Glued to a Mirage

This blog is for anyone still trying to make sense of life, maybe especially for when the times defy good sense.

Since my late teens, I’ve experienced several major deconstructive educational experiences, each of which left me breathless as if I’ve run a race out of shape. Sometimes the breathless experience is exciting, and sometimes the feeling is a panic, a gasping for life.

My first New Testament course in college evaporated a layer of childish, Sunday-school beliefs. A unit of clinical pastoral education (hospital chaplain internship) in seminary presented me with numerous opportunities to learn I am not always an “A” student in human interactions; and life will never be tidy and tight as a well-written and edited term paper. As a young pastor, I conducted a funeral service for a newborn baby.

The University of Chicago PhD experience poured the “acids of modernity” all over another layer of parochial assumptions. My divorce 27 plus years ago. My time as president at Phillips: I improved some aspects of the seminary’s systems and culture and failed at bettering others—in addition to not taking decent care of myself and re-experiencing that lesson about the contrast between a perfectible term paper and imperfectible human community.

The last three years of reading, especially American stories and histories that are either new or stunningly new to me, caused me to complain frequently, “How the hell did I not know or see that until now?”

In my personal beliefs and in my work, I am trying to make sense of religion, culture, politics, and public morality during one of the most fraught periods in the past century.

I’m breathless again. This time, my attention is glued to a mirage (yes, I mean that to be a contradictory expression). What do I mean when I say “God” or attempt to pray? Traditional Christian language feels empty to me. Or maybe the language just highlights the absence I feel.

Christian mystics through the centuries who experienced and wrote on the “dark night of the soul” would say: “Good! The God you can name is not God.”

Can I take comfort in that insight? I’m still trying. At least, I know I am not alone.

So, because gasping for breath can induce panic, I’m looking for a way out or forward or through. And here is my mind’s path—at the moment. All of the thoughts below swirl when I invoke the word “God.”

The cosmic calendar Carl Sagan and others (e.g., Neil deGrasse Tyson) popularized locates the emergence of human beings on earth about 14 billion years after the Big Bang and about 4 billion years after this planet in the complex, life-generating Goldilocks Zone took shape. After five massive extinction events, here we humans are, showing up just minutes before the end of the first cosmic year.

What an incredible—truly incredible—privilege it is to be alive along with the billions of other living things on the earth (as well as who-knows-what in the rest of this fabulous universe).

Not everything on this planet is made for us or is here for our use. We are not the center of the planet nor the measure of all things.

The earth’s ecosystem has awesome healing power. The sentient, tech-making human species is the only one currently on the planet that can overwhelm the power to heal.

Everything eats and expels stuff something else uses to sustain life. Creatures eat creatures eat creatures.

Everything depends on good, live, healthy soil to produce the plants that produce the calories and the O2 necessary for everything else to eat and breathe.

What smells putrid to human noses may just be decomposition making way for new life, including when our bodies are added back to the earth or the seas from which we came.

I don’t follow Augustine of Hippo very many places, but I think he is right that bad or evil is love desiring, attaching, and being twisted and deformed by desiring and attaching to the wrong object—a bottle, a relationship, a fear, a demagogue, a skin color, a false self, a false deity.

The way the human race has behaved is not fitting for the future of the planet. Human life has been partisan and tribalist throughout our six minutes of cosmic history. But if we do not increase our capacity for tolerance, equality, and compassion for all living beings really soon, Hobbes’ line about life being “brutish, nasty, and short” will become, for a great majority of the planet, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The moral calling for those alive today—to till and keep the earth, to work with God to complete and repair, and to care for one another—is insufficiently developed throughout the world. The U.S.—and the state in which I live—are very much not excepted. The old individualistic wineskins and I-don’t-care-about-you claims about what freedom means are rupturing.

Acts of loving kindness, of compassion, of making life better for someone else—I’ve not seen anything more worthy in life than these. Love, all kinds of genuine love, filled with passion, filled with tenderness, filled with friendship. I picture an old couple, who endured and enjoyed decades together, holding hands. Love is beautiful.

Is there anything better than a baby’s belly-laugh, a meal made with love shared with friends or family or a faith community, making love, holding the hand of a beloved or a lonely patient as they die, showing up in a way that makes a difference, or a bite into a garden-ripe tomato with a drizzle of olive oil, a few basil leaves, and fresh mozzarella (my Italian tastebuds; you substitute the food that makes your mouth want to sing opera)?

Life really is, and should always be, about love, joy, peace, being present with those who suffer in a way that helps, making right what is wrong, changing what we can and letting go of that we cannot change. Dealing with the fact that we die and, therefore, that what I do, what we do, matters.

My few seconds of cosmic time matters.

No, what I do does not likely matter on the cosmic calendar. I’m too old and experience too much vertigo to pilot a spaceship to set a charge and push an asteroid out of a collision path with the planet. (That action would be worthy to note on earth’s calendar!)

In terms of cosmic time, I am a single ant in a little hill on a rare, tiny planet circling a so-so star in a spiral galaxy somewhere in one universe. My stage is even smaller than Shakespeare may have imagined.

But there are people to whom I matter and who matter to me. Communities that matter. Generations to come who matter. I have the gift of life on a life-generating and sustaining world—to invoke Ben Franklin’s words about our “republic,” a life sustaining and generating world if we can keep it.

I would not want to equate “what matters” and God. But I will say that God is in what matters.

Dr. Gary Peluso-Verdend is president emeritus at Phillips Theological Seminary and is the executive director of the seminary’s Center for Religion in Public Life. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. Learn more about the Center’s work here and about Gary here.

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