Thursday, November 21, 2013

Pantheism: Bridging the Gulf between Humanism and God

I have always treasured walking in the woods. Like many, nature provides me an emotional and spiritual nourishment far beyond that which I receive from attending most formal religious services. Viewing nature is like seeing a painting or reading a poem; nature is a multilayered canvas whose unity demands from us an active sense of composition: Unity in Variety. Pantheism, the belief and experience that All is One, that Nature is the ultimate ground of being, begs for such a unifying vision. We worship in nature by communing in her presence; we can venerate the woods either in a solitary way, like Daoist philosophers, or communally, as the ancient Druids were said to have done.

The great divide in our Unitarian Universalist congregations has historically been between those who are theists, namely those who believe in some sort of personal God, and our humanists/atheists who believe that humankind is the ultimate measure of all things. A monotheistic God is a unifying principle, while humanity is a source of rich diversity. What if Pantheism were a middle path between monotheism and humanism, between the One and the Many?

In my role as an intern minister at a local Unitarian Universalist congregration, Starr King UU Church in Hayward CA, I had the great joy of leading an adult religious education/faith formation class on Nature-Based Religions. I've noticed that Pantheism furnishes a large theological field upon which naturalist/atheists, animists and theists can all play. Everyone in the class had reported transcendent experiences in nature--just their interpretations differ: you can celebrate physical/chemical/biological laws, view trees, rocks and streams as burgeoning with spirit and consciousness, or witness the presence of God(s) in the comforting woods. We all sang the beauty of Nature together, refracted through our individual lens. A Unity in Diversity.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Black Madonna in Provence: An Earth Based Spirituality

                       The Black Madonna from the Crypt of the Abbey of Saint Victor, Marseille

I have always been fascinated by images of the Black Madonna--rich, earthy, like dark-roasted coffee she leads us into darkness. Many have conjectured that she continues a tradition of pagan earth goddesses, most frequently the Egyptian goddess, Isis with her son Horus. But, in the case of Marseille, whose Greek founders herald from Western Anatolia in the city of Phocaea near the ancient Ephesus, the patron goddess was Artemis--the many breasted nurturing earth goddess.

So I often delve into the crypt in the St. Victor's abbey when I visit Marseille to reconnect with darkness, an earthly baptism. It is the beauty of metaphor that can free up us religious liberals to at once be skeptical of religious canons and textual literalism and, at the same time, reinvent for ourselves profound spiritual experience. I believe even atheists would be moved by cryptic encounters, interpreting the experience as aesthetic rather than liturgical.

Whether we view the Black Madonna as art, as archetypes of the feminine repressed, as emblems of the neglected earth or as icons pointing to veneration of the Virgin Mary, she cannot fail to inspire our curiosity for the extraordinary and a transformation of our souls.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Marseille, MuCEM and the New Mediterraneanism

MuCEM--Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations
A Mediterranean Map

Plato once said that the Mediterranean was a giant pond upon which many frogs croak. Yet the nature of a pond is that it is, par excellence, a stable ecosystem that embodies unity in diversity sustaining many species that, through mutual interactions, stabilize the pond's biological richness. As we see from the sort of Dadaist map above, the Mediterranean Sea is one of the few places on earth that can at once be both provincial in its insular geographic isolation and cosmopolitan in its easy seafaring routes of commerce. From time to time, the Mediterranean hosted a unified local in global culture: we can think of the Hellenistic Era in the Greek Eastern Mediterranean, the Roman Empire that politically united all shores of the Mediterranean and, more recently, the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy's attempt to form a Mediterranean Union as an alternative partnership to the EU, inclusive of the North African and the Eastern Mediterranean nations. 

But, often what may fail politically or economically may succeed, in small part culturally. Hence the recent opening this past year of the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations (MuCEM) in Marseille. I can't tell in words just how remarkable this museum is! Architecturally it resembles a dense forest of trees and brush, as if to remind us of the ecological diversity of Mediterranean woods. The museum offers not only a permanent collection of Mediterranean cultural artifact, ranging from the Neolithic to the present era, but also, in a special exhibition entitled, "The Black and the Blue: A Mediterranean Dream", shows us the cyclical attempts to create a culturally unified Mediterranean ever since the late 1700's. As we sadly know, such attempts have fallen victim to the political colonialism and academic orientalism that essentialized those living in the eastern and southern Mediterranean as "others"--either to demean or to appropriate from.

But this current incarnation of Mediterraneanism, as reflected in MuCEM's philosophy, lifts up a creative and compelling hope that Plato's characterization of the Mediterranean as a frog laden pond rings true. The Mediterranean has always been a paradox between the hybrid and the isolated, between islands and ports of call. The city of Marseille, itself, now is as ethnically diverse as my home stomping grounds of Oakland, CA. The markets are filled with Senegalese, Tunisians, Moroccans,  Lebanese and Armenians. Let us look to MuCEM as a new forest of cultural reconciliation.