(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
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Beginning in Russia during the mid 1800’s, nihilism was and is a depressing philosophy about life and the universe. Nihilism says that there is no inherent meaning to existence. All things were created and function according to mathematical laws where everything has no underlying purpose. Even worse, since people are also created and regulated by mathematical, physical and chemical formula, they have no responsibility for their actions. They can be, for instance, selfish brutes since that would be caused by science and math and not by free will.
Without any purpose or responsibility, humanity is therefore NOT governed by universal principles of morality. We’re created, we exist, we vanish. Dust to dust and ashes to ashes – with no all encompassing or ethical reason to live….for us or anything else.
Nihilism says doesn’t matter if some suffer, some prosper, some are nasty, or some are compassionate. Without meaning or eternal values of goodness, our actions for good or bad don’t matter. Added to that, it does’t even matter whether or not we are born. The universe is a remorseless and mostly random math equation.
Fyodor Dostoevsky used his novel Crime and Punishment, published in 1866, to point out the dark absurdity of nihilism. His main character Raskolnikov is a nihilist who believed himself greater than any laws of morality. He plots to kill a pawn broker who had swindled him along with many other people. He plans his murder meticulously and with the belief that he can decide anyone’s fate. The pawn broker hurts many people, he reasons, and so should be eliminated as an inconvenience. He squashes out a human life much like he steps on an annoying ant.
For some reason, however, Raskolnikov is loved by a woman named Sonia. She sees in him goodness beneath his uncaring exterior. She eventually learns of his crime and confronts him – not to act as a judge, but rather to share her love for the decency she perceives in him – and to challenge him to do the right thing. Realizing for the first time that he is profoundly and unconditionally loved, Raskolnikov confronts his own beliefs about the meaning of life. He sees that existence is governed by a force more powerful than laws of math and physics. His epiphany is that love offers humans the meaning of life. It is, Raskolnikov realizes, the ultimate power in the universe. With a new understanding of life, he confesses his crime, pledges to redeem himself, and accepts imprisonment.
Dostoevsky brilliantly forces readers to themselves ponder the meaning of life. Ultimately, he points out, we exist for a reason. We live to love and be loved. Love ennobles us because, through it, we perceive that life is not just about ourselves, it’s about life for all. Love comforts, empowers and cares for people now and far into the future. Love is both the answer to an unfeeling universe, as it is amazingly powerful. It is the god force that defines everything.
My intent for this introduction is to set the stage for our own reflections on why we exist as a spiritual community. What are the ideals and goals that define why we meet? Why do we give our hard earned time, talent and money to this little community? What greater meaning does this congregation have beyond the simple fact that we regularly come together? I believe, based on my brief discussion of nihilism, that meaning and purpose are essential for individuals and organizations. Absent any purpose to exist and consume resources, we as individuals and as a community are expendable.
The title of my message this morning is therefore, “Who is ‘We’? Social activists, theologians, or neighbors?” That is a way to ask what is the purpose for us being a part of the Gathering at Northern Hills? Are we here to actively serve and advocate for a better life for all? Is our purpose at GNH to study, learn and practice spiritual ideals? Or are we here to support and enrich each other as a community of friends, neighbors and like minded people?
I’ll be asking questions about “who is ‘we’” in the two weeks ahead and my purpose is not only to share with you my own thoughts, but to stimulate your thinking about: 1) what purpose do we as individuals and as the Gathering at Northern Hills serve? and, 2) what are the goals that justify our purpose?
I believe we are each here, whether we are consciously aware of it, for all three reasons I have suggested. We may think we are here for only one, but the reality is that all three purposes are so intertwined that “who is we” means we are all social activists, theologians, AND friendly neighbors.
All of that boils down to what Fyodor Dostoevsky proposed in his novel Crime and Punishment. The Gathering at Northern Hills, as a part of the universe, exists to love. We are to be a beloved community not only for ourselves, but for the outside world too. Most importantly, we’re here to spiritually grow and learn how to speak and act such that we impact the world and the universe in loving ways. As Dostoevsky implies in his novel, everything boils down to service, compassion, kindness, generosity, and sacrifice…or in one word, love.
Some people define love as God. Others understand love as a powerful emotion. Still others see it as a choice for how to live. However any of us define it, I believe it is the spiritual truth we all seek and the force that governs all life. The protection a lioness shows for her cubs is not a chemically induced instinct in a pitiless world. It’s love for what she created. The forces that animate planets and stars are not just physical laws. They act as they do according to what I believe is a greater principle – to regulate the universe so that all things within it are lovingly nurtured.
Love is the great reason behind why the big bang happened and why immutable laws of mathematics exist – to insure that beauty, kindness and nurturing creation take place. Without such an underlying reason for being, everything is nihilist – things with no reason, no responsibility and no feeling.
Quite frankly, if the universe is nihilist, I want get off it right now. What is the point for living if there is no point for living? Life would be a ridiculous and meaningless thing.
I thus refuse to accept the idea of nihilism. I exist for a purpose, so do you, and so does the Gathering at Northern Hills. Our ultimate purpose, our meaning, is to love and be loved. And that statement is, for me, profoundly spiritual.
Applying this to my earlier questions about “who is we,” the bedrock answer for who we are, as the Gathering at Northern Hills, is that we are spiritual seekers or, as I suggest in my message title, theologians. All other answers for “who is we,” in my opinion, flow from our spiritual foundation to love.
An answer that follows from that foundation is that we are social activists. Many of us are here because we seek to love and serve the world beyond this place. And within this group of social activists, there are some who see service to the wider world as organizing for social change. Such people are energized by advocating in behalf of those who suffer discrimination, poverty, or oppression.
Others within the social activist group seek to primarily perform hands on service to children and youth in need, the homeless, hungry and marginalized. I am a member of that sub-group of social activists. I feel most fulfilled when I’m offering tangible assistance to those who have far less then me. That was a focus of my ministry at the former Gathering, just as it is here. As someone who by nature is an introvert, I’m not an organizer or protester for systemic change. I love others by hands on serving and comforting.
That does not make me any greater or any less than advocates for change. They love others by working to abolish systems of discrimination and poverty. The Gathering at Northern Hills is large enough to have both sub-groups of social activists – one to advocate for social change, another to offer social service. Each sub-group is a part of “who is we,” and they comprise, I strongly believe, an important answer to the overall question of what GNH stands for and what some of its goals should be. We express our foundational spiritual love for others with social activism. We are defined, in part, by our loving impact on the world.
Another answer to the question of “who is we” emerged last year during our discussion of a black lives matter banner. Several members shared from their heart that, for them, GNH is first and foremost a community of neighbors. They are here for many reasons but an important one is the sense of community, friendship, and connection they find here. This too is an expression of the spiritual ethic to love and be loved. This group of people, I believe, enjoy serving people outside our doors, but they are most energized by serving and loving this particular community of friends. That, too, is an important definition of who is we and must be a primary goal for GNH. As I quoted Ru Paul Charles, the famous drag queen, in one of my February messages on love, if we can’t love ourselves, how the hell are we going to love anyone else? That applies to individuals, AND to groups like GNH.
The love we share with the outside world could not be authentic if we do not speak and act with love toward those within GNH. The outside world would see us as hypocrites. As multiple world religions point out, love must begin at home.
But, as I also said in my February message that quoted Ru Paul, love for oneself – or for us as a community – is only a means to an end. We love and serve ourselves precisely so we are able to love and serve others. Indeed, showing love and respect within our community is a way we learn and grow in our ability to speak and act with kindness to the outside world.
In this way, social activism is a primary way to define GNH and so is building and maintaining community with one another. They each work together in complimentary ways. In here, I can learn how to better speak and act toward each of you. That will empower me to better love outside strangers. And our love for them is in turn a way to feel empowered to come back here to love ourselves. We are, in many ways, a unique kind of social club, one that is trained to love the outside world by loving itself. I believe we must see ourselves in that light such that our social activists do not demean those who are most inspired by love for this community, and vice versa. We must never apply a hierarchy for expressions of love. All are valid and all should work together.
Somewhat related to my message today has been a blue period I’ve experienced this past week. I’ve pondered what is my purpose for the rest of my life – and my inability to come to any firm conclusions has depressed me. How much should I practice the human purpose to serve others, and how much should I serve myself? Those are questions I’ve asked myself many times. It’s never easy to balance selfishness with selflessness and I don’t want to imply today that it is. What I do believe is that in determining what is our purpose and what are our goals, we must be gentle with ourselves and with each other – never condemning someone for believing in different priorities. I can hopefully enjoy parts of my life in a way that is me focused, while at the same time serving others selflessly. GNH can do the same. The challenging part is how we do that.
Four answers I offer today for “who is we.” First, we are NOT nihilists. We are not hardened and cynical people who see no higher meaning for existence. We believe the universe, and all of life, has a purpose.
We are therefore first and foremost a spiritual community that sees a purpose greater than ourselves – which is love. We’re all, in that sense, theologians or spiritual seekers.
Second, we are all social activists committed to advocating for – or hands on serving – the outside world. Third, we are all neighbors and friends that learn and practice ways to serve one another. Both of these together are how we practice our spiritual purpose to love.
In sum, “who is we?” Are we social activists, theologians, or neighbors? I believe we are all three – but most importantly, we are spiritually defined by our love.
I wish you all peace and joy!