What do you believe about God, humanity, and the nature of the universe? A daunting set of topics to be sure, but this past week at the Chautauqua Institution I heard an interesting lecture on the topic that I thought I would pass along for this week’s Provision. Doing so has helped me to have a great vacation and can help you to think more deeply and broadly about these compelling topics. Enjoy and let me know what you think!
In the spirit of stress-proofing, I was on vacation this past week at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York State. The focus was on imagination and creativity, giving me a lot of material to work with both as a coach and as a presenter. Dan Pink was especially good, with his presentation on intrinsic motivation. I look forward to reading his upcoming book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.
To give myself a true vacation, I was pleased that David Bumbaugh, a professor at Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, gave me permission to reprint his reflections on God, Humanity, and the Nature of the Universe. Regardless of your own religious or spiritual orientation, I think you will find David’s thoughts to be insightful and stimulating. Enjoy!
I grew up in a religious tradition in which God was a charter member • the focus of prayers and sermons, the source of all wisdom, the creator of the world, the protector of all who embraced the true faith, the ultimate source of justification and redemption and an endless source of comforting nostalgia. Over time it became clear to me that behind any theoretical statement, God had a clearly functional role within the religious community in which I grew up. By invoking God, people clothed their opinions with unassailable sanctity.
In essence, God became the answer that was essentially unanswerable, the mechanism by which difficult questions were evaded and old habits of thought were allowed to continue unchallenged. As I grew from childhood and adopted a more critical attitude toward the world, and the way religion functioned in that world, the clearer it became to me that God was used as a way papering over the abyss, a way to domesticate the vast mystery of this universe and of our own existence within it.
If people wondered how the world came to be, and why it is as it is, the answer was “God.” If people wondered why suffering existed in the world, the answer was “God.” If people wondered why some were set to rule over others, why some had so much while others had so little, inevitably, the answer was “God.” Over and over again in my experience, God was a mechanism used to stop deep questioning, to repress just anger and to encourage the acceptance of things as they are. Long before I had heard of Karl Marx, I had experienced God as the great opiate.
As I grew in understanding, this response to life began to offend me. I found myself questioning the existence of God, and dropping God-talk from my discourse, not because I ceased to believe but because “God” had become a barrier to faith. I could not permit the mystery, the wonder, the awe, the challenge of the world to be dimmed or dulled by a soporific named God. I could not allow the hunger for justice to be slaked, nor anger at the status quo to be weakened by the distant promise called God.
The absence of God from my universe of discourse, however, does not imply an absence of faith. There is much that I do firmly believe. I believe we are part of a universe that is dynamic and evolving and ever-changing. I believe that there is a directive in the history of that universe, that change is not random but reveals direction. The universe moves from singularity to multiplicity, from simplicity to complexity, from lesser to greater mindfulness, from necessity to choice.
This means that change is the defining characteristic of reality • that nothing ever remains the same, that all of existence is eternally in process, that we and all the world we know are products of that process, that life is lived on the knife-edge of risk and that we and the world we know are, at every moment, being transformed toward outcomes that are rarely clear or obvious.
The evidence of that ceaseless change is to be seen at every level of existence. Consider the world of high energy sub-atomic physics. I am told that this is a world in which existence is often measured in nanoseconds, in which particles spontaneously arise from the void and return to the void, in which emergence and subsidence, birth and decay, coming and going are the invariable order of existence. Consider the world of the virus, existing in liminal space, on the border between animate and inanimate, a space in which changes occur with such rapidity that it takes all our ingenuity to keep up with the threat posed by the influenza virus or the AIDS virus, or the West Nile Virus or even the Flu Virus.
Or, consider the world of the macrocosm. It is clear beyond any question that the universe as a whole is a dynamic place, with stars dying and being born, with galaxies moving rapidly away from one another, with white holes and black holes constantly altering the picture. And, of course, this mesocosm, this middle space wherein we live our lives is forever changing. One need only glance into the mirror, or out the window, or look at a photo album for the evidence that the human world forever changes.
I believe that we are part of a dynamic reality, forever moving from what has been through what is and on to what shall be. If this be true, and I believe it is, then the greatest human folly, the original sin, the unforgivable sin, if such there be, is the human conceit known as conservatism • the persistent effort to prevent change, to keep things as they are, or worse, to return them to some previous state. Such efforts cannot succeed, for they run counter to the very nature of the Universe. Existence does not stand still, nor does it run back.
All that I know of the universe calls me to have faith in the future, to know that even as I let go of the world I have known, a new and different world opens before me, rich with possibilities and challenges, and dangers and opportunities. I trust the process and I believe in the future. Knowing that I cannot both hold on to what has been and reach for what will be, I am eager to engage what is to come.
Even as I believe in a dynamic process of growth and change, I also believe that this is a reflexive universe, that underlying its ceaseless change and dynamic process there are patterns that repeat themselves over and over again, at different levels of magnitude. Chaos theory and fractal geometry reveal a universe in which there are deeply structured patterns, patterns that reveal themselves time and again across many different scales of size.
It is this implicate patterning of reality that allows high energy physics to see in the behavior of sub-atomic particles evidence for the state of the universe itself only a few nanoseconds after it came into being. In this infinitely small world, in the emergence and decay of particles, in their fusion and fission, in the release of energy, the earliest history of the universe, of our emergence can be discovered. The pattern is deep and real and unaffected by the eons of evolutionary change that can be read in the night skies.
Nor is this the only place where the patterning can be read. Several years ago, I found myself stuck in a traffic jam on Route 81 in a rural area of the state of Virginia. Waiting for the traffic to move and wondering why the steady stream of automobiles, which had moved so smoothly for so many miles along the Blue Ridge Mountains, had ground to a sudden halt, I turned on a radio station.
As if in answer to my question, the station was in the midst of a discussion of traffic problems, in which experts were explaining what had happened to me that evening and what happens to millions of others across the continent on any given day, in terms of fluid theory. There is a pattern, they said, in the flow of fluids which, when applied to the movement of automobiles along a highway, helps explain why, for no obvious reason, the traffic will suddenly seize up along a stretch of road. The same process that causes turmoil in the flow of fluids, causes turmoil on interstate highways.
Chaos theory has suggested that there are patterning relationships between such disparate phenomena as the smoke rising from a burning cigarette, the dancing of a candle flame, the dripping of a water faucet, an epileptic seizure, a heart attack, the orbit of a comet through the solar system, the path of the earth around the sun, perhaps the spinning of the galaxies, themselves.
I take a leap of faith and affirm that not only are the patterns real, they demonstrate that the world out there and the world in here is one world, that the distinctions we make between this and that, now and then, here and there are convenient and necessary to our living on this mesocosmic plane, but that beneath all apparent diversity and complexity there is a fundamental unity that cannot be breached or broken or escaped. Beneath the world of the many, which is always and forever changing, is the world of the one, forever improvising, on the basis of persistent patterns. As I trust the process of change forever moving us from what we have been to what we are to be, so I affirm the fundamental oneness of existence in which our being rests.
And, I affirm that in the midst of this world of change and persistence, human beings are the most mysterious creatures I know. We seem to bridge in our existence the worlds of the macrocosm, of the microcosm and of the mesocosm. We — we alone, so far as we know • are able to look back upon the history of the universe and see it as it was a fraction of a second after its birth. We • we alone, so far as we know • are able to speculate upon its possible future course. We • we alone, so far as we know • are able to draw the connections between what was and what will be and see how the lines converge upon and flow out from this middle level of existence, this fleeting moment of time.
We are the universe, contemplating itself and understanding itself, and in modest ways, directing itself. And yet, even as we recognize the unique position we occupy, most of our energy and attention are directed elsewhere, to mere survival. We struggle into birth, we grow and scrabble out a living, we seek to incarnate a vision of justice in our world, we reproduce, we fend off the indignities of illness and age and in the end we die and return to the source whence we came. And through it all, we, who have the ability to understand the history of the universe, seldom understand our own history. I am forever amazed at what we define as important, and the mysteries of our own existence which we so blithely ignore.
I do firmly believe that our lives are purposive and that we are participants in a larger structure of meaning than we know • a structure of meaning that has significance beyond our lives, perhaps universal significance. There is no reason to believe that human beings are not subject to the same reflexive qualities which seem to pervade the rest of the universe. Thus, I find myself intrigued by the existence of mitochondria in the cells of our bodies.
Mitochondria, as I understand them, are small organisms that, eons ago, were engulfed by the walls of aggressive and hungry cells. Refusing to be digested, the mitochondria set up housekeeping there. They have their own DNA, their own genetic history; they have a separate, but symbiotic existence within the tiny confines of the world that is the human cell. There, largely ignored by us, they go about their business; they live, they reproduce, and they die.
And in the process of pursuing their own goals and drives, their own innate imperatives, the mitochondria process all the energy our cells require, all the energy we must have if we are to live. Almost certainly, they have no knowledge of our existence or of the part they play in our lives, just as we usually give no thought to the contribution they make. And yet, as they mindlessly go about their quotidian existence, they make it possible for us to live, to pursue our petty concerns, to explore the macrocosm and the microcosm, to dream our dreams and weave our theories and fulfill whatever function is ours in the larger scheme of things.
If this is a reflexive universe, a universe of change founded on patterns which recur over vast scales • from subatomic to galactic • is it not possible that in the tiny mitochondria there is a metaphor, a whispered message about our own existence? It is not possible that in the pursuit of our mundane affairs, in the effort to tease some meaning out of our experience, we are an essential part of a larger process, a process hidden from us by its very scale and scope?
The meaning of our existence may never be clear to us, but that it has meaning and import I do not doubt. There is meaning in our drive to understand what lies behind the facade of the night sky; there is meaning in our drive to know whence we have come and whither we are tending; there is meaning in our living and in our dying and in our love for one another. That meaning may escape us, for it may be part of a structure as far beyond us in scale as we are beyond the mitochondria, but I do firmly believe that the meaning is there and in our living and in our dying we further processes and causes we cannot not fully fathom.
By the same token, I believe that the process we call mind, is not confined to us or to this planet, but pervades the universe. I cannot prove it and I will not try, but if there is no distinction between in here and out there, and if the universe is reflexive, then knowing and thinking, and awareness are properties of the universe. The dream of justice and the promise of mercy and the hope of love are properties of the universe. In some way I cannot describe, I believe that mind pervades all of existence, that particle and atom, that virus and bacterium, that mitochondrion and human being, that planet and star are, in some sense, aware, attuned, responsive. Our knowing is part of a larger knowing, and plays a role in the knowing that is the universe itself.
I believe that we live our lives in a vast sea of mystery and wonder. There are no final answers to the questions which a richly purposive, deeply patterned, constantly changing universe poses for us. There are provocative hints and suggestions and whisperings, all of which tend toward the conviction that we are part of a reality larger and more amazing and more surprising than we can imagine. It seems a betrayal of our nature and our implicate purpose to close off the questions, to limit the metaphors, to paper over the wonder and the mystery with the answer that answers nothing: God.
And so here I stand. I believe in a universe of constant change and of underlying pattern. I believe in the fundamental unity of all things and all beings, a unity which encompasses all our diversity. I believe in a universe which is pervaded with mindfulness and with meanings and purposes beyond my ability to know or understand.
Therefore, I believe it behooves us all to live gently and with care and consideration for all of existence, and especially for all the myriad children of the earth, for we cannot know the larger implications of our actions or the larger role each being plays in the universal scheme of things. I believe that our lives float upon a vast sea of mystery, and that we navigate that mysterious sea by means of metaphor. I believe in the process by which we are continually transformed in ways we cannot transform ourselves to meet the evolving challenges and opportunities which come our way. This aging, high church humanist will never be comfortable with God, but I do firmly believe in mitochondria.
Coaching Inquiries: What do you believe about how the universe works? Do you see evidence of a directive in life? How would you describe that directive? Where is leading? What part can we play in relation to that directive? How can we best make a contribution to life?
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Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob..
You have done an outstanding job on this series on stress. At a time when I feel the weight of the economy on my retirement, which is in one year, this series has helped me immensely. I always look forward to my Sunday email from you as you are right on target. Thank you for the time and effort you show to help educate us on many levels
I want to add my voice to others who have thanked you for this series on stress. The valuable insights and focus on actions that can be taken have been inspiring and thought provoking. I want to thank you very much for the time and thought that you put into these Provisions; they have made a huge difference in my life.
I was encouraged to learn that former President Jimmy Carter had decided to sever ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, after a lifetime in that denomination, because of its position that Eve was responsible for original sin, that wives must be subservient to their husbands, and that women were prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors, or chaplains in the military service. This is indeed an abomination and must be challenged at every opportunity. Bravo to Jimmy Carter for having the courage to speak the truth in love.
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
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