When I was a child I was told that I asked too many questions. Often. Mostly, I was told this by my mother, as she was the most available person to ask. “Stop asking so many questions!” I expect that she said this because she (1) was busy with other things, adult things, and that all my questioning was a distraction, and (2) found that she too often didn’t have the answers to the questions which made her feel uncomfortable and self-conscious.
I expect that UUs and those who become UUs run into this situation more than most. (Could you raise your hand if you have experienced this accusation fairly frequently in your life?)
Of course, many of the questions were childish ones such as “What’s for dinner?” and “Are we almost there?” and “How come Johnny doesn’t get in trouble when he eats all the cherries, but you yell at me when I eat the grapes?”, and I can’t blame my mother—or anyone else—for having little patience with such questions as those.
It’s the larger, deeper, more profound questions that I’m talking about, though. Life’s big questions. In our religious tradition, it’s our obligation as a community to ask such questions, and the responsibility for coming up with answers to most of these questions doesn’t reside with the minister, but with each member of the congregation. No one tells you what to believe, but we try to provide helpful questions which provide a path toward various truths. And I try, when I can, to provide my answers, which may be provisional answers for you while you continue to ponder and develop answers of your own.
As long as a question is important, it is worth asking. And, of course, what might be an important question for me might not be an important question for you. And vice versa. Which leads to another question—which we’ll get to later.
I won’t talk for that long because I don’t have all the answers, and I’d like to hear your answers as we talk about such things as God and truth and interconnectedness and compassion and power and love. The questions I pose are mine, but the answers come from a variety of perspectives.
It might be posed that the most basic question of all is, “What is truth?” And, I think, for us living in the 21st century, the answer to that must always be “That depends,” and it depends on a number of things. We have various mechanisms (shall we say) for perception; our perceptions are formed in part by the culture we’ve grown up in. Some of us will tend to accept its assumptions as true. Some of us will “ask too many questions” and be unsatisfied with answers which are too “easy,” meaning reinforced by others and so conditioned by our desire for acceptance and comfort.
“Who is God?” I asked, or “What is God?” or “Does God Exist?” Questions important enough that thousands of people have been killed because of their responses to them. Questions that seem quite irrelevant to many people today. “Does God exist?”
My answer is “Yes,” but it rests on the assumption that “God” is the reality we all are a part of, that nature is the most readily accessible face of God, that mathematics and physics and chemistry and biology are all aspects of God, that God is always in process, is always changing, and is endlessly creative.
Whether God is good or not is another question. We can ask that question only from a certain, narrow frame of reference. We tend to isolate events—a plane crash, a bombing, the death of a loved one—and ask our large questions from within that framework. Then, we assign value or blame or both and make our assessment.
But, a million billion things led to that plane crash, including the human ingenuity that conceived we could fly in multi-ton vehicles in the first place, not to mention the assemblage of all the components, the mining of ores for the metals, the fabrication of plastics, and the variety of motivations of all those involved in the enterprise. We tend to discount the fact that if God is made up of all things and all energies, as I believe God is, then God includes us—and God includes our ability to make choices. We are-co-creators, all of us, in our actions and our inaction and in our interdependence.
But, no conversation is held in a vacuum. Everyone in this room has different associations with the words “plane crash” and “bombing” and “death of a loved one.” That’s why conversations about the biggest issues and the biggest ideas are so hard. If you have had a personal experience with a plane crash or a bombing or the death of a loved one, you have experienced an emotional response that is triggered just by the mention of those words. And that emotional response is, at the same time, very personal. It affects you in a way that no one else can know. Yet it is in a sense universal, as we have all experienced tragedy in our lives. What are we to make of this dual nature of emotional experience?
It leads us to two of the other large questions: “What is the nature of compassion?” and “What is the role of compassion?” These are questions for each person to consider as an individual and to enact as it seems appropriate for each.
One of the great tragedies of our age, I think (though it’s true in some measure in all ages), is a tendency towards social isolation. You may have seen the story in Friday’s Daily News telling of a woman found dead in her apartment five months after her passing. She lived in a neighborhood surrounded by others, but nobody noticed that her two vehicles had sat unmoved for that long period of time. “No one noticed when Warren Rural Electric Co-op Corp. placed a bright orange tag on her front door June 24 notifying her that her electricity had been cut off.” It was only after her mail had been piled up for between five and six months that “a neighbor called the sheriff’s office for someone to check on her welfare.” The subtitle of the article is “Unnoticed Deaths Becoming More Commonplace,” and the article goes on to cite several other such cases in Warren County in the past few months.
If we felt more connected to our neighbors, we would feel more moved to check on them to see if all is well if we’ve noticed a lack of activity in the home. But, our lives are busy with other things. Take a moment to monitor the feelings that have arisen as you’ve heard this story.[a period of silence]
You might have noticed an interior voice saying something or more than one thing.
- “That’s sad. I’ll have to be more aware of my neighbors.”
- “That’s sad. I should call my sister and ask her to check in on my aunt and uncle; she lives close to them.”
- “That’s sad, but things like that happen all the time. We’ve all got our own problems and we just do the best that we can.”
- “My God, I can’t believe that he’s talking about all these sad things.”
All of these responses are legitimate in their ways. We do have our own lives to live, and we would prefer not to think about sad things. But, it’s also true that we are all interconnected yet we often live as if there is no connection at all between us. Compassion is, in some way, a leap from mind to mind, heart to heart, person to person.
If you have been nurtured in a healthy way from the earliest years, the bond of caring that naturally exists between a parent and a child becomes a tangible thing, something that is part of your experience and exists as a reality in the world. If you’ve been unfortunate enough to miss out on the bonding that occurs through the interchange of love, I feel compassion for you, I extend my love to you. It’s a hard place to find yourself in. But, even so, practicing caring through caring acts will increase our capacity to care, to connect, and to experience the reality of interconnectedness where God lives (if you choose to give that experience that name).
The most basic questions for all of us include the existential question: “Who am I?” We can all start out with the sentence “I am a person,” but where do we go from there? Does it occur to us to say “I am a person who cares about others”? Or even, “I am a person who cares.” Using that as a foundation, there are all kinds of ways of knowing ourselves, exploring ourselves, extending our capacities and our influence in the world. I get charged up when I’m in the presence of a caring person.
I had a chance to spend a couple of hours on Friday morning with such a person. She asked about my life, listened carefully, responded animatedly, engaged in a conversation that went back and forth as I shared with her my joys and sorrows and challenges. She told me of the developments in her life, which, thankfully, are mostly of the joyful kind these days. I left our meeting to go to a doctor’s appointment, stopping off for a short shopping trip on the way. I noticed how interactive I was with the clerk in the shop, how patient I was as a patient (sorry) in the hospital, how engaged others were because I offered engagement to them.
We tend to think of compassion as the ability to identify with others in their time of need, but I think there is an element of compassion in our identifying with another at any level. A joyful compassion fuels you for the interactions when someone is “down” and needs a willing ear. A sense of balance is necessary if you are to live a healthy life spiritually, and you can’t be balanced if you don’t receive the energy you need by feeling cared for.
In this political season (which seems to reach back to the beginning of time—and in some ways it does), the big question that comes up for me is about power. Why is it so attractive? How necessary is it? What can we do with it? What can we do without it?
I’ve never been so aware of the differences between people as I have been this election season. The difference of opinions—wow! I sometimes think my head is going to explode. But, maybe the biggest difference I’m aware of is between people who crave power for its own sake and people who don’t care much about power at all, but just want to be left to go their own way without being bothered. Which again brings up this question of interdependence and interconnectedness. There’s actually no way we can just “go our own way,” but I can certainly understand the impulse.
For most people that I know, the question of the desire for power seems to be limited to the desire for enough power for self-determination, but not so much as to control others. At the same time, I’m aware of the limits of my experience, having heard stories of the abusiveness in domestic partnerships, a misuse of power that occurs (mostly) behind closed doors, so I’m aware that the desire for power plays out in the lives of those I know and care about in ways beyond my direct experience. The desire for power itself, though, I don’t understand well.
I’ve been reading about that desire a lot lately, though, in books as diverse as The Edge of Sadness by Edwin O’Connor, True Confessions by John Gregory Dunne, and The Sea Wolf by Jack London. In the book by London, Wolf Larson, who is the captain of the seal hunting ship, is a man consumed with the desire for power over other men. His world view is simple: there is no meaning to life at all.
His view is expressed most directly in an exchange he has with the narrator, one Humphrey Van Weyden, who was rescued more or less on a whim of the captain’s from a drowning death at sea. Wolf Larson christened him “Hump” and forced him into duty as a cabin boy. Mr. Van Weyden was born a gentleman and needs to learn how to survive in the hellish ship of the Sea Wolf who rules with an iron hand.
But, Wolf Larson is interested in learning and has a row of books that astonishes our narrator, including one on the philosophy of Herbert Spencer. Humphrey Van Weyden states Spencer’s position this way: “And the highest, finest right conduct… is that which benefits at the same time the man, his children, and the race.”
“I wouldn’t stand for that,” Wolf Larson replies, and goes on as follows:
“Couldn’t see the necessity for it, nor the common sense. I cut out the race and the children. I would sacrifice nothing for them. It’s just so much slush and sentiment, and you must see it yourself, at least for one who does not believe in eternal life. With immortality before me, altruism would be a paying business proposition. I might elevate my soul to all kinds of altitudes. But with nothing eternal before me but death, given for a brief spell this yeasty crawling and squirming which is called life, why, it would be immoral for me to perform any act that was a sacrifice. Any sacrifice that makes me lose one crawl or squirm is foolish,—and not only foolish, for it is a wrong against myself and a wicked thing. I must not lose one crawl or squirm if I am to get the most out of the ferment. Nor will the eternal movelessness that is coming to me be made easier or harder by the sacrifices or selfishnesses of the time when I was yeasty and acrawl.”
“Then you are an individualist, a materialist, and, logically, a hedonist.”
“Big words,” he smiled. “But what is a hedonist?”
He nodded agreement when I had given the definition. “And you are also,” I continued, “a man one could not trust in the least thing where it was possible for a selfish interest to intervene?”
“Now you’re beginning to understand,” he said, brightening.
“You are a man utterly without what the world calls morals?”
“A man of whom to be always afraid—”
“That’s the way to put it.”
“As one is afraid of a snake, or a tiger, or a shark?”
“Now you know me,” he said. “And you know me as I am generally known. Other men call me ‘Wolf.’”
“You are a sort of monster,” I added audaciously, “a Caliban who has pondered Setebos, and who acts as you act, in idle moments, by whim and fancy.”
His brow clouded at the allusion. He did not understand, and I quickly learned that he did not know the poem.
“I’m just reading Browning,” he confessed, “and it’s pretty tough. I haven’t got very far along, and as it is I’ve about lost my bearings.”
Wolf Larson is a man to be afraid of. His interest is in power, and he is open and frank about it. At the same time, at the end of the passage when he admits a weakness, especially doing so in the language of the sea, his homely, well-known language, we smile and begin to open up to him a little. And this opening up, cautious as it is and as self-protective as we know we must be, is where love begins.
Love is another big word, too big for me today, I’m afraid, on top of all the other words. And it’s one I expect to be wrestling with next week when I speak to you about seeking peace in the midst of violence.
And now I’d like to hear your thoughts on power and compassion and the nature of God, your thoughts on what it means to be human religiously, as James Luther Adams might say.
- “Woman found dead after 5 months,” The Bowling Green Daily News; October 1, 2016. P. 1.
- The Sea Wolf by Jack London. Bantam Books. NY, NY. 1960.
Presented by the Rev. Peter Connolly at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, KY on October 2, 2016