Pando People (jj church sermon 1.0)

Have you ever heard of Pando? Pando is a forest of birch trees in the western US. Burton V. Barnes started studying the forest in the late sixties, and noticed something peculiar: the trees in the forest all seemed to be just alike. Simply based on morphology, what the plants looked and acted like, Barnes believed that the trees in the forest made up a single unit. Future tests and techniques bore him out: Pando is a forest of genetically identical trees, trees that are connected by a single root system. Pando might very well be the largest living thing on this planet, the largest living thing humans have ever encountered. But from the outside, without digging around for miles underground, or digging into microscopic genetic code… Pando just looks like a bunch of trees.
I have come to think of human beings as resembling Pando. From the outside, we look like a bunch of individuals of a particular type… but if we look deeply enough, if we are willing to dig… we will discover that not only are we more alike that we ever imagined, we are in fact all a part of one connected entity.
Genetic science has made incredible progress and discoveries; it is now within the grasp of many humans to submit their own material and find out specifics of their background. We discover that all of us trace back to a few lineages. Something like ninety percent of all humans can be traced back to sixteen historical fathers… some known to us, some lost to history. Genetically, our family tree grows from few roots. I have no doubt that with continued improvements in testing and data mining, we will eventually narrow those roots even further. I think it is obvious that, like the trees of Pando, individual humans grow from the same genetic root.
I also believe something less obvious, something that we have not developed the tools and methods for which to dig. Humans seem to have a further connection that science has not yet understood. Linguists have noted that, based on the amount of the language human children are exposed to, there’s no explanation for how we learn to speak, how we learn to communicate. Psychologists have described the collective unconscious, that which we all seem to know innately, that which seems to be passed down through generations without our realizing it. This connection is not the only thing beyond the limits of current science… the simple question “where do we come from” ends with the mysterious and poorly named Big Bang; which, for all we can explain, happened for no reason out of nothing at all. We can’t explain how the elemental forces that affect us work together, or really, work at all. We have ideas, theories… string theory is one that could help explain the nature of these forces; but string theory requires we do our theoretical math in sixteen or twenty-five dimensions, rather than the three we can point to and touch.
The Big Bang, the beginning of everything from nothing… and the the equal but opposite mystery of what lies beyond the universe we know… are particularly difficult to wrap our minds around. We understand height, width, and depth, and even the quasi dimension of moving inexorably forward through time. But we literally have no frame of reference for what might be above height, farther out than width, behind depth… or before that time zero when everything we know and understand just simply… started.
What if it is really that simple, though? We are creatures created within that realm of time and three dimensions, our perceptions are only built to conceive of those axes. What if the outlandish prediction of string theory is correct, and there exist dimensions outside our perception, outside our reason, outside our comprehension?
Human beings are Pando, individuals sprung from the same genetic stock, appearing separate and distinct but exactly the same underneath. The Big Bang is the ground from which these apparent individuals grew, hiding the nature of our connected root system. That root system, that connection we have noticed but can’t define or explain, simply lies in dimensions beyond those which we were built to sense and comprehend.
Looking at life and lives in this framework, science and religion avoid their apparent dichotomy: science understands its limits are these three dimensions, and religion understands its implications lay beyond and aren’t always measurable or actionable in those three dimensions.
This probably sounds like a strange “sermon,” but it is an important plank in the platform I want to build, the church I want to attend. My church is intended to be an exploration of religion, a celebration of the paths and methods man has used and continues to use to find a larger sense of order, to find their place in the “Grand Scheme” of things. My church wants to deal with human information as far back as we have records… and my church isn’t trying to force those historical narratives to adhere to the three dimensions we can actually perceive. My church values the history of religion beyond its adherence to the limits of our science, and values science constantly improving the world within those limits.
I’d love to hear what you think of my church.

Discussion thread for this post in the jjewell forum.

Starting Somewhere

I have had an idea for some time. It’s a big idea, literally world changing. There have been many nights I’ve lain awake thinking that this is what I’m here for, what I’m supposed to be doing for myself and for the world. It’s a big deal… And I want to get it right. Which has led to overthinking: where to start?

I want to change the way we think about religion and politics, and how the two have to live together to get the most out of either of them. Sounds obvious and necessary, but do you start by examining what is broken, or reestablishing a religious basis, or a political movement? How do you even start a religion or a political party? I’ve felt as though I need to write at least three books just to get this thing going.

So as much to lay the starting brick for myself as for those I hope to follow, I am starting with a declaration of intent, including why I feel something must change, and the foundation upon which that change must be built.

The very first part is the why, and to get into that, we have to get into story time. My story, how I got to where I felt I had to change something. In particular, my religious and political history.

I still have the bible I was given from Northside Methodist Church in 1975. I don’t remember receiving it, nor any particular events at the church in those days: we were a Christmas and Easter family, at our best, and we weren’t at our best very often. By high school, I wouldn’t be able to recognize anyone from the church, and they wouldn’t have been able to recognize me. I lived much of my adult life this way. It was only after years of working through depression and ADHD that Suzy and I decided to make the church a part of our lives again. Suzy still has her bible from Northside circa 1977, and several of her family members were and are still church pillars there, so that’s where we went. We were in the choir, and the bell choir, I played guitar for outdoor summer services; Suzy became the head of children’s ministries, I became president of United Methodist Men at Northside; I took lay speaking courses, became certified, taught Sunday School classes, and even preached from the pulpit on more than one occasion (yes, that means precisely twice).

As we got more and more involved in the church, and became more a part of decision making and leadership, it became more obvious that the UMC, the organization, was operating primarily as a business. And although I can’t say I am so naive to believe that’s not going to be the case in the US, even worse, it was being run as a bad business. Large, successful churches had a lot a “small groups,” for instance… so our tiny, older congregation was tasked with creating such groups. This led to all the groups being the same people; I was over fifty when they needed Suzy and I to be a part of the “Young Adults” small group. Instead of looking at the strengths and need of the individual churches, leadership was pushing to generate what amounted to fake numbers that looked like what they themselves defined as being successful. There was also a pastor that did not get along with a significant portion of the congregation: he was directly responsible for the only couple actually younger than Suzy and I in the Young Adults group leaving the church. Even Suzy’s grandmother, who’d been with Northside since it was people knocking on doors saying “we should start a church ’round here,” had taken to pointing out “it’s not his church, it’s our church” on matters involving this pastor. When Suzy’s grandmother passed, she did not want the pastor in question to preside over the ceremony, and we contacted the previous pastor. We were told that she would not be comfortable doing it, because, and I quote “that’s his flock now.” That’s when I realized that the organized church is not working for its congregations, but rather operates believing that its congregations work for it.

Religion, as practiced by the organized church in the US, is broken.

I was brought up Republican, which is to say that I was aware of my parents and grandparents voting Republican in the seventies and eighties. In high school, I was already getting the idea that both major parties had more in common with the actors in the other party than either of them had with the citizens they supposed to be representing, and I was sporting the “withdrawal in disgust is not apathy” banner to remove myself from political conversations. As I grew older, it occurred to me that the political conversation ended up affecting me whether I took part in it or not, and I have been an advocate for third parties ever since.

Over the past couple of decades we have seen the worst gridlock and political obstruction in our history… and our government is currently shutdown, despite bipartisan congressional agreement, at the childish whim of someone who can’t get us to pay something he told us someone else would pay for.

Politics, as practiced by the major parties in the US, is broken.

When we think about who we are, what we are for, what is our greatest good… we all too often compartmentalize a vast array of moral and social values into lumps we call politics and religion. Because of the peculiar brokenness of politics and religion in the US, we largely define ourselves within structures hundreds, even thousands of years old, that we did not build and to a great extent don’t even understand.

We have to start over. The structures we have are broken. My task as I see it is to create new structures, which both acknowledge the reality of the existing structures and plan for their eventual replacement. The next step is defining exactly what they are and what they do.

I’m not looking to replace religion or politics themselves, but rather the structures we use to define them: basically, a new church and a new political  party. For now, they’re called the jj church and the jj party. Part of the foundation of these new structures is that they are not intended to completely replace existing structures: I can foresee someone meaningfully calling themselves a “jj Republican” or a “jj Methodist.” One ideal of these structures will be to focus on common ground and working together to move forward, to make sure our differences don’t stand in the way of our similarities.

The very first thing we have to agree on, that has to be similar, is what we are trying to do with these structures. We toss around terms like “politics” and “religion” as though we all know exactly what we are talking about and to what extent. But we need to know why the structures exist in the first place… we don’t seek out a religion or political party because we like the colors of the building (or at least we shouldn’t), we seek them out to fill needs within and outside ourself. At its most basic level, religion is an attempt to understand where we as individuals fit in the “grander scheme” of things. At its most basic level, politics is an attempt to understand where we as a society can move forward the “grander scheme” of things. The insistence of separating church and state has always seemed odd to me when clearly the one was little more than an outward, societal take on the other.

To summarize: with the intent of offering a better version of objectively broken modern US politics and religion, I am starting a new church and a new political party. These new structures will be intentionally built to focus on first working around, then eliminating these problems.