Light of Science
Rev. Douglas Taylor
February 22, 2015
James Audubon, naturalist, ornithologist, and painter, once said, “When the bird and the book disagree, always believe the bird.” This scientist’s commitment to the evidence sums up much that is at the heart of Unitarian Universalism. We are a tradition with a strong commitment to the individual search for truth and meaning. When there is a conflict between what a book claims to be true and what I have experienced, I will opt to trust my experience. Many Unitarian Universalists have found their way here from other faith traditions for exactly this point.
Many times when I am meeting with visitors or people exploring our congregation, I have a chance to ask them what has drawn them to Unitarian Universalism. There are a few recurring themes I’ve noticed. One very common one is the experience of no longer fitting in to the religious community in which they grew up – the doctrines no longer made sense, the theology didn’t connect with their lives, the beliefs just didn’t line up with lived experiences. So the person left the church of their childhood and struck out on their own or started casting around for a community … and one way or another they eventually found their way here. It sometimes sounds like the story of the Ugly Duckling: growing up, you didn’t fit in to the world around you. You felt like you were a terrible Catholic or Mormon or Whatever, until you discovered that indeed you aren’t one of those other religions and that’s why you were terrible at it because in fact you are a Unitarian Universalist. Or at least a Pagan with UU leanings or an Atheist yearning for a religious community without all the religion.
I am convinced that each person has their own unique way of being in the world, their own path. If the path you are walking is not nourishing to your spirit, there are other paths. Unitarian Universalism is surely not the best path for everyone, but it has been a good path for me and many here today. One of the hallmarks of this Unitarian Universalist path is a commitment to honor each person’s experience, each person’s inherent worth and dignity. Indeed, one of our hallmarks is to honor each person’s freedom of conscience – when the bird and the book disagree, when your community’s tradition and your experience of spirit disagree, we side with the individual’s experience.
In our reading this morning, Rebecca Costa makes the point that both beliefs and knowledge are required for a healthy society. Belief, in her use of the term, is rooting is a trust that what we have been told is true or that what we once experienced will occur again under the same circumstances. Being able to trust is an important skill. Knowledge is based in direct experience. If we know something, it is because we have experienced it.
Religion speaks of love and justice, God, faith, and forgiveness – things that live more easily in the realm of belief than of knowledge. But we are human beings who experience hours of living in every day. Religion ought to connect to our regular daily living if it connects to anything! Scientist and theologian Joseph Priestley, one of the British founders of Unitarianism, said,
We scruple not to plant trees for the benefit of posterity. Let us likewise sow the seeds of truth for them. . . . Distrust all those who require you to abandon [reason], wherever religion is concerned.
Unitarian Universalism is a living tradition that draws from many sources for inspiration and authority. One of those sources is listed as “Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.”
It has been said that Unitarian Universalism is a religion that takes science seriously. One path among us is the scientist’s path. “Prove all things, hold fast that which is good.” (1 Thessalonians 5:21) We take science seriously. I have found this to be true in two ways. First, we do heed the truths uncovered by science. We honor the science that tells we live in a very old, ever evolving universe. We listen to the research about climate change, about medical advances, the genome project, or any number of other areas of study. We listen and respond with this knowledge to inform our beliefs and actions in the world. And it is not just a one-way street, science – if it be sound science – heeds ethical and moral guidance of religious values. But it is more than just this give and take of scientific fact and discoveries.
We also acknowledge the scientific process as a sound process for discerning truth. The process is hypothesis and experimentation, the process itself of seeking one’s own direct experience in the pursuit of knowledge, is method we honor. It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, “When we can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other men’s transcripts of their readings.” (American Scholar) Emerson actually proves to be a rather useful character to examine in this conversation.
I didn’t even like Emerson when I first seriously studied his work in seminary. He was too dense, to obscure in his vocabulary and syntax. I preferred the interesting characters of Theodore Parke and Hosea Ballou. Over the years, however, Emerson’s ideas and words settled in to me and took root. It was later when I kept bumping into him and other Transcendentalists that I really began to see what they were offering me. And a piece of it is right here is this conversation about science and the use of reason.
In many ways, Unitarian Universalism is the religion that it is today because of Ralph Waldo Emerson and other Transcendentalists. Emerson was called the Sage of Concord in his own day and been dubbed the ‘patron saint of religious seekers’ by some today. Emerson’s spiritual impact is fairly clear but his rational and scientific impact less so. Yet it may well be in thanks to Emerson that Unitarianism and thus Unitarian Universalism has so easily and consistently recognized the compatibility of science and spirituality.
Emerson and his good friend Henry David Thoreau were, each in their own way, deeply scientific and spiritual men. These two friends from over a century and a half back, Thoreau the naturalist and activist, and Emerson the lecturer and philosopher, approached the relationship of science and spirituality from almost opposite directions – but each understood there to be a strong and undeniable connection.
Thoreau worked from the ground up as a naturalist observing what was available for observation. Emerson worked from the top down, beginning with the premise that the universe is of a whole: ordered and designed.
Of the two, perhaps Thoreau’s contribution is easier to see. Thoreau was a naturalist with the eye of a poet. He was one of those brilliant early writers exploring the natural world. He had a way of looking and seeing that was clearly scientific. Witness this journal entry from 1856:
Men have been talking now for a week at the post-office about the age of the great elm, as a matter interesting but impossible to be determined. The very choppers and travelers have stood upon its prostrate trunk and speculated upon its age, as if it were a profound mystery. I stooped and read its years to them (127 at nine and a half feet), but they heard me as the wind that once sighed through its branches. They surmised that it might be two hundred years old, but they never stooped to read the inscription. Truly they love darkness rather than light. One said it was probably one hundred and fifty, for he had heard somebody say that for fifty years the elm grew, for fifty it stood still, and for fifty it was dying. (Wonder what portion of his career he stood still!) Truly all men and not men of science. (26 January 1856, Journal VIII:145-6; Thoreau)
Or, as James Audubon put it, “When the bird and the book disagree, always believe the bird.”
Thoreau was a transcendentalist at heart. He wrote “Knowledge is to be acquired only by a corresponding experience.” That is a core concept among the Transcendentalists. And it harkens back to the definitions from the reading by Rebecca Costa about beliefs and knowledge. Your personal experience is the authority by which truth is to be known or judged. Thoreau’s intuitive transcendentalist leanings rested firmly on scientific examination and deductive observation.
With Emerson it is a little harder to see the connection. Emerson, after all was a philosopher not a naturalist. While is first collection of essays was titled Nature, the driving point was that the human mind was the center of living. Emerson dwelt in the realm of the mind. He was an idealist and a bit of a mystic. And yet, his essays and lectures tended to carry strong elements of science and the natural world.
Emerson was very well read and stayed current with all the scientific discoveries of his day. Biographer Robert Richardson, Jr., in his book Emerson, Mind of Fire, wrote “Over the years, Emerson’s openness to science kept his thoughts ballasted with fact and observation and his writing anchored solidly in the real world.” (p142)
And this is the man today known as the Patron Saint of Religious Seekers! Perhaps Emerson could serve also as the Patron Saint for scientists open to spirit. The point is that both science and spirit are of value, direct knowledge and beliefs build from trust are of value, they balance each other as a means to discern truth. And they balance best when they inform each other. Albert Einstein’s statement on the subject helps parse out the relationship. “Science without religion is lame and religion without science is blind.” For Emerson and Thoreau, science and spirit were complimentary tools for learning about the universe. And for Unitarian Universalism into today, we weave our way through scholarly searching and more wonder-laden spiritual yearnings.
Truth is one; and there are many ways to discern truth and many kinds of truth to learn. There are some things we can know, some things we can experience. There are also mysteries for us to ponder and trust we can extend when it is best to do so. Religion need not fear for the truths disclosed by science, indeed, the wonders of creation keep opening wider with each scientific disclosure. Study your own life like a scientist seeking truth from the fluttering depths of your spirit. “When the bird and the book disagree, always believe the bird.” Or help rework the book so others may know better what they might be seeing.
In a world without end
May it be so.