Pathfinding: A Non-Theist Homily

A laser guide star setup by ESO (European Southern Observatory)

For short periods of time, telescopes, ships, aircraft, even spacecraft can navigate using their internal clocks and gyroscopes. But eventually they begin to stray from their intended course and must reconnect to the real external world to align with landmarks or a guide star.

People are just the opposite. When we repeatedly orient ourselves to external pressures of society -- in demands from jobs, family, religions, nationalism, etc. -- we begin to lose our way. It is when we return to our inner compass that we regain our course.

The modern slang term is "centered." Everyone speaks of "being centered" because it reaches deep into our experience of our inner self. We all know our center is in there... somewhere. My non-theist concept of god starts with Quaker Thomas Kelly's "A Testament of Devotion," where he said: "Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul..."

Jesus explained: "The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eye is single [focused], your whole body will be full of light." Sounds like the Yoga, Hindu or Buddhist "inner sound" doesn't it? certainly like the Quakers', or Muslim or Jewish "Inner Light" or also the "still small voice" found in Judaism -- or Jesus' "Kingdom of Heaven." As an atheist, I have to work through the terminology, but after a while, I understand -- and agree.

Some call the inner compass god. To me it is the opposite -- the escape from gods -- the gods of money, of posture in society, of religion, nationalism, greed and violence. Society has created about 4,000 gods so far. I think we need fewer gods, not more. Zero is a good number. Gods are idols -- all those things society and its institutions would impose from outside and sell to us with a little money, a little sex, some fancy things, a shiny car, a little praise... each taking a little bite out of us -- until our heart is completely gone. Jesus explained further: "What do you gain if you own the whole world but paid for it with your own heart?"

And Wordsworth said it too:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

When we become inner directed, we can navigate more steadily through life's storms and society's bribes. Once we are centered, we feel balanced, and it becomes harder to throw us off balance. We are strong enough to stay on our own course. Once we have our own center, we can also recognize the center in others. Some find this recognition in the Eastern greeting Namasté, meaning I recognize the light within you.

So now this last step within, is actually our first step out -- out to freedom, out to a new life setting our own course by using our inner compass and focusing. But cutting those umbilical cords, letting go of the last gods, crutches and idols, is not easy. Are we ready spread our wings? Let go? Jump out of our childhood nest? It is a big jump -- to fly or crash on our own.

It reminds me of when my father taught me to ride a bike and horse or first handed me the car keys and told me to drive. And so, trusting him, shaky at first, I began to pedal, and I took the reins. And later I began to drive, cautiously. But then I set the course. The further I went, the steadier I became. And then one day I noticed that he was not guiding the bike any more - I was.

Others, trailblazers from the past, have handed us the keys before: from religion -- Jesus, Siddhartha, Rumi; and from science -- Galileo, Copernicus, Newton; and also in the present: from religion once again: Gandhi, Martin, Mandela, Abp Romero, Dorothy Day, Dalai Lama; and science: Einstein, Feynman, Sagan, Shannon, Dawkins, Hubble, Higgs, Drexler; ... the list goes on, you see, and into music, literature and all of human activity.

A friend of mine sometimes jokes when I make trouble in church or society: "Somebody left your cage unlocked again?" I understand and laugh but there is a lot of truth there, isn't there? Let's use that metaphor some more: As I look back, I realize that my father first unlocked my cage when he handed me those keys and told me to drive. I also realize that Jesus too unlocked my cage, teaching that love and care trump wealth and religion. I realized further that Einstein unlocked my cage when he talked of religion as childish. And Carl Sagan unlocked my cage teaching about science and superstition, and on and on, to many more I see as I look back.

So who first unlocked your cage? Who came immediately to your mind when I asked that? A parent, a friend, a teacher? Did you respond or get scared? Of course you knew, once you get out of your cage, you will be criticized as all these trailblazers were before, and labeled traitor, impious atheists, ungrateful, crazy, or as they call me: yet another meddlesome priest, etc. But when an old atheist like me is lumped in with men of integrity like Becket and Romero, I consider it high although undeserved praise. Suddenly we look around, and find those called godly: Jesus, Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day, Martin and those called godless: Einstein, Dawkins, Asimov, even me -- all of us following our inner light. I am reminded of what Emerson said:

Do not go where the path may lead,
go instead where there is no path
and leave a trail.

These trailblazers before left paths for us. You can make a new path too. Just unlock your cage and follow your inner compass. As Jesus said: "Seek and you will find." I extend that and say:
What you seek is what you will find.

Or as Ella Wheeler Wilcox said in her poem -- THE WINDS OF FATE:

One ship drives east and another drives west,

With the selfsame winds that blow;

'Tis the set of the sails

And not the gales

That tell them the way to go.

Like the winds of the sea are the winds of fate,

As we voyage along through life;

'Tis the set of the soul

That decides its goal

And not the calm or the strife.

Deep Peace of the Shining Stars to You - Fr. Gareth Scott Harris -