What Kind of World

Perhaps far away and perhaps very near to this place, there is a wise woman who lives at the edge of a city. Early one morning the woman greets a traveler who asks her what the people who live in her city are like. 

She responds with a question: “What are the people like where you come from?”

“The people where I come from are greedy and mean, boring and arrogant. Whenever two of us get together it usually ends in a quarrel. That is why I left.”

The woman shakes her head and sighs: “I'm afraid you will find people here much the same way.”

Later in the day the woman receives another traveller who asks her the same question: “What are the people like in your city?”

“What are the people like where you come from?”

“Oh, the people where I come from are wonderful. They are generous and energetic, and never do two or three of us get together, but the joy we feel at being in each others presence is multiplied and overflows into some form of music making or poetry, dance and laughter.”

The wise woman smiles and says, “You will find that people here are much the same way.”

What kind of place is this?  What kind of world is this?

In that wonderful unique voice of his, Louis Armstrong sings “What a wonderful world.”  He paints a picture of a world of tall trees and flowers and blue skies. In his world, people of every colour of the rainbow speak to one another with love.  Babies grow up happy and have the opportunity to learn and grow in this wonderful, wonderful world.

We have all seen this wonderful world – perhaps only in brief glimpses – but we know it is there. We know it when someone acts with more kindness and love than we could have imagined. It is present when beauty appears - in the natural world or through the miraculous creativity of human minds and hands. We see it in the innocent tenderness of every newborn baby. 

What kind of world is this?  The news tells us a very different story.  What kind of world is this where horrific cruelty is perpetrated by human beings on their brothers and sisters every day? What kind of world is this where mammoth waves and earthquakes and fires kill tens or hundreds of thousands in the blink of an eye?  What kind of world is this where so many lack the chance to grow and learn free from fear and oppression?

We know full well that this world contains all the extremes of kindness and cruelty, beauty and ugliness, growth and death.  Earth is that fertile home of abundant life and joy where beauty springs up in the most unexpected places.  It is also the place of horrors where creature kills creature and where pain and suffering are daily realities.

What kind of world is this and how are we to live in it? Can we walk with trust and openness – confident of a benevolent creation – or must we shelter ourselves against a hostile universe. 

Human beings have wrestled with life’s contrasts and contradictions as long as we have been able to form words and symbols to represent happiness and suffering.  For millennia, people have turned to religion for answers.  They turned to religion for a way to understand why there is suffering. They turned to religion to find hope in a world that includes illness, pain, cruelty, and death.  

Religions offer their answers. Some religions teach of an all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing God – a God who guarantees a wonderful world for those that are worthy of it. There is hope, they tell us, for if we live by God’s law, if we live right, if we worship properly, if we hold the right beliefs, we will be freed from suffering.  It may happen in this life or in the next or in some heavenly realm, but – they tell us – righteous behaviour and correct belief will earn us peace, wholeness, and happiness.  Conversely, if we are suffering, it is only the punishment we have earned for what we have done wrong.

Such teachings run into one enormous obstacle: the suffering of the innocent. Sure, for any adult, you can come up with any number of wrongdoings that might – at least to some – be justification for divine punishment. But what can explain the suffering of children?  What horrible sin has a newborn baby or a young child committed that makes it deserving of suffering.

Apologists tend to say “God is testing you” or “we humans can not begin to understand God’s reasons.”  Presumably, suffering is somehow good for us or good for the world.  I can not bring myself to believe that an all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing God could cause or even allow a child to be starved or murdered – and these things have happened and do happen in this world. 
Hinduism and Buddhism, teach that each person proceeds through countless cycles of death and rebirth. Again, our suffering is a result of our misdeeds, but it might be the result of our misdeeds in a previous incarnation. 
Buddhism and Hinduism teach ways to escape this cycle of rebirth and thus to escape suffering. Once again, the means are available to us to evade suffering if only we follow the right teachings.  

Each of these religions, the Western and the Eastern, tell of a world that includes suffering but offer a way out – either through the supernatural intervention of God or the use of special practices that will provide an escape to the cycle of death and rebirth. They tell of a world where there are supernatural paths to happiness and away from suffering. They tell of a word where there is an underlying structure of mercy and justice.

But what if we begin to conclude that the universe is indifferent?  What if it is not just? What if there is no one up there watching out for us?
The reaction of many to such thoughts is to turn to individualism and selfishness – to embrace a worship of the material world. “If no one is watching out for us” the thinking goes, “I’m darned well going to look out for myself.  I’ll get whatever I can get, regardless of what it does to anyone else.”

Sadly, I don’t think any of us will find this attitude unfamiliar. It has grown and sometimes seems to pervade our society today.

And where the focus on individuality meets the human need for hope and wholeness, another kind of spirituality has become popular. It is the notion that we can create our own reality with our thoughts. There are self-styled teachers of spirituality out there who will tell you that, through their special system, whatever you believe can come true. They offer workshops that purport to help you attain prosperity by believing or saying the right things. They say that you can get the job you want, the beautiful or handsome partner you dream of, all the money you’d like, and lose a few stone while you’re at it – all because you follow the programme - and of course pay the often hefty cost of admission! 

The essence of spirituality has always been connection – yet these gurus of greed reinforce individualism and selfishness. And what is worse… An implication of these teachings – sometimes stated explicitly –is that anything that happens to you is your own fault. If you can create your own reality, then you brought upon yourself your abuse, your divorce, your cancer, or your grief.

But I speak of this distorted spirituality because deep within its exaggerations and distortions, there is a precious kernel of truth. We do possess the power to remake reality – not for ourselves directly, but for each other and for the world we live in.

You have seen it happen yourself. There have been days when you woke up to the blaring of your alarm clock – weary – dreading what you needed to do and where you needed to go. You left home with a grimace on your face – a thorn in your spirit. “What are the people like where you come from?”  Everyone you met that day was surly and cross. No one offered a seat or said a kind word. The bus driver saw you coming and wouldn’t wait. 

On a very different day, you woke up gently to the sounds of a bird singing sweetly by your window. You left with a smile. “What are the people like where you come from?” You went on your way, and miracle of miracles, London was chock full of nice, helpful, happy people that day! It’s not just the way you saw things, it was also the way you affected the world and the people in it.

In this diverse assemblage will all have different understandings and beliefs about God and I hope you will share your views with me and with each other.  For me, God does not change the world around us. God does not bring or stop floods or fires or earthquakes.  God does not cause us to be ill or reach down to heal us. God does not slam airplanes to the ground or hold them in the air. God does not choose who will live and who will die.

But God is there. 
God is there in the goodness that we draw upon when we are kind.  
God is there in the love we offer to our fellow human beings. 
God is there in the care we have for all living things. 
God is there in our muscles and tendons when we reach out to comfort someone who is suffering.  
God is there when we use our gifts to make a better world.

Let us not wait for God to make the earth a heaven – let us know that this miracle lies in our own hands – hands that, endowed with the sacred force of love – can make this truly “a wonderful world.”

May it be so.