Pan Back (10/30/05)
Dr. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
I am a movie buff. Like most people. I like to completely lose myself inside a film, becoming thoroughly absorbed with the characters, completely lost in the plot. But I also enjoy taking note of the technical side of movies, and especially enjoy a really well-crafted film—a movie that is put together with great skill. One of my favorite tools at the filmmaker’s disposal is that of panning back, pulling the camera away from a scene, bringing to view a wider panorama that puts the previous picture in perspective.
We’ve all seen this effect. Many directors use it with great impact at the beginning of a movie as the opening credits role. Perhaps, as the music lilts softly in the background, you see a dim light, flickering through the darkness that encompasses the whole screen. The camera slowly pans back, and a circle of blue begins to appear at the edges of the screen, growing in size as the darkness which once filled the screen becomes smaller and smaller, and we recognize that what we are seeing is the pupil of somebody’s eye.
As the camera continues to pan back, the actor’s entire face comes into view. The music crescendos, the camera continues to pan back, and we see the actor’s entire body. That flicker of light we saw reflected in the eye only moments before we now discover to be a light in a nearby window. The camera pans back some more and we find the actor is standing on a dark city street.
The director could have taken the scene anywhere he desired, but what began as a flicker of light in the darkness—it could have been a star, a flashlight, almost anything—is now revealed as a metropolitan street scene. There was no way of knowing what was in the director’s mind until we panned back and saw things from a wider perspective.
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That image—the image of panning back—is an important one. To anybody facing a difficult decision, or a serious problem, I can think of no better advice than to pan back. Pan back from the situation and try to see it in a wider framework. And just as we must adjust the focus of a camera when we pan back, we also must refocus our thinking when we try to see things from a new perspective.
What I want to do this morning is apply that concept of “pan back and refocus” to the world we encounter every day. I’ve found the concept useful for overcoming my own nearsightedness when confronting problems. But rather than pick any specific problems of my own, I decided to take four rather large, but very down to earth subjects—science, religion, wealth, and life—and attempt to apply the pan back and refocus method to each of them.
Science is the search for facts, for truth, involving the physical world. I cannot imagine anything more important to the human race than the search for truth lying within the physical world. From approximately 500 to 1500 A.D. the world went through what we now call the Dark Ages, or Middle Ages. The religious powers of that time were largely responsible for imposing this darkness on humanity. Galileo discovered the church was not nearly as enthusiastic as he was regarding the search for scientific truth. The truth, however, and the human spirit, could not be suppressed forever. We soon came to embrace the rational laws of the physical universe. We sought to understand everything we could about how this world operates. This Enlightenment, as it is now called, may the best thing that ever happened to the human race.
The Enlightenment had a downside, however, and that downside has become evident in the modern era. No one has explained this downside better than Ken Wilber. He is one of the greatest thinkers in the world today, respected by a wide range of scholars. He has attracted devout readers from many fields; psychologists, physicists, biologists, philosophers, and religious mystics from both Christian and Buddhist traditions.
Ken Wilber has authored many books, and he has a great interest in integrating science and religion. Some of his books are written for professional and academic audiences, books with titles like The Spectrum of Consciousness, and Sex, Ecology and Spirituality. For those of us who prefer our reading to be a little more down to earth, he has written books one need not be a clinical psychologist or a physicist to understand. These books include The Marriage of Sense and Soul, and my favorite Wilber book, which has the humble title A Brief History of Everything.
Ken Wilber believes that the universe is composed of three related, but very different spheres. We can think of these three spheres in different ways. Wilber sometimes calls the three spheres I, WE, and IT. Sometimes he calls them the GOOD, the BEAUTIFUL and the TRUE. Perhaps the best way to think of them is BEAUTY, MORALITY and SCIENCE.
Each of these spheres is real. And each sphere has a language of its own. You cannot explain morality with scientific terms. You cannot explain science with artistic terms. Wilber calls what has happened in the several hundred years since the Enlightenment “the disaster of modernity.” In our modern world, science has eclipsed the other two spheres and made the claim that it is the only sphere that is real. And Wilber insists this is not really science, but is instead scientism. Scientism is the belief that there is no reality beyond the world exposed through the study of science. The reason this is such a disaster, according to Ken Wilber, is that science, claiming it possesses the one and only truth, came to the conclusion that beauty and morality do not exist. They are inventions of those chemical reactions going on inside the human brain, but they can in no way be said to have a reality of their own.
I’ll quote Ken Wilber: The scientific worldview was of a universe composed entirely of objective processes, all described not in I-language or we-language, but merely with it-language, with no consciousness, no interiors, no values, no meaning, no depth and no Divinity.
Now, I am not making an assault on science. When it was discovered that I had a cancerous tumor on my right kidney, I did not seek out a doctor of Philosophy, schooled in the metaphysics of Kant and Hegel, who could explain to me how the physical world is a sort of apparition springing forth from the true reality of universal mind. I wanted a medical doctor. A scientist. I wanted somebody who could find it, weigh it, measure it, and get rid of it!
Science is wonderful. But I believe we need to pan back. A person sitting in the woods with a microscope might be able to discover wonderful and important things about the composition of, say, tree bark. But he will never grasp the true beauty of the tree until he pans back, puts the tree in perspective, and enjoys the panoramic view of the forest. So it is with science. We can embrace science and reject scientism. By panning back and looking at the whole picture, we can accept science for what it is, without rejecting those things that cannot be deduced through the scientific method, namely beauty and morality.
The second subject I want to consider is religion. The thing that most frustrates me about people of faith is that they usually think their particular way of approaching religion is the only right way to do so. It’s not just Christianity that does this. Every religion makes absolute truth claims. Christians just seem to be more vocal than most when it comes to thinking they’ve got religion all figured out.
Of course, the primary target for those Christians who claim to have a perfect corner on the truth is other Christians, those who think differently from them about God, or Jesus. You may remember the joke where a guy is standing on the side of a bridge at about midnight. He climbs up on the rail and prepares to throw himself off the bridge. Another man sees him and runs to him saying, “Stop! Don’t jump. Let’s talk about this.”
The jumper says there is nothing to talk about, but the rescuer says, “Do you believe in God?”
And the jumper says, “Well, yes I do. I do believe in God.”
“That’s great!” says the rescuer. “Me too! What are you? Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Christian…?
“Well, I’m a Christian.”
“Me too! Well what type of Christian are you? Catholic, Protestant?”
“I’m a Protestant.”
“Me too! This is amazing! What denomination are you?”
The jumper says, “Well, I’m a Baptist.”
“Me too! This is fantastic! So tell me, what type of Baptist are you? Northern Baptist, American Baptist, Southern Baptist?”
“Well, I’m an American Baptist.”
And the rescuer shoves him off the bridge crying, “Die heathen!”
Those are a couple of guys who need to pan back and refocus. As for the way we Christians practice our religion, we tend to make things too complicated. If we pan back away from our individual faith tradition long enough to be really honest with ourselves, there are a few truths we should be able to accept.
First, we should be able to accept the fact that we are alive, but that we do not grant ourselves the gift of life. We do not breathe life into our own lungs. The power to do that comes from something other than you and me. Second, we should be able to agree that we should surrender with love and thanks to that mystery that calls us into being—the mystery of God. And last but not least, we should be able to agree that as long as God breathes life into these bodies of ours, we should treat others with love and respect. Maybe it’s too simple, but that is all the religion we need, really.
And as we watch various religions and denominations try to force their beliefs on others, we should remember a simple truth. Any religion that does not promote kindness comes from something other than God. All those creeds, all those complicated theologies, and those brilliant doctrines don’t really matter. And if we pan back from all those little details and focus on the big picture of Christianity, we discover our entire faith can be stated in a single sentence, a sentence Jesus himself gave us: Love God with your heart, soul and mind, and your neighbor as yourself.
That is really much too beautiful a statement to muddle, so let’s leave the subject of religion and move on to the subject of wealth. Living as we do, in this nation of remarkable wealth and affluence, certainly has its advantages. The one disadvantage I see is we have forgotten how to be grateful. We feel entitled. When my children were little they were constantly saying, “I want this, I want that.” I always told them they had been stricken with a severe case of the I wants.
It seems our society has been stricken with the same disease. We’ve got the I wants, and we’ve got them bad. And the only cure for the I wants is to pan back and refocus. I have to do this all the time, because I have the I wants just as much as everybody else. I want a bigger house, until I pan back and see about half the world’s population living in homes with earthen floors. I want a nicer car, until I pan back and see a world where the annual income of billions of people could not even buy a spare tire for the car I have. I want to go off my diet and indulge myself with some steak and lobster, until I pan back and see a world where millions and millions of children are aching with hunger.
I don’t know what to do about all those problems. I’m very proud of the people of this congregation for their efforts in addressing the needs of the less fortunate both in our community and throughout the world. And I do not believe we are meant to go through life beating up on ourselves for possessing wealth. But I do believe we should be grateful. None of us filled out an application prior to birth stating our insistence that we be born in the richest country the world has ever known. It just happened that way, and we should be grateful.
What better subject to finish with than “life.” Mitch Albom is now a famous newspaper columnist, but his original claim to fame was a great little book called Tuesdays with Morrie. Mitch Albom was a Detroit sportswriter who maintained a lifelong friendship with his favorite college professor, Morrie Schwartz. When Morrie was diagnosed with ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, Mitch and Morrie met every Tuesday to talk about every subject under the sun.
If there is anything that can make a person pan back and look at his life in perspective, it is the sure knowledge that life is running out. The book is filled with warmth and love, and contains great and simple wisdom about the beauty of life.
Mitch Albom, the author, was a man who never slowed down. He was a great success, having been named AP sportswriter of the year several times. He had the biggest house on the block, the sports car that made his friends and neighbors green with envy, and all the other little perks that come with being successful in our culture. But Morrie’s gentle wisdom finally gets to him. Why the big hurry? Why the overwhelming drive to succeed? It does not lead to real happiness. It may seem to impress others, but does not lead to real contentment, because there is always another objective to be met, another goal to be surpassed.
I believe Morrie’s advice to Mitch, offered only days before his death, is a universal truth. “If you try to show off for people at the top, they will look down on you. If you try to show off for people at the bottom, they will envy you. Only an open heart will allow you to float equally between everyone.”
I hope this week that we all take a few moments to pan back and refocus. Because I believe that if we do—if we pan back and consider the scientific wonders of this moral and beautiful universe, the faith by which we live, the wealth that surrounds us, and this mysterious gift of life which springs forth from the mystery of God—if we really allow ourselves to pan back and take in the whole picture—then we will probably say the words that are written on our hearts, the words that God, perhaps, has been waiting to hear from us all along.
Thank you. Thank you. Amen.