Yes to Eros: My Spiritual Journey
The following blog post is from a talk given as part of Spiritual Grounding, a program with the Rev. Graylan Hagler, with Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC, in Washington, DC, on Friday, October 15, 2021. The original presentation is included in the video embedded in this post.
I want to say thank you to my friend, Graylan Hagler, for his kind invitation to spend some time with you today. I have such great respect for Graylan so when he asked, of course, I readily accepted. My assignment: “Share about your spiritual journey, and the spiritual tools you use to cope with life and the world around you.” He gave me 15-20 minutes.
Immediately I thought of the words of Dag Hammarskjold, first UN Secretary General of the United Nations:
I don't know Who — or what — put the question, I don't know when it was put. I don't even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone — or Something — and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.
So I want to talk about those times in my life that when I said, “Yes!” it changed everything. Because once you say, Yes!” all bets are off. And you know you have to follow your “Yes” wherever it leads you.
I grew up in a lower middle-class blue-collar neighborhood in south St. Louis, scrubby Dutch, they called it – on Saturday mornings, the folks in the neighborhood (and I, too, my turn in my family) would literally clean the street and curbs in front of their homes with scrub brushes. Our family belonged to a very conservative Lutheran church – not because my family was theologically conservative but more socially conservative. Lots of Catholics, Lutherans, and a few other Protestant denominations, but no matter which religion you were, we were all socially conservative in south St. Louis, with a lot of pride, and as I look back on it, white German pride.
My parents – my dad, upbeat and positive, a hearty laugh, the life of the party; my mom, fiercely loyal and protective of the family, more emotive, moody, and devout (I remember walking to church in the early spring dark with my mom and a neighbor lady to Wednesday evening Lenten services; I’m sensitive to the mystery and magic, the rhythms of the night, of the dark). Aware of how both my parents reside in me, I often refer to myself as a “happy existentialist.”
Lutheran grade school, high school, college – my little conservative, white, Lutheran world. But two things happened while I was at my conservative Lutheran college that changed my life: I was assigned a paper on German theologian Paul Tillich, expelled by the Nazis for his opposition; and from the college bookstore, I picked up The Last Temptation of Christ by the Greek author, Nikos Kazantzakis, who also wrote Zorba the Greek.
From Tillich, I learned a theology “from below,” that rather than faith being a list of doctrines I must believe (as I learned it as a boy), you begin with the social-political, the psychological and moral questions raised from within your human experience, so that faith addresses people where they are. Theology is not eternal, static, the Spirit blows where she wills (or as the UCC puts it, “God is still speaking”). The other thing, his famous quote - “Culture is the form of religion, religion is the substance of culture” - which set me on the path of seeing the impact of religion in psychology, race, politics, economics, and all forms of individual and communal life. This blasted to smithereens my previous narrow, conservative world.
And from Kazantzakis, I immersed myself in the worlds of Greek philosophy and myth. I resonated with his description of a radically human Christ, the struggle between the eternal, destructive descending forces and the equally eternally, creative ascending forces inside every human being, indeed within the creation itself (St. Paul in Romans 8 – “the whole creation groans with birth pangs”). An eternal Eros, an elan vital, a vital energy and all-consuming Spirit flows through all that exists. I traveled to Greece and studied Greek Orthodox spirituality and iconography. I wanted to consume; I wanted to be consumed. Eros and Thanatos, and the balance between these two great sacred human drives.
During this time I became one of the leaders of the St. Louis World Religions Dialogue, along with a Catholic professor and a Jewish rabbi. This really opened up my world.
- I participated in the groundbreaking of the St. Louis Holocaust Museum & Learning Center, and interviewed Holocaust survivors for their displays;
- I began an intense study (continuing to this day) of Islamic mysticism, particularly the poetry and teaching of Rumi;
- I also immersed myself in Eastern traditions; two years of Hindu philosophy with Swami Chetanananda, leader of the Vedanta Society; after which I spent two years sitting at the feet of the Zen Master, Dr. Rosan Yoshida;
- And in 1994, I was the Master of Ceremonies as we hosted the Dalai Lama for our Interfaith Prayer for Peace.
Religion is everything, the heart of everything (that which creates meaning, identity, value, and community); we all want to matter, we all want to belong. And every culture has its own myths, its own narratives of meaning. Then in the ‘80s, in graduate school at the UCC’s Eden Seminary in St. Louis, I was introduced to liberation theology and critical social theory (from which today’s important Critical Race Theory derives) from within the context of the Latin American, Native American, African-American communities, from within a feminist, an LGBTQ framework, and my world was opened up even further.
Religion, and the Marxist critique of religion. No sacred cows, no unquestioned orthodoxies, no person or book, no power, institution, or authority to restrict how and where you find the truth; not even religion is beyond one’s critical gaze. I now had to figure out how to balance religion’s sacramental spirit with the fire of the prophetic.
And so I began to ask about the origins of religion itself, what I call, “Religion Before Adam and Eve.” In the evolution of the human species, where did those first impulses of what came to be known as religion originate? And this immersed me in the world of the earth traditions and goddess spirituality. So by the time I was 30, I was swimming in the world of spirit, better, swimming in the World Spirit, creative and critical.
Fast forward to my mid-40’s – I completed a Doctor of Ministry degree in New Testament, and a PhD in Islam & Muslim-Christian relations. And I was fortunate enough to receive a Fulbright fellowship to the Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies, Amman, Jordan, under the patronage of HRH Prince El Hasan bin Talal, brother of King Hussein. During my year in Amman, October 1998, I met Zoughbi Zoughbi from Bethlehem who, like all good Bethlehemites, invited me to “Come and See”; I went and saw, and since then, I’ve been back to Palestine and Israel over 30 times.
And thus, with Zoughbi’s simple invitation, my work for the last 20+ years began. After moving to Fort Wayne, September 11, 2001 brought me into the public eye, speaking to churches and community groups clearing up misconceptions about Islam and its history with Christianity. And we began Indiana Center for Middle East Peace. In 14 “solidarity tours” to Palestine and Israel, I have taken more than 250 travelers to meet with Jewish, Christian, and Muslim political, religious, and NGO leaders working for justice. Through ICMEP we have made many, many friends throughout Palestine and Israel and around the world. And we have hosted more than 200 programs featuring artists, exhibits, scholars, activists, and religious leaders, including Graylan, and our mutual friend, song-mistress Luci Murphy, here in Fort Wayne.
This work, supporting the political and moral resistance of our friends in Palestine, has further immersed me into the intersectional work of justice in all matters of social and political and religious life in this country as well. I have committed my life to standing in solidarity with our Palestinian friends and other voices of conscience, and to find ways to amplify their voices here in Indiana. My activism on behalf of Palestine has provided a door through which I’ve walked into larger spaces of activism through the United Church of Christ and in my own country with other groups around issues of race, human sexuality, poverty, unemployment, immigration, refugees, and more.
I also want to say a word about the most recent leg of my spiritual journey. As you remember, I said earlier that I have sought to find a way to balance religion’s sacramental spirit with the fire of the prophetic. Palestine has provided me the outlet for prophetic activism, but concurrent with my work on behalf of Palestinian justice, in the last twenty years, I have become a student of evolutionary psychology and spirituality.
We live in an unfinished universe moving toward ever-greater complexity, and it presents us with a sacred responsibility. Evolution is a dynamic process; if we need to speak of God, then let’s speak of God not in a heaven outside creation, but
- as that very Sacred Creativity within the life process itself, the evolutionary impulse of nature, of Life itself seeking its fulfillment;
- as that eternal, dynamic, indomitable, Energy that animates all living things, from the great expanse of galaxies to the smallest atom;
- as a creative Power yet experienced as personal, the intimate, life-creating, life-sustaining, life-transforming power of Love-Itself – God!
Humanity is creation now self-aware – humanity is creation self-conscious. Human reason a mature expression of 14 billion years of evolution, various levels of consciousness in all sentient beings including human self-consciousness, all of one fabric in the ever-evolving universe. We are Stardust now conscious of itself. And more, from that primordial singularity, 14 billion years ago, entire universes were born, and 3.8 billion years ago, from the first living cell, 8 ½ million different species.
We human beings are part of a ‘family tree of life,’ biological diversity within a multi-cultural world. Our human diversity, the diversity of colors and languages and ethnicities – our cultural diversity is biodiversity self-aware. What new thing are we as a species, as people, as a culture, as a church, evolving into? And how will we be midwives of a more just, more free new birth of consciousness and way of being together?
Finally, in the West, 2000 years of Christian history, so much hatred and violence, so many lives wasted, the church’s credibility, too, lost – no wonder people are leaving the church in droves – because we spent so much time on incestuous metaphysical quarrels. It is no coincidence – George Floyd crying out, “I can’t breathe”; the earth herself crying out, “I can’t breathe” – two pieces, one fabric.
The two great crises we face as a species, tribalism and the climate crisis, each objectifies the other, the first one scapegoats, the second one pillages. And we justify each with religious rationales. Like biodiversity, the reason multi-culturalism is so important – different customs, traditions, different ways of believing – they offer us other possibilities, alternative ways of relating to each other, to the earth, which liberate us from our parochial, tribal castes to embrace the totality of life. Eros, Spirit is at the heart of the universe. Heaven and Earth, Sacrament and the Prophetic, Spirit and Science, Mysticism and Mind – all one.
Why do I do what I do? We can create communities that are dream incubators – perhaps even the church? – that make the impossible possible. Heck, anybody can do the possible; it takes dreamers and hopers and lovers to make the impossible possible.
If you can dream it, you can will it.
If you can will it, you can plan it.
If you can plan it, you can create it.
And if you can create it, you can live it,
you can make the impossible a reality.
Thought becomes Intention becomes Plan becomes Act becomes Habit.
And, like alchemy, lead changes into gold.
I’ll close with the words of Nikos Kazantzakis, that now, as I look back over my 68 years, describe my life’s trajectory:
You need a little madness, or else you never dare cut the rope and be free.
There are three kinds of souls, three prayers:
1. I am a bow in your hands, Lord. Draw me, lest I rot.
2. Do not overdraw me, Lord, lest I break.
3. Overdraw me, Lord, and who cares if I break.