A Sermon for the Choir

Please note, dear reader and esteemed member of the choir: this hortatory fragment was written some time ago. Since then, the climate has changed just slightly. This means it is already out of date. However, it remains less out of date than most hymnals, so the choir may still find it of modest interest.

How shall I begin? This world is filled with pain, with desperation and peril, but it is also full with unending beauty. Humankind, victims and perpetrators of our own stupidity and heedlessness, are also beautiful. While not shutting our eyes to the condition of our world and our fellow creatures, and of our own species, we must keep our hearts open to the beauty that surrounds us, wherever we are. Faith is the antidote to despair. Faith is not the province of facts; it is the province of experience.

All things are connected. Strip mines in Appalachia are connected to families who watch television for four hours each day, and can’t listen to each other. The ones who are killed and maimed in far away places by bombs dropped from planes from our countries are connected to the ones who lie hopeless beneath cardboard boxes and blankets on the streets of our cities. Not caring is connected to not caring.

Children who grow into teenagers who grow into adults without learning to respect and care for the world outside themselves are connected to politicians who do not respect the truth or care for the lives and living communities that are entrusted to them. A million people marching through the world’s streets pleading for a livable planet is connected to me listening, truly, when you speak.

It is a moral challenge. It is about truth, and ethics, and the fate of our children’s children, and the children of all beings. It is about being righteous in our relation to the future, and to the present. It is about being good.

It is one struggle. If we realize this, we can see that there is sanctity in working for justice, peace, and wholeness, and that learning to be virtuous is a revolutionary act.

Virtue is not fashionable. Goodness, sincerity, and innocence are not fashionable. Plant a flag on these things and you may be laughed at, but it is the only way to push forward towards a brighter future without being, and looking, like hypocrites.

If we want peace in the world, we have to be peaceful. If we try to fix the wrongs of the world out there while ignoring the cultivation of our own peace, we are too weak for the job at hand. Ghandi spoke of soul force. But we cannot have soul force if our souls are muddled with postmodern confusion about whether it is possible to tell right from wrong.

Real activism goes from the center of one’s self to the farthest reaches of the world. The strongest change comes from within. If our actions are harmonious and based on the same principles all the way from our closest, most immediate effects to out farthest, most distant effects, then we are strong.

The foresight that sees that unmitigated carbon emissions will lead to dire consequences is the same foresight that sees that children growing up in a culture of moral vacuity will lead to dire consequences. Politics would divide us into camps who see either the outer ethics of the world or the inner ethics of character, but seldom both. In the hands of vice, politics would divide and conquer virtue. This is not the way forward.

There is a universal ethics. They are values shared by all peoples and espoused by all faiths. If we base our efforts to save this earth on them, we can communicate across creed and culture and politics.

There is sanctity in all life. The world, created through whatever means, deserves to live. We may steward and cultivate, but not destroy.

If we accept the reductionist premise that all is mechanical, then we are attempting to make a meaningful argument on behalf of life, and of future life, in a context in which life itself has no meaning. It is like attempting to lift one’s self up by one’s own feet. Such a capitulation is not necessary.

We see that there is sacredness in standing up for justice and peace, and there is revolution in sincerity, kindness, honesty, and virtue. To be strong in righting the wrongs of the world, we must work for rightness and harmony and sanctity in ourselves, and among ourselves, and between ourselves and all of creation.

We must be ambassadors of truth and goodness, and yes: also of beauty, for real beauty also transcends boundaries of creed and culture. This is not the sort of beauty one has to be taught to appreciate. It is not the beauty of modern art, or of contemporary design, or of fashion, or of the avant-garde in any field. The distinguishing feature of the avant-garde is its speedy obsolescence. The distinguishing feature of beauty is that it is never obsolete.

Bringing truth, and goodness, and beauty into the world can happen in the humblest of ways. A smile. Work well done. Honesty. There are a million ways in which our human faculties can serve in the growth of the world, in the unfolding of something new. We cannot predict what that something will look like, but we can be, as fully and honestly and artfully as our capacities permit, today, and that will lead us on to what is next.

Jesus, I’ve heard, said to love your neighbour as yourself. Our neighbours are all the living things we come into contact with. Our neighbourhood is the community of all such things, and the culture that exists among them, and our relationships to them. If love fills the gap between our selves and all of our living relations, earth, plant, animal, human, then we cease to be an atom drifting about bumping into other inanimate objects, but become part of something larger, and can begin to see ourselves in all living things.

No matter how far human ignorance and greed goes in damaging and impoverishing the world, Life persists in its patient working of miracles. Even in the midst of the deepest poverty and oppression, there is light. Seeds sprout through cracks in the pavement.

The spark is always there. It cannot be extinguished. We must keep our eyes open, and notice it, and collaborate with it in brightening the world.

Between Here and There

There is a lot of talk in the small, curious world of theoretical physicists, and in the swarm of admiring hand-wavers, paper-skimmers, and buzzword-retailers that surrounds them, myself included, about the arrow of time. This arrow, which is no doubt fletched with the remnants of scores of papers debating its existence, speeds in only one direction. Nobody knows why. “The equations of physics,” so the story goes — I don’t know these equations, but I have this on good authority — can “run in either direction”. Why, then, do they run forward from now until tomorrow, rather than backward from tomorrow until now? Nobody knows, and it seems there is only a very mumbling and ill-equipped dude by the name of Entropy keeping tomorrow from crashing into yesterday and causing a mass of utter confusion.

One day, I will write down a theory about all this, and convince my physicist acquaintances to read it, perhaps along with some bitters for stomach calming or, perhaps more likely, a tube of caviar paste which they are, strangely, quite fond of. Today is not that day.

Today the arrow of time I want to discuss is psychological, not physical, and it moves — if it can be said to move at all — not necessarily forward or backward, but primarily sideways.

What could this possibly mean?

Time, psychologically, has at least two dimensions. There is the forward and backward dimension of the past we remember and the future we imagine; and there is an up, down, or sideways dimension of our current mental state and outlook. Why is our mental outlook a dimension of time? Because as it changes, the futures we can imagine also change. It is as though we are traveling sideways in a 2-dimensional plane of time: the forward-looking line of plausible futures changes with each version of now we inhabit. As usual, a scientific plot will help:

 

 

This is of course not the whole story. We behave as though there’s a future out there, and we’re going from here to there, but in fact there isn’t a there at all, only a interminable here that changes as it goes along, such that one here is vaguely related to what we did in the previous one. Brilliant, eh? No. It’s the biggest cliché since Zen and the Art of Whatever-You-Jolly-Well-Please. It’s also true.

The idea of a here, and a there, and some kind of passage in between is an important illusion. It’s important because without an imaginary future over there that we can be illogically striving towards, here tends to get increasingly shabby. Entropy, remember? He was talking about people, not futures, but Victor Frankl said it very well.

If there is what we imagine could be, should be, or must be — say, a world in which humans are living in something like harmony with the Earth, or a version of myself that has moved beyond Earth-destroying economic entanglements — here is our starting point, the situation as it is: a world getting closer to ecological collapse each day, and myself still eating, directly or otherwise, from the economic systems that are abusing the planet.

Futures have a function, and that is to alter what we do in the present. To serve this function, though, they have to be believable. To be believable, we have to be able to see a way to get between here and there. To see a way between here and there, through or around the obstacles that lie in between, we have to be looking from the right spot. To get to the right spot, we have to be able to move, not just forward in time, but up, down, and sideways, such that we can change our outlook until we catch sight of a future that looks so frickin’ fantastic that we’ll get — no, we’ll jump — up off our sorry butts and start trying to drag ourselves, possibly our friends and relatives or anyone else who will listen, possibly even the whole world, in that direction.

In extreme cases that are successful, this is called being a visionary. In extreme cases that are unsuccessful, it’s called being insane. Otherwise, it’s called the human condition. How I feel, what I ate for breakfast, what calamitous or inspiring thing I’ve just been informed of all change my outlook, and therefor what seems to lie between here and there. My movement up, down, and sideways in time is determined by a host of factors, only some of which are under my control. The more I understand them and learn to navigate, the better my view can be.

All this talk of viewpoint could be dismissed as romantic delusion, but the fact is that where we are — what forward-looking line we can see — is critical for practical, real-world effectiveness.

Famous change agents are famous in part because they were unusually capable navigators of perpendicular time, and were able to see a route between here and there that was invisible to others: Ghandi, for example, a route of non-violent resistance from tyranny to self-rule; MLK a route of non-violent resistance from oppression to civil rights; Victor Frankl a route from despair to meaning, no matter the circumstances; Elon Musk a route through a $100,000 battery-powered roadster from fossil-fueled disaster to universal clean energy; Donal– …. no, never mind. There are negative visionaries as well: those who are able to see a route from here to a version of there that is generally repugnant enough from where many people sit that they can’t see the line of possibility and are therefor taken horribly by surprise. Visionaries are nearly always underestimated, since their futures are simply impossible when viewed from where most people are looking from.

Every visionary is some percentage a failure. The vision of what could be — peace between Muslims and Hindus in India for example, or justice and equality between races in the USA — rarely fully comes true. Reality falls short of the mark, but it can get much closer thanks to someone finding a place to stand where they could catch a glimpse through a pin-hole of possibility, and then describe it convincingly enough to bring others close to the same viewing point.

Views of what’s possible create their own probabilities. The question is not which view of what’s possible is “most true”; the question is: which view of what’s possible will lead to the best result?

I think the heart, that organ of surpassing sagacity and sometimes of extreme foolishness, generally knows this. It is more prudent than the mind, and invests only in what is inspiring, knowing that what is inspiring has the best chance of success.

As an activist in any arena, even the petri dish of my own consciousness, I have to keep in mind that navigation of mindset and motion on the ground are of equal importance.  Just getting to the visionary place where I can see a way forward does nothing; pushing for change without getting to that place may do less than nothing, because the pushing might not be pointed in the right direction.

We need to have an inspiring vision, whether it’s of a more beautiful world, or a more enlightened version of myself, and we need to know in our hearts that this vision is possible. At the same time, we need to look very close to home, in both time and space, for the real action that will move us forward towards whatever a positive future will look like, whether it matches the vision or not. Like belief, a vision of the future is a tool that can be used for adjusting the knobs and dials of our own minds and motivations. Meanwhile, the knobs and dials of my mind affect the future I can see, and so believe.

Between here and there is an imaginary landscape. It is by changing the version of here I’m inhabiting that I can get the virtual reality out there to leverage the evolution of here so that, in time, there can become real.

Genesis

This is it, my friends. After some years of incubation, ideas begat words, which begat documents, which begat schemes, which begat domain names, which begat doubts, which begat delays, which begat panics, which begat more delays, which begat reflection, which begat inspiration, which begat more domain names, which begat a WordPress installation, which begat a “coming soon” page, which begat, after a surprisingly brief interval, this post.

It was bound to happen some time, just like our fine-tuned cosmos in the universe-proliferating schemes of Max Tegmark, or every possible version of everything according to the many quantum mechanical worlds of Hugh Everett. (These are highly unparsimonious theories, but they do forward the increasing difficult and quixotic aim of keeping meaning out of science’s view of the universe; and, incidentally, of this post.)

Starting a blog is like climbing up a rocky outcropping and flinging ideas into the wide, murky ocean of the internet. They may sink, float, or, in rare cases, catch some off-shore zephyr in their gossamer thought-sails and go zooming off toward the far horizon. It can be messy, but here’s the thing: ideas don’t really do any good if they’re just sitting around getting fat and eating all the potato chips in the back of my head. They need exercise. They need to get out a bit more.

The perfect exercise machine for a flabby ol’ idea is a conversation, and I’m hoping this blog will start a few. They may be online or off, light or deep, short or long. Possibly, it will facilitate communications with various people who, noting my lack of academic qualifications, wealth, royal parentage, or Twitter followers, would hesitate to communicate otherwise.

If I’m very lucky, it may even shatter the dull poignancy of a conversation in which nobody realizes their mutual enthusiasm for evolutionary game theory, composting their own manure, or even Life the Universe and Everything; due to this, they have a brief exchange of insipidity that is of interest to no one, then go away feeling slightly more disappointed about themselves and possibly the whole universe.  If this blog somehow thwarts even one such encounter, it will have paid the debt of its existence and proved a counter-example to my brother-in-law’s well-intentioned theory that talking about ideas makes me an aloof, nerd-infested brain case from which all sociable people will run away while silently clutching their heads. Disproving this theory is one of my ambitions in life.

I intend to write about some of the strange things I’ve noticed during my so-far-thirty-odd-year sojourn among the three-brained beings on this planet. Here’s one such strange thing: none of us are merely “on” the Earth; we are part of it, along with the rest of life; we are an expression of the creativity of Earth and Sun, of the miraculous propensity of the universe towards complexity and splendour. And, we are an expression of DNA, of natural selection, of genes selfish and altruistic, of the struggle for survival, of physics, chemistry, and biology. Worldviews can contain each other.

So, this blog will also be about jigsaw pieces of things — science, religion, ecology, enlightenment, politics — that seem to fit together surprisingly well, but haven’t been assembled quite yet.

You and me are like neurons in the brain of a very large creature. Each of our communications is a little action potential jumping across a synapse, contributing its minuscule vibration to the whole symphony of our sleep-walking global cranium that one way or another, through its harmony or discord, shapes the fate of the world.

Right now, that symphony isn’t sounding too good. But, the better we can each play our own instrument, and the more elegantly we can harmonize with others similar or dissimilar to ourselves, the more we can contribute to getting the whole orchestra pit back on track.

Dendrites collecting incoming signals? Check. Ion channels loaded? Check. Membrane potential approaching threshold voltage? Check. Neurotransmitters massed in the presynaptic terminal? Check. 3… 2… 1… ZAP!

Thanks for stopping by.