We are in the midst of an ideological paradigm shift. I’m talking Copernican-the-earth-rotates-around-the-sun type of thing.
We have hundreds of religious and mythological narratives that give us scaffolding around which to talk about things we can’t see and don’t understand but desperately need to prescribe meaning too. Then, in the 16th century, a scientific revolution began, and “Scientist” was accepted as a term in the 1800’s. The shift we are in points to us marrying science and religion (or more aptly, mysticism and metaphor) in a way that does not diminish either.
I’m also in the midst of a personal paradigm shift. It’s been blooming for some time, but actually stepping into it now feels urgent and inevitable. My language no longer suffices, but since I am trapped in a body with an ego and want to see if you relate, I’ll try.
I read Bill’s sermon from two weeks ago. I love that our great teachers are pushing us ever forward into the spaces where we need to stretch and grow. I’m trying to lay a new understanding over an old narrative. The line upon which I marinated was about our brokenness. Bill wrote, “It is when we can recognize our inner brokenness and have acceptance and compassion for that, that we can begin to see and address the brokenness that exists in the world around us.” I had a knee jerk response to a singular word: broken. It recalls in me the old teaching that I am broken, sinful, fundamentally wrong somehow and cannot be made whole without salvation through Christ Jesus. It’s a teaching I resist. I took it literally when I was a child.
I remember being at summer camp in Arkansas more than 30 years ago on a hot August night. The whole lot of us had just come from the mini pilgrimage to Vesper Point - a gathering place that overlooked the Ouachita River amidst a bucolic landscape marked by a wooden cross with a fresh coat of white paint. We descended in silence, instructed to think and pray about the 20 something year old’s testimonial about how he came to Christ after some drunken party night in which he woke up with no clothes in the middle of the intramural soccer field. Once in our cabin, we were invited to accept Jesus as our lord and savior, to do this privately with one of our counselors as a witness. They waited outside on the porch. Eleven year old girls trickled out and came back in shy, beaming, teary, sweaty. Sorry, JC, but I spent the night crying and apologizing to you and your dad in Heaven because I didn’t like what was being asked of me, though I had no real language as to why. My juvenile brain probably thought Jesus just kept me from making dumb decisions.
Looking back I think it’s because I didn’t feel broken or wrong. I don’t mean that I had a full and robust sense of self that bordered on maniacal narcissism. I didn’t. In fact insecurity plagues me still. I knew I wasn’t perfect. I just didn’t feel broken up about it. I spent a long time feeling bad about that too. I was told I was probably going to hell by people in my life who did accept Jesus as their personal lord and savior that summer. I tried - several times I tried. My sister cried and prayed over me for years. I pushed away from God, from religion, from my sister. I pushed away from myself too because I didn’t have the language for something I had only begun to intuit.
Turns out I am broken. Just not in the way I thought. I am not broken because there is something fundamentally wrong with me. I am broken, I think, in the way many of us are. I am broken because I believed there was something wrong with me. I think we have to experience separation from our true self and those we deeply love in order to accept the journey back. We already have the capacity for wholeness, for love, for truth deep within, but maybe we can’t know that until we realize we are living outside of it - until we wake up naked on the intramural soccer field. We cannot know light without dark. There is a Jewish teaching that tells us our souls were all once part of a single ball of light, until one day it broke apart. Upon realizing our separateness, we asked how do we get back to the light? The answer is tikkun olam - through world repair. In other words, we play a part in the whole-making. We are broken when we are not living inside of deep connection, with our truest selves taking the lead. We’ve heard this before, and it resonates personally and globally: “What we don’t transform we transmit.”
I’m not trying to be perfect as I do away with the old understandings. I am, though, trying to rest inside wholeness, to learn to speak in a new way, and embrace that my shadow is as important as my light.
Recently a new emotion was discovered. “Liget.” (Le-guut) It is described as the feeling of deep emotion that overtakes your body and spirit. When I think of it, I hear a noise, a deep keening. I need a new word for the churning emotional experience of simultaneously feeling broken wide open and becoming whole.
Michael Dowd conceives that we are all holons (something that is simultaneously a whole and a part) settled inside of a greater whole. What a (w)holy truth! A lot like nesting dolls, the smallest subatomic particle is nestled inside the vastness of the cosmos. Two whole cells - the sperm and the egg - joined to make the single cell from which we grew. Two wholes making a bigger whole who grew to become You. Me.
It’s the present day, far away from summer camp days. I’m in the midst of learning how to unknow the God I thought I knew. We used to sing a song there: If I had a little blue box I’d put my Jesus in....I now know neither God nor Jesus belong in a box. I’m winding through the southern Ozarks on a road trip, snatches of billboards beckoning me to eternal life. “Do you know Jesus? Call...” “Use the rod on your children...save their lives.” “One way or the other you will know God when you die. Call...” Maybe there are counselors, waiting to save us on the other end of the line. I’m trying on this idea that I am most likely a-theistic - something I would have fought against and judged myself harshly for 15 years ago. Nothing in the language I had fits anymore. There are ideas, images that sort of work...cosmos, unitive reality, mystery...but the problem is that I don’t believe in a personified God anymore. The cosmos is generative, evolving, expanding for sure. I am a-theistic in the sense that I don’t experience a separate God who stirs the proverbial cosmic soup every now and again. I do believe in the ongoing creativity and expansiveness of reality in which we are all a part and connected in, however gossamer thin the thread. The word I have is God, a mere metaphor or proper name, if you will, for unitive reality, for what is already there. Yahweh translates almost exactly to this: the one who is, the existing.
Yahweh. It sounds like breath.
To talk of creation implies a creator - just as a piece of art implies an artist. All of life is creative, holons within holons. Maybe I should adopt the Jewish tradition of not saying or spelling g-d. Or maybe I should adopt the habit of saying, “Hey there, God!” To everyone and everything I encounter. The yogic greeting Namaste means “I bow to you.” Symbolically we understand it to mean, “The divine in me sees/bows to/acknowledges the divine in you.” I no longer have a word that is big enough, so metaphors have to suffice. In this liminal space I find it really hard to pray. I don’t know what to say. The stance of prayer, of awe, doesn’t feel limiting. It’s just that the words I had for prayer don’t fit this new paradigm. So saying nothing, asking for nothing, just experiencing awe and gratitude and sometimes liget, frees me into a holy awakening in a way that how I understood prayer never did. I need a new word for this too. Pray comes from the Latin precari: "to ask earnestly, beg, entreat." This isn’t what feels true for me anymore.
When I blurted this out to Bill the other week - that I have no idea how to pray - he gave me this from Thich Naht Hanh:
Look at the sun, at the farmer, at the rain; at everything that had to be possible to make this meal. In this food, I see clearly the entire universe supporting my existence.
Maybe this is exactly where I am. One thing has to die in order for something new to take shape. This is the way it is in nature, in our bodies, in the wider cosmos. Fires destroy forests, homes, animals, but they create nutrient rich soil where new life grows back stronger. On a cellular level, our bodies replenish themselves every 7-10 years. We house our very own universe. An aging star burns off it’s helium core and creates the possibility for all other elements to form. The shockwaves from a dying supernova can generate interstellar nebula - where new stars are born. All of life, then, is formed in the belly of a star.
In this inquiry, in this stance of unknowing, I’m having to let go of the old narrative attached to the very words I am reworking: Broken. God. Resurrection. My cultural Christian understanding casts a long shadow. It evokes immediate images that I have not yet erased. It evokes smells and songs and places and voices that first gave me the word God - however small and exclusive that God was. This too is part of my evolution into the fullness of my being and into the fullness of God. So I'm going to let them be, to let them take shape and reform in my imagination.
I’m concluding that all language to define or talk about God is a metaphor, including the word God. If God is a proper name for all that rests in reality just as Holly is a proper name for all that I am, the name alone does not do justice to the whole picture. I wish images poured from my mouth, that I could paint a swath of them to represent such bigness. Perhaps the cosmos does this already and we need only to see. No matter what we call it, no matter what we believe, we exist inside a creative reality together. So let’s try this on: we are already whole, existing in an infinite, ever evolving, expanding whole. We need just reach into it and across it to realize it. Our evolution is not yet finished.