Steadfast in the Craziness

Oct 3

Hurricane Maria brought suffering to millions in Puerto Rico. Water is in short supply, the power is out on much of the island, communications are down, and temperatures are hitting 44 degrees C -- which is 112 F. It's a deadly dangerous situation for critically ill hospital patients. The San Juan airport is packed with people there to get a one-way ticket off the island.

In Las Vegas, Steven Paddock fired from a hotel into a concert crowd, killing 59 and injuring about 500 more.

Our distress at these two disasters is compounded by our country's tepid response. In the one case, thankfully, aid is arriving in Puerto Rico. Getting it distributed to the places it is most needed remains a huge challenge which we could do more to help address. In the other case, the most needed response is reasonable gun control legislation -- which our legislature is incapable of passing.

Other calamities of recent months include the Transgender Military Ban, the rescinding of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), violence and white supremacy in Charlottesville.

The world may seem to be getting crazier, harsher, crueler. Our task remains what it always is: to love, to connect in empathy and kindness, to seek understanding, to give help where we can, to keep doing the work of peace and justice. There are many so committed. We are not alone. As the poet Adrienne Rich put it:
My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power
reconstitute the world.


On Statues and Statutes, Part 3

As Unitarian Universalists, we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We are called to bear witness to those whose worth, dignity and rights are denied. We are called to answer the call to love and defend those rights. Knowing this, delegates of the 2012 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Associations, our annual large gathering, passed a responsive resolution repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery. Delegates called it “a relic of colonialism, feudalism, and religious, cultural, and racial biases having no place in the modern-day treatment of indigenous peoples.” (See https://www.uua.org/action/statements/doctrine-discovery)

The resolution called “upon our Association to invite indigenous peoples into a process of Honor and Healing (often called Truth and Reconciliation) and to consider Unitarian, Universalist and Unitarian Universalist complicity in the structures and policies that oppress indigenous peoples and the earth.”

The work of truth and reconciliation, the work of justice-making and being good allies to Indigenous Peoples today rests not solely with our Association’s leaders. We, too, play an important role.

We can cultivate relationships with the Indigenous Peoples in our own area and learn more how they would like us to follow their lead in addressing their current challenges. For us, that would be the Ramapough Tribe in Mahwah, New Jersey which maintains the SplitRock Sweetwater Prayer Camp, working to educate citizens and protect sacred lands and waters from the environmental threats of proposed pipelines. The Westch­­­ester Indigenous Collaboration is in development in a neighboring UU congregation to offer support and partnership to the prayer camp. Stay tuned for ways to become involved.

UU minister Colin Bossen, in his award-winning sermon, “This Land is Your Land?” picks up on how the Doctrine of Discovery, which he describes as a “product of human imagination,” “is one of those hidden sources of human suffering that needs to be revealed [not only because of the atrocities][but also because] it remains present ….. within the way most European Americans think about our relationship to the land.”

He urges those of us who are primarily of European descent “to enter into right relationship with the land and her original inhabitants, our indigenous” kin, that is “to reconcile ourselves to our mother earth and all of her peoples who our ancestors harmed, and who we continue to harm, through the ongoing process of colonialism.” (http://colinbossen.com/the-latest-form-of-infidelity/13604898)
Neither we, nor any peoples, are owners of the land, of this earth, though we may “own” a sense of discovery as we encounter new lands, landscapes and people on our life journeys or legally own a title or rights to specified land.       
Rather, we are of this earth… waters, fire, atmosphere, sun, moon, the stars.
“Earth forms us,” we sang earlier. “Then, let us with justice, willing and aware, give to earth, and all things – [all peoples] – ­­­­living liturgies of care.” (“We are Not Our Own.” Singing the Living Tradition Hymnal, #317. UUA, 1992)

Let us “create a new inheritance for the future, … recognize and abandon the familiar attitudes and practices that do not serve the whole, … and assist in dismantling paradigms of oppression and suffering.” (Spoken Invocation: “Being Human Means We Are of This Earth” by Sweethome Teacup: https://www.uua.org/worship/words/invocation/being-human-means-we-are-earth)

Let us build the way to a future that “honors the gifts of the people who were here before … that heals wounds, makes amends, and honors the holiness of all humanity.” (Reading: “Call to Worship for Indigenous People’s Day” by Rev. Jason Cook. Minister, Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Fullerton, CA. October 5, 2017.)

Let us lift up, honor and celebrate Indigenous Peoples this day and every day.

On Statues and Statutes, Part 2

We can’t quite concur that what’s past is past with Columbus and the Doctrine of Discovery. That’s because the Doctrine of Discovery has been articulated and used in US courts and become part of a body of federal Indian law and that has been used to deny tribal sovereignty and land rights for almost two hundred years and continues to be used in case law. It has also been a key tenet in statutes that infringe upon the freedoms, rights and thriving of African Americans.

In 1823, US Supreme Court chief justice John Marshall used it to argue “that ‘superior genius of Europe’ claimed an ascendancy over the Indigenous peoples and that the bestowal of civilization and Christianity was ample compensation to the inhabitants (Dunbar-Ortiz 29).” He also argued that “discovery” of a land equaled conquest and the Doctrine “becomes the law of the land, and cannot be questioned (46).”

Later, beginning in 1887, the Doctrine was used in the Dawes Act, the General Allotment Act in effect until 1934 which divided treaty lands into privately held lots meant to undermine tribal communal life. This was also “a massive land grab by the United States, with a loss of two-thirds of Indian treaty lands by an act of legislation (55).”
Lastly, as recently as 2005, the US Supreme Court has cited the doctrine in a decision concerning the Oneida Indian Nation of New York (doctrineofdiscovery.org).
Cherokee anthropologist Russell Thornton estimates a pre-contact Indigenous population in North American of seven million plus. “By 1890, 228,000 American Indians were counted in the US, … a population decline of roughly 97 percent (Dunbar-Ortiz 28).” A complete litany of the genocide, cultural genocide, and other mistreatments of our Indigenous Peoples perpetuated by the Doctrine of Discovery and its way of shaping thinking, behavior and legal decisions, is best summarized and revealed, I think, by this confession, apology and pledge from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

In September 2000, Kevin Gover, Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior, offered these remarks at a ceremony marking the 175th Anniversary of the establishment of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. I share here excerpts that resonate with me, inspire my reflection and engender a similar humility as a white person benefiting from settler colonialism at the expense of our kin of color. Gover writes:

… this is no occasion for celebration; rather it is time for reflection and contemplation, a time for sorrowful truths to be spoken, a time for contrition. 

From the very beginning, the Office of Indian Affairs was an instrument by which the United States enforced its ambition against the Indian nations and Indian people who stood in its path, … to execute the removal of the southeastern tribal nations, …. and to participate in the ethnic cleansing that befell the western tribes. … The deliberate spread of disease, the decimation of the mighty bison herds, the use of the poison alcohol to destroy mind and body, and the cowardly killing of women and children made for tragedy on a (ghastly) scale. This agency and the good people in it failed in the mission to prevent the devastation. And so, great nations of patriot warriors fell.

After the devastation of tribal economies and the deliberate creation of tribal dependence on the services provided by this agency, this agency set out to destroy all things Indian … (it) forbade the speaking of Indian languages, prohibited the conduct of traditional religious activities, outlawed traditional government, and made Indian people ashamed of who they were. Worst of all, the Bureau of Indian Affairs committed these acts against the children entrusted to its boarding schools, brutalizing them emotionally, psychologically, physically, and spiritually.

The legacy of these misdeeds haunts us. ... These wrongs must be acknowledged if the healing is to begin.

Let us begin by expressing our profound sorrow for what this agency has done in the past. ... On behalf of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, I extend this formal apology to Indian people for the historical conduct of this agency.

We accept this inheritance, this legacy of racism and inhumanity. And by accepting this legacy, we accept also the moral responsibility of putting things right.

Never again will this agency stand silent when hate and violence are committed against Indians. Never again will we allow policy to proceed from the assumption that Indians possess less human genius than the other races. Never again will we be complicit in the theft of Indian property. Never again will be appoint false leaders who serve purposed other than those of the tribes.

Never again will we allow unflattering and stereotypical images of   Indian people to deface the halls of government or lead the American people to shallow and ignorant beliefs about Indians. Never again will we attack your religions, your languages, your rituals, or any of your tribal ways. Never again will we seize your children, nor teach them to be ashamed of who they are. Never again.

Together, we must wipe the tears of seven generations. Together, we must allow our broken hearts to mend. Together, we will face a challenging world with confidence and trust. Together, let us resolve that when our future leaders gather to discuss the history of this institution, it will be time to celebrate the rebirth of joy, freedom, and progress for the Indian Nations. (Complete remarks at https://www.indianaffairs.gov/sites/bia.gov/files/assets/public/pdf/idc1-032248.pdf)

May we as a country be up to that formidable task.

On Statues and Statutes, Part 3
On Statues and Statutes, Part 1

On Statues and Statutes, Part 1

Columbus Day – Indigenous Peoples' Day. What’s all the fuss about? What’s up with the round-the-clock police presence at Columbus Circle in New York City and the guarding of the 70-foot granite column and statue of Christopher Columbus that stands there?

As debate and the toppling of Confederate monuments has filled our news, so too has a reassessment of Columbus’ place of honor in American history. Meanwhile, the fate of the more than 100 statues of Columbus across the country hangs in the balance.

As the Denver Post reports, statues from California to Minnesota have recently faced vandalism or removal. In New York last month, the Columbus Circle monument was vandalized with pink nail polish, symbolizing the blood on Columbus’s hands. And, not far away in Central Park, a seven-foot tall statue of Columbus was spray-painted with the words “Hate will not be tolerated.” The hands were covered in red ink. (http://www.denverpost.com/2017/10/07/christopher-columbus-statue-police-guard)

Geez, I grew up knowing Columbus as a hero, the explorer who first discovered America! I remember celebrating Columbus Day, a federal holiday since 1937, in elementary school. We recounted the tales of his voyages to the New World … the three Spanish ships a-sailing in 1492 … the Pinta, the Santa Maria, and the Santa Clara, nicknamed the Niña.

And today … well, today we assail that tale, as we deconstruct a history that’s been told impartially and through the lens of white superiority and the so-called “Age of Exploration” and colonialism. Today, we hear a more complete history of discovered lands and people – but, just who discovered whom? It depends on who you ask! There are two points of view, at least, in every meeting and border crossing.

Now, thanks to historical records, scholars, and the lived experiences of our Indigenous Peoples, we have an opportunity to face uncomfortable truths about how our country was so-called “founded” and “settled.” We have an opportunity, for those of us of European heritage, to acknowledge where we have been complicit in or benefited from centuries of wrongdoing.

We know Christopher Columbus was an Italian explorer who set out to reach the East Indies by a western route. His voyages to the Americas were financed by the Spanish Crown, which was eager to enter and profit from the spice trade. We don’t always remember – at least I wasn’t taught – that Columbus had been a slave-trader for twelve years before his first voyage to the Americas when he landed in what is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic. During a time of economic competition, his real search was for gold but the bounty he claimed was in the number of Arawak people he “discovered,” captured and enslaved.

Scholar Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and journalist Dina Gilio-Whitaker report Columbus took ten to twenty-five captives to Europe from his first voyage, with only seven to eight surviving the trip (Dunbar-Ortiz, Gilio-Whitaker. “All the real Indians died off”: and 20 other myths about Native Americans. Boston: Beacon Press, 2016. p 26). In his second voyage, he returned with “seventeen heavily armed ships, attack dogs and more than twelve hundred men (26),” capturing fifteen hundred men, women and children. Of those, five hundred were sent back to Europe, though only three hundred survived. All told, over four voyages, “Columbus is thought to have enslaved five thousand Indigenous Peoples throughout his voyaging career (26)” – he holds a record for any one individual. Something else I never learned in school!

Columbus set up large estates on the islands and enslaved the Arawaks to extract gold; when gold was not found, he systematically killed them, and many were driven to “mass suicide and infanticide to escape the cruelty of the Spaniards (Dunbar-Ortiz 27).” Historian Howard Zinn writes, “In two years, through murder, mutilation and suicide, half of the two-hundred-fifty thousand Indians on Haiti were dead. By 1515, there were perhaps fifty thousand left…. By the year 1550, there were five hundred. A report of the year 1650 shows none of the original Arawaks or their descendants left on the island (27).”

That’s a pretty gruesome and savage account, in my opinion.
Hmmm…. I didn’t learn this in school either! This man’s a hero?
Just who wrote my history text-books?

Columbus wasn’t the only explorer of his times to venture forth and capture lands and peoples for European monarchs. He and others had the Catholic Church’s urging, if not blessing, to declare religious wars on nonbelievers and to seize their lands. The Church issued legally binding edicts, called “papal bulls,” that justified such practices and set forth specific orders. Three of the edicts from the 1400’s form what we know as the “Doctrine of Discovery.”
The first edict issued, in 1452, gave Portugal the authority to “reduce Muslims, pagans, and other nonbelievers to perpetual slavery and to seize their property, and … facilitated the Portuguese slave trade from West Africa (Dunbar-Ortiz 29).” A second, in 1454, granted Portugal a monopoly on the African slave trade. A third, issued in 1493 after Columbus’s first voyage, granted the newly “discovered” lands to Spain.

The Doctrine of Discovery reflects beliefs in manifest destiny and Christian imperialism that hark back to the mindset, language, and practices of the Crusades between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. It is steeped in Christian superiority, especially of European white Christians, and is an early overtly racist document.

Now, hundreds of years later, we might consider this a closed case --- Columbus and other explorers have come and gone; and our churches don’t carry out Crusades of this type anymore, at least not to my knowledge. We can’t undo the past, we can’t bring back the lives that have been lost, we can’t undo most of the atrocities our Indigenous kin have suffered since Columbus’ days. We can agree that what’s past is past, right?

On Statues and Statutes, Part 2
On Statues and Statutes, Part 3


The Bouquet

In recognition of the 95th Anniversary of the original Flower Communion service

Have you noticed the beautiful flowers at your feet lately? Listen carefully, and you may hear the flowers speaking in this ancient story, “The Best Flower in the
Throughout the church garden, the flowers were in a tizzy! They saw the gardener strolling the pathway with her snippers and basket collecting flowers, and began to argue. Who would be selected to grace the Sanctuary table this Sunday? Who was the most beautiful flower in the garden?
The fragrant lilies of the valley, with their white coral bells upon their slender stalks, exclaimed with joy, “We are the ones who ring when the angels sing! What more fitting flowers for the Sanctuary?”

The gardener noticed, snipping just a few. “Ah! So beautiful and fragrant!” she said, adding them to the basket and continuing on.

The Virginia Bluebells called out, “We are much taller and more regal! Our bells bring the beauty of the blue sky to the shady forest floor. Surely, this gardener appreciates a splash of blue!”

The gardener noticed, snipping just a few. “Ah! Such a beautiful color!” she said, adding them to the basket and continuing on.   

In the meadow and near the stream, the delicate Cuckoo Flowers waved in the breeze and whispered, “Over here! Over here! We are the wisest flower of all, for our blooms signal the arrival of the cuckoo birds each spring!”

The gardener noticed, snipping just a few. “Cuc-koo! to you, too!” she said, adding them to the basket and continuing on.
Meanwhile, the May Apple spread its broad leaves and spoke softly. “Just you wait! I guard the most beautiful flower of all! When the time is right you will see my blossom dangling beneath my leaves.”
The gardener noticed. “Ah! What beautiful, glossy foliage!” She kneeled to have a look underneath the leaves and said, “Ah, the time is not yet here. Your flower will come – I must be patient.”

Her basket filled, the gardener returned to the pathway to make her way indoors. Looking from ground to sky, she gave thanks for the abundant beauty of the flowering ground covers, shrubs and trees. As her eyes swept the landscape, she couldn’t help but notice the hillside covered by masses of a delicate-looking flowering white plant.

She gasped. More garlic mustard! European settlers brought it here in the late 1800s for its food and medicinal qualities. Since then, this innocent looking plant has spread so aggressively it overpowers the native plants and robs them of the nutrients they need to flourish.

The gardener wept inwardly and vowed to do everything she could to help remove those plants, so that life in its fullest diversity might once again flourish on the grounds.

She returned indoors, placing the flowers into vases of cool water to prepare them for the bouquet. She rested and reflected on the importance of finding beauty in a world that holds both joy and sorrow.

Refreshed, the gardener entered the Sanctuary to create the bouquet for the annual flower celebration service. She gathered her supplies, and in gratitude first blessed the flowers.

She began to select and arrange the flowers in combinations she found pleasing, balancing color, height, shape and texture, placing the most fragrant where their scents would not compete or clash with one another.
At times, she clustered like flowers and colors with like, for there can be a sense of belonging, strength and impact in unity. Sometimes, she intermingled the flowers with wild abandon, appreciating the energy each gave to another in the contrasting of their qualities. Mindful of the tension between unity and diversity, she favored no one flower over another. “How much better and more beautiful we are together,” she thought.
She remembered learning about the first flower ceremony years ago conducted by Rev. Norbert Capek, minister to the Unitarian church in Prague, Czechoslovakia. In 1923, inspired by a springtime stroll through the city full of blossoms, he asked all the people in the church to bring a flower, a budding branch, or even a twig with them the following week.

“What color? What size? What kinds?’ they asked. “You choose,” he said. “Each of you choose what you like.”

And so, the next Sunday people came with flowers of all sorts. There was excitement in the air as they filled all the vases. Together, they had created something greater and more beautiful than any one blossom.

That day, Rev. Capek preached: “These flowers are like ourselves. Different colors ... different shapes … different sizes, each needing different kinds of care -- But each [is] beautiful ... important and special, in its own way.”    He invited the people to choose a different flower from the vases to take when they left that day.

As the gardener finished arranging the flowers, she wondered who in her congregation had chosen and brought each one. Who would take home which flower?

She reflected on the importance of biodiversity and wondered how she could be a good steward and Place Keeper of the land on the church grounds, in her own backyard, her neighborhood and all through the world. She pondered in her heart the importance of preserving a similar diversity in our own communities, one that values and includes all expressions of humankind. Why do we not appreciate different sizes, shapes and colors of people the way we do flowers? What would it take to remove those practices and institutions interfering, like the garlic mustard, with the full flourishing of all life?

She noted the proper conditions for the flowers’ growth -- fertile soil, nutrients, sunshine, rain, mulch -- and the important roles of pollinators and gardeners.

So, too, she thought, must we tend to the proper conditions for growth and vitality in human communities. So, too, must we use the right tools for different kinds of care. If we keep at it, inch by inch, adding our prayers and songs, so might the bouquet of life and the communal garden of our dreams flourish.

(Adapted from the May 7, 2017 flower celebration multi-generational service, CUUC, White Plains)


Things Happen for a Reason?

You’ve probably heard – and maybe you yourself have said – things happen for a reason. Do you believe that? I mean, obviously SOME things happen for a reason, but is there a reason – not just a cause, but a reason – for every important thing that happens to you? Or are some things just coincidence?

Maybe some of us have brains that are inclined to interpret events as the unfolding of a grand purpose. Others of us have brains that are more comfortable with coincidence: sometimes life-changing events happen for no reason at all -- flukes happen. Maybe this is a genetic thing: a predisposition toward placing events in the context of some kind of intentionality or prior narrative may be normally distributed through the population based on DNA. I don’t know.

I am, myself, by nature or by nurture, more on the "a coincidence is just a coincidence" end of the spectrum. But what I’ve learned is that we can choose to make meaning out of the coincidences of our lives. Whether or not there’s a prior narrative, we can connect events with a post facto narrative. Doing so is kinda fun. It has a playful quality.

The concept of meaningful coincidences was first introduced to me about forty years ago – in a bar. I was eighteen-years-old, an undergraduate at Atlanta’s Emory University. I was in that bar with a woman a couple years older, Madeleine, a fellow student whom I’d met in British Lit class. She had a deck of Tarot cards, and she looked like she knew how to use it. I eyed the cards skeptically.

“It’s not,” she explained, “that I believe that your psyche, or the world, or anything exerts some force upon the cards as they are shuffled, causing them to turn up the way they do in an order which your personality uniquely determines. I don’t believe that. I believe some things are random, that quite a lot happens that has no reason for happening. By random chance it just happens to happen. Some things do have a reason for happening – a lot of things don’t. The shuffling of the cards creates randomness. The cards I’m about to turn up for you will have the same probability of being turned up for anybody else. The fact that your Tarot reading produces, say, the Page of Cups here and the Seven of Pentacles there is simple coincidence.”

She was apparently conceding everything to the skeptical debunkers – except that the debunkers infer from the randomness of the way the cards come up to a conclusion that Tarot readings are useless. Madeleine didn't draw that inference. She set about to present me with a layout of thirteen cards – thirteen little mere coincidences, and she suggested ways that the cards in the different positions interrelated into an overall story. It was then up to me to choose whether to make this coincidence meaningful to me. I could decide to make it part of my identity that I’m the guy that the Tarot cards just happened on that particular day to produce that particular story and lift up that particular set of interwoven reminders.

I know that after that build-up, you would like to know what those cards said on that day, but I don't remember that. The point that I’ve carried with me is the idea that the way we make sense of our lives is largely a matter of deciding to give or see meaning in certain of the coincidences of life. Something like Tarot or palm reading or astrology or the I Ching affords an opportunity to think a little more about who you are, to exercise your faculty of deciding what meaning to make of chance events.

Consider, for instance, the year you were born. Certainly, we are made who we are by the world we were born into. Yet the exact specific events that happened to happen in the year of your birth are just a coincidence – available for each of us to creatively play with and fabricate stories of who we are. I happened to have been born in Richmond, Virginia in 1959 – a child of Yankee parents born in the capital of the confederacy, coming into the world the same year that the last surviving civil war veteran left it. That mixture in some ways identifies me. I grew up in Dixie – in small towns in North Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia – but with the more Northern sensibility of my parents: not a northerner, but never quite at home among the pick-up trucks, the rebel flags, and the segregation either.

In 1959, Castro came to power, and the Dalai Lama went into exile: Cuba gained a dictator that many Cubans didn’t want, and Tibet lost a spiritual leader that many Tibetans dearly loved. That mixture also points to something about me: I’m suspicious of political revolution, while yearning for spiritual revolution.

An interplanetary future was dawning. 1959 saw the first moon landing, Russia’s Lunik II. The US sent up a couple of monkeys into outer space and brought them back alive. Also that year, jazz musician Ornette Coleman introduced free improvisation – a musical style of making it up as you go along. I remember these last two bits when I find myself feeling rather like a monkey in orbit, making it up as I go along.

Each of us arrived where we are today through some strange and winding series of accidents -- an unlikely and elaborate chain of happenstances. Yet here we are -- a unique and improbable agglomeration of personalities. What an amazing, glorious fluke! We come together to care for each other, affirm and strengthen our common values, work out a way to engage the wider world. We gather to make community, a home of what is of ultimate worth, and to awaken to everything included in this grand fluke.


There Is No God, and She Is Always With You

Something called “Spiritual Atheism” is a growing phenomenon. An internet search will turn up lots of material, and recent books by Chris Stedman (Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious) and Alain de Botton (Religion for Atheists: A Non-believers Guide to the Uses of Religion) also support religion and spirituality without endorsing a traditionally theist, personal God. De Botton argues that atheists, instead of deriding religion should steal from it because
“the world’s religions are packed with good ideas on how we might live and arrange our societies.”
A decade ago, a spate of books appeared that were grouped together as “The New Atheism.” The new atheists included Sam Harris (The End of Faith, 2004), Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion, 2006), Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell, 2006), Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great, 2007). These books derided belief in God and also despised faith, spirituality, religion, and religious institutions. What we’re now seeing is a New New Atheism that doesn’t want to deride anything. While still disbelieving in God, this New New Atheism values faith, spirituality, and religion.

The idea that there is no God is actually a staple of Christian Theology going back centuries. The 9th-century Christian theologian John Scotus Eriugena, for example, wrote:
“We do not know what God is. God himself doesn’t know what he is because he is not anything. Literally, God is not, because he transcends being.”
Got that? This is a Christian theologian saying that God does not exist. Eriugena also says God isn't nonexistent in the way that, say, unicorns or good mass-market American beer are nonexistent. Rather God transcends the categories of existence and nonexistence, being and nonbeing.

To get a handle on Eriugena’s point, consider the commandment in Exodus and Leviticus prohibiting idolatry. The prohibition may have begun as a practice of tribal identity: “We’re the people who don’t do statues.” It may have started that way, but the ban on idols ended up pointing the Hebrew people toward something important. As a statue is fixed and static and unchanging, a person might also have certain ideas, beliefs, concepts that become fixed and static. The commandment against idols came to be understood as not just about statues but about any concept or thought-pattern that has become fixed and rigid. By abjuring graven images, the Hebrew people were subtly reoriented toward a conception of God as dynamic, unfolding, and always beyond whatever you can imagine, always other than anything you think.

The divine creative movement of the universe is dynamic, changing. Human understanding is ever unfolding. Idolatry means clinging to a fixed, static conception; closing ourselves to new learning. This, I think, is what John Scotus Eriugena was on about. Any time someone says God exists, she has some idea of what this God is that exists. This is problematic because any concept at all, if you’re stuck on it, is an idol. As soon as you have an idea of God – any idea – smash that idol and return to a stance of total openness to whatever the world might present to you without forcing it into one or another of your preconceived conceptual categories.

If you were to sincerely practice living this way, you would find yourself saying a lot of things that contradict other things you’ve said. Congratulations. That means you’re not making idols of your past statements.

“God” might mean community-forming power; love; the greatest source of beauty, mystery, or creativity; the widest or deepest inspiration to gratitude, humility, wonder, and awe; origin; any ultimate context and basis for meaning, value, ethics, or commitment; the widest reality to which our loyalty is owed; or the cosmos. These, too, are concepts that could become idols. By saying “God” we are also saying more than all of these definitions. Or rather, maybe, less.

We’re saying X – while at the same time whispering “but remember, also not X.” By saying “God,” we are invoking a tradition which, for all its abuses and its nonsense, also includes the reminder that all our ideas are inadequate, a tradition which calls us to smash our idols, a tradition that says there is more there than our words can say – so much more that even our truest words are also false to the fullness of the mystery within which we live and breathe and have our being.

There is no God – that is, there is no possible concept that can encapsulate all of the wonder and the paradox that is this dear life – the wonder and the paradox that is directly staring us in the face every moment, saying, “hey you, knock over the idols of what you think you know and wake up.”

Whatever you think you know, this moment has something new and fresh to teach you. Are you listening? Are you looking? Always. For there is no God, and she is always with you -- whispering: “Pay attention.”