Nov 01 2013
Way back in the day, when I am in high school in Dallas and attending the “largest Methodist church in the world” (as my father would say) on Sundays, a progressive Sunday school teacher introduces our class to the radical theology of Paul Tillich. Tillich, writing in the middle of the twentieth century, says that “God” is just a name some people use for the “infinite and inexhaustible depth” of life, for the “ground of all being.” If the word God doesn’t mean much to you, Tillich says, “translate it, and speak of the depths of your life, of the source of your being, of your ultimate concern, of what you take seriously without any reservation.” You may need to forget “everything traditional you have learned about God, perhaps even that word itself.” The point is, to mine the depths of what it means to be alive and human and living in these times. To stay in touch what is most true and worthy of our attention, of our commitment. The vocabulary doesn’t matter.
Sitting in that Sunday school class with “Ground of Being” written on the blackboard, I feel my world shift. The God preached from the pulpit of that Methodist church—a kind of puppet-master God meddling in the smallest details of every individual life, a mixture of Santa Claus (“he sees when you are sleeping, he sees when you’re awake”) and my elementary school gym teacher—disappears in an instant, and I drop down to a deeper truth. Not nameable exactly, but real and present. Like the moment when our feet touch the bottom of the deep end of the pool, and we can push back up toward air and sunlight.
That morning I experience an earthquake in my thinking and feeling about religion—really, about life itself. My Sunday school teacher, and Paul Tillich, show me a wider, more inclusive world. They ask me to look for a deeper meaning in those daily high school struggles—classes, friendships, romance. They hint that even when our individual struggles feel unique and insurmountable, we really are all connected … in the struggle, in the meaning making, in Being itself.
How difficult it is to stay grounded in that deep knowing every day! A thousand distractions, obligations, calls on our attention and our duty, pull us away from depth and make us long for more accessible comforts.
So this November, let’s stop all that scrambling and look for clues as to what leads us to greatest depth in our living of each day. What is your Ultimate Concern? What lies at the foundation of your self so that, when you lose touch with it, you lose your way, you lose touch with your true North?
The ground of my being most often comes down to this: the authentic encounter with another—stranger, congregant, friend. A chance to witness to each other’s pain, joy, and growth. The strength and hope that walking together through this life—so beautiful, so tough—can bring. I call this ground Love, and religion, for me, is about finding ways to live it every day.
And still there’s more: As this community plunges into the truths of climate change and begins to rally with others to create and reclaim resilient, sustainable ways of being, the “Ground of Being” takes on a new, urgent, tangible meaning. Earth, humans, creatures, things—we are all connected here on this tiny planet. I want to give my life and work, without reservation, to the very real ground on which we live.
With all my love,
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