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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.


Like a Mustard Seed said...

I think the tower of Babel is an absolute perfect parallel for our modern, technical era... In a way, the developments of the last century or so have more or less been the "undoing" of God's judgement upon the tower-builders...

Through the expansion of the internet, (and the global economy that has ensued, and is further entrenching itself everyday...), the world is being "brought back together", after being "scattered" for so many millenia since Babel.

But the sin of the tower-builders was not just that they were using "technology" (at that time, clay bricks...) to build a big structure, or even create a "legacy". Their sin was that the tower was really a symbol of their attempt at self-deification. They were following the pattern of Satan, who said to himself, "I will be like the Most High, I will make myself God"... The tower of Babel is an emblem that has stood throughout history as a representation of this occultic aim...

The ironic thing is, that although technology is so often implemented as a means to achieving immortality, or "super-humanness", etc., I would propose that this agenda can be just as easily pursued through such "modest" endeavors as brush-on-canvass, or hands-on-clay, etc... I'd have to say that it's a false assumption to think that art is by necessity the pursuit of "something beautiful, or true, or profound." In fact, if we look at what "art" has become in this day and age, I believe it can be quite easily demonstrated to be just as much an endeavor towards finding and celebrating the "divine within", just as much an act of idolatry as the building of that ancient tower...

The deification of mankind is equally idolatrous, whether it cloaks itself with rampant consumerism and unbridled economic expansion, or stands against such impulses by embracing a more asthaetic, "natural" approach. Either way, it can be the same lie, only wearing very different masks...


Jonathan Erdman said...

Well, thanks so much, Daniel, for reading my sermon. I really appreciate it.

For clarification, I'm wondering what exactly is your issue with me defining art as the creation of something true, beautiful, or profound. My intent was not to really like define art, technically; however, I do think that I made a good start.

Further, I guess I don't see the parallel you are making between people using different forms of art. My idea here is that there is something inherently useful and good in limiting yourself to a simple medium. I guess you are challenging that assumption?

Like a Mustard Seed said...

Hey Jonathan... sorry, I don't think I articulated myself all that well at the end there (I guess I was just letting my thoughts pour out sort of randomly)

I wasn't trying to say that art is never about beauty, or truth, nor was I trying to say that there isn't a lot to be gained from choosing to work with "simpler" mediums... Not at all!

I actually really enjoy drawing and painting (when I find the time...), and I love the feeling of using a medium like oils, or anything where you actually have to use your own hands to create something. There is something incredibly fulfilling about it...

But I think I was more trying to express my reaction to so much of what I've encountered in "avant-church" culture over the last decade or so. There seems to have been such a resurgence of people who are more and more infatuated with "art" or "creativity" within certain religious circles. And I'm not knocking that, but what seems apparent is an overall lack of understanding about what "art" is really about, in the worldly sense. I do believe there are a lot of false assumptions (although maybe they are for the most part rather harmless, I'm not sure...)

Once we were in a home-fellowship meeting, and a woman (who made paintings) was talking about how frustrated it made her when people didn't "get" her paintings... I remember thinking to myself, "Well... what do you really expect?" Painting may be fun to make, and they may look great on a wall, but I don't think things like paintings are necessarily the most effective means of communicating truth. (they can be, of course, but also how much "back story" is required in order for someone to get that message?) There may indeed be something incredibly profound being expressed in a painting or poem or sculpture, but in reality I have found that most people, (and especially in the "art world"), are not looking for "the message", per se, at least not in the way that Christians tend to assume...

In the "art world", creativity IS the message. That IS what is "profound". Content becomes almost besides the point. Even style or skill becomes secondary, to the "act of creation"... I have seen far too many instances of "art" which relegate things like beauty, or "truth", to being completely irrelevant issues...

Like a Mustard Seed said...

I remember when I was in art school, and a instructor took our class to go visit a gallery where a friend of hers was having his latest showing. I was in for a bit of a shock, as we walked around the gallery, looking at his "pieces" which were mainly roughly-painted scenes on large pieces of plywood and found objects. I was in a bit of disbelief that the theme of almost all of his work was something that looked like some bizarre result of pedophelia and LSD use. Things like paintings of small girls, except their body parts were moved around. A floating "orb" of abstracted child body parts all going in and out of each other...

It was, in a word, disturbing.

My reaction must have shown on my face, because I remember my instructor frowning disaprovingly at me, as if to say, "You uncultured simpleton..." It was a strange scene, my whole class walking around with serious faces, looking very contemplative, as they gazed at those depraved images. There was nothing "profound" about any of it. Beauty and truth were nowhere to be seen, instead there was only perversion and confusion. But it was still "creative", it was still "art", and thus is was just as "valid" as anything else... (in fact, stuff like this is usually considered more valid in the art world, because it "pushes the envelope"...)

And that's I think an example of the kind of place we can end up, when "creativity" itself becomes the idol, and "art" becomes the means through which we effectively deify ourselves, essentially making ourselves the "creator", instead of people who have the gift of appreciating the Creator...

Think about something simple, like a painting of a sunset. You capture the hues on your canvass, the way the colors blend and create this amazing moment. But is that itself really a "creation", or is a "celebration", a way of appreciating something that HE has already created? To me, that is the proper understanding of "art", for those of us who recognize that we are not the makers of our own universe. We understand that everything we are capable of doing, or making, or painting, or sculpting or whatever, is possible only because God thought of it FIRST!

I recognize that very possibly this is exactly what you were getting at when you said, "isn’t this the impulse of the artist?" But I guess my whole point was really just to add, "Well, it can be, but it certainly isn't the case 100% of the time!" A lot of the time, it is an effort to "transcend" our "limited humanity", to build a tower into the clouds, and "be like God"...

Sorry for such incredibly long comments, it's just that I've spent quite a bit of time thinking about all this stuff, and I was pretty intrigued by how your sermon delves into a lot of these interconnected concepts...


Jonathan Erdman said...


Reading through your comments, I get the sense that what you are responding against is art used to shock people. Your example was of (you) being morally appalled by art that was intended to be shocking.

I don't know, however, if that example really seems like it is a problem of creativity for the sake of being creative. It seems like the root issue is that you and the artist had a severe moral and spiritual difference on the issues s/he was raising.

Consider The Passion film by Mel Gibson. Many people (Christians included) find this film offensive, grotesque, and pornographic. They find it to be sadistic: violence for the sake of violence.

Gibson and Christians sympathetic to the film would respond differently. Whatever shock that the film induces (from their perspective) is positive. The film/art is meant to shock the viewer into considering the great extent of Christ's suffering, presumably because this will lead to a person being humbled and converted to the Christian belief that "his body was broken for you."

So, there is this difference here regarding the effect of the shock, whether it is appropriate or not, whether it is counter-productive or productive. The debate, however, seems to be not so much about creativity as it is about whether or not the art is morally appropriate.

What do you think about The Passion film? Have you seen it?

My tendency is to think that creativity for the sake of creativity is all-in-all a positive and important thing. I think it can break us out of stale and mindless forms of art and introduce new ways of seeing the world. I'm open to re-thinking this, however. So, let me know what you think.

Like a Mustard Seed said...

Some people think Passion of the Christ is pornographic? Interesting... Haven't heard that one before...

That's an interesting point you make about "shock value" though... I guess I would agree that in that example I gave, shock value was used to a degree, although in reality I think what was so "shocking", was that the artwork being displayed was presented as not being anything shocking in the first place. And such a casual portrayal of that kind of subject matter I'd say was definitely a way of highlighting the "moral and spiritual differences" between himself and someone like me... But instead of the artist trying to brand themself as the "immoral" or "shocking" person, quite the contrary, it was sort of like a way of shrugging off certain "antiquated" notions of modesty and morality... And if someone was disturbed by what they saw, then they were the "shocking one", for being such a neanderthal...

Sort of like a graphic essay on the outdatedness of "old school morality"...

Anyways... Yeah, I saw the Passion of the Christ. It was moving in the sense that it was portraying events that are actually recorded in scripture, and I'm not sure it had much to with Gibson's "artistic vision" or anything... Sure, I can appreciate certain aspects of the style of film-making, decisions they made about how to do effects, etc., but ultimately that's not what makes the story "powerful". It's powerful only because it's refering something that really happened. If it hadn't, then the whole thing would be nothing more than a colossal exercise in fantasy, and it wouldn't really matter how good the effects were or how realistic it looked...

(Anyone who would argue that it is an example of "violence for the sake of violence" must not have read the gospels much for themselves...)

Like a Mustard Seed said...

But overall, I think the conclusion I keep coming to regarding "creativity" is this: that perhaps we could admit that the only who is truly "creative", is God, the Creator... As for us, the creation, do we really "create"? Or do we actually discover...? If we paint a painting, or mold a sculpture, or whatever, are we the one who is really coming up with something new? It may be new to us, but isn't God the one who created every possible color combination? (and the concept of "color" itself?) Didn't He create the arrangement of light and shadow? Every possible form and line and depth? Didn't he create every possible musical note that can be played? (and create our complex ears so we could hear them..?) Didn't He already create everything that we might possibly point to as objects of human "creation"?

But that's not to say that human art is bad, or not extremely important and valuable in the eyes of God, or people who believe in Him. It's more a question of regarding art in the proper context I guess, understanding that ultimately what is happening is more an act of appreciation than "creation". It's really an amazing form of worshipping God, the true Creator, because we are marvelling at all the amazing beauty and complexity that he has hard-wired into the universe...

It's true that art can become "stale and mindless" too of course, but I think we also have to remember that "creativity" can often be a used as the banner under which people try to usher in a whole smorgasborg of things that are indeed offensive to God... (I don't think he is fooled when someone dresses up perversion in the garb of "creativity".) "Creativity" doesn't give us free reign to say or paint or "express" whatever the heck we might want to (although the World essentially does define "creativity" this way...)

I think maybe I'm rabbit-trailing here, so I'll stop here and see what you think...

Like a Mustard Seed said...

(btw, have you seen the documentary film "Rivers and Tides", about artist/sculptor Andy Goldsworthy? Highly recommend it...)

Jonathan Erdman said...

Hey Daniel,

I like your take about shocking art being not shocking; and that in a move of reversal, we are now shocked at the one who is shocked. It's kind of a modern maybe postmodern thing: like we expect ourselves and others to be pretty numb to anything shocking. I see your point.

I think I might disagree a bit with your correlation between The Passion film and Scripture. I mean, let me clarify: I appreciate what you are saying, that you (personally) were moved because the movie corresponded with Scripture. It's just that I don't really see the suffering of Christ's passion as being central to the message of any of the four Gospels. Furthermore, the narrative of the suffering is fairly bland, describing very briefly what happened. (Compare this with the Old Testament narratives, which are similar in that there is little of the dramatization.) So, the story of the passion lacks, well, passion. The Gibson film ratchets up the drama in a way that the Gospel narratives do not.

Again, I'm not doubting you and your reasons for appreciating the film, but I think the reason why The Passion was so popular among conservative Christians (yourself excluded, obviously) is not because it correlated with Scripture but because it corresponded to the emphasis that Christians often place on the torture of the cross. The Gospels themselves do not highlight the violence in any dramatic way, but many Christians do. This is due in part to a theological emphasis on violence, i.e. the violence of the atonement. Scripture itself, however, doesn't really emphasize this. (Atonement theology is important, but I don't see it as being central to biblical theology.)

Well, that's my thoughts on The Passion and the psyche and theology of American Christianity. My two cents.

Jonathan Erdman said...

I see your point about creativity a bit better now, I think. I can appreciate that approach. It is, I think at first glance, something of a medieval point of view. Whether it is or not, I think your point is well taken. I don't know if that's necessarily my philosophy of art and theology. I tend to be a bit more modern (or perhaps postmodern) in seeing a good deal of random chaos in the world, lines of discontinuity rather than harmony. So, I appreciate the first verses of Genesis that talks about the earth being "formless and void" in its original state, with the Spirit of God hovering over the waters.

Theologically, I also appreciate the Christian idea of the Holy Spirit moving as s/he wills, the mysterious and unpredictable contours of the workings of God through the Spirit. There is this sense that the church's creativity should be unencumbered, allowing themselves to act and react in response to the blowings of the wind. I imagine this does not differ too much from where you are coming from.

Jonathan Erdman said...

No. I haven't seen Rivers and Tides.

Why do you recommend it?