Text version of a talk given by Jonathan Jelfs at St Bride's Liverpool, 15th Nov 2015.
There is a new dream or vision of the earth emerging; the late Thomas Berry, eco-theologian, called it ‘The Dream of the Earth’. Desmond Tutu calls it ‘The dream of God’.
It is a dream in which the earth is seen to be sacred; infused with the Infinite, the Divine. A dream in which the earth is revered as the remarkable womb of life and consciousness. A dream in which the earth and its species, including human beings, live in respectful harmonious relationship knowing, that they have their source in the Infinite and are made to be lovingly and compassionately together for the common good.
THE EARTH COMES FROM THE INFINITE
I like this word INFINITE. It is a word that can be used in secular as well as spiritual contexts. It’s interesting because when scientists speak of the beginning of space and time at the big bang this word is often used. They speak of the ‘infinitely hot and dense tiny point’ known as the initial singularity. In this point is infinite mass in an infinitely small space. Wow! So it seems that the earth has its beginnings in the infinite. And somehow this ‘wow’ filters through in the natural world. We are affected by places of beauty, grandeur and power in the natural world in a way that gives us a taste of the Infinite. Helen and I had a taste of the Infinite on our recent trip to Iceland. Would you like to see a few pictures?
EXPERIENTIAL EVIDENCE FOR THE INFINITE
Another way we encounter the Infinite is in spiritual experience. It is as though sometimes the Infinite, or the divine, bursts through into our experience and we have a taste of the infinite – infinite love, infinite joy, as sense of oneness with God and with all things. It is often these mystical experiences that have given rise to the religious traditions; think of Moses at the burning bush; the disciples at Pentecost; the apostle Paul’s conversion. Although these experiences can be quite profound and life changing, not everyone has them. Perhaps more important is the way the Infinite filters through into this world through VALUES; these are values that include goodness, beauty, truth, love and compassion. Human beings typically have an innate recognition of these values, we respond to them and they speak to us of that which is higher, that which is Infinite, that which is of God. We all have the experience of these infinite values.
Listen to John O’Donohue writing about beauty: “The human soul is hungry for beauty; we seek it everywhere – in landscape, music, art, clothes, furniture, gardening, companionship, love, religion and in ourselves. No-one would desire not to be beautiful. When we experience the Beautiful there is a sense of homecoming. Some of our most wonderful memories are of beautiful places where we felt immediately at home. We feel most alive in the presence of the beautiful for it meets the needs of our soul. For a while the strains of struggle and endurance are relieved and our frailty is illuminated by a different light in which we come to glimpse behind the shudder of appearances the sure form of things. In the experience of beauty, we awaken and surrender in the same act.” Similar things could be said about our experience of truth or goodness, or about expressions of love and compassion. Think for example of Malala, the young Pakistani activist and Nobel laureate. Having survived an assassination attempt she has been widely recognised as someone who courageously speaks truth about full access to education for girls in all cultures. In her own way through the expression of truth and goodness she is perhaps able to help evolve consciousness and culture in relation to education in some countries.
There are many other well-known examples of heroic and prophetic political action or self-less service that draw attention to the Infinite at work in human life. Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa…There is within humanity an ongoing quest for improvement, for the expression of higher values. It was the British process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead who defined evolution as an increase in the capacity to experience what is intrinsically valuable. THESE QUALITIES OR VALUES ARE LIKE RAYS OF THE INFINITE PENETRATING THE FINITE WORLD
As human beings we experience amazement at the natural features of the earth and also sometimes the expression of these values. WE ALSO EXPERIENCE DISMAY. It is with great dismay we consider the effects of pollution, loss of biodiversity, shortages of clean water, the many effects of climate change, inequality and the loss of a sense of the common good, violence and wars in so many places, suffering in all its forms. But, we have to bear in mind that the universe, earth and life emerge out of violent processes. The elements of the universe come from huge supernova star explosions. The light and heat that makes life possible on earth comes from nuclear fusion at its core. The land masses and are formed through great movements of the earth tectonic plates, volcano’s and the crashing of waves on the shore. The species emerge through the struggle for survival in demanding circumstances.
The same is true for human beings. We have made our way through history negotiating the violent energies of the natural world of heat and rain and ice. The extraordinary thing is that the violence of the natural world is creative, producing sea and land, soil and rivers, plants and animals. One of the wonders of existence on earth is that the suffering and death that we may experience are capable of producing the values and attributes of the Infinite. Not that we should settle for the violence and suffering of our world but, as we struggle to raise humanity to higher ways of living, we are deepened in the process. The cross of suffering and the cave of resurrection at the heart of Christianity reflect this reality that the interaction of the earth and the Infinite, even in suffering, brings about a new creation. Crisis and difficulty offer the potential for expansion of consciousness, for rising to a higher level in our awareness and our actions. The apostle Paul in Romans 8 described it this way: (this is my rendering)
I am confident that what we suffer now cannot compare with the glory that follows. All of creation waits for the Infinite to reveal its children. Meanwhile it seems confusing, but rest assured, this is how things are because all of reality is set on a trajectory towards freedom and perfection. It’s like childbirth, we utter the groans and feel the pain of that which is coming to birth.
Evolution is a primary quality of the universe, it affects the physical world, human culture and the development of our own mind and consciousness. We live our lives in this creative milieu where there is amazement and dismay, joy and suffering, the perfect environment for transformation and evolution. When looked at in the short term there are many things that seem unfair. When seen in the context of the Infinite we may see things very differently.
When thinking about evolution for myself I went through a phase of thinking that this must be some sort of impersonal process at work that doesn’t care about the participants. That the evolutionary impulse is an impersonal power or energy. I think this is a mistake. The presence of the qualities of love, compassion, goodness, beauty and truth together with the mystical or spiritual direct experience of divine love witnessed to by the world’s religious traditions suggest that the evolutionary impulse is far from impersonal. This creative energy at work in the universe is revealed to us as Love, as the One who knows and loves each one of us fully. Rather than being impersonal I think we experience the Infinite, God, as the perfection of personhood.
So what can we say about the relationship between the earth and the Infinite, or the earth and the divine? There appears to be a creative principle, an evolutionary impulse, present in the universe and expressed in and through the earth and its species. The resulting evolutionary trajectory is one that has spiritual significance, for it is giving rise to the spiritual qualities of love, compassion, goodness, beauty and truth. To be human, with amazement and dismay, is to know what it feels like to be evolution embodied. This creative impulse produces in us the urge to evolve, to develop, to reach higher for something better. The life that we share offers us the opportunity through our conscious choices to co-create a better future, to participate consciously in the evolution of the future. Love, compassion, beauty, goodness and truth are literally the presence of the Infinite, of God, in this world. Spiritual practices including worship, prayer, meditation enable us to experience the Infinite, the divine. Lifestyle practices including creating beauty, speaking truth and doing works of goodness and compassion express the Infinite among us. Such is the relationship between the earth and the Infinite.
Meditation on the Infinite
(with thanks to Terry Patten for a meditation on which this is based)
The Infinite is a Mystery that we cannot fully understand but it is within us, among us and all around. The Infinite is Love, is what and who we call God. It is unmanifest and invisible and yet apparent in the universe: the galaxies, solar systems, stars and planets. Manifest too in the earth and all its living things. Present in thought, awareness and consciousness. The Infinite is here in the very force of life, of creativity and evolution. God is with us and in us, inspiring in us to love and compassion, goodness, beauty and truth. God, the Infinite One, loves us and is present to us through the Spirit and through Christ.
The Infinite is felt as intelligence, imagination, creativity, love, care, compassion.
The Infinite is present as you, as your body, your mind, your being. The Infinite is the Being behind all things, the source and origin of all. It is the radiance of love in all its forms. The Infinite is felt as the impulse to breathe, to live, to love, to create – the impulse to rise, to shine, to improve, to bless, to serve and to care.
The Infinite is all pervading perfect peace, the light of divine presence in everyone and everything. The Infinite is also a living force for change, for transformation, for justice, for reconciliation and for healing.
The Infinite shines within us and through us, whenever the Infinite is felt and known and loved.
So, love the Infinite, love the source of all, love Jesus – the one who lived and loved as the Infinite. Love, remember the Infinite; have faith in the Infinite, and trust the Infinite.
Surrender to the Infinite; let it live through you, let it live as you. Breathe the Infinite and feel the Infinite. The Infinite is here, now. God is with us and among us in Christ. Always, never not here.
The Infinite saves us, from what we fear in suffering and death. The Infinite, the Christ, will dissolve all your confusion in the face of Love. So do not be afraid, the Infinite is here, always, everywhere, alive. The Infinite is righteousness, joy and peace. The Infinite is Good News.
Now be happy, live in the Infinite, live in Christ. Know the Infinite compassion, the Infinite’s love for you personally and directly. Receive that love and let your heart be changed, now and always, by that love.
Let your whole being relax in grace, in love, in the Infinite. And, as much as is possible for you, love and serve the Infinite with every breath and every act already, loved and forgiven. Be blessed in the alpha, the omega, the Infinite, Jesus the Christ, God with us.