At times, our experience of life can sit us down, and stun us into silence with the depth, and breadth, and marvel of creation. The fact that we are alive and a part of the all-ness of things can be overwhelming in an awe-inspiring kind of way. We can be amazed at being amazed.
To think of ourselves tucked in with all that is, is to risk losing our hold on the egocentric structure which holds the world together for us—the smugness which places us at the front and center of things, and makes us the hub around which life revolves. Seen in conjunction with quarks, black holes, and white dwarfs, we slip a few places in the order of importance, and take on the aura of “very lucky to be here.”
The insignificance of the “I” in relation to the rest of the universe, or just to the ocean, or the Grand Canyon, or one Giant Sequoia, is, well, “I-opening.” In touch with the grandeur of it All, we lose touch with the world of normal, apparent, reality, and can no longer think that it is all about us, or continue to think that our plans, goals, dreams, interest, ambition and convenience are the only things that matter. We cannot sit very long with the view from this perspective without running the risk of going crazy, or becoming religious.
The foundation of both insanity and religion is the loss of identity, bearings, orientation. The old, familiar world of normal, apparent reality is shattered by an experience that calls into question all that we had valued, thought, or held to be true. We see things in a way that invalidates the way we have always seen things, and leaves us wondering what’s what. The fundamental, foundational, primary religious experience is the experience of being fragmented, splintered, displaced. It is the experience of being lost, and alone in the cosmos.
We do not live well without some organizing principle. We have to have some way of keeping things in perspective, of thinking about ourselves in relation with everything else. We have to ground ourselves in something, orient ourselves toward something, coalesce around something. We have to manage, somehow, to hold the I in place in relation to the All. We have to fit into the time and place of our living; we have to belong; we have to find our place in the universe. Religion gives us a place. Religion helps us shape our response to the experience of being lost, and alone in the cosmos.
Religion at its best provides us with a framework for being amazed without disintegrating. Religion at its best surrounds us with the protection of the community of those who have been there before us, who know what it is like to be astounded, and who can comfort us with their confidence and compassion, as they teach us to sing from the heart of joy and wonder in responding to the marvel of the I in relation to the All.
From the standpoint of religion, our response to the wonder of being is the initiating experience into the community of those gathered as children of, as disciples of, as servants of, beauty, goodness, justice, equality, liberty, truth, grace, mercy, love and peace. This is to say that the foundation of worship is “Wow!” The heart of religion is awe and wonder.
If we have never felt stunned, shaken, overwhelmed at the very idea of existence, we cannot feel religious. If we are not overtaken by the magnificence of a starry, starry night, or of the Rocky Mountains, or of an infant in our arms, religion will never be anything more than a collection of dead rituals, and stale doctrines. If we are to be religious, we have to be alive, and to be alive, we have to be alert to, and impressed by, the time and place of our living. It has to mean something to us that we are alive. Religion cannot mean anything to us if life itself does not mean anything to us. In order to be religious in the deepest, best, truest sense of the word, we have to be “wow-ed” by the fact that we are alive, by the fact that we are here, now.
The religious problem of the 21st century is how to get the “wow” back. Traditionally, historically, there have been three ways of initiating and maintaining the “wow response”: The encounter with beauty and truth in art, music and nature. Religious education in the 21st century is going to have to connect us, at the level of the heart, with beauty and truth in art, music and nature. Religious education in the 21st century has to be about seeing, hearing, perceiving, intuiting, imagining, creating, exploring, and, most of all, experiencing the wonder of life.
We don’t do this with words. We don’t do this with Sunday school books. Or with theology and doctrine. Or with even contemporary catechisms. We don’t even talk about art, music and nature. We give ourselves and our children the experience of art, music and nature. We throw ourselves into art, music and nature. The religious task in the 21st century is waking ourselves up by becoming alive to the life that we are living, to the life that is waiting to be lived by those who see, hear, understand, and know how it is with them, and about them. We wake ourselves up with art, music and nature.
So, your homework assignment is to immerse yourself, beginning today, or with what is left of it, in art, music and nature. If you are going to be spiritual, you have to be sensual, you have to be physical, you have to see, touch, taste, hear, sense and smell. You have to wake yourselves up to life, and to the wonder of living. You have to be alive. You have to be shocked awake by experiencing the experience of being alive. You have to put yourself in the position of being shocked awake by exposing yourselves, again and again, to the wonder of life through art, music and nature.
You have to put yourself there repeatedly, and wait for the magic to happen. Wait for your eyes to open, for your ears to hear. For your heart to understand. One of the stories about the Buddha has him lifting a flower before those gathered to hear him speak. The flower was his sermon. Only one person in the audience of disciples, Mahakashyapa, “got it,” smiled, and was enlightened. If the Buddha had done the same thing the next day, maybe two people would have gotten it. Maybe six the next, a few this time, a few more the next time, until all were enlightened.
The magic of art, music and nature works just this way. We cannot hurry the moment of seeing, of hearing, of understanding. We can only put ourselves in the position of perceiving the moment when it comes. We can only prepare the way for the power of numinous reality to Wow us awake; we cannot force the Numen to come our way, on our schedules, at a time and place when, and where, it is convenient for us. We give ourselves to the experience of art, music and nature, and wait, expectantly, in order to lose our place in the universe and to find it at last.