Namaste. Divine imagination in me greets the same in you. Imagination is your memory of the future, not like a fantasy imagining things there are not really there, but really seeing what was awaiting your attention all along. The soul of the universe is whispering to you through her mythic imagination, calling you to action. Symbols, dreams, myths and stories bubble up in you, often from beyond your conscious awareness, carefree in the face of reason’s tight lipped caution. When we meet in this space, the doors of imagination flung wide, we imagine the possibilities for a world filled with peace and justice, and say with clarity and passion, “Why not?”
Imagine a world without war and poverty- Why not?
Imagine a world where people live and let live- Why not?
Imagine a world where we celebrate diversity rather than fear difference- Why not?
Imagine a world where no one is oppressed for their gender or sexuality- Why not?
Imagine a world where hatred and racism are no more- Why not?
Imagine a world where children are not abused and beaten- Why not?
Imagine a world where everyone has equal access to resources- Why not?
Imagine a world where religions respect each other and seek peace- Why not?
Imagine a world where everyone has affordable health care- Why not?
Imagine a world where the rights of the earth are at the forefront- Why not?
Imagine a world of love and respect- Why not?
Why not indeed!
Social Imagination and Optimism
Several times in each generation, something takes place that becomes seared on the collective imagination of the world. It fills people with such a deep optimism that even in the face of the worst odds, change becomes possible. Such an event took place on November 4. I had arrived in Sydney just in time to turn on the television and see Barack Obama give his victory speech. I celebrated with millions of Australians who felt that the whole world had just changed for the better. I watched people celebrate in Kenya who sensed that a major barrier to equality had just been torn down. Across political party divide, people everywhere witnessed an event that symbolized hope and optimism. In the face of an almost apocalyptic global economic crisis, one man represented the possibility for change. Michigan was described in a New York Times article as being the “ground zero” of the American economy, again filling the crisis with apocalyptic urgency.
That’s one of the functions of apocalyptic literature. It paints a picture so awful that you can barely imagine any way forward, any tolerable future, but in the midst of the chaos some image beams forth like a beacon. One such passage is in Luke 21. Amidst the earth’s distress, with people fainting from fear and confused by the signs, a fig tree’s first leaves sprout in spring and you know that hope is near.
When life overwhelms you, and you feel beaten up by life’s circumstances, let the image of Obama’s victory speech, like a fig tree’s first buds, fill you with hope.
Another function of apocalyptic literature is to emphasize nature’s magnificence. Nature is often personified, and speaks to human imagination offering a wider perspective than our fearful, limited perspective. Change is always possible. Learn from nature, watch for the signs, be ready for change.
Progressive Religion and Change
The world is ripe for change, and communities such as ours, are ready to ride the wave of possibilities. I heard Obama say something inspiring in one of his last speeches the day before the election. He has attempted to be a unifying force throughout his career, and he said something on Nov 3 that has profound implications for progressive religion. He said, “It’s no longer about whether we have big government or small government. That’s an old conversation. It’s about having good government.”
That set me to thinking about progressive religion. It’s not about whether God exists or not. That’s an old conversation. It’s about your experience of the sacredness of the moment and grasping for the most poetic, extraordinary language to describe your experience.
It’s not about whether Jesus was the son of God, or not. That’s an old conversation. It’s about whether you live with the same courage and passion for justice that Jesus lived.
It’s not about whether the Bible is the divinely inspired and inerrant word of God, or not. That’s an old conversation. It’s about whether you are moved by the experience of ancient cultures striving to do the best they could in harsh circumstances. They were drawing on poetry, story and specialized literature such as apocalyptic to remind each other that change is the nature of the universe.
Progressive religion is not a new ideology, a new set of beliefs to either believe or not. It’s a framework around which you can make meaning of your own experience. It’s about experience, not ideology.
Spiritual but not Religious
Progressive religion finds kindred spirits in the group of people that are increasingly comfortable to call themselves spiritual but not religious. Did you know that 1 in 5 Americans describe themselves as spiritual but not religious? That’s over 45 million Americans.
In Australia, I discovered the same phenomenon. In Australia, less than 10% of people go to church weekly, and yet 75% of Australians say that they believe in God. What do they mean? Whatever they are looking for, they clearly aren’t finding it in church.
I don’t sense that they are looking for some concept about God. People are looking for experience in the here and now, the sort of experience that turns scientists into poets, theologians into story tellers and leaves you and I grasping for language that might get close to describing the mysterious and wondrous connectedness of life. People are looking to craft this experience of sacred wonder into an activism that makes the world a better place.
I had an amazing experience when I visited Strawberry Fields in Central Park. Strawberry Fields was created in honor of John Lennon. 4 blocks of tear shaped land surround the memorial that is named after an orphanage near where John Lennon grew up in England. Massive trees caste their shade over the memorial like grand cathedrals. The centre piece is a swirling black and white mosaic with the word “imagine” in the centre. People make pilgrimages to see Strawberry Fields. The day I was there was, I’m sure, typical. People milled around with curiosity and reverence. A homeless man laid some scruffy flowers on the mosaic as he pulled his dying dog along in a cart. He was finding his peace. A mother bent down, telling her young son stories about John Lennon, his music and his activism. He listened intently. A couple wept and embraced as they mourned the loss of their hero. Several people bowed in respect or simply stood in silence. A young guy left a poem he had written. It was like church, the way church should be- no pretence and utterly present. Poetry, stories, meaningful ritual, grief and prayer- they were all happening and so naturally. That’s church as it could be- why not?
The death of Lennon was part of an apocalyptic nightmare; where people kill out of deranged confusion. Strawberry Fields brings to mind the apocalyptic vision of Revelation chapter 6- there was a great earthquake. The sun turned black, the stars fell to earth, and the moon turned blood red. The blood red moon reminds me of strawberries in an orphanage yard. Apocalyptic literature always mixes devastation with natural beauty. In the midst of the violence of Revelation 6, there it is again- the fig tree with its miraculous winter fruit.
Maybe you remember what you were doing when Lennon was shot, or maybe you remember where you were when Obama was announced the first African American President of the United States. These moments are seared on the collective imagination, and inspire people to be change agents. These are the moments you know that the kingdom of heaven has come near.
I don’t trust anyone that says they know what heaven is like, or whether heaven exists or not. That’s an old conversation. Who can claim such certainty? Noone has gone there and come back to tell the tale. The Bible offers some clues, but not when taken literally.
Did you know that Revelation describes heaven as being a cube that is 1,500 miles on each side? That’s a massive structure and very impressive. Based on population per square mile, that means that heaven could accommodate 83 billion people assuming that many of them are floating in the cube….and they would be floating seeing as gravity is greatly reduced in a giant cube. But of course there are unlikely to be many people there in any case, considering that the Bible also says that liars and cheaters are not going to make it. That counts out most of us, I’m sure.
The Bible doesn’t describe a literal heaven. But it does offer some beautiful poetry. This is what I find meaningful in the image of heaven as a giant cube, with its length the same size as its depth. For life to be meaningful, you have to live with as much depth as you live with height or reach. In other words, you need to match your outer growth and progress with an inner character. Let your life have a cube-like symmetry. Once again, the economic downturn provides an opportunity. While growth is slowed, you have time to reassess your inner world. What are your priorities? What are your friction points, when life becomes fearful and anxious? Find your balance- the kingdom of heaven is near.
Imagination- Letting Go of Fear
Imagination encourages you to allow your reach to exceed your grasp. As Browning says, “That’s what a heaven is for”. The message of apocalyptic literature is to release your tight grip on life and allow the present moment to be your heaven.
There is a story that comes out of Buddhism about a man traveling across a field who encountered a tiger. The man fled, and the tiger chased after him. Coming to a precipice, the man caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him.
Two mice, little by little, started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!
Heaven is not about some future promised land. Heaven is now. Heaven is tasting life in the here and now, even and maybe especially when life appears to be changing so rapidly. That’s when treasures will be revealed to you, if you can stay alert.
In this anxious age we live in, there is no absolute truth to hold on to, no one true religion, no supernatural God to rescue us. Yet we have something more powerful, and more creative- the synthesis of all the earth’s wisdom, the collective imagination, can usher in a whole new era of civilization. And you can be part it. Perhaps the greatest revelation of this current apocalypse will be the realization that the universal quest that unites is more powerful than the differences that divide us.
Imagine all the people living life in peace- why not?