Saturday, June 27, 2009


We are all well aware of the fleeting nature of happiness - it comes and goes, ebbs and flows, enflames our hearts and stills our souls. Whether a hearty meal, witty joke or afternoon shared with friends, moments of genuine delight sparkle like fireflies on a balmy summer evening. Such gaiety proves temporary, finite, fleeting - but breathtaking, nevertheless.

Of course, happiness (in Gurmukhi: sukh) can easily turn to pain (dukh). With the euphoria of fame comes the disenchanting lifestyle of mass exposure; with the delectable bite of chocolate comes the necessary trip to a drilling dentist; with the luxuries of money comes the unquenchable thirst for superfluity. The Sri Guru Granth Sahib records this truism:

ਸੁਖੈ ਕਉ ਦੁਖੁ ਅਗਲਾ
But in the wake of happiness, there comes great suffering (57.13).

Most discontentment, most unhappiness, derives from unfulfilled desires. We read:

ਸੁਖ ਦੁਖੀਆ ਮਨਿ ਮੋਹ ਵਿਣਾਸੁ
Some are happy, and some are sad. Caught in the desires of the mind, they perish (152.19).

Hence, we need to cultivate more appreciation and less wanting, more concern for depth and less for quantity.

Ultimately, happiness does not depend on the external, but arises from deep within. Happiness derives from being held by and connected to the greater-than-me. One might suggest that God embodies eternal happiness, eternal joy, eternal bliss. Again, we learn:

ਹਉਮੈ ਬਾਧਾ ਗੁਰਮੁਖਿ ਛੂਟਾ
Egotism is bondage; as Gurmukh, one is emancipated (131.9).

Gurmukh, or faithful one, literally means she who wears God's face (Gur-mukh). In this way, any individual who forgoes fleeting temporal desires and attunes his being to meeting God by serving others holds the key to a happiness that lies beyond the short-sighted bursts of ecstasy. While the latter are undoubtedly fulfilling from time to time, they never satisfy our longing and inner suspicion that somewhere there exists something more.

Harkeerat Singh proposes that we see knowledge as pebbles and faith as a box. Without the former inside, the box could easily be flattened and destroyed. Similarly, without the latter to hold them, the pebbles would get scattered and lost. Happiness operates analogously. We must strive to collect our worldly pebbles of joy in the great box of the Beloved. And we must recognize that access to this box lies hidden deep within:

ਤਿਚਰੁ ਵਸਹਿ ਸੁਹੇਲੜੀ ਜਿਚਰੁ ਸਾਥੀ ਨਾਲਿ
As long as the soul-companion is with the body, it dwells in happiness (50.16).

We should strive to awaken to our own being-in-God; hence, to our being-in-God-in-community with others. In the Unitarian Pulpit, Rev. J. H. Thom. insists: "the first Law of the realm of spirits - to love God and Man - is a sure provision for Blessedness,- to find our happiness in the happiness of others."

We must live as Gurmukhis - with the faces of God, turned towards the world.

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Friday, June 26, 2009

Death and Individuality

In the song 'Living Planet,' Emma's Revolution sing: "I don't know where we're going, but I know we're going far / We can change the universe by being who we are." Indeed, individuality breeds creativity, innovation, generosity, confidence and an appreciation of diversity. Yet, how do we achieve such subjectivity?

The great German philosopher Martin Heidegger argues that death 'individualizes Dasein down to itself.' In effect, coming to terms with death as a possibility that is present as a possibility shatters our reliance on cultural norms and practices, as we realize that no way of being will allow us to continue being who we are post-death. Hence our anxiety not towards physical/biological demise, but rather in response to 'the possibility of the impossibility of every way of comporting oneself towards anything.' We take responsibility for ourselves when we run ahead into death (Vorlaufen in den Tod), i.e. when we act in light of the inevitability of dying. For Heidegger, public opinion and pressure fade away in the face of death and are thereby rendered irrelevant. There is simply no correct way to be-in-the-world. Thus, we are set free to be ourselves - we are free to make choices of great significance - we are free to change the universe.

The Sri Guru Granth Sahib instructs: "Let the remembrance of death be the patched coat you wear" (6.16).

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Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Cove

I recently watched The Cove as part of AFI's SilverDocs film festival in Silver Spring, MD. Replete with secrets, suspense and sorrow, the movie transports viewers to a mysterious cove in Taijii, Japan, where local officials curiously limit access to and censor photography of specific sections of the town. The documentary powerfully exposes the exploitative industry of dolphin entertainment and the brutal market for dolphin meat worldwide.

It is truly incredible to witness individuals emotionally and cognitively connect with the animal world on such a deep level. For people of faith, the movie seriously calls into question unexamined theologies that privilege the human at the expense of the non-human, i.e. that ascribe humanity the right to dispose of nature as it sees fit. Stewardship and interconnection both take on new meanings, here.

In short, I would highly encourage you to see the film before dining out next time at Red Lobster or taking a family vacation to Sea World.

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Monday, June 22, 2009

Reclaiming Our Origen

Dare I suggest that for many Unitarian Universalists, Christmas festivities trump Easter celebrations in terms of theological comfort and cultural familiarity. The former, after all, lift up the miracle of birth, the reverence we share for the inherent worth and dignity of every person. In contrast, the latter smack of anti-scientific, psuedo-historical supernaturalism.

I would ask us to rethink this stark dichotomy in light of early Christian universalist Origen's philosophical system. Writing in the late second, early third century CE, the brilliant though highly controversial theologian from Alexandria in Egypt sought to infuse a neoplatonist worldview into the religion of/about Jesus Christ - in short, to sublate the Greek world into Christianity. This move has had profound consequences: Unitarian Universalists readily flock to Origen's doctrine of the restoration of all things (apokatastasis ton panton), which paves the way for the rejection of eternal punishment in hell - even the devil must hold out for the promise of redemption. Yet, Origen's model of 'scientific theology' (another Unitarian Universalist favorite: viewing religion and science as compatible) similarly shifted the theological 'center' from salvation history to soteriological meta-structures - in other words, from Good Friday's exaltation christology (human Messiah made Son of Man/God) to Christmas' incarnation christology rooted in the realm before and above (the pre-existence and incarnation of the Son of Man/God). Apocalyptic temporalism gave way to cosmic spatialism. Ontological concepts replaced biblical metaphor. God's dynamic revelation in history took on the form of a more static image of God's location in divine eternity.

For deeply personal reasons, many Unitarian Universalists may reject the Easter story a priori, filing it in an archive of offensive and hurtful theologies that privilege suffering and the irrational. However, I would encourage those of us who have been spared such doctrinal torment to reconsider these two nodes of Christian worship. Before eagerly dismissing the crucifixion narrative, let us appreciate some of its more empowering elements: that a human being may reach spiritual union with the Holy; that in our time cataclysmic change may take place; that the lived poetic complexity of life may rival philosophical abstractionism; that God's immanence may enflame our hearts and souls in this life, in this age, in this moment - our moment.

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