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Lessons Learned

Posted on Friday, October 20, 2006 at 05:00PM by Registered CommenterMarshall Massey in | Comments19 Comments

ew cameo.jpgSo what did I actually learn from my eighty-day journey across the Midwest and Appalachia?

I learned how much I flourish spiritually, being outdoors in the natural world all day, day after day. My spirit became as open as the sky, neither bounded nor divided from horizon to horizon. And as my spirit opened, so did the eyes of my spirit. I cherish the memory of standing outdoors in the Ohio rain, getting soaked to the skin, yet as comfortable in spirit as if I were in a snug house sheltered from the storm!

I learned, however, how inhospitable we humans have made the land we live on with our boundaries and divisions and with our “development” of it. I had no idea that it had become so hostile to the traveler without money, until I gave it a try. I think I now understand yet another reason why Christ taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come on Earth as in Heaven” — we need the same undividedness and undevelopedness in both places!

I learned that many, many Friends still remember the old practices of traveling ministry — how we care for those that visit, how we hold them in the discipline that keeps them orderly and obedient to Gospel, and how we gather to learn from them and teach them. You don’t see nearly as much of this when you simply see the occasional visiting Friend coming to your town, as you do when you yourself are the traveler. This was a deeply moving experience for me, and I now think it may well be the principal avenue through which the ancient spiritual vitality of our Society can be restored — if anyone is led, and willing, to give it a try.

I learned, to my deep grief and sorrow, how difficult it is for Friends — even Friends! — to understand the issues in the environmental arena. I wrote in my blog, and spoke at Baltimore Yearly Meeting, a good deal about this. For instance, I wrote and spoke of the fact that no one in our entire Society ever spoke to me, in the whole course of my journey, about how critical and urgent it is, for the sake of the future of our planet, that we act immediately to preserve endangered species and what remains of our world’s intact wild ecosystems. And again, I wrote and spoke about how many of us spoke in our called meetings for discernment as if obsessed with recycling — though recycling is actually a very minor issue in comparison. Yet even after my return home, many of the Friends I’ve talked with about such matters, continue to speak to me in the same manner: tightly focused on recycling, showing no interest in species and ecosystems. This was really the most painful part of the whole venture for me.

I learned that even the barest hint of a good example can have power, if it appears where people are receptive. Due to my age and my deteriorating body, I was unable to set more than the barest hint of a good example in conserving fossil fuel on the way to Baltimore Yearly Meeting. But many people were quite moved by that aspect of what I did, or tried to do. I also set only a barely acceptable example of the traditional sainted Friend traveling in the ministry. But so many people were affected by the fact that I tried!

I learned afresh how wonderful it is when God yanks me out of my safe familiar ruts and gives me an assignment. God laid His hand on my mouth, so that I could not speak in answer to Baltimore Yearly Meeting’s invitation; He then pointed His hand across the country, and said, If you walk this journey, I will give you what you need: words far better than your own. And He kept His promise. It was amazing, purely amazing, to go through that experience.

I learned that obedience to the inward Guide is all. There were so many matters in regard to which I proved unable to follow through on my original expectations for the journey. When my plans fell through, I had the choice between giving up, trying to do the suicidal, or waiting humbly on the Spirit of Christ and doing whatever it directed, no matter how much it cost me in the eyes of observers. I chose the latter course; indeed, I learned to pray to be kept in obedience, and I never had cause to regret this.

I learned my own age, and the nature of age. I understand now, with a vividness that had never come home to me previously, that at fifty-seven my body really is falling apart at an accelerating pace, with losses I can now observe from one year to the next. In the course of my walk, I had to begin taking medication for high blood pressure for the first time; I’ve now been home for two months and yet my ankles, damaged on the walk, still trouble me at times. My relationship to everything has been altered by my new perspective: I understand that it must slip away from me, that there is nothing that I can do about that but take William Blake’s advice and “kiss the joy as it flies”.

I learned what home is, or at least what home is for me. When I left the house in which I live, I thought that house was home. In the course of the walk, I found that wherever God has work for me to do, that is home for me; I need no other. I am grateful to be back in Omaha with my wife and cats, but my gratitude is for their wonderful company, and not for returning to the small place that I keep my belongings in.

I learned that recording lessons like this, lessons acquired from real-life experience, is of tremendous benefit to my own growth in wisdom and spiritual life. I had misunderstood journaling as an attempt to keep the past at hand; I have now learned that it is actually a way of working through the lessons of the present while they are still present. I am a convert to journaling as a result of this experience!


He who binds to himself a joy
Does the wingéd life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise.

   — William Blake, “Eternity”, Verses and Fragments from the Rossetti and Pickering Manuscripts, First Series (1793 - 1799)

A loving farewell, then, to all that I have seen and been through! Lord, what have You planned for me next?

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Reader Comments (19)

Dear Marshall,

This was wonderful to read. This whole journal has been valuable for me, in encouraging my very small attempts at Earthcare, in focusing my attention to my ministry among Friends, in raising my attention to the words I use. Thank you for carrying your witness and for sharing your journey with us here. Thank you for your comments on many other blogs that have enlivened the discussions and sharpened our wits and revealed further grace.

Robin Mohr
Oct 23, 2006 at 09:49PM | Unregistered CommenterRobin M.
Thank you for these kind words, Robin. I am deeply moved by the ways in which others such as yourself have responded to my efforts to open myself up.

-- I would add that I have been following your own blog site, "What Canst Thou Say?", with some pleasure. Have you noticed that there this a link to it on the "Kindred Souls" page of this web site? (To get there, click on "Kindred Souls" on the navigation bar at the left side of *this* page.)
Oct 24, 2006 at 07:24AM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey
This is a wonderful summary, Marshall, and your faithfulness to your calling is an example to us all.

Your comment about journaling is another reminder to me of an area of my life where I have not been faithful. William Penn also reminds me whenever I come across the line in "No Cross, No Crown" that says: "and kept no journal or check upon thy actions: but didst decline to audit accounts in thy own conscience, with Christ thy light, the great Bishop of thy soul and Judge of thy works"

Thank your for your continued ministry on various blogs.
With love,
Oct 24, 2006 at 01:55PM | Unregistered CommenterMark Wutka
Friend Marshall,

Your post makes me want to throw up my commitments and get on the road. At this point in my life, however, God seems to have seen fit to make me a tree, and I shall have to continue to try to bloom where I am planted.

It's good to hear stories from other perspectives, though. I have often thought that we Quakers need to take a revival tent tour through the Bible Belt, to challenge the idolatry and politicking of the megachurches, and to share the Light that we've been given. There is so much spiritual hunger that needs to be fed, and I can't believe that the megachurches are really giving people spiritual sustenance.

In appreciation,

Oct 24, 2006 at 02:30PM | Unregistered CommenterHeather Madrone
Somehow I missed that line in Penn's book. Thanks, Mark, for bringing it to my attention!

Heather, I'm delighted that you share my "Dharma bum" romanticism! But as regards the Bible belt, it sounds like you've been listening to the propaganda them secular liberals hand out in those big cynical cities on the coasts.

The Bible belt's not a bad place; I've lived in it thirty-four years. Most churchgoers here do *not* go to megachurches -- that's more a phenomenon of big rootless cities like Los Angeles, Dallas and Chicago -- and quite a few here have vital religious lives grounded in a measure of genuine spiritual insight. Yes, you do have to learn to express your ideas in the local language in order to get along; but that's equally true in Berkeley, California, and Eugene, Oregon. Having seen both, I am not persuaded that Berkeley and Eugene are any more faithful to the Inward Guide, or any less in need of a Quaker apostle, than Mount Pleasant, Iowa, is, or Jamestown, Ohio.
Oct 25, 2006 at 07:53AM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey
Dear Marshall,

Back in days when I could still take long walks in the woods, I found nature to be a great teacher.

I still do in these days of sitting outside and listening to the sounds of nature.

And I very much identify with this; "And as my spirit opened, so did the eyes of my spirit."

It's so true, when our spirit opens, so do the eyes of our souls.

This is perhaps this most lovely thing that I've ever seen you write.

That's another thing that being out in nature does for us, it fills us with beauty, both inwardly,and outwardly.

The Navaho have a saying that translates into English something like this; "I walk with Beauty all around me".

Well spoken.

Albion Guppy
Oct 25, 2006 at 04:51PM | Unregistered CommenterAlbion Guppy
Dear Albion, thank you for your reflections!

It's good to see you still hanging in there. I've been checking your blog site from time to time for new entries.
Oct 26, 2006 at 06:29AM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey
It was a great journey. And I sense what you are saying about the disconnect between modern life and ways vs. leadings and ministry. Odd how I sensed this in John Woolman's journal too, as he travelled across your country with a message against slavery. He found that people didn't "get it" either. And yet, look what came of that journey.

We can't know the long-term effects of our actions. It is the fact of your walking to bring this message to others that is the message, not just the words. The medium is the message.

Your light shines for me.

Oct 29, 2006 at 12:01PM | Unregistered CommenterNancy A
Well, it ain't *my* Light, Nancy! But I'm glad you felt it as I did! Thank you for the encouraging words.
Oct 31, 2006 at 06:34AM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey
Dear Marshall,

I sent you a few messages prior to and early on in your journey, but after I met with you in Richmond have been waiting until you recounted your plenary talk and gave your final summary to respond again. I followed your journey via your blog with fascination and admiration. You wrote some fine historical, biblical, and ecological reflections, but your descriptions of opening to the Spirit in the land and sky as you walked, along with descriptions of your exchanges with individuals and discernment groups, moved me the most. You really made yourself vulnerable and were humbled by your physical limits, truly "going naked for a sign". People who simply heard your plenary talk without having followed all this probably missed your most powerful witnessing. Might you include these writings in the book you've been working on, or in a separate book?

I also recently read your talk "Creation Encountered" updated from l989. I liked it a lot, and I myself have formed some similar opinions about how we industrial citizens have come to such an alienation from the Earth. I have developed, for myself and in my work as a psychotherapist, some detailed ideas about how and why we continue to maintain our "armoring" from the rest of nature as we focus addictively on functioning effectively as workers, owners, and consumers within the bubble of the technosphere. I think that this separation from the natural world also alienates us from significant aspects of the Divine. I have been leading weekend retreats for many years to help myself and others extend our deep listening practices to include both an inward and an outward motion of engagement with nature and Spirit. I wrote a short article about my own spiritual practice which was published in Friends Journal this past March.

I am a Universalist Friend, and place my ultimate faith in the continuous Creation, the living, evolving, self-organizing Cosmos (which manifests in our every breath and thought, in the "gathering" of meetings for worship, and in every being), rather than in a personal Creator. But I feel more in common with those who do believe in a personal God than with rationalist, secular humanists – we're all blind men touching some limited dimension of a great Mystery we can never fully know or describe, especially not primarily through our rational skills and supposed scientific "objectivity".

I have been inspired by Christian and Hebrew scriptures (I enjoyed your writings about these), but my primary scripture is the book of Creation itself, encountered mainly through sensuous-intuitive-mystical experience. This experience is colored by the key revelations of 20th century sciences, which point (in the minds of many) to a living, organismic Universe (and Earth) rather than to the dead, mechanistic Universe of the older sciences (which ironically were the sources of the new paradigm). It seems to me that the new revelations cry out for a re-affirmation of spiritual presence or immanence, with a new sense of human belonging, and renewed compassion for all our fellow members of the circle of life. Beyond these general implications, I don't see any specific theology being dictated by this new cosmology. I read a brief letter of yours in EarthLight magazine in the 90's stating your skepticism about such a science-inspired cosmology. What are your current feelings?

Our Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting (the week before Baltimore YM) was especially moving for me this year, partly due to my awareness of your walk going on at the same time. Even some of the folks who had been skeptical about an ecological crisis seemed moved by the speakers and workshops on our theme "Seeking an Earth restored: The spiritual path of stewardship". Do you know Carl Magruder, who teaches and lives at Sierra Friends School near Nevada City, California? His talk (the audio is on the website for Bloomington Friends Meeting), "The Gospel of the Earth", was very inspiring for me and many others. Several were in tears as his talk ended. His blogsite address is http://theearthquaker.blogspot.com/. Although he lives very simply and recently gave up his diesel car (which I think he ran on biodiesel) for a bicycle, washes his clothes in a bike-driven washing machine in his yard, and road the train to OVYM, he didn't talk about any of this (maybe in order not to appear self-righteous). He asserted that our most important green technology may be our Friends communities and our radically democratic, Spirit-grounded discernment and decision-making process. (Sounds like you at the end of your plenary talk.) As an African American (and only 38 years old), he seems to me to be an important new force among Friends. Doris Ferm, our other plenary speaker, also gave a fine talk, which is printed on the OVYM website.

Our new yearly meeting Earthcare committee has been led to growing local/organic food economies as our new focus. Our Community Meeting F.U.N. group has also embraced this focus. I think the communality and basic life-giving quality of food could become a unifying force helping move Friends toward care for and harmony with Creation.

So for me as a Friend who has strongly felt the call toward "seeking an Earth restored", this summer was one of good movement and change, with your walk/drive/verbal sharing witness being a significant part of it. I look forward to more dialogue with you, and hold you in the Light as you journey from this point forward.

For the Creation,
Bill Cahalan
Nov 1, 2006 at 07:03AM | Unregistered CommenterBill Cahalan
Dear Bill,

It's great to get your comments! I much appreciate the intelligence and thought you put into them.

I don't know if my account of my walk will find its way into a book. I think probably not -- but may it be as the Spirit wills.

I'm delighted you found my essay *Creation Encountered* using the navigation bar on the left side of this site. I do think it's one of the best things I've ever done.

As regards your question at the end of your fourth paragraph -- "What are your current feelings [about a science-inspired cosmology]?" -- I think it's important to recognize the difference between what science can prove and what science cannot prove. Science can no more prove that "the universe is self-organizing" than it can prove that "a personal God apart from the universe organized it".

No one yet knows, for example, why the eight planets orbiting our Sun have not destabilized each other's orbits, causing some of them to fly outward into outer space while others fall closer and closer into the Sun. Mechanically speaking, the fact that they have remained in stable orbits for a period in excess of four billion journeys of the Earth around the Sun is an astonishment, and there is no means yet known by which it can be scientifically shown to be a "self-organizing" phenomenon. The question of whether the universe organizes itself or not is thus literally beyond the range of experimental verifiability, and it seems likely to remain so.

To make a claim, then, such as "the universe is self-organizing", which is not scientifically provable, and call it "science" or "scientific", is not to embrace science but to engage in what is often called "scientism": the construction of an unprovable faith that claims to be solidly scientific. Some well-known examples of scientism are Marxism, Christian Science, Scientology, and Creation Science.

I *don't* think your faith in a "self-organizing universe" is directly comparable to Marxism, Christian Science, Scientology, or Creation Science. Every faith should be taken and evaluated on its own terms, not lumped with others and tarred with a common brush. But it's worth questioning whether scientism can ever be an act of real integrity. Wouldn't it be more truthful to say, "I know it can't be proven, but I believe in X all the same"?

It's fine with me if other people want to believe that the universe is self-organizing and doesn't need a personal God. But it appears to me that such a position is not consistent with Friends' historical reliance on the guidance of a personal God in the place of our hearts and consciences. And my heart is totally given to that personal God who speaks to me in my own heart and conscience. So your cosmology just cannot be for me.

No, I don't know Carl Magruder personally, but I do know and follow his postings to his blog. I respect his commitment to trying to live out his own convictions, although I do not share his individualistic approach to the path.

It is good to hear that your yearly meeting Earthcare committee is working on local and organic food economies. I hope I can be kept informed on how this project unfolds.

Thank you again for your support throughout my journey -- it meant more to me than I can possibly express. And may the personal God you don't believe in, bless you and care for you on your way forward!
Nov 3, 2006 at 08:59AM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey
Dear Marshall,

I appreciate your November 6 reply to me. Hoping that further dialogue might lead both of us a bit closer to Truth (definitely not feeling that I've arrived), I want to respond to what you said about my "scientific" statements.

I agree that science can't "prove" that the Universe is self-organizing. I don't think I stated or implied that. I think that especially the minority of scientists these days who have integrated the findings of relativity theory and quantum theory do not use the word *prove*, but say that a theory has a certain amount of *support*. Even evolution, with all the accumulated evidence, is still called a theory. I think some scientists (even the renowned and gracious Edward O. Wilson), especially if they haven't integrated the cutting edge post-Einsteinian findings of the sciences (and most scientists don't appear to have done so) do still think scientistically—they think there is an absolute objectivity (classical realism) possible through rational application of scientific method, and may even think society should be governed with scientists as the primary advisors. Theodore Roszak brilliantly described scientism and "technocracy" in our country in *Where the Wasteland Ends* (l972). Two decades later in *The Voice of the Earth* he does look past mechanistic science and scientism to find illumination in newer scientific discoveries and systems theories. You probably have read Wendell Berry's criticisms of scientism. Have you read his *Life is a Miracle*?

Remember, I wrote that my encounter with the scripture of Creation is primarily through direct experience, colored (not determined) by key scientific revelations, "which point (in the minds of many) to a living, organismic Universe…" So I don't think I was being scientistic in describing my belief in self-organization. Leaps of faith are indeed unavoidable in all science. But in science there is at least a global community of people applying a disciplined method of observation and communal reasoning as they come to more or less tentative conclusions. This process, of course, is never beyond the biases of ego and power politics.

What is meant by *self-organization*? The idea existed before mid 20th century in cybernetics and systems theory, and apparently the term first appeared in scientific literature in a l947 article by neurologist Ross Ashby. Especially since Eric Jantsch's *The Self-organizing Universe* was published in l980, it has become a central concept in chaos and complexity theory. So while not a "proven" phenomenon (which even evolution isn't), it is a way of describing many observations in physics, biology, astronomy, psychology, etc. and is found to be a useful concept by many scientists.

For example, it has been found, among some species of ants, that before reaching a certain number of ants interacting together their behavior is chaotic, with nothing meaningful being accomplished. Then, as ants are added to the collection, a number is reached where suddenly the behavior becomes coherent and coordinated. Some ants begin digging tunnels, some cleaning up the nest, some foraging for food, in a coordinated way. The sudden emergence of such an organized *colony* rather than a mere collection is seen as somehow a spontaneous achievement of the whole. The original emergence as well as the continuing maintenance of the colony is said to show self-organization or an inherent, spontaneous ordering. Does this mean that scientists think the organizing comes *totally* from within the group? No, because of course the light and temperature of the locale, as well as gravitation, the sun's light, and the activity of the whole solar system etc.etc. are involved. It is a relative and not an absolute autonomous or "self" activity. Just because I affirm my son because he was able to finish his math homework "by himself" doesn't mean that I don't also recognize that his feat was also strongly enabled by my prior tutoring, by the Earth and sun, by our galaxy, and by Ultimate Mystery itself.

You wrote "It's fine with me if other people want to believe that the universe is self-organizing and doesn't need a personal God". As I wrote, I don't see any specific theology being implied by the new cosmology (and self-organization is only one of the aspects asserted by those describing such cosmology), just a more compelling sense of divine immanence. Some of the Christian, theistic writers strongly influenced by the new scientific findings and the cosmologies being discovered/created from these findings (and I'm speaking of cosmology in its original meaning-- not as a branch of astronomy or physics but of philosophy) are Sarah Maitland (*A Joyous Theology*), Elizabeth Johnson (Fordham theologian, who wrote "Turn to the heavens and the earth: Retrieval of the cosmos in theology"), Sally McFague (*Life Abundant*) and especially the Jesuit David Toolan (*At Home in the Cosmos*). So while I myself, as I contemplate this living Cosmos and Earth, don't through my reasoning and my spiritual experiences come to a sense of a personal creator, many still do believe in a Creator who while somehow transcending nature, now also appears much more compellingly present within nature than seemed possible in the old mechanistic Universe of traditional science.

When a person notices the way their body spontaneously orders their breathing, or is made breathless by the dynamic ordering of a flock of starlings tightly navigating, a cloud forming, a worship group "gathering", or their own thinking and imagining taking form, their experience often doesn't stop with that "contained" event. These can be thought of and at times strongly felt, depending on the particular belief, as motions of spirit which reflect or manifest the Whole of things, or alternatively, God.

When I sense such a relational, pattern-generating activity in myself, in the autumn trees, or in the Milky Way at midnight, I feel called beyond my contained self into something ultimate and beautiful. I think we Friends, sometimes aided by scientific insights and sometimes not, need to pay more deep, sustained attention to "nature", both within ourselves and without--- in other people (this isn't as hard for Friends) and in the rest of Creation (this is often harder, due to much cultural and religious conditioning). In doing so we may discover something essential about the Divine, the Whole, God, or whatever the metaphors for ultimate intelligence might be, which couldn't be discovered otherwise. We may more vividly sense the great patterns which we need to harmonize with, and discover a compassion for all beings which reside within these patterns.

It seems to me that your walk allowed you to do that. You seemed to be "listening" for and often feeling God's presence in the landscape, the sky, the weather, the creatures, and your own responses to all these. In my March Friends Journal article I tried to describe how my own practice involves such inward and outward deep listening, and how for me the two seem to require each other. Despite our different languages for ultimate reality, I think that you and I probably experience some of the same Power occurring beneath or beyond any words. So when you ended your letter by writing "may the personal God you don't believe in bless you…" I was heartened by that because I think you and I are pointing at a nurturing mystery which neither of us will ever fully know or describe.

But I'm not trying to say that it doesn't make any difference what words or images are used. Of course I think my metaphors or words come closer to describing the reality of things, and you naturally think yours do. At the same time that hopefully we both know Truth is ultimately beyond our full grasp!

And I do agree that this shouldn't ultimately be a private or personal spiritual practice, but needs to be part of corporate discernment within our communities. We need to be worshiping and discussing together how to support each other as we creatively meet the challenges of our growing Earth crisis. Many of us probably could live this process more fully living in neighborhoods and villages together. But that's another discussion.

May the Great Mystery continue to sustain you and all of us on our paths.

Nov 10, 2006 at 07:25AM | Unregistered CommenterBill Cahalan
Friend Bill, I'm not sure how to respond to your latest posting, even after thinking about it much of the weekend.

My leading is to encourage Friends to respond to the global environmental crisis -- perhaps especially out of the unique heritage they have as Friends, which is a heritage of proven transformative power; but to respond in all useful ways whether such ways are peculiar to Friends or not.

My leading is not to quarrel over theologies and cosmologies -- although I am happy to discuss them if the discussion seems likely to be helpful to someone. There are points where I disagree with what you say about your cosmology in this latest posting of yours, but I am reluctant to go into those points, because I fear it will be, or become, mere quarreling, rather than something helpful to someone.

I understand that your cosmology is important to you. That's fine. I still don't see why you're so evangelical about it.
Nov 13, 2006 at 06:33AM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey
Dear Marshall,
I'm going to try a brief response here with the hope it won't get erased this time.

In my first message I wrote briefly about my beliefs as part of my response to you and your sharing on this blogsite since early in the year. I wanted to dialogue with you as a fellow Friend searching for ways to respond, and help others respond, to the ecological crisis as a spiritual and religious issue. I thought that sharing some of my beliefs, including some that seemed to differ from yours, would help you know me better in this dialogue, helping catch your knowledge of me up to my knowledge of you. After this first message I felt that you had misunderstood me as being scientistic and as saying that the "new cosmology" excludes belief in a personal God. So my second message went into more detail in an attempt to help you understand what I had been trying to express-- what I actually believe and experience as I deal with our Earth crisis. Also, I think that helping Friends to reverently engage with the natural world as a part of their search for God, Spirit, or Ultimate Reality will help them (as it seems to have helped both of us) feel the compassion and motivation to face the looming crisis. I don't think I'm evangelizing any more than you have been by presenting in detail your beliefs about scripture, corporate discernment, etc. for these last nine months or so.

That doesn't mean I'm not trying to influence you and other readers, but I'm also open to being influenced. I've assumed that you have been doing the same. In that sense, may we both evangelize!

So if you want to drop any discussion of beliefs and practices to focus on meeting the challenges to Earth's integrity in a more direct way, I'm willing to try that. Although I'm not sure how to do that if we want to approach it as a spiritual and religious issue, which I think we both do!

Best wishes,

Nov 13, 2006 at 06:23PM | Unregistered CommenterBill Cahalan
Dear friend Bill,

I'm glad you didn't have any trouble posting your latest message! But I will always be happy to help you get something posted here, if the software or the connection gives you trouble again.

I do appreciate your sharing things about yourself. I am very sorry that this didn't come across in my previous responses to you. My fault entirely.

Also, I was not trying to say that belief in the "new cosmology" excludes belief in a personal God. I'm sorry it came across that way. What happened was, I heard you clearly when you said that you yourself "place [your] ultimate faith in the continuous Creation, the living, evolving, self-organizing Cosmos (which manifests in our every breath and thought, in the 'gathering' of meetings for worship, and in every being), rather than in a personal Creator" -- and I was responding to that.

I will stick to my position that the claim that "the universe is self-organizing" is not science but scientism. It is not a scientific theory, or even a scientific hypothesis; to be either one, it would have to have a number of elements that it presently lacks, such as the capacity to generate testable and potentially disprovable predictions. To link it to such things as Darwin's theory of evolution and Einstein's theory of relativity in such a way as to suggest that it has a similar scientific legitimacy is really not justifiable, at least at present.

In the actual field of science, there *is* a legitimate concept called "self-organization", which is a characteristic that is testable and provable or disprovable for a wide variety of systems (though not for all systems). But in this scientific sense, the universe is very probably not a "self-organizing" system. No system is "self-organizing" in this scientific sense if it spontaneously degenerates over time into an disorganized state. And just as the human body spontaneously degenerates into an disorganized state at death-from-old-age, so the universe is continuously spontaneously degenerating -- suns burning out, suns falling into black holes at the center of galaxies, etc. -- and, barring a miracle, it will ultimately spontaneously degenerate into a *totally* disorganized state as expansion and proton decay progress and all matter evaporates into the vacuum.

Within scientific discourse, all systems are part of the universe, and thus all systems are very probably at most only self-organizing in a limited sense and for a limited period of time. And as I pointed out previously, some very important systems, like the Solar System of planets revolving about a common sun, aren't detectably self-organizing even in that limited sense.

You are, of course, perfectly free to quarrel with this picture of the universe's future. But it is a picture that, at present, appears to be supported by a bit more scientific evidence than any alternative picture is.

I much appreciate your statement that "when I sense such a relational, pattern-generating activity in myself, in the autumn trees, or in the Milky Way at midnight, I feel called beyond my contained self into something ultimate and beautiful." That is a beautiful, spiritual and religious response to things! And a lot of great scientists, including Einstein, have shared it with you. But I personally don't see it as, in and of itself, compelling a response to challenges like the extinction of species and the build-up of greenhouse gases. I know any number of people who have transports in contemplation of the universe, and yet somehow never seem to get around to doing much on behalf of the endangered living world; they contemplate and are spiritual and are somehow satisfied to leave it at that. Einstein himself had such transports in contemplating the patterns in the world -- and wrote about them, in very memorable words -- and yet he never made it to environmental activism. Newton ditto.

I would venture a guess that you, unlike those other people, *do* act on behalf of the living world -- not because *your* transports, unlike theirs, are informed by the idea that the universe is self-organizing -- but because you, unlike them, feel an imperative sense of wrongness about the destruction of the living world and its patterns. Would you say I am mistaken?

Again, I have no objection to your evangelizing for your chosen Weltbild. And I thank you for your latest posting, because I now understand a little better why it is that you do so.

On the other hand, I'm still unpersuaded that it's the best way to approach the problem. There are a number of groups that I've seen evangelizing in this sort of way -- ranging from Tom Berry's followers to Fred Krueger's -- and I see them spending an awful lot of time and energy on various forms of communing with or contemplating nature, but I don't see that it much increases the number of volunteers and volunteer hours and joules of persuasion that they have to invest in preserving endangered species and getting the U.S. off its fossil fuel addiction. I'd dearly like to find a more effective approach.

I agree with you that people "reverently engaging with the natural world as part of their search for God, Spirit, or Ultimate Reality" is a good thing. I incline to agree with you that such reverent engagement is one good way to find the compassion and motivation that will get people involved in dealing with the crisis. I am not convinced it's the only path to such compassion -- I believe I see evidence that there are other routes -- and I am not even convinced that it's a *guaranteed* way, since I do see those contemplatives who don't get moved enough to do something. But I agree that it's a good engagement in and of itself.

Many thanks for continuing the dialogue, Bill. I will try to move my side of it another step forward in a new posting to this journal, just as soon as I have some time.
Nov 15, 2006 at 02:29PM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey

November 20, 2006

Dear Marshall,

Thanks for responding in more detail. Maybe we’re both evangelists to an extent.

Self-organizing is only one dimension of nature which illuminates divine presence that appears to me to be revealed by post-Einsteinian science. Another is the discovery that emptiness or space is actually a fullness or a plenum (as David Bohm called it), the matrix for all subatomic reality, The entire dance of energy and matter appears to arise continuously from the fertile emptiness or plenum which surrounds and permeates everything. But I won’t suggest we go further with that phenomenon here.

It appears in your last message that you might acknowledge that an increasingly organized complexity has been revealed, if not in the Universe as a whole, at least in Earth’s evolving life. Let’s forget the Universe, and even our own galaxy, beyond Earth for now. Isn’t it marvelous, and revelatory of God’s nature, whenever we vividly glimpse the patterned, ordered motion of things within ourselves and all around us? Call it continuous Creation or the breath of God or self-organizing intelligence. Maybe I’ve been too limited in my vocabulary, because I assume we both have experienced something like this, although framing it differently theologically.

Two more points before I attempt to move on from this topic. 1) The death of a system, (and all systems, whether an amoeba or our Sun, except for perhaps the Universe itself, or maybe an infinite series of Universes, do dissolve or die) in no way excludes it as self-organizing in its original formation as well as during its life. “All things gather and scatter, eternally.” We all owe a debt of gratitude to previous forms and beings whose elements and energies now constitute ourselves. 2) I would be guilty of “scientism” only if I was saying that science “proves” that the Universe is self-organizing. And of course, I don’t believe that and have been careful not to assert that.

But maybe we should leave this topic for now. Because my main point to you in each of my letters is getting lost. This point is my feeling, for a long time, that most of us need to spend more time in directly engaging with the natural world all around (and within) us, thus discovering the Divine in and/or beyond it, and discovering also nature’s ways and rhythms which call us into harmony with them. As we do so, we are likely to increase our sense of wonder, gratitude and humility, and our compassion for fellow members of the circle of life. We can thus be both inspired and informed for the activism and changed lifeways which we and the Earth so badly need.

Yes, some who learn only intellectually about the Earth and Universe, or even who have ecstatic experiences in nature, don’t carry their awareness to the point of activism or transformed ecological lifeways. But of those who have done the latter, many have reminisced about experiences of ecstacy or wonder in nature as children, experiences which resonate still in their present lives—people such as David Brower, Aldo Leopold, John Muir, Keith Hellmuth ( Quaker farmer, writer, and activist). And folks such as Hellmuth, Miriam McGillis (founder of Genesis Farm) and John Seed (dedicated rainforest activist for more than 20 years) have been influenced significantly in their beliefs and experiences by post-Einsteinian science. I believe that enduring experiences of an enspirited natural world and self tend to become carried into a person’s way of living, especially if combined with ecological literacy and the supportive presence of like-minded companions.

Scott Sanders wrote “There is, in fact, only one life—one pulse animating the dust. Sycamores and snakes, grasshoppers and grass, hawks and humans all spring from the same souce and all return to it. We need to make of this common life not merely a metaphor, although we live by metaphors, and not merely a story, although we live by stories; we need to make the common life a fact of the heart.”

I think that an intentional practice is needed to counter the forces constantly tugging us into a position of alienation from nature and Spirit. My retreats and writings have focused on helping myself and others experiment with a spiritual practice of sensuous, imaginative, deep listening, open-hearted engagement with nature (and thus with the Spirit). The hope is that some form of this practice becomes a daily habit in the places where we live.

Such a practice is hard to sustain without a circle of friends who practice with you. I have been seeking such a circle among Friends for the last 14 years, and to some extent have found it. I continue my efforts to invite Friends, grounded in our meeting communities, to creatively deal with the crisis in our human-Earth relationship. I’ll be traveling to Louisville Meeting (Kentucky) in January for a presentation on the gift of food and land (cultivating local food economies). I’ll also be facilitating a worship sharing session. I have a minute of support from my meeting and have offered these and other such activities to all meeting in our yearly meeting. In the end, my best witness may be my own stumbling efforts in my own life.

My wife, son and I have been meeting with a group for three years which is attempting to develop an ecovillage which will function “off the grid” as much as possible. We in the group are of diverse faiths but do share some of our spiritual practices with each other. For a number of years I was involved with Quakers Dick and Mary Hogan in their efforts to develop a spiritually-grounded, land-based community. Here in our urban neighborhood we’ve been part of a similar effort since the late l980’s. My actions for an Earth restored are indeed largely motivated by the spiritual beliefs and experiences I have described here, and my sense of, in your words, “the wrongness about the destruction of the living world”, is inseparable from my sense of being held in deep kinship with my fellow creatures in a living, dynamic Earth and Cosmos.

Marshall, at the risk of prodding too much, I’m interested especially in your further ideas about the potentials for involving Friends more in stretching beyond a dualistic perception of nature as mere scenery and resource, into a direct, more extended engagement with nature as living community and as Creation. Again, I know this was one important aspect of your witness walk to Baltimore Yearly Meeting. Given your inspiring descriptions from the walk, what role does such direct engagement play in your own life and, despite the fact you don’t see this as the only path to dedicated activism and living, do you see ways beyond simply personal example to invite Friends into such extended, deep engagement?

I would also like to hear about your past and current efforts for Earthcare, perhaps in your own neighborhood or household, as well as in your monthly and yearly meeting.

Again, I’m grateful for your willingness to continue this exchange. I wish others could somehow be invited to join in as well.

For the Creation,
Nov 21, 2006 at 06:19AM | Unregistered CommenterBill Cahalan
Bill, I appreciate the *whole* of this latest comment from you. Thank you for sharing your feelings and the way you see the world!

You write, toward the end, "Marshall ... I’m interested especially in your further ideas about the potentials for involving Friends more in stretching beyond a dualistic perception of nature as mere scenery and resource, into a direct, more extended engagement with nature as living community and as Creation. ...I know this was one important aspect of your witness walk to Baltimore Yearly Meeting. Given your inspiring descriptions from the walk, what role does such direct engagement play in your own life and, despite the fact you don’t see this as the only path to dedicated activism and living, do you see ways beyond simply personal example to invite Friends into such extended, deep engagement?"

I have to answer you honestly and say, this was really *not* one important aspect of my walk.

I walked merely because I felt God telling me that if I walked (or at least, did the best I could to walk), and if I listened as I walked -- not just to nature, but also to Friends along the way, and to God -- I'd be given what I needed to fulfill the promises I'd given to Baltimore Yearly Meeting. So all I was doing in walking was obeying the inward Guide.

I was not "inviting Friends into direct engagement with nature", or really trying to get anyone to do anything, in the course of my walk. Nor was I making any statement about anything. It was not, in my own mind, a "witness walk", although if it came across that way to you, I will not quarrel with your perception. In my own mind and heart, I was simply obeying what the Spirit asked of me.

I do try to be aware of, and responsive to, whoever and whatever is in front of me. There's nothing special about that, though; it's just that if one isn't aware and responsive, one is sleepwalking through life, and sleepwalking doesn't appeal to me. Certainly, my efforts to be aware and responsive didn't begin when I started walking to Virginia, or end when I reached Harrisonburg.

I do kinda hope that other Friends, too, are not sleepwalking. To sleepwalk is to cheat oneself of the great gift of being alive. But I don't see an end to sleepwalking as a primary goal; if I did, I'd be a Zen Buddhist, not a Friend.

I do see God-consciousness, and obedience to the directives of Christ as those are spoken in our hearts, as primary goals. That's why I'm a Friend.

And I do feel the Spirit, Christ, calling us to see what we are doing to nature and ourselves, be reconciled to nature, and stop destroying it.

But as I listen to that Guide within me, it seems to me that this seeing, reconciliation and end to destruction are really one part of a much larger whole: righteousness; living as good citizens of God's Kingdom. And that larger whole is what the Spirit, Christ, is actually calling us to.

The larger whole *requires* our finding our way to peace with nature. But it does not (so far as I can tell) require our finding our way there by becoming obsessed with nature. There is plenty of room for most people to live in cities and towns and focus their life's work on things that don't much involve nature, *so long as their activities, and the activities of humankind as a whole, are adjusted so that the destruction of nature comes to a halt*.

I think it would be truest to say that, moment by moment, the Spirit calls us to do the right thing, the good thing, the nurturing thing, the wise thing, in every choice that is presented to us -- and that if we obey it in every choice that is presented to us, finding our way to peace with nature will be one of the many good fruits that result.

So I don't see any need to "invite Friends into extended, deep engagement" with nature. I *do* see a need to invite them to hear what the Spirit is saying to them in their own hearts, about the need to change their lives so that the destruction of nature ceases.

I hope this answers your questions about my views.

None of this is intended as an attack on your own views, I assure you. I am simply answering your questions.

Your own views continue to be welcome here on this web site!

As to what I am doing in my own life and in my local Friends community, I will report on that as interesting things happen --
Nov 28, 2006 at 07:17AM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey
Dear Marshall,

Thanks for your reply to my questions about direct engagement with "nature". It clarifies for me some of our similarities, and especially some of the differences between how and where you and I listen for the voice of the Spirit. Our differences don't negate my feeling supported and enriched by knowing you and your witness, and learning a lot from our exchanges. Maybe I'll stop at this and leave room for others to hopefully respond, perhaps to our exchange and perhaps just to your invitation for sharing about personal concerns and actions for harmony with Earth.

Holding all our efforts in the Light,
Nov 29, 2006 at 10:33AM | Unregistered CommenterBill Cahalan
Our differences don't bother me, either! In fact -- to the contrary -- your views enrich my own.

Bill, I hope you will continue to contribute insights from your perspective on this site, including insights in areas where you and I disagree.
Dec 2, 2006 at 11:59AM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey

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