Shuck and Jive

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Solar Living: A Sermon

Solar Living
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton Tennessee
July 17, 2011

“Red Letter Sayings: Ecclesiastes and Jesus”

Cast your bread upon the surface of the waters,
Because after many days you will get a return.

Don’t react violently against the one who is evil: when
someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other as well.
When someone wants to sue you for your shirt, let that person
have your coat along with it. Further, when anyone conscripts
you for one mile, go an extra mile. Give to the one who begs
from you.

Light is sweet.
It’s a joy for the eyes to see the sun.

Congratulations, you poor!
God’s domain belongs to you.

So if a man lives for many years,
Let him rejoice in every one of them.

Congratulations, you hungry!
You will have a feast.

Be happy, young one, while you are young,
And let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth.

Congratulations, you who weep now!
You will laugh.

Therefore banish anxiety from your heart
And cast off the troubles of your body,
For youth and its early vigour are short-lived.

Do not fret, from morning to evening and from evening to
morning, about your food—what you’re going to eat, or about
your clothing--what you are going to wear. You’re much
better than the lilies, which neither card nor spin.

Translations of Ecclesiastes by Lloyd Geering, Such Is Life (Santa Rosa: Polebridge, 2010) and of Jesus sayings by Jesus Seminar’s Scholars’ Version. Ecclesiastes 11:1; Matthew 5:39-42; Ecclesiastes 11:7; Luke 6:20; Ecclesiastes 11:8a; Luke 6:21a; Ecclesiastes 11:9; Luke 6:21b; Ecclesiastes 11:10; Thomas 36:1-2

One of the more interesting philosophers of our era is someone hardly anyone knows. He has written over 30 books, some of them published by Polebridge Press, the publishing company of the Jesus Seminar. Don Cupitt taught at Cambridge in the United Kingdom and was an Anglican priest and has moved on and beyond the Church of England.

His books, especially his more recent ones published by Polebridge, are accessible. They are not technical. They are written for non-specialists who have interest in religious philosophy at a popular and practical level. The sources for his philosophy are the things that people say and the concerns people talk about. It is the philosophy of ordinary speech.

For instance, in his book, Life, Life, Don Cupitt writes about various expressions people use involving the word, “life”.
Such is life.
That’s life.
Life is what you make it.
Life is short.
Life is good.
Life sucks.
Life is what it is.
Life’s a beach.
Live your life.
He found 100s of them. His thesis is that the word “life” and what it signifies has in popular language replaced the word “God”. For the most part, people, even those people for whom God is part of our language, will talk about life more than God. He isn’t making a value judgment on that. He is neither praising nor condemning this, he is simply observing that we in the West have been changing over the centuries. Our concern has slowly been shifting from God and from supernatural things to ordinary things, the stuff of life.

Ours is a religion of ordinary life.

This is what Cupitt has observed as both a philosopher and cultural historian of the West and in his own personal development. When I first heard him speak at a Jesus Seminar conference a few years ago, I found him to be disconcerting and I resisted what he was saying. Then I decided to go ahead and take the plunge.

Religion can be viewed on a spectrum or maybe a spiral with two poles, truth and comfort. Religion sometimes calls us to an unvarnished search for truth. Yet on the other hand, religion also promises comfort and mechanisms to cope. Comfort and truth are not necessarily the same.

When we lived in New York State our kids played with the boy across the street. John was his name. He was a bright kid. He is a bright man. I think he is now a graduate of Tufts University. The story his mother told us is that another little girl I think it was, was talking to John.

They are all around eight, nine, ten at the time. His mother is overhearing. The little girl is sad. She says,
“My grandmother died.”
John, shrugs and says,
“Yeah, well we all die. I’ll die. You’ll die. Everybody dies.”
That is true. Not sure whether or not that is comforting.

Religion has this pull and push, this dance between truth and comfort. It promises two things.
“Come for the truth.”
“Come for comfort.”
Ministers are always, if they have any sensitivity at all, dancing within this tension between truth and comfort. Many ministers for various reasons try to have both and pretend that their comforting fantasies are the truth. These are the ones you eventually read about in the news: minister snaps and is found jogging naked through the public park.

I didn’t find Don Cupitt comforting when I heard him speak. But I did find him truthful. So I thought I ought to read him. This can be said for the work of the Jesus Seminar itself. But the thing about comfort is that it shifts. After a while if we know something isn’t true, it loses its ability to comfort no matter how hard we try to hold on to it. So you might as well go with what you think is true and see what happens.

Anyway, I read a number of his books and found him to be saying many things that do ring true for me. And surprisingly, some of these things have turned out to be oddly comforting.

In particular, I like his concept and practical advice that he calls “solar living”.

I connect solar living to the via positiva in Creation Spirituality, the spiritual path of awe and wonder. Yet solar living is also connected to the via negativa the path of letting go and letting be. I also find that solar living resonates with the philosophy of the historical Jesus as I understand him.

Solar living to use Cupitt’s language means that we “pour ourselves out as the sun.”

The sun simply pours out its radiance. It has done so for billions of years and will do so for billions more until it pours itself out and is no more. As far as we know, it has no regrets or anxiety about it. It has no desire, as far as we know, to pour out forever, even as it will pour out for a very long time.

We, like the sun and because of the sun, have lives to pour out. Cupitt writes from his 27 statements of his religion of ordinary life:
By faith, and without any qualification or restriction, I should let life well up in me and pour itself out into symbolic expression through me. Thus I 'get myself together': we become ourselves by expressing ourselves.
But the thing we know about life is that it is short and it is transient. Cupitt calls solar living, “creative living by dying.” We die every day. We cannot cling to what we pour out. We cannot hold on, but are constantly letting go. Cupitt writes:
In solar living I live by dying because I am passing away all the time. In my symbolic expression I get myself together, but as I do so I must instantly pass on and leave that self behind. I must not be attached to my own life, nor to my own products, or expressed selves. My self, and all my loves, must be continuously let go of and continuously renewed. Dying therefore no longer has any terrors for me, because I have made a way of life out of it.
There is no need to build memorials for ourselves or to navel gaze or to compare our products to another’s products. All is transient. All burns and burns out.

Now we fight this. We resist this. We think that
  • if it doesn’t last forever,
  • if “I” don’t continue,
  • if life doesn’t get resurrected or reincarnated or something,
  • then it isn’t valuable.
Solar living is the opposite of that.
  • The value is its transience.
  • The value is its “now-ness”.
Life is precious because it pours out and does not cling. In this philosophy the joy of life is not eternal as in eternal time, but in the quality of eternal found in the present. Cupitt says:
My symbolic expression may take various forms, as it pours out in my quest for selfhood, in my loves or my work. In all these areas, continuous letting-go and renewal creates joy, which on occasion rises and spills over into cosmic happiness. This 'cosmic' happiness is the modern equivalent of the traditional Summum Bonum, the 'chief end' of life.
You lifelong Presbyterians might recall the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism:
“What is the chief end of man?”
The answer according to the catechism is
“Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”
In solar living, if "God" becomes "Life" and "forever" becomes "living by dying" or "Now-ness", then man’s and woman’s chief end might be…
To glorify life and enjoy life as it pours itself out.
But Cupitt also says that even the supreme good is transient. He writes:
I, all my expressions, and even the Summum Bonum, the supreme Good itself, are all of them transient. Eternal happiness may be great enough to make one feel that one's whole life has been worthwhile, but it is utterly transient. Let it go!
How does solar living play out in terms of ethics? From the point of view of the late novelist and moralist, Kurt Vonnegut, it is quite simple—that is simple to say. His ethic is this:
You’ve got to be kind.
If we want to say a bit more about it, we can talk about solar loving. That is “loving without clinging or calculation”. We “kiss the moment as it flies”. We might turn here to Ecclesiastes and the historical Jesus. Both seemed to resonate with the philosophy of solar living.
Cast your bread upon the waters.
Give to whomever begs from you.
Be not anxious about what you will eat or wear.
Congratulations you poor!
Life is sweet. It is a joy for the eyes to see the sun.
We recognize the holiness, the sacredness of what is in front of us, behind us, among us. The poet and the artist can help us here. The artist shows us the holy in the every day. She paints for us the ordinary in such a way that we see it as paradise. Because that is what it is. I included in the liturgy the poem by Billy Collins because he captures solar living so well. He falls in love with the highway through Florida, the wren, the dead mouse, the soap.
My heart is always propped up
in a field on its tripod,
ready for the next arrow.
That is the arrow from Cupid, of course, and solar living from Cupitt. Both Cupid and Cupitt are trying to help us fall in love with life as it is now pouring out like the sun.

But someone objects:
What about the suffering? What about Peak Oil, global warming, the debt ceiling, and Michele Bachmann for crying out loud? How can I embrace solar living amidst all of those atrocities?
Yes, yes. But they, too, shall pass. In the meantime:
You’ve got to be kind.
  • Solar living is not selfish living.
  • It is not indulgent living.
  • It is not perfect living.
  • It is pouring out.
  • It is shining like the sun.
  • Like the lamp on its stand.
  • Not anxious, but present.
  • Not needing to convert or convince.
  • Not needing to defend or defeat.
  • It is expressive and emotive and permission granting to self and to others.
Kiss it.

Kiss life as it goes by and pours out.

It is your life.



  1. Fantastic.

    I've never really liked Cupitt because his ideas are so obvious to me . . . but you have made it come alive, and made his poetry come out.