A sermon by R. David Coolidge and James Ishmael Ford delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, May 15, 2011
A Muslim & Unitarian Universalist Conversation
In the Name of God who is Mercy and Compassion
By the Night as it conceals (the light);
By the Day as it appears in glory;
By (the mystery of) the creation of male and female;-
Verily, (the ends) ye strive for are diverse.
So he who gives (in charity) and fears (Allah),
And (in all sincerity) testifies to the best, -
We will indeed make smooth for him the path to Bliss.
But he who is a greedy miser and thinks himself self-sufficient,
And gives the lie to the best,-
We will indeed make smooth for him the path to Misery;
Nor will his wealth profit him when he falls headlong (into the Pit).
Verily We take upon Ourselves to guide,
And verily unto Us (belong) the End and the Beginning.
Thefore do I warn you of a Fire blazing fiercely;
None shall reach it but those most unfortunate ones
Who give the lie to Truth and turn their backs.
But those most devoted to Allah shall be removed far from it,-
Those who spend their wealth for increase in self-purification,
And have in their minds no favour from anyone for which a reward is expected in return,
But only the desire to seek for the Countenance of their Lord Most High;
And soon will they attain (complete) satisfaction
— Holy Quran, Surah 92, the Night (Abdullah Yusuf Ali translation)
I remember as a child learning about how stars grow as they die, and that one day our sun will turn into a red giant and consume the Earth, and it will no longer be, just as once it was not. The finitude of it all terrified me, but I realize now how childish that was. Objectively speaking, the Earth is just one of many planets that we know, and there are surely far more that we do not know. So what is the big deal if one day it blinks out of existence?! The answer is as obvious as it is selfish – it matters because it matters to me, not to some objective, universal view from nowhere.
But what happens when my subjective consciousness confronts a tremendous objective truth, one that can be assented to without any metaphysical claims? We live most of our lives as if all of this matters in its outward form, but both religious and secular ways of looking at the world affirm the same truth, that all of this will pass away. One day, Providence will no longer exist, not even as a memory, and everything that we hold dear, every tear shed, every passion fulfilled or denied – it will not longer be, nor remain, nor matter.
The consciousness of the mystic has no qualms about collapsing the subjective and the objective, for half of mysticism is simply bringing truth claims to the forefront of consciousness. As much as it scares us, our physical reality is nothing that we can really hold on to. To know with certainty that one cannot even know the makeup of one’s current physical self is to pass from a normal way of experiencing reality to the borders of the mystical. For often, the mystical is only understood in contrast to the routine, to the mundane, to the taken-for-granted. But it is precisely the everyday perception of things that must be challenged.
Chris Hedges, in his book Empire of Illusion, states, “We are chained to the flickering shadows of celebrity culture, the spectacle of the arena and the airwaves, the lies of advertising, [and] endless personal dramas.” In short, he argues that we have become obsessed with ourselves, with our own subjectivities, and with the little meaning-worlds that we create. In order to avoid regression, we must, like the young prince who became the Buddha, leave the little castles that we have built for ourselves, and confront birth, old age, sickness, and death, - in short, existence - with unblinking eyes.
For me what David says isn’t abstract.
When I was twelve or thirteen my father landed a job as caretaker for an apricot farm in Hemet, California, owned by a dentist who lived in LA. It was spending time in the country that interested the dentist. The apricots simply came with the property. Still, it was an asset and the grove needed tending. I’m not sure who got the short end of the stick, although I have some thoughts. The dentist hired someone who didn’t have a clue about nature, much less farming running his operation. My father landed a job that was paid in apricots. So, for a year we became sharecroppers. To this day, I have to admit I have little taste for the fruit.
The reason I found myself thinking of this in regard to today’s reflection was how my brother and I would spend hours wandering the washes and scrub, and how on our adventures one day we stumbled upon a dead horse. It was gruesome. Its eyes were gone as was the flesh around its mouth. The belly was a great empty cavern that had become a nest for small animals.
At first we were shocked. I felt my stomach rising into my throat. And we were fascinated. I couldn’t turn my eyes away. We wandered around looking at it from all angles. Then we poked it with a stick just to be sure it was dead. It was.
We squatted in the dust pretty close to the horse and looked hard at it. And there, possibly for the first time, certainly this was my earliest continuing memory about all this; I realized I was like this horse. In time, I too, would die. I can’t say how this realization works for other people, but for me, it became a haunting truth that hung in the back of my head, in the back of my heart.
The comforts of my childhood faith would begin to unravel in a couple of years, heavens and hells seemed little more than stories to comfort or scare children and the gullible. But the nagging knowledge of my mortality remained, always there, somewhere inside of me, no matter what. No doubt this was a large part of why I ended up in a Buddhist monastery not many years later.
Confronting that which we know to be true is at the heart of the spiritual quest. I will not speak for other traditions, but in the Islamic tradition there is a great discourse on delusion. What is it to be deluded? It is not enough to be wrong. It is to be wrong while simultaneously thinking that we are right. In short, it is to be obsessed with ourselves to such a degree that we cannot even see our own contingency and limitations.
I did not make me, that is for certain. I do not control my own heartbeat; that is without doubt. The “I” that speaks to you now could not even have the power of speech if not for the coming together of forces that I do not even comprehend, let alone have mastery over. So in what way do “I” matter?
One answer can be found in the reality of intention. There is nothing in the universe that can intend for me, unless I intend it. That intention may not manifest itself as an action, and if it does, my action may even result in something other than what I intended, but it is impossible to conceive of a forced intention. Intentionality is integral to the deepest part of who we are.
You may wonder, “So what does that get us,” and this is a fair question. My remarks have been first and foremost to deal with reality as such, not how we may want it to be. Intentionality does not redress global inequities, nor repel a laser-guided missile aimed at someone’s home. But change begins with an intention. When I paid my taxes this year, I intended them to be solely for bridges, roads, national parks, healthcare for the poor and elderly, and public education. Nobody can take that away from me, and for that I am grateful.
I did not choose to come into existence, but while I am here, I choose what I intend to do with it. This is the secret of the Arabic word for religion, which is “deen.” The word “deen” comes from the same root as the word for “debt,” which is “dayn.” So one’s religion is precisely how one pays off the debt incurred by the fact of existing, and in this respect, all human beings are religious.
So given this truth, we must never let ourselves limit our intentions. If our existence is ultimately without purpose, then we should intend to experience as much of this world as possible while we are here. When the debt comes due, we should be able to say that we spent lavishly with what little we had. And if existence has a purpose, then our intentions should line up with the loftiest possibilities of congruence with that purpose. We should invest our capital as wisely as we can, and intend to earn an infinite return. Either way, there is a life to be lived, so let’s live it.
I think there are three things for us to carry away out of this reflection.
One is to try hard to see things as they are. It is a call to anyone who wants a real spiritual life. How do we avoid the siren songs of ego, and in so narrowing our vision, miss the bigger picture? How do we avoid falling into delusion about who and what we are? For me the way through is a bare witnessing. Being present and noticing. Call it meditation, that’s my preferred word. Call it prayer, that has been a good word for many, many people over many, many years. But, however you call it, watch, listen, notice. Open your heart wide. Open your eyes wide.
This witnessing reveals so much. Some of what we find is baseline, realities we find we share. I bet we’ve all stumbled upon our own dead horse along the way. But it’s important to notice when these things happen. For one it shows how each thing is both finite and precious. We birth into the world, we exist, and we pass away.
Our passing existence recalled only as an impression on the fabric of what is. Or, if you will, recalled only by God. What this points to, is how we are truly all of us connected more intimately than words can convey, although we try. From my perspective we are woven out of the world. I hear in David’s words, another ancient way of understanding this as how we are all the creatures of God. What I believe we share, David and I, is a deep knowing that who we are is temporary, and yet we find our existence, our birth and our death encompassed within something greater. Precisely how this is so? Well, human imagination is fertile, and in contemplating this mystery the many religions birth.
But, noticing the connection and the greater, however we name it; that leads to the second thing we hold up for you, today. I agree with David, with all my heart, that intention is critical to a life worth living. We don’t have enough time to unpack just how free free-will might be, but I do believe that for all practical purposes we have within our humanity an ability to say yes and to say no. And there are consequences to having this ability. What you choose to do, what I choose to do, matters. Our intentions count in very real ways.
Our intentions lead to actions, and that is the third thing to reflect on today. Our actions, well, who knows the consequences of our actions will be? There are so many factors in motion that even the smallest act can have enormous consequence. In Chaos theory this is called the Butterfly Effect. The conditions of existence are too vast for us to ever be sure what will come of any given thing we choose to do. But, to live is to act. There is no avoiding this.
So, among other things, there should be some hesitation as we stand at the edge of any given action, particularly if it is hard or violent. It matters in our political choices. It matters in our personal choices. There will be consequences.
So, what’s the best course? The path is simple enough. Seeing our own finitude. Knowing we’re part of something bigger. Realizing our connections to each other within this larger. Intend the best. And then act.
For goodness’ sake, do something.
And, then, let God be the judge of what follows.
It’s all we can do.
(R. David Coolidge is Chaplain for the Muslim Community at Brown University. James Ishmael Ford is senior minister at the First Unitarian Church of Providence.)