Saturday, 31 March 2018

Alien or intelligent?

At the time of his death, Professor Stephen Hawking had become known to millions for a courageous struggle to overcome a disease that left a formidable mind locked in a wasted body, and through his book A Brief History of Time. The book baffled people, but I do hope this won’t. Stephen once said alien life is quite common in the universe, but intelligent life less so, and some say it has yet to appear on planet Earth.

The aim of Stephen’s mathematical approach to understanding the universe was to produce a theory of everything that would enable us to know ‘the mind of God.’ This nod to the Almighty was odd, given that he was a declared atheist who, according to his first wife, had real issues with religion. Someone said that when asked why humans were here at all, the Professor replied, "to reproduce". But the mind of God seems to have animated him with a far bigger quest than that –  or a ‘simple goal’ as he expressed it – to find out why the universe is as it is, and why it exists at all.

From a purely scientific perspective this is unsolvable, at least at this stage of our evolution as a ‘meaning seeking’ species, a term used by Greek philosopher Aristotle 2500 years ago. For all our exploration of space, its dark matter and energy is concealed, and we know far less than we once thought about the stuff that makes this universe.  What we do know is open to revision, in the light of new discoveries, nothing is settled in our quest.  The search goes on, we are human, but we have been described as hard wired to need more than monkey nuts and East Enders, and the sky at night does indeed speak to us of a sense of awe and mystery that neither tv soaps nor mathematical equations, nor even physical pleasure can quite satisfy, so these questions are unavoidable for us humans.

The principal of my Theology college was an astrophysicist, he liked to say the observable universe was once small enough to fit through the eye of a needle. He wrote a book on the Big Bang called God Time and Stephen Hawking, had a passion for Jesus, he knew religious thinkers have long acknowledged the unobservable as well as the observable, so we need humility as we gaze on the stars that seem to go for ever.  Better minds than ours have been dazzled by the fact that it exists at all.  There is no logical or rational need for us to be here. Why is there something rather than nothing is not a silly question in our more reflective moments.

We ask why this ‘something’ with its dependable scientific laws has proven so mathematically elegant and fantastically conducive to our human flourishing here on earth.  A shrug of the shoulders, a crass assertion that it has always been here, so just get over it and pass the monkey nuts is no explanation, it fails to do justice to the breath-taking facts as we have them, our long evolution, the exquisitely precise conditions that made emergence of life possible.

Revelation Chapter 21 says I am making the whole of creation new, it will come true, it is already done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.  Ephesians Chapter 1 says Praise be to the God of our Lord who blessed us in the heavenly realms, who chose us before the creation of the world to be put into effect when times reach their fulfilment, unity, to bring all things in heaven and on earth under Christ - this is not so much a theory of everything as the practise of everything, and that's why we are here. 

Jesus knew Easter as Passover, the passing over of death, and it is when for us he absorbed into his body all the enemies of life, doubts, fears, cosmic powers & political principalities bigger than any of us, his body tortured abandoned & broken, so if you share in his suffering you will also share in his glory.

The observable universe, 1,000 billion stars inside 1,000 billion galaxies, was once small enough to fit through the eye of a needle. The first creation happened at the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago, and Jesus was the second, a mere 2,000 years ago, when humans were ready to record it.  If we are to seek a meaning behind life’s deepest mysteries, the ‘why of things’, Colossians Chapter 1, John Chapter 1, 1 John Chapter 1, and Hebrews Chapter 1, all say that Christ is eternity, the spiritual goes on, mirrored yes in Jesus of Nazareth BUT ALSO in every aspect of creation, from elements to weather, planets, animals, attitudes, non-Christians, art, even enemies.  

So it is, two thousand years after St Paul’s amazing missionary journeys, across the globe - an extremely tiny globe in the great cosmic scheme of things, a speck actually, but that’s ok - two billion Christians remember and celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Sceptical minds struggle to comprehend this claim; others dismiss it as nonsense or wishful thinking.  But either the universe is devoid of purpose or it isn’t. If it isn’t, it is the work of an intelligence mindful of human lives and ends, a creator, out of loving concern, overcoming the evil and suffering of Good Friday. It is not beyond the source of this universe to raise his only Son on the third day for us.  And now we know that matter is energy, anything is possible. Set against the equally improbable emergence of time and space and a universe of baffling beauty that reflects ‘the mind of God’, this can be accepted as an article of trust in the heart.

Jesus said before Abraham was, I am, he knew the prophets, and he knew you, before you were born.  When Jesus died, St John found his linen wrappings and the cloth and that had been on his head, rolled up in a place by itself, like a Chrysalis from which a butterfly has emerged, just as if his dead body had simply passed through them, dissolved, moved to a new form of existence. Who is to say it did not?  Mary, looking for a corpse, was instead presented with a new way of being with Jesus. Who is to say we are not?   

To surrender to this before we surrender to death is a resounding ‘yes’, not to a God of religion which Stephen Hawking rejected, but to a self-giving love declaring how glory, not sin and death, has the last word.  This glory beyond the body and the mind is who we ultimately are, hidden with God in Christ, yesterday, today and forever, and this is cause for our celebration.

Behind the observable cosmos is One righteous divine intelligence, One who is for us, not against us, in every cell of our being, One who makes possible endless worlds in the immensities of space, and is able through the raising of Jesus to deal with the shadow that frames every one of our human lives.  For us, the salvation of not just Israel or the world, but the entire suffering cosmos, fulfilled through the gospel, so that death is the beginning of a new type of life through a spiritual body experiencing the grace of God in all matter everywhere. Which brings us to today Easter.

The mind of God that Stephen Hawking, who suffered bodily but sought to discover, is not just mathematics, but shares and experience all suffering, to offer us new bodies, a new heavens, and a new earth.  Surrender to this intelligent life which has appeared on planet Earth for us is a resounding ‘yes’, it means nothing is wasted, not sin or death, so take time to surrender to a real cause for celebration.

On Ash Wednesday I acknowledged I would return to dust.  On Easter Day I’d like to raise a toast that there is more going on than dust.  Just like this icon above, Resurrection is here to stay, never born, never died, beyond body and mind, who I am, hidden with God in Christ, yesterday, today and forever.

Christ is Risen!


Sunday, 18 March 2018

Let go of everything

In Matthew’s gospel Jesus said; “If you want to be perfect, go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”  But when the young man heard this, he went away sad, for he had many possessions. In Luke's gospel, as Jesus left the town, he saw a tax collector sitting at his booth. “Follow me and be my disciple,” Jesus said to him. So, Levi got up, left everything, and followed him. What do these readings have in common?

They both talk about leaving everything behind, all your possessions, all your concerns, letting go in order to follow and be whole.  If you only get  this, that it is necessary to continually let go of everything, you have got it all. This is the practise Jesus taught, contemplation, leaving everything behind, letting go, and letting God.  Consider the unforced birds and lillies. 

That leaving of everything behind is essential in order to follow Jesus and also essential for our human ability to perceive anything clearly. This is why Jesus says blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God, he means that a life without attachments, a life of letting go, allows for a clarity of perception. This is also why Jesus says blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth, he means people who accept what is happening, do not resist what life offers, do not get so angry, can be happier, of service to others, relationships flourish.  In this way, letting go and letting God, the New Testament is mental health advice.  

Our words Holy, Whole, Health and Healing, all have a common root, so the gospel encourages a movement from psychological disintegration to this wholeness.  Mark 5;15 says they came to Jesus and observed a man possessed by legion, which means many, many inner voices, sitting down, clothed, and in his right mind.  This right mind is a whole and integrated mind, no longer a legion of many separate parts and voices, but One mind, the mind of Christ 1 Cor 4;16 says we have, the mind of Christ Phil 2;5 encourages us to allow to be in us, by letting go, a regular emptying of ourselves so that Christ can fill us. In Luke 9:23 he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must leave themselves behind.” Let go. How?  That important advice is given too – regular silence and stillness.
In the Old Testament the psalmist says Be Still, and Know I am God, and truly I have set my soul in silence and peace. Zachariah says let all mankind be silent before the Lord. 1 Kings 19;12 says God is in the silence.  In silence we realise that the unclean spirits which Jesus casts out are not who we are.  2 Corinthians 10;5 says we need to take captive our thoughts.  That  something deeper than words in your head, ceaseless prayer, as Thessalonians 5;17 says, persistent prayer, as Romans 12;12 says, never losing heart, as Luke 18 and Matt 11;5 says, alertness, as Mark 13;33 says, or as Matt 25 says keeping awake, being present, we never know the day or the hour the Kingdom will come.  Letting go of everything else first, putting away anxious thoughts about the physical body, as Matt 6;25 says, in humility and trust, like children, as Matt 18;1-4 also says. I am not hear to quote Bible verses at you – but to make the point the gospels are based on experiences, and experiences are based on practises, and those practises are the silencing of thoughts, or meditative prayer, a preparing of our being for God’s union with the soul, a state of higher doing called Contemplation. These practises require letting go in faith, not beliefs or rules, but trust and knowledge, well-being and spiritual growth. To the Ephesians St Paul said may God give you the spiritual powers of wisdom and vision by which there comes knowledge, strength and power through his Spirit in your inner being, Christ dwelling in your hearts in love, your inward eyes illumined. 

So I quote a Christian Psychiatrist, Larry Culliford. “Growth often occurs through adversity, not by avoiding adversity.  Emotional healing accompanies grieving and acceptance of loss, setting aside overambitious hopes and crippling fears, releasing distorted perceptions, releasing desire for control and security, attachments and aversions to things people places activities ideas and even beliefs.  This is what Jesus offers - let go of everything. If we do, we live with increasing spontaneity, more compassionate, attuned to suffering, wiser, of benefit and value to others.  If we don’t, we fail to understand emotions and go through all six stages of life’s arc. Let’s take those one at a time, first, understanding our emotions. 

For whatever the situation I find myself in, said St Paul to the Philippians, I have learned to be self-sufficient ... to cope with every circumstance ... to be well provided for, or to go without.  He has trained his mind in equanimity & steady state contentment, not thrills and spills. Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, slander, and every form of malice, he said to the Ephesians, just as Peter in his first letter told people to empty themselves of malice and deceit and rage and envy and slander.  This was a training in better emotional habits, not by pretending the worse ones are not there, but by letting go of the worse ones.  This comes in silence and stillness. 

Jesus advised, if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; if you say ‘fool,’ you will be liable to hell.  Letting go is forgiveness, Aphesis in Greek, not just saying someone has done something wrong but you let them off anyway, but a visceral letting go of emotion and tension in your body, a practice in letting go, clearer perception, developing greater health by allowing you to notice how chaotic seeming emotions work rather predictably, as follows.  As St Peter tells us in his second letter, first, we have a desire.  This desire can prevent us becoming divine because this desire for something, or to escape something, when that isn’t possible, leads to anxiety, then bewilderment about what to do, then anger, which is always resistance, a refusal to accept and let go. Attachment to anger, even the milder anger of frankly telling someone what you think, will give you energy or a sense of rightness, it will not give growth, maturity, happiness, it will deny or repress emotion. Letting go of long held emotion on the other hand may lead to guilt, shame, sadness, then a spontaneous release of emotional energy in tears, but always leads to acceptance, not tension.  This is why the Christian Desert Fathers used to pray for the gift of tears.

Regular letting go in embodied prayer allows us to accept forgive integrate and heal, which brings us laughter, love, contentment, joy, trust and wholeness. Faith, the Greek word Pistis, properly understood, is trust, not belief.  It is trust that when you let go, God will be here, is here. Why is it that so many people are unable to become whole ?  Because they don’t want to let go.  Which brings us to the six stages of life’s arc. All of them are necessary for psychological development in the spiritual life.   

Before stage one, when we are tiny infants, our souls are in a state of union with God.  Stage one is when we are young children and look at ourselves in the mirror and identify with the reflection, learn the reflection isn’t just anyone, it is  me.  We become egocentric.  Stage two is when this ego is conditioned with beliefs and opinions of our friends or our family or our tribe.  Jesus incidentally outgrew this by saying anyone, not just my family, but anyone who does the will of God is my Mother Sister or Brother. 

Stage three is becoming the conformist who promotes and defends conditioned beliefs.   But to own beliefs you first have to question them, not just do as you are told, which is stage four, an individual testing them out, then stage five, if you get there, a stage of development where you say OK to beliefs, but integrate them with lots of other ways of understanding. For example, In Romans 8, verse 9 St Paul says; “You are not in the flesh, you are in the spirit,” and we have no reason to think he knew what we now know. If he said it now he might add other dimensions such as the physical, in which matter and energy interchangeable, the very atoms of our bodies were formed in stars. Or biological, evolution showing how we are related to plant fish animal and human flesh. Or psychological, the Kingdom of God inside us containing sense, emotion, impulse, thought, memory, imagination, intuition, and wider social aspects of mind, sympathy, empathy, habit, linked to the practise of the spiritual, God’s Spirit bearing witness with our spirit, moving from dualistic thinking to holistic experience, directly accessing the source who links us all.  But you have to let go for this. Then you realise that Truth, as you would expect of Truth, is True everywhere, not just in the Christian religion. This is Stage 6, Universal, there are no words, you feel connected to the whole, the mind of Christ, the mind of the Universe, as Colossians, Ephesians and John say. 

Feeling cut off from this True Self is sin, your false Self, as St Paul said, a lot of ideas in your head like dissonance on a guitar string out of harmony.  In all of our lives, events cause us to vibrate in this dissonance, but if we regularly come to rest in harmony, by letting go, and by letting God, sitting up, still, not falling asleep, returning our attention to the breath of God inside us, the sensations of the body as a temple of his spirit, we allow God’s spirit to bear witness in our own and see we can be who we are.