Everything You Always Wanted To Know
About Life, Politics, God, Food, Faith and Science, the Gaia Hypothesis
and Attaining Personal Mastery in One Easy Lesson
You’re probably familiar with religious light bulb jokes. Like, how many Episcoplians does it take to change a light bulb? Three to pour the drinks and one to call the electrician. How many Quakers? Ten to sit in a circle until someone feels the inner light. Roman Catholics use candles only. The Amish wonder, what is electricity? And how many Unitarian Universalists does it take to change the light bulb? We don’t claim to have an answer, but do believe in asking life’s persistent light bulb questions.
Ours is an inquiring faith, we like to say. As human beings, our answers may divide us, but the imponderables bring us together. Not just whether to use fluorescent or incandescent, but questions like why is there something instead of nothing? What happens when we die? Why do bad things happen, and where do we find hope and serenity in a world where the headlines are so often full of folly? As Sam Keen remarked, the questions lead to the quest, the search, the spiritual journey (wayfaring being another of the central metaphors for religious liberals). Good questions are what make for an interesting trip.
When I visited the Men’s Group last month, they had a range of existential and philosophical quandaries they wanted answered. They were grappling with questions like, how to make a difference in the world. How to nurture your soul. One asked, “are we contributing to the current polarization in our society,” in other words, can we learn to be agents of healing rather than division in our culture? A father asked, “Are we teaching our children in a way that encourages mastery (as opposed to dilettantism)?” Some wanted me to explore moral issues like ethical eating while others were curious about the frontiers of faith and science and environmental theology, like the “Gaia hypothesis,” James Lovelock’s proposal that our planet is an organism, alive and maybe even sentient like you and me.
Quite a spectrum. But my assumption is that all these conundrums are somehow connected, as every question eventually leads back to the unknown that’s the source of all our wondering.
So let me begin by sharing another question, one I’ve been asking myself lately. It’s a question that I’m most likely to ask first thing in the morning, sitting for a moment on the side of the bed before I stand up to get dressed and start the coffee. The question I ask myself is, “how do I want to be today?” Not “what do I want to do,” because before I get swept into the stream of the daily agenda with emails and interruptions and tasks on the “to do list,” I want to take an intentional pause to consider how I wish to conduct myself: to remember to be a little less anxious, for example, a little kinder, a little more appreciative of the other people and world around me.
Ideally, I’d like to smile more, judge less. Maybe even follow the adage from Goethe I have taped to my medicine chest. “Every day (he said) one should at least listen to a little song, read a good poem, look at a fine painting, and, if possible, say a few reasonable words.” Many days, I don’t do any of things. Never mind savoring life or saving the world, I’m lucky to get to the gym. But taking that brief moment in the morning seems like a healthy habit and gives me a chance of living a little more consciously for at least the next twenty-four hours.
So that’s one way I nurture my soul. Others pray, or meditate, or do tai chi. All are means of tending the inner garden and also, I think, of making a difference in the world. Because transformation starts at home. Peacemaking begins with the kind of personal presence and attention I bring to everyday interactions. Remembering to say “please” and “thank you.” Practicing amazement and forgiveness. Assuming good intentions, rather than assuming that other people are deliberately trying to annoy me.
Now I’m probably never going to be a fully realized human being, but when I think of individuals who have had the greatest impact on history, my list wouldn’t start with generals or statesmen, or even inventors. Karl Marx and other revolutionaries would take a backseat to the figures whom I would describe as wisdom teachers and sages: Socrates, Confucius, Jesus, the Buddha. But it wasn’t just what they taught that made them influential. They weren’t necessarily smarter than other people, or saying things that had never been said before. Rather, it was the magnetism of their personalities which attracted people. They seemed to have attained an unusual degree of clarity and integrity, combining inner calm with an inner fire, practicing what they preached, as in the well known story about Gandhi.
A mother came to him one day asked him to speak with her son, who was eating too much sugar. Gandhi told the woman to come back in a couple of weeks. When she returned with the boy, he explained that he hadn’t been able to talk to the child earlier because he’d been fond of sweets himself and needed to cut down his own sugar intake before instructing others. The episode of course illustrates the Mahatma’s credo, “Be the change you want to see.”
Yet I’d be interested to learn the rest of the story. Did Gandhi then give the child a lecture about healthy eating habits? Did the boy take the great man’s words to heart and start consuming more vegetables? Or swear off chocolate forever? Or did the little brat keep on eating candy to defy his mother and frustrate the scrawny old man? I rather imagine the naughty boy collected a whole mouthful of cavities before he changing his diet. For sometimes experience is the only teacher.
Having delivered something like a thousand sermons over the course of my career, I’m not sure the world is much changed by talking or that people are greatly improved by moral exhortations. Preaching isn’t necessarily the pathway to progress. Rather, lecturing rather naturally leads to pontificating, which leads to polarizing, presuming that the speaker possesses a degree of knowledge and virtue and goodness the listener sadly lacks. Pontificating can be often fun, it makes us feel intelligent and righteousness, but it seldom changes minds.
So I could make the announcement ex cathedra, for instance, that the way to eat ethically is to simply follow Mohandas Gandhi’s advice. When he left India to study law in England, the great apostle of non-violence vowed on moral principles not to eat meat for the rest of his life, and in the course of his reflections came to the conclusion that drinking milk was equally dubious from an ethical standpoint.
Now I’m sure some of you are thinking, “I get it that slaughterhouses and factory farms are not nice places, but what exactly is wrong with milk?” Well, to give milk, cows have to have calves, but the calves are taken away soon after they’re born. So that mothering instinct that’s so powerful is thwarted. And the babies are sold for beef or veal if they’re male, or turned into dairy cattle themselves if female, so the cows have to be kept pregnant year round, fed a special high energy diet often dosed with Bovine Growth Hormone to get them to produce ten times as much milk as if they were lactating normally. Often the udder is so enlarged and distended that animals on modern dairy farms can’t walk and may go lame. A normal 25 year lifespan for a cow in a healthy environment is foreshortened to 3-4 years at which point the animal’s body breaks down and it’s turned into hamburger.
As Gandhi said, “the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated,” and the treatment of livestock in modern agribusiness is a strictly commercial calculation. Whatever can be done to an animal to make money will be done. Yet I was a vegetarian for 25 years before I stopped eating dairy just because I was rather lazy and didn’t want to think about it. And even Gandhi would drink a little goat’s milk now and then and would continue to feel guilty each time he did so. You wonder, why didn’t he just stop, if he was persuaded it was wrong? We human beings, it turns out, are very funny animals.
Yet this is an insight that for me, at least, is comforting and may even open a doorway to greater empathy. Namely, that we are animals, not necessarily superior to other species, not placed here by God to have dominion over the rest, but co-evolved as one recent experiment within nature’s great laboratory of life. Even the holiest, even the saints, the world-class boddhisatvas like Jesus and Gandhi were basically big apes, very clever bipedal apes who’ve come down from the trees, but whose large frontal lobes probably didn’t evolve for the express purpose of pondering moral dilemmas or suppressing an appetite for sugar. So we’re allowed some inconsistency. We need to give each other some wiggle room when we fall short of our high ideals.
Accept it. People are apes, not angels, but we are still Great Apes, in every sense. Like our relatives the chimps and gorillas and orangutans, we can be aggressive and territorial, but we also have these marvelous capacities for compassion and altruism. Maybe you remember the news report about the gorilla at the Brookfield Zoo outside Chicago. This was from a few years ago. A little boy had managed to climb up over the restraining wall and tumble down inside the animal’s enclosure, where he was knocked unconscious. One of the big male gorillas was making threatening gestures at that point. But one of the female silverbacks, whose Swahili name was Binti Jua or “Daughter of Sunlight,” and who was carrying her own infant clinging to her fur, walked over to where the child lay, picked him up, and carried him to the exit where she waited for a zoo attendant to arrive to get the child medical attention. Just think: We all share 97% of our DNA with Binti Jua, which means that kindness comes naturally to us.
Or take the true story from the primatologist Adrian Kortland. This was back in the sixties, before Jane Goodall. Kortland was studying chimpanzees when one evening, he saw a chimp step out of the undergrowth of the forest and come into a clearing, carrying a papaya, which was the chimpanzee’s bedtime snack. It was sunset, and Kortland records that the animal put down its papaya on the ground and stood stock still for fifteen minutes, not moving a muscle, gazing west, just looking at the fading reds and violets on the horizon. Then, when the sun had finally dipped down out of sight, the chimp finally turned around and walked back into the forest, forgetting to pick up his bedtime treat
We’ll never know what was going on in that animal’s mind. But who can doubt that he had a mind similar in many ways to our own, filled with flickering memories, responding to the light and beauty and color of the world? Who can doubt there was a spiritual dimension to that encounter, an appetite that went beyond the stomach’s hunger for the papaya, a yearning to satisfy some psychic hunger?
Sentience, consciousness, awareness, spirit: these realities are not confined to the human race, I believe. For the world is filled with creatures like ourselves who share in the capacity for joy and suffering. And the earth itself is composed of living tissue, from the oceans that are so similar in chemistry to our own blood to the thin envelope of air encircling out planet which we inhale with every breath, drawing in the same molecules that passed through the lungs of Confucius and Socrates. We are not separateyou and I, Binti Jua, Amish and Catholics and Episcopalians—but all together, all expressions of the same light, the same equations, the same ultimate mystery, the star-charts that are written on the insides of stones.
And this is the lesson we must learn ourselves before we pass it on to our children, the only needful lesson: to honor all beings, to see the dignity in every one, not to be dilettantes in love.
Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Life, Politics, God, Food, Faith and Science, the Gaia Hypothesis and Attaining Personal Mastery in One Easy Lesson
Everything You Always Wanted To Know