Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Why Did We Evolve?

Plettenberg Bay, South Africa

Please consider last week’s post as prologue to today’s blog entry. As I rode through a South African wild game reserve a few weeks ago, “visiting” lions, elephants, giraffes, zebras, and other species without barriers between them and me, learning how they interact with each other and their environment, the question came to me, “Why did we (humans) evolve?”

Other creations—geographical, geological, climate, plant, and fellow animals have their role to play in the ecology of Earth, but why were we “needed”? All of these creatures do quite well without us and, it could be argued, would do better without us.

Wade takes a photo of our shadows on the shore.

Longtime readers of this blog will remember how often I have tried to answer this question, stated in diverse ways from different perspectives for a variety of reasons. Over the ages, religion, culture, and science have become our tools to at least address or explore if not answer why we are here.

I know this question is “above my pay grade” and well beyond my education, as is probably true for everyone, yet I imagine almost every one of us has wondered about it from time to time, especially in youth and old age when life’s necessities do not take up so much of our time and energy. Maybe that’s our point: to be matter reflecting on itself.

But on the savannahs of Nambiti I came up with a reason that was only original when it was first told in the Genesis creation stories: that we have evolved to serve as stewards of this Garden, mindful (and I don’t use the term lightly) caretakers of terrestrial concerns. Neither original is the thought that our mindlessness when it comes to such concerns is our original and besetting sin.

The properties of a particle can be understood only in terms of its activity—of its interaction with the surrounding environment—and…the particle, therefore, cannot be seen as an isolated entity, but has to be understood as an integrated part of the whole.

As long as we are under the spell of maya and think that we are separated from our environment and can act independently, we are bound by karma. … To be free from the spell of maya, to break the bonds of karma, means to realize that all the phenomena we perceive with our senses are part of the same reality.  … This experience is called moksha, or ‘liberation’ in Hindu philosophy and it is the very essence of Hinduism.

These quotes appear a few pages from each other in Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics (pages 69 and 79), which I have finally gotten around to reading. The first is a conclusion of science, the second is a conclusion of faith. Both could be said to endorse John Donne’s famous line that “no man is an island.”

Last week, a regular reader of this blog informed me that one of my favorite “thinking” movies, Mindwalk, is based on The Tao of Physics. I did not know that. A physicist, a poet, and a former presidential candidate stroll around Mont-Saint-Michel discussing the nature of reality. Mont-Saint-Michel is an island when the tide comes in and a part of the French mainland when the tide goes out.

Wade on the rocks!

It is the physicist who, for me, gives the most spiritual observation on the nature of reality, explaining that though we perceive ourselves as separate beings, we are constantly exchanging photons.

The science of The Tao of Physics and Mindwalk might very well be outdated by now, but work with me here! The author of The Tao of Physics is suggesting that an intuitive insight of Eastern thought has scientific merit.

After all this philosophical and possibly pseudo-scientific heavy lifting among the animals of Nambiti game reserve, I must say it was a relief to escape to the beach. Wade and I walked, waded, and ran along the sandy shores and clambered up rocky outcrops overlooking the Indian Ocean along Plettenberg Bay.

Having grown up in Southern California, the shore has always been the sanctuary where I find my natural self, the rhythm of my walking and running reflecting the rhythm of the waves and tides. Something breaks through my “karma” and dissolves my “maya” and I am part of the whole for at least an instant.

My natural self along the Indian Ocean. 

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Text and photos copyright © 2018 by Chris R. Glaser and Wade T. Jones. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Lion God

Nothing says a vacation is over like a spider bite immediately upon arriving home, a new nest of stinging bees to address, a tire blowout, a lingering case of jet lag after a 15-hour nonstop, and fresh reports of a White House in disarray.

One after-effect of our three-week trip though South Africa is that Wade forgot his work password and had to go into the office to reset it. He noted that’s the sign of a good vacation! Then he had to deal with 600 emails, despite his “away” response message.

Our South African friends, Elize and Andre, helped Wade arrange the many details of our trip and traveled with us the first two weeks. They are Afrikaners and twins. Elize lives in Pretoria and Andre lives in Atlanta, a bi-national whose encounter with a nativist rant at one of our local grocery stores was recorded in an earlier post.

Wade, Andre, Elize, and me. 
Photo taken by our guide, Biggie.

I brought along the recently released Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela and an unlikely companion book, The Tao of Physics. But I found myself wanting to take a vacation from words, so I only occasionally read them, and I wrote nothing.

Even my prayers sometimes needed to be abbreviated because of our early morning jaunts, and I found praying for “all those we hold dear in our hearts” sufficient and the Lord’s Prayer well-summarized in “thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”

Now I’m finding it a challenge to get back up on the writing horse, partly because I am still absorbing what I saw and experienced, both in South Africa’s natural surroundings and its cultural/historical story. I hope to unravel my complex impressions in the next few posts.

Wade's photos on Instagram are far better than mine!

We spent three days in a game reserve at the Nambiti Hills Lodge that featured a schedule not unlike a monastery’s. We were awakened at 5 a.m. for “morning prayers”: coffee and snack before boarding an open-air Land Cruiser at 5:30 for a wild ride pilgrimage up and down hills and across plains as the sun rose, going to various points in the reserve where we were most likely to encounter animals, returning for breakfast at 9 a.m. “Vespers” began with tea and snacks at 3 p.m. followed by another safari that lasted till dinner at 8 p.m., featuring spectacular sunsets and a break for gin and tonics or wine.

Our “priest” for these services was “Biggie,” an experienced and informative and gregarious guide whose fearless approach to the animals matched his fearless driving over bumpy, winding, steeply descending and ascending dirt roads as we held on for dear life. We became kids again, enjoying the ride, while keeping our eyes peeled for wildlife. To Biggie’s credit, we never felt unsafe or in danger.

But there were moments when I felt nervous excitement—for instance, when an elephant came toward us, turning a one-lane road one-way, requiring us to back up as he lumbered toward us, not in attack mode but going about his daily business.

I have never been so close to giraffes, elephants, rhinos, hippos, impalas, wildebeests, springbok, wart hogs, ostriches, huge and little birds and more in their natural habitats. One morning we woke a sleeping herd of Cape (or African) buffalo on the road, prompting them to reluctantly rise and saunter out of our way as we inched forward.

Photo by Wade Jones

One outing, a tingle of dangerous pleasure came up my spine as a male lion and three female lions padded toward us and then right beside our stopped vehicle, as did three cheetahs a day or so later. There were no doors or windows or any barrier between us, and you will roll your eyes, but I thought at the time it was like a defenseless encounter with God, powerful enough to devour you yet docilely and peaceably passing by.

You can see why this became a vacation from words, and why they fail even now to capture the wonder we experienced.

A Cape Town art museum featuring African artists displayed this quote from Middlemarch by George Eliot:

If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.

Grazing rhino.

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Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Vacation & Vocation

A neighbor's peaceful pathway.

Very early one morning I saw a woman doing a walking meditation, such as Buddhists do, pausing after each step taken, perhaps pondering a koan. As I drew closer, I realized the “koan” she concentrated on so intently was, in truth, an iPad. 

Running through the park, I approached a young man sitting in the lotus position, his face downturned in meditation. As I passed by, however, I saw his thumbs busily texting.

On each occasion, the only hope of my original fantasy was that they were tweeting or texting their spiritual directors or gurus!

We all know of such impulses to check tweets, messages, e-mails, and news media! C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters comes to mind, in which Screwtape advises Wormwood, his tempter in training, to put into his ward’s head the impulse to take a break just as he’s about to discover something important to his spiritual progress, thus distracting him.

One dictionary defines vocation as “an impulse to perform a certain function.” Vacation is defined as freedom from such an impulse, a letting go of our compulsions to do things we have always done, a release from doing things the way we have always done them. Thus vacation invites play.

I’ve known too many people, including clergy, who brag about never or rarely taking a vacation. In my view, vacation is a vital balance to vocation, as necessary to one’s work as sleep and nutrition and compensation.

Some of us get away from our work by going away, but others of us get away from our work by going within: inside ourselves, listening to that inner voice that is the root of the word “vocation.”

I’ve been reading a lot about the spiritualities of the desert: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim. The desert is an excellent place to listen for God’s voice, our own voice, the voice of a lover or friend or calling. Distractions are diminished, silence surrounds, we may breathe easier, we may breathe.

In deserts, Moses heard God’s voice, Miriam danced, Elijah listened for “a voice of a gentle stillness,” Naomi accepted Ruth’s vow, Jesus pondered his vocation and found lonely places to pray, Amma Theodora identified acedia (spiritual lethargy), Muhammad received his divine mission. 

Progressive Christians have our wilderness too. We are letting go of religious compulsions to rediscover the God of the desert (metaphorically).

Writing of desert spirituality in Contemplative Prayer, Thomas Merton concluded that “without the disquieting capacity to see and to repudiate the idolatry of devout ideas and imaginings…the Christian cannot be delivered from the smug self-assurance of the devout ones who know all the answers in advance, who possess all the clich├ęs of the inner life and can defend themselves with infallible ritual forms against every risk and every demand of dialogue with human need and human desperation [108-9].”

Perhaps vacation from religious compulsion is also our vocation.

This post appeared on this blog on July 11, 2012.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Dolphins & Sharks

Hobbes & Wade find a flower on the beach in 2008.

“Look, over there, there are dolphins in the water!”

Somebody shouted this to me as I began a several-mile run along a beach during a vacation. This stranger was absolutely right. Three dolphins playfully leapt up out of the water and, in tandem, we raced down the South Carolina shoreline for almost an hour. And most of that hour I reflected on that moment when the gracious abandon of a stranger, who might not otherwise have greeted me, alerted me to one of God’s wonders.

Running for me is a time to meditate. Like a Buddhist walking meditation, its rhythm gives me peace and a place for thought. And what I thought was that this stranger had played the preacher—that this is the purpose of any exhortation—to awaken us to such wonders.  Because I believe each one of us may serve as a minister, it occurred to me that this is our role, to shout,

“Look, over there, there are dolphins in the water!”

There’s something about the shore that gives us permission to talk to strangers. I think it’s the elation, even the ecstasy, that we experience in nature—whether manifest in shores or dolphins. It awakens the child in us that freely enters the commonwealth of God.

Hobbes and me wading in the water. 
We went in October so Hobbes could be off leash.

The stranger speaking to me about the dolphin was purely gratuitous, an occasion of grace. He had nothing to gain by it other than the thrill of sharing the experience. But I proclaimed his gospel to all I passed in my run along the beach,

“Look, over there, there are dolphins in the water!”

The next day, our last full day along the shore, it rained. And instead of wading into the Atlantic, I waded into all those e-mails I had avoided all week. It was sobering, to get back to business. There’s nothing natural about sitting in front of a laptop, reading a screen and plucking keys on a keyboard.

And I had another thought. Earlier in the week on the beach we had met a couple who alerted us to a shark in the water. It occurred to me that our job as “ministers” (remember, all of us) is not only to point out the dolphins, but warn others about the sharks.

Many of us got too many sharks growing up in our churches and too few dolphins. Like the preacher in the novel and movie Pollyanna, egged on by Pollyanna’s stern and bitter aunt, we heard preachers who focused on the curses found in scriptures rather than its blessings. Pollyanna, the orphan of missionary parents, who herself had every right to be bitter, pointed out to this preacher that there are many more blessings than curses in the Bible, many more dolphins than sharks.

Progressive Christians recognize the sharks infesting the waters of our faith tradition: biblical literalism, fundamentalism, prejudice, exclusion, patriarchy, condemnation, and so on. It’s important that we warn others to stay out of these waters. But it’s equally vital—or all the more vital—that we point out the dolphins of our faith tradition: grace, mercy, justice, compassion, inclusion, blessing, wonder, storytelling, and spiritual truth.

“Look, there are dolphins in the baptismal water!”

This was my first post on this blog, February 16, 2011. Its vacation theme seems appropriate for this summer season. It also laid the groundwork for all the posts that have followed. The photos from a week’s vacation on the shore in 2008 that was described in this post were not included.

Hobbes checks on me!

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Copyright © 2011 and 2018 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.