Sunday, 1 April 2012

Sunday Sermon: What's the Point?

Everything, good morning. Thank you for all things. Thank you for this existence and its opportunities to behold and serve you. Thank you for our beautiful planet, and help us to do justice to its beauty with wise action. Amen.


The purpose of the individual beyond the interests of the individual and her home is the interests of the collective and the commons.

I have a text today, courteous readers, a parable from nature from a gem of a book, Lewis Thomas's The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher (1974). It is a beautiful book, ahead of its time, foreshadowing James Lovelock's Gaia Hypothesis and, in many ways, a modern spirituality. Anyway,

Two or three termites in a chamber will begin to pick up pellets and move them from place to place, but nothing comes of it; nothing is built. As more join in, they seem to reach a critical mass, a quorum, and the thinking begins. They place pellets atop pellets, then throw up columns and beautiful, curving, symmetrical arches, and the crystalline architecture of vaulted chambers is created. It is not known how they communicate with each other, how the chains of termites building one column know when to turn to the crew on the adjacent column, or how, when the time comes, they manage the flawless joining of the arches. The stimuli that set them off at the outset, building collectively instead of shifting things about, may be pheremones released when they reach committee size. They react as if alarmed. They become agitated, excited, and then they begin working, like artists.

Now we are not termites, though when we are alone and alienated it can sometimes feel like we are, apart from surviving, merely moving pellets from one part of the chamber to another. On the other hand we might also find in this analogy a reason to believe, even if we do just feel like we're randomly moving pellets around, that something bigger is happening that we are not properly aware of.

The preliminary answer to the question of the meaning of life is that it is to live and procreate. All life does it and it doesn't seem to need any other motivation. But cursed with the comprehension of all this there are many times in life when we need more to live for. If we are privileged (ie. live in a developed economy), many of us find ourselves struggling with the question of higher purpose, a reason to try to shine all the brighter. When all is horrid on the other hand we may find we need a reason to keep pushing pellets at all. We also all face death, some time, and we all have a need to avoid madness.

It may help us think about higher purpose if we stay away from humans for a bit yet. I suggest that if we are considering the purpose of a possum we would be considering its ecological environment, and especially that which is in any way adjacent to or downstream from the possum. We would be speaking of an ecosystem, a larger system of which the possum is a part.

In many ways we are not so different to a possum, but similarly if we were to discuss the purpose of an astronomical body we would be looking at the gravitational relationships with other planetary bodies in their various orbits and trajectories, and if we were to ask the same question about a Hydrogen atom we would find ourselves referring to its chemical environment.

In short, a simple approach to defining higher purpose (than existence and survival) of a given element is, tautologically enough, identifying needs for existence and survival of the larger system of which the element is a part. Simple, but also very practical, for both ourselves and the purposes, hidden or not, of Everything.

My apologies to readers if this does not sound especially transcendent. It terms of "What do I do?", God does not help us much, and the thing we all have in common is that not one of us knows what the purpose of the totality is, or the purpose of God. If we spend too much time and effort trying to be impossibly profound, I suspect we might miss out on actually helping anything at all. And that is not generally the human need. The existential human need is for purpose higher than self.

In terms of human needs - our needs - the transcendental scholasticism is not important. What is important for everyday psychological survival and fulfilment is embodiment as contrary to alienation. To be doing more than merely moving pellets from one part of the chamber to another we need to be grouped in place as well as in spirit, not just one-off but over a long enough period to build a cathedral, or indefinitely, whichever comes first. But I've discussed that before.

Family is a higher purpose than self, as is community, and millions live for these things and indeed will die for them. Disturbingly at times millions find deep purpose in tribe and nation, but with humans all sorts of collectives have emerged and there is a fulfilment of the need for purpose in larger collectivity. That larger system of which we are apart, however, is not merely human.

Let me cut to the chase. The sacred duty of the House of Every is to pursue the interests of all of humanity: the interests of ten thousand years of future civilisation, inextricably the interests of the ecological earth, in a sacred manner - a manner distinct and independent from (but not disregarding) the political and economic interests of our world. That is enough purpose. We can not yet know, after all, if the earth itself is not merely a termite, unwittingly a part of a far greater emergent patterning.

But first of all, beyond ourselves, the point of life is our place, and our community. If people are connected to it, that is enough almost all of the time, even whilst the ultimate purpose remains mysterious. Together our moving pellets can become a cathedral, a better world. This is a profound and challenging task, a worthwhile one and I believe a sacred one.

For one implication of worshiping Everything is that serving nature, including human nature, is itself a holy act. The point is not to render religion secular - we have thousands of secular organisations. The point here is to enchant and enrich reality, with embodiment, story and song. And a result of this will be effective agency.

Before I sign off, there is a key difference between us and termites which I feel obliged to note carefully. We move pellets of knowledge about. Next week will be the first (of several, at least, before this first series is complete) sermons about logos, the living word of Everything, the uniquely human layer of cathedral building. There is a brief introduction to the subject linked above.


Every, forgive me for my rambling presentation of something so important as the purpose of our existence. I am humbled by the very absurdity of attempting it. Help my readers think about this one, and to critically discern from my sermon that which is helpful to them, and to disregard the rest. So be it.

No comments:

Post a Comment