George Orwell, in his seminal novel on authoritarian governments argued that there are big words like Democracy, Freedom, Love that evoke an understanding of who we are and what we do in such a fundamental way that we simply cannot abandon them to the limiting definitions of authorities whose goals have narrowed to social control and the defense of a privileged few.
According to Orwell, allowing Democracy to become simply the tyranny of a plurality, is to lose the concept of the inherent worth and dignity of all individuals; to allow Freedom to be limited to free from–as in a dog is free from lice—is to eviscerate our understanding of political and intellectual freedom.
Accordingly, in the Big Brother world of 1984 the understanding of Peace became the study of war; the Ministry of Truth was solely concerned with the production of propaganda. Peace and truth, as we understand them, were, simply, not comprehensible in Winston Smith’s world.
What Orwell described for 1984 applies very directly to our world today.
Preston Manning once told a Fraser Institute sponsored conference on economic opportunities in Canada’s healthcare delivery, that as long as the debate was about privatization, “we” can’t win, but if ‘we’ can change the language to offering consumers choice, then, he said, the entire healthcare system is “ours.” Ours—meaning profit hungry corporations like the American health insurance industry.
Sustainability wasn’t a big word in Orwell’s day but it is a big word today. The concept is so big it has yet to be adequately defined. Some say sustainability is planning for today’s needs in a way that leaves resources and a functioning ecology to sustain our children. It’s a word so germane to who we are and what we do as individuals and society that almost everyone tries to define or contain the meaning.
Under heavy pressure from the US, the United Nations Committee on the Environment, The Brundtland Commission, tried to steer the concept toward meaning ever escalading trade which doesn’t have any obvious and immediate environmental impacts.
Some suggest the word Sustainability has become so abused and ambiguous that we should stop using it to describe policy based on social justice and healthy ecological systems, but I like it precisely because it evades definition.
In the end this word speaks directly to our intuition—our hearts. Instinctively we know something larger than words about Sustainability because we can relate in a heart-felt way to the core concept sustain; it evokes caring and nurture—nurture for ourselves, our fellow humans, our children and grandchildren, for our beautiful, bountiful and threatened Earth.
If the word Sustainability had been current in the 1984 lexicon, the ministry of Truth would most certainly have redefined it as the imperative of Sustained Development—precisely the definition which most of the capitalist world currently ascribes to it.
Now here is a real kicker. One day I was sitting around meditating on the word sustainability and I was thinking about George Orwell and how I wish he had included sustainability in there with those really important concepts that we just can’t let authorities limit—big words like Democracy and Freedom and Justice and love.
Those of you who don’t know me would be most forgiven a little snicker here. I mean I know it seems passing strange, sitting around meditating on Democracy, Freedom, Justice and Love. But I do that kind of thing; it’s a lot better than lying on a bed of nails!—so I am told!
So any way I was sitting there thinking about these big words and watching the rain come down in wind driven sheets when this strange thought buzzed about my head—kind like a pesky fly. I thought it would go away—this silly idea, but it didn’t. It hung around asking the strangest question– what if God is one of those big words?
No, I dismissed the idea easily out of a long established Unitarian habit; it can’t be. But the thought wouldn’t go away. Oh, this was clearly one of those slippery slopes I never expected to be on.
What? I allowed myself to ask hesitantly.
What if the word God is not the four-lettered concept I once took it to be? What if God, like Sustainability and all those other ambiguous, abused terms has some has some inherent, intuitive, irreplaceable meaning that speaks to/comes from our intuition, our hearts, our deepest understanding of our place in the universe?
What if, I felt drawn to speculate, God is no more the inspiration for the domination of nature and conquest of people than 1984 Truth was propaganda or the Ministry of Defense, the department of war. What if God—like Sustainability–is about nurture of ourselves, our fellow humans, our children and our bountiful Earth?
Is God then Sustainability; Sustainability God? The thing about thinking outside the box is it becomes easy to lose all sense of boundary. What if God is larger than sustainability? What if God is the underlying value that makes our commitment to Sustainability possible or comprehensible?
I know; I KNOW! God is an angry, jealous, vengeful old goat in the sky; God is the benefactor, Commander-in-Chief of an array of warring tribes; God gave humanity “dominion’ over the Earth and Man over Woman; God justifies the taking of slaves and the genocide of peoples. I’ve heard, thought and said all that, but what if, rather than an objective entity separate from humanity, God is—most essentially and necessarily—the sacred knowledge that the heart of the universe is creativity not chaos, that human life is inherently the search for love, meaning and beauty rather than a greedy battle to own, control and use up Earth and others? Seen as an inhering condition of our own perceptions, could not God be experienced as the gate way to the realm of awe, wonder and life infusing joy rather than a barricade against knowledge thrown up by ecumenical authorities?
Did not the Apostle Paul state clearly in his letter to Corinth: “Don’t you know that you are the temple of God and the Spirit of God dwells in you?”?
To me it seems that the news these days is almost all bad–retreating glaciers, unprecedented hurricanes, disappearing fish stocks, terrorists killing with small bombs and nations killing with shock and awe, greed and corporate interests pursued as though they were higher goals than justice and compassion—all a consequence of a pervasively soulless materialism, a inescapable corollary of our inability to understand neither our embeddedness in this living planet, nor our inherent connection to one another.
Daily I become more convinced that something fundamental has gone wrong. We can’t fix this mess with a carbon tax credit or international courts that meet out justice to losers in the battlefield, while ignoring the contempt of the world’s superpowers for basic human rights.
To me the problems seem to have become so pervasive that trying to fix them with small measures is kind of like swabbing the deck on a sinking ship when we should be deploying the life boats.
We’ve reinvented war as a chronic condition of human existence; we’re cooking our atmosphere, poisoning our oceans and decimating our forests, yet what do our political and business leaders talk about as goals for humanity?—growth of all the destructive things we have been doing; a space ship to Mars, a personal “ipad” for all, televisions in our cell phones; more jobs to produce more products to satisfy previously unknown needs, extended free trade agreements.
I used to marvel that anyone in this age of science could “believe in God,” but it becomes increasingly obvious to me that the greatest of all leaps of faith is the idea that self-interest and profit will ultimately rescue us from the consequences of a blinding greed that obscures our vision of the spiritual dimension of reality.
I am constantly amazed at how many times we hear people say we can’t afford our healthcare system. Even though we spend a smaller percentage of our GDP on healthcare now than 10 years ago—we can’t afford it.
Living in one of the most advanced industrial societies of the world, among the richest societies that history has ever known, we believe we “can’t afford” to share what we have with the rest of the world so as to eliminate poverty, hunger and homelessness. We can’t afford to convert to atmosphere saving energy systems and we can’t afford unexploited ecological systems.
Ironically it is only by learning to care for the health and welfare of others, only by setting the elimination of hunger and homelessness as our priority, only when the preservation of the natural world becomes the bottom line, only when we can begin to see beyond our isolated selves to a greater sense of connectedness to all of creation can we ever enter into the spiritual world of joy and satisfaction.
Our economic, social and political institutions need to be replaced and rethought not only because they are unsustainable and unjust, but because they foster a consciousness that keeps us from connecting to the deepest truth of the universe—that all of life, all of existence is an inextricably connected dance of creativity.
Of all the wisdom that existence has to teach us, the most profound, perhaps most obvious is—unfortunately the most often skipped over–in system within system infinitely iterated to clouds of creative matter dancing into ever new forms from before the Big Bang, as inexorable and ubiquitous as gravity itself this one great principle of organization stands out: the parts exist and have meaning because of the functioning of the next higher order of wholeness. The whole exists to appreciate and serve the well being of the parts—yet the whole is always different from/greater than the sum of its constituent parts.
The mechanism occurs in the parts and the meaning appears in the whole.
Rather than take this as an article of faith, let’s consider a close at hand example for a moment: the chemical processes of catabolism and anabolism give rise to the life of the cell. Cells working together form organs and the functioning of organs creates individual beings, some of which achieve a most unusual and unpredictable condition known as consciousness. At every level of organization– The mechanism occurs in the parts and the meaning appears in the whole.
So far the nested nature of existence seems transparently obvious. However, beyond consciousness the eminent Psychologist C.G. Jung suggests that out of the collective pool of this consciousness arises a level of existence he called the collective unconscious.
Extrapolating from his extensive studies of culture and consciousness Jung suggests that beyond the collective unconscious the meaning and depth of existence becomes difficult to describe outside the immanent/transcendent ontology of an ever evolving, inherently embedded non-theistic God.
Jung argued that the most fundamental function of human intellect was the discovery of the “spiritual connection and the dimension of meaning.” We need, suggested Jung, to engage in fostering a new consciousness and the development of an inner life that is not merely private, but is rather both social and spiritual in nature—an inner life that is interconnected with other human beings and with the Unity of All Being.
For Jung this perception of pattern exists in the collective unconscious which contains primordial, “symbolic” expressions of a reality infinitely more complex and interdimensional than the simplifying rationality of logos.
Scientific and religious theories are maps of reality, not the terrain itself. They are useful intellectual and practical tools. They are convenient human constructs, calculating devices for connecting observations, making predictions, and suggesting modes of response. Like models of elementary quanta, models of God, are not exact pictures of the world but models that assist us in understanding/participating in meaning and mystery inexpressible in our everyday language.
Unitarian minister, Norbert Capek, identifies god, not as the cause of existence, but our response—our desire to give meaning to justice, compassion, wonder and gratitude. The divine is to be felt, seen, and experienced.
Oncological researchers note that tumour cells which develop from normal body cells, differ from normal cells in three important respects:
1. Malignant cells are cut off from knowledge of the natural cycles of living organisms.
They go on dividing indefinitely, while normal cells have finite lifetimes like any macroscopic organism. Tumour cells have been shown to go on multiplying as long as there is available nutrient.
2. Cancer cells cannot recognize environmental restraints.
Normal cells need hard surfaces on which to grow and serum to supply growth factors. When they are crowded they cease dividing, “Transformed” cancerous cells, however :show none of the above limitations. They grow on soft agar or hard surfaces and divide to the point of piling up on each other until the medium is exhausted.
3. Over time cancerous cells exhibit a progressive loss of differentiated identity.
Liver tumour cells, for instance, lose all the characteristics that delineate them as uniquely liver cells.
You could say that these cancer cells have lost their sense of belonging to a creative coherence or to a universe in which there is connection, meaning and purpose outside one singular imperative to consume everything in their greedy pursuit of the interests of their isolated selves. For them God would be a most incomprehensible and irrelevant concept.
Cancer cells are simply healthy cells that have lost the most essential perception of their connection to a higher level of consciousness—with results terrifying similar to what is happening to our Earth as we humans lose our connection to the higher consciousness of our connection to each other, to our Earth and to spiritual nature of existence.
When I think about it, the parallels between this cancerous paradigm and our recent human fascination with Gross Domestic Product and a godless, global culture of consumerism, is almost too poignant to contemplate.
I must say this understanding God as the heart of compassion and the soul of our striving for justice and sustainability is a most unexpected, challenging, convoluted, for a time—painfully difficult, and increasingly joyful turn of thought for me, yet. I cannot but experience a sense of awe and thanksgiving in my encounters with the manifold wonders of life, and I feel some immense joy in identifying the spiritual source inside me yet greater than myself that longs for justice, compassion and sustainability.
Is there a God? What does that word and presumed reality that word conjures forth mean to us? What difference does it make for the way we understand the world in which we live and in the way we live out our lives? Any difference at all?
I’ll leave the last word to Dostoevsky who in the voice of Alyosha Karamazov says: “What is strange; what is marvelous is not that God really exists, the marvel is that such an idea, the idea of the necessity of God, could have entered the heads of such savage and vicious beasts as humanity; so holy it is, so moving, so wise and such a great houour it does to the species.”