Posts

SCIENCE AS A SPIRITUAL PRACTICE

dreamstime_13267733It is human to crave certainty.  Especially as people find themselves feeling less and less safe in a world where senseless violence occurs randomly, indiscriminately. People seek out messages that promise salvation, that give unwavering answers to their ultimate questions of the whys and hows and meanings of life.  With underlying fear serving as a primary motivator, it is any wonder that many major faiths perceive any conflicting idea as a threat to their “proclaimed truth” that must be squelched?

And yet the world is an uncertain place.  Immature religion makes specific promises to those who follow blindly and there are many takers.  But a faith that believes that our current knowledge is not complete, but is continually being revealed, takes the greatest leap and reaps the greatest reward.   It is Religion that knows that Science is not at odds with its practice. Instead of a penchant for polarizing, splitting our thoughts into atoms of absolute truth or fervent absolutism, we can know that we all hold only partial truth and we all but “see in a mirror darkly”.  Instead of a world view that smacks of self-righteousness, forming our views of what is right and what is wrong on either the most rigid religious beliefs or the latest scientific discovery, we can find God in science and science in God.

Full MoonAmong the many discoveries made by the Hubble telescope in the last decade is that there is considerably “more” to the universe than scientists had previously believed.  I mean a lot more.  It is expanding.  And this expansion is happening at increasingly faster rates as time passes.  Twenty years ago, scientists posited that there were two galaxies for everyone alive. Now, that figure is closer to nine galaxies for each of us or about eighty billion galaxies total.  Each of these  galaxies harbors at least one hundred billion suns.  In our galaxy, the Milky way, there are four hundred billion suns-give or take 50 percent-or sixty-nine suns- for each person alive.planetearth

One more mind bender: according to the Hubble European Space Agency, cosmologists estimate that what we can “see” in our universe accounts for only about 15 to 20 percent of the “matter” that is actually out there.

These astronomical statistics affirm a spiritual sense of awe in the vastness and mystery in which we live, direct my daily personal concerns with a backdrop of perspective, and strengthens my firm belief in the perpetual power of creativity from the single cell organism to the complexity of several billion galaxies.

I don’t know about creating the universe in 6 days and resting on the 7th, literally speaking.  I do know that it has provided structure for thousands of years to millions of Jews and Christians, satisfying the human need to know how we began and ingeniously giving a rhythm to life.  When Darwin shook up this notion of our origins, what remained was still the hand of order and amazing adaption.

I have a dear friend who believes that the scientists today are the true theologians.  That those devoting their lives to finding out when life as we know it exactly began, that singular occurrence, and how it happened, they are trying to solve the mystery of why we are here, how we came to be here.  How come something, rather than nothing?

This is no dichotomy of science and religion, but a thinking, open-hearted spirituality. Both are true.  “Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light‐years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.”― Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

 

 

Please follow and like us:

YES VIRGINIA, THE UNITARIANS HAVE MYSTICS-TWO TRANSCENDENTALISTS (PART I)

OK, OK, Unitarians do not have (to my knowledge anyway) ardent pious folk who took the path of asceticism to the degree of wearing a hair shirt or living in a desert cave for decades. For edification’s sake, asceticism is the part of the mystic or saint’s path that includes renouncing worldly pleasures in order to become closer to God.  Those who have taken these extreme measures did seem to have some remarkable “other worldly” spiritual experiences (see Teresa of Avila, Francis of Assisi, Rabi’a of Persia, and lots of others in almost every other faith, including Buddhists and Hindus (Gandhi chose a life of asceticism as well).  So, I am not knocking it.  It just that most people do not feel such a calling. 

In fact, most people are adverse to giving up anything they find pleasurable, even when they know it is bad for them (hence the challenges during Lent…) However, no matter how we may kick and scream, there must be some giving up of comfort, security, and ego, in order to attain any real semblance of Communion (with a capital C).      

The first and most famous of the Unitarian “mystics”, who chose a counter cultural lifestyle of purposeful simplicity that reflected and embodied both an ancient and more modern approach for those seeking unity with God, with Nature, and others, was Henry David Thoreau.  Coming from a family of wealth and privilege, with a Harvard education, Thoreau (much maligned in his day for it…he was considered eccentric by the kindest and a nut by the rest) chose to live in a hut in the woods of Concord, MA for two years to isolate himself from society so that he could better understand himself and others.  His classic book, Walden, or, Life in the Woods, now required reading for most High School students, is a compilation of this experiment.  Unlike the Desert Fathers, he was not intending to live as a hermit, and did take visitors, he was instead seeking to understand life more deeply by consciously removing many of its distractions.          

What Thoreau was emphasizing (among other themes) was the necessity of solitude, contemplation, and nature to “transcend” our over hurried existence.  His words and works still call to us today, timeless in their appeal: “As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will become simpler, solitude will not be solitude…nor weakness weakness.” While many of his oft quoted words ring of the uniquely American self-reliant spirit, they too challenge us to think and be, rather than to be always about the business of doing.  For as Thoreau puts it, “Being is the great explainer.”  

Many of his criticisms of society were harsh and at many times his views are expressed in an overly zealous manner.  Is that not true of the prophets, the social reformers, and those considered holy men and women of every place and time? I am not suggesting by this question that Thoreau was unique or special as a long revered saint, he was a man with his foibles and misinformation.  Yet there is a reason we keep reading him.

Thoreau is not asking us to build ourselves a cabin and live in the forest, he is asking that we shake off our complacency, that we do not live an unquestioned and unreflected life.  If we are happy with our lives, that’s good and yet we should challenge our assumptions and think more broadly.  If we are unhappy, he is pointing to another way.

“If a man (or woman :)) does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.  Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

Please follow and like us:

SAINTS ARE SINNERS WHO KEEP ON TRYING

I admit it; I am enamored with saints.  I am fascinated with those who have reached the pinnacle of spiritual freedom, unity with God.  Regardless of their religious traditions, these are men and women who are deemed “scientists of holiness.”  We can learn from them. They are not only guides to the grail of enlightenment but they teach us how to live in a practical and substantive way that can enrich our everyday living. 

Saints never think of themselves as such.  Each has had their own personal demons to face down.  It is in choosing not to run away in the million ways we humans do, but utilizing their trials and struggles for personal growth and focusing on the inner life that they demonstrate another dimension of human potential.  Recovering a bit of the asceticism that has always been the foundational gristmill for spiritual advancement can help us tremendously.  What I mean by this is we don’t need the severe self-denial and austere lifestyle of a Gandhi or a Buddha or a St. Francis, but to give up the current wave of entitlement, to be able to say no to our temptations on occasion, is freeing.  We become able to resist our own compulsive consumption.   

People need to experience God, not be told about God.  Living examples, being very much in the world, do that by inspiring the lives of others.  These are not “feel good” pseudo-spiritualities or for the spiritual elite, but for everyone. Our experience of the Divine informs the self and yet continually needs to be balanced with community.   Reaching out to others is both a natural progression and a means for necessary connection. Indeed, those with spiritual depth often understand social service to be as important, if not more important, than the more traditional activities of preaching and teaching. 

Saints would probably also scoff at the idea of them being mystics, though that is what they are.  Yet mystics are not so mysterious, rather I’ve heard them described as “ones who see into the depth of things through the fissures and fragments of our human experience”.  With single-minded purpose, these friends of God (or to the ALL that IS) are granted a special way of seeing, a heightened awareness of a presence or absence. 

Casting the mystical net wide as the awareness of some sort of ultimate reality that transcends all religions; religion can unify instead of divide.  We can recognize that different traditions can learn from one another, if one if grounded in one’s own tradition and open to another. Christian, Sufi, Buddhist, all can enrich each other’s practices.  For instance, Thomas Merton, a Trappist Monk, was influenced by the teachings of Zen Buddhism.

It is not the visions or miracles attributed to those regarded as saints, during their lives or posthumously, that should be the reasons for  reverence.  In fact, that kind of thinking leads to idolatry rather than the harder working of following by example.  It is the spiritual practices and articulated paths that are to be learned from.

That is not to say that we should disregard profound and unusual human experiences. It’s just that without a conscious effort to seek out these mystics, both past and present, their voices quickly become drown out by the difficulties of daily living, the heroes who win World Championships and are given parades, and the Hollywood stories of celebrities.  In an effort to reclaim the saint, human foibles and all, we are being re-called to something larger than ourselves.

Please follow and like us:

The Top 5 and a Half Movies with a Message

In some ways we are often engaged in the process of practicing religion, even if that’s not what we’re calling it, or its not about our formal theology (God talk).   The most basic notion being that we are all human and from that perspective, we are bound together by our collective experience of being human.

Movies have a particular advantage in this regard.  They connect us, fill our senses with the sights, sounds, and emotions of other’s stories. When done well, they move us… (to tears, laughter, reflection, or inspiration).   

Here are Nun Tuck’s pick of the top 5 and a half movies with a message:       

51/2. Stand by Me (1986) A coming of age movie based on a novella The Body by Stephen King.  It received Golden Globe Awards for Best Picture and Best Director as well as an Academy Award for Best Screenplay. The only reason this is number five and a half is that six sounded less exciting and this movie (one of my all time favorites) while  meaningful may not have the overarching power of the other four. 

Stephen King also wrote the next 2 picks. We often associate King with scary, deranged, but page turner novels.  Yet there is also something prolific in his ability to capture the darkness and suffering of the human soul but also it’s resilient potential with an occasional glimpse of cosmic justice.

5. The Green Mile (1999) A story of the baseness and wonder of human behavior set in a death row prison in the 1930’s.  See how the supernatural abilities and character of John Coffey bear a resemblance to another J.C.   Based on Stephen King’s novel The Green Mile, it was nominated for best picture, best supporting actor, and best screenplay.  

4. The Shawshank Redemption (1994) Another prison setting, this movie is based on Stephen’s King’s Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption.  “The narrator (Morgan Freeman) is healed from his despair by Tim Robbin’s character’s hope in the face of suffering.  There is the redemption that comes when one man is redeemed by the suffering of an innocent man who takes on the suffering of prison, seeing life within and beyond it, and living fully.” (Edie Bird)  (Again the Biblical reference of Jesus (the innocent) taking on the sins of others.  The metaphors of endless, the prison itself being one of them.  This movie was nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Director, but it was running against one of my other picks that year.  

Now, my daughter says that my top 3 picks are a little cliche, but a lot of things sound  like a cliche, but that doesn’t make them any less real…or wonderful. 

3. Chariots of Fire (1981) British Film- true life story of 2 athletes in the the 1924 Olympics in Paris, Eric Liddell, a devout Scottish Christian who runs for the glory of God and Harold Abrahams, an English Jew running to overcome prejudice.  The faith and courage of both men is inspirational and the title comes from the Bible, 2Kings 2:11- “Bring me the chariot of fire“.  It won the Academy Award for Best Picture.    

2. Forrest Gump (1994) Forrest is a simple minded man whose innocence and trust are made all the more poignant as he travels through the turbulent culture in which he lives and the effects he has on the broken lives whom he touches.  This film won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Screenplay, Best Writing, among others.  It won these same accolades at the Golden Globes (including Best Supporting Actess).  Bible reference: Luke 18:15-17, “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”     

1. Gandhi (1982)- An outstanding and gripping biography of Mahatma Gandhi, the lawyer who became the face of the Indian people’s non-violent protest (which inspired Martin Luther King.) This movie won the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor, among others. Gandhi wrote several books on Jesus Christ, one of which was entitled The Message of Jesus Christ.  The Hindu leader said, “The message of Jesus as I understand it is contained in the sermon on the Mount unadulterated and taken as a whole…If then I had to face only the Sermon on the Mount and my own interpretation of it , I should not hestitate to say, ‘Oh yes, I am a Christian’.  But negatively I can tell you in my humble opinion, what passes as Christianity is a negation of the Sermon on the Mount…I am speaking of the Christian belief, of Christianity as it is understood in the west.  

Let me know your thoughts….do you have a nomination? 

Please follow and like us: