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Friday, November 12, 2010

Sermon: Life Without Limits

Sermon from 11/7/2010 at the Unitarian Universalist fellowship in Kodiak, Alaska.

We have always strived to be immortal, haven’t we? We have always struggled with our mortality. This struggle is central to any religion, and it is written into the myths of the Greeks, where the boundary between “god” and “human” is oftentimes blurred.

For a group who calls themselves “Transhumanists,” immortality is not an ancient speculation but a modern reality. Transhumanists anticipate a day in the not-too distant future when the contents of our minds—our memories, intelligence, emotions, and consciousness—can be uploaded into a new, machine-body, something that could extend our lives indefinitely.

It is a riveting idea—incredible and unbelievable really. The stuff that excites the imaginations of novelitsts and filmmakers. Yet this group of Transhumanists are credible philosophers and technology experts. They are MIT grads and university professors, not comic book writers.

Our rate of technological advance is so profound and exponential, that what was once a fantasy is now a credible theory and movement. For example, one dedicated and convinced Transhumanist, Ray Kurzweil, takes 250 supplements a day and undergoes six intravenous therapies a week. Other like-minded intellectuals possess Alcor cryogenic-suspension contracts. For the price of $120,000, one can have one’s body cryogenically frozen. It’s a bit of a gamble, a bet that at some point in the future, when human mind can merge with machine, their minds can be revived and transferred into a machine.

We hear a good deal these days about “growing our economy.” Few stop to ask if we can continue such “growth” indefinitely.

As a culture and society, we seem to be intent on limitless growth and eternal progress. We want to push to push the boundaries of possibility and pursue not only a life without limits, but a life without end.

** **

They were one in their purpose and plan. Their vision was to build a tower that would reach high, into the heavens. Their desire was to “make a name” for themselves, to a leave a legacy.
This is the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, found in the eleventh chapter of Genesis. It is the last of what is called the “primeval passages,” the old stories, like the creation of the world, life in the Garden of Eden, the strife of Cain and Abel, and the Flood narrative. After the Tower of Babel story, the book of Genesis shifts the focus to the life of Abraham and his descendents.
The desire of the people in Babel was that their tower would “reach the heavens” (sh¹mayim). This was likely a divine aspiration. In ancient cosmology, within the ancient worldview, the heavens and the underworld were the homes of the gods. To reach these heavens would, indeed, make a name for them; and what a name it would be!?
So, the people are united in their language with a common goal: build a great city with a tower to the heavens. At this point in the story, the biblical narrative pokes fun at the project. God says, essentially, “Let us go down and see what they are up to.” The implication is that their tower to the heavens wasn’t quite high enough for God (who lived in the heavens) to notice. So, God had to come down from heaven to see about the progress.
After surveying the situation, God says, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” (NRS) There is a shift here: God expresses a concern. Now, presumably there is no sense of threat. The ancient Hebrew God had no rival. My interpretation is that the Tower, itself, is not a problem. On my reading, the text is teaching that there is a danger in a collective spirit to pursue a project without limits. The residents of Babel are pursuing a society of unlimited expansion. Put simply: growth is their primary objective, expansion for the sake of expansion.

** **

For a few days this week, I enjoyed a personal getaway. I spent some time in front of a wood stove in a cabin some forty miles or so away from Kodiak. The first day I was fortunate to have some good weather and great hiking, and I’ll tell you something, it was gorgeous and inspiring. The next day it rained. As such, I spend a good deal of time indoors, working on this very sermon, and watching the fire burn in the wood stove.
Speaking of fire…In Greek mythology, the wily Prometheus tricked Zeus into allowing humans to keep sacrificial meat for themselves, only offering the fat and bones to the gods. Not happy about this turn of events, Zeus took fire away from human beings. Prometheus responded by stealing fire and giving it back to mortals. Having reached his limit with Prometheus, Zeus chained him to a rock and vultures ate out his insides every day. Every night Prometheus grew them back, and the next day the vultures returned.
Mary Shelly wrote her classic gothic novel Frankenstein as part of a summer contest. Shelly and friends were spending the summer in the country, and they found themselves surrounded by an exceptionally rainy and cold summer. (Sound familiar?!)
Frankenstein was written as a warning against tampering with nature. Victor Frankenstein is a young, gifted scientist who learns to create life. Yet he is incapable of caring for this new life, of nurturing its soft and gentle heart. In fact, Dr. Frankenstein abandons his creation, horrified by the appearance. Eventually, the creature becomes vengeful and wreaks havoc on Dr. Frankenstein’s loved ones.
The novel is instructive, I think, in this way: it takes more than ingenuity and scientific acumen to nourish the human spirit. Life is fragile, and the soul is delicate.

** **

I think that we tend to think, to presume, that technology is neutral. We can use it for good or for evil. Is this really so?
My friend Bob Doede is a philosopher at Trinity Western University in Langely, British Columbia. What he says on this count is insightful, if not a bit provocative: “…technologies not only do things for us, they also do things to us. Moreover, they not only do things for us and to us, they also and at the same time undo things; they give and take away, often giving us something we desire (ease, efficiency, convenience, etc.) and taking away something we need (friction, concrete contact with nature, a sense of our limitations, etc.). For example, as they enable us to do more without as much physical exertion, they at the same time weaken our bodies.” DISCUSS A FEW EXAMPLES
This is not a sermon bashing technology. I like technology. And technology has done good things for our world, and it can do many more good things. The point is that our technological progress has extracted a price, it has changed us radically both in positive and negative ways, and my suggestion is that we be brave and wise enough to discern the impact of our “progress.”
Well, all of this—Prometheus and Zeus, Frankenstein and technology—it all brings me back to the cabin and the wood burning stove: Fire may be a gift of the gods, but it is only a gift if we respect and fear its capacity to destroy us.

** **

The story of the Tower of Babel ends by God “confusing the language” of the residents of Babel. With this confusion of the language, the community is unable to continue with their plans for expansion, and they abandon their lofty aspirations for the Tower as well as their city-building, scattering across the face of the earth.
“Look, they are one people,” God had said, “and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” (NRS) This was God’s appraisal of the situation, and I find it to be a fascinating assessment of the potential of human beings: united by language and a common goal, we are unstoppable, nothing is impossible.

Certainly human history testifies to this capacity to accomplish extraordinary feats. Sometimes humanity has united to advance evil and oppressive ends, while at other times we have come together to advance justice and equality, stand up for human dignity, give relief to the poor and oppressed, and usher in times of peace and harmony.

“Nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” (NRS) The question, then, is this: what are the ends to which we aspire?

I recently read an article in the local paper, the Kodiak Daily Mirror, stating that there are 6,910 documented languages in our world. I would add one more: the language of consumerism. This is a shared language of advertising, of image and sounds, designed to motivate us to buy more products and services and to continually “upgrade” our lives. This motivation most often comes by a subtle (or not so subtle) method of making us discontent with what we have, to create within us a sense that we need something more in our lives.

A recent Disney Pixar film, Wall-E, has a humorous take on our consumeristic, disposable society. Set in the future, all of the human beings have left because there is too much trash. Wall-E, the little robot who is the hero of the movie, has a job: compressing and stacking the trash in piles as high as small sky scrappers. So, there are these massive monuments of trash. Perhaps our culture’s Tower of Babel might be the massive amounts of waste we are collecting in the dumps and landfills.
What are the ends to which we aspire? Have technology, progress, and consumerism become ends in themselves? Jon Kabat-Zinn is a medical professor Emeritus who has spent a good bit of his career merging eastern spirituality with medical science. Recently I heard him interview with Krista Tippett on the NPR radio show Speaking of Faith. He says that our technology is in some sense getting more sophisticated than our understanding of ourselves as human beings. (Speaking of Faith) “I'm not saying,” says Kabat-Zinn, “sort of like we should go back — I'm not taking a Luddite position on this. I think that technology is incredibly beautiful, and it's going to get more and more and more powerful and more and more beautiful. But there are issues associated with it…”
He continues: “You know, we're moving towards a very strange world in some ways, at least so far that we don't know what it's going to be. But one piece of it hasn't developed yet and that is our intimacy, our deep understanding of what it means to be human. We're still in our infancy as a human species. And before we start to talk about wet/dry interfaces where you start putting chips inside of the skull..to regulate certain things or upgrade our memory or whatever it is that might seem so attractive, that we really in the next few generations need to reclaim the full dimensionality of our humanity.”
I think this is a nuanced and instructive position. I would only add this: whatever it is that we call technological or economic “progress,” it must run a distant second to religious, moral, and humanistic concerns, because progress is only progress if it is life-giving and increases the fullness of our human experience: caring for each other, deepening our appreciation for the sacred and mysterious, and developing our awareness of ourselves.
I recently read through Herman Melville’s great classic novel, Moby Dick. It is not small feat! =) Melville narrates a grand and epic tale in an equally magnanimous prose. One of my favorite lines speaks of the growing insanity of Captain Ahab, who has long harbored anger and maddening malice against the whale, Moby Dick, who left him with a peg leg the last time they met on the high seas. The narrator of the tale, who is also a crewman, says this, “God help thee old man, thy thoughts have created a creature within thee; and he whose intense thinking thus makes him a Prometheus; a vulture feeds upon that heart forever; that vulture the very creature he creates.”
Ahab has built a tower of anger in his soul, he has created a creature of bitterness, and this creature will feed on him.

What creatures do our egos create? What towers do we seek to build within ourselves? Henry David Thoreau said, “only that day dawns to which we are awake.” Whatever inner towers we construct, whatever creatures our egos create, their primary limitation is that they keep us asleep to the beauty and possibility of the present moment. That is to say, there is something profound, indescribable really, about being able to fully engage each moment of our existence.
We so often become so caught up in every thing except what is happening around us. Consequently we fail to appreciate the limiteless beauty that our limited moments bring.
Thomas Merton, a monk and Roman Catholic spiritual writer said, “Most growth in religious understanding is the deepening of the experience of what we already know.” [cited by James Finley in Merton’s Path to the Palace of Nowhere, audio CDs]
James Finley, an author, psychotherapist, and spiritual teacher who was also a monk for a period of time, at the same monastery as Merton asks, “What would it mean to walk into a room and instantly become aware of the inherent holiness of everything that’s there, and to inherently reverence it and to honor it and to be faithful to it?”
There is a paradox here: By being faithful and awake to the limited nature of ourselves, the world, and others, we discover something truly unlimited, infinite.

** **

We feel all around us the impulse to add more and more, to live a life without limits or boundaries. This impulse is a part of the air we breath, it has been the primary motivation of our American society since Europeans first walked on the soil. But it isn’t just an American impulse. Perhaps we magnify it and make it into a central psychological and spiritual motivator; but it didn’t start with us. It is written in our oldest religious texts, in the Greek myths, and in our recorded histories. We want to build towers that reach the heavens, to have unlimited potential.
We could walk the path of the Transhumanists who look forward to a merger of human and machine, shedding our mortal, physical bodies. We could go the way of those who push to make more money, to eternally expand the economy. We could seek to make ourselves gods, limited by nothing.
Or we could seek to understand what it truly means to be human before we seek to become superhuman, deepening our understanding of living with limits before we live without limits.
And isn’t this the impulse of the artist? The artist begins by limiting herself to modest tools—a canvass and brush, a camera, paper and pen, or clay. The artist then attunes herself to something beautiful, or something true, or something profound. She expands herself, she learns from her art, and she deepens her understanding. When she is finished, her creation fixes our attention to something important about human life. Paradoxically, through a finite and limited creation of an artist, we can catch a glimpse of something infinite.
This glimpse of the infinite goes through the finite, not around it. It does not seek to circumvent our mortal humanity but is content and grateful simply for what is. We can only “reach the heavens” by being grounded on this earth, through a humble bow of thanksgiving.