Hinged Between Worlds

1  JanusMindful that a new year has begun, I want to play around with the spirituality of thresholds. The ancient and somewhat obscure Roman god from whom January takes its name—Janus—is the double-faced god who looks both backward and forward. He is the god of transitions, the god of beginnings, the god of doors and entry-ways, the god of thresholds. I suspect that because January 1st is a date in the calendar, we are prone to talking and thinking about our life thresholds in terms of time. Janus looks back on the past and forward to the future. Similarly, a New Year’s resolution marks a transition between our past and our future. “From this day forward, I will do X,” or “I will stop doing Y.” My future self will be different than my past self. Out with the old, in with the new. Indeed, any resolution we make and keep—no matter when it happens—is a door, an entry-way, a threshold between different eras of our lives.

All last week I contemplated how I might preach to you about such thresholds, but for days I got nowhere. Then I saw the new Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens. It was fun. If you’re familiar with Star Wars you know certain characters have a high sensitivity to the Force. Some of them train to become Jedi warriors. As the Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi says in the original Star Wars movie, “The Force is what gives a Jedi … power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.”[1] The force surrounds us. This isn’t a temporal image. It’s a spatial image. Though most inhabitants of the Star Wars universe are completely unaware of the force, it is all around them at all times.

This led me to wonder about thresholds not in time, but in space. So many religions speak of unseen worlds, divine realms, angelic spheres, heavens and hells, and invisible sources of spiritual power that, like the Force, surround us at all times. In the Christian New Testament book of Luke, Jesus says “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed. Nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”[2] So, if it’s among us—if it surrounds us—but we can’t observe it, how do we access it? What or where is the threshold? How does one cross from this world of flesh, blood, bark, stone, air, fire and water into the unseen kingdom?

This likely wasn’t the question you brought with you to worship this morning. But it is a question people across the planet bring with them to worship or spiritual practice every day.  How do I get from this world of human frailty and suffering to God’s world, to Heaven, to peace, to bliss, to nirvana, to moksha? Unitarian Universalists typically don’t pose our big spiritual questions with the expectation that the answers lie in a completely different world or state of being. We tend towards a this-worldly spiritual orientation. We ask: “how do we come to terms with this world of human frailty and suffering?” “How do we transform this world so that it is more just, fair and loving? Still, even if you’re like me and you suspect this world we experience with our senses is the only world, and this life with all its joys and sorrows is the only life, isn’t there a place in your heart for stories about hidden worlds, unseen powers, and truths just beyond the surface of our knowing?

Earlier we watched a video clip of ten-year-old Harry Potter stands between platforms nine and ten at King’s Cross station, staring at the brick wall barrier Mrs. Weasley has just instructed him to walk through. “Best to do it at a bit of a run if you’re nervous,” she adds.[3] Not having any options other than to trust what his senses can’t accept, Harry dashes at the wall and crosses through. “A scarlet steam engine was waiting next to a platform…. A sign overhead said Hogwarts Express, eleven o’clock. Harry looked behind him and saw a wrought-iron archway where the barrier had been, with the words Platform Nine and Three-Quarters on it. He had done it.”[4] He has entered a previously unseen world—a world of magic, mystery, power, and truth.

I could’ve shown clips or read passages from any number of movies, books or plays: Lewis Carroll’s 19th century novels Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland—remember the rabbit hole—and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There; J.M. Barrie’s 1904 play, Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, in which one arrives at the secret island of Neverland by flying to the “second star on the right and then straight on ‘till morning;” or C.S. Lewis’ 1950 novel The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, in which the wardrobe in an old country mansion is the threshold between this world and the fantasy world of Narnia. Lev Grossman’s The Magicians series features thresholds between this world and a Hogwarts-like (though much more adult) school of magic called Brakebills, and then thresholds between Brakebills and the Narnia-like (though much more deadly) world of Fillory. My family has become somewhat addicted to the ABC series Once Upon a Time in which the town of Storyville lies hidden in the back woods of Maine and is populated by fairytale characters who travel through portals between a variety of fantastic worlds including the Enchanted Forest, Neverland, Wonderland and Oz.

One of my favorites is the 1999 Wachowski Brothers movie, The Matrix, in which humans live in a computer simulation designed to mask the truth that they are enslaved by machines. Crossing the threshold from the simulated world to the real world requires swallowing the red pill. The guide, Morpheus, makes reference to Lewis Carroll, saying to Neo, whom he is trying to liberate, “You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

This is just the beginning of a list of western popular culture stories in which characters cross thresholds from known to unknown worlds. I’m sure many of you could add other titles. But this trope is not original to modern pop culture. Pop culture borrows it from religion which, at its core, responds to deep and ancient human longings to apprehend a world different from the one we inhabit, to transcend suffering and death, to make sense of mysterious and unexplainable phenomena, to experience God’s world, Heaven, peace, bliss. I suspect the ‘crossing from world to world’ scenario is so common and so beloved in pop culture precisely because it stirs up these deep and ancient human longings in us.

Religion told these stories first. Perhaps the hero’s journey to the underworld is the most ancient motif. The hero may seek the underworld for various reasons: to commune with the dead, to gain immortality, or to rescue someone who is a captive there. (Luke Skywalker’s journey to the Death Star to rescue Princess Leia in Star Wars is this exact motif.) Underworld journeys appear in Sumerian, Egyptian, Vedic, Hindu, Christian, Greek, Roman, Norse, Finnish, Welsh and Mayan mythologies—and that’s just the list from my seminary notes.

1 EzekielIn another version of the know-world-to-unknown-world story, some Hebrew prophets describe a visit to the divine realm to receive their prophetic call. The prophet Ezekiel has one of the more elaborate and, we might say, psychedelic, descriptions of the divine realm. I encourage you to read the first two chapters of Ezekiel—makes Wonderland look tame and sedate. The prophet Isaiah describes God, surrounded by three winged seraphs, sitting on a high and lofty throne in a temple shaking and filling with smoke.[5] Not all prophets make this crossing. Sometimes the prophetic books just begin with an announcement like, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah.” The prophets’ task was not to bring people to the divine realm, but to speak God’s word to the people in order to transform this world into one more in line with God’s vision. In a sense, the prophet becomes a threshold between the people and God.

This is true of Jesus as well, perhaps no more clearly than among second- and third-century Gnostic Christians. Bart Ehrman, professor of religion at the University of North Carolina, says Many Gnostics “believed that the material world we live in is awful at best and evil at worst, that it came about as part of a cosmic catastrophe, and that the spiritual beings who inhabit it (i.e., human spirits) are in fact entrapped or imprisoned here. Most of the people imprisoned in the material world of the body, however, do not realize the true state of things; they are like … someone sound asleep who needs to be awakened.” (The Matrix films use this same premise.) How does one cross the threshold? According to Erhman, in Gnosticism “the human spirit does not come from this world; it comes from … the divine realm. It is only when it realizes its true nature and origin that it can escape this world and return to the blessed existence of its eternal home. Salvation, in other words, comes through saving knowledge…. In Christian Gnostic texts, it is Jesus himself who comes down from the heavenly realm to reveal the necessary knowledge for salvation.”[6]

The Flammarion Engraving

The Flammarion Engraving

The picture on the front cover of your order of service, for me, ties all these different hidden world stories together. It is known as the Flammarion Engraving. Nicholas Camille Flammarion was a late 19th-century French astronomer and author who sought answers to the big questions through scientific study (astronomy) and religion (Spiritism) and, when those were insufficient, he wrote science fiction. The Flammarion Engraving first appeared in his 1888 book, The Atmosphere: Popular Meteorology. The artist is unknown. A caption underneath the engraving reads: “A missionary of the Middle Ages tells that he had found the point where the sky and the Earth touch.” If you look closely at the picture, you can see that the missionary is reaching through this point between earth and sky to yet another realm. If I’m reading Flammarion correctly, for him there were many thresholds between worlds: the scientific method could reveal previously unknown aspects of reality; spiritual practice, specifically Spiritism, could bridge not only the realms of the living and the dead, but different planets as well; and the human imagination could propose explanations for mysteries science and religion could not adequately explain. When it came to his conviction that alien life exists on other planets, and that human souls could transmigrate to alien bodies on those planets, the line between science, religion and science fiction blurred completely.[7]

Although Flammarion discovered stars and moons, he never found aliens. And apparently his scientific studies of Spiritism ultimately left him doubting that it really worked. Still, I admire his openness to possibility, and I encourage that kind of openness in us. For even if you’re like me and you suspect this world we see, hear, smell, touch and taste is the only world, and this life with all its joys and sorrows is the only life, it is also true that we only grasp a thin layer of what this world and this life really are. We say we are connected to the whole of life, yet how often are we fully awake to our connectedness? We speak of the interdependent web of all existence, yet how often are we fully aware of our place in the web? There may not be thresholds to other worlds, but there are certainly thresholds that lead us more deeply into this world, more deeply into this life, more deeply into knowing, understanding, feeling, caring, loving. You may never get to push your luggage through a brick wall, or tumble down a rabbit hole, or visit God in a shaky, smoke-filled temple, or correctly interpret the secret teachings of Jesus, but you can stay open to hidden possibilities all around you. You can, in the very least, take time each day to pause, to breathe deeply, to experience your own body living, to ponder your place in the web, to become more fully awake to connection and oneness. These are thresholds too. And as you pass through them, you may encounter this one world and this one life differently, and that encounter may have the power to change you.

Even if you’re like me, even if you sense this is the only world and the only life, keep your heart open to possibility. Earlier I shared with you the poem “The Door” from the American poet Jane Hirshfield. She says, “a note waterfalls steadily / through us, / just below hearing.”[8] How often do we come to the threshold, about to hear the note, about to come to some deeper insight, about to witness some deeper truth about this world and this life, and we miss it. For any number of reasons we turn around, turn back, turn away because we’ve closed our hearts to new possibilities? The poet reminds us to breathe. She tells us of “the breath-space held between any call / and its answer.” So often breath is the threshold we are seeking, the act that causes us to slow down and pay attention, or to wake up or to change course. So often breathing gives us the presences of heart and mind to look differently, to listen differently, to feel differently. Breath, in the poet’s words, is “The rest note, / unwritten, / hinged between worlds, / that precedes change and allows it.”[9]

I take it on faith that there are sources of spiritual power all around us, available to us always. And I take it on faith that we are always “hinged between worlds.” Always. My prayer for each of us in these early days of 2016 is that we may keep our hearts open to possibility, so that when we come to thresholds—when that note waterfalling through our lives is about to sing—we may remember to pause, to breathe, to pray, to listen, to hear, to cross through and be changed.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] For a brief clip of this quote from Star Wars, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x2YQJsbbWNA.

[2] Luke 17:20 -21 (New Revised Standard Version).

[3] Rowling, J.K., Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (New York: Scholastic, Inc., 1997) p. 93.

[4] Ibid, pp. 93-4.

[5] Isaiah 6: 1-8.

[6] Ehrman, Bart, Lost Christianities (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003) pp. 59-60.

[7] For more information on Camille Flammarion, see Darling, David, “Flammarion, (Nicolas) Camille, (1842-1925),” Encyclopedia of Science: http://www.daviddarling.info/encyclopedia/F/Flammarion.html. For a brief contemporary biography, see Sherard, R.H., “Flammarion the Astronomer,” in McClure’s Magazine, 1894, vol. 2: http://todayinsci.com/F/Flammarion_Camille/FlammarionCamille-Bio.htm.

[8] Hirshfield, Jane, “The Door,” in Sewell, Marilyn, ed., Claiming the Spirit Within (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996) p. 321.

[9] Ibid.

Really . . . What’s Real?

The Rev. Joshua M. Pawelek

Earlier I read an excerpt from Nick Bostrum’s 2003 article, “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?”[1] To be clear, he does not prove we are living in a simulation (had he proved it, I suspect we’d all be aware of it by now and waiting to meet our maker— or, umm, programmer). What he proves is that it is rational to think we are living in a computer simulation. Or, in the very least, he proves one can argue it is rational to think we are living in a simulation.

Simulation

One can also argue that while it might be rational to think we are living in a computer simulation, it might not be rational to preach about it. And if the minister decides to preach about it anyways, it would be rational to think it might be one of his less useful sermons. Of course, this is the same challenge I accept every year when I put a sermon up for bid at the UUS:E goods and services auction. As most of you know, every year our beloved Fred Sawyer wins a sermon at the auction and challenges me to preach on a topic or question residing at that murky yet evocative crossroads where science, philosophy and theology meet. “Are you living in a computer simulation?” is no exception.

The Truman Show

I’m not sure, in the end, that answering this question is all that useful. But the fact that some scientists, philosophers and theologians take this question seriously; the fact that there are scientists proposing experimental means to answer the question (even if they’re doing it partly for fun); and the fact that this idea that reality is not the same as what our senses perceive shows up again and again in literature and cinema—in everything from the Bible to Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Whoto The Matrix films to The Truman Show—tells us something about human nature which I suspect is meaningful. [And whether or not it is, it is certainly rational to the come to the auction next Saturday evening, February 9th, from 5:30 to 9:00. It’s great fun. It’s an important fundraiser for the congregation. As always, a sermon or two will be up for bid.]

Horton Hears a Who

Imagine today isn’t February 3, 2013. We think it is, and everything we’ve ever been taught tells us that it is. But imagine today is actually a day far in the future. And imagine that some future society—Bostrum calls them “posthuman”—has developed powerful computers that can run programs that simulate human evolution. Bostrum calls them “ancestor simulations.” They would be so fine-grained that the people in them would have consciousness and would not realize they are living in a virtual reality.[2] Again, Bostrum wants to show it is rational to think we live in such a simulation. To do this he says at least one of three propositions must be true.

First proposition (what I call the gloom and doom proposition): “The human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage.” If this proposition is true, if human beings will become extinct before developing this level of computing power, then we cannot be living in a computer simulation, and today must be February 3, 2013.

Second proposition (what I call the ethical proposition): “Any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history.” Imagine that human beings do not become extinct and successfully develop the capacity to run very fine-grained ancestor simulations. Then imagine that, despite having such capacity, they refuse to do it. Why? Doesn’t it seem logical that if it could be done, it would be done? We already run computer simulations for all sorts of things. We track the paths hurricanes; we train astronauts. Simulations are part of every industry that uses computers. We even have computers that simulate computers. If we could simulate human evolution, we could learn so much about ourselves. We wouldn’t do it for moral reasons. An advanced human society would, we hope, have an advanced morality and would recognize that in creating virtual yet conscious people, it would also be consigning them to a life of potentially great suffering. An accurate simulation would include genocides, wars, holocausts, slavery, nuclear explosions, terrorism, racism, anti-Semitism, gun violence, poverty, famine, starvation, disease and so on. It would be sadistic, morally objectionable and highly unethical to create virtual people who would have to experience these things. Hence, it would be prohibited, even illegal. If that’s true—if every advanced society with this level of computing power prohibits ancestor simulations—then we cannot be living in a simulation. Today must be February 3, 2013.

Third proposition (what I call the what’s really real? proposition): “We are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.” That is, if the first proposition is false—human beings don’t become extinct; and if the second proposition is false—advanced societies don’t establish prohibitions against running ancestor simulations—then we are almost certainly living in such a simulation. Today is likely not February 3, 2013.

To understand why this might make sense, consider that Bostrum assumes it would not be just one society that develops this computing power. There would be multiple advanced societies, all of them running multiple simulations at once. And furthermore, at some point in the course of any such simulation the virtual people in it would themselves develop the computing power to run their own ancestor simulations. As Bostrum puts it, “we would have to suspect that the posthumans running our simulation are themselves simulated beings; and their creators, in turn, may also be simulated beings.” It could go on indefinitely.

Simulated Simulators

Michael Rundle, Technology Editor for the Huffington Post, UK, summed up the argument in an article this past December: “any civilization which could evolve to a ‘post-human’ stage would almost certainly learn to run simulations on the scale of a universe. And…given the size of reality—billions of worlds, around billions of suns—it is fairly likely that if this is possible, it has already happened. And if it has? Well, then the statistical likelihood is that we’re located somewhere in that chain of simulations within simulations. The alternative—that we’re the first civilization in the first universe—is virtually (no pun intended) absurd.”[3]

My gut response to all this? I think it’s absurd (no pun needed). It can’t be true. It doesn’t feel right. Something’s missing. It’s too circular. It’s a trick. But I don’t have a rational counter argument. Is it just that I’m so used to thinking I’m an original human in the original universe, that I’m deeply and irrationally attached to this assumption? After all, I’ve never been invited to seriously think otherwise until now. If we assume humans will not become extinct and will one day have the computing power to run ancestor simulations; and if we assume that advanced societies would not prohibit such simulations, then on what basis can we argue we are not now living in a simulation? We wouldn’t know it if we were. It doesn’t feel rational, but it certainly looks rational on paper.

Simulated Cosmic RaysOne rational response to Bostrum is to look for actual evidence. In a recent paper entitled “Constraints on the Universe as a Numerical Simulation”[4] German physicist Silas R. Beane and colleagues discuss how one might approach this problem. He says in any computer simulation there are “observable consequences” of that simulation. There are certain constraints or limits on the laws of physics within any simulation and they leave a signature. The signatures are very slight, but they ought to be observable within the simulation if one knows how and where to look. So they suggest that we begin with the assumption that our universe is a simulation and then ask: What known phenomena are there in the universe that mirror the kinds of observable consequences we would expect to find? Beane names the Greisen-Zatsepin-Kuzmin—GZK—cut off, the outer limit of the energy in cosmic ray particles. What accounts for this cut off? Why does this limit exist? He proposes this limit could be an observable consequence of a computer simulation. I haven’t had time to figure out whether he and his colleagues are just doing this for fun in their spare time or if this is their main research area. Either way, their paper, like Bostrum’s, has a wide popular following. The suggestion that what is real is not the same as what we perceive is a potent one.

Fred was interested in what Bostrum’s theory might say about God and ethics.  It says a lot. Some of you may already be making theological connections. Bostrum said, “it is possible to draw… loose analogies with religious conceptions of the world…. The posthumans running a simulation are like gods in relation to the people inhabiting the simulation: the posthumans created the world we see; they are of superior intelligence; they are “omnipotent” in the sense that they can interfere in the workings of our world even in ways that violate its physical laws; and they are “omniscient” in the sense that they can monitor everything that happens.” This makes sense. If we are living in a computer simulation, it is fair to say that the programmer plays a similar if not the same role in our lives that many feel the God of the Bible plays. Even the idea of resurrection is plausible in a computer simulation. If the programmers don’t like that someone ‘important’ has died, they can just re-insert the file back into the simulation. Or think about incarnation—the divine taking human form. A programmer could place a file of themself into the simulation and walk among us virtual folk, speaking to us of the errors of our ways. To us it would look like incarnation—spirit-becoming-flesh. The programmer would experience it as flesh-becoming-data. But do you see what I’m getting at? This question—“Are you living in a computer simulation?”—is not a new question. It uses modern concepts. It wears the clothing of science. But it’s actually an ancient question, an ancient thought process. Because we can’t explain our origins, we conclude there must be a Creator who exists in another realm.[5]Whether God or programmer, the net effect is the same. We live at the mercy of an all-powerful entity.

Zeus

And whether we’re talking about an all-powerful God or programmer, the problem of evil and suffering remains. This is also an ancient human question, the question of theodicy: How do we explain evil and suffering if God is all-powerful? What about genocides, wars, holocausts and slavery? Why does an all-powerful God allow these things to happen? Why? There’s no good answer. Some will contend God’s purposes are inscrutable and should not be questioned, but that’s never been acceptable to me. So what justification would some future computer programmer have in creating people who feel pain in so many ways, who are exquisitely conscious of their own suffering and that of others; people who are fragile, flawed and know they must, some day, die. It seems sadistic. It makes sense that an advanced society with an advanced morality would prohibit it.

Except that if it turns out we are living in a simulation, I wouldn’t want it to be turned off. I wouldn’t want life just to end in the blink of an eye, without a chance to say goodbye to the people I love, just like I don’t want life to end any other way—though I know it must. Computer simulation or not, I still recognize in me, in you, and in so many of earth’s creatures a fierce and beautiful will to live. No matter what’s real, we’re here and these are our lives. Whether it’s 2013 or some future day, we’re here and these are our lives. And even if our lives are illusions, they feel real. As far as we know, they’re the only lives we have. The point of living has never been to avoid evil and suffering, but rather, when it happens, to respond to it as best we can: to find our sources of resilience, to remain hopeful, to bring love to bear. Regardless of what’s really real, I can find no excuse to live our lives as if they have no consequence.

In case you’re wondering, I don’t believe it. I don’t believe in an all-powerful God or an all-powerful programmer. I believe today is February 3, 2013; our bodies are real flesh and blood bodies; and we are among the first people in this universe. That’s what I believe, but I also an open to and curious about any opportunity to connect with a reality greater than or in some way beyond this one. I recall those words of the Apostle Paul, his reminder to the Corinthians to “Look not at what can be seen, but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, what cannot be seen is eternal.”[6] I recall those words of the Sufi poet, Hafez, speaking to the Beloved Presence: “Veil yourself with every enchantment and yet I shall feel you…. You are the breathing of the world.”[7] I’m reminded that from time to time we catch glimpses of something else—some other world, some other realm. Maybe we don’t see it with our eyes—we feel it, we imagine it, we dream it. Maybe it comes to us in our quiet, peaceful moments— our mountain top moments, our walking-at-low-tide-moments—moments when we lean back from our daily lives and suddenly realize we’ve become available to something else—or something else has become available to us. Maybe it comes to us in our moments of great celebration or exertion—moments when we’ve danced, sung, run, whirled or stretched our bodies so far beyond their normal positions that somehow we’ve become available to something else—or something else has become available to us. Reality is not always the same as what our senses tell us.

So many religions, folkways and spiritual practices; so many prophets, gurus, teachers, poets, guides and spiritual leaders; so many scriptures, myths, stories and dreams hint at the existence of something else: some Heaven, some Olympus, Elysium, Valhalla, Zion, Sheol, Shangri-La, Shambhala, Svarga Loka, Nirvana, some celestial sphere, some great oneness, some kingdom coming. But our glimpses are always fleeting. We may never know what’s really real. Given this, what seems most rational to me is staying open and curious. And what really matters is not whether a proposition is ultimately true or false, but whether it keeps us resilient in a hurting world, keeps us hopeful, and keeps love overflowing in our hearts.

Curiosity

Amen. Blessed be.


 


[1] Bostrum, Nick, “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation? “Philosophical Quarterly(2003) Vol. 53, No. 211, pp. 243?255. (First version: 2001). For a detailed exploration of the various debates sparked by Bostrum’s article, go to http://www.simulation-argument.com/.

[2] Bostrum argues that, though it is controversial, a common assumption in the philosophy of mind known as “substrate independence” suggests that computers should be capable of consciousness. He writes: “It is not an essential property of consciousness that it is implemented on carbon?based biological neural networks inside a cranium: silicon?based processors inside a computer could in principle do the trick as well.”

[5] I recommend Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s description of ‘The Cosmological Argument’ for the existence of God in 36 Arguments For the Existence of God (New York: Pantheon Books, 2010) p. 348. In my view this is possibly the most common and most ancient argument for the existence of God. Goldstein convincingly dismantles it.

[6] Second Corinthians 4:18.

[7] Shams Ud-Dun Mohammed Hafiz, “Beloved Presence,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #607.