In the introduction to his book, Lifecraft, Forrest Church attempts to talk about how human beings make meaning out of the swirling chaos of the everyday
What if the Hokey Pokey Really is What Itís All About?
Rev. Nancy McDonald Ladd
River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation
November 24, 2013
"What if the hokey-pokey really is what itís all about?" There's the eternal question, right? And I wish I had come up with it myself, just like I wish Iíd come up with the current internet meme, which says, "I was addicted to the Hokey Pokey but I turned myself around." Alas, however, not my work.
I first encountered this particular eternal question, "What if the hokey-pokey really is what itís all about?" in the form of a t-shirt that my Dad bought me for Christmas. T-shirts, as ever, are a source of deep philosophy. So let me ask it again, let it work on you. What if the hokey pokey really is what itís all about?
For most of the span of human imagination, people have been asking the big, impossible questions. A lot of ink has been spilled on such things as, "What is the meaning of life?" "Is there a God?" And, of course, the ever-classic, "Am I really here or is this actually an elaborate Inception-style dream and I only think Iím here." Philosophers across the ages have made very small amounts of money asking such questions, all in an attempt to decide just what exactly this thing called human living is all about.
To some degree, each thinking person is and can be a philosopher. Many of us strive to be thought of as deep individuals, culminating in the bright occasion when our smartest friend looks at us over the top glass of Trader Joeís finest vintage and says, "Wow, I didnít know you were so deep."
But none pursues depth more resolutely, more earnestly, than the true professional philosophers among us, who spend entire lifetimes in contemplation of the ultimate. Undergraduates at liberal arts colleges and seminarians are typically the primary recipients of all their great work. And yet, as sometimes futile as all these human attempts to understand the meaning of our lives might be, we cannot stop from asking the questions. We canít stop asking why. We canít stop wondering what the most important thing we are here to do or see or appreciate or change really is. New generations of deep thinkers will continue to make very small amounts of money at that good work of great questions, and we, in the midst of our daily lives, will from time to time have the luxury to ask those questions too.
What is itÖ human lifeÖ the whole ball of wax if you will, what is it about? Some folks have been brave and arrogant enough to come up with answers, unproven ones that sometimes overlap and sometimes directly contradict each other, but which uniformly have the power to give meaning to our lives. In our time together today, I offer up some of those answers drawn from the standard philosophical cannon of the Western world. Most of these answers are just that Ė Western, historical, traditional, and of course they but scratch the surface of the varied approaches one might take to the great question. Feminist, liberationist, anti-oppressive, Eastern and new-age approaches fit in too, but just for today, weíll turn to the intellectual cannon from which our own Unitarian Universalism had its origins and weíll see where it takes us.
See where these answers to the ancient questions speak to you, and see where they don't.
What is it all about?
First answer... Itís all about the Spiritual World.
By the spiritual world, I mean a world of existence that is beyond this, the everyday, the tangible, the present. I mean a world somehow better than this one, or perhaps only more pure - a world where truth is spelled with a capital T and all of the moral questions and unfair paradoxes of human living are resolved. You know that world. Our dominant culture calls it heaven, Godís kingdom, the promised land, the place where all of the ideals that we can conceive of but never quite realize actually exist.
If itís all about reaching or coming to know the spiritual world, the horrible failings of this world are relatively inconsequential. Today we are blinded by change and corruption and ego, but in the spiritual reality, we might see clearly for the first time. Certainly a few for whom the spiritual world is the answer do see a great castle in the sky, maybe even pearly gates, but most see something more refined, a perspective championed early on by that great Pagan named Plato.
In his work, The Republic, Plato repeated the age-old observation that in our world, everything is in constant motion. All things flow. Nothing is static. Plato was primarily concerned with knowledge, but he wanted to know things for what they were, not for what they were becoming. Even this pulpit, he would say, is "in the process of becoming something else - a pile of old wood? A tree-house? Ashes? Nothing in this world could hold still long enough for him to study it. In addition to physical things like this pulpit, the same was true for concepts, most notably, the concept of GOOD. What is good? In every situation, the good is not only difficult to find but it is also always changing.
Not willing to give up the idea that both real unmovable good and real unmovable truth existed, Plato hypothesized that somewhere, somehow, there existed a world where things were not relative, a world of absolute truth, as he called it, a world of FORMS, which human beings could have access to with enough study and preparation. The point of it all, to him, was to acquire knowledge of the forms, to know even some tiny something, about that which does not change, about a spiritual world beyond this one.
The desire to have something that stays put, something that is not only real but is also truly ultimate, whether it is truth or goodness or morality, leads us to yet another answer to what itís all about. Namely...
Itís All About God
In the 11th century, St. Anselm of Canterbury set out to show that the existence of God could be proven by reason alone. That is, by a priori, or analytic premises, without the aid of observation of the world. Essentially, he wanted to show that he could think his way to God. The fancy word for this is an ontological argument for the existence of God, and Anselm isnít the only one to make it.
Another major proponent of this point of view is Renee Descartes. Most of us probably know the time-honored Cartesian phrase, "I think therefore I am." Well, after an amazingly long and confusing bunch of intellectual meandering, Descartes eventually got around to also believing something like, "I can think of God, so God must exist." He wrote, "I recognize that it would be impossible for me to exist with the kind of nature I have - that is, having within me the idea of God - were it not the case that God really existed." So, this system says that itís all about God because God is the highest, most perfect thing that the human mind can conceive of. In this way, God is what itís all about on purely intellectual terms. Itís the culmination of human thinking. Itís what we were made to think about.
But if God is the answer, if it is all about God, if everything we do has its beginnings and endings in her, there is much more riding on those divine shoulders than our intellects. Friedrich Schleiermacher, whose friends, I have on good authority, called him "Schlie," wrote that religion and faith in God are not founded on knowledge but on feeling.
Piety, he said, is not the same as knowledge, and you donít believe in something because you can prove it, but because in your very being you feel it to be true. Schlie famously said that religion was grounded in an innate "sense of dependence." In this way, belief in God is generated from the feeling inside of each person that says, "I am not alone in all of this." God is what itís all about because we are grateful for all that surrounds us and we know we didnít create it. God is what itís all about for those who see a system at work, who feel a system at work, who move about with an abiding sense of support from an entity whose essence is love. But abiding support does not come for everyone from any kind of beyond.
Third Answer: Itís All About Each Other
Immanuel Kant taught that the highest good any person could achieve was "virtue crowned with happiness," which was no easy task. The only thing that mattered about human living to him was the chance to act in keeping with one true and eternal moral law that is inherent in each of us whether we feel like upholding it or not.
Itís all about behaving with decency and love. In his system, God cannot make those moral choices for us. All we can do, the best we can do, is turn toward our own conscience, looking for the real truth that exists within. Happiness is found by trying, and life is made meaningful by the continual effort each of us makes to better ourselves and each other.
If itís all about each other, all of this deep thinking and careful reasoning is totally useless unless we find ways to act out our best selves in the context our relationships. We are social creatures. We want to be loved, to love in return. Only in giving and in getting that love do we find real inspiration.
To know another person, to act decently toward them not because you expect a reward but because itís the right thing to do. This, according to some, is most definitely what itís all about. But human beings are not the sum total of creation, which leads us to yet another answer.
Fourth Answer: Itís All About the Natural World
The study and practice of natural theology is nowhere more prominent than in our own tradition, among the Unitarian thinkers and writers who called themselves transcendentalists and hung out in Ralph Waldo Emersonís study talking about how God and truth and beauty all exist in an oak tree. In the wake of Darwinís earth-shaking discoveries, Ralph Waldo Emerson and his intellectual companions found that nature was the connection to the ultimate.
Later, this natural theology made its way into poetry in Walt Whitmanís leaves of grass, in which he recounts how his "tonge, every atom of my blood," is "formíd from this soil, this air," and the natural world is the parent of us all, the long leaves of the summer grass like the hair of the young dead men who have gone before and been subsumed again to the whole.
To those writers, and to many of us, it is all about the careful and awestruck observance of nature at work. There is no shortage of awe to be found when the natural world is seen as the ultimate meaning in human life. Through science, Albert Einstein sought to know, "what the old one thinks." He spoke of gravity as that unseen force that holds the universe together, and he explained with the theory of relativity that nothing can be shown to move except in relation to another body.
But we are not all gardeners or scientists or physicists. Neither do we all uniformly find nourishment and meaning from God or the spiritual world or the reaching lights of the almost-infinite galaxies. So, what is it all about? I have one more thought, which no famous author has ever supported but which I believe has nearly as much philosophical grounding as the rest of them.
Answer Number Five: The Hokey Pokey is What itís All About.
You put your right arm in, your put your right arm out, you put your right arm in and you shake it all about. Thatís deep stuff. The chance to laugh and wiggle and behave like a goofball in the midst of a circle of friends, each of them doing exactly the same thing. The hokey pokey is a dance that takes no thinking, no learning, no deep contemplative prayer to accomplish. Itís a movement that requires the mover to absolutely stop worrying about the mortgage or the dent in the car or the heat in the room. You canít be all uptight when youíre shaking it all about, can you? And you canít do the hokey pokey by yourself. Try it. It just doesnít work.
No, the hokey pokey is pure, unadulterated fun, and what else could human existence possibly be about but the enjoyment of being alive, the freedom of walking lightly on this earth, the joy of letting go of your own ego and fear long enough to laugh out loud. What if the hokey pokey really is what itís all about? What if great philosophical ultimates take a back seat to this very moment? What if all the theories of every wise old thinker who ever lived pale in comparison to every last moment in which we freely allow ourselves to inhabit these bodies in community, without fear or shame or attachment to our hard-fought stories of sorrow?
What if the thing that makes life worth living is the fact that weíre alive and we can dance and laugh and shake and cry. We can do all of those things in the company of God or each other or heaven or mother nature herself, and we can do them without knowing or even really caring weather or not we have achieved Truth with a capital T.
There is truth not only in our thinking, but in our being, not only in our reasoning, but in our feeling, not only in our problem-solving, but in our dancing. There is truth not only in our beliefs, but in our experience. And trusting in that as a bold and as spiritually grounding as any endeavor we are capable of.
In the end, not one of those people mentioned above came up with an answer that works for us all. Not only are our lives different, but the things that make them worth living are different. I would not for the world try to convince you that what makes my life meaningful is what should work in yours, but I will keep asking for myself, and I hope you might do the same. Your great inspirations may very likely be things that have nothing to do with any category that I or anyone else could ever name, but they are there nonetheless. Life is worth living, full of meaning for the taking. As my colleague Kendra Ford once wrote, "I love my skin and all it contains until the rain falls through it. And Iíll love it then, if I may." May we love life, even if we canít say why. May each of us celebrate that which gives us meaning, and may we remember, when weíre lost in thought or rationalizing our way through yet another day, stuck in the middle of our muddling through - that the Hokey Pokey might just actually be what itís all about, and that might just be perfect.