How do we talk about our common humanity? Our language for humanity matters, because our language can either be honoring or dishonoring. Our language can be precise or less-precise depending on which language we are using. This also makes a difference in how our holy scriptures are translated. Sometimes even the way we refer to our first parents can expose our implicit bias around equality among the genders or not. In the opening verses of the Hebrew scriptures we are introduced to the adam – the earthling – a genderless being we often assume in our English translations to be male and have named Adam, with a capitol A. But we need to remember that during the first moments of the life of the G-d- breathed Earthling – the adam – a play on the word adamah – which means the ground – the Earthling was without gender. G-d looked around the creation to see if the Earthling hits it off with any of the animals, to relate as equals, and finds none of them able to relate to the Earthling, and so G-d divides the Earthling into Adam and Eve – the ishah – woman – from the ish – the man. This is a picture – not the only picture, mind you – but it’s a picture of a world where humanity was made to be in connection. When our first ancestor – the Earthling – was alone, G-d made sure we could be in relationship.
Our first parents were created for relationship, and we were made to be in relationship. And just as families grow, we divided up into many parents, and many families, with many brothers and sisters. And, just as we miss some of the wordplays in the early chapters of Genesis, some of today’s translations of the Torah, Bible and Qu’ran, include all the people, women and men, and others still use 3rd person masculine when referring to all people. It’s sad, but some people read such translations and believe that it’s ok to treat women as 2nd class citizens, or not allow them to be religious leaders, even though there are other parts of our scriptures which insist on the equality of all people.
So, some of us are brothers and others are sisters, but what about that smallest minority of people – the 1 in 2000 who are born intersex or transgender? In the ancient world they were mostly known as Eunuchs, those who were made eunuchs after the Jewish exile to serve as bureaucrats in the Persian Empire. Isaiah 56 goes out of its way to say that these returning eunuchs were included in the family of God, and welcomed back to the temple as well. The new basis for who is welcome in the Temple doesn’t include bodily wholeness or who your parents are, but whether you keep the Sabbath and follow the laws of God. In Matthew 19, Jesus says that there are three types of eunuchs, those that are eunuchs from birth who have no desire to penetrate a woman, those who are made eunuchs at the hands of men – usually to become a trusted bureaucrat in the Emperor’s court – and those who are eunuchs by choice – those who take on a celibate life. In the ancient world, eunuch was also sometimes used as an umbrella term for what we call today gay men or transgender people.
Such people have often been ignored or vilified. But these are our children. No one is to blame that they are a part of the same diversity that is seen in the animal kingdom, in which over 450 species show gender diversity or sexual orientation diversity. What does such gender diversity mean as we read our sacred scriptures? Unfortunately, sometimes the politics of public restrooms is where their inclusion in our society gets meted out. As we saw with the North Carolina bathroom bill, bathrooms are where the gender binary often gets enforced. What we know about gender diversity has grown over the years, and now three states Massachusetts, Oregon and California allow people to identify as a third gender. And so we have some work to do to make the world a more inclusive place, with space for the intersex and transgender communities.
You may not know this, but nature is pretty creative when it comes to procreation. Did you know the clown fish is unique, in that if the school of fish they belong to loses all of its male members, the largest female will change their gender to allow the school of fish to continue to procreate.
In cultures around the world Transgender people have been celebrated and seen as shaman and spiritual leaders since they can communicate between this world and the spirit world. In some Native American and traditional cultures around the world, their languages include three genders to include what we would call intersex or transgender people. In the Mohave and Navajo cultures, there have been four genders, and the tribe would dress their children androgynously until a certain age at which time they would watch them and what kind of toys they played with, and they would live out their lives in that way. Men and women, and women living out male roles and men living out female roles. Many native peoples today use the Lakota term 2-spirit people for those who are not either male or female, and there has been marriage between people of all gender identities for generations.
Just like there is a spectrum of gender identities between maleness and femaleness, there is a spectrum of sexual orientations between heterosexuality and homosexuality. It’s been amazing to see the shift going on in our culture, increasingly accepting Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual people and the families that they are creating. That the Boy Scouts made the national decision to welcome out Gay scouters is a very significant move. Scouts can now keep the Scout oath, and be fully honest about who they are without fear of getting kicked out of their troops – or at least be able to find troops nearby that will welcome them.
We all create families in our own ways, and there is a growing freedom for everyone to define what is family for them. Much within our culture and language attempts to enforce that gender binary. There was even a time that our educational system tried to enforce right-handedness. But we are learning that the human species contains a great amount of diversity. It’s hard to talk about just brothers and sisters when more and more of our siblings are coming out and talking about their life experience as someone who was born with ambiguous genitalia and have claimed an intersex identity, or those transgender folks who feel like they were born in a body of the wrong gender for how they see themselves. We have also seen so many celebrities show us that love is love, regardless of the gender of the people they are attracted to, but we are now seeing professional athletes and religious leaders coming out as Gay or Lesbian or Bisexual and as supporters. We don’t live in a black and white world any longer as the world is displaying multiple shades of grey – not only about what we know about humans, but also what we know about the animal kingdom.
Over the last 100 years we have learned much about human evolution and the history of our planet. We have learned about the migration patterns of early humans around the world based on the mitochondrial DNA of the different cultures and peoples of the world. Our knowledge about genetics has helped us realize that even the differences between humans are so small that it questions the very use of the word “Race.” We have more in common with each other: Caucasians, Africans, Asians, and Aborigines than we have differences. And, scientists say that there is greater human genetic diversity within the continent of Africa than anywhere else on earth – perhaps since that is where early hominoids first evolved and as groups left they had less genetic diversity to share.
The other thing we have learned is how long ago hominoids separated from the other great apes. As we discovered how older species evolved into mammals and birds, we also saw that we were related to the rest of the animal kingdom. We have 98% of the same genes as chimpanzees, and yet our common ancestors separated over 6 million years ago. We have been amazed at some of the abilities that Chimpanzees have been able to learn, but we have also recognized the limits of their ability to learn because their brains just haven’t evolved as ours have.
So, if the Universe is 13.87 Billions years old – since the Big Bang or the Big Bounce from the conflation of a previous universe – and the earth was the product of a collision of two planets 4.5 Billion years ago that reignited the earth’s mantle and created our moon – we are a natural part of a Universe that has been conspiring on our behalf – to bring human consciousness to fruition for all that time. If we know that our bodies are 93% stardust, can we tell if the carbon stardust that is in our left hand came from the same star as the carbon stardust that is in our right hand? We are made of the same stuff, and Therefore, we as a species belong to each other – and to every other living being on the planet.
What are the Interfaith theological implications of this knowledge?
The first is that yes, in fact, we belong to each other. We are all a part of the same web of life. If even the very atoms and particles and magnetic fields of our bodies are interrelated, and as far as we know we are the only sentient beings in our relatively young Universe, then we are the Universe itself conscious of itself. Despite the fact that our philosophies, religions and languages constantly remind us that we are autonomous individuals, we need to remind ourselves that we are interconnected with every other part of the Universe. Our actions and beliefs matter.
As E.O. Wilson has noted in his book “The Social Conquest of Earth,” it was the cooperation of tribalism and the campfire that allowed early humans to evolve into communities that cared for infants and the aging in order to expand the opportunity for survival against outside threats. We weren’t individuals fighting off snakes in the trees any longer. It was the move to the savannah that allowed us to become communities. But here’s the rub, over the last 10,000 years we’ve been expanding the tribalism that has served us so well into villages, towns, cities, city-states, bio-regions, states, and nations. And for the last 100 years we have been experimenting with allowing multi-national cooperative states, like the U.N. and NATO and the European Union and the African Union to attempt to work cooperatively for the benefit of their regions and continents.
But at the same time, multi-national corporations and banking interests have risen with the strength to divide and conquer the needs and desires of these other cooperative bodies. So first, will we be able to evolve out of our tribalism – both our religious tribalism and our other tribalisms writ large in national, cultural and linguistic circles? Because if we aren’t able to do so, we won’t be able to break down the tribes and competing factions necessary to survive on a planet with declining resources.
I’ve mentioned some of the Christian Scriptures that lend themselves to this impulse. I would also add Micah 6:8
8 God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
And as the Koran says in Sura 29:46
“And argue not with the People of the Book unless it be in a way that is better, save with such of them as do wrong; and say we believe in that which has been revealed to us and to you; and our God and your God is one and unto Him we submit” (Quran 29:46).
It is also consistent with the first two points of the 8 points of Progressive Christianity:
By calling ourselves progressive, we mean that we are
1 Have found an approach to God through the life and teachings of Jesus,
2 Recognize the faithfulness of other people who have other names for the way to God’s realm, and acknowledge that their ways are true for them, as our ways are true for us,
As Robb Smith, co-founder of Chrysallis and Integral life said in his TED Talk “The Transformational Life:
“The invitation was sent 14 billion years ago … it says “Congratulations, you are the first self-aware species in the known universe who is interconnected to every other member of its species on a single planetary biosphere….” [We are invited] to move beyond a scared sense of self … beyond egonomics … and relate to each other [of the 7 billion] empathically.”1
It’s a huge step for some, but essential for moving toward a Siblinghood of all people.
Second, there is a great diversity within all of life – and that is a good thing and we should encourage that. In fact, we should expect diversity, of thought, of religious expression, of cultural habits, of philosophical persuasions and commitments.
Sura 49:13 of the Koran says,
“O humankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, has long talked about Ubuntu – the South African saying of “I Am Because We Are.” And that’s true for people of every ability or diffability. In an article about his new book “God is not a Christian,” says:
“Our diversity is beautiful – it would be so terribly boring if we were all the same! Conformity is stoked by fear of not being loved, and an expression of a need to belong. Let’s love each other – warts and all. Let’s dare to be beautiful in our own truth – and still belong. Unselfish self-assurance, compassion, an inner knowing that our humanity is caught up in one another’s, that
1 (cobbled from his February “The Transformational Life” TEDx presentation on YouTube)
we are inexorably diminished when others are humiliated, oppressed or treated as if they were of less worth than us – these are some of the inner qualities that will save us as a human race….
Peace, prosperity and justice – we can have them all if we work together. There is no ‘us’ or ‘them’. God is not a Christian but neither is S(he) an adherent of any other religion because no religion has monopoly on God. All major religions have love and compassion at their core, they promote tolerance not violence and hate, and most have their own version of the Golden Rule – treat others as you wish to be treated. They all recognise that human happiness ultimately comes from our relationship with each other.
In truth there are no outsiders, no enemies – unless we put them there in our minds. Black and white, rich and poor, man and woman, gay and straight, Jew and Arab, Muslim and Christian, Hindu and Buddhist, Hutu and Tutsi, Pakistani and Indian, – all belong. When we start to live as brothers and sisters and to recognise our interdependence, we become fully human….
Let’s make our humanness our way of life. Like when we pass the homeless and take time to look them in the eye and talk. When we meet the mother suffering from AIDS and are not afraid to take her hand and wipe her tears. When we remember that no one is a refugee by choice. When we hear of awful offences and never forget that inside there is goodness in everyone and that we have not walked in their shoes. When we do not judge or label others too hurriedly – because as the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard said “when you label me you negate me.” When we relate as human beings despite our differences, recognizing that ultimately we all want the same thing – happiness.”2
We have seen this in the person of Malala Yousafzai, the 15 year old Pakistani girl who has stood up to those who would scare her and other girls away from their right to an education. She has said,
“God has given me this new life, a second life. And I want to serve the people. I want every girl, every child, to be educated.”
“I don’t mind if I have to sit on the floor at school. All I want is education. And I’m afraid of no one.”
“I think of it often and imagine the scene clearly. Even if they come to kill me, I will tell them what they are trying to do is wrong, that education is our basic right.”
Christian mystic Henri J.M. Nouwen said it this way:
“In a world so torn apart by rivalry, anger, and hatred, we have the privileged vocation to be living signs of a love that can bridge all divisions and heal all wounds.”
And the last theme I will leave with you tonight is that there is room for us to evolve further into the future – and we do so not just for ourselves but so that we can help God evolve into the future with us. If we are the Universe conscious of itself after 13.87 Billion years, then God needs us to evolve our consciousness so that the very concept of God can evolve out of the archaic, magical, mythic, rational, and postmodern conceptions into a new cosmology that matches the best of what we know scientifically with the best of what we know spiritually. We need to reclaim the ancient practices of each of our traditions – of meditation and yoga, of centering prayer and labyrinth walking, of reconnecting with nature through pan-psychic prayer and better eating and weight training. Every approach has some truth that brings about full human flourishing.
In the words the Jewish Phenomenologist Martin Buber – every practice trains us how to approach each and every part of the Universe as a holy Thou – rather than an it. As we train ourselves to meet each part of the Universe as a holy Thou – rather than an object we can use – then we are truly living.