top of page

Clay Smith - Irreverent Spirituality

Today is the Day with Rev. Cath DePalma


This is the transcript of a talk given at Center for Spiritual Living Prescott on August 27, 2023 by Clay Smith.

You can also experience this talk by watching the video or listening to it on our podcast, Love Spoken Here.


Hi guys. Been all caffeine and lifesavers all morning, so if I'm a little jittery, I'm sorry. OK, so I was not raised religious, but I had some church experiences when I was a kid, right. And in those church experiences, one of the things that struck me as odd, so I I kept getting the message, you know, you got to go to church every Sunday. And you got to worship God like God tells you he wants to be worshiped, and if not then you're gonna go to hell and my. The the question from a very young age, it struck me, what kind of all powerful God needs to be worshiped? You just didn't… Didn't make any sense to me.

So I had an Ant farm when I was a kid. Right? So I've been an all powerful God and even even though it was interesting to me what the ants were doing, I never, I never took it personally. But God is supposed to take it personally, if I didn't go to church on Sunday or if I kissed some girl on the school bus or whatever. And that's nonsense to me. And you know, it always has been.

So by the time I got to college, I was reading a lot of the the early Christians, a lot of the major, like Catholic fathers and stuff like that, to try to find an answer to this question because it really was important to me. It's one of those things that kind of just followed me around and kept creeping up in different parts of my life, and eventually I found it. I found a book called the Cloud of Unknowing, which answers that question and it answers it in a really beautiful way. There's probably copies in the bookstore, by the way, but it was written by an English monk in the 14th century who did not put his name on it because he probably didn't want to be burned at the stake. But he said God doesn't need people to worship him. He said that basically what is worship to him was what we call meditation. The idea is that there is a cloud of unknowing, hence the title, between us and God, and that's what keeps us from knowing the nature of God. And what our job is really, what the meaning of life is to this guy, was you sit and you contemplate that cloud of unknowing. And as you do it gets thinner and thinner and smaller and smaller, and we get clloser to understanding the nature of God which I thought was really cool. OK, so the first important book and my talk here, Rita, it's it's good.

Second one is called The Man Who Was Thursday. So a few months after Seamus was born, when he was very young, he was having trouble getting to sleep at night. I just sit in his room and read to him while he, you know, did his thing. And I just choose books at random. And one of them was The Man Who Was Thursday and it turned out to be the most important book I've ever read. It's disguised as an adventure story about police, but it's really this weird like allegory about the nature of the universe and its thesis is the universe is scary until we understand the universe and then it's not scary anymore. So this is good because it gives us a test, you know, is the universe scary? A little, yeah. So maybe we don't understand it yet, so let's keep looking. And then once it's not scary anymore, we know we're there or something. OK, so let me show you a picture of the universe. Here we go. It's not really that scary, right? OK, so the issue is we can't look at the whole thing. It's big and we as human beings are limited by a number of things. Locations a big one, right? We're not omnipresent. We exist in a certain place. We've also got mortality. Right. We have a limited number of experiences of the universe, but now how you believe that all shakes out in the end, at least while we're here on Earth, limited number of experiences, right? And then prejudice which is kind of a dirty word, but I'm gonna clarify what I mean by that. Alright, take a moment. Open your eyes as wide as they'll go and I want you to take in your entire field of vision. Just take a moment to do that. OK, good. Now, now I want you to focus on the back of the head of whoever is sitting in front of you. If there's nobody sitting in front of you, you can look at those flowers or something. Right. And notice all the fascinating things on the back of that head or in that bouquet of flowers that you didn't notice when you were looking at everything. That's prejudice. Our brain takes the things we're taking in and chooses a few of them to process, based on whatever is feeling important to us at that moment. And it really limits our experience of the world. But it also makes it so we can experience the world ‘cause otherwise we would be totally overwhelmed by all the information coming at us all the time. So it's, you know, a good thing, right, but it limits our understanding of the universe. So back to our picture of the universe. What you can see of it is something like this, which would be tragic, but God and its wisdom gave us language and Google Translate, so we can literally have a conversation with anybody about what part of the universe each of us can see. And more importantly, we can listen to that person. If I have a conversation with somebody who has a similar perspective to mine and we both listen to each other we get a little bit more of the picture. Like this. Yeah. There it is. OK. Yeah, good now. But if I have a conversation with someone with a very different perspective, we both get a lot more of the picture, like this. Yeah, alright. See, look how much of the universe ball we? Can see now, yeah. All right. But other people are crazy, right? All right. And that guy over there has a totally different perspective of the universe. In fact, it so different, he's wrong. He's saying some crazy things that can't possibly be right, so he's not just looking at a different part of the ball. He's looking at a totally different ball, right? But yeah, of course he's wrong. And so are you. And so am I. And this is why.

All right, we're going to go into some more context first, and we'll come back to that. When I first came across CSL, which was a while ago, John mentioned that I was totally atheist and the word God was really, really, really uncomfortable for me. I wouldn't come to Sunday service. Part of it was because uplifting music, just like I don't know, it does weird things to my nerves. But in order to keep coming to the classes, and I loved the classes. The classes were amazing because the pracs are fascinating people and I had to either get past the God thing or just be uncomfortable all the time ‘cause they kept saying it and I wasn't about to believe in God, so I had to come up with a work-around, alright. So if God is the same thing as the universe, because I believed in the universe, right? It was. You know, it's universe, but people kept talking about the universe as this thing you throw wishes into, and they come back covered in God- magic, which was a little weird for me, so I couldn't really do the universe thing either. And then I saw somewhere this fun little equation. I believed in truth, right? Because truth is just whatever is real. So if God is just whatever is real then I could believe in God without believing in anything that wasn't real. So win, win now.

So of course, you know, there's only one God because there's only one truth of the universe and we're all looking at the same ball. It's all the same truth of the universe, so we're going to shift our metaphor a little bit here and talk about this cloud of unknowing in a slightly different way. OK, so in my big symbolic picture of the universe that I used to understand whatever I understand, I guess, each of us is looking at the universe through a lens. Now a lens brings into focus things and makes those things easier to see. So, and this is fascinating to me, we're perfect, right? According to the CSL maxims, right, the universe is perfect. And yet we're constantly making mistakes about the nature of the universe. And that for me is because we've been living in that universe and along the way, our lens has gotten some scratches on it and some fingerprints and some smudges. And we've had experiences that have muddied our lenses, maybe abuse or bad relationships or failure or family issues or trauma. And the list goes on and on. And that lens represents our beliefs. We look at the universe through our beliefs about the universe and every experience we have teaches us something, and depending on how ready we are for that experience, it might teach us something false. If everything other than I'm perfect and the universe is perfect is a false belief, then most of us have a lot of false beliefs.

So let's update our picture a little bit. OK, here's perfect me. Staring at a small, small slice of the perfect universe through a dirty glass or scratched, smudged lens and getting some things right and some things wrong. Here's you, doing the same thing. Yeah, there’s you. Are here, here's some other dude. And here's a whole world of people trying to make sense of the universe. Look at that. If I talk to, if I talk with and listen to people who have similar experiences, we can help each other sort out where our smudges are and get a clearer picture, right? And if I talk with and listen to people with different experiences, we get a bigger picture. So it's important to do both of those things. So I know what you're thinking, I try to tell people that they're wrong and they won't listen to me. So how can I make them see what I see? What the deal is that's not your responsibility, right? Your responsibility is your own lens. You gotta polish your lens. You gotta broaden your horizon. And in order to do that, we prioritize listening. You have to take an active interest in the things that don't make sense to you specifically. OK, what if people won't share their perspective with you and is what you say is that sounds like nonsense to me, but it's probably because I'm missing something. Help me understand why that's true. Right? OK, so this phrase does two things. First, it confirms what they already believe that you don't agree with them. Right? And it gives them permission to say things you don't already believe, which is important because that's how you learn the things and that's how you see more of the universe. So it gives you a chance to lean in and listen closely to them and put aside the things you already think you know, and hopefully get a whole new perspective on the universe, which is not only useful, might actually be the meaning of life now, Spiritual Humanism.

I'm going to tell you a story that might not have actually happened. I have this faint memory of a story I heard in a class here at CSL. I think Hazel might have said it, but I'm not sure. And I can not find any reference to this story anywhere else in the entire universe. So OK, so, so there's this story about, you know, maybe it was the Dalai Lama. He was at a hill that had been called the center of the universe. Does this sound familiar? Oh sweet. OK, good.

So a reporter was interviewing about this hill at the center of the universe and says so “Is this hill really the center of the universe?” The Dalai Lama responds. “No, I'm the center of the universe, aren't you?” Alright, so my picture of the universe that I've been showing you here is actually a picture of the human experience of the universe, right? It's not actually the universe, it's how we experience the universe, which is totally different, probably, from the real universe, because we can't actually see it or understand it or take it into our tiny minds. But. from my perspective, it's astoundingly more important than what the universe actually looks like, right? Science of Mind suggests the universe is a big field of energy, which is creative principle. It's formed into matter by the power of physics or mind or law or God-magic or whatever you want to call it. Here's a picture of that process you might have seen before. Wait, hold on. There it is. Oh, look at that. Here's another picture of that process. It's all the same stuff. Alright, so the thing is, neurology tells us that we don't actually experience matter as matter. We experience it through sense input, where it's converted back to energy in the form of light waves or sound waves or electric pulses or whatever. So we're experiencing God as energy filtered through a gunky lens filtered through metaphor or something. So when we try to find meaning in the universe, we're actually trying to find meaning in our perception of the universe. So in a very real way, each of us really is the center of the universe. Here it is: For us, the center of the universe… for us, which as far as we can be aware, is the only universe that matters. The things we perceive are absolutely true for us, and our perception is informed by the things that we believe. Those lenses, right, which is where faith comes in, which is what brings me to my favorite iIdea of all. It's called convictions of convenience. The thing is, it doesn't matter what you believe. It doesn't matter what you believe. You all have met enormously successful and or happy people before. And those people have been atheists or Buddhists or Christians or Jews, or Muslims or maybe they haven't really given it much thought or whatever. And the thing is you can't test for truth. For reasons we talked about above, you cannot know the truth by experiencing it. You can't decide what to believe by testing whether or not it's real, because your lens is dirty. And all that stuff you interact with out in the real world is just a metaphor for reality anyway. Let's say you do everything right. You listen to people who are different from you. You listen to people who are similar to you. You polish your lens, you meditate on the cloud of unknowing. You still have a collection of beliefs that drives your capacity for prejudice. That's the good prejudice we talked about earlier that makes it possible for you to interact with the world.

Now, where do those beliefs come from? They come from three possible places. One, they happen naturally when your brain processes the experiences you have. Everybody does at least a little bit of this. This is where the beliefs come from that you're not enough or you're fat, or you're awkward or you're too old or you're too young or whatever. I find this method of generating belief a little clunky and unreliable.

Two, someone tells you what to believe like you know, a priest or the Bible, or the Quran or whatever has worked really well for some people. But historically, and has driven humanity down some really weird roads. I personally have some trust issues, so this doesn't work very well for me.

Number 3. You decide for yourself what to believe. Now to clarify, this doesn't mean you evaluate the universe objectively and get more right than everybody else. I mean, by all means, you should try to do that. But it means you look at the world around you and you decide what beliefs minimize your suffering, maximize your effectiveness, increase your happiness, and helps you increase the happiness of the people around you. Whatever does that, believe that.

We all know that this works, right? You've all read about the placebo effect, which is pretty much the closest thing to scientific proof of Science of Mind that you'll ever find. If you believe you're going to get better, you get better. If you believe suffering and the absence of suffering are the same thing you don't have to suffer. Reverend Cath gave a talk a while back and she talked about the idea that before we're born, our souls choose challenges we're willing to face in our lives. It's a great talk if you guys were not here. Go back and find it online, it's there. Because that process of overcoming those challenges is what our soul needs to grow so it sets them up. Sets them up like bowling pins to throw itself at throughout life. Now, is this true? Does our soul really create challenges for us to deal with in our lives? Who cares? I heard that…I heard her say that and I thought it was the coolest thing ever and I've been living my life as though it's true for the last couple of months since she came here and said that and I just totally transformed large parts of my life. Things are going differently for me because I'm living as though that's true, right? It makes me stop looking at myself as a victim of circumstance. If I chose the challenge, I'm hardly a victim of it, right? Instead of being crushed by it, I have a sacred duty to my soul to do everything I can to overcome it. So if something makes me uncomfortable, cool, let's rush at it and see what happens. I chose to put that difficulty there so I can overcome it right? So instead of avoiding it, I actually deal with it. It's really… It's so cool. Guys right now, that's what I mean by convictions of convenience. Rather than trying to believe what's true, I try to believe what's useful to believe. And for reasons mentioned earlier, it starts a feedback loop that makes those things true for me, and then hopefully I make the universe better for everybody else somehow in some little ways along the way. So I don't see the… Do I see the truth of the universe more clearly because of this belief? Yeah, maybe, but even if it doesn't untarnish my lens it makes my lens a hell of a lot rosier. And if God really is love, then it helps me see a lot more love in the universe and put a lot more love back into it. So win, win.

So let's recap. To recap, the universe is only scary if you can't understand it. You can't actually understand the universe all the way, but you can understand the universe better than you currently do by talking with and listening to those people, especially those you disagree with. When you find an idea that makes your life better and makes you a better person believe it with all your heart whether it's true or not. All right.

Thank you for sharing your morning with me.

5 views0 comments


bottom of page