There’s a profound dynamic to sailing that goes beyond the scale of the boat, the engineering, the rigging, all the equipment that helps the boat go fast and stable, that goes beyond even the condition of the water and even the crew. It is in fact, ironically enough, that which cannot be seen. And without it, there would be no sailing. Figured out what it is?
Exactly. Wind. It’s the whole force behind sailing. You can’t see it. You can only feel it and notice its impact. And believe me, it’s quite a force to be reckoned with. I’ve at times cursed it and hailed it (depending of course how well I’m doing leveraging it). And I’ve been deathly afraid of it (when my boat appeared to be “going down” in the storm). All of these responses to something you can’t even see – but obviously acknowledge is there.
There’s an intriguing spiritual dimension to this reality. And of all people to acknowledge it is Christopher Hitchens, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, most known for his self-proclaimed role as one of the New Atheists called to debunk the world of religion and religious thought, as most recently revealed in his manifesto book God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. His primary sparring partners tend to be religious conservatives and apologists for fundamentalism.
In a recent interview with a liberal Christian minister he made some surprising philosophical and spiritual observations of sharing a mutual appreciation for “the transcendent” and “the numinous” (which literally means, “surpassing comprehension or understanding; mysterious; filled with or characterized by a sense of a supernatural presence: a numinous place; Spiritually elevated; sublime”): terms that Hitchens himself introduced into the conversation, not vice versa.
When asked about this, he commented:
“It’s innate in us to be overawed by certain moments, say, at evening on a mountaintop or sunset on the boundaries of the ocean. Or, in my case, looking through the Hubble telescope at those extraordinary pictures. We have a sense of awe and wonder at something beyond ourselves, and so we should, because our own lives are very transient and insignificant. That’s the numinous, and there’s enough wonder in the natural world without any resort to the supernatural being required.”
And then he surprisingly took it one step further. “Everybody has had the experience at some point when they feel that there’s more to life than just matter.” More to life than just what you can see?
This is quite a profound observation from a person who has refused to embrace acceptance of anything supernatural. More to life than just matter? Is Hitchens really saying what he seems to be saying here, that “the numinous” refers to the sense that there’s something more to our existence than just the material world?
The ancient Hebrews (in Jewish scripture) had no problem acknowledging this reality. In fact, to them, the scriptures never talked about “spiritual life.” Spirituality was NOT simply one of several aspects of life. All of life was Sacred, God-breathed, infused with divine wonder and awe. So they talked about only life. As my friend Samir Selmanovic points out (in his book It’s Really All About God), “the Hebrews loved both God and life. Obeying God meant being fully human, with every fiber of one’s being alive. One could not experience one without the other…To tune in to human life is to tune in to God. Existence itself is a sacred place.”
There’s more to life than just matter. There’s a Spirit to all life. So embracing life deeply and passionately is a highly spiritual practice. And historically (among spiritual traditions), this practice has been called “worship.” Living life with a sense that life is sacred, intentionally giving value to life and the Giver of life, embracing the awe and wonder that there is More than simply our existence, that there is a Life Force that flows all around us and in us and through us. Worship is the spiritual practice of embracing God and showing value to the Divine life.
There’s more to life than just matter – worship – embracing “the transcendent” and the “numinous” – giving honor to Life. Renowned atheist Christopher Hitchens acknowledges this reality (in his own way). I definitely concur.
In the spiritual community in San Francisco I’m a part of, Second Wind’s “W” core value (in our core values acronymn S.E.C.O.N.D. W.I.N.D.) stands for “W.orship.” It’s a desire to value living life with a sense of the divine, learning the art of living all of life as sacred, embracing the worldview (as Einstein pointed out) that the Universe is in fact “friendly,” that God is the ultimate Force of love and compassion and goodness. So we’re trying to find meaningful and intentional ways to live out this value and important paradigm. We think this value will empower us to love extravagantly and serve unselfishly to make this world a better place.
And in the end, isn’t there something centering and grounding to sense that there is more to life than just matter? That, as my friends in AA are so wise to regularly affirm, there’s a Higher Power beyond myself, greater than myself, that nourishes and sustains and empowers my life toward greater self responsibility leading to wholeness and transformation?
When it comes to sailing, I can tell you that the most effective sailors are those that not only acknowledge the wind but learn how to live with it well, who embrace it and honor it and respect it – who learn the art of leaning into it.
What would it look like in tangible terms for you to embrace this core value, to affirm that there is more to life than matter and what you can see? How would it impact your daily existence, your relationships, your concerns, your hopes and dreams? What are specific ways you tend to show deeper value for Life, to carve out space to acknowledge and pay attention and affirm the Sacred in life? When is the last time you actually thought about there being a Power greater than yourself and expressed respect and honor for It?