16913 Germantown Road
Germantown, Maryland 20875-0320
Dreaming a Dream of Limits
Presenter:Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date:Sun, 04/15/2012
This story is the first of R.’s stories that I ever heard, and when I heard it the first time I was so delighted by the notion of Joy being like infinite shiny black patent leather that I couldn’t concentrate on the story for at least a few sentences. Since the story is short, and because it is delightfully and whimsically abstract, I’m going to ask R. to tell it to us again. This time, as you hear it, I’d like you to listen particularly to what the story is saying about limits, and the role of limitation in the natural order of things, because that is what we’ll be talking about today.
Before There Was Time
© 2001 Roy Mueller
Before there was time, there was Joy. Joy knew only Joy and Joy did not know limit. Now there was no one to see Joy, but if there had been, Joy might have looked like shiny patent leather, very black and very bright, extending limitless in countless directions forever. Joy silently rang and sightlessly radiated Joy; so sweet that song, as if it vibrated on an endless harp string of vibrant green, crisscrossing Joy as countless strings, ringing with the ancient song silent and sweet forever.
And one green string of Joy dreamed a dream of limit. It dreamed it was a dot, perfectly limited and extending not at all. Now that dream dot was made of Joy, for there was nothing else of which it could be made. And being Joy, its’ dream of perfect limit extended to limit an inside from an outside. The inside dreamed within itself hosts of limited structures; membranes covered with sphericals and membrane bound organelles, all dreaming insides of their own dreaming of inner worlds, dreaming of inner worlds. The outside dreamed without itself a sky strewn with stars. And the stars dreamed without themselves a galaxy of shining stars dreaming of whirling groups of galaxies racing ever faster into an outer beyond that perhaps dreamed a dream of that without itself.
And the dream dot perceived that the dream of perfect limit was limitless. And hoping to recover perfect limit still it dreamed that it has a before and an after; so that even if perfect limit had not been achieved in the before it might yet be in the after. And the before dreamed that it had a before of its’ own as well as an after, dreaming of its’ own before. And the after dreamed that it had an after of its’ own as well as a before dreaming of its’ own after. And the dream dot perceived that the dream of before and after too was limitless.
Now the dream dot reasoned that the dream of perfect limit always extended into limitlessness because it was made of Joy, and Joy did not know limit. So the dream dot began to dream of alternatives to Joy. It dreamed of indifference, but indifference was vast. It dreamed of dread, ahhh, now here was a dream to counteract extending Joy, for dread ever contracted, seeking to make itself small and hide from what it dreamed it feared.
And the dream dot dreamed a dreadful dream.
It dreamed of cutting remarks and hurt feelings, of faces slapped, dogs kicked and children shamed. It dreamed of judgment and of guilt, of trials and punishments, of hierarchies and kings and courts and congresses. It dreamed of armies swarming over landscapes like locusts burning towns, raping women, murdering children, and slaughtering one another; of whole peoples shipped off like cattle and sent up chimneys as thick billowing smoke. It dreamed of the righteous punishment of the evil by the good, and of evil’s insidious revenge.
And yet, in every war in the dream of dread some soldier looked into the face of his enemy and saw himself. In every burning town someone risked their own life to care for a neighbor. In every strife torn relationship moments of forgiveness spread like a fan to soften two hearts; and in every political struggle someone, at some point said “there has got to be a better way than this and I am going to find it”. And because of these awakening ones the dream of dread was also a dream of hope; the hope of awakening to Joy, before there was time.
This is, essentially, a creation story. It is a story about a vast infinite becoming a small finite, a story about how something that is endless and formless developed the world that we know, which has ends and forms.
This story, although metaphorical, has a basis in the physical, in creation itself. It is true that at some point in the very distant past, matter organized. Matter organized out of a vastness into the forms we know today, eventually space and stardust and planets and stars, and dirt and creatures and atmosphere and on and on. In the true creation narrative, the one that we describe with story and with science, some sort of space material did indeed find forms. The forms are us, they are the things around us, they are everything we know and everything we see. The phrase “manifestations of the infinite” sounds sort of new-agey, but that is indeed what everything is. There used to be infinite vastness, and then stuff developed. That stuff is us and everything we know.
But what is pointed out in this story is an angle that I had previously not considered, and that is this - the way you get from infinite vastness to stuff is through limits. In order to create particular matter out of endless possibilities, the endless possibilities need to limit themselves. Form a boundary. Choose, choose one choice out of all of the choices, to be carbon or flesh or a leaf or water or burning hydrogen, and not all of those things at once.
I realize that I am walking a fine line between metaphor and science that may well be driving many of you crazy. I’m also following the story’s lead in personifying a process that may well be impersonal. But that is the beauty of story. Stories interpret reality in a way that the listener can understand. And when we human beings consider the difference between “all the options” and “one option”, the difference between those two paths is made through choice. In our story, we see choice too: a bit of the vastness chooses to try something new. The vastness chooses to become a dot, a limited little dot, and to think about limits.
Interestingly, the dot is not different in nature, has not changed in nature. The dot is still made of Joy. The only difference is the limit. Instead of just being everything all the time, the dot chooses to be certain things, all sorts of particular things like spherical membranes and organelles, and stars and galaxies, some things big, some things small, all of them different from each other, but each of them particular, each of them their own particular thing, their own particular creation. It is the limitation that causes the different things to be.
That is what I had never considered, what causes things to be particular. I am fascinated by the notion that it is limit, in and of itself, that causes things to be, that causes particular creations to happen.
Because limited, and particular, we surely are. We human beings are bound by our limits, our particular abilities, like our physicality, our senses, like sight or smell, our concept of time.
I just spent a week with my niece and nephew. My niece is four – four and three-quarters, she would want me to say – and my nephew is now two weeks old. My nephew, like the dream dot, is a limited entity who is just becoming aware of his boundaries, where he starts and stops. His only experience is milk and the inside of his eyelids. Things happen to him, like being dressed in a comfy jumpsuit, and getting the sniffles from his sister, but he doesn’t know of these things, they just are. Soon he will know more about his particular form, that those hands flying by are his to control, that he can see things and affect things and experience things. But for right now, he just is. He is a particularity, but he doesn’t really know that.
Contrast that with his 4 ¾ sister, who knows very well that she is limited. She knows that she is a person who is different from other people. She experiences hot and cold and hungry and full. She is very aware that she doesn’t get all the things she wants, that other people are doing things that she can’t. Her finitude is very obvious to her, and she struggles against it. Her main question is “why?” Why can’t she have this, why can’t she do that? She isn’t like an adult, who’s Whys are often quite answered.
Adults are very accustomed to our limits. In fact, adults are so used to our limitations that we think they are reality. We think the things we see and the things we feel, the way we perceive, are the way things really are. But we are bound, interminably, by our limitations. Here are a couple of examples.
Example one is time. We human beings experience time absolutely. If you’ve got a lot to coordinate in your life, if you have a lot going on, then time is a giant looming creature that you’re always battling; for those of us with lighter schedules, then time is sort of like a loose fitting cloak; but either way, we human beings don’t know how to live without time. We were children in the past, and we’ll be older in the future. We were born after our grandparents, but before our great grandchildren. Our world is full of the materials that people before us invented, but we do not have access to inventions that future generations will have. For all of us human beings, time marches in one way, one direction, and always has.
But one of the words often used for God is Eternal. We’ll pause for definitions here. By the word “God” we are talking about Ultimate Reality, the thing at the center of everything. Maybe “Creation” is a good synonym. And the word “eternal” means that which exists outside of time. When we say that God is Eternal, we are saying that Reality, Creation, the foundation of our universe, exists without the same march of time that we human beings experience.
And our story today tells us the same thing. All that there was was limitless until something chose to limit, something started to limit, and one of those limitations was time. Time going only in one direction, with a building progression – first the swirling gases, then the amoebas, then the people, then the stone age, then the industrial age, then world war two, then Facebook. Just to pick a few highlights. Always in one direction, always building on what came before.
But God, they say, is eternal, outside of time. Joy does not know limit, says our story – it extends in countless directions forever until it chose to limit itself.
Take a moment to imagine, to feel a world outside of time. How hard is it to picture? Does everyone, everything, exist at once? Does Facebook happen before the amoebas, or maybe it doesn’t matter which comes first? Can anything ever be lost, in a world outside of time? What can it mean?
It’s almost impossible for us limited creatures to contemplate, but it may be enough to know that sages, both scientific and religious, have always claimed that there is a place, a reality, that exists outside of time. It’s not a thing for us humans to know very directly, but yet it is still there, whether it is God or a black hole. We are limited to one understanding of time, but not everything in reality is, it seems.
The other example of our human limitation is love. Love. You’re probably protesting right now: “But love is so vast! It expands into so many things! It goes so many unexpected places!” All this is true. Love is expansive and it is mysterious and it is holy. That is why one of the names for God is Love. But still, I submit to you that love is one of our limitations. And the proof of that is that we have named it, we describe it.
The reason we name and describe love is that we are keenly aware when love is absent. We know the lack of love. We are aware of places where love is not. We work hard, especially those of us in church, we work hard to love more, to increase our capacity to love. And we do this because we know the difference between love and not-love. And to be able to experience a world without love is a function of our human limitation. It is not shared by all of creation.
The Reverend Bill Schultz is a UU minister who formerly headed the human rights group Amnesty International. Amnesty International is a voice against torture worldwide, and Schulz spent many years fighting against torture, talking to victims of torture, talking to perpetrators of torture. And he has developed a personal theology that incorporates his experiences.
He claims that “no God worthy of the name is present in a torture chamber.” He claims that “torture obliterates the very face of God.”
No God worthy of the name is present in a torture chamber. Torture obliterates the very face of God.
I do not agree, and our story helps me to explain why.
Love is what is absent in a torture chamber. And love and God are so closely associated that when we human beings are being oppressively unloved, being tortured, it is true that we can only with the most unusual exceptions experience God there.
But God does not equal love, not exactly. There is a problem with the equation that God = Love, and that problem lies within the midst of our finitude, the limitations that humans are made from. We human beings can create and experience a world with or without love. We can live a life in heaven on earth or a life in a torture chamber. Because of this, we have named the thing called love, and we go about seeking it out.
But I would suggest to Bill Schultz, and to you, that God, Ultimate Reality, unlimited, does not experience a world where love is sometimes there and sometimes not. Joy knows only Joy and knows no limit, says our story, and in the same way, I would suggest, God swims in love like a fish in the sea, and knows no place where love is not, and that is why God is present in a torture chamber in a way we humans cannot see and that is why Love is the wrong name for God because “love” is a limited creature’s term for something that those limited creatures understand only in limited amounts.
The Dream Dot dreamed a dream of limits. Those limits first led to particularities, to things being something, rather than everything. But those things were still made of the same substance, Joy. And then the Dream Dot dreamed of the limits of Joy, and that, it seemed was where the trouble began. The particularities created by limits came to believe, like we humans believe, that their own limited viewpoint was True Reality. They came to see that they were one way and others were another, and they began to fight. War, murder, oppression, armies, kings and congresses were the result. The unintended consequences of limitation. The creation of the matter, of the particularities, comes with it an inescapable conflict, an original sin, if you will.
The story implies that limitation, particularity, automatically leads to trouble. Perhaps the nature of things is to battle whatever isn’t you, and when things are divided into things then they come under the false impression that they aren’t everything anymore.
But the story ends with hope, because the truth is that we aren’t really particular things at all, we are really just what happens when you put limits or boundaries around the vast infinitude. That reality, that we are really all the same thing, it keeps burbling up, like a plant that always finds its way up through the sidewalk crack. Even in the worst of times, in the burning town or the torn relationship or the political struggle, yes, even in the torture chamber, the unlimited true nature of the universe can be seen, at least in glimpses. The fact that we are all just particularities of the same vast infinitude can never be totally hidden.
I wonder if the dream dot of the story regrets his or her little foray into limits. Granted, it led to a lot of creation, an interesting variety of forms and functions. Is it worth all the strife that our limited particularities have caused us?
It would be hard for me to say that I wish my little nephew would return to the peaceful, mysterious origins from whence he came two weeks ago, never having the opportunity to be his own particular limited self, out here in my human reality where I can practice my limited ability to love on him. I’m kind of glad that he’s him, and I’m me, and the march of time in which we are trapped has allowed our paths to cross.
But maybe, when we get all mixed up in this world that we think is the real one, it would help us all to remember the little dot that dreamed the dream of limits. It might help us to remember that first, first, there was Joy that stretched like shiny patent leather in countless directions forever, and that is where we all come from. It might help us to remember that Love is what we call the thing that we here can only experience from time to time, but that Love exists in infinite abundance in a dimension that we can only sometimes touch. It might help us to remember that even though we are particular drops of water here in the world, eventually we all return to the vast sea, and our boundaries melt away, and we reunite with all that we are, and all that everything else is, too.
May you dream the dream of hope, the hope of awakening to Joy.
 Schultz, William F. “What Torture Has Taught Me.” UU World Magazine, Winter 2006.