Our ministry theme for May is enlightenment. There are a number of ways to approach this theme. Buddhist enlightenment comes most readily to mind. In recent years Nancy Thompson has been a very helpful guide for our exploration of Buddhism. Thank you Nancy! For those reading online, you can read some of her insights here. Nancy describes enlightenment as a state of “being awake” to our true nature. And what is our true nature? She cites Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the founder of the global Buddhist community Shambhala, who describes enlightenment as “a state in which body and mind are synchronized. It’s the fusion of awareness and what it is aware of, the obliteration of the boundaries between perception, perceiver, and perceived.” (UUS:E’s Buddhist group meets first Tuesdays at 7:00 PM. All are welcome!)
Another way into this theme is through an exploration of “The Enlightenment”—the period in western history stretching from roughly the 1650s to 1800 marked by revolutions in philosophy, theology, science, industry and politics. These revolutions supplanted an entrenched set of medieval assumptions about how the natural world works, how the universe is structured, how to conduct scientific research, and what constitutes a civilized society. The Enlightenment provided the intellectual ground for what scholars call “Modernity.” The Enlightenment created the context for incredible advances in science, technology, democracy and human rights.
350 years after the dawn of The Enlightenment, however, many of its assumptions have been overturned or are in desperate need of overturning. One of my favorite theologians is the eco-postmodernist and feminist theologian Charlene Spretnak. In her 1991 book, States of Grace, she describes the problems Enlightenment thinking has generated over the centuries, and she turns to what she calls the ancient wisdom traditions—Buddhism, Native American spirituality, Goddess spirituality, and the prophetic dimension of the Abrahamic faiths—to address those problems. Her analysis of Modernity is very similar to that of science historian Morris Berman in his 1981 book, The Reenchantment of the World. (I will be preaching on this book on May 1st). Spretnak and Berman both articulate a need in our era to overcome the two great “separations” of The Enlightenment: The separation of mind from body, and the separation of divinity from the earth. Spiritual writer Thomas Moore, who will speak at UUS:E on June 11th, also offers many insights into how to overcome these great separations.
What might it mean to be human in the absence of these separations? There isn’t one clear answer to this question. But we need answers. We need new ways of being human. Spretnak’s insight that the ancient wisdom traditions knew something of what we need today is right on. Consider Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s description of enlightenment above: “a state in which body and mind are synchronized … the obliteration of the boundaries between perception, perceiver, and perceived.” Whatever these words may mean, they describe mind, body and earth united. I am convinced we already know how to live whole and holistic lives. We know, but we’ve forgotten. Thus, remembering is spiritual work. We need to wake up to what our ancestors knew. Our efforts at moving forward into healthy ways of being human, and of being human communities, will benefit from a look back to ancient human wisdom.