The past week was marvelous. The Martin Luther King, Jr./Howard Thurman Homily service at Fellowship was informative and inspiring, educational and uplifting. I seized the opportunity at the MLK2023 Labor & Community Breakfast the next day, where I was honored to give the invocation, to have people at my table sign the Dr. Howard Thurman Commemorative Street Marker petition. The process of landmarking our building at 2041 Larkin Street is proceeding well.
Amidst all this, I remembered our other co-founding pastor, Dr. Alfred Fisk. While not a prolific writer as Dr. Howard Thurman, Fisk’s book, The Search for Life’s Meaning contains valuable insights into our human journey. Dr. Fisk begins his book by quoting G.A. Studdert Kennedy, Chaplain in France during World War I and later chaplain to the King of England.
I was alone at night on a moor by the sea. Above me a dark velvet
dome and a million stars. Beneath me moving slowly in a heavy swell,
the sea. No sound but the rustling of a breeze through the heather,
and the boom of the waves against the cliff. I was alone, that is, I was
acutely, painfully conscious of myself as a reality, and at the same time
even more acutely conscious of that vast, shadowy, mysterious other-
than-myself, looming up out of the darkness over against me – the
universe. . . . Supposed I cried out to the great other-than-myself:
“Who goes there?” Would there be any answer? Or would there be
nothing but the whisper of the wind in the heather, the boom of the
swell on the cliffs, and the desolate cry of that lonely gull returning
late to its nest?
While the quotation was from a far-off time, it speaks to what some of us have experienced, the wondering about something beyond us that somehow relates to us in one way or another with a largeness that may speak intimately to our inward parts if we allow it to do so. It engages us personally and links us to universal reality. It is familiar and reaches farther than the particularities of the self. It holds creation and moves within it unchained.
Dr. Fisk states that we cannot escape this other-than-ourselves. "It is there in whatever direction we move, we move in relation to it.” He raises the question of whether this presence is Friend, Foe, or Vast Indifference and states that our view of this other-than presence regulates our emotive behavior.
Aldous Huxley states: "It is in the light of our beliefs about the ultimate nature of reality that we formulate our conceptions of right and wrong. This is the determining factor of our living, – our moral values and ethical living. "
Dr. Fisk continues to support this idea with the understanding that: "Consciously or unconsciously, well thought out or poorly thought out, everyone frames for oneself a theory of the relation of the individual to the universe, and that frame, like the mounting for a picture, bounds our every action and is the background of what we think and feel and do.”
If we see it as foe, we struggle against it. We may build altars or give sacrifices to appease it. Maybe we give it a one-way ticket to heaven or drape a cloak over our eyes like Dracula to interrupt what may be dawning that we think would mean our demise. We may blame it for our problems, our suffering, our trials. If we see it as a Vast Indifference then our lives treat it and life itself purely in terms of materialism, that matter is the only ultimate reality; that everything else in the universe is made up of matter or is a property of matter. No meaning or purpose or value reaches beyond this material realm. This would mean the abandonment of religion, spirituality, or idealism.
Kennedy's question has frequently been our question: Suppose I cried out to the great other-than-myself: "Who goes there?" Would there be any answer?
What response(s) have we received when we have cried out? Is there anything to this other-than-self? What do we sense - nothing, isolation, littleness of self, or presence and enlargement of self? Perchance, we experience communion with this Friend.
Kennedy says: Well, I made my cry and I got my answer. I have often doubted it, and never entirely understood it, but it remains. If I lost it, I think I would lose my soul. I have been trying to say it ever since. At the time, the answer was only one word, "God." I stood in the presence of God.
As he experienced the Presence of God, he knew that life was more than material. We know that also. When we invite the Presence into relationship, we know just as Kennedy learned that there is a connection with the other-than-self. This other-than-self speaks to us, relates to us, and bottoms our existence (as Dr. Thurman would say.) The other-than-me is God.
Arguing against this idea of God, of Spirit, would be Thomas Hobbes who stated that: The world (I mean not the earth only, . . . but the universe, that is, the whole mass of all things that are) is corporeal, that is to say, body; . . . every part of the universe is body, and that which is no body is no part of the universe. . . . All that exists is body, all that occurs is motion.
There are times when life seems to be just material when it feels that there is no connection with anything beyond a mechanistic world, that can manipulate the material world with no concerns about how that affects us. There are times when the world does seem very impersonal with no concern for us as human beings with needs, challenges, problems, and myriad questions. Often it is difficult to connect with the word God. The concept of other-than-self helps move me beyond a static definition of God. Islam mentors me to see the multifaceted nature of God by suggesting 99 names of Allah. Below are some.
1. The Beneficent
2. The Merciful
3. The Most Sacred
4. The Embodiment of Peace
5. The Creator
6. The Great Forgiver
7. The Eternal Lord
8. The Supreme Bestower
9. The Embodiment of Truth
10. The Infuser of New Life
11. The Universal Trustee
12. The All Prevailing One
13. The Responding One
14. The All Pervading One
The Adhan (Call to Prayer in Islam) assures me there is something beyond the material world that stands, informs, infuses, and consecrates us within the other-than-reality. There is indeed something beyond the material world that stands, informs, infuses, consecrates, and is present in us and transcendent.
Let’s return to Dr. Fisk who contrasted materialism with idealism.
Fisk says it is much more difficult to give a summary statement (like the one from Hobbes) that adequately describes idealism. “The word itself is unfortunate. Popularly, it is used to refer to the point of view of people who possess "high ideals" – and this gives no hint of its metaphysical meaning. If the l is omitted from the word, and one were to think of it as "ideaism," it is perhaps more understandable to one not steeped in philosophic tradition. Idealism (or ideaism) is the point of view that ultimate reality is nonmaterial; it is idea.”
Clarence Jordan proclaimed “in the beginning was the idea.”
For Dr. Fisk, the ultimate or basic "thing" or "reality" in the universe is not matter but mind, idea, or spirit -- a reality which is incorporeal, suprasensuous, supra- or nonspatial. The idea back of things is more final, more "absolute," than its material embodiments.
The essence of existence is always spiritual. The spiritual realities of love, beauty, goodness are just as real as - indeed, are more real than - the things we make of wood and stone. The foundation and ground of existence is not matter; matter is the expression and embodiment of something far more fundamental. That there is such an ultimate, nonmaterial reality is the basic conviction of idealism.
Who is this other-than-ourselves and what is our relationship? Our response to this question is the essence of the human sojourn. This is the essence of the Bible. It is the essence of our spiritual quest regardless of the tradition or lack of tradition where it unfolds.
How do we relate to the other-than-ourselves? That is the basic quest, I believe, that motivates our lives and calls upon our deepest dedication and resolve. How does the idealism or ideaism of the I-Thou relationship that Martin Buber discussed so powerfully become manifested as reality? If the other-than-self is Friend, it has our backs and we can exult in its presence knowing the other-than-self “preparest a table before us even in the presence of enemies.”