or designated only as great works of art. Period. How would Christian tradition be without its heaven and hell (and the keys)? Can we not allow the consequences of judgements we make day by day to inform and shape our paths?
No, this sermon does not conform to the standards of ecclesiastical Christianity—no imprimatur here—but it uses its language and reference points, so one audience for these thoughts could be those who sit, stand, or kneel, within the confines of a religious institution which has, with few exceptions, copied and pasted its way through time.
And yes, there is no ‘fix’ proposed here, no solution, only a recognition of the awful truth that a whisper will be heard in the place where the ruined house once stood.
Notice I wrote institution and not community. Christian community cannot always be characterized or evaluated according to formal institutional canons or criterion. Christian communities can be vibrant examples of spiritual family. They are constituted with persons from various cultural and religious backgrounds, life-stages, experiences, worldviews, and socio-economic tiers, who attempt to support and care for each other and participate in the mending of the world. A church community, much like a womb, can provide comfort, protection, nourishment, and growth, and I will always be grateful for having shared this. But, unlike Jesus, it rarely questions the authority imbedded in the hegemonic structures of the institution (keepers and enforcers of a narrative) which, as stated earlier, is laser-focused on the preservation and not re-evaluation of this authority. Such focus, malheuresement, burns. It does not build up.
Postlude: A Prose Poem and Three Excerpts From ‘The Road’
ALICE AND I STOOD NEXT TO HER AS SHE LAY IN THE HOSPITAL BED THAT HAD BEEN PLACED IN THE LIVING ROOM. THE HOSPICE NURSE HAD LEFT, AND THE INTRAVENOUS BAG AND ITS ELECTRONIC DELIVERY SYSTEM HAD BEEN ADJUSTED—FLUIDS, MEDICATION, AND NUTRIENTS, WERE FLOWING THROUGH A PERIPHERAL CANNULA IN HER LEFT ARM. LAST WEEK IT HAD BEEN THE RIGHT ARM. “IS THAT YOU PHILIP? AL IS PHILIP HERE? “YES, IT’S ME, GLAD YOU ARE COMFORTABLE, SKIPPER. WHEN ARE WE GOING TO THE MET?” SHE SMILED. “THAT SHIP HAS SAILED.” ALICE SAID. UNTIL HER NINETIETH YEAR, SHE HAD GONE TO THE OPERA IN NEW YORK. NOW THEY WATCHED ON TV WITH A SPECIAL SET OF LARGE COLUMN SPEAKERS. SHE WAS SKIPPER BECAUSE SHE FOUNDED AND RAN A SUMMER CAMP FOR GIRLS FOR FIFTY YEARS. HER PERCH WAS AT THE HELM OF THE CAMP’S 1958 SIXTEEN-FOOT CEDAR STRIP PETERBOROUGH NOMAD COTTAGER BOAT. QUITE THE SIGHT—NAVAL CAP AND ALL. ALICE SAYS NOT A DAY GOES BY WHEN THEY DON’T HEAR FORM FORMER CAMPERS. SHE LOVED THE CLEAR BLUE OF THE ADIRONDACK LAKE, ITS WARM, FRESH, SUMMER AIR, THE BUZZ OF CAMP LIFE, THE CAMPFIRES. THE SKIPPER HAD ALWAYS BEEN ABLE TO REPAIR THE CABINS, KEEP THE BOATS AND FLOATS OPERATIVE. FURNISH A KITCHEN. HIRE YOUNG WOMEN WHO LOVED THE WORK ALMOST AS MUCH AS SHE DID. THE CAMP SPUTTERED OUT AND FINALLY CLOSED AFTER SHE SOLD IT—THAT HAD BEEN A HEARTACHE—BUT EVEN AS SHE LAY DYING IN HER NINETY-SIXTH YEAR, THAT CONTAGIOUS ENTHUSIASM FOR LIFE WAS COMING THROUGH. I PULLED OUT THE OLD PRAYER BOOK AND READ PRAYERS IN THE ELIZABETHAN TONGUE THAT SEEPED IN LIKE THE FLUIDS, A KIND OF MUSIC SHE AND ALICE VOICED WITH ME.. .. “THANKS FOR COMING PHILIP, PITY LIFE IS SO SHORT, ISN’T IT.” “YES.” “ALL THINGS MUST PASS”, SAID ALICE. “ALL THINGS.”
In the morning they came up out of the ravine and took to the road again. He'd carved the boy a flute from a piece of roadside cane, and he took it from his coat and gave it to him. The boy took it wordlessly. After a while he fell back and after a while the man could hear him playing. A formless music for the age to come. Or perhaps the last music on Earth called up from out of the ashes of its ruin. The man turned and looked back at him. He was lost in concentration. The man thought he seemed some sad and solitary changeling child announcing the arrival of a travelling spectacle in Shire and village, who does not know that behind him the players have all been carried off by wolves. 26
They plodded on, thin and filthy as addicts. Cowed in their blankets against the cold and their breath smoking, shuffling through the black and silky drifts. They were crossing the broad coastal plain where the secular winds drove them in howling clouds of ash to find shelter where they could. Houses or barns, or under the Bank of a roadside ditch with the blankets pulled over their heads and the noon sky, black as the cellars of hell. He held the boy against him, cold to the bone. Don't lose heart, he said. We'll be all right.27
One night the boy woke from a dream and would not tell him what it was.
You don't have to tell me, the man said. It's all right.
It's all right.
No, it's not.
It's just a dream.
I'm really scared.
The boy turned away. The man held him. Listen to me, he said.
When your dreams are of some world that never was, or of some world that never will be and you are happy again, then you will have given up. Do you understand? And you cant give up. I wont let you.28