Monday, 22 March 2010

Spring Equinox

(An address given at Notte Street Unitarian Church, Plymouth, 21 March 2010)

Many cultures celebrate the Spring Equinox.  In the Jewish tradition, it is the moment when the presence of God, the Shekhinah, entered into creation.  The Shekhinah is traditionally represented as feminine. According to the feminist Rabbi, Jill Hammer:
In the Jewish calendar, the first of the month of Nisan is the beginning to spring, and falls close to the spring equinox. It comes halfway between the playful holiday of Purim and the festival of Passover, when birds are beginning to sing and warmth and growth are beginning to take hold. The first of Nisan is one of the four new years of the Jewish calendar, marking the “first of the months” (rosh chadashim), or the beginning of time itself. Nisan is also the date when the Shekhinah first appeared within the mishkan (Divine dwelling-place. It is the moment of the descent of the Divine into the world—the budding of divinity within creation. If Tu B’Shevat represents the Divine sap flowing within the world, the 1st of Nisan is the moment when that sap bursts forth in new buds. The new revelation of the Divine is paired with the new life and beauty that appears in the spring. Within two weeks, the full moon festival of freedom, Passover, will arrive.
An important aspect of Shekhinah theology is the idea that the Shekhinah is separated from the Godhead, and it is human effort that will bring about their reunion. The human effort to reunite them involves all Jewish couples making love on the Sabbath eve, and the practice of Tikkun Olam, or repairing the world, and other mitzvot (commandments).  The idea behind Tikkun Olam is that the world is damaged and must be repaired, and it is the exercise of human love (in all its forms) that will bring about this restoration, and the reunion of the immanent and transcendent aspects of the Divine.  It is also about the restoration of harmony and balance.

Both Taoism and Paganism emphasise the dynamic balance in Nature between growth and decay, darkness and light, yin and yang, male and female, expansion and contraction.  Balance is not just a steady-state, but a dynamic equilibrium. New birth is balanced by death; growth is balanced by decay, light and activity is balanced by darkness and rest. If everything grew and expanded all the time, there would eventually be no space in the world for new growth - the old growth would block out the light.  So death and decay and darkness are not evil, but necessary components of the natural processes of life and change. The darkness is necessary for rest, growth, and regeneration. Death is not evil, but a necessary adjunct to life. If there was no death and dissolution, there could be no change or growth. The cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth is part of the dance. Suffering is also part of the process of growth; just as a tree is shaped by the wind, we are shaped by our experiences. It is only by experiencing suffering that we acquire sufficient depth to know the fullness of joy. It is then that the full light of consciousness dawns in us, and we achieve mystical communion with the divine.  But we cannot connect with the divine by stressing about it, but rather by relaxing and finding the inner stillness and space that is already there. All we have to do is to remember who we really are; to reconnect with the ebb and flow of the cycles of life.  Everything is cyclical – the seasons, the tides, the orbits of the planets – why not human life?  But it is not just a ceaseless round of the same old things, repeated ad nauseam.  Everything changes; everything is always becoming something else; nothing is ever lost.

With all this talk of balance being a natural thing, it might be easy to conclude that we can just go with the flow and all will be well. But what if the flow is out of balance?  Then we might have to go against the flow.  Andrew Pakula recently wrote:
There is also a big problem with going with the flow. The flow is all too often in the wrong direction. The flow may be away from our vision of how the world could and should be and against what is best for each of us. The flow is leading us toward selfishness. The flow is leading us toward a lonely detached kind of fierce individualism. The flow is leading us toward environmental catastrophe. The flow is leading us toward an increasing separation between the rich and the poor.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said "...there are some things within our social order to which I am proud to be maladjusted." He was reminding us that we can get accustomed to injustice and inequality. We can contribute to the negative things in our world just by 'going with the flow'. 
Because human society is somewhat divorced from nature, we cannot assume that it functions in the same way as nature. Human society is constantly being tinkered with by people who do not necessarily have the best interests of people or the ecosystem at heart; they may be motivated by corporate greed, a desire for self-aggrandisement, or other murky motives.  So the flow that is created by actions motivated by greed does not seem likely to create a just and humane society, or a society where everyone's rights are respected and diversity is celebrated.

Another aspect of balance is being able to see others' points of view.  This is the Unitarian practice of tolerance: to try to enter into others' perspectives on life, even when we disagree with them. As Cliff Reed writes:
The values underpinning the Unitarian movement have to do with mutual caring and mutual respect. They involve a readiness to extend to each other a positive, involved and constructive tolerance. They are the values of a liberal religious community that honours individuality without idolising it; of a community that finds spiritual stimulation in the unique contribution of each person while feeling itself united by a bond too deep for words.
So here we have a balance between community and individuality; a way of understanding ourselves as part of a community without sacrificing our individuality. But what does tolerance mean?  Does it mean putting up with other people's views, without challenging those we disagree with? Or does it mean entering into dialogue with them, and trying to understand where they are coming from? Real tolerance cannot mean just putting up with or ignoring someone else's views. It means, among other things, not removing the speck from someone else's eye while ignoring the plank in your own eye. If someone in the community holds views that I consider immoral (such as homophobia), I have a responsibility to engage them in dialogue, because if I remain silent, I am complicit in their prejudice; but my challenge to their views should be delivered in a compassionate way that takes into account their reasons for holding such a view; and I should also be prepared to be challenged by others on views that I hold.

Trying to achieve balance is also a fruitful way of resolving moral dilemmas.  In his excellent book Godless Morality, Richard Holloway points out that moral dilemmas are not usually about a conflict between good and evil, but between two conflicting goods.  The dilemma presented by the issue of abortion is a conflict between the need to prevent harm to the mother (who may have been raped, or whose quality of life could be significantly decreased by having a child) and the potential for the foetus to have a life. These two goods need to be weighed carefully to discover which takes priority at any given stage of the pregnancy.

Similarly, the rights of the individual are in balance with his or her responsibilities.  The idea of inalienable human rights is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted on 10 December, 1948 by the General Assembly of the United Nations. These rights include freedom of religion (a right dear to Unitarians, who only won it in 1813 in Britain); freedom of speech; freedom of association, and so on. But as citizens, we also have responsibilities: to vote, to resist tyranny, to live sustainably, and so on.

So we do need to be active in maintaining the balance, not merely passive. We need to engage in Tikkun Olam, the restoration of balance and the practice of social justice, which is an integral part of many religious traditions, and a perennial concern of Unitarians. It is a way of restoring balance – caring for the poor and the oppressed, protecting the environment, standing up for human rights, and promoting freedom, peace and justice.  Indeed, we cannot really claim to be mystical or spiritual unless we put compassion into practice by helping others.  The two aspects of religion go hand-in-hand: without a sense of connection to others, there is no basis for compassion, and without the expression of compassion in the form of caring, the mystical experience can be barren and unproductive.

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