..The Intuitive Times


The Human Un-Natural
a sermon delivered to
The Unitarian Fellowship of Prince Edward Island
10 August, 2003

by Dr. John W. Baros-Johnson, minister,
the Universalist Unitarian Church of Halifax, N.S.

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Yes, we must measure the pace of existence, the weight and the structure of every thing. For Love would be thoughtless if we were not bodies; and Truth would be lifeless if we could not sing.

These were the lines which caught my attention in the poem I shared with you earlier. They got me to wondering: what do bodies have to do with our thinking and our loving? and what could our singing and celebrating of life have to do with truth? In the Spring, we talk a lot about celebrating Nature, but it’s not until the Summer that we get around to it. Yet, when we look around us, Nature seems to be in peril. Almost everywhere you look, we humans are depleting the resources we find in Nature faster than those resources can be replaced. How could we have come to be so thoughtless?

In the first chapter of the book of Genesis in the Jewish Scriptures, El, which is the earliest Hebrew name for God, says to Elohim, the council of gods: "Let us make humans in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over ... the earth." The Scriptures then continue: “So God created humans in his own image, male and female created he them. And God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

I share with you these passages from the beginnings of the Hebrew Scripture in order to illustrate how deeply ingrained our attitudes toward Nature are. These passages are not the cause of our present ecological anxiety, the dislocation of our relationship to Nature. Passages like these may not have caused the problem, but they did help develop a certain attitude toward nature, and over the centuries these images have helped sustain that attitude, an attitude which has contributed to our present ecological anxiety.

These scriptures were most likely written in the 6th century BCE, but they contain several layers of material from the earlier oral tradition. Some of the layers of that oral tradition have been dated back to the 15th century BCE.

At the time they were written, it was only a dream - perhaps even an impossible dream - that one day humans would dominate the earth and subdue all the other species. These are people who had either experienced or had heard stories about floods, or about ships being lost at sea, or about the cities being destroyed by fire raining down from a nearby mountain. For them the notion that humankind had been given dominion over all the earth could ONLY be a dream.

Keep in mind also that folks who lived back then knew less than one tenth of one percent of the varieties of living things we know about today. How could they have subdued germs, for instance, if they did not know what a germ was, much less the hundreds of viruses and bacteria we track nowadays?

It was only a dream, perhaps, but we seem to have taken it seriously. We developed notions of civilization, notions of personal safety and economic security, notions which made it desirable to clear the forest for our farms, or to kill off wild, animals which might destroy our crops or threaten our domestic animals.

Not only did the ancient scriptures tell us we were justified in doing what was necessary to take care of ourselves and our own, but we had a license from God to dispose of all the other living things on this planet as we saw fit. "Be fruitful and multiply," we were told.

The Biblical terminology is definitely hierarchical: "have dominion", it says, "subdue". We are not being asked to be partners with the other species. We are being commanded by God to take command, to control the other living things in the sea, in the sky, and on the face of the earth.

And what about ourselves? Don't we humans fit into the category of "creatures that move upon the earth"? Does that mean we are to subdue ourselves or to have dominion over ourselves?

If the earlier leaders of the Jewish community - and, later, the Christian and Muslim communities - had taken these passages to mean that we are to control ourselves as well as controlling the other species, then maybe we wouldn't be in the ecologically difficult situation in which we find ourselves now. But they didn't understand humanity as part of Nature. They understood humanity as above Nature.

To the extent self-control was encouraged, it was understood as the effort to control that part of you which was most like Nature. People who wanted to be spiritual leaders were encouraged to fast, to control their body's hunger for food. They were encouraged to be celibate, to control their hunger for sexual interaction. People who expressed a hunger for spiritual nourishment were encouraged not to get in touch with Nature but to be as UNlike Nature as possible, to deny as much as possible the Nature within them.

In fact the ancients even divided humanity according to gender so that women were considered part of Nature, much more so than men. The writer of the Gospel of John wanted Christ, “0 Logos, to be so pure that he could not bring himself to tell us that Christ was born at all. He does not tell us about the virgin birth as Matthew and Luke do because to do so would be to admit that God had interacted in some way with a woman. The concept of God in the Gospel of John is so pure that it was unthinkable that Christ would be born at all. Instead he tells us that ‘O Logos "was made flesh and dwelled among us."’

As you noticed in the passage from the Jewish scriptures, written almost a thousand years earlier than John, the authors had difficulty with the pronouns. At one point they said: “let us make humans in our image, in our likeness,” then they said, “ So God created humans in his own image, male and female created he them”

But why did our ancestors take this route? Why couldn't they assume that men and women could exercise self-control? There are many different factors which influenced these things, of course. I don't mean to sound like the answers could be so easy as this. But since I'm speaking to an audience gathered in the spirit, I'm going to focus on dynamics which are spiritually relevant.

Hierarchies were so much a part of peoples' lives in ancient times that they thought of spiritual things in terms of hierarchies as well. In other words, the controller always had a higher status than the controlled. Who controls me? The chief of the village. Who controls the village chiefs in a given country? The king. Who controls the king? The emperor. Who controls the Emperor? Ahhh... God? That worked for a while until the Romans suggested a new answer to the question by proclaiming their emperor as God.

Whenever you set up a hierarchy of control, there is always the problem of who controls the controller. There's a famous paradox which one of my teachers shared with us in Logic class when I was in undergraduate school. A barber is hired by a village. The barber is granted a specific mandate: He is to shave only those men in the village who do not shave themselves. The problem is: the barber himself lives in the village. Does he shave himself?

Who controls the controller?

Control implies a degree of alienation, a distinction between controller and controlled. Ancient societies assumed that the controller and the controlled could NOT be peers. Whoever is in control has a higher rank than those who are being controlled.

There is a sense in which the early Christian church understood the need for self-control as they developed the practice of celibacy as a spiritual discipline. But not everyone can live up to that ideal, as we see in the headlines today. It is one thing to encourage the practice of celibacy as a way of reminding yourself that you are responsible for your spirituality. That is a lesson that can be learned in a few weeks or a few months. A person who likes that lifestyle may want to do it for a lifetime, but I don't see anything in that practice which helps a person to be a spiritual leader.

Secondly, and I believe more importantly, there are other ways to understand the workings of the spirit, ways which do not pit spirituality AGAINST sexuality. Celibacy, as it was traditionally explained, was based on the neo-Platonic notion that sex is spiritually corrupting and therefore anyone who practices sex is not fit for spiritual leadership. The true Christian life was thought to be the celibate life, but, if you found you could not resist the temptation to participate in sex, then for heaven's sake get married so you won't have to spend eternity in hell for your sin.

By making celibacy into a spiritual ideal, the early church encourage those hungry for spiritual nourishment not to get in touch with Nature but to be as UNlike Nature as possible, to deny as much as possible the Nature within them.

In defense of celibacy, I think it is a form of sexuality just like zero is a number. Zero might be a lack of quantity, but it is just as much a number as any other. The problem is not celibacy per se but the insistence that those who practice celibacy are somehow uniquely empowered for spiritual leadership.

The Roman Catholic Church is not the only religious group to advocate celibacy as a spiritual discipline. The contemporary Brahm, Kumari sect of Hinduism, for instance, advocates celibacy in order to free women from a lifetime of household slavery.

Sexuality is an important part of our spirituality, maybe more so during some periods of our lives than others, but it's always there. To say that sexuality is inexorably opposed to the life of the spirit, well, it doesn't seem to fit with the Christian notion that serving the hungry and the poor IS the same as serving God.

Perhaps you remember the passage in Gospel of Matthew in which Jesus teaches his disciples that those who have given God shelter when he was homeless or provided him with food when he was hungry - these are the ones who will find a place in heaven.

"But," his disciples answer, "When were you ever homeless or hungry, Lord?" and Jesus answers, "In as much as you have done it for those who are the least among us, you have done it for me."

If meeting peoples bodily needs is an activity of positive spiritual value, then meeting sexual needs is likewise an activity of positive spiritual value.

In any case, I don't think we should be surprised to find a sexual anxiety at the core of many of the world's traditions of spirituality.

Sexuality is associated with our bodily lives in this world and, therefore, it was part of the world of suffering and death. Sexual activity is one of the functions of the body, one of the major hungers of the body and sooner or later the body will die. It is quite normal to fear death and to wish that there was some part of you somewhere that lives on. The traditional way of acknowledging the fear of death while at the same time rising above it, is to say that your body dies but not your spirit.

What I have noticed in my lifetime is that our memories of the deceased live on IN us, memories which derive from the very physical and sensual experiences we shared with the deceased during his or her lifetime. This seems to be true of the great spiritual leaders of the world's religions, as well. Because they were bodily persons, they were able to teach the spiritual truth to those who lived in their lifetimes and to generate a body of literature which would teach spiritual truth to us who have come along hundreds or thousands of years later.

It would seem that spirituality is not something separate in and of itself. It would seem that spirituality is a quality of our physical, sensual existence. It would seem to be the case that, without a body there can be no spirituality. This is what Jesus seems to be saying when he tells his disciples that they can ONLY come to God the Father through himself, the son. In the 14th chapter of the Christian Gospel of John we hear: ... As you believe in God, believe you also in me.. I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the father except through me.

At least we can hear Jesus saying this if we interpret the Gospel of John generously at this point. I mean by "generously" that we understand the Gospel of John as a mythic story and not as a literal story or an historical fact. If what John is writing is not literal but mythic, then it is a story which can address our need for meaning in life in a sustaining way. This is what is meant by "living truth". It's not just a truism that you can live by, but a truth you can live in.

The living truth of any story is not just the facts on which the story may or may not be based. The truth is not just in what God says or in what Jesus says or in what Mary says. The truth of the story is in the relationships which we see enacted in the story.

The relationship between Jesus and God as depicted in The Gospel of John is the relationship between body and spirit - as the authors of John understood it. And what Jesus is telling us in this passage is that if you believe in him, you believe in God. If you believe in the body and care for the body and respond to the needs of your own body and the sufferings of those around you, then you are responding to God.

In the 17th and 18th Centuries, many of the famous' spokespersons for science said something very similar. Criticized by some church officials that what they were doing was in contradiction with the teachings of the church, many scientists responded by claiming that the study of Nature WAS the study of God, that we can see the mind of God in the workings of Nature.

We don't have to meditate with our eyes closed, although that might also be a path to God; we don't have to spend years reading the sacred scriptures although, that too, might be a path to God. If we study nature thoughtfully and caringly, if we are rigorous in the standards of our research, the early scientists often said, then, by studying Nature we can better understand God.

Unfortunately, the general public at that time - and also many scientists - did not think they were seeing the mind of God in the workings of the human body - or, for that matter in the workings of the human community. In fact, I don't think we can blame the occasional scientist who decided that we certainly could NOT see the mind of God in the workings of the various churches. Likewise, during the Enlightenment Period, very few Christian churches were entirely, comfortable with the work of scientists.

There was a tendency to romanticize Nature in those days, much the same as they would later romanticize the Noble Savage here in North America. Maybe because they romanticized Nature they didn't see the nature within themselves. Not too many scientists nowadays publish papers which describe what they are doing as studying Nature in order to better understand God.

These are things that came to mind as I was thinking about Nature and the role we play in it

Just as the cycle of the year brings us around to the chill of winter, the disappearance of growing things, and the facade of death, so that cycle brings us back again to the new appearance of growing things, the outburst of new life.

And new life is the birth of new spirit, new hope, new possibilities of truth and meaning. The birth of new bodies bring with them the possibility of new spirits, yes, but even the birth of your body anew as you awaken each morning brings with it the possibility of new ways of loving people thoughtfully.

Yes, we must measure the pace of existence, the weight and the structure of every thing. For Love would he thoughtless if we were not bodies; and Truth would be lifeless if we could not sing.

If we were not bodies, how could we hope to do the things which might effectively express our love. If we were not bodies how could we respond to the needs of others?

And truth? How could we have ever thought that truth alone would set us free? How could we have thought that all we had to do was uncover the truth and it would magically speak for itself and all the world's problems would be solved? Truth needs our participation, it needs our interpretation to make it understandable, it needs our advocacy, it needs our singing to bring it to life. By singing or painting or dancing or doing whatever work we do as a way of loving others, we give life to truth by making truth part of our lives.

Love would be thoughtless if we were not bodies, and truth would be lifeless if we could not sing

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