I’ll admit I’m an odd person to be writing an Easter sermon. Some of us prefer our epiphanies grounded in the external world, even feathered and something we can hold in our hands. Some of us experience miracles as matters of pure faith or emotional intuitive understanding. A recent diary by a teenager kicked out of his home for being gay attracted a thousand comments, most of them supportive of the youth. He thought we were all atheists and some of the more interesting comments in that diary had to do with Christians on DailyKos discussing faith from a liberal perspective, and atheists discussing how to reconcile lack of faith as being compatible with the religion of others. Sometimes believers and non-believers talk past each other, and while we sometimes demonstrate a certain lack of generosity in the way interact with each other, we do OK. Better, in fact, than society at large.
This mirrors our own personal lives off-line. My wife started out life as a devout Catholic. Various life events intervened, including a divorce, and although she was once very active in her church, she now sits in the pews while others take communion. She regrets the hypocrisy of the church as an institution, and like most liberal American Catholics, she’s got issues with Pope Benedict. Despite all that, and despite a growing cynicism about religion in practice, she still identifies with the church in the widest sense. It’s a measure of the discomfort we all feel when it comes to religion that she is reluctant to talk much about her core of belief, and I am reluctant to talk much about my lack of faith. I suppose it is hard being a couple across this divide. Charles Darwin felt the same way; his love for his wife and their shared grief at the loss of their daughter caused him to remain silent on the implications of his revolution in biology for religion. One could say the same thing about 19th century England that they say about Alaska today – nature’s neither for nor against you, it’s just really unforgiving. They lost a daughter, and the harsh amoral universe of natural selection must have seemed like salt on the wounds of a grieving couple. Love, grieving, compassion... the discernable universe is like an emotional Alaska, neither in favor of those emotions, nor against them. Maybe some things are best left as mysteries. As Darwin’s personal faith gradually left him, he could accept that his wife’s faith was a true gift. I hope my wife knows that I feel the same.
But it is hard sometimes to see faith as a gift when it’s a glorious spring day and you have to go to church. I’m a grumpy, resentful churchgoer a few times a year, usually at Easter and always out of family obligation. Besides the subtle familial coercion, my main beef is that church is a sterile environment to contemplate resurrection of any sort, biblical or the miracle of resurgent life after a long, harsh Midwestern winter. Talking about miracles isn’t enough. We need to experience them from time to time.
During last Easter service, I was annoyed at the homily and feeling even more of a fraud than usual, when I looked out the window at an oak tree just ready to burst forth into leaf. A common yellowthroat was gleaning tiny insects off of the branches and buds, with the nervous flitting typical of warblers. The bird weighed less than the change in my pocket, yet it had flown from Colombia. It was on its way to northern Canada, only to turn around and go back again at the end of summer. If it escapes predators, freak storms, or collisions with windows, it may make this annual pilgrimage for a decade. I’m 10,000 times the mass of this creature, and I would have to fly 40 million miles a year to equal its feat. And it’s more than just a perfectly designed little flying machine; it’s a living being, with muscles, nerves, blood and even rudimentary consciousness built on an architecture of life strikingly similar to our own. The bones in my hands are not just analogous to the bones of that bird’s wing – they were the same bones 300 million years ago. I cannot know the thoughts or even the degree of awareness of a warbler, but we are both sentient. I do know that this small bird had an instant effect on me, giving me the fleeting sense of connection to the sheer exhilarating beauty that is this planet.
I had cause to remember this incident when I stumbled upon an essay in the book The Unexpected Universe, written by Loren Eisely, a naturalist and paleontologist active in the 1930’s. I excerpt it here:
It was a late hour on a cold, wind-bitten autumn day when I climbed a great hill spined like a dinosaur's back, and tried to take my bearings... It was then that I saw the flight coming on. It was moving like a little close-knit body of black specks that danced and darted and closed again... Across that desert of eroding clay and wind-worn stone they came with a faint wild twittering that filled all the air about me as those tiny living bullets hurtled past into the night.
It may not strike you as a marvel. It would not, perhaps, unless you stood in the middle of a dead world at sunset, but that was where I stood. Fifty million years lay under my feet, fifty million years of bellowing monsters moving in a green world now gone so utterly that its very light was traveling on the farther edge of space.... I had lifted up a fistful of that ground. I held it while that wild flight of south-bound warblers hurtled over me into the oncoming dark. There went phosphorus, there went iron, there went carbon, there beat the calcium in those hurrying wings...
As I walked back into camp late that night, one man, rousing from his blankets beside the fire, asked sleepily, "What did you see"". "I think, a miracle," I said softly, but I said it to myself. Behind me that vast waste began to glow under a rising moon.
My lovely wife, to her credit, will get out of bed at dawn and go bird watching with me. I love that she does this with more good humor and generosity than I demonstrate during my reluctant forays to church. She and I both know it’s not about checking off birds on the life-list, any more than faith is about standing in line for the communion wafer. The direct experience of the sublime is at the very heart of great science and great religion. Walt Whitman knew it. The Gnostics knew it. And it has its parallels in the Sufi tradition in Islam. Farid ad-Din Attar, a great 11th century Persian mystic and poet, knew it also. In his most famous work, The Conference of the Birds, forty birds go looking for Simorgh, a mythic bird with messianic characteristics. After all sorts of object lessons on becoming empty and open to the universe around them, the remaining 30 birds realize that the Simorgh is actually "se morgh", which means 30 birds in Farsi. They turned out to be the miracle they were waiting for.
This is a political blog, so let me make an political observation. Religion has always been an ideal identifier for identity politics, and an excellent vehicle for social mobilization. Indeed, the Gnostics lost out in the struggle for early Christianity to the sort of practical, hard-nosed orthodoxy required as Christianity transitioned from an underground belief system to become the spiritual foundation of the Roman Empire. Today, the Christianity that dominates politics has almost completely divorced itself from the original core of religious experience – a striving to sense the miraculous, to experience epiphany. It’s almost as if we’re talking about completely separate things. Sarah Palin can gut-shoot a wolf from a helicopter, and somehow this speaks to her Christian bona fides, part of a cultivated Christian Dominionist perspective on the relationship between humans and the planet. A lot of folks on the right are getting a big plateful of religion, but there’s not a lot of heart there, not a lot of epiphany, and no miracles at all. Were this another fading empire, 4th century Rome, the orthodox would spear a wolf to make a political point, while the Gnostics would seek out a wolf to see themselves in the universe.
Not so long ago, I saw a fine healthy coyote in my Chicago neighborhood. He was trotting down the alley with all the sangfroid and self-assurance you come to expect from urban wildlife. Chicago is an uncommonly good city for wildlife, with forest preserves, cemeteries and densely forested canals crisscrossing the city like natural highways. Nature infiltrates Chicago, and one sometimes has the sense that our human created environment is temporary compared to the incredible resilience and adaptability of life. We erect rigid buildings of concrete and steel, but life is self-perpetuating and perpetually changing, and the milkweed still forces itself up through the asphalt in the parking lots. In these bleak times, particularly on Easter, it gives me a sense of satisfaction to know and to feel that constant cycle of adaptation, indeed resurrection, that is life. Sarah Palin can shoot wolves, but even if we drive ourselves extinct, the coyote will still be patrolling the ruins of Chicago in 50,000 years, and will likely have mutated back into something very similar to a wolf. I like to think about that sort of resurrection this Easter and the fact that there are some things even the GOP can’t destroy.
I’m posting this on Easter morning, on a day when most of you non-believers are on the computer while our friends and family are in Church. So if your wife or husband is religious and you are not, step up and go to church and have a little grace and humor about it. But also get out and take advantage of the day and get yourself a little taste of the miraculous. And tonight, go outside and look up at the night sky. It’s migration season again. Whether or not you see anything, dear reader, know that 200,000,000 birds are in the air across North America, each one a miracle of profound beauty.