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January 30, 2009

Thinking about God & the Commons

The role of faith in imagining and creating a commons-based society

The commons is a term for the unearned storehouse that makes life possible on earth, the sunlight, water, air, wind, soil and other necessities that nurture and sustain life forms, allowing us to grow, multiply, die, and evolve. For humans, the commons is also the birthright to our accumulated culture, the knowledge, stories, music, art, technology, commerce, societies, institutions, religions, and laws passed along and modified across generations.

It’s in the second meaning of the commons, accumulated human culture, that we find notions about God. Notions are intuitions about experience, and because human experience varies, so do notions. From the simple household gods of hearth and wellspring to the great creation myths and sagas of each human culture, our notions about God are attempts to explain, celebrate, honor, or appease our perceived sources of life and death, the intentional givers or disinterested providers of unearned necessities that put life in motion, nurture, sustain, and transform it. So there are sun gods, water gods, gods of earth, wind, and fire. There are entire societies of gods, one god of all, one god in three persons, and the immutable mystery of life one encounters in silence.

This essay is an invitation to readers to explore how experiences and stories of faith, and actions they inspire, can help or hinder us in caring for the commons upon which all life depends.

Faith is generally understood as a system of beliefs, usually religious beliefs, as evidenced in Sam Harris’ The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, (W.W. Norton and Company, 2005). In spite of the title, Harris, a student of Eastern and Western religious traditions as well as neuroscience, makes a case for the end of destructive and absurd religious beliefs rather than the end of faith itself. Faith is simply one of the goods in the unearned storehouse called the commons. It’s intrinsic to the human life form, an attraction or openness to the mystery and meaning of life, not a construct of culture. Faith is also understood as a virtue, an ability to experience transcendence and act on it, whether or not we call what we experience a diety. People can describe these experiences, and joining a community with a particular story of faith and action can be a rational choice.

Religious beliefs are constructs of culture, and as Harris and others point out, many of them need to be retired for the sake of life itself. But faith is an aspect of human life rather than an idea or technology that can be set aside in favor of something better. Faith is a driver of cultural evolution, an unearned gift like light and water that isn’t imposed but is simply available and can move us or not to sustain one another and the commons upon which our lives depend.

The experience of faith doesn’t require religious belief, as illustrated in the following quote from “The Rules of Engagement: Communion in a Scientific Age,” by Robert Bellah (Commonweal, September 12, 2008). Bellah quotes Vaclev Havel, a Czechoslovakian playwright sentenced to a four-year prison term in 1979 for his activity in the Czech human rights movement. In 1989, Havel was elected first President of the Czechoslovakia.

“I call to mind that distant moment in (the prison at) Hermanice when on a hot, cloudless summer day, I sat on a pile of rusty iron and gazed into the crown of an enormous tree that stretched, with dignified repose, up and over all the fences, wires, bars, and watchtowers that separated me from it. As I watched the imperceptible trembling of its leaves against an endless sky, I was overcome by a sensation that is difficult to describe: all at once, I seemed to rise above all the coordinates of my momentary existence in the world into a kind of state outside time in which all the beautiful things I had ever seen and experienced existed in a total “copresent”; I felt a sense of reconciliation, indeed of an almost gentle consent to the inevitable course of things as revealed to me now, and this combined with a carefree determination to face what had to be faced. A profound amazement at the sovereignty of Being became a dizzying sensation of tumbling endlessly into the abyss of its mystery; an unbound joy at being alive, at having been given the chance to live through all I have lived through, and at the fact that everything has a deep and obvious meaning – this joy formed a strange alliance in me with a vague horror at the inapprehensibility and unattainability of everything I was close to in that moment, standing at the very “edge of the finite”; I was flooded with a sense of ultimate happiness and harmony with the world and with myself, with that moment, with all the moments I could call up, and with everything invisible that lies behind it and has meaning. I would even say that I was somehow “struck by love,” though I didn’t know precisely for whom or what.”

Havel’s poetic talent allows him to communicate elegantly about an aspect of faith, the unadorned, often unbidden experience of epiphany reported regularly across time, human cultures, and religions by sages, saints, sinners, and ordinary office workers waiting at a bus stop. This experience of communion with all life, the dissolution of ego and transcendence of good, evil, time, space, and species, is a commons.

But mystics warn against merely being carried off in the experience of transcendence. Epiphanies aren’t particularly distinguishable from madness except by the fruit they bear in the world. Nor are they the only avenues of faith. Barack Obama described his movement of faith toward a specific religious tradition in his 2006 keynote speech to Call to Renewal, an evangelical Christian organization, quoted in part here: (See www.barackobama.com/2006/06/28/call_to_renewal_keynote_address.php for the entire speech.)

“It wasn’t until after college, when I went to Chicago to work as a community organizer for a group of Christian churches, that I confronted my own spiritual dilemma.

“I was working with churches, and the Christians who I worked with recognized themselves in me. They saw that I knew their Book and that I shared their values and sang their songs. But they sensed that a part of me remained removed, detached, that I was an observer in their midst.

“And in time, I came to realize that something was missing as well — that without a vessel for my beliefs, without a commitment to a particular community of faith, at some level I would always remain apart, and alone.

“And if it weren’t for the particular attributes of the historically black church, I may have accepted this fate. But as the months passed in Chicago, I found myself drawn – not just to work with the church, but to be in the church.

“For one thing, I believed and still believe in the power of the African-American religious tradition to spur social change, a power made real by some of the leaders here today. Because of its past, the black church understands in an intimate way the Biblical call to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and challenge powers and principalities. And in its historical struggles for freedom and the rights of man, I was able to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active, palpable agent in the world. As a source of hope.

“And perhaps it was out of this intimate knowledge of hardship — the grounding of faith in struggle — that the church offered me a second insight, one that I think is important to emphasize today.

“Faith doesn’t mean that you don’t have doubts.

“You need to come to church in the first place precisely because you are first of this world, not apart from it. You need to embrace Christ precisely because you have sins to wash away – because you are human and need an ally in this difficult journey.

“It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ on 95th Street in the Southside of Chicago one day and affirm my Christian faith. It came about as a choice, and not an epiphany. I didn’t fall out in church. The questions I had didn’t magically disappear. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt that I heard God’s spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth.

“That’s a path that has been shared by millions upon millions of Americans – evangelicals, Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims alike; some since birth, others at certain turning points in their lives. It is not something they set apart from the rest of their beliefs and values. In fact, it is often what drives their beliefs and their values.”

Community, reason, study, and the practice of spiritual and material discipline are integral to participating in the commons of faith. Whether these practices include naming or venerating a god or gods is less important than the fruits of the practice. Does it honor, protect, and enhance the commons and lift us closer to dignity, or does it destroy and demean life itself?

Our destruction of the commons knows no particular religion, nor is it curtailed by the disavowal of faith. Wanton exploitation of land, water, air, forests, animals, children, women, and indigenous people crosses the boundaries of religious belief and secularism. And yet, countless people attest to, live, and act from the experience of faith, attributing to it a source of knowledge and action. Vaclev Havel wrote in The Art of the Impossible, (Knopf, and 1997 p.174) :

“It turns out, for example, that many experiences…slumber in our collective unconscious. In various forms, these experiences surface again and again in the cultural achievements of humanity and often in individual human adventures. In a way that we scarcely understand, they transcend what a person could know himself or inherit from his ancestors. It is as if something like an antenna were picking up signals from a physically indeterminable transmitter that contains the experience of the entire human race.”

Our planet struggles to sustain life as destruction of the commons threatens the neccessities upon which life depends. Faith calls us to do something about it. People, not gods or chance, fashion culture by using and interpreting the meaning of the goods of the commons. We can choose to fashion culture to protect and sustain the commons by engaging, not burying, our capacity for faith, one path to vision of the profound and complex unity of all things and the human responsibility to acknowledge and care for it.

Neuroscience may eventually map the material mechanism of faith. But the spirit and commitment faith can engender, and the fruits of our actions guided by an awesome respect for the communion we are part of, comprise the practical value of faith we need now as we undertake to live in societies that must restore the vitality of the commons or perish in the destruction of its unearned gifts.

Barbara Ehrenreich wrote in God Owes Us an Apology, (The Progressive, March 2005), that the explanations supplied by clerics from many religions of the cause of the December 2004 tsunami that took the lives of 250,000 people in one morning were absurdly inadequate and simply wrong. While conservatives assigned blame for God’s wrath on bikini-clad women on the beaches and gay people in general, liberals posited that their all-powerful and all-good God in his mysterious way might simply have been testing human ability to respond to and recover from the tragedy. No doubt many of us owe one another and our various conceptions of God an apology, having overlooked Buddhism’s first noble truth: to live means to suffer, because we are not perfect and neither is the world we live in.

Ehrenreich deftly dismissed the stories that explained the tsunami as an act of a good and powerful god, calling us instead to expand sophisticated but imperfect technology already in the hands of wealthy nations to predict natural weather events, increase our capacity to remove people from harm’s way, and respond quickly with medical care and life support to those we’re unable to reach before a storm hits. We in the United States effectively ignored this practical acceptance of our knowledge and experience that storms happen and there are steps we can take to prevent and mitigate the pain and suffering they cause. In August 2005, the levees broke in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

Obvious challenges before all of us are to take better care of the commons than we are doing now, to use it to meet our needs with greater reverence and gratitude, and to share it in peace with a wide-range of imperfect communities rooted in stories and beliefs that contain essential insights, internal inconsistencies, and outright errors, and are often violently at odds with other imperfect communities around the globe.

The commons needs us to reflect, think, and work together with humility and vigor across our differences to sustain the gift of life. The tasks are complex, and include letting go of destructive beliefs while elevating our political, environmental, economic, and social conduct to honor and sustain the life of the commons we all share. Many people and communities around the globe are already doing this, some better than others. OntheCommons is one forum for this movement that can help focus the spiritual, intellectual, and practical tasks before us to heal our common and particular wounds and flourish.

Knowledge and reason tell us that tsunamis happen and people who inhabit coastal areas run a risk of drowning in them. We don’t need faith to understand that. But where does Ehrenreich’s claim that we should invest material resources to prevent harm and aid those caught up in such disasters come from? Compassion is the ability to transcend, not discard, knowledge and reason. Literally, it means “to suffer with.” It takes faith to suffer with others from a distance and question whether devoting our technical talents to such things as clever improvements in I-pods, cell phones, and other mass consumer goods might be better spent binding up the unattended wounds nature has inflicted on us and we have inflicted on nature and ourselves.

Faith experienced, not merely as a system of religious belief, but as a source of hope and love, is a gift of the commons that leads us in spite of our imperfections to live and act with a determination to face what has to be faced, connecting us in our tasks to act with integrity and justice toward one another and the world we share. We can engage on the commons to spread stories of faith that inspire action to heal the world.