Sermon:That’s All Well and Good in Practice, But How Does It Work in Theory?

2018 May 20
by Rev Ana Levy-Lyons

Some people think that mystics are a little bit out to lunch. They walk around with their head in the clouds, thinking their big thoughts, communing with the infinite, and falling into potholes. Or, worse, they’re self-absorbed, contemplating their navel instead of taking responsibility for anything or anyone else.  But according to Lawrence Kushner in an interview with Krista Tippett, “A mystic is anyone who has the gnawing suspicion that the apparent discord, brokenness, contradictions, and discontinuities that assault us every day might conceal a hidden unity.” In other words, a mystic is pretty much all of us. We all, I think, at least at our best moments, suspect that underneath the blue state/ red state, black/ white, religious/secular, climate change denier/Greenpeace activist, we are all made of the same stuff.


And science, of course, bears this out. We are all made of atoms, loosely and temporarily assembled into what we think of as “us.” As Luke pointed out, if you look closely enough, those atoms at the end of our noses are pretty much indistinguishable from the atoms of the air around them. Everyone and everything is made of the same stuff. The boundary where one thing ends and another begins is imaginary. And so if you know this, if you feel it, if you, as Kushner puts it, have a “gnawing suspicion” of it, you’re a mystic.


Most of us have probably had experiences in our lives where we felt a union with everything, where we saw that all our divisions were imaginary. Maybe it was walking in a forest or swimming in the ocean; maybe it was a moment of romance or passion; maybe it was listening to music or losing ourselves in dancing; maybe it was a group experience – a protest, a concert, a worship service; maybe it was during prayer or meditation. Let’s each take a moment to remember a time when we felt like we lost ourselves in the infinite. Call up any sense memories – any smells or sounds, where were you and how did you feel?


We can have this flash of experience of oneness, but then it doesn’t really fit with our regular lives and so, in fairly short order, we kind of roll it up and put it into a pocket – we compartmentalize it. We may take it out every once in a while in a moment of nostalgia, like we did just now, and turn it around and look at it. But basically it lives in our memory in its own dimension. It doesn’t have much bearing on our day-to-day lives.


And meanwhile, all the divisions that we know on some level to be artificial continue to drive our behavior, culture, and politics – and create suffering – for humans and for other species as well. Race in this country is an example of how this works. On the level of physics, we know we’re all made of the same atoms. And even on the level of biology, scientists have now determined that “race” is a meaningless concept. Until recently, it was widely believed that race was a predictor of all kinds of traits, mainly negative traits for people of color that justified oppression and violence. This is still believed in many circles today. But research has shown that if you know the color of a person’s skin, that doesn’t tell you anything else about them biologically. It doesn’t tell you anything about their intelligence or athletic ability, their gifts or weaknesses, their physical strength or pain tolerance, nothing. Biologically speaking, race is imaginary. It goes back to that mystical knowledge: we are all made of the same stuff.


And even though that knowledge has been part of every mystical tradition there ever was – Luke listed some of them – and even though science confirms it beyond a doubt, this world puts that knowledge in its pocket, compartmentalizes it, and race has become absolutely real. The meanings we project onto skin color become part of a history of violence and trauma that make skin color a predictor of all kinds of things for the person inhabiting that skin – income, education, likelihood of imprisonment, job opportunities, mental health, feelings of inclusion and exclusion, lifespan, even infant survival rates. The constructed category of race has become a matter of life and death.


The political left in this country has deeply felt social justice commitments. Especially since the 2016 election, we have been busy resisting and protesting; advocating for laws to change; naming racism and misogyny when we see it; toppling powerful, rich white men from their heights; raging on social media. But the left in general assiduously avoids any mention of religion or mysticism in that work. Religion is supposedly the domain of conservatives and mysticism is a private, internal matter – that secret memory that we keep in our back pocket. What does that stuff have to do with politics and social justice?


I would say it has everything to do with politics and social justice because the religious experience, particularly the mystical experience is an experience of ultimate reality. And we are trying to coax our political reality into mirroring that ultimate reality – that reality of unified spirit that we’ve experienced with such awe and joy. And, in turn, we are trying to take that mystical knowledge of the nature of the universe and give it life in our world here.


Many religious teachers and traditions have taught of the inescapable connection between spirituality and politics. I spoke a few weeks ago about the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai as a mystical revelation. It gave people an experience of the oneness of reality itself that then precipitated out into a series of ethical and political teachings. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, in that Krista Tippet interview, said that all of the important Jewish ethical teachers from the middle ages were Kabbalistic mystics. He explained that this shouldn’t be that surprising because as he put it, “You don’t have an experience that is unitive in which you feel yourself dissolved into the divine all, and emerge from that wanting to rip somebody off. Your immediate desire is to show them how to get there with you.” Meister Eckhart and other Christian teachers have taught versions of the same concept.


And Mahatma Gandhi spoke about spirituality as the basis for social change. He encouraged his followers to pursue a life of simplicity and devotion, preparing themselves to wield satyagraha (truth force) in their social justice work. He wrote, “Truth” – meaning spiritual Truth with a capital “T” – “has drawn me into the field of politics; and I can say without the slightest hesitation, and yet in all humility, that those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means.”


I personally cherish these teachings that we must ground our public actions in our religion and spirituality in order for those actions to have the moral authority, consistency, and power that they should have. Without cultivating that connection in our own lives, we’re a little limp. We can have a feeling of union with nature on a spring day in a field, but then come back and buy plastic bags and water bottles without even thinking about it. A white congregant can feel sibling love for all of humanity at a concert, but then come back and say something racially insensitive here at First U without even realizing it.


Religious community can help us dig the groove of the connection between private spirituality and public action. Together we walk that path back and forth and back and forth and the groove gets deeper and deeper. The experience gets deeper and deeper. On the issue of race, this is exactly what we’re trying to do here when we talk about systemic racism in the world, at First U, and in our own hearts. We are trying to draw and redraw the lines between the unity and love that we aspire to and the day to day reality we participate in through our words and actions.


In the fall, we held discussions about three books that had to do with race and racism. I learned a lot from reading them and others seemed to really appreciate it as well, so we’re going to do this again next year – we’ll let you know the summer reading list soon and we’re open to suggestions. This year we also launched a program called Beloved Conversations, led by Meagan Henry and Kevin Jagoe. Sam McKelvie talked a little bit about this in her testimonial last week. It’s a way for small groups within a congregation to have honest and deep conversations about racism as it shows up in their own lives, in the congregation, and beyond. We are hoping to run the program again next year. If you’re interested in learning more, you can sign a sheet at the Welcome Table or talk with Meagan. These are baby steps toward becoming an anti-racist congregation, but we are slowly digging that groove deeper between our spiritual ideals and our actions.


My alma mater prints a t-shirt, which I proudly wear, that says, “That’s all well and good in practice, but how does it work in theory?” It’s an inversion of the usual saying – the one that snarkily suggests that practice is everything and theory is impractical and extraneous. But when viewed through a religious lens, practice only makes sense and only has weight and only can be sustained if it done in the context of a theory – a vision or overarching ideal – of how the world ought to be, or even a revelation of how reality fundamentally is. It’s a vision of unity, where all the constructed categories and divisions disappear and we are all cradled in the infinite. It is this vision, held by the mystics, and by each one of us in our hearts, in those secret places of memory, that will give us the template to build the world of which we dream.

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