Most ancient tribal groups have believed that goddesses and gods inhabited the created order. This was very common and led to the widespread practices in what is generally called “nature religion.” That’s a fascinating study all by itself, but it’s not our focus today--just an important jumping off place.
The jump from divinity inhabiting nature as a whole and/or specific created items such as sun and moon and trees and stones to divinity inhabiting humans was quite a jump, and probably the first humans thought to be imbued with a measure of divinity probably were chieftans and/or shamans, medicine women and medicine men. The idea that all humans might be imbued with a little bit of divinity in them, a spark, could have come from Gnosticism and/or what became Hinduism, the oldest organized religion in world history. One scholar of the Hindu religion made these comments about the essence of that faith tradition:
What can be said to be common to all Hindus is belief in Dharma, reincarnation, karma, and moksha (liberation) of every soul through a variety of moral, action-based, and meditative yogas. Still more fundamental principles include ahimsa (non-violence), the primacy of the Guru, the Divine Word of Aum and the power of mantras, love of Truth in many manifestations as Gods and Goddessess, and an understanding that the essential spark of the Divine (Atman/Brahman) is in every human and living being, thus allowing for many spiritual paths leading to the One Unitary Truth.
If this brief summary of a Hindu core is correct, then it’s the divine spark in every living being, human and other, that accounts for the many spiritual paths at work in the world at any given time all of which are leading to One Unitary Truth. Is that Truth a rational conclusion or is it God Godself? Many of us in Christian tradition say, “God is love,” but some Hindu’s may say, connecting their conclusion to the divine spark concept, that God is Truth or that the many goddesses and gods taken together comprise Truth.
In a 1947 Time magazine article, Dr. Peirre du Nouy, a biophysicist, had this to say about the divine spark concept:
Consciousness of one’s tremendous responsibility in the great evolutionary process is the mark of a more highly evolved human being. Let every person remember that the destiny of humankind is incomparable, and that it depends greatly on the divine will to collaborate in the transcendent task. . . . And let people above all never forget that the divine spark is in them...and that they are free to disregard it, to kill it, or to come closer to God by showing their eagerness to work with God, and for God.
When I am informed that a biophysicist is about to speak, I tend to close down, assuming that there’s no way I’m going to be able to comprehend what she or he says, but I think I followed Dr. du Nouy well enough. Let me repeat what I heard and see if that matches up with what you heard.
Humanity has a role in the evolutionary process; an awareness of that responsibility is a sign of a human being who is more evolved than a human being who passively waits and watches through life. Human destiny is determined both by divine and human involvement. Humans do well to remember that there’s a divine spark in each of them, which they may kill or disregard or use with eagerness in working with God to help humanity reach its greatest potentials.
Those religious groups that see a part of God or a divine spark in every human being treat all humans with honor and respect in so far as possible while those religious groups fixated on human beings as fundamentally evil creatures, depraved to the core, are going to see humans as not very likely to succeed at anything worthwhile. The effects of evil in the world seem to create more ripples than do the effects of an act of goodness; another way of saying that might be: it takes more acts of good to undo evil than it takes acts of evil to destroy good. That may or may not be true either way; if there are any truths in it either way, a good bit of making that determination depends on perspective and experience.
We could take the 9/11 attacks as a quick and easy example. Though planned well, the actual attacks in three places happened in a relatively brief amount of time, but we are still cleaning up and trying to recover nine years later. How does a race of people even go about trying to recover from genocide? The effects are so devastating that at times, those attacked simply give up and give evil the victory; the most they think they can do is to try to start writing a new chapter in the life of what’s left of their people.
Today is Protestant Reformation Sunday in many churches because the last Sunday in October is as close as we can come on Sundays to October 31--the actual day in 1517 when Father Dr. Martin Luther made public his 95 points of conflict with the Roman Catholic Church in which he served as a professor and part-time priest. So Luther loved the Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and he--as many of us are inclined to do--saw only the good in it and none of its flaws. Admittedly, there are very few flaws at Silverside so looking for them is a time-consuming and usually futile task, unless we get a hard rain. So the longer Luther served within the priesthood, the more flaws he saw in the church, and though enamored with much that the Church had done and its great potential, he eventually saw some of those flaws turning into evil acts, for which he held his powerful Pope accountable.
Luther’s challenge to the Pope was not originally any effort whatsoever to begin a new expression of monotheism. He wanted to purify the Church he loved. He wanted the Pope to hear his challenges as points for debate--not blatant, slap you in the face, criticisms. That is not how they were heard, however, and the Pope fought back. For quite some time, Luther’s life was literally in danger, and he was kept hidden away in a castle for the most part for a long time.
Luther’s bottom line concern was that the Church, in many of its practices, was intentionally abusing emotionally and financially its constituents, most of whom were quite poor. Still, the church was constantly coming up with ways to try to force the peasants to give up money they didn’t have unless they made the children go without dinner for a week at a time. The most grievous of these abuses, in Brother Martin’s mind, was the selling of indulgences--those certificates that promised limited time in purgatory for those who had died and who were already in purgatory paying for their earthly sins before being given news of their permanent assignment: heaven or hell. You could buy one of these for yourself and for living relatives as well. There was the assumption that the shorter one’s stay in purgatory, the less likely a sentence of an eternal hell would be pronounced. Who wouldn’t want one or several? Talk about great stocking stuffers!
The Church was bilking its whole membership, but especially the peasants who had no education and no source of information except from the parish priest whom they heard preach Sunday by Sunday. It was a shameful scandal.
Luther came to believe that the only way to be saved from hell was to affirm God’s grace and to rely on that grace. There was no way to buy God’s favor in this world or the next. He knew his Pope and the papal staff were desperate to get St. Peter’s Basilica built--at any cost. This is where many of those indulgences dollars went. Luther began to preach against indulgences. He encouraged people he knew not to buy them, and in a challenge to his fellow priests, Luther asked, “If we really could pray the souls of the departed out of purgatory and save them from hell, how could we keep ourselves from offering up such prayers at all times? If we were real pastors, and if we truly had that kind of power, we would never rest because we’d be in prayer all the time, night and day, for those in danger of an eternity in hell. It’s devilish to put a price tag on a pastoral act that, if authentic, would save people’s souls.”
I’m not sure the Roman Catholic Church and many Protestant Churches as well have ever caught on to their primary role, which is to serve the people; not to be served by them. Anyway, this 600 year old series of acts of evil are still being cleaned up in some places; in other places, yet today, indulgences are still being sold.
The passage read today as our reflective reading is one of the scriptural segments rarely quoted, much less used as a sermon text. It is truly an ignored part of the little bit we have of Jesus’ teachings.
While the Romans had complete political authority over the Jews, they, the Romans, did allow the Jews to mediate their own cultural and religious issues, within reason; that is, as long as everything was handled in such a way that no big trouble was caused. Under certain circumstances, for example, the Jewish leaders could arrest a sister or brother Jew on charges that she or he broke a Jewish religious law. Jews could not, however, pronounce the death penalty; that fell to Rome alone in terms of how Rome dealt with the multiple cultures over whom the mighty Empire ruled. This is not to say that if the Jews got together a vigil ante and rubbed out an anonymous or relatively anonymous Jew such as a woman caught in the act of adultery that Rome would care, and, no doubt, many a blind Roman eye was turned away from just that kind of violence. Same thing when Herod ordered the slaughter of the innocents: all the little boys two years of age and under living in and around Jerusalem. Rome didn’t care; that meant less disgruntled Jews to deal with in the future. Still, officially, Rome had to pronounce the death penalty and did so or chose not to do so with any Jew who was well known whose execution might cause an attempted uprising. This is why, Jewish threats to do away with Jesus notwithstanding, Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor acting on behalf of the Roman Emperor at the time, Tiberius Caesar, had to give the go ahead for Jesus’ crucifixion.
When we speak of Jews being against Jesus, we’re talking about a handful of Jews opposing him. There was no mass hatred of Jesus and, thus, no widespread desire to do him in. Even if some Jews were troubled by Jesus’ theology, they didn’t want Rome to exercise its power against a daughter or son of Abraham. Still, there were a few; many or most of them in key leadership positions within first century Judaism; who wanted him dead, and on more than one occasion they threatened him in precisely that manner. We see it in the unpopular passage before us today.
In this case, what was making the ranking Jews irate with Jesus with the utter intimacy he believed he shared with God leading him to mention and proclaim the oneness they shared. This was not Jesus claiming to be God; rather, the oneness to which he referred had to with commonality of purpose and the uniting bond they shared. Jesus, by no means, thought or taught that he was one and the same as the great Creator God. Even so, that is what some of the Jewish leaders heard when Jesus would say things such as, “God and I are one,” and if that were what he said, they believed he should die for having violated blasphemy laws. The Romans couldn’t have cared less about Jewish theological standards, and they weren’t going to give thumbs up to the death of a Jew just became some other Jews accused him or her of having a faulty theology.
Jesus wasn’t the most well-known person in his time and place; he was no celebrity, but enough Jews knew about him and supported his teachings that Rome knew the Jews would come out swinging at them if they put Jesus to death. If they were going to do that, they would have to plan all the details with great care, and carry out the deed in such a way that other Jews would learn the lesson that they couldn’t carry on the way Jesus had if they expected to live to draw another breath.
So we pick up our story at a point where Jesus had spoken out about his special closeness to God a second time, and some of the Jewish leaders had their thugs and body guards picking up stones with which they would, on signal, put Jesus to death. Jesus, on this occasion, tried to take some sense into their heads. He reminded them that in God’s power he’d been able to do some mighty works such as healing the sick.
The Jewish leaders who had made themselves monitors of Jesus’ behavior said, “Yep, you’ve done some good works. Lots of faith healers do good works. The difference is: the others aren’t blasphemers, and you are!”
They went on with their accusations, “You are making yourself God,” and Jesus was tired of arguing with them so he didn’t deny their claim at this time. Instead, he plays a little scripture game with them since the ancient law was supposed to be their life. He says, “If I were claiming to be God, it should be alright with you since in your own scripture God Godself says to human beings, ‘You are gods.’” They were stunned. They were speechless. Jesus knew his scripture, and he was exactly on target. Like many religious leaders today among Christians, the Jewish leaders there with Jesus were hoping not too many Jews knew about that seemingly heretical scriptural blurb from their worshipbook, the same worshipbook used by their forebears in the first great Jerusalem Temple. I’m talking about the book of Psalms.
I’m reading now from Psalm 82, verses 1-6:
God has taken God’s place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods God holds judgment: “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.
They have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk around in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken. I say, “You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you....”
So, in context here, one of the psalmists envisions God as taking God’s seat with other members of the divine council; it’s clear that this particular psalm was written before the ancient Hebrews had moved all the way away from polytheism and had fully embraced monotheism. They were still in that long transitional period that scholars of religion call “henotheism,” which means that the God of Israel was the dominant deity for them but that they had not yet come to the place where they were willing to out and out deny the existence of other deities. Therefore, while, for them, their national god, Yahweh, sits at the head of the council’s table, there are other gods on the council. Monotheism had not yet been fully and completely embraced.
Yahweh, as chief god but not only god, is spewing forth words of judgment. God accuses God’s people of being unjust; they prefer to show partiality to the wicked who are powerful than to the powerless, those who can’t do a thing for them; can’t return any favors; can’t pay back any loans. In their weakness, they are also ignorant; they don’t understand that what they’re doing is wrong. God says to God’s people, “Doing justice and explaining why to those who don’t is your duty; after all, you are gods, children of the Most High.”
Because God is their spiritual parent, some kind of way, they being children of God have certain specific responsibilities; some of those responsibilities include doing justice while trying to wipe out injustice and telling those who don’t know how to live as children of God just how that works. The God of one of the psalmists says to God’s people, God’s children: “You are gods.”
This is exactly what Jesus was referring to, and yet again, he left his detractors red-faced for failing to be able to follow through in proving their intellectual or spiritual superiority over him. They are ready to kill him, or at least make him think they’re going to, for speaking about God in terms that were too familiar for their comfort levels, and Jesus says, “It’s odd for you to want to kill me for talking about my oneness with God who once said to God’s children point blank, “You are gods!”
This time, he’d really made them angry, and they were all the more eager to kill him even if it meant facing Rome’s ire. To stay alive he had to escape, which he did, but not before confronting them with a piece of their own scripture that they didn’t want to hear or have others hear--God saying to God’s people, “Since you’re in God’s family, you, too, are gods; you are gods by birth.”
Walt Whitman was born in 1819 on Long Island. His father was a Quaker carpenter. His mother was a Dutch farmer’s wife who worked on the family farm alongside slaves the family owned.
His poetry was often controversial, and his major, lasting collection, Leaves of Grass, was often banned. More than a few readers thought Whitman was too blatant about sexual matters so they protested and refused to buy the book.
Theologically, he was likely a pantheist. The except of his poem, “Song of Myself,” on which we are focussing today seems to peg him as a pantheist. A pantheist believes that all is God; everything you see all taken together is God. Every part of the created order taken as a whole is God. The word, “panentheist,” literally means all in God or God in all. A panENtheist, in contrast to pantheist, believes that there is a part of God in all aspects of the created order, humans included, but that there is more to God than what is collectively in the whole of humanity.
Walt Whitman was known for ignoring meter in his poems, but producing poems with a melodic quality nonetheless. Here’s a sample:
Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and joy and
----knowledge that pass all the art and argument of the earth;
And I know that the hand of God is the elderhand of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the eldest brother of my own,
And that all men ever born are also my brothers... and the
----women my sisters and lovers.
Whitman lived for many years just up the road in Camden, New Jersey, which is where he died in 1892 of complications related to a stroke. He would surely be surprised at what an undesirable place it has become.
The very long poem from which we pull a small excerpt is titled “Song of Myself,” and it was the first poem published in his famous collection called Leaves of Grass. Dropping right down in the middle of the poem, we find these words:
I believe in the flesh and the appetites,
Seeing, hearing, feeling, are miracles, and each part and tag of me is a miracle.
Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touch'd from,
The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer,
This head more than churches, bibles, and all the creeds.
If I worship one thing more than another it shall be the spread of my own body, or any part of it.....
Before we dig in here, Chris Highland who has studied Whitman extensively, explains a bit of what we have just heard:
Whitman is divine, if divine means “connected to the vine” of relationships that hold the cosmos together. And he reminds us of our divinity, the sacredness of all life. And this does to “faith” and religion what few have the ability to do: transforms it all, absorbs, recycles and renews into compost to grow something better, something greater. And Whitman not only prepared the way; he brought the Good News, the holy book–the only one that brings life because it is Life: Nature. “We are Nature, long have we been absent, but now we return.” This is our repentance, our conversion, our salvation, and our own terrestrial, natural divinity.
Whitman’s sense of divinity isn’t that it’s simply a spark in all people. He sees himself and others as fully divine, inside out. All parts of him are divine, and all bodily functions are divine because of the sacredness of the whole created order including the totality of a human being. Our connection to the sacred natural world created by God is what makes us divine. This parallels Jesus’ sense that all people are divine because they, by birth, are automatically children of God and, thus, have divinity in their physical/spiritual make up.
Does that sound pretty good to you, or is it a burden, even to contemplate? Some people like the idea that there’s something divine about them; others are scared to death of the mere thought. To what degree am I related to God? Is God completely other than any one human being or humanity as a whole? Is there a mere spark of divinity within each human being, which connects to God within us and ties us to every other human being? Is there some kind of divinity with which are born simply because we are born into this world not only as children of our parents, but also as children of God? Or are we, with all other parts of the created order, fully divine because nature is itself God, and God Godself is nature?
Ching Hai said:
A fully divine person is a fully-human being. A fully-human being is fully divine. Right now we are only half a human being. We do things with hesitation, we do things with ego. We don't believe that it is God who arranges all this for our enjoyment, for our experience. We separate sin and virtue. We make a big deal out of everything, and accordingly judge ourselves and other people. We suffer from our own limitations about what God should do. Understand? Actually God is inside us, and we limit God.