October 18, 2020
If we can stay awake when our lives are changing, secrets will be revealed to us –about ourselves, about the nature of life and about the eternal source of happiness and peace that is always available, always renewal, already within us. Elizabeth Lesser: Broken Open
In our sleep, pain, which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until…against our will comes wisdom through the awful grace of God. Aeschylus.
(Civil rights icon Representative John R. Lewis, who devoted his life to racial justice and equality died Friday, July 17 at 80. He was an orator unlike many others, his words galvanizing action for multiple generations. To honor his legacy, the following is one of his most powerful quotations)
“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year. It is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
–A tweet from June 2018
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Howard Thurman
Life is not intended to be safe. A safe life has too small a name of a creature of eternity. Life at its noblest and highest has a hazard about it; it ponders tomorrow but does not know it; it sounds the depths of the ocean, but knows not the hazards of the bottom. Life at its best takes a chance on righteousness no matter the hazard, no matter the cost. Life, when answering to its true name, lifts on wings, feeling no invisible hands supporting it. Ethel Waters, 1896-1977
At every moment in every person’s life, there is work to be done, always work to be done, some of it small, some of it great. The Great Work, in a sense, always has to do with healing the world, changing the world, and, as a necessary predicate to that, understanding the world. You rise every morning aware that you are called to this work. You won’t live to see it finished. It is always calling, sometimes in a big voice, sometimes is a quiet voice. But…if you can’t hear it calling, you aren’t listening hard enough. Tony Kushner, b. 1956
I dwell in Possibility spreading wide my narrow hands
To gather Paradise –– Emily Dickinson
One of the most compelling stories in the Hebrew Bible, and also one of the most disturbing, appears in Genesis 22. Yaweh tests the patriarch Abraham by asking him to journey with his son Isaac to a mountain several days walk away, where he is to slay Isaac and offer him as a burnt sacrifice. As the two make the journey, a recurring and repetitive line in the story heightens the sense of what is at risk: The two of them walked on together.” Fortunately for Isaac, an angel aborts this divine test of allegiance at the last moment, and Abraham finds a ram caught in a thicket nearby to place on the altar as a substitute. Even without Sunday School lessons, we know the scene. Titian, Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Chagall among many others depict it at its moment of highest tension.
And, despite the drama, for most of us moderns, the idea of God, however antique a version, asking Abraham to kill his child is abhorrent. A god who makes such demands is not one you and I could believe in, I suspect. The story does, however, make its point and powerfully: Abraham’s confidence in Yahweh is unshakable.
As they walk, Isaac asks his father, “We have the wood and the fire for the burnt offering, but where is the lamb?” Abraham replies, “God will provide the lamb for the offering, my son.” Abraham’s ambiguous reply doesn’t make clear whether “my son” is the person to whom he’s speaking, or the lamb God has provided…or both. But it does make clear who is responsible: “God will provide.”
The point is hammered home: God will provide. Writ large, this response cedes the territory of the future entirely to divine control. Classical theologians viewed the world as governed by God’s perfect knowledge of the future. God ultimately controls everything that happens. In New Testament terms – “All things work together for good to them that love God.”
Except…sometimes God doesn’t provide. Sometimes things don’t work together for good. Whether the issues is the suffering of innocents or the triumph of tyranny, among countless other travesties of human history long and short, the evidence suggests that the future is not under divine control or if it is the divine is villainous.
But if God doesn’t control the future, then who or what does? Some people today, of course, especially those who reject any notion of the divine, claim that only physical entities exist and in such a world, every event is governed by the laws of cause and effect—directly and physically determined by what had happened before. In principle, if we had a big enough computer to track the infinite number of subatomic particles that make up the physical world, we could predict everything that will happen between now and the end of time.
In either case, whether the world is wholly determined by cause and effect or wholly controlled by a supernatural power, there would, at any given moment, be only one possible future.
Truth be told, even if our futures have been ordained by divine decree, we don’t know what the decree foretells. And even if our future has been preordained by the configuration of subatomic particles, we don’t know what the future might be either.
“We are not provided with the future,” Marcel Proust wrote in Remembrance of Things Past, “we must discover it for ourselves after a journey though the wilderness which no one can take for us.”
As far as we know, although the story of the past cannot be changed, the story of the future has yet to be told.
“We remember the past/and God remembers the future.” Yehuda Amichai says, “When we forget the past, God forgets the future,/and the world returns to chaos. Every person is a dam between the past and the future/When he dies the fam bursts, the past breaks into the future and there is no before or after.
For its part, science prefers “possibility.” The physicist Brian Greene explains that quantum theory portrays reality as a haze of possibilities, especially at the subatomic level, because no one knows where a given particle will be at a given time. For an electron circling the nucleus of an atom, for example, there’s a 13% chance an electron will be here, and a 19% chance it will be there. As objects become larger, they become more predictable, but at the fundamental level, the best we can do is talk about “possible outcomes.” Greene says, “When we make a measurement or perform an observation, we force the myriad possibilities to…snap out of the haze and settle on a single outcome. But between observations—when we’re not looking—reality consists entirely of jostling possibilities.
When we look at reality from another perspective, call it spiritual or philosophical, we also see a preference for possibility. I ran into Alfred North Whitehead (intellectually that is. We didn’t collide in the hallway at the University of Chicago.) decades ago. Whitehead argued that one cannot account for the creative advance of time and history with science alone. He was intent on building of a bridge between matter and spirit, between science and religion, between fact and value, between knowledge and faith, between metaphysics and ethics.
His central insight was that everything becomes whatever it becomes by virtue of how it relates to everything else. Whether you are a photon, a person, or even God, your identity over time develops through a process of relating to everything else. His was a confidence in the order of nature, “the faith that at the base of things we shall not find mere arbitrary mystery. To experience this faith, he said, is to know that our experience, dim and fragmentary as it is, yet resonates with the utmost depths of reality.”
For Whitehead, what’s true of the physical world, is true of the spiritual world. Just as atoms are never lost in physical reactions, so no human experience—however sad or tragic—is ever suffered alone or eternally forgotten. Once something has happened, it remains forever a part of the experiences that make up existence as we understand it. Everything “its sufferings, its sorrows, its triumphs, its immediacies of joy” is woven into the harmony of a completed whole.” Whitehead call that binding together “God.” No, it’s not the god of the patriarchs or any traditional religion, it’s a way of describing experience at its most comprehensive and profound – a feeling not a person or an idea. It is the experience of being deeply connected to everything, all that is present in our lives and our world as well as all that is past and all that is coming—the ultimate refuge of all past experience and the transcendent source of all future possibilities.
People sometimes ask me how I understand the role of the divine in this world, given that I dodge believing in God in a time-honored sense. Sometimes my response is simple: I take my lead from Emily Dickinson: I dwell in Possibility…spreading wide my narrow hands to gather Paradise.
God is the experience of possibility.
Our true occupation as human beings on this earth is to open our arms in gratitude for all that is past and all that is possible, gratitude for the gift of each moment that gives hope that the future will tend toward meaning rather than chaos. The goal should be to advance the future. Look at what is and imagine what could be. Look at brokenness and envision healing. Look at hatred and imagine love. Look at failure and envision success. The goal is not to replicate the past but to forge the future.
It is true, of course, that the future—our future and the world’s future—will continue to arrive even if we do nothing, in which case the future will continue to mirror the past, and nothing much will turn out differently. But the human story is the story of agency
In this universe, at least, the work of forging the future, of turning toward the light, will not be done by subatomic particles alone. Nor will it be done by divine decrees. Rather, it will be done by human beings—by you and me . We live at the intersection of necessity and possibility. , the place where and the moment when, all that is past meets all that is possible.
We are in a position of daunting—even unbelievable—influence. Because of our choices and actions, history can forever be different, even if the initial difference seems inconsequential. If Gandhi and Mandela and Martin Luther King could reject the idea that the horrors of the past and troubles of the present had spoken the final word, we can as well. But it will be at no little cost.
In March – March 29 – the President said …and because he speaks the truth so rarely, it came with the force of revelation…”I wish we could have our old life back. We had the greatest economy that we’ve ever had, and we didn’t have death.” Well, maybe that wasn’t the whole unvarnished truth. The first clause as neither true nor false: it described only a desire, a desire which, when I heard it…and found it bleating, echoing in myself…I weighted it in my hand, for a moment, like a shiny new nickel. It sounded like a decent “wartime” wish, war being the analogy he’s chosen to use for the pandemic situation, but
No the COVID disaster, even ‘way back in March, demanded a new dawn. Only new thinking can lead to a new dawn. We know that, don’t we?
Albert Einstein was right: No problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it .
But the President spoke truth when he said: We didn’t have death. Oh, we had dead people. We had casualties and we had victims. We had more or less innocent bystanders, body counts, body bags. But, in large part, all these involved some culpability on the part of the dead.
Wrong place, wrong time, wrong skin color, wrong side of the tracks. Wrong health insurance…or none.
Wrong Zip Code, wrong beliefs, wrong city. Wrong position of hands when ask to exit the vehicle. Wrong attitude to the officer.
What we didn’t have, however, was the concept of death itself, death absolute: The kind of death that comes to us all, irrespective of position.
At some level, death absolute is the truth of our existence as a whole, of course, but we have rarely been philosophically inclined to consider existence as a whole, preferring instead to attack death like everything else as a series of discrete problems: drugs, cancer, poverty, climate change and the like.
Not that there is anything immoral or ridiculous about trying to lengthen the distance between the date on our birth certificate and that on our tombstones: ethical life depends on the meaningfulness of that effort. But perhaps nowhere in the world has this effort (and its relative success) been linked so emphatically to money…to wealth.. as it is in America.
Maybe this is why plagues were relegated to history in our national imagination. Mr. Trump’s “Shit-hole” countries might have nasty diseases and high death rates, and perhaps be plagued in a permanent sense by not having the foresight to be America. But now WE are great with death—7 months into the COVID chasm we are mighty with it – 217,000 deaths deep into it…when all is said and done…we fear we may lead the world in it.
A plague on all of us IT IS, turning us upside down, but American hierarchies, hundreds of years in the making, are not so easily overturned. Amid the great swath of indiscriminate death, old distinctions persist. Black and brown people are now dying at twice the rate of white and yellow people. More poor people are dying than rich. More in urban centers than in the country. The virus maps turn redder along precisely the same lines as they would if the relative shade of crimson counted not infection and death but income brackets and school quality ratings.
Death has come to America. It was always here, albeit obscured and denied, but now everyone can see it around. The “war” that America is waging against it has no choice but to go above, around and beyond the empty cultivated religious, political, economic and social superiority of people just like us. what we do must be a collective effort; there are millions involved in it, and we won’t forget what we have seen. Still, we won’t abandon the abject, exceptionally go-it-on-our own, American predicament we find ourselves in.
A week back, however, I ran across the peace-time words of Clement Atlee, who beat out Churchill in a postwar landslide. He said: The war has been won by the efforts of all our people, who, with very few exceptions, put the interests of the nation first and their private and sectional interests a long way second…Why should we suppose that we can attain our aims –food, clothing ,homes, social security and full employment for all–by putting private interests first? ” How, indeed, we must ask?
Closer home, the late John Lewis – a civil rights icon died in July. The son of Alabama sharecroppers, Lewis served in Congress for more than three decades, pushing forward the causes he first championed as an original Freedom Rider, challenging segregation, discrimination and injustice in the deep south, issues that are reverberating today. Lewis made it clear when he said [The future] is not a state, it is an act. It is not some enchanted garden perched high on a distant plateau where we can finally sit down and rest. [The future] is the continuous action we all must take…to create a fair…just society.”
Please do not mistake my tone. I am not naïve nor a simpleton. I am outraged by much around me. I’m deeply saddened. I know the indescribable sorrow that follows every lonely last breath when the ventilators shot off. As a father and a grandfather, as an American, I am heartbroken by the magnitude of this loss by our unwillingness to protect ourselves and our communities, by every precious and irreplaceable life gone. As my pastor-friend, Amos Moss ( pastor of the largest Black church in Chicago, indeed the largest church of any color in Chicago) said, recently, “I’m cornered between ‘Oh, Lord’ and ‘Thank You, Jesus.'” I’m tired. As Fanny Lou Hamer said so many years back now: “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” And, I’m scared for our country and our future. And I believe that Toni Morrison was right: “If you wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down,” as she wrote in her novel Song of Solomon.
But we cannot “get lost in a sea of despair.” We must transcend the darkness of grief and death.
No matter how trying the past months have been, nor how difficult the present, we must “be hopeful, be optimistic,” as John Lewis insists. To which Cornel West might reply, “I cannot be an optimist but I am a prisoner of hope” “There is a need for audacious hope. And it’s not optimism. I’m in no way an optimist. I’ve been black in America for years. No ground for optimism here, given the progress and regress and three steps forward and four steps backward. Optimism is a notion that there’s sufficient evidence that would allow us to infer that if we keep doing what we’re doing, things will get better. I don’t believe that. I’m a prisoner of hope, that’s something else. Cutting against the grain, against the evidence.”
We must believe in miracles and cures and healing wells as Seamus Heaney wrote in the famous chorus from The Cure at Troy. If there is to be one, the longed-for tidal wave of justice can rise up, must come from, outside the frame of histories hopelessness. It must have a miraculous quality.
So, I embrace POSSIBILITY. I believe that even if you have found yourself in Dante’s dark woods as I have, where the straight way was lost, or gave into laziness yesterday, stepped into the anger of the partisan moment, failed to follow through on a commitment to change and disappointed yourself, someone you love or the neighbor who depends on you, remember, “we are built to make mistakes, coded for error” (Lewis Thomas), but our work is not the struggle of a day, a week a month or a year. It is the work of a lifetime, a gift beyond measure, the mission and mandate to be on the right side of history , moving in our pain, which we cannot forget until…even against our will comes wisdom through the “awful grace of God.”
“Whatever may be the tensions and the stresses of a particular day, there is always lurking close at hand the trailing beauty of forgotten joy or unremembered peace.” (Thurman)
There is still time to seek possibility
And, John Lewis can still remind us that there is still time make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
May it be so right here, right now.
Closing Song: #168 ONE MORE STEP
Now is the accepted time, not tomorrow, not some more convenient season. It is today that our best work can be done and not some future day or future yar. It is today that we fit ourselves for the greater usefulness of tomorrow. Today is the seed time, now are the hours of work, and tomorrow comes the harvest and the play-time W.E.B. Du Bois, 1868-1963