Our whole involvements as whole beings in the whole world

Christ's Pieces opp. the church before this morning's service
Readings: Acts 17:26-28

From The Primal Roots of American Philosophy: Pragmatism, Phenomenology, and Native American Thought (Penn State Press, 2000, pp. 17-18) by Bruce Wilshire

The North American holy man and thinker Black Elk reported to John G. Neihardt the great vision that came to him as a boy. [The second two paragraphs are as quoted by Wilshire in the book at this point. I have added here the first paragraph to help me explore the image of the circle or circuit]:

And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy.
          [. . .] 
          Then I saw ahead the rainbow flaming above the tepee of the Six Grandfathers, built and roofed with cloud and sewed with thongs of lightning; and underneath it were all the wings of the air and under them the animals and the men. All these were rejoicing, and thunder was like happy laughter.... [A]nd I saw the Six Grandfathers sitting in a row, with their arms held toward me and their hands palms out, and behind them in the cloud were faces thronging, without number, of the people yet to be. 
          “He has triumphed!” cried the six together, making thunder. And as I passed before them there, each gave again the gift that he had given me before—the cup of water and the bow and arrows, the power to make live and to destroy; the white wing of cleansing and the heal-ing herb; the sacred pipe; the flowering stick. And each one spoke in turn from west to south, explaining what he gave as he had done before, and as each one spoke he melted down into the earth and 
rose again; and as each did this, I felt nearer to the earth.

My copy of Black Elk Speaks on my bedside table
Any commentary [on this vision] seems impossible, for most very late twentieth-century prose occupies a different realm of being and presencing: it presupposes the “objective realm” as something divided from “the merely subjective”; it takes the division of the physical from the psychical completely for granted. Any attempt to move Black Elk’s words into either of these areas will mangle them and make them look absurd. Take the common practice of many North American indigenous peoples to sing the sun up at dawn. European—now North Atlantic—mentality gives this short shrift: “Simply experiment. Refuse to do the ceremony and see if the sun needs our efforts to rise.”
          But for us the sun now is only a globe of gas, and, of course, as such, it does not need our efforts to rise in the sky. But this patent truth obscures another older, broader one: that our lives, evolved over millions of years in Nature, have taken shape with the sun, and that if we are to rise with the with the power of its rising we must celebrate that rising. We must do our part.

—o0o—

We cannot spin the answer out of our heads as if we were gods. We can only listen, resonate to affinities, send out questions, listen for answers, send out more questions. We can only continuously echo-locate and re-locate ourselves (ibid p. 171).

—o0o—

From On the American Scholar (1837) by Ralph Waldo Emerson 

The first in time and the first in importance of the influences upon the mind is that of nature. Every day, the sun; and after sunset, night and her stars. Ever the winds blow; ever the grass grows. Every day men and women conversing, beholding and beholden. The scholar is he of all men whom this spectacle most engages. He must settle its value in his mind. What is nature to him? There is never a beginning, there is never an end to the inexplicable continuity of this web of God, but always circular power returning into itself. Therein it resembles his own spirit, whose beginning, whose ending, he never can find—so entire, so boundless. Far, too, as her splendors shine, system on system shooting like rays, upward, downward, without center, without circumference—in the mass and in the particle, nature hastens to render account of herself to the mind.

—o0o—

ADDRESS

Bruce Wilshire, an extract from one of whose books we heard earlier, is an important contemporary thinker who speaks clearly and persuasively about how in Europe and North America we have lost much of our intimacy with Nature and, in so doing, dangerously narrowed down our sense of reality, of what really is, to what we may call its factual, causal, mechanical aspects.

A friend of mine, Ed Mooney — who has published a book connected with this subject called “Lost Intimacy in American Thought: Recovering Personal Philosophy from Thoreau to Cavell (Continuum, 2009) — wrote movingly and supportively to me over Christmas noting that instead of these factual, causal, mechanical aspects of the world, it may well be that “the spiritual ebbs and flows are the main thing, the truth of the matter” and that “after all the facts are in, and even long before that, it seems to be more a matter of what meaning we find in the arching trees or the weeping children, the flow of the river and the flow of life”.

It was a powerfully uplifting message to receive to which I gave a hearty “Amen!”

Of course, as both Ed and Bruce Wilshire realise, it’s not that we don’t need and value specialised detectives of fact such as scientists and historians because it seems clearly vital to know, for example, that the sun is not a god whom we must constantly propitiate, or that the way we entered and then moved through North America sent, in fact, countless innocent people to their deaths.

But, with our culture's increasing emphasis upon only certain kinds of factual and narrow ways of knowing reality there has come a significant dark-side. Namely, a loss of sight, sound, smell, touch and taste of, what Wilshire calls, “an interfusing universe of cosmic kinship” and what one of our own Unitarian forebears, Ralph Waldo Emerson, called, “circular power returning into itself.” (The Primal Roots of American Philosophy: Pragmatism, Phenomenology, and Native American Thought (Penn State Press, 2000, p. 29  — henceforth PRAP).

These images of wholeness and the circle are also found in Black Elk’s words when he spoke of “the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being”, a “sacred hoop”.

Together, they brought powerfully back to my mind a passage I introduced you to in October last year. Using a twentieth-century image Henry Bugbee felt that when we remained connected to the full breadth of reality then in

“. . . our experience of things as presences, reality conveys itself and permeates us as a closed electrical circuit in which we are involved with things, [and] the circuit is charged with finality. But in so far as we take things, and think of them, as placed over against us, i.e. objectively, we break the circuit” (Inward Morning pp. 168-169).

Bugbee was well-aware that we could be misled by the word “closed” — in “closed-circuit” — and to take this only negatively, preferring the more obviously positive sounding word, “open”. But the point Bugbee wants us to grasp here about an unbroken, “closed circuit”, is that it is something energised and alive with racing energy; something whole, complete and charged with finality, in which all parts of the circuit are always-already freely and constantly flowing into all other parts. As Bugbee notes, when we break this circuit — when the circle becomes open — what results is the creation of the “separateness of dead poles”.

Bugbee is suggesting (as is Black Elk, Emerson, Wilshire and Mooney — and one should not forget Thoreau, too, whose spirit is ever present as I write these words) that in viewing the world almost exclusively through its so-called factual, causal, mechanical aspects we are breaking the circle into discrete parts and turning all things into dead poles. Even though it often remains true that in the presence of these discrete items of reality we still express marvel, feel awe and wonder and even reverence, our breaking of the whole circuit in order better to reveal these discrete facts has meant that our feelings about them have become for us “mere subjective reactions and preferences” (PRAP p. 165). As the years have passed we have increasingly begun to realise that our “Scientific and technological power is bought at the expense of denying full reality and importance to our ‘inner states’” (PRAP p. 165).

To unfold this thought a bit more we can turn to Wilshire’s point about the common practice of many North American indigenous peoples to sing the sun up at dawn. As he notes, European — now North Atlantic — mentality gives this kind of activity “short shrift”. Our attitude to the sun’s rising is wholly different; we say:

“Simply experiment. Refuse to do the ceremony and see if the sun needs our efforts to rise” (PRAP, p. 17).

The experiment, once done, reveals that the sun does not need our efforts to rise in the sky and, consequently, the ceremony may safely be abandoned. Along with this discovery the results of other experiments have for us transformed the sun into, at heart, “only a globe of gas”.

As I just mentioned, we often still marvel at this globe of gas and feel a certain awe, wonder and even reverence in the presence of this discrete item of reality. But I hope it is clear that today our culture as a whole does not believe that our feelings about the sun are, in the grand scheme of things, anything more than “mere subjective reactions and preferences” for neither the sun, nor any other discrete object or fact in the world, needs our feelings to be what we think they really are. But, as Wilshire notes,

“this patent truth [that the sun is a globe of gas] obscures another older, broader one: that our lives, evolved over millions of years in Nature, have taken shape with the sun, and that if we are to rise with the power of its rising we must celebrate that rising. We must do our part” (PRAP, pp. 17-18).

But as I have often discovered, before we can do our part and have a hope of understanding and answering this kind of question, a very common misunderstanding needs to be dealt with straight away.

I want to be clear that I am not suggesting we engage in some artificial and patronising revival amongst us of some North American indigenous practice or one derived from some more local source, such as an imagined, pre-Christian, native British practice. This is because these peoples’ practices (in so far as we know and understand what they really were) only arose within the horizon of disclosure that was their own culture. Our horizon of disclosure is very different from theirs and this is why, as Wilshire notes, any truly meaningful commentary from our point of view about their visions, views and practices seems impossible.  Even though here I want to critique our own culture's view it is clear that we begin differently, with a presupposition that the “objective realm” is something divided from “the merely subjective” and we take completely for granted “the division of the physical from the psychical”. As Wilshire says, “Any attempt to move Black Elk’s words into either of these areas will mangle them and make them look absurd.”

If our culture is to find its own answer to the question of how to reconnect with the whole and rise ourselves with the power of the rising sun then we are going to have to pursue a different course of action than by superficially appropriating another culture’s answers. In the end we need to acknowledge, as does Wilshire, that:

“We cannot spin the answer out of our heads as if we were gods. We can only listen, resonate to affinities, send out questions, listen for answers, send out more questions. We can only continuously echo-locate and re-locate ourselves” (PRAP, p. 171).

As I was trying to suggest throughout Advent and Christmas, I think that it is through just this kind of practice (an active receptivity or expression of patiency) that we stand the best chance of doing our part well and reconnecting the circuit, the “sacred hoop”, and so enlarging our conception of reality in a way that is both appropriate and meaningful to us and which can simultaneously offer genuine healing to our planet and all she contains.

Though it is sometimes tempting to despair of achieving this, let’s never forget we are never without resources. Thankfully, throughout  our own culture there remain scattered all kinds of people, ideas, visions, remembrances, things and places to whom and to which we can go to question, listen and resonate with — Today I’ve only mentioned Wilshire, Emerson, Black Elk, Bugbee and Mooney but I could (and should) add many other poets, painters, musicians, thinkers, scientists and engineers.

One constant and consistent echo we get back from them is the pressing need to recognise and re-engage with, the whole of reality and not just tiny, disconnected, broken-off parts of it.

But, of course, this begs the question: what is reality, what is really?

Well, I’m with Paul Wienphal when he says “the answer is that it is what you experience it to be. Reality is as you see, hear, feel, taste and smell it, and as you live it. And it is a multifarious thing.” And, when we really take time to examine our own experiences together in open-ended actively receptive conversation — by sending out questions to each other and listening for answers and/or returning echos — do they not tell us, as Wilshire says echoing the Chinese Taoists, that:

“ . . . we are in over our heads in this awesome whole . . . and to pretend to be otherwise is to be disorientated at an ultimate level, is to lose one’s placement in the whole, lose touch with what is valuable for life in the interdepending universe” (PRAP, p. 164).

Wilshire is surely right to remind us that:

“. . . before we build ourselves, we are built. Before anything can belong, we belong to Nature. Our nervous systems evolved and took shape through adaption over thousands of millennia in the enwombing pulse of Nature’s matter” (PRAP, p. 17).

As Emerson said: “The first in time and the first in importance of the influences upon the mind is that of nature. Every day, the sun; and after sunset, night and her stars. Ever the winds blow; ever the grass grows” and, given this, “He must settle its value in his mind. What is nature to him?” 

Some kind of answer to Emerson’s question can be glimpsed in the “secret delight” or epiphany many of us feel when some great storm shuts down both our cities and some of our “technological marvels”. Is not Wilshire absolutely right in saying that when this happens we know that, “At last we are where we belong — in community, in interdependency, even when our delight is sheepish and we don’t know how to speak our ecstasy” (PRAP, p. 19)?

These words, “we don’t know how to speak our ecstasy”, are important because, today, our culture as a whole clearly lacks a convincing, shared language to speak this ecstasy of our placement in the whole without making us feel we are somehow indulging in some new-age, over-heated, cosmic fluff and nonsense.

But one thing is surely clear to us all, namely, that if together we don’t find ways powerfully, persuasively and religiously to articulate this ecstatic sense of our involvement within the whole then we are going to be in even bigger ecological and humanitarian trouble than we are at present. As Wilshire notes, without such a language of wholeness and interconnectedness “even the most enlightened and advanced scientific thinking is not sufficient to produce an adequate ecology” (PRAP, p. 171).

Icy cobwebs on the church gate this morning
With it’s historic stress on unity, whatever else a Unitarian religious and philosophical community like this should be doing, we surely have a task similar to that which Wilshire thinks falls to the humanities, namely, “to intensify and clarify, to thematise and retrieve from forgetfulness, our whole involvements as whole beings in the whole world” (PRAP, p.166). Our American brothers and sisters have expressed this powerfully in their seventh principle, namely, “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”

So, my brothers and sisters, in this still New Year, how might we better begin to show this respect to the whole and come, ourselves, to celebrate the glorious and wonderful rising of the sun with the power of its rising?

My preference is for keeping it small scale and everyday (to think globally and act locall). My own model for this (which I admit I so often fail to follow as well as I might) is that gracefully offered us by Layman Pang (740-808):

My daily affairs are quite ordinary;
but I’m in total harmony with them.
I don’t hold onto anything, don’t reject anything;
Nowhere an obstacle or conflict.
Who cares about wealth and honour?
Even the poorest thing shines.
My miraculous power and spiritual activity:
Drawing water and carrying wood.

(Quoted in Stephen Mitchell’s The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry, New York: Harper Perennial, 1989)

POSTSCRIPT

Immediately after the address we have a piece of music to still our minds a little but, following this, I always invite people to add their own thoughts and reflections (critical or affirmative) on the theme of the address. One of our members, Dean Reynolds, asked whether he could read a poem that he felt was appropriate. Naturally, I said yes. and he offered us the following beautiful and apposite words. It turns out that, marvellous to relate, he had written them himself just this week! So, once again, to yet another friend, I was able to offer up a hearty, "Amen!"

History by Dean Reynolds

Stars burst from their spheres
Love life and many tears
Spaces empty and cold
Beckon to the fireworks of being.
Brilliant and streaking across the sky
Rainbow hues dance in ecstasy
Stretching out in infinite Panoply.
Nebula like wombs birthing stars
That burn for age upon age
Their history is ours.

A whirlpool of light
Dervishing on our galactic centre
Set to the music of gravity and time
The black hole draws in everything.
So powerfully vast and full of light
But seen empty and darkly void.
We watch from the edge 
Our little blue ball of water and green
A collision of volcanic magic and flame
Cooled till seas foamed and drenched with rain.

Change runs on for millennia
The seas writhing with life
 Lands filled with the carnage of evolution
Mutation and combination
Adaptation and complexity.
And then. Thought and art
Our mastery of fire, life redefined.
Love, faith, family, friends
On and on it runs
It seems to have no ends.

Yet our eyes reveal our history
Full of love and faded scars.
We are all the sacred children
Of untold exploding stars.
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