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Thursday, December 20, 2012

Christmas before Christ

Here’s a little seasonal guessing game: “Who am I thinking of?” Use reason or ESP, whichever works best for you. 
Whose birth by a virgin is celebrated just over three weeks from today (25 Dec.)?
Whose birth was heralded by a star in the east, and was adored by three kings?
Who started teaching at the age of 12, started a ministry at 30, had 12 disciples, with whom he travelled performing miracles?
Who was buried for three days after being executed.
Give up? His name was Horus, a predynastic upper-Egyptian man-god, who was worshipped all around the pagan world until Greco-Roman times. Here he is:
Or, if you subtract the star and 3 kings detail, it could be Mithra, and Indo-Iranian man-god whose worship was again co-opted by the Romans, lasting from antiquity until the second century AD:

Or subtract one or two other age-related details, and it could be the pagan Greek god Dionysus:

Or the pagan Phrygian god Attis:

Wait a minute….you mean the Jesus story that followed these may have been (gasp) a copyright infringement??

For most of the man-god stories I’ve mentioned, the melting pot of the Rome empire seems to have provided the common ground on which they could all meet. Humanity thinks in narrative. The story of the man-god I’ve named goes back beyond the dawn of recorded history. It’s a tale, it seems, whose broad outlines and lineaments are as old as time itself. Stories—especially ones that meet with success, circulate, and get told and re-told and adapted and changed to suit the times and the teller and the audience, and the cultural exchange the Roman empire enabled, meant this successful story became normative, and so flowed and morphed quite freely. Copyright was not yet known. As Montaigne said,

“Oh senseless man, who cannot possibly make a worm or a flea
and yet will create Gods by the dozen!”

All these ancient man-gods share the virgin birth and resurrection with Jesus, and all share the 25th of December—NH winter solstice—as the date on which that miraculous birth is celebrated. Most religious scholars agree that (based on datings from other events referred to in the gospels) Jesus himself had to have been born in the spring, not winter. So the nativity of Jesus would appear to be a newish, Jewish incarnation of an ancient, proto-human narrative, and Christmas a pagan ritual that got baptised somewhere along the Roman way.

The ancients used to say, “Tell me where you come from and I’ll tell you who you are.” They had this idea that the origins of something will tell us a lot about it. So what are the origins of this man-god nativity story? What is at the root, the very root, of a story of a god becoming a man, an “incarnation”? Moreover, what persistent human need does it serve or address? Does the simple tenacity of this story (through many millennia and cultures) necessarily make it worthy of our attention and our worship? Or are we confusing the tenacious with the worthy?

We need to be careful about what we deem worthy. “Worship” simply means the raising to worth of something—literally ‘worth-ship’. But there is a huge difference between worship and idolatry. Idolatry is the worship of a representation of what is essentially intangible. Remember the ‘graven (engraved) images’ the ten commandments caution us to avoid making: statues, relics, icons? It’s not warning against false idols, but ANY idols, or rather that all idols are false because they are representations. Like representations engraved in stone, the worship of representations in stories can also become idolatrous if we take the story as holy in ITSELF, and so has to be experienced in its pure, preserved form, because the story is literally true. Scriptural literalism is a form of Idolatry, and is THE most recognisable trait in any religious fundamentalism, that elaborate practice which seems designed to utterly miss the point. And I venture to say that this distinction  between worship (worth-ship) and idolatry, is one of the chief difference that distinguishes UUs and their worship from mainstream Christians.
So, what is the intangible thing itself that all these incarnation stories represent to us—something to do with the wonder of death and rebirth and the winter solstice—what is IN THIS that UUs might raise to worth? And does it finally have anything particularly to do with a long-dead Palestinian? (What--haven’t there been enough freshly dead ones to occupy our attention and concern?) And in these southern climes, where we are nearer the summer solstice, however can WE Australasians respond to this winter’s tale in any way that nourishes us?

It would perhaps by safe to suggest that solstice—the shortest day of the NH year—is something that would have really focussed the attention of our ancestors. Solstice was the longed-for day when they had long ago noticed that daylight begins to increase, the beginning of the end of the long cold lonely winter, and the promise of rebirth just around the corner. Fields most fallow, and perhaps frozen, were no longer looked on as dearth, but now as potential. And having been so tied to the cycles of the earth from whence they arose, the fulfilment of this long anticipation was experienced as something so essential, so vital, so basic, that it must have seemed creation itself was restored to its inherent rightness, and man with it. Saved, again! The returning of the sun meant Heaven on earth, peace and plenty. Emmanuel: a word which means “God with us.” My God, what would they DO BUT celebrate the coming of midwinter? And as in any celebration, we felt and feel a generalized beneficence, bearing none ill will: Good will, instead, to all people.

But alas! As is so often the case with our knuckleheaded species, certain ways of celebrating this primal relationship to the earth, of the coming of renewed life, became for some The Right Way, and thus The Only Way to observe it. The sun god became personified in different ways by different cultural groups, and of course, only OUR sun-god has the rightful claim on the day. And the right god looks like THIS and the story goes like THAT and we do THESE things on the day, or the God will be displeased, and might just decide not to come again. This is the right way because this is our way. The way IS us. Presto: literalism, idolatry. We ‘raise to worth’ the representation, rather than the life-giving force it represents. And so by this gradual declension, the ‘sun god’ became in one particular context, the ‘son of god’. But surely celebrations of solstice belong to ALL humankind, not to a particular religious practice.

The solstice celebration that has been handed down to us represented as Christmas is simply no different in its essence from all that went before. Through history, Christianity operated like the Borg in Star Trek, assimilating all it touched. It has claimed exclusive dominion over the ‘pagan’ solstice celebrations, (which, if not the ‘true meaning , is at least the original) just as it popped itself into the empty shells of pagan temples throughout the collapsed Roman Empire. Dec. 25 is not even Jesus’ real birthday, for heaven’s sake.

But we get enough of the cultish idolatry of Jesus this time of year. A far more tantalizing question is “what is the intangible we have been trying capture collectively with all these varying representations of the winter solstice celebration, since the dawn of time?” What’s at the heart of the Horus-Mithra-Attis-Dionysus-Jesus god-becomes-man nativity story? Well--Have you ever peeled an onion? Taken off layer after layer after layer, down and down into its centre? And when you do, what do you find at the centre? Not a kernel, nor a pith, instead you find….it’s all layers! O rather the layers have organised themselves around a void, a mystery. So it is with the solstice, at which God becomes flesh and blood human. Heaven touches earth. Or if you prefer, the eternal and infinite manifests itself in the here and now. Of course our ancestors, in the infancy of our species, would, at the turning of the year toward seasonal renewal, see mighty unknowable powers working to their benefit, restoring health in body and spirit. Their intense longing for this coming, magnified the experience. The cycles of the seasons, were like a game of peekaboo so beloved of infants: the parent seems to go away, and then peekaboo, returns and all is joy. And so the mysterious powers of nature take human form, incarnates, in the shape of fresh crops, full barns and full bellies, and fat gurgling healthy babies. Peace on earth instead of death and dearth.

Suddenly solstice sounds less like a story, more a like a prayer of hope and thanksgiving for that which is beyond our knowing, or controlling… the big forces in which we live and move and have our being. And although we know more now, know that the sun does not go away and come back again, we still know that the world, as we now know it, is not ALL there is. There is MORE waiting to be revealed, and where there is this awareness that there’s more waiting in heaven and earth than is dreamt of, there is that same longing, deep in us. For us the world as it is has never been enough. Solstice celebration is less an old tale, more like a humanity’s one continuing prayer to the cosmos: “O come O come Emmanuel.”

And prayers, like stories are in themselves just words, just like hymns, are just notes on a page—just symbols, until en-fleshed, incarnated, in the human voice—in the soft tissue of the vocal folds and the taut, flexing diaphragm and the sponge-y lungs. Until our fleshly human experience gives it not just sound, but sense, sensuality, and felt, experienced truth. Just as God or the eternal or the infinite cannot be apprehended until it is en-fleshed and made comprehensible.

Is it any wonder, then, that ‘tis the season of idolatry? And today, other, more contemporary, familiar and crass idols have elbowed their way into the party, including the one we commonly revile as we participate in its worship: the idols of the mercantilism, consumerist consumption, and greed.
Now, it’s become a commonplace to lament the conversion of Christmas into a festival of the marketplace. And the substitution of this new idolatry for the old sets us up for a false choice: we can either have the Nazarene sermon or the gross consumerism… as if we can be saved, rather than merely distracted, by either. As UUs, probably neither of these idols satisfy us very much. As with all such enforced choices, many, many alternatives are disappeared by these binary norms. If the history I’ve glossed today shows anything, it’s that mankind has always made and re-made the solstice celebrations in its own image. And the image of ourselves keeps changing.

So, the commercialisation, the idolatry of STUFF, at Christmas is not the problem, I feel. It’s a handy scapegoat, a way of externalising blame for what’s  really our own. All idolatry magnifies the concerns of the idolator. In the hyper-intensity of Christmas mercantilism, we see more clearly than at any other time of year that the way we live now means that most of our communications and interactions are about making us buy or buy into something, how normative and suffocating this has become. We get to see our real compulsions, magnified, at Christmas, just as our ancestors projected and magnified their real concerns in the solstice celebrations. Christmas is a mirror, and a magnifying one: it enlarges what we already are. If we do react strongly against dehumanisation, trivialisation of our values and mass-marketing of our hopes, then maybe this perception is a profound gift. If we don’t like what we see, don’t yell at the mirror. Change yourself, by changing what you worship. But choose carefully, because worship works both ways—we become what we choose to worship, and what we choose to worship can become what we are. If we worship beauty, we will never feel attractive enough. If we worship material wealth, we will never feel rich enough, if we worship youth, we always feel old, and so on. We always pay dearly for worshipping what’s cheap. Such is the power of idols.

Maybe raise your sights higher, just as our ancestors did: What is it that brings YOU a sense of hope and renewal, gives you a sense of harmony with humanity and the God of your understanding, makes your life worth the living? Make THAT what you celebrate, let THAT be magnified by your festivity. But do NOT let anyone make you feel you’re doing Christmas wrong if you don’t buy into the false choice of either the baby Jesus stuff OR the consumer orgy. If it doesn’t match perfectly the Coles/Woolworth’s TV ads of a huge loving sober family around a table groaning under the weight of lavish seasonal grub, and piles and piles of carefully-chosen and tasteful presents. There IS no right way to do Christmas/solstice, so BE CREATIVE, act from and incarnate your core values—everyone else has right from the dawn of time. A hedonistic Aussie Christmas with its beaches beers and BBQs is just as valid as one ripped straight from the pages of Dickens. If the message of compassion Jesus taught  is what gives life worth for you, celebrate by volunteering at a soup kitchen, or shelter, or hospital ward or prison. If family I what gives your life worth, surround yourself with the people who love you. If relationship to nature is what gives you meaning and connection, go to a nude beach, take off all your kit, and plunge into the Southern ocean as a kind of annual naturist baptism, do that. Or maybe a nice bush walk. If what you worship is a space of personal peace, do what a lot of people do and just get outta town. This season is OURS to make, and always has been. So let us do what we do best: incarnate what we most desire. Then are we truly renewed. Then is the essence of the solstice rediscovered. Then do we truly find the only peace on earth achievable, the peace that may reign in our own hearts and hearths. And if it reigns there, it can indeed radiate from us to all the earth.

from Black Elk:

“The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize that at the center of the universe dwells the Great Spirit, and that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us.”

Monday, November 26, 2012

Veteran's Day (Remembrance Day) of the Future

Like nearly every one of you reading this, I have no first-hand experience of warfare. Thank God (or what you will). No member of my immediate family, nor anyone I ever knew personally, was among those fallen in battle. Also, like you, I do know what I’m supposed to feel on Remembrance day (they call it Veteran’s Day in the states)—that I am meant to feel sad about the fallen and acknowledge a debt to them for sacrificing their lives for my personal salvation from a promised evil. Remembrance Day thus contains and replays the powerful Christian redemption myth: that we owe love and worship to a historical figure (Jesus) because he died to save us from eternal damnation. In that myth, WE are the ones who are fallen, who fell from an Edenic state of grace, but through Christ and like Christ we will rise up again from death and corruption, made whole again and glorious, or so that grim theology goes. Remembrance Day thus taps into a powerful myth of glorious redemptive sacrifice at the very heart of Western culture. It thus rings all sorts of bells deep in us.

Like most of you, most of what I know of warfare and the story of this day is by report, reports that tend to get into us while we’re young and impressionable, through the tales of our elders. My father and brother both served: my father in the Pacific in WW2, and Walt in ‘Nam. But I used to feel ashamed growing up because my father did not behave like your typical veteran. Unlike nearly all other fathers I knew, my father never joined the VFW lodge (like the RSL), never went to ship reunions, never marched in Veteran's Day parades, never wore medals, and was an elder who never told war stories. Except this one time. But more on that in a second...

Also again unlike many other working class veteran dads, my father was not a big drinker either, except for one day of the year: the annual Westinghouse Bull and Oyster Roast. It was an end of the year thing, held around Veterans day, about now. (His plant was part of the defence industry, made guided missiles, better bombs, radar systems, but also stuff for NASA’s Apollo, space shuttle, and Voyager programs.) This one day of the year, he’d come home late, swaying, suit pockets full of rare roast beef wrapped in paper plates (our sandwiches for the next week). He’d clump up the stairs to the room my kid brother and I shared, wake us up from childhood dreams, to kiss our foreheads, give us each a quarter, and croon in low, sad tones, sweetly reeking of hi-balls, how much he loved us, how proud he was that we were good Catholic boys.

One such time, while Walt was on his second tour in ‘Nam, he added to his usual pie-eyed schtick, in a strange, choked voice, that we needed to pray hard and everyday for Walt. Because, as he said, “War is all hell boys.”

We had asked him before about his war experience, but he always deflected it with a joke and a ‘McHale’s Navy’ confabulation about fishing, coconuts and shore-leave hijinks on tropical islands. But this night, sensing his vulnerability perhaps, I ventured one more time that God-awful question: “What did you do in the war, daddy?”

And that one night, he sat at the foot of the bed and told us the straight goods, all of it:
He was a radio man on an LST, a ship that drives right up onto beaches to unload men, tanks, jeeps, equipment. With gallows humour the sailors dubbed the LST the “Large Standing Target”. Steaming into Iwo Jimo landing, next to another LST carrying fuel, a kamikazee skipped across his ship’s deck and straight into the fuel ship. It vaporized instantly. The force of the concussion blew him off his sea-legs. When he rose, looked down on the shallow water of the bay around his boat and... “you know what Manhattan clam chowder is boys?” (it's a tomato-based, chunky fish soup). Only the tomato soup was a bay of blood, and the chowder chunks were human body parts. Screams down the radio headset from other ships taking similar hits, not like you hear in movies, he said, higher-pitched like the screams of girls. Hammer-blow whunks of 50 caliber rounds hitting the metal of his shack, only one of which could rip your arm clean off with the shoulder like a chicken Maryland.
Like this, but in pieces...
Below him on deck, grown men were freaking out in the heavy strafing, and a junior officer fresh from the naval academy (a so-called '90-day wonder'), was standing tall on the deck in the hail of hot lead, was shrieking commands and calling them cowards, putting them on report for taking cover. In the madness of the action, Dad saw the foregunner swivel his 50 caliber around and cut this zealous 2nd lieutenant in half. He simply fell apart, dad said. And there was more, but by that time our eyes were the size of dinner plates. Finally, my mother came and got him, and took him gently downstairs.

I didn’t sleep much that night. I didn’t understand why he let his war story all out at once, and couldn’t seem to stop, nor why the one day of the year he drank it was with workmates (most of them ex-servicemen too) at this event. He was as sober as Mother Theresa the other 364 days. He was no drinker, but he DID have an 80-a-day cigarette habit.
The boom the post-war tobacco industry enjoyed owed much to servicemen who had been hooked on cigs during the war; cigs were normal rations and were given for the same reason that the AmerIndians originally smoked tobacco in the ‘peace pipe’—nicotine suppresses anger like alcohol suppresses fear, and cigs calmed them in the after-battle come-downs. Cigs were cheap and even ‘healthful’ and everyone smoked post-war. Such luxuries of the post-war boom were part of an entire generation’s rightful reward for summoning up the killer in them, and for the terror that prompts murderous rage.
One of the many rewards for being turned into a killer
A man therefore who smokes 80 a day must be suppressing lot of anger, and it is, pure and simple, a serious narcotic addiction--his drug of choice--which he did not kick until a near-fatal heart attack at age 61. But anger is a secondary emotion; it is prompted by fear. And of course, I get it now. If he were a soldier today, he would be diagnosed as suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

And why wouldn't he? Take a kid from a peaceful suburb, stick him in a pitching bucket, half a world away from all he’s known, where rolling waves dwarf the ship like liquid mountains. Then send him into the battle he described where the whole, perfect human form can be made to disintegrate in a pink mist, where the ocean become a bloody human chowder, like a medieval painting of the lake of Hell. Who wouldn’t be traumatized? He was in no way unique, either: there was a whole generation of men who came home traumatized, and had to figure out, before self-help books or fashionable therapy, how to deal with it on their own. These casualties of war are often overlooked, or looked at askance, like it’s not a real sacrifice. But as someone said “In war, there are no unwounded soldiers”. Dad’s trauma was not as physically obvious as a crutch; his crutch was of a different sort, the kind that made you look like Bogart—cool on the outside, and with the fear and anger cooled on the inside.

When we think of the fallen today, we might also remember there are many ways to fall, many ways to be a casualty. It’s easier to sentimentalise the dead who cannot speak, transformed into glorious but silent white stone. What would they say if they could speak, I have often wondered? Would they want to be remembered for the gruesome circumstances of their death? Would they want to be immortalised in those clean, posed photos of them in uniform which adorn many a village hall, or would they show you instead their fallen, shattered, scattered, remains, the better to remember them? It is harder to sentimentalize about those who survive physically or psychically shattered. The dead don’t have to find a way to live a life having witnessed things too horrible to bear, unable to un-see them, unable to forget. Lest we forget; lest they remember. On remembrance day, we remember, we look back; but perhaps letting survivors forget, and look forward rather than back, is a more fruitful way to honour scarred survivors.

Sentimentalizing warfare makes it more permissible, and fortifies and maintains the powerful myth of sacrifice. You know you’re in the sphere of sentiment and myth when euphemisms abound. For example the word “fallen” gets used over and over as I’ve used it today. Fallen…like they tripped. It’s easier to hear that than the obscenity war really is: the dis-assembly, the dis-memberment, of human beings by machinery, on an industrial scale. And ‘remembering’? Ironically, they cannot be re-membered, they cannot be re-assembled ever again, except of course if you believe we rise again in glory at the last judgement, that grim Christian theology that sounds more and more like a zombie film. But all the kings horses and all the kinds men cannot put the dead—or traumatized survivors--back together again.

All holidays are cultural products, born of a particular place and time. Remembrance Day was a product of the last century, and looking back on those wars warps the picture a bit—think of Australia’s tragically disproportionate losses in WW1--to confront the utter futility this turned out to be is almost unberable: all those lovely boys and girls for a fading imperial Britain that no longer rules the waves. And WW2, the last ‘just’ war, warps the picture even more, since it was as clearly just as a war can be—it opposed by force the brutal world domination of a dehumanising ideology.
 But looking forward in the 21st century, that idea of a just war seems positively nostalgic, so morally ambiguous have all military conflicts been since then—Vietnam, the Balkans, the war on terror. Wars are different now. Warfare is different now. And so, perforce, warriors themselves are different now. But the mechanics of human dis-assembly remain much the same, though through our technological ingenuity, ever more distanced from the real…distanced rather like memory, rather like stories.

The technological ingenuity that distances us from killing developed in a clear trajectory, like this: from hands, to rock, club, edged weapon, arrow, gun, ordnance, missiles. And today? The distancing is almost complete enough to render killing an abstraction, a video game. The Israelis have invented a gun that bends in the middle so you can shoot Palestinians around corners, aiming via a camera, and in the last few years, of course the piece de resistance—the drones, or more accurately, “flying killer robots”—for that is what they are. Yes that day has come.

This drone is over Pakistan; the pilot is bravely in Phoenix
Picture this 21st century warrior: a man in a shirt and slacks drives to an air-conditioned office in a building in a large city. He sits at a computer console, dons headphones, picks up a joy stick. On the screen he sees satellite vision of a target and the drones POV. Meanwhile half a world away, the flying killer robot takes off at his command, flies silently to a village in Pakistan. The man presses the joystick’s button and the robot dispenses an anti-personnel missile that wipes out an entire city block. At the end of the day, this new warrior leaves and within a half hour, he’s helping his kids with their homework. This happens literally every day now.
Am I the only person who finds the video-game warrior morally troubling? It is the final frontier of distancing oneself from the gruesomely mangled consequences of one’s actions. So I very much doubt if he will ever suffer PTSD, much less physical injury, RSI perhaps. He will probably sleep like a child, and never require a narcotic addiction to cope. My question is: in Veteran's Days of the future, what stories will he tell? Will we honour him? Will he be invited to the VFW/RSL? Will he receive medals? If so, for what? If not, why on earth not?

If you think drones are an exception, in the sci-fi experimental stage, you should know that this is what we’re moving toward. During the last ten-years’-wars, the USA alone went from 10 drones in 2002 to 445 in 2012, and soon to 685. By 2050, their numbers will enable them to replace most conventional military deployments. And if you think they’re smart and surgical, civilian casualty rates peak at 60% of the total kill. The flying killer robot models have cool names like “The Reaper” and “The Predator”. A current military employment ad seeks 600 new drone pilots. Each can do the work of an entire company of troops. None will be shot at. I guess this is good. For some.
But who now, I wonder, threatens brutal world domination with a dehumanising ideology? In trying relentlessly to vanquish evil through force, have we become what we feared? Does our technological ingenuity, further enable our genius for moral evasion, denial, and myth-making? Will Remembrance/Veteran's Day forever be a nostalgic, sepia-tinged newsreel story on the History channel? Or will we one day, need just to move on from war stories, and deal with the world that is to come.

Remembrance/Veteran's Day has a history of being a tricky one for Unitarians, a source of anxiety and divisiveness. Along with the Christian holidays, Remembrance Day is renown among Unitarian ministers as a tough day to write worship for. This tension is because of our traditional streak of pacifism. That traditional pacifist streak sits in tension with our perfectly natural inclination to show respect to the dead, and to be thankful for the freedoms we are told and believe we owe to them. Think of it—someone who would never know you, putting their one life in the midst of the machinery of war, to protect you.

I know myself too well to claim to be a pacifist. I know in my heart there are people for whom I would kill to protect. Even if I had to use my bare hands, or a drone. And I probably would’ve supported the war against the Axis powers if I were living in Australia in 1940, to halt the brutal world domination of a dehumanising imperialist ideology, against a nation that would certainly have invaded and made Australia a resource-rich colony. (Thank God that nothing like that has happened, if you don't count that fact that we have become China's mining operation!) In 21st century, conquest and domination between developed nation states is achieved by softer, cultural and economic means.

Wise folk say we know too much now, we are too globally interdependent, to enter into anything like the conflicts of the 20th century that shaped Remembrance Day. So clinging to the wars of the 20th century as a defining image of war is indeed an exercise in nostalgia, a looking back to when the moral stories were more clear-cut. And we are too well-armed, in the new world of flying killer robots, to do anything other than butcher those who don’t have the same technological tools, like the Afghanis and Pakistanis. I am no pacifist, but I am anti-war because I fear our power and our weaponry and our ability to kid and excuse ourselves. I fear our unequivocal, unhesitating adulation for militarism, since the political costs of saying anything else are just too high. I fear our love of the myth of the glory of sacrifice. Perhaps you recall the two Australian men who were recently found to be impersonating returned soldiers, faking their veteran status, wearing stolen medals, marching? Why would anyone do that, but for the glorious status military service automatically accords in this culture? I am anti-war because I fear those dark lusts of our fallen, bestial nature. My father’s great strength was to shun the blandishments accorded to returned soldiers.
Why would you fake service, except for the unquestioned status
 But fallen and violent and vain and self-deluded is not, of course, the whole story of our nature, our ingenuity, or our future, despite the coming drone wars. Why? Because by sheer coincidence—or maybe not— another, altogether different flying robot excited comment this week. Do you know what it is? About now, the second Voyager spacecraft, first launched 35 years ago, is leaving the heliosphere-- the absolute limit of our solar system, heading for the deep dark mystery of interstellar space.
Flying peace-envoy robot.
In a stroke of utter genius, project consultant the late Dr. Carl Sagan, requested that NASA swing the camera to look back at, to remember, Earth, and it took this picture of us from 4billion miles away, before it became unseeable (see below). This view of earth inspired Dr. Sagan to thoughts relevant for Remembrance Day, in a piece that has become well-known, called the Pale Blue Dot. He says:

"Consider… that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it all of human history has happened…The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

Well, Carl, when you put it like that....

Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance…are challenged by this point of pale light… There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another…"

Human ingenuity, eh?  McLuhan’s truism has become trite, but holds true: We shape our tools, and our tools shape us. How we will be shaped depends on which flying robot we choose. Reaper or Voyager? In which does true valour lie?

My father received a commendation for valour in WW2, something he also never talked about in his life. But when I think of his “service” to which we might owe a debt, I remind myself that he also helped build, in the Westinghouse prototype lab under contract to NASA, some of the parts, yes, that just left our solar system on Voyager. He never spoke of the combat honour, but if he were to seek for honour, I’m certain this is what he’d want to be remembered for—a tiny role in a grand campaign, a joyous hopeful shot at how things can yet be, into the outer reaches of the cosmos with the best we had.

The perspective his flying robot counsels is this: if you want to honour truly the fallen in war, work for the day which MUST come, when children no longer ask “What did you do in the war daddy?”, but ask instead “What was war, daddy?” So let it be.

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Resonant Absence

“When people tell me they don’t believe in God, I say: Tell me more about the God you don’t believe in. I probably don’t believe in him either…God is not God's name. God is our name for that which is greater than all and yet present in each. Call it what you will--spirit, ground of being, life itself; it remains what it always has…an awe-inspiring, mind-bending mystery.”
- Rev. Forrest Church

A ministers shaping and delivery of his addresses is known by the technical name of homiletics. A minister’s homiletics, his or her series of addresses, is, in part, a project of developing a religious discourse that takes place over a long arc of time, and has to incorporate therefore a varied range of theological ideas for consumption by a particular public, so as to keep that pubic engaged and experiencing the religious life from multiple angles. But if variety alone were the main purpose of a minister’s homiletics, he or she is no better than a showman plying more endless distraction to a ready audience. No, homiletics, varied over time, should have some sense of connectedness to it, not least because one’s congregation deserves a theology with at least some coherence, however loose and pliable. After all, ‘re-ligio’ means ‘to bind up again’, to make coherent a disparate and confusing world. Articulating a coherent theology is why ministers receive a theological education, rather than just training in creative writing.
This week, I have been a Minister of Religion (according to the Commonwealth of Australia) for one full year. During that time, and for all my blogs past, I’ve been, I confess, somewhat cagey on one these key subjects: the subject of God, which is one of those key ideas which give shape and grounding to a coherent theology. That is, up til now.

There are reasons for this caginess. Not least of which is that the way ministers learn to talk about God in a context of academic theology, is characterized by fine distinctions, nuance, and sustained argument at the limits of literal language, and also by metaphor, allegory, and symbol. Such language is easily accommodated in the academic world but easily collapse when you try to make them more ‘user-friendly’. A  purely academic discourse doesn’t usually make for a gripping, engaging read for those who have the good fortune to be innocent of non-specialist theological language.

Now, I feel I can make abstruse theology palatable without doing its meaning too much violence, but it’s certainly a balancing act and therefore risky that you might lose a few along the way, but that’s not the only reason to be cagey about talking of God here. Fundamentalists both religious and atheist have crammed the popular mediated discourse about God full of crass simplifications and shallow slogans, and this of course has not helped frame a balanced, careful, civil discussion. In popular culture the discussion has become just another human cock-fight, with atheists on the one side and believers on the other, and never the twain shall meet: it’s a vexed issue, in short. Now, no minister wants to be divisive; one must maintain a certain graciousness no matter what the subject is, nor how vexed. You don’t want to draw a line and suggest the bad people are on this side and the good ones are on this. But that’s where we are with the vexed God issue, at least in the popular debate about God. So to talk about God here is to reframe the popular debate into something else.

I say, debate and discussion. It’s been more like a particularly bloody phase of an age-old war of attrition, a phase born out of outraged human fanaticisms in the post-9/11 world. Offenses to decency, morality, and truth in the name of God have been so appalling, that there has been bred a real desire to pull the entire religious project down, wipe to slate of history clean and start over. (As if we could!) But just as religious fascists tar all of secularism with the same evil pigments, so too have fundamentalist atheist authors like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens bundled up all expressions and language about deity into the same filthy blanket before beating them to death and throwing them onto the rubbish heap of history. The struggle lately has not been particularly edifying I think, with its sweeping generalizations, cartoonish villainy, and straw man arguments. So as a professional theologian, I feel it rather my duty to put forth a view that fits neatly into neither camp, namely my own. There are many who think and feel as I do, and the moderate, nuanced centre needs voices.
But should I get into this here, now? I know people get antsy even hearing the word "God". But I thought: ah, the heck with it. Put all the cards on the table. I’ve talked around the subject, so for coherence sake, and to advanced a more civil debate, here’s what I think. At the moment. And before I get started you should know that the following views owe a debt to theological writers Karen Armstrong and Marilynne Robinson.
To be clear from the outset: don’t worry. There has been no “Road to Damascus moment” in my life, no mystical experience, no sudden awakening. I’ve never had some vision where I feel God’s spoken to me (an event that would fll within the spectrum on schizophrenia). What follows is the fruit of 55-years’ rather more mundane experience in that struggle between God and No God, involving both head and heart.

To start with, it will be easier to get to what I think God is, or rather what I mean when I use the word, if I first clear the decks of what I do NOT mean by the word.
No longer an option for grown-ups really
Given all we know from science, it doesn’t make sense to me to talk about God as an old man in sky doing stuff. It also doesn’t make sense to me to speak of god as a creator in a literal way: “Hey, presto! Here’s a platypus! Here’s a solar system!” It makes no sense to me to speak of God as some other being, even if that’s the only way beings like ourselves can conceive of God, as a kind of vast other personage.  In fact, I’ll go furher: it makes no sense to me to think of God as some sort of discrete thing unto itself at all, for that would be to limit something which is by definition unlimited. So, we can’t say there’s "A God", as though he’s an item or a species. Such inadequate understandings of God, as just another thing in a universe of things, even the whole universe thing itself, reduces God inevitably to an idol—a fetishized image of ourselves, one that conforms to the limitations of our human thinking, and thus one that can give our likes and dislikes sacred sanction. That is of course where the danger in conventional religious thinking lies. (Funny how God likes the same things we do and hates what we hate. What a coincidence!) And, by the way, if it makes little sense to talk of God as an item or a being, it makes even less sense to ascribe gender to God. So what pronoun to use? Karen Armstrong prefers “It”, but again that supports the idea that God is some sort of object, and just seems to have the wrong feel for God somehow. (Like a 50's B-movie: "It", the non-thing from beyond!)

The idea of God as a gendered being or being unto itself or a thing is a fundamentally reductive, and literal way of thinking. The irony is that this reductive way of thinking about God has been constructed by scientific empiricism post-enlightenment, which encouraged people to regard statements about God as fact rather than symbol of a deeply felt human concern. This forced religion in general into an overly rational, dogmatic literalism, which actually gave rise to the sort of Christian fundamentalism we abhor today. This has indeed proven to be the worst form of spiritual tyranny, leading to Crusades old and new.

A scientific, literalist, materialist approach has so colonized our minds that we aren’t aware we’re seeing through it as a filter. But there are other ways of thinking about the world outside our heads. To describe what I mean, imagine this: If we could reanimate, say, Beethoven, and hook him up to a neurological measuring device while he composed a piano sonata, we could capture a precise reading of everything that was happening in his brain at the time. That read-out would tell us the whole story, EXCEPT the mystery of the music itself. This is what I mean about literal reductive ways of thinking: music is just frequencies of sound arranged in particular ways. But who experiences music like that? (If you do, you may be tone deaf. But  tone-deafness is not an impoverishment of reality, it’s an impoverishment of your senses.) This is the difference between brain and mind, the differences between two kinds of truth, the literal and the numinous. You don’t go looking for God in the former, literal realm. If you do, you won’t find him, you’ll find an idol that looks very much like you.

Another example: it would be possible to measure the exact number, size, weight, and colour intensity of every blade of grass on my lawn. The resulting calculation would be a kind of truth, but without a felt context for that information, what use is the information? Does it have anything to do with the quality of its shimmering on a summer’s day and what it does to my heart? Does that true information have anything to do with how it feels against my back when I lie on it while I look at the clouds passing? Anything we might mean by God, I submit, is far more to do with the latter experience than the former information. My subjective experience of my lawn or of music is a mystery and mystery is as real as the keyboard on which I'm now banging.

So if literal, reductive ways of thinking about God are off the table, what’s left? How can I speak if not correctly, at least not incorrectly, about God? Let us acknowledge then that nothing precise can be said about God, because God is that which is beyond the ability of human reasoning to define. As theologian Don Cupit says: “We say God is ineffable, but we keep on eff-ing him.” If the concept is too vast to be A being, many have suggested (like Rev Forrest church in opening) that it may only make sense to talk about God as being itself. That which is. Or the Hebrew idea of Yahweh who introduces himself “I am that am”. Or as Thomas Aquinas put it: “Ipsum esse subsistens”. God is Subsistent Being Itself. The Eastern orthodox church has generally been better at this way of thinking. In the 4th century the theologian and monk Evagrius Ponticus warned thus: “Do not try to frame any idea of the deity.”

Absence can be meaningful
But without the use of words, without a clearly framed idea, we court mystery and invite the mockery of the literalist paradigm of our age. Where do we turn for any understanding or experiencing of a God as being itself? Many of us I know turn to nature. I think nature, although it may inspire us, can’t actually help us in this regard. Unless God is indeed the architect of the universe, or the stuff itself. This is no longer as it easy to sustain as it was in the time of Isaac Newton. He claimed the intricacy of the cosmos required the existence of an intelligent creator. God was needed to start the whole show rolling. So this gave support for the existence of the God of the Bible. However, if we begin to ask, well what happened before the big bang—something Aquinas and Evagrius would be asking if they were alive today--all we can say is, we don’t know.
Silence can speak with wondrous eloquence
 Silence. Absence of data.
What is the sound of silence?
How can absence be a presence?
Where is outside space? When is outside time?
You see what I mean by the limits of language?

Is this a dead end? No: it is a threshold. A threshold through which we may pass if we are brave enough.

What I mean by God is precisely that dimension of being which is beyond precise language, beyond our limited human faculties to conceive of, the vast silence, what I think of as a ‘resonant absence’. An awareness of what is missing from, or outside of, or beyond, what we experience with our mind and senses. But if God is fundamentally beyond us, how can we experience, or even understand, God? The good news is that there are precedents for approaching such a conception of the deity. Such a God was once absorbed or experienced, pre-enlightenment, through music, poetry, art, architecture, ritual and liturgy, through non-literal means, our way of existentially pointing to what is beyond our fathoming. Liturgy especially, which would have included ALL of them centuries ago, having the purpose of putting you in a more receptive frame of mind, one which is non-literal, which approaches the teaching of all the great religions not as assertions of fact, but as allegory, as poetry rather than science, an acknowledgement of mystery AS mystery, something over which we arrogant humans may have NO mastery. But we keep on effing the ineffable. Or as Woody Allen said, “God is silent. Now if only humans would shut up about him.”
Not seeing something doesn't mean nothing's there.
 Which is a way of saying I’m nearly mercifully done and I hope this hasn't been too much to ask of you, but I think a church that doesn’t talk about god once in a while is simply afraid of the notion. And a minister that never mentions him can’t expect people to know what he means when he uses the word. Now you do, or maybe you’re more confused than ever. People will ask: so you’re an atheist? And agnostic? A closet theist? I’m not an ist or an ism or an ic; I think for myself, which is what, after, all, Unitarians are meant to be doing.

Because finally whatever we might mean by God is all about us and how we perceive God. And that’s why it’s important for any religious project to maintain a sense of the value of human beings’ experience. Our subjective experience of life is a spectacular argument for our singularity among all things that exist—this strange amphibious creature that swims in nature but is afflicted with a capacity for reflection that can transcend nature. It is through that capacity only that I think we can have an experience of God, a kind of un-knowing that prevents idolatry, of making God in our image and likeness. “Do not try to frame any idea of the deity” means ‘empty your mind’.

And this approach is not new or my invention, but the most ancient form of spiritual practice. 'Blessed is he who is without sensations in prayer', said Evagrius-- none of this seeking for some kind of insight, or even a warm glow. You can’t feel God any more than you can think God, says Karen Armstrong. The Greeks called the approach of un-knowing ‘kenosis’. It’s the great satisfaction that occurs whenever we go outside ourselves, as we do through art or through love or service. It is what Buddhists and Hindus do through meditation, what the Quakers claim to experience through silence. To achieve that state in which the emptiness resonates with being. That is where we find God.

Or rather where I do. You will have your own views, of course, and I’d love to hear about them. But the point is how to live with the God we find. To remind myself what that’s like, I particularly find useful the sound of resonant silence that occurs just after a final chord and music stops, that resonance where the rafters seem to still ring with sound waves. Or looking at the seemingly dark places between the stars. The poet Dennis O’Driscoll says God is like "being in a dovecot after the birds have all flown". Absence, silence like that.

Maybe this nothingness is nothing pure and simple, but this awareness of what is missing, or what forever must elude us,  reminds me that we are always and everywhere in the presence of the infinite, that there will always be much more beyond what we know or can know. It is an absence that seems to beckon, a silence that seems to call, me, us, toward it.
Do you hear that? Some call it desolation, emptiness, nothing.

Others call it God.


Sunday, September 2, 2012

After Life: A Unitarian View of Mortality

"Transformations" by Thomas Hardy
Portion of this yew
Is a man my grandsire knew.
Bosomed here at its foot,
This branch may be his wife:
A ruddy human life
Now turned to a green shoot.

These grasses must be made
Of her who often prayed,
Last century, for repose;
And the fair girl long ago,
Whom I often tried to know,
May be entering this rose.

So, they are not underground,
But as nerves and veins abound
In the growths of upper air.
And they feel the sun and rain,
And the energy again
That made them what they were!
Well: here’s a cheery topic for a sunny Sunday on the very cusp of a southern hemisphere spring. That poem is one I usually reserve for Easter, as it is really not about death, but re-birth. It also confirms something I’ve always known about the English: they are pagans at heart. Or perhaps more charitably,  “eco-spiritualists”. Though set in a country churchyard, Hardy’s poem offers an essentially materialist view of immortality: the stuff that was you becomes the raw material for new life. Matter doesn’t disappear, it merely transforms. Of course, you don’t experience this new life in any direct sense: you are gone. The trees and grass and flowers you become, while living, aren’t conscious, at least not in the way we are at this living moment. So this materialist re-birth both is and isn’t you, and when we think about it, such a transformation is probably rather cold comfort. Knowing our matter transforms does not really quiet what we really fear: the end of the ‘selves’ we are right now.

as nice a place as any to put your bits  
Hardy’s lovely materialist view is what we can know for sure will happen to us After Life. But beyond that…? Call it what you will, consciousness, soul, spirit, awareness, our essence, ‘who we are’—what happens to that after our lives are over? Answering this is arguably all religions’ raison d’etre.  Hobbes wrote that all religions derive from this fear, and the subsequent field of psychology tends to agree. The Abrahamic faiths offer the consolation that you never do lose the self--we never die in the sense of oblivion. Instead, we are assessed according to how we lived this life, and then spend all eternity enjoying the reward or paying the debt. Death as a cosmic settling of the bill is thought to be one of the reasons many people have turned from these traditions: the mythology of heaven and hell became literalized and rather than merely being figurative inducements to live a good life, they became a literal celestial architecture--that failed to be observable once we had telescopes. Like discovering the elaborate lie of Santa Claus, post-enlightenment western culture has never really forgiven these religions for ‘lying’ to us so elaborately about our mortality.

It’s not just western religions—death’s not actually fatal for Buddhists either. Likewise for the Buddhist, there is no death for the simple reason there is no ‘self’. All our memories, desire, anxieties, attachments, and such that make up our ‘self’ is but a persuasive illusion that distracts us from the reality of pure collective consciousness—our “Buddha nature”—which we share with all sentient beings. This true nature is unborn and therefore undying, and all Buddhist practice involves detachment from the illusion of ‘self’. Our egos don’t like this and fight hard against the practices, which is why Buddhist practices are hard. But the aim of all Buddhist practice is to annihilate that ego. Since there’s no self there,  no one perishes, and thus the enlightened can handle death with equanimity.

A Buddhist parable of how the practice prepares one for death involves a monk who kept a teacup by his bed. When he went to bed each night, he emptied it; when he woke each day, he righted it. When a puzzled novice asked him about it, the monk explained that emptying the cup represented his acquiescence to his own mortality—it reminded him that since he had done all the things he had to do that day, he was ready for death to come to him. Each morning when he righted the cup, it means he was ready to accept the gift of a new day. Taking it “one day at a time”, as they say.

The Buddhist approach accords with that of the Greek and Roman stoic philosophers who remind us that it is non-sensical to fear death. As it either a dreamless sleep or a new kind of life. Either way, nothing to dread.  Lucretius in his tract On The Nature of Things says that our self after life is in exactly the same state as it was BEFORE life. We have no anxiety, no fear about the time before we were born, so it makes no sense to have anxiety and fear about the time after our lives. Stoics overcome the fear by making death nothing.

And yet, excellent despite such excellent advice from east and west, we human quaking sacks of unenlightened meat do not tend to live with any equanimity about dying. We spend much of our lives in what Sartre called a counterfeit immortality—lying to ourselves in effect—believing that this state of being we’re in will go on forever, and so we spend our lives evading and escaping death by inventing fanciful beliefs in an afterlife, cryogenic freezing, or the idea that if we’re lucky we can be continually renewed physically through medicine, and other such science fictions. We get fooled by lasting a long time, mistaking that for permanence. We never think it will happen to us. Like a careful driver who’s never had an accident, you begin to think you’re invincible rather than simply fortunate. The death of others may cause us grief, we may fantasize about our work living after us, or our genes travelling through time in our children, but our own death for most of us remains a conceptual impossibility because the state of being dead cannot be imagined by a being who is not. 

Oblivion is more total than we can ever bring ourselves to even try to imagine. Certain. Indeterminate. Invincible. And entirely personal—the meaning of your death can’t be understood through the death of others. It’s yours alone.

A religion that can’t offer some way of coping with what happens after life isn’t going to be very popular. There’s more cash flow in peddling fantasy, and one of the functions of religion is the social utility of keeping everyone calm, and diverting them from the fact that they are all on a kind of slow fire. I’ve always found far more consolation for mortality in poetry than in religion; if the poet can face it and even make beauty of it, at least I know I’m not alone in my fears and longings. Take this poem by Philip Larkin. “Aubade”. (Literature geek alert: An aubade is a morning love song about lovers separating at dawn).

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what's really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
--The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused--
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear - no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anasthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small, unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can't escape,
Yet can't accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

That is without question the bravest thing I’ve ever read on the subject. Not a shred of sentiment. Not a flicker of the man flinching. Larkin faces the horrible thing, and somehow his facing it, and his way of saying it, makes the thing less scary. He has to work that day and so gets up and does. As if to say—“Miles to go yet, before I sleep.”

We in the  21st century have created, or at least subscribed to, a materialist view of our life, and yet many persist in imagining their after life to be immaterial but continuing. We are very confused on the subject. Like Hardy in the poem, I too used imagine the bits that were me becoming trees and grass and flowers, and so into insects and birds, and mist. And rain. Comforted me to know I would still be at home in this lovely blue-green world and more intimately part of its workings, nourishing in my After Life more broadly and deeply than ever I would have been able to in my Before Life. I even planned to be buried in a simple biodegradable box with a Maryland white pine planted over it, the better to haste the material bits on their way into that service of unfolding life.

And the fantasy didn’t end there, for I also imagined my collected works—this address included—being passed down to my children and theirs and so on down the genealogical line, so the best of my spirit was preserved like essential oil. And that essence  would go on in all the people I had taught or touched in my life or who had loved me and I them, and so I would remain a part of them in some obscure, though lasting, way. And oh, the funeral I imagined! The serried ranks of mourners from near and far and past and present having the occasion to put into words what they thought was best in me, that best of me they would cherish and hold fast in their memory. And a broken voiced granddaughter reading by the upturned clods of soil, from a poet, again--

Do not stand at my grave and weep,

I am not there; I do not sleep.

I am a thousand winds that blow,

I am the diamond glints on snow,

I am the sun on ripened grain,

I am the gentle autumn rain.

When you awaken in the morning’s hush

I am the swift uplifting rush

Of quiet birds in circling flight.

I am the soft star-shine at night.

Do not stand at my grave and cry,

I am not there; I did not die.

Like Woody Allen I want to achieve immortality by not actually dying. And embarrassing as my fantasy is to relate, we all harbour similar thoughts. But none of that fantasy is actually about dying—it’s about living forever.

Material immortality related by that poet and by Hardy is perhaps life’s final and most enduring vanity. Because if you think about it, all the mourners will pass away too and everyone that’s ever even heard of me will too, until there will one day be no one left who knew or even heard of me. And the tree they plant above me will one day turn to dust and all the other trees it seeds likewise. The insects and microbes that fed on it and them and me will likewise pass away and their offspring, as well as the birds that fed on them and THEIR offspring and so on ad ridiculum. And before maybe three or four generations it will be as if I never existed, and people will think no more of me than they do of Johann Schmidt born 1662 died 1741 in Augsburg, Germany. And in the more distant future we even know that all this lovely blue-green world will be ripped to shreds when our sun expands as it must and fling all these bits back to the stars from whence they came. Oblivion so total mocks the vanity of the memoirist, our hopes that WE will go on forever. Which is why we do NOT think about it much. And maybe we SHOULD, because that material view is not the whole story…

Hard materialism is a just philosophical assumption like any other, an assumption that there is only matter, there is NOT more in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in any of our philosophies. To the hard materialist, the brain is just a 1.3 kg bag of water, carbohydrates and fat, subtly organized through evolution to provide us with the useful illusions of thought and freedom and will. And yet the depth and complexity of our subjective experience of our ‘selves’—our mind’s presence--feels very real, and not an illusion, despite what the Buddhists say.  And then there are the reported after-death experiences—you know, the light at the end of the tunnel, and the loved ones greeting you. Are these clearly perceived experiences a reality or just self-medicating symptoms of a dying brain? It very much depends on the view you choose to take. Neuroscientist David Eagleman puts this well when he says that in the 21st century “we know way too much to commit to a particular religious story…they’re too small-thinking to possibly be correct….but at the other end of the spectrum…we know too LITTLE about what’s going on in the cosmos to commit to strict [materialism]. Uncertainty may be an uncomfortable position, but certainty is an absurd position.” In an infinite universe, anything’s possible. Even angels and harps, I guess.

Which is to say that the man in the pulpit (me) who is expected to offer a religion’s consolation for our mortality has only this to offer: “Err…search me!” No, that’s not quite true. Though I do not believe in After Life, life after death, I do believe in Life Before death. And the first step in creating your own consoling attitude to your own death is to Appreciate your LIFE. Whatever that looks like to you---whatever gets you out of bed in the morning with a song in your heart. Do THAT and do it to death, just as long as it hurts no sentient being. You know what that is, too, and if you don’t, best you find it. Start today.

The awareness of our impermanence can easily encourage you to live more in each moment. Don’t waste the moment ruminating on the PAST—it’s gone and you can’t alter it. Don’t waste the moment fretting about the future—it’s uncertain and you can’t count on it. All you have is NOW. Learn to Love being alive right now, and you’ll minimize regret when your moments run out. And as its spring, you can take your cue from the Mayflies that are now emerging in the rising Australian spring. Proper Greek name “Ephemeroptera” meaning ‘winged things lasting only a day’. That’s us—winged things lasting only a day. One day—but how gaily the Mayflies live that day. And yes, here’s a snatch of poetry about them you may want to hang onto, from the poem “Mayfly” by Louis MacNeice.

Barometer of my moods today, mayfly,

Up and down one among a million,

One only day of May alive beneath the sun...

They never have the chance, but what of time they have
They stretch out taut and thin and ringing clear;
So we, whose strand of life is not much more,
Let us too make our time elastic and
Inconsequently dance above the dazzling wave.

Damn death. Long live life.