It’s the Winter Solstice, one of those natural events that is the substrate for a multitude of human religious ceremonies and paradigms, one that escapes all dogmas, all priesthoods, all institutions, all nationalisms, to tilt through our lives once a year whether or not we pay attention. On the prairie we never escape awareness of where the sun is or the effect on the Great Winds that rule our lives as much as if we were seafarers in the great winged ships of the past. The jet stream is often overhead and sometimes in our yards.
One of my cousins is a California Prosperity Christian (claiming that he had to overcome his natural narcissism and hubris to achieve that state). His adversary, he thinks, is secular humanism, so he was a bit disconcerted to be told that our paternal grandparents were quietly dedicated prairie humanists. This was revealed when a grad student studying the movement in Canada found their names on an organizational roster and inquired through this blog what we descendants knew about them and their ideas. As it turned out, not much.
This blog post is a good place to start. Progressivism and neighborliness in response to very hard times, self-reliance combined with co-operative organizations, are certainly what I recognize. But also, the fuzzy future envisioning, the weak ability to form a future, the craving to know more, are also part of that strand of my Strachan family which started with immigration from Scotland in order to farm where the Brulé Sioux had just been cleared away. In the end they didn’t do much better than the tribe. South Dakota is a tough place to live.
Glenn W. Smith has taught at Starr King, the UU California seminary I passed up in favor of Meadville, the Chicago UU version. His “skew” is political and if you google him, you’ll find that he’s been fighting the good fight for a long time. My own “skew” is cosmic. I did a sideways step to identification with the U of Chicago Div School, but they are merely global. I was taking writing classes from Richard Stern, sitting alongside the wife of David Schramm, the wildman astrophysics prof who was always seeking the missing “Dark Matter,” not as a metaphor but as what he hoped was a reality. He died in a plane crash, the sole occupant and pilot. I lost track of his wife. The planet is full of dark matter.
I find that somehow, though I respect and will claim prairie humanism, my faith center is not there. Many have suggested fanciful ideas about how to name this forming “faith” that many don’t even recognize as existing. “Scientific mysticism” will do. Non-anthropocentric, often represented in science fiction (especially if one includes the work of people like Ursula LeGuin and the visions of pop film), welcoming to indigenous “spirituality” (whatever that is, so long as it’s land-based), the space program, and the persisting Aquarian thought represented by the Edge, some TEDtalks, the Bioneers, and other think tanks.
Paul Tillich used to say that symbols can’t be imposed on people as advertising icons are, but must be “found.” That is, they are emergent from our lives. This is certainly true of Scientific Mysticism which tries not to be anthropomorphic by including all life as neighbors. On the other hand, the science part of the syndrome is emphatically NOT about magic and superstition, but rather about the interwovenness of all existence whether it is T-cells trying to resist HIV virus or the nursery of the stars where new fusion-based entities create energy. We come to understand our bodies as aggregates of cooperating cells organized into -- well -- “organs” and our brains as an orchestra that plays the symphonies that are our consciousness.
Salvation is not found in virtue, but in participation. Eternal life is not found in the persistence of one skin-enclosed entity but rather in the long-time influence and sharing through eternity. Once defined, our impact may be small but it is forever. No “faith” is necessary, just communication, action, connection. One of the strong influences on the Strachan generations has been a baby named Archibald who lived only seventeen days. He was the first child of my paternal grandmother, immediately preceding my father.
The loss of that baby, which my grandmother believed came about because she was so desperate for the company of others that she went to town in the jolting wagon, even knowing she was close to term in her pregnancy, has meant a legacy of sadness. The birth came on the isolated homestead. Archibald was kept alive for a little more than a fortnight in the warming oven of the woodstove. My generation didn’t know of the baby’s existence until I read through the boxes of journals my grandmother kept. Neither did we know that her sister had died in childbirth and we still don’t know what happened to that baby. Live babies and conceived but naturally aborted babies are lost every day, often undetected, often due to bad code.
Now we understand that all is code. The first response, like that of the US government, is to hoard code, to try to get hold of all information in the effort to save everything, like a mechanic making sure to save all the pieces. But this is not the way. It leads us to the problem of the centipede who was asked how he knew to walk with so many legs to manage. He ended in the ditch with his legs in the air, a symbol that emerges again and again. The way forward, as Smith recommends, is a function of desire and focus. The goal may not be reached, but the minutia will be pulled into some kind of purpose.
Oh, yearning! Oh, vulnerability! I listen, I watch. My kitchen has a big east-facing picture window where I often stand and look up the long alley that reaches to a close horizon, a bulge in the terrain. From behind it rises the full moon, coloring the snow blue but draining the color from the feral calico cats I can’t resist feeding just under the window, their tails forming a mandala around the dishes of cat food. It’s a good depiction of the mental and emotional life of a single old woman in a balky small town, using a fancy education in a way it was never intended. (One is supposed to become a success in one’s field, usually through affiliation with an institution, but when it comes to them I’m strictly a feral cat.)
Words don’t serve as well as music. Consult Paul Winter. The Winter Consort at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. http://solsticeconcert.com