Rev. Douglas Taylor
There is a story of an adventurer who went out to explore uncharted regions. He discovered majestic mountain ranges, rolling hillsides, waterfalls and river systems of unsurpassed beauty. He returned to his home town and told the people of his adventures, he tried to convey the wonder and beauty with his words but eventually felt at a loss to express adequately what he had experienced. And so he implored the people to seek out these sights for themselves. They asked him to draw a map that they might see what he saw. The adventurer complied with their request, hoping to inspire them. They received his map with reverence, framed it and displayed it prominently. Generations of scholars studied the map and the people prided themselves on possessing the key to such beauty and wonder – but never once did anyone else from that town ever set foot on the lands represented in the marvelous chart.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “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 entreated us to each have an original experience of the universe, not necessarily a novel experience, simply your own. “Feel the rain on your skin,” Natasha Bedingfield sings, “no one else can feel it for you.” Beliefs, doctrines, and great books like the Bible are but maps, leave them behind, go forth and meet life, find yourself in the universe. No one else can do it for you. Welcome to Unitarian Universalism. Here we strive to help each other uncover experiences such as these. We offer a great many maps but we affix a warning label to each one declaring that none are authoritative, yet all are reliable!
One of the activities that we do during the formal New UU class, held two or three times each year now, is called the Four Corners Game. It starts with religious labels: do you consider yourself a Theist, a Humanist, or a Pagan? Each of these three theological perspectives is designated to a different corner. The fourth corner is for everything else: mystics, agnostics, eclectics and those who are simply confused or uncertain. Then, everyone in the room stands up, locates themselves and moves off to one corner or another. Typically there are a few who try stand between two or more corners. You know the joke: get two Unitarian Universalists in a room together and you’ll uncover three or more theological perspectives! Next we run through a couple of questions about human nature, and folks line up on a continuum from one side of the room to the other: do you believe in free will or fate? Are you determined by nature and genetics or by nurture and environment? Remember you don’t have to pick one or the other. This is a continuum: fit yourself along the line. Are you on one side of the room or the other or somewhere in between? Then we wrap up with a question that gets us back into the corners again. The question is: by what authority to you claim to know that the religious perspectives you’ve been expressing are true? How do you bolster your claim that what you’ve said is true?
The traditional sources of authority for religious truths are usually three (at least in western philosophy of religion): scripture, tradition, and reason. I know it is true because I read it in the Bible; I know it is true because these are the answers that have been handed down over the year; I know it is true because it makes sense; it fits logically based on our parameters. Perhaps you’re noticing that this offers only three corners to answer in the Four Corner game. Perhaps you’re wondering if I will let the forth corner will be “a little of everything or a little bit confused” as I had done with the one about religious labels. Sorry, no such luck. But don’t blame me; blame the Methodists and their founder John Wesley who came up with what is known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. The Wesleyan Quadrilateral outlines four sources of religious authority: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.
So, you believe in God; you believe in free will; you believe we are a product of our genetic coding; you believe in angels, fairies, saints, pure energy, or human potential: by what authority do you claim to know that this is true? How did you reach this conclusion? Let’s set aside for the moment our liberal predilection for the ambiguous and the mysterious. I’m not asking you if you are certain of your conclusion or convinced of the truth beyond a shadow of a doubt. I’m only asking to the extent you are able to pin yourself down on a point or two: how did you do it? There is a strong leaning among Unitarian Universalists toward the authority of reason and personal experience. Scripture and Tradition: not so much! Reason and Experience: “I believe it to be true because I’ve experienced it and it makes sense.” In his great essay Self-Reliance, Emerson admonishes, “Trust yourself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” And in the Divinity School Address he said, “Refuse all good models and dare to love God without mediator or veil.” The Transcendentalists such as Emerson captured the fullness of the sentiment that Experience can hold the authoritative claim above all other claims because by our intuition we run straight to the heart of God.
And this, because the heart in thee is the heart of all; not a valve, not a wall, not an intersection is there anywhere in nature, but one blood rolls uninterruptedly an endless circulation through all men, as the water of the globe is all one sea, and, truly seen, its tide is one. Let man, then, learn the revelation of all nature and all thought to his heart; this, namely: that the Highest dwells with him. (Oversoul)
The implication of such a connection is not only do we find no wall between us and the Divine, but in this same way we can know what is true and right and just. Emerson writes:
We lie in the lap of immense intelligence, which makes us receivers of its truth and organs of its activity. When we discern justice, when we discern truth, we do nothing of ourselves, but allow a passage to its beams. (Self-Reliance)
Thus, according to Emerson, there is a Divine moral law inscribe in the heart and conscience of every person. You recognize truth when you see it because you ‘lie in the lap’ of the source of truth – if you will but quiet the outer noise and open your eyes.
Or do you perhaps find a wall or veil or some sort of screen that does not allow passage? Do you have a screen between you and the universe, between you and the truth? Screens can come in the form of doctrines and beliefs that you use to filter all information that comes to you. They can come in the form of powerful experiences from the past that limit your vision of what future experiences can be. Screens can come in the form of the charismatic voice of another person compelling you to forsake your own perspective for that of another’s. I wonder if anyone can really get to that point where they experience no screen between themselves and the universe. I strive to recognize my veils: I know I look at the world with the perspective that all people have an inherent worth. It colors my perception of events.
Perhaps the metaphor of a screen can even be applied to the literal screens or the television and computers in our homes. And we suddenly develop a double entendre for the cry to be ‘unmediated.’ Is the media a screen between you and reality? “Dare to love God without mediator or veil.” Do you have a favorite media news source? A friend shared with me an argument she fell into with someone about NPR news being a superior source of information over CNN. It seems to me that if you choose to lock yourself into just one then you will certainly be setting up a screen to filter truth for yourself. It seems to me seeking out a variety of sources of information is your best way to find clarity. Which illustrates an interesting point.
Emerson said go it alone; to refuse all good models. He said when we can read God directly, why waste our time reading transcripts written by other people. He did not, however, mean that we should not read and seek information from other people. He did not mean we should ignore all good models, only that we should not limit ourselves to them. Indeed, were we to live only an inner life, ignoring scripture and tradition and the doctrines of others, we would decline quickly into a fantasy life with no basis in reality. Indeed, were we to refuse absolutely to read the transcripts written by other people in favor of writing our own transcripts only, then by what lights would we measure our progress? Emerson was a very well read scholar. It is the world’s opinions we are to eschew, not the world’s facts. Emerson writes:
It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who, in the midst of the crowd, keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude. (Self-Reliance)
But this line of thinking is dangerous stuff. Critics of Emerson to this day level the charge that people cannot be trusted with ideas such as these. Here he is advising people to think for themselves, believe for themselves, discern good and evil or themselves, to declare truth for themselves. Such can be done well, and such can also be done quite poorly. Shortcuts can be rationalized and self-reliant ideals can be turned to self-serving fancy. And perhaps too few pick up on Emerson’s coupling of such radical independence with critical self-evaluation.
About a week ago one of the syndicated opinion columnists in the Press & Sun Bulletin, George Will, wrote a piece about Ronald Reagan’s political theories having root in Emersonian thought. The article was reviewing a new book “Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History” by John Diggins. George Will writes,
Diggins says Reagan imbibed his mother’s form of Christianity, a strand of 19th century Unitarianism from which Reagan took a foundational belief that he expressed in a 1951 letter: “God couldn’t create evil so the desires he planted in us are good.” This logic – God is good, therefore so are God-given desires – leads to the Emersonian faith that we please God by pleasing ourselves. Therefore there is no need for the people to discipline their desires. So, no leader needs to suggest that the public has shortcomings and should engage in critical self-examination.
Now, I am not fluent in Reagan’s political theories, and I haven’t read Diggins’ book, and neither am I familiar enough with columnist George Will to tell you which of them has so grossly misunderstood Emersonian thought; so I won’t even try to assign blame. Perhaps it is a like the party game called ‘telephone’ where you whisper a message along the line. Reagan thinks this is what Emerson said, Diggins thinks this is what Reagan said, Will thinks this is what Diggins says and in the end I read this article and see statements attributed to Emerson that sound nothing like the man. Emerson never said we please God by pleasing ourselves. Emerson never implied that there was no need to discipline our desires. Emerson was in favor of critical self-examination. But then, it was Emerson who said, “To be great is to be misunderstood.” This certainly applied to Emerson; I’ll admit it probably applied to Reagan as well. But I’ll say no further along that line of thought.
By what authority to I tell you all of this? Certainly my first appeal is to the authority of scripture: what I tell you is true because I read it from scripture. Of course, around here, scripture includes more than the Christian Bible. The words of Emerson are fit alongside those of Micah, Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah! I also appeal to tradition: our history shows us the truth of my words. Throughout the ages great people like Emerson have demonstrated the veracity of what I have offered this morning. And still I appeal to reason: does not what I say make sense? Well, and finally, of course, I appeal to my intuition. I appeal to my personal experience: I have lived these ideas and been ennobled by them.
But don’t take my word for it. Life is an adventure filled with majestic sights, fertile lands, treacherous countrysides and beauty – such beauty as will leave you gasping and at a loss for words! And we have many maps detailing excellent locations to explore, charts describing the opportunities that await. Many of the maps are contradictory, but that is only because the landscape is different for each person who walks it. No map is authentic, yet all are reliable. Of course we can all stay right here if you wish and discuss together the sorts of things one might experience, we can study the maps together. But then, life was made not for the discussion of life but for living. What are you waiting for? Go!
In a world without end,
May it be so
Do I Have to Love Everyone?
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Yes! (Turn and walk away from pulpit as if sermon is over; turn back to pulpit and continue.)
I had talked with Vicky earlier this week and she suggested we do this sermon in a point counter-point style – and to have someone else come up and say, “(sigh) no.” But we’re not doing that, you’re stuck with “Yes, you do have to love everyone.”
Because love, love will keep us together; love is a many splendored thing; love makes the world go ‘round; all we need is love; and love hurts. And Valentine’s Day has come upon us as the ultimate Hallmark holiday celebrating this romantic fancy we call love. I read somewhere that an excess of 150 million cards will be exchanged this coming February 14th. One could almost suggest that we as a culture are love-obsessed.
The origin of our modern Valentine’s Day comes from the Roman festival “Lupercalia,” a day in mid-February when each young man in town drew lottery for the name of the young woman who would become his ‘sexual companion’ for the next year. Around 500 C.E. Pope Gelasive swapped the Lupercalia festival for the feast day of a minor Christian saint – a common practice used to win over the local pagans. So, instead of drawing the name of a young woman, the men were supposed to draw the name of a Christian saint whom they would emulate for the coming year. For the life of me I can’t imagine how the Christians were so successful using strategies such as this.
They must have been experts at the ‘hard-sell,’ especially considering the full legend of the saint the church chose to host the day!
St. Valentine was a priest in the third century (or maybe a composite of several priests.) The Emperor Claudius had outlawed marriage for young men to conscript them into the military. The priest Valentine continued to marry young couples in secret. Discovered, he was sent to jail and sentenced to death for disobeying the Emperor. The legend continues that he fell in love with the jailor’s daughter, and wrote her a note, signed “from Your Valentine”, prior to his beheading on February 14, 270. (From Rev. Debra Haffner)
Then, over 200 years later, this defiant priest who lost his life to help young lovers is enlisted to be the poster boy to reign in the promiscuous habits of young lovers!
And so, our modern Valentine’s Day has gravitated away from a day to emulate saints but not entirely back to the original pagan custom. Arguably we strive on this day to emulate St. Valentine, I suppose. It has settled into our culture as a day of rejoicing for Romantic Love. And we teach our children, as Blanchard demonstrated in our reading, that indeed we need to give a Valentine’s Day card to everyone. But is this suggesting that we are to affect a romantic love for everyone we know? That would be ridiculous. You don’t need a degree in the humanities to know what a disaster that would be! That can’t possibly be what is suggested.
Perhaps the word ‘love’ is too broad a word to use with the assumption of clarity. Love is a much misused and misunderstood word. A friend has suggested we ban the word from the pulpit because it has grown meaningless and impotent through excessive exhibition. Indeed this is a common practice among Unitarian Universalists it seems. Great words like God, Peace, Love, and Liberal can be overused and misused and worn-out to the point of either cliché or idolatry. One remedy is to throw the word out for a while, let it cool off, then later pick it up again, dust it off and discover again its depth of power. So allow me to do some dusting.
What first excited me about preaching on the topic of Love again was a national Geographic article last year about the Biochemistry of love. (National Geographic, Feb 2006: pp 32-49) The description reads, “Scientists are discovering that the cocktail of brain chemicals that sparks romance is totally different from the blend that fosters long-term attachment.” This is another area of study where the hard sciences of biology, chemistry and physics offer corroborating evidence for what the soft sciences of psychology, sociology, and anthropology have been saying for decades; and which theology and philosophy have been saying for centuries!
The article begins with the story of Anthropologist Helen Fisher who is “looking for love, quite literally, with the aid of an MRI machine.” She and her colleagues look for couples who have recently fallen in love, pop one of them into the MRI machine and show them a neutral photograph and then a photo of their sweetie. Then the scientists watch to see which parts of the brain light up! (For the record – that would be the ventral tegmental area and the Caudate nucleus.) They note that the ‘madly in love’ areas of the brain are linked with the reward centers and the pleasure centers – a lot of dopamine spreads from those spots. Thus, “falling” in love is like an exciting amusement park ride. But, be warned, the figurative rollercoaster can make you sick, same as the literal one! Another break-through demonstrating this is found in the work of Donatella Marazziti, a professor of psychiatry from Italy. Professor Marazziti has been studying what she calls the biochemistry of lovesickness. Not surprisingly, she has found similarities in the serotonin neurotransmitters and the chemical profile of both love and obsessive-compulsive disorder. I can’t stop thinking about you; night and day, you are the one; only you can make my dreams come true; I’ll sleep on your door step all night and day, just to keep you from walking away. Yeah, having a crush on someone comes out your neurotransmitters like OCD.
So, that is interesting, but the best stuff comes later in the article. While novelty triggers dopamine in the brain and thus feelings of attraction, it is a different chemical entirely that stimulates attachment. “Oxytocin is the hormone that promotes a feeling of connection, bonding.” Oxytocin is released in abundance when a mother nurses her infant, when you give or receive a massage, and when a couple makes love. Attraction and attachment happen in different parts of the brain with different sets of hormones. The chemicals in the brain that conspire to bring you together are not the same ones that work to keep you together.
So far, this indicates there are at least two forms of love expressed in the biochemical levels of brain function. Typically a serious exploration of different forms of Love will consider at least three forms of love. The three categories are typically developed to follow the three significant Greek words that are generally translated as love: Eros, Philia, and Agape. Romantic or sexual love was called Eros; this is easily linked with the production of dopamine and serotonin. ‘Friendship’ in Modern Greek is Philia, which in Ancient Greek denoted a love for friends, family, and community distinguished by loyalty and familiarity. Certainly this sounds like the sort of bond-strengthening love that is associated with oxytocin production in the brain. Well, this leaves me wondering if they could find the biochemical signature of Agape love. Which neurotransmitters are firing in the Dali Lama’s brain or in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Brain? Which bio-chemicals flooded the brains of Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King Jr.?
Agape is a type of love where the object to be loved does not need to possess any particular qualities such as beauty or familiarity. It is unconditional love. The New Thayer’s Greek to English Lexicon of the New Testament describes Agape as: “to love, to be full of goodwill and exhibit the same; to have a preference for [and] regard for the welfare of others; of the benevolence which God in providing salvation for men, has exhibited by sending His Son to them and giving Him up to death; of the love which led Christ, in procuring human salvation to undergo sufferings and death”
When I was in seminary I had a Methodist professor of New Testament say to the class of mostly Christians that the difference between Unitarian Universalists and most Christians is that Christians focus on Jesus’ death and resurrection while UUs focus on Jesus’ life and teachings. Someone once told me that when a Christian asks him, “What is a Unitarian Universalist?” he likes to respond saying “We practice what you preach!”
The teachings of Jesus, in particular the ethical sayings found in the Sermon on the Mount, have stirred the souls of Unitarian Universalists through the centuries. It is in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:43-48) that Jesus says to love your enemies. He asks “If you love only those who love you, what good is that?” The Greek word in these verses is Agape, not Eros or Philia. The most famous discourse on Agape love is found in Paul’s first letter to the congregation in Corinth. “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude … It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” In this letter from Paul, the word he uses is Agape, the same word the gospel writer used in writing down Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Of course, Jesus spoke Aramaic, not Greek – so I can’t tell you that Jesus was steering at this particular interpretation of Love, only that the authors of the gospels intended us to see it as such. Though, in fairness to them, the context of Jesus’ words about loving our enemies does fit with the Greek concept of love as defined in the word Agape.
Agape love is not a feeling, it is a choice. Perhaps that is why we haven’t uncovered the biochemical signature of Agape love yet: it is a choice, a decision. If it were a feeling it would have a hormone linked to it. Instead it is a choice to be concerned for the well-being of others, to treat them with dignity and respect. A person may be difficult, obnoxious, and completely undeserving but you can still choose to offer this form of love to her or him by extending respect and a wish for that person’s well-being. With a modern global perspective, we might translate Agape using the Buddhist concept of loving-kindness. While loving-kindness is not quite synonymous with what Agape is meant to convey, they both carry the tone of unconditional regard.
And that, I believe, is the aspect of love that we are called to offer to everyone. Are there difficult people in your life? Are there folks you find “irritating, obnoxious, mean, aggravating, anxiety-producing, hostile, difficult, stupid, disturbing, or some alarming combination of the aforementioned attributes.” (Blanchard) Perhaps there are people from work or school or in your extended family you would fit in this category. Maybe there are certain politicians or celebrities for whom you’ve taken a particular distaste. Perhaps some of them are members of this congregation with you. Who would you balk at sending a Valentine’s card to? Do you hate anybody?
Our faith calls us to treat all people fairly, to recognize the inherent dignity of each person, and to discern the ways in which our individual lives are interdependent with all life – including the life of that irritating, obnoxious, mean, aggravating, anxiety-producing, hostile, difficult, stupid, or disturbing person you have to deal with. This largely stems from our Universalist heritage that says we are all accepted, we are all loved – even the irritating, obnoxious, mean, aggravating, anxiety-producing, hostile, difficult, stupid, and/or disturbing people. Especially them, if for no other reason than that you may be one of them according to another person’s perspective.
Universalism since its inception has rejected not only the eternal punishment of hell, but also the reason for such a punishment in the first place: the concept of original sin. Hosea Ballou, an early leader in the Universalist denomination, said that the consequences of sin are manifest in this life alone; that “hell is not a place of punishment, but a state of rebellion against God and against the unity of humans and God.” (Robinson, David The Unitarians and the Universalists, p 65) The implication here is that we choose to make of life a heaven or hell. This is not exactly free will as the Unitarians would see it, but it does leave in the hands of humanity the capacity to respond to the love of God by loving one another or by making of this life a hell. We hold that power, and that responsibility!
When you withhold your Valentine from some people, you are in rebellion against the unity of humans and God; you are in rebellion against the interdependent web of existence; you are in rebellion against the nature of life; you are in rebellion against your better self – whatever theological framework you need me to set this in the outcome is still the same: Yes, you do have to love everyone. That’s part of the work. We have the capacity and the responsibility to respond to God’s love by loving one another. That is what life is all about: to further the human venture, to help each other and all life to become the beloved community.
So look through that list of names I know you’ve begun while I’ve been preaching. Make a choice. Find one that is really bugging you. Send them a Valentine’s card. Go ahead, give it a try. Take that step toward ushering in the beloved community.
In a world without end
May it be so.
The Practice of Presence
Rev. Douglas Taylor
I dropped my mom off yesterday with friends in Little Falls who will be caring for her for the next few weeks. They are likely on the road back to Boston as we speak. My family and I have had a really wonderful time taking care of my mother during her visit with us these past few weeks. She is more than halfway through her recovery time from the ankle surgery which is keeping her off her foot for so long. She has needed help getting around. She doesn’t need a lot of help, but the help she’s needed was indispensable! I have fun with her because we talk shop together, what with us both being ministers. We would slip into delightful conversations about the rhythms of church life, quantum physics and theology. When she learned that I planned to preach this morning on “The Practice of Presence,” my mother offered me a meditation she had written some years back. It begins with a story. She writes,
Listen for a moment to the wisdom of a child. The little girl was late coming home and explained to concerned parents that she had encountered her friend who had broken her favorite doll on the sidewalk. “And you stopped to help her pick up the pieces?” her father asked. “Oh, no,” she said, “I stopped and helped her cry.”
When we experience brokenness, we must cry. But it is not easy to stop and cry. At those times, we could use the help of a friend. In small, sad, snatches of time we sit with one another comforting the pain into tears. And in so doing, learn that the tears are healing waters.
Let us not turn away from the pain we know. Let us not turn inward toward the pain with isolating fear. Let us not stop up the tears in drowning pools. Rather, let yourself be one who can cry with another.
It will not be to end the pain, but to bring comfort within the pain. It will not be to repair the broken pieces, but to mourn them; to recognize their loss.
This will require of us the courage of our compassion and the conviction of our caring. To cry with another is to stand before the hurt and recognize it for what it is and to acknowledge its place within our being.
May we each have the courage, the conviction and the capacity to cry with one another.
So Be It.
-The Rev. Dr. Elizabeth M. Strong,
And so, now I wish I had titled my sermon after one of the lines in her meditation: The Courage of Compassion, rather than the Practice of Presence. It is compassion I wish to speak of most, and how it is an act of courage in many ways … I want to speak of that as well. “Let us not turn away,” she writes. “May we have the courage of compassion.” Oh, presence is important, to be sure, that is the healing balm that people need from one anther in our world. The practice of presence is powerful work that can change the world; we don’t see enough of it. But perhaps that is because there is a deficiency of compassion just now. Compassion leads us to be present. Compassion leads us to notice what someone else is going through. Compassion leads us to reach out.
And it seems, at times, that it does not happen enough. It seems, at times, we need the courage of compassion because the world does not encourage such reaching out to occur. The culture does not encourage such caring. As if it is a radical act of resistance to care.
As I recall, a few months ago I warned you that to be a member of this congregation is to be a member of the community of resistance. I mentioned that the grand purpose for which this and any other free church exists is to grow and to serve; to faithfully seek together to find and live out the ways of love; to be a community of resistance. I remember saying we are not called to be respectable among the other religions; we are not called to be palatable or popular or within any proximity of prevailing opinion. We are called upon to be radical, to be a community of resistance, to be the light of the world, the salt of the earth. I called each of us to stand up and be counted among those who are human in community.
Can you imagine the implications such a mission could have on the caring ministry of the congregation? Perhaps, when I brought this up a few months ago you were able to see the repercussions such a commitment to resistance could have on our justice-making work together. Perhaps you could see the consequences this could have for the Social Responsibility Committee – but the Caring Committee? What would it matter to the Caring Committee that we declare ourselves to be a community of resistance? Pastoral Care and Social Justice fit together better than most might think. Our second Principle, for example calls us to promote “justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.” Without compassion there can be no real justice. Compassion rests at the heart of any worthy resistance!
There was a popular bumper sticker from a few years ago claiming that the most radical thing you can do is introduce people to each other. We are a radical people with radical ideas of how to be a community of faith where all are welcome regardless differences in beliefs. We are a radical people in a time when people are pushed into market niches and stereotypes. Our faith calls us to break down such barriers every chance we can. Unitarian Universalist theology will not accept the division of humanity into the saved and the unsaved, the good people and the evil people, those worthy of compassion and those unworthy of compassion. We’re all in this together.
Back in the early 70’s, Henri Nouwen wrote a powerful book called The Wounded Healer. The book quickly became a standard for pastoral theology. The premise of the title is that “in our own woundedness we can become a source of life for others.” The bulk of the book, however, is centered upon a critique of culture. Nouwen said that we live in a dislocated world, a fragmented society, a rootless generation, and that we are a hopeless and lonely and isolated mix of people. Nouwen said we are driven apart by forces in the culture. Healing comes from a radical stance of hospitality, a welcoming in; it is a standing forth with all that you are and inviting others in. The most radical thing you can do is introduce people to each other. Or as J. M. Barrie put it: “Those who bring sunshine to others cannot keep it from themselves.”
It is interesting to note, however, that this isolation and dislocation is not the base human condition with which we must all suffer. Certainly Unitarian Universalist theology does not suggest this to be the case, and neither does our biology. Human biology is wired for empathy and caring. Research lately has demonstrated that there are areas in the brain, in fact specific neurons, which are wired for compassion and empathy just like there are parts of the brain for moving your leg or thinking about ethics or remembering your social security number.
Mirror Neurons are the groundbreaking discovery in Social Neuroscience from the past few decades. According to Wikapedia, the reputable online encyclopedia, “A mirror neuron is a neuron which fires both when an animal performs an action and when the animal observes the same action performed by another animal. Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of another animal, as though the observer were itself performing the action.” In one early study they saw that this cluster of neurons fired when a monkey ripped a piece of paper and the same set of neurons fired when the monkey watched another monkey rip the piece of paper.
Mirror Neurons were first seen as a breakthrough in understanding linguistic development. In humans, they have been found in the pre-motor cortex and the inferior parietal cortex of the brain. In what is called Broca’s area, a language center in the brain, the mirror neurons are linked with imitative learning which is critical in language development, but also in nearly all forms of developments. They are still studying these things, so there may not be an answer to this yet, but if researchers are calling mirror neurons Empathy Neurons, I wonder: do these neurons fire the same way in my brain when I cry and when I see someone else cry?
But I also wonder, is there something we do to kill these neurons off in ourselves? Are we deadening ourselves to these mirror neurons? Because so often the evidence demonstrates that people just don’t care! Newspapers are filled with examples, the movies we watch and games we play for entertainment may also be contributing to the training of our mirror neurons to settle down and die. “Desensitizing” was the concept from psychology, I wonder if biology will corroborate the story!
A few weeks ago I was sitting at the service department waiting room of the car dealer waiting for them to complete the several hundreds of dollars of work my car needed. I was feeling surly, I was feeling grumpy, I was feeling out of sorts partly because I didn’t have several hundred dollars to spare and was trying to calculate where the money would come from and partly because I had planned to be on the road to Boston a few hours earlier to pick up my mom to bring her here for the holidays. Suffice to say I was preoccupied, I was distracted, Nouwen’s word for it was dislocated. I wasn’t feeling particularly pastoral or caring of others at that moment when one of the sales people walked past, nodded at me, and began making small talk. I wasn’t interested.
Of course, I’ve never been interested in small talk. I’ve heard many ministers describe a dislike or discomfort with small talk, so I don’t feel unique in this. I do, however, remember a game we did during one of the Spirituality Retreats here at the church that reminded me of this. The game was naming and describing your favorite things. Each thing meant something about your self-perception: Three words describing your favorite animal were supposed to be three words describing how you see yourself, three words describing your favorite body of water were supposed to show how you are with intimate relationships. So name your favorite fruit, and (this was slightly different) describe how you would eat it. I chose a Kiwi fruit. I would cut it in half and scoop out the middle. (Yum!) This is supposed to describe how you make friends. Hmmm, not much room for small talk there: cut ‘em in half and scoop out the middle!
Anyway, I’ve learned how to make small talk, to chat, to schmooze! I can do it. But it’s work; it is not something that comes natural. So, I was sitting in the customer waiting room and the salesman starts chatting with me: the weather, long hours, end of the work day. I smiled; I made non-committal noises like, “Yeah,” and “Hmmm.” As he walked away it occurred to me that he had made a comment about a pinched nerve that was bothering him.
I don’t know, but it sounded when he said it like it was another part of the small talk, and perhaps, for him, it was. “It’s so warm, do you think it will snow before Christmas. Whew, the day’s almost over. My sciatica is killing me. Hey, did you see the game last night?” But I was grumpy and distracted and did not really hear him. Maybe if I had been paying attention, maybe if I had been present to him he would have told me more: not so I could have made it all better, just so that he could have told someone what was going on. Just so he could have known that someone else knew of his problem and cared. But I don’t even know if it was just another comment in his small talk or if it really was bothering him. I wasn’t paying attention.
I’d been reading about Buddhism and the experience of a great teacher who could pay attention to a student as if the student were the only one in the world as he or she asked a question. I have had an experience like that – when a teacher gave me what felt like her undivided attention, her whole focus. Suddenly the question I raised, the comment I offered became really important. Someone was paying attention. It was an intense experience, I remember this teacher as an intense person. I have tried to offer that same level of attention to others and I don’t think I have achieved it. I’ve probably come close, but certainly not with any consistency. Something for me to still strive for.
We are dislocated in the world. Cars, Television, games, opinions, political parties, and religious denominations seem to contrive to keep us from seeing each other. Be radical: smile back! Go visiting strangers in a nursing home, bring some sunshine to others, sit a moment and listen to another person and discover what is on his or her mind at that moment. So simple, and yet so rarely done. Take up the radical work of resistance: visit, listen, smile! Offer the practice of presence, the courage of compassion, the gift of listening. You have that power within you to offer hospitality to others in a dislocated world; to welcome someone in and help them locate themselves amidst the odds and ends of experience.
The little girl said, “I stopped and helped her cry.”
Let us not turn away from the pain we know.
Let us have the courage of compassion.
To cry with another is to stand before the hurt and recognize it for what it is
and to acknowledge its place within our being.
May we each have the courage, the conviction and the capacity to cry with one another – to care for one another.
In a world without end
May it be so
Rev. Douglas Taylor
We planted bulbs at my house this year. It is the first time I’ve ever done that. I’ve planted seeds before. I once planted dill and raised a handful of dill caterpillars on it. But I’d never dug up the earth at the end of the growing season and entrusted bulbs to the cold earth. I see why they say ‘to plant a garden is an act of faith.’ The first day after putting our bulbs in the earth I chased a squirrel around the front yard to retrieve one of my tulip bulbs. I returned the half-eaten bulb to the ground, I don’t know if the squirrel got the bulb again later but the garden seems undisturbed. So, I’ve done my part. I put them in the ground, watered them, and chased off a predator. My part in this is done; it is the Earth’s turn. I look forward to seeing the colors in spring. With trust and confidence, I look forward to seeing my bulbs do what bulbs do. There is a grower’s faith that says ‘you are not in control of the growing, but there is a lot of messy, hard work for you to do.’
And we like to see the results; we like to see the spring bloom of flowers. Spring is certainly the time I notice the beauty of the Earth. People like spring: all that growth and bloom and color and happiness and beauty and fullness. But if I were to ascribe a season for faith, I would not pick spring. For surely it is in winter we experience the depths of loneliness and separation through the bleak and darker days – whether it is literally winter or the metaphorical winter-times of life. Those are the times when faith is nurtured; it is in times of despair that faith is uncovered. Not when we are happy and content, but precisely when we most need it. Faith comes alive in the darkness and in the heartache of our deepest experiences.
I remember one snowy night more than fifteen years ago when my car spun out of control on the icy roads. It was dark, the wind was blowing snow across the icy roads; I was on my way to work. I had the overnight shift at the residential home for the developmentally disabled adults. I was working for the Clinton County ARC at the time in Plattsburg NY while finishing my Bachelor’s degree. It was late, it was cold, I was young, the car was a used little Dotson sports car my dad had given me when I got married, and I thought I could handle the road. So I tried to pass one of the cars creeping along the road. As I moved into the other lane and sped up, the car slipped and spun around and hurtled backward the rest of the way across the street toward the telephone pole and the snow bank. A few seconds later, wedged firmly into the snow bank, I noticed my headlight illuminating the telephone pole half a foot away. The front of my car, which was really the back based on the direction I was traveling, had slid within inches of that pole at forty or more miles per hour. I’m guessing I was not in mortal danger during the accident; the pole would have hit the passenger side of the car. But then again, who knows.
It wasn’t the first time I’d spun off the road into a snow bank and it would not be my last. In and of itself the event was not remarkable beyond the short term consequences. I wasn’t hurt, the car was not damaged. I was late to work, but folks in the Plattsburg area expect delays like this when the weather turns foul – which is does regularly each winter. And the thoughts that flashed through my head as the car was spinning out of my control were also unremarkable save one. Certainly it is interesting to me that I did not panic, I was detached from the event as it unfolded. I noticed the telephone pole and calculated where it would connect with the car if it connected, I noticed how foolish I must have looked to the car I had almost passed, I considered before I hit the snow bank that this was probably going to make me late to work. Much of that, I think, can be chalked up to the standard teenage inability to comprehend the possibility of one’s own mortality. But there was another thought that flashed through my mind that I suspect may have been somewhat more than that. I remember thinking in the instant when I noticed it was all going out of control: I’m going to be alright.
Now, if this were merely the confidence that I would survive, that I would live, I would consider it another example to the standard teenage inability to comprehend the possibility of one’s own mortality – but that’s not what it was. Instead it was a confidence that with all the possible outcomes of the moment, I would be all right. I don’t remember considering all of them and thinking, “Yeah, I could handle that.” But I do remember thinking, “I’m going to be alright,” in the sense that whatever happens, come what may, I will do what ever is the next thing to be done. Where did that come from? Have you ever felt that?
I remember watching my mom while I was growing up in the church. Churches are always messy, busy, slightly chaotic places when things are going well. Some people would respond with much anxiety and running around. There were always several things up in the air and none of them were going as planned or at least they were demanding full attention of several people who could not give their full attention … I’m sure many of you know what that can be like because that happens here at this church as well. Anyway, my mother, who was the Director of Religious Education for many years and the Minister of Religious Education for a few more years, would remain calm in midst of all this and just continue to do the next thing that needed to be done. She was a walking example of the axiom: this to shall pass. I’m not sure I would have used these words then to describe what I was seeing, but now I can tell you, I learned a great deal about faith watching my mother move through church chaos with such calm. She trusted that we would get done those things that needed to get done, and whatever we didn’t get done, well, we would figure that out when we got there.
Faith is a form of trusting, a confidence in life or in God or in yourself. Having faith is occasionally seen to be the same things as believing; but it is not. Faith is something like belief, but not the same as belief. They point to faith as a form of trust or even confidence. Certainly I agree that ‘faith’ is not the same thing as ‘belief’. One distinction is that belief is passive, while faith is active. For example, the Greek word for “belief” describes a mental stance, but the Greek word for “faith” was a noun-verb hybrid concerning a physical act based on a mental stance. I had an active confidence that I would be alright – I did not ‘believe’ I could handle the car so as to avoid the telephone pole or that I could not be hurt or broken somehow. At the time, at least, what I had was simply a confidence.
Last week I pulled out a quote form Painter Paul Gardner who said, “A painting is never finished. It simply stops in interesting places.” And so the same could be said of my faith or anyone’s faith. It’s never finished; it simply stops in interesting places. My faith is like a moving feast, it is dynamic and changing. Life is always changing. Mount Everest, the huge mountain standing as a perfect symbol of massive, unyielding, constant, solid reality is “growing” a quarter of an inch per year as the continental plate under India pushes under the Asian Plate to its north. The whole universe is alive and pulsing with movement. Life is always changing and it is to life that we must stay true. And so, faith is always growing.
This summer I attended a minister’s conference on faith led by author and Buddhist meditation instructor Sharon Salzberg. Salzberg had recently written a book entitled Faith: Trusting your own Deepest Experience which was the focus of her time with us. She approached faith from a Buddhist perspective which was delightful for me who had only ever explored faith though Christian perspectives and Unitarian Universalist perspectives (most of which are rooted in the Western/Christian perspective of faith.)
To talk of Buddhism we begin with the four noble truths, but I don’t really want to talk about the four noble truths. I want to talk about the three stages of faith Salzberg described. But of course I must briefly remind us of the four noble truths. So, briefly: all life is suffering and that all suffering is due to attachment. The reason we experience suffering is we are trying to hold on to something: desires, love, or happiness. There is a way out of the suffering, a way to “extinguish the thirst,” to not get caught by all the attachments, which is the path of non-attachment, the eightfold path toward enlightenment, (right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right understanding, right mindfulness, and right concentration.) It takes many, many pages of holy text to unpack that eight-fold path mentioned in the fourth noble truth.
Sharon Salzberg sat in the front and spoke of her experiences and her understanding of Buddhism. I took a few notes, but had to buy her book because I didn’t take very good notes as I was held by her presence. She made everyone in the room comfortable with her warmth. She had not a joyous look so much as an amused look in her eye, and she threw out gentle one-liners now and then as she described to us her experiences of suffering and faith. I remember thinking, “Oh, I wish I could be like that.” I try to be, I see many of you are like that in your own ways. I bump into so many of you in this congregation who have a radiance about you.
“Bright faith,” is what Buddhism calls that first level of faith. It is the beginning; like falling in love. This faith is usually inspired by someone or something from outside you. Typically when you are in Bright Faith you have abundant energy about your faith, it is a time of discovery. Bright faith is said to be an intoxicating time of exuberant. It is marked by a surrender of apathy and cynicism. Every stage of faith, Salzberg told us, has a near enemy and a far enemy. The far enemy of Bright Faith is apathy and cynicism: those things that are the near opposite of this kind of faith. The near enemy of Bright Faith is Blind faith. With blind faith we not only surrender apathy and cynicism, we also surrender discriminating intellect – and Blind Faith is not a beginning, it is a conclusion. Bright faith though is recognized as the starting point. It is a time to enjoy, and when you see it in others it is something to be encouraged. Do you remember when you discovered Unitarian Universalism? For some it was an experience of Bright Faith, of falling in love, of joyous discovery; but not necessarily. For some, discovering Unitarian Universalism was an experience in the next stage of faith.
Verifying Faith, Buddhism calls it. Verifying Faith is the time when we balance our discovery with examination. It is a time of testing and doubting; checking what you’ve been told against your own experiences. Salzberg writes, “It is a common assumption that faith deepens as we are taught more about what to believe; in Buddhism, on the contrary, faith grows only as we question what we are told, as we try teachings out by putting them into practice to see if they really make a difference in our lives.” (p 48)
The far enemy of Verifying faith is fear. Fear keeps many people from checking their beliefs against reality lest they discover their beliefs are false. Fear keeps people stuck. As I said last week in the sermon on Doubt, “Doubt is the handmaiden of truth, the constant attendant of new discovery. Doubt keeps us honest.” The far enemy of Verifying Faith is fear; the near enemy is walk-away doubt or unskilled doubt. Salzberg explains:
Unlike skillful doubt which bring us closer to exploring the truth, unskillful doubt pulls us farther away. A story from the Buddha’s life illustrates the consequences of unskillful doubt. After his enlightenment, the Buddha arose from his place under the bodhi tree and set out walking along the road. The first person he encountered was struck by the radiance of his face and the power of his presence. Dazzled, the man asked, “Who are you?” The Buddha replied, “I am an awakened one.” The man just said, “Well, maybe,” and walked away. Had he shown curiosity, taken the time to follow up on his doubt by asking questions, he might have discovered something profoundly transforming. (p57)
Doubt is useful – it is the handmaiden of truth. But walk-away doubt leaves opportunities behind.
Abiding Faith usually does not arrive until after the fear, the testing, the doubt, the suffering, and the despair. Abiding faith is hard to describe and most attempts are trite and cliché because they are bound by one’s own experience: they have to be. In abiding faith you have come to know and understand the ultimate, unwavering rock upon which you can rest all your concern. It is yours and yours alone and the words you use to name it are your words borne of your living. It is that which holds all. You may have beliefs that describe that in which you have faith, but beliefs are not faith.
There is so much suffering in the world, so much work to be done to ease the hurting and to heal the heartache. Having faith does not stop the hurt, but it does place the suffering in a bigger context of meaning. Consider this story:
One day some people came to the master and asked, “How can you be happy in a world of such impermanence, where you cannot protect your loved ones from harm, illness, and death?” The master held up a glass and said, “Someone gave me this glass, and I really like this glass. It holds my water admirably and it glistens in the sunlight. I touch it and it rings! One day the wind may blow it off the shelf, or my elbow may knock it from the table. I know this glass is already broken, so I enjoy it incredibly.” (From Sitting Zen by James Ishmael Ford; p85 of Everyday Spiritual Practice, Scott Alexander, ed.)
The glass is already broken. Don’t cling to it, enjoy it now. The tulip bulb is already stolen by the squirrel – plant anyway; the chaos has already caused trouble and misunderstanding at church – do your work with passion anyway; the car has already hit the telephone pole and is broken, you are broken – live anyway. Enjoy life now, anyway. Abiding faith does not change my suffering or heartache, it only changes me and how I am with my suffering and heartache. Abiding Faith includes the Bright Faith and the Verifying Faith. There is the joy and the pain, the hope and the frustration, the unquenchable question that demands an answer and the unwavering assurance that the answer holds only limited use. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1) Abiding Faith holds assurance that life at its root, though ineffable, is enough.
We, of course, move in and out of these three stages of faith. Bright Faith is not a one-time experience. It can recur. I know I have Abiding Faith, but I am still occasionally swept up in the energy and excitement of Bright Faith all over again, but not so often. I feel I have been in the Verifying Faith stage for quite some time in relation to our communal faith. I have been testing and questioning Unitarian Universalism as a faith tradition. Many of my sermons are just such a testing of my own faith and of our faith. I know, though, that I have seen what Emerson might call an ‘inner knowing,’ a glimpse of something upon which I rest all my concern.
Let go, trust in your self. Let go of attachments: you can’t make the things you love last forever. Let go and discover within you that divine seed that can spring forth in the dead of winter. To be true to yourself you will suffer and uncover an Abiding Faith that will last through suffering and loss and fear and even in the face of death. With Abiding Faith you know, perhaps even despite the evidence, that you’re going to be alright.
In a world without end
May it be so.
A Reasonable Doubt, and Beyond
Rev. Douglas Taylor
“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” (Hebrews 11:1) according to the author of the letter to the Hebrews in the Christian Scriptures. “The evidence of things not seen.” Of course, Mark Twain put it more bluntly saying, “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.” Or at least that is how some define faith. There are however a large number of religious traditions that do not characterize faith as a blind believing in things for which there is no evidence. Of course I wish to tell you about how this works in our particular faith tradition, but I am always aware that this year the children are focusing on World religions in their Sunday School classes. I like to allow that to effect our focus here in the sanctuary as well.
There is a book I picked up because I heard about it during an interview with the author on NPR a year or two ago. Doubt: a history by Jennifer Hecht is a thick book that runs through the history of great doubters like Socrates and Jesus, Confucius and Thomas Jefferson. She explores doubt in the various world religions as well as great secular traditions. “Like belief,” she writes in the introduction, “doubt takes a lot of different forms from ancient Skepticism to modern scientific empiricism, from doubt in many gods to doubt in one God, to doubt that recreates and enlivens faith and doubt that is really disbelief.” (Doubt: a history by Jennifer Hecht; p ix)
Many of us are here in this congregation because we were lead here by doubt. It is not that doubting brought us to try this community. But doubting is what led many of us away from other communities where doubt was discouraged, where questions were quarantined, where wondering about stuff was not welcomed. Many people in this congregation left another faith community in doubt, or perhaps you were sent from or even kicked out of other communities because you had doubt about the creeds, and the beliefs, and the professions of faith. Or maybe you never were all that connected to a faith community and began to experience doubts about the meaningfulness of the life you were leading. However the details played out, doubt was a major element for many as they left. And now, with doubts still in hand, you are here.
A Catholic acquaintance of mine attempted a compliment saying, “Douglas, you’ve got your work cut out for you, I think it’s great what your doing. For so many people your church is their last chance.” And while, yes, it was patronizing, I took it in the spirit in which the comment was offered. It is rather remarkable, this community where you are welcome as you are, doubts and all. For many of us, I suppose this place could be considered our last chance. But I think it is more accurate to recognize that for so many people this community is their first chance. Many here find this to be the first chance to be in community without hiding some aspect of their faith. Many here find this to be our first chance to be in a community where we allow our beliefs to change and grow and mature.
As a religious movement, Unitarian Universalism is constantly pushing itself beyond narrow definitions of religion. We are perpetually searching for a better way to see and a better way to describe what we experience as religious people. We do not claim to have all the answers and do not demand anyone to adhere to even a specific set of questions. Here you’re allowed to be skeptical; indeed we encourage it for it sharpens truth. William Ellery Channing, the preeminent preacher from the founding of American Unitarianism, offered the text from first Thessalonians, chapter 5, verse 21 as his opening passage for the landmark Baltimore Sermon. That sermon from nearly two hundred years ago that launched Unitarianism as a denomination in its own right rather than continuing as the heresy de jour of liberal Christianity. He begin that sermon with the passage from Paul’s letter the Thessalonians, “Prove all things; hold fast that which is true.” (1 Thessalonians 5:21)
Unitarianism began as an iconoclastic faith; smashing the idols constructed under in the creeds and doctrines of the church. Prove all things; hold fast that which is good. At the inception of American Unitarianism, the major difference the Unitarians claimed was in their interpretation of Scripture. Channing said in that landmark Baltimore Sermon that as Unitarians we “feel it our bounden duty to exercise our reason upon [the Bible] perpetually.” By claiming that the use of reason was key, we have over the years followed Channing’s example on nearly every aspect of religious life imaginable.
Reasonable doubt helps us to steer clear of many idolatries. We do well to have a touch of agnosticism, a dash of doubt, if you will, in all of our religious statements. After all, “The surest way to lose truth is to pretend you already possess it.” [Gordon Allport Becoming, p. 17] Doubt is the handmaiden of truth, the constant attendant of new discovery. Doubt keeps us honest. For there is much we do not yet understand, more information is being uncovered on a regular basis. New ideas, deeper understanding, and richer connections are always still coming.
Indeed at times it seems like we know so much and with the space three breaths I am suddenly struck by how little we understand. “Now we see through a glass, darkly.” (1 Corinthians 13:12) In his early book, Leaves for the Notebook of an Untamed Cynic, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote of his experiences as a pastor. He recounted one experience with a dog owned one of his parishioners, a dog with hair hanging over its eyes. When he inquired about it, saying would it not be kind to trim the poor dogs hair so it could see better, he learned that this breed of dog had evolved this way. The hair protected the dog’s eyes in harsh conditions and thus the eyes had grown exceedingly sensitive to compensate for being covered with hair. The eyes were so sensitive, that if the hair were trimmed the dog would be effectively blinded by the over stimulation of light. For now we see through our dog hair, darkly. Niebuhr saw it as a metaphor, complaining that many of his parishioners seemed to be like this dog: unable to see fully the light; always needing to filter the gospel lest they be stuck blind in receiving it in its fullness. Niebuhr did not remain as a pastor for long. Perhaps he was not able to keep his less-than-complimentary opinions of his congregants out of his sermons, I don’t know. No, Niebuhr found his calling instead to be in academia as a theologian and ethicist.
People shield themselves from their doubts; we shield ourselves from reality itself when it shows itself to be in contradiction to what we were quite sure of yesterday. We all do it. Keeping a dash of doubt on hand is good; allowing a smidgen of skepticism to slide through every situation can save you from getting stuck in false certainty.
Certainty is an idol. When you feel certain, beyond a doubt, that you understand yourself, God, the meaning of life or humanity’s place in the universe, then you are probably sitting on a false idol. What is certainty? It is that which lies beyond a reasonable doubt. Do they still use that phrase in a court of law? You have to find the defendant guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In a court of law you are working from objective truths. In religion we work from subjective truths. It is possible to be certain beyond a reasonable doubt when dealing in the realm of objective truths. We can objectively say “the man walked in the room around 11:00 at night.” This can be verified as true and, more importantly it can, with contrary evidence, be shown to be false.
Subjective truth, on the other hand, “God changes lives through the transformative power of love,” can have all manner of contrary evidence thrown at it with possibly no effect. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1) No amount of evidence is going to make a difference to subjective truth when it is considered beyond a reasonable doubt.
Unitarian Universalist minister and theologian Paul Rasor characterizes liberal religion as “Faith without certainty.” “This is not the same thing as faith without conviction,” he writes in his recent book titled Faith without certainty. “It does mean that religious liberals tend to hold faith claims with a certain tentativeness.” (p ix)
Doubt is always an inherent part of faith, and theology should never be free from doubt. Religious liberalism has always to some extent involved faith without certainty. German Theologian Dorothee Solle has pointed out that faith without doubt is not stronger, it is simply more ideological. The more important question is, does your theology matter in your life? (Faith without Certainty by Paul Rasor p xxi)
It has been observed by many liberal theologians (Wittgenstein for one) that the limits of our language are the limits of our world. The most intimate and ultimate levels of life are so enormous, so deep, and so mystical that they are unnamable. There are no words in our dictionary with which we can give voice to our experiences. If I were to try to articulate what I experience of God, it could only be like trying to catch running water in my bare hands, and then bring it in to the sanctuary to show you what running water is. I simply do not have a firm enough grasp of how to communicate mystery. It is not for lack of something to say, it for lack of words to properly articulate the experiences.
But recognition of mystery is not the same as doubting the mystery, of course. And as Davies said in our prayer this morning, “o God in whom we only half believe, we cannot altogether doubt.” Being doubters does not mean we can give up and say, “Oh, well we’ll never understand.” Ours is an iconoclastic faith – to be sure, but we smash the idols so we may see more clearly what needs to be there. We leave behind old creeds and doctrines not only for the sake of leaving, but also for the sake of finding.
There was a delightful and provocative novel published about five years ago called Life of Pi. It is the adventure of a shipwrecked boy named Pi traveling across the Pacific Ocean in a lifeboat with a tiger. It is also a book about faith and truth. In one scene before Pi gets on the boat he bumps into one of his teachers from school and they fall into a conversation about faith during which the boy learns that his favorite teacher is an atheist. “Religion is darkness,” he tells Pi. “There are no grounds for going beyond a scientific explanation of reality and no sound reason for believing anything but our sense experience. A clear intellect, close attention to detail and a little scientific knowledge will expose religion as superstitious bosh. God does not exist.” (p 27) Now, Pi is a deeply religious boy and at first does not know how to hold this new perspective. But he goes on to say, to us, the readers:
I felt a kinship with him. It was my first clue that atheists are my brothers and sisters of a different faith, and every word they speak speaks of faith. Like me, they go as far as the legs of reason will carry them – and then they leap.
I’ll be honest about it. It is not atheists who get stuck in my craw, but agnostics. Doubt is useful for a while. We must all pass through the garden of Gethsemane. If Christ played with doubt, so must me. If Christ spent an anguished night in prayer, if He burst out from the Cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” then surely we are also permitted doubt. But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation. (p28)
Now, Agnosticism is a well represented theological perspective in this congregation, I am sure. But that is why I offer Pi’s critique! Is Agnosticism at times simply a cheap way of ducking the question? While I was in seminary I had a teacher who would say to us, “No appeals to mystery before 5:00.” She wanted us to struggle with the theological questions, to settle on an answer or two – even if only for a short time. We were not allowed to throw our hands in the air to her questions “why is there suffering?” because she was training us to make hospital visits. When someone dying of cancer looks up at you and asks “why am I suffering, what did I do wrong?” it is best not to say, “Well, God does move in mysterious ways,” and then shrug. It may be theologically accurate but it is not very pastoral.
Perhaps it is only a matter of degree. How severe an Agnostic are you? I’ve been sorely tempted to buy the bumper sticker that reads: “Militant agnostic! I don’t know and you don’t either!” Instead I have a gentler admonition that says nearly the same thing: “Don’t believe everything you think.”
Unitarian Universalism is remarkable because here we are willing to doubt, willing to admit we do not own the corner on religious truth. Painter Paul Gardner has said, “A painting is never finished. It simply stops in interesting places.” And so the same could be said of my faith and beliefs. It’s never finished; it simply stops in interesting places. We Unitarian Universalists have long insisted that we apply reason to our beliefs and making allowances for changes in beliefs. If our reason leads us to doubt, then let our doubt be a process by which falsehood is burned away, a process whereby truth may be purified.
In a world without end,
May it be so.