Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Pale Blue Dot

July 30, 2008

In February 1990 the spacecraft Voyager 1 took a photograph of our solar system in which the earth shows up as a pale blue dot. I was on the way home from church on Sunday when I heard a recording of Carl Sagan’s response to the photograph. It is published in various places and available on YouTube as well. It reads as follows:

Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader", every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.

This is particularly helpful to me as I try to sort out my own thoughts and feelings about what is currently defined and discussed as the conservative/liberal divide in the Anglican Communion.

I’ve been reading a spiritual memoir in the Thomas Merton tradition called A Long Retreat by Andrew Krivak, a writer who lives in London and who reflects on the story of his formation as a Jesuit before he left the order. In it he recalls wanting to serve the church with all his heart. I don’t remember ever wanting to serve the church as such. It was always there. The church in which I grew up and in which I perceived a call to orders was the Church of England. It was, in effect, a given. One person in the parish pursuing a call to orders had to decide in which denomination he was supposed to live out that call. Such was a choice or an election that I never made. My desire was do serve God in a way that made a difference in the world. I have enjoyed being part of a world wide communion and find myself with a great sense of loss and not a little anger as some sisters and brothers find that the leading of the Holy Spirit (a premise that I suppose they would need to deny calling it instead a wile of the Devil or some such thing) in the Episcopal Church means that they can no longer accept our Lord’s invitation and injunction to gather around the table with other people of God, be they women in orders, gays in orders or people who support them. Those strains in Anglicanism have generally been held in check by a generous theological understanding of a generous and graceful God. The things that have tested that generosity have been more matters of science and knowledge than moral issues of war and poverty and so on. Start with Copernicus and Galileo. Pick your scientist of the Enlightenment, perhaps especially Darwin, and see if those aren’t the times when the partial unity of humanity expressed and lived out in the church has been most threatened.

So I read and find myself challenged by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s second presidential address to the Lambeth Conference, again worth reading in its entirety. He finishes with the question: Having heard the other person, the other group, as fully and fairly as I can, what generous initiative can I take to break through into a new and transformed relation of communion in Christ?’ He earlier suggested that a generous initiative on the part of those with whom I find myself in agreement in our current conflicts would lead us open to charges of sacrificing a particular group of people or sacrificing a principle of relationship for a centralized authority in the service of some kind of church unity. As I think about forgoing a commitment to the full humanity of gay and lesbian people as such an unacceptable option. I would need some assurances that a central authority would not be used to try and bully the American and Canadian churches and their significant number of supporters throughout the communion to try and put toothpaste back in the tube. So perhaps the most generous thing I could do is to go away quietly and let the church be a pale imitation of Roman Catholicism and find some other way to be faithful than to be in leadership in an institution that believes differently than I do and which has many, many people who heartily wish that I was not part of the church making their lives difficult in some way.

However much that line of thought plays into the old conundrum of whether to engage in fight or flight, it is also in conflict with the vision of the gospel in which the whole of humanity is brought into right relation with one another and with our creator, and how that must mean staying connected in some way even if the connection is either extremely fragile or an irritant to one or another party.

For that reason we keep supporting friends we have made in Western Tanganyika to the degree we can, consistent with their bishop’s desire that we not be in formal relationship and why I hope we will find a way to be in relationship with the people of the Diocese of Juba. We will keep making clear that we understand Jesus’ invitation to the table for communion to be open to everyone who wishes to respond to God in that way, clear that the normal or ‘normative’ route to the table is through baptism while recognizing that sometimes we start as foster children at the family table before adoption. We will also continue to gather with others wherever we are invited to do so.

These are preliminary thoughts in what is a kind of ‘retreat week’, (a short retreat perhaps in contrast to Andrew Krivak’s seven or more years). They relate to what kind of parish we are becoming and the work of thinking and carting a vision for our future that is in its early stages. I am sure that we will become and increasingly ‘public’ church, marked by ‘public space’ with the Lord’s Table at the heart of all that we are, say and do. Those who accept the invitation to deeper commitment to following Jesus will find any number of resources for personal transformation as we deal with sin and live into the reality of God’s forgiveness.

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