The kindness of gravity

Over the past few weeks my blogs have been exploring what to some may seem head in the clouds stuff but, today, whilst not wholly loosing the metaphysical aspect (for I think we, as liberal religionists, really do need to sharpen up our metaphysics and make them more persuasive to ourselves as much as anyone else), I want to ground our thoughts a little in something more obviously practical – namely kindness. But, before I do that, I want to note at the outset one reason why I think kindness needs to placed against a backdrop of a carefully thought out metaphysics. It is because I want to avoid any cloying sentimental understanding of this way of acting in the world which fatally diminishes its real power. The kindness about which I wish to talk today is a tough kindness that has no place for unnecessary flounces or frills. In short I want to speak of a kindness that I think can be argued is best understood as unfolded out of God-or-Nature’s very being – that is to say from Being itself, the Supreme Identity, the Divine Unity, the Godhead, Brahman where Brahman is infinite Being, infinite Consciousness and infinite Bliss sat-cit-ananda (listen to Wayne Teasdale on the earlier post). Like the mothering I spoke of a few weeks ago – I want to suggest that human kindness is an emergent feature of God-or-Nature.

For those of you who have missed the last few addresses (available here on the blog of course) the key point to note is that I have been arguing we should openly adopt the idea that God-or-Nature is utterly beyond our conceptions of in what we normally think consists personality because it is a wholly non-egoic, individuated way of being – it is Pure Being. In short I have been suggesting that the God in which many of us believe, or do not believe in, is not personal in the way we have imagined he, she or it to be. I want to be absolutely clear that the kindness of which I am talking is rooted in a theology that, to paraphrase Alastair Campbell, doesn’t do personal God. Consequently, the kindness of God-or-Nature cannot be a sentimental nor a sloppy emotional variety but something we might call ‘disinterested’ where the word ‘disinterested’ is about disinterest in any kind of personal gain to be had from the act of being kind. This was taught most succinctly and memorably in the Bhagavad Gita (2:47) when it is noted that we only have the right to our works and not the results of our work.

So, having pointed at kindness from the metaphysical end of things – hopelessly incompletely of course – I’ll turn to a consideration of it from the human end and try to point us back to God-or-Nature from there.

My thoughts on this matter began with a rereading of the poet Allen Ginsberg’s Footnote to Howl. The whole of Howl – including its Footnote – was profoundly influential on me as it, not only introduced me to the Beat Poets themselves, but a reading of it – and my own jaw awed reaction to it – secured me my first job after leaving school working for a Poetry Bookshop in Colchester Arts Centre with a wonderfully crazed British beat poet called John Row. Anyway, the poem’s final line – the only one which I quote today – sums up the intent of the whole poem well and I encourage you to go to follow this link to it. BUT, as I say this, I also feel obliged to give a warning that those of you who are easily shocked by overt use of sexual imagery expressed in a way that, shall we say, doesn’t fit at all in the context of conventional polite public worship (or blogs) should proceed with extreme caution. If you are shocked by such things you won’t like Howl nor its Footnote and you will find it offensive. Although I admit it is often a shocking work, it was one of Ginsberg’s intentions, I personally don’t think it is offensive. It would be a pity if you decide not read it but, there you go, you are all adults capable of deciding yourselves what you should read and what not. Anyway today, in deference to polite conventions you are only going to get the final line of this great poem:

Holy is the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul.

What I think Ginsburg means by this – indeed is implicit in the whole poem –is that, despite all the complex horrors, difficulties, problems and also ecstatic transient and morally ambiguous beauties of human existence with its infinite and seemingly endless fractured ‘thingy-ness’, there continues to shine through human beings (particularly certain individuals such as Christ or Buddha) an “extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul” that, when we see it, can seem to us, mired as we are in this problematic world, something more than one would naturally expect. Such human kindness feels “not of this world” – it truly feels supernatural, extra brilliant and intelligent.

But just because it feels “not of this world” this does not necessarily mean it is above or beyond the natural – supernatural in its strict technical sense – but it can be understood as somehow proceeding, unfolding out of the hidden infinite depths of Nature or God. “Not of this world” can be taken to mean “not of the world as we have commonly or conventionally seen it.” By way of illustration we may consider gravity.

The force that keeps the planets revolving around the sun was once thought to be “not of this world” – it was God’s supernatural intervening hand that supported the heavens in their motion – but the great Isaac Newton in his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, of 1687 described to the world his theory of universal gravitation and the three laws of motion.

Whatever Newton may himself have thought this ultimately showed, it showed those of us who have followed him that gravitation is absolutely of this world and not at all supernatural.
Whoah, you may well be asking now, OK, but what has gravity to do with kindness?

Well, how might we define true kindness? Is it not something or someone that unconditionally helps something or someone else to grow more fully into the potential that thing has as that thing? Is kindness not to help something to be most fully what it can be? Understood this way might not gravitation itself be understood to be a type of divine disinterested kindness – a process that allows planets more fully to be themselves as planets?

But gravity doesn’t just affect planets it keeps us (and apples and everything else) on the ground (it allows ground to be ground too!) and so helps us to flourish more fully as human beings. Fully to be a human being is to be affected by gravity (one human affect is to be a being affected by gravity). But gravity is not, in my opinion, properly understood as a mere physical force for it also helps us frame something ethical or moral, namely what it really means to go the extra mile to help someone – to need, or even to show in the first place, kindness. If there were no gravity, going the extra mile, perhaps carrying the person themselves or their bags, would expend hardly any energy. We’d hardly notice it as an extra mile. Gravity ensures that our travelling the extra mile costs us something – energy and time – it enables the very act of human kindness itself. In fact I think that, thought of properly, gravity is itself a kind of divine kindness. Gravity is utterly selfless after all. It does its stuff without expecting any reward in turn. In fact how often are we ungrateful for it – only last Saturday I stupidly cursed gravity as I lugged my double-bass, amp and music across town. But without gravity’s presence I couldn’t exist and flourish as a human being; I couldn’t play music and the people who came to listen and the building in which they heard the concert wouldn’t exist. The kindness of the man who carried my amp the last half a mile couldn’t have been shown and the kindness of the woman who held a couple of doors open for me would not have been displayed.

But, to get to this utter selfless kindness – Jesus, and many other religious teachers, have realised that you have to do something rather counter intuitive. You have to use your own self to move to the not-self and one way to do this is through the practise of compassion. Jesus’ teachings on compassion are summed up in three of his beatitudes:

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. (Matthew 5:7–9 NRSV).

In fact we may sum up the teaching of these three verses up by saying “it is a blessing to be compassionate; you will receive compassion.” Jesus, in teaching this is asking us to show more than just pity, he is encouraging us to empathise utterly with those we meet; to attempt to feel another’s passion or pain and help them to their full potential through some kind of identification with them. Remember that compassion means feeling with – literally to suffer with.

When we do this – when we really feel with another being – we begin to understand that the other is in so many ways like ourselves and it is here that the usefulness of having worked out a decent unitarian metaphysics kick in. What we feel, through compassion, namely the radical similarity of the other, we can also begin to articulate abstractly because we have a philosophical/theological language which can state that, at the deepest level, nothing is disconnected from anything else – not us from our neighbours, nor from Nature, nor from God. We both feel and understand that our neighbour is us, is Nature, is God. The practice of compassion and the doing of metaphysics combined help us feel and know ourselves better as intimate parts of this whole. At that point utter kindness may be experienced though it is remains phenomenally hard to achieve. This is why, when we see it, feel it or are the receivers of it can feel supernatural extra brilliant and intelligent as Ginsburg noted.

Every religious tradition – that is if it is any good and not merely an egoistic feel-good programme – is designed to develop and refine in us the same kind of selfless kindness that is displayed by gravity (which is, of course, nothing less than a mode of God or Nature itself). As Wayne Teasdale, the Roman Catholic lay-monk beautifully put it:

Every saint of every faith tradition espouses it and indeed actualises [utter kindness] in his or her life. If you want to know with immediate and tangible recognition what God is like, examine kindness in yourself and others. It is your own deepest inner nature. It only has to be revealed (The Mystic Hours, New World Library, 2004 Novato CA, Reading no. 4).

May we examine well and reveal.