I’m not thinking about clothes. There are stretch fabrics which, like the skin with which we enter this world, expand as we do. But what about the things we put inside us? Do our stomachs effortlessly stretch to accommodate a third plate of food? Or should we harken to Lao Tzu’s words and be mindful of both what we put in and what comes out of our mouths?
However, this morning I’m not pondering either diet or careless talk. I’m thinking of what we put into our minds, and how easy it is to fill up on familiar ideas, as if they might protect us when the winds of emptiness rattle our windows. Are the visions that once inspired us still helping us adapt to a changing world? And for that to happen, do we too have to evolve?
How differently people respond to what is happening around them. In a world where agreement and collaboration have virtually shut down, the issues that are important for some are fake news for others. Whether it’s religious teachings, weather reports, or the daily news, where some see media manipulation, others see a profound failure of human responsibility.
Religions have traditionally provided an alternative to our society’s troubling realities, but we may wonder whether the ancient traditions need to be updated with insights about Nature, including human nature, that have been gained over subsequent centuries.
I recently purchased a book with the title, “The Short Stories of Jesus”. As I had hoped, it advocates meeting these old texts halfway, grounded in our present situation, but being open to how, two thousand years ago, society was different. For, if we only take into account our current concerns, these old stories can appear simple minded or even irrelevant.
What help can it be for us to read about things that don’t relate to the issues we face in our own lives? The parables in the New Testament, whether they are about trust (walking on the Sea of Galilee), making good use of what we have been given (the ten talents), or the wish to be welcomed home (the prodigal son), survive better for the modern mind than judgements about morality, which can seem arbitrary and unfriendly to our human aspiration for freedom; and a stingy view of the Creation. Even in the oldest teachings of Judaism, parables are a treasured teaching method. We are bound to miss a lot if we know nothing about the people to whom these teachings and reminders were addressed. However, even without much historical knowledge, old stories and parables still resonate if they look beyond the social environments that held sway, both then and now. I don’t have to be a shepherd watching his flock to feel a pang when one of them is lost.
It’s not just religious texts that can age and lose relevance as society moves on. It’s not just spiritual teachers who need to find new ways of conveying the messages of hope inscribed on old tablets. Without constant testing of old wisdom in the caldrons of new life, there will be false leaders who speak neither for the evolving human condition nor for the original revelation, which burst into the world like a meteor striking the earth.
Our minds and hearts need to stretch, so that the ways we participate in our own lives can grow; so that we can once more explore the great realms that await us beyond our small enclaves of timid certainty; so that we can notice that we are already flying above the marshes onto which our ancestors bravely stepped so long ago; and so that we can realize that precious time is on our side, no matter how painfully we totter on blunt fins that so often don’t seem well-designed for the journey we are on.