I’m sitting in a chair. No, that’s not quite right. I think I’m sitting in a chair, but quantum physics tells me there’s really no chair there at all, just infinitesimal packets of energy whizzing around that can only be described as probabilities… And of course, I’m also just a collection of probabilities. So there’s no me sitting in something that isn’t a chair.
It makes me wonder who or what is the “I” that’s wondering all these things.
At the other end of reality, I learn about a universe that’s some 14 billion years old, and more than 28 billion light-years across. Like an ancient psalm writer, I wonder, “Who am I, that anyone should think I matter?”
I can’t comprehend a billion of anything, whether time or distance.
In her book A God That Could Be Real, author Nancy Ellen Abrams imagined a continuum. One end was the micro- and nano- level – particles and principles too small for us to get our minds around. The other end was the macro- level – distances and forces too great for us to imagine.
We humans, she suggested, can only think of realities more or less related to our own size. Wherever anything is on that infinite spectrum, it can only deal with a certain range on either side of its own reality.
We can, perhaps, imagine life as an ant. But almost certainly not as a bacterium. Similarly, we might imagine life as an elephant, perhaps as a tree. But an ant cannot imagine life as a human, let alone a whale. And none of us can imagine what it would be like to be a volcanic island in the Pacific, or a black hole in space.
Some, by specialized training, can see farther into the surrounding fog than the rest of us can. Abrams’ husband, for example, discovered the “dark matter” that fills the universe. But the rest of us live in inside our own bubble of visibility.
That bubble is mirrored in theories of psychological and moral development. Maslow, Kohlberg, and Erikson all suggest that people can usually empathize with one or two levels back from their current status; they may almost understand the next level up. But no farther.
Thanks to the data storage of literacy, our bubbles can extend beyond our own life experience. Our reality can include the wisdom and experience of humans in ancient Greece and the Middle East. But the reality of Neanderthals in Europe? Of aboriginals in Australia? Not likely.
And we can’t – or don’t even try – to imagine the life cycle of entities other than individual humans. Of a city, for example. A civilization. A planet.
Yet civilizations and communities do create their own bubbles. Arlin Rothauge analyzed church communities, for example. He identified four classes, from the smallest “family” churches to the largest “corporate” churches. Each inhabits its own bubble of reality, where any significant shift in size, worship, or theology inevitably leads to internal trauma.
I suspect that most of us resist expanding our bubbles. Because beyond our own bubbles of reality lies the unknown. Like the blank spaces on maps that ancient map-makers called terra incognita. Sometimes they added, “Here be dragons.”
It’s a matter of attitude.
Copyright © 2017 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.
To comment on this column, write firstname.lastname@example.org
Bob Rollwagen pointed out that “Customs, routines, habits, traditions, procedures, programs, agendas, and rituals could be seen as different words for the same thing. Generally, they include things we like to do or feel we should do for any number of reasons that impact our life in family, community or relationships.”
I had started last week’s column on rituals with a reference to the Wheel of Fortune program on TV. Bob wrote, “I thought Vanna White had retired. I found the program challenging and would have watched it no matter who walked across. The interesting catch was the anticipation of the letter being turned, and a person walking across provided some drama. You don't believe it until she/he exposes it. Drama is something we put onto our customs or rituals sometimes, for fun.”
Chris Blackburn commented, “I guess you are right about rituals. That's why Catholics used to like the Latin service, and the procession of censer-bearers into the church. The language of worship is archaic in the Lutheran church, and must seem strange to newcomers, but I guess many people like it because they are used to it and expect it of a service.”
Chris Duxbury was intrigued by my reference to atheist congregations: “I had no idea that atheists gather in solidarity -- singing and having readings and a sermon. Church without God. Much like a funeral service that does not have any Christian hope in it. Cold and missing the mark. Or ,in your words, meaningless.
“So, the question is, what do we find meaningful in life? It is this that we will shape our rituals around. My beliefs sustain me and make me feel closer to the Divine and that hold meaning for me. Others hold on to other beliefs that they would say sustained them. I guess that in the quest of finding meaning we need to realize that this a personal thing and tolerance can bring peace in our differences.”
Like Bob Rollwagen, Tom Watson thought that some rituals are simply called “habits”.
“My understanding is that it takes 28 iterations of an activity -- for example, going for a walk every day -- for it to become a habit/ritual. Correspondingly, it also takes 28 iterations of 'not' doing something to break the habit of doing it. That accounts for why once people get out of the ritual of going to church every Sunday they soon no longer care whether or not they go.
“On another front, being a caregiver for my wife for some 9 months prior to her death, my day was governed by her needs. Medications four times a day. Meals at specific times. After she died, I found myself, when away from home, suddenly looking at my watch and thinking, ‘I should be home because it's time for meds or meals. Took a while to break that routine. It had become a ritual.”
Isabel Gibson suggested, “Maybe people and organizations are afraid to dispense with any aspect of a ritual/procedure, because we don't know which ones are essential to achieving the desired (and maybe now forgotten) result. It's a tad superstitious.
“Thinking about why we do things can help. Maybe!”
Sarah Welton picked up on my reference to rituals in a secular organization: “I thoroughly resonated with your Rotary comments. I have been a Rotarian for 15 Years. The rituals and service to community are very much like many churches. I have found that the Rotary statements and focus on Service Above Self, ethical conduct, and education are often to be found more in my Rotary Club than in many churches. I rarely miss the opportunity to be with Rotarians and I am inspired by the global work as well as the local endeavors in health care, poverty, and environmental issues. The Happy Bucks ritual in my club is very much like sharing our joys in church. I will mention this in my Happy Bucks for today!”
Psalm 133 only has three verses. And the original uses images that are not exactly part of our lingo, like oil running down Aaron’s beard. Ugh! But translated into a different metaphor, the message of loving community is still pertinent:
1 You have grown from my lover to my best friend, my closest companion.
2 You know me better than I know myself;
your company is as comforting as a deep warm bath.
The sweet oil of your presence softens the knots of my tangled emotions.
3 Every morning I wake, wondering what I did to deserve you;
every night, I fall asleep with the blessing of your breath beside me.
For paraphrases of most of the psalms used by the Revised Common Lectionary, you can order my book Everyday Psalms from Wood Lake Publishing, email@example.com.
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To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols.
Ralph Milton ’s latest project is called “Sing Hallelujah” -- the world’s first video hymnal. It consists of 100 popular hymns, both new and old, on five DVDs that can be played using a standard DVD player and TV screen, for use in congregations who lack skilled musicians to play piano or organ. More details at wwwDOTsinghallelujahDOTca
Ralph’s HymnSight webpage is still up, http://wwwDOThymnsightDOTca, with a vast gallery of photos you can use to enhance the appearance of the visual images you project for liturgical use (prayers, responses, hymn verses, etc.)
Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. <http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca>
I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom
Alva Wood’s satiric stories about incompetent bureaucrats and prejudiced attitudes in a small town -- not particularly religious, but fun; alvawoodATgmailDOTcom to get onto her mailing list.
Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom or twatsonATsentexDOTnet