Sermons 2007-08

Screwtape’s Apocryphal Letters

Screwtape’s Apocryphal Letters

12-30-07
Rev.Douglas Taylor

Copyright note

This concept and plot, the style of writing, several of the names and occasionally even certain phrases are due to the genius of C. S. Lewis, the author of the original 1942 text: The Screwtape Letters.   Everything else is from me.

Preface

I have no intention of explaining how the correspondence which I now offer to you fell into my hands.  Nor shall I explain why these five letters are considered apocryphal and thus were not included in the original publicized collection of letters; except to speculate that it is due to the letters being addressed to a different junior tempter, namely Grubclaw, and that they seem to be specifically written not with the broader Christian faith in mind but with the relatively insignificant movement known as Unitarian Universalism.

No attempt has been made to identify any of the people mentioned in the letters, though it is unlikely that the portraits of these people are just or accurate.  As the previous publication has already mentioned in this respect, “There is wishful thinking in Hell as well as on Earth.”

Letter I

My dear Grubclaw,

I read in your recent note that you are concerned that your patient speaks of searching for Truth.  I am a trifle surprised by your concern.  Have you forgotten the lessons you received in Tempters’ Training College about what humans call ‘the contemporary perspective’?  I understand Dr. Slubgob wrote that lesson himself.   Need I remind you that the humans are in what they call the “post-modern era”?  They no longer believe in Truth; instead they make noises about many truths and personal realities.  The “modern” quest for The Truth is considered passé and old-fashioned.  This can play very well into your hand if you proceed carefully, but you must lay your groundwork now before the Enemy can break in.  Have you considered encouraging this search in your patient?  But be sure to suggest that she has already discovered for herself the truth – or at least her own version of it.  Indeed, with a little push on your part your patient can come to compare any snippet of real truth against her own prefabricated conception.  It matters not one bit what small sophomoric tidbit she may latch onto, “Everyone is beautiful inside” or “If I think only lovely thoughts then only lovely things will come to me” or some other mushy twaddle of this sort will do.  But I caution you, nephew, do not press to hard.  What she must always hold to is that hers is the original version of her truth and that all other claims, however similar, are not her truth and are therefore secondary.  In this way you may very well find that she has a perfect barrier to Truth by claiming she already has it!  This can be both effective for our purpose and entertaining for you.

Humans are very interested these days in their own journey.  Their religious sentiment has been absorbed by the general individualistic, consumer culture.  They begin to think that religion is something they can fit around their needs rather than fitting themselves around the precepts of religion.  Our Father has been seeding this sentiment for generations.  By all means encourage your patient to be ‘spiritual but not religious’, and never let it enter into her head that the two are inseparable.  This is actually a rather simple accomplishment!  Keep her mind fixed on the abstract image of someone who is ‘spiritual’: a person who perhaps reads certain books, says certain phrases, and is aloof from the stress of the world.  With this utterly unreal image as an ideal she will be kept from actually doing even a simple spiritual deed like giving money to a charity or attending a church worship service.

You begin to see the point?  Thanks to the progress we’ve made over these past decades, they have come to worship themselves and their perceived needs above all else.  So long as we feed a steady stream of novel packaging for the idea that they are indeed the center of their universes then these humans stay neatly on the path to our Father’s house.  Ah, advertising, consumption mentality, self-value linked to stuff, leisure!  To hear to you young fiends talk you would think you’ve invented all manner of trap and ensnarement, but it is we who came before you who laid the careful ground work in their culture.

            Your affectionate uncle,

Screwtape.

Letter II

My dear Grubclaw,

I am severely aggrieved to learn that your patient is attending a church.  Did you learn nothing from your cousin Wormwood’s example?  And don’t think you have it easy because your patient is visiting a Unitarian Universalist congregation; “half way to Our father’s house,” you say.  Have you forgotten that our Enemy is not contained by the walls of one religion?  Still, there is hope for your case if you proceed carefully.  Likely this is not a conversion, merely an exploration.  You must keep it at the level of exploration and assure that what she discovers is unsatisfying.  Yes, there are many humans who have a brush with Unitarian Universalism but never make the fuller commitment of joining.  Ha, if these “UU’s,” as they call themselves, were a little more intentional and organized in terms of saving souls they would be truly dangerous to us.  Rest assured, my young fiend, the statistics are in your favor and your patient will be well away from this group in short order.

Likely she is assuming there are low expectations of her; that she can just attend and be entertained without it actually having an impact on her life or her own personal truth.  Tell me more about your patient’s entrance into this community.  Does she find ‘like-minded people’ around her?  Work with that.  Don’t let her see that everyone there has a different take on truth and meaning just yet.  Save that realization for a few weeks and then open her eyes to a very stark vision of it.  Gorebase has made extensive study of these Unitarian Universalists and tells me they are all over the board, Humanists, Pagans, Deists and Agnostics all mixed in with Theists, Buddhists, Mystics, Liberal Christians and all manner of others.  Don’t let her see just yet how big a variety there is, let her assume everyone is just like her and that she won’t have to be open and accepting of them.  Focus her thoughts on how they are open and accepting of her without the necessary reciprocal.  You may ask how it is possible to keep such an obvious idea from occurring to an inquisitive human mind.  But it is, Grubclaw.  Indeed it is a simply feat.  These fools are so hopeful to find communities where their differences don’t matter that they are more than ready to delude themselves into seeing it.

You see we once had only a handful of ways to divide these humans into factions: nationality, ethnicity, race, class, and other such ridiculous notions.  It was surprisingly easy to keep them from seeing other human beings as creatures like themselves.  A few centuries ago we discovered ways to even use religion itself as a way to restrain them from interacting with each other.  This is all to our benefit.  Now, however, thanks to what these humans call marketing, we can also use clothing styles, musical preferences, technological advances, and even politics, age and morality to herd these humans into smaller clusters so that they never truly experience a different perspective that might break into the carefully constructed paths we have created for them.  We have many of them so well in hand that they can’t even see their literal next door neighbors as “neighbors” the way the Enemy uses that term.

So, keep this in mind as your patient enters into this community.  Make her mind focus on how she finds certain things interesting, perhaps the minister will say a clever turn of a phrase or the choir will make that loathsome noise they seem to enjoy.  Let her think that all the people are just like her, how they must all share her politics and taste in music.  Then after a visit or two, open her attention to the shocking variety – be sure to flood her awareness with it and overwhelm her sensibilities.  See my notes to your cousin Wormwood in this regard, hypocrisies and annoying habits are found in religious communities of every stripe.  Give her a little lead (not too long mind you), and then flood her with the differentness.  Once a chink is made in that rosy initial impression then all the years of careful work we’ve done to create divisions will take over – driving a wedge between her fantasy of church and the flawed reality of it.

            Your affectionate uncle

                                    Screwtape

Letter III

My dear Grubclaw,

            While you have failed to break your patient away from this new community, I am most alarmed by your implication that my advice to you was in some way faulty.  That is no way for a junior tempter to speak to the undersecretary of a department, or, for that matter, a nephew to his uncle.  You must learn to take responsibility for your own inept attempts to follow sound and solid counsel.   Do not imagine you will escape the normal consequences for your blunders.  In the meantime, we must make the best of the situation.  A great many of these so called ‘converts’ have been reclaimed after a brief stint in the Enemy’ camp and are now secure in Our Father’s house.

            I am delighted to hear that your patient has acquainted herself with certain new friends at the church.  These are just the type we can work with.  You seem to have made good advantage of the situation.  Your report is sparse, however, as to the details of this small group.  Are they a ‘spiritual discussion group’?  If so, it sounds like just the thing for your patient.  These places are full of such groups, always talking about their spiritual happiness and satisfaction without ever actually doing anything.  While they keep their attention on this abstract sense of the ‘spiritual’ they neglect to connect their armchair ruminations with anything that resembles the lives they are living.  It is all well and good for them to speak of peace, sustainability and civil liberties so long as they continue to be voracious consumers, rude drivers, and secretly committed to their own comfort above all else – then our work remains relatively straight-forward.

            Conversely, if the group is a Social Responsibility group instead – although that sounds unlikely if I am to believe the character you have painted of your patient in previous reports – then the details of your tactics will be somewhat different but generally it will be the same; namely: to keep any connection between behavior and belief from happening.  Let them complain about national and global politics but avoid making a trip to the local soup kitchen.  Keep a distance between the new ideas your patient is exploring and her actions.  Do contact Bogrot and the Infernal Regulation Synod for a report on the others in this young woman’s group.  And tell me more about her impressions of them.  Are they richer than her, more educated?  Do they seem take their connection to the larger church seriously?  This may be a wedge you can nurture.

            Your affectionate uncle

                                    Screwtape

Letter IV

My dear Grubclaw,

            You are obviously making excellent progress with your patient.  My only fear is that you will attempt to hurry things such that you will awaken in her an awareness of her position.  She must continue to imagine that all her choices are trivial and of no account in the grand scheme of her life’s direction.  Maintain that feeling of entitlement and keep her focus on how everything is provided to support her own understanding of truth.  Yet ever nurture that faint doubt in the background, such uneasiness and dissatisfaction will undermine any of the Enemy’s progress.

            I understand from your report that she has taken to praising the minister’s sermons.  I cannot stress how useful this can be both to you and to Fluglob who I see by his dossier is assigned to this particular clergyman.  Fluglob has been puffing up this man, feeding him visions of importance and prominence.  Most of these Unitarian Universalists are easily susceptible to pride and arrogance, though none quite as easily as the clergy.  They really fuss at each other about anti-authoritarianism and their lay-led polity that they fail to see how central they really are to the spiritual lives of the human beings who sit in the pews each week.  Consequently these UU ministers each harbor a secret longing to be seen as very important and especially unique.  You see the point perhaps.  Your patient’s praise contributes to the undermining of this fool’s humility edging him that much further along the path which Fluglob has laid out for him.

            As for you, by all means put her attention on this young minister.  Let her think that he is the very reason, the only good reason, she attends.  He is sure to disappoint her sooner or later, likely sooner if I read the implications in Fluglob’s reports correctly.  Then you can work that wedge in to drive her away from the community.  There are always those in a congregation who are dissatisfied with the minister about one thing or another, his manner of dress or his selection of readings, the way he manages the funds or the tone of his voice.  This is assuming there isn’t a rational ground for disappointment, should there be such – if it is known that he reads trashy novels or is overly flirtatious with the young women, or the young men for that matter – well then our job is that much easier.  All you have to do is introduce the thought that since this one whom was thought to be so wonderful has this or that flaw, then how can any of what he says really be worth hearing.  Dissatisfaction is the key.  She has come because she is searching for truth and meaning, and she thinks she has found it now.  Only show her the natural flaws and failings of those around her (especially that minister), and she will become disillusioned soon enough.

            Now, tell me more about her financial situation.  You mention nothing in your reports about the church asking for money, am I to assume from this that Unitarian Universalists don’t ask their members to support the church financially?  Is money a taboo topic?  You perhaps did not know to look for it, but there may be ambivalence about money in the congregation.  We can use that to our advantage!

            Your affectionate uncle

                                    Screwtape

Letter V

My dear Grubclaw,

            I would not be surprised to find you’ve been removed from this case after this last blunder.  She signed the book.  Would that you had paid more attention to my cautionary notes!  She has joined the church, made a financial commitment matching her spiritual one.  I am confident that if you could be demoted you would be, but junior tempter is already the tip of the lowerarchy.  And cap it all, you let her attend a social function at the church just for fun.  You did not steer her to question whether she would be welcome at the event or to wonder what her mother would think of her attending such an affair.  You didn’t even lead her to be anxious about bumping into an attractive young man.  You simply let her attend and have fun.  And now she’s gone and signed the book and joined the church.  You shall pay for your blunders.  I am enclosing a recently reissued booklet for your edification on the improved House of Corrections of Incompetent Tempters.  The profuse and graphic illustrations assure that there is nary a dull page in the whole volume.

            Meanwhile, it is time for you to overhaul your entire strategy.  And it is long past time you buckled down to study the reports from Gorebase on these Unitarian Universalists, they are odd birds indeed and allow far too much freedom in their people.  Perhaps you can get her involved in the petty politics of church business or corrupt her family relations in terms of this new religious connection.  The game has grown quite serious for you.  Let us be glad there are so few of these Unitarian Universalists to cause us such grief.

            Your affectionate uncle

                                    Screwtape

Postscript

That is all we have of the apocryphal letters of Screwtape, I encourage you to review the originals as they are truly illuminating.  There is much we can learn about ourselves by exploring the darker sides of our psyche and our world.  May such exploration lead us into a greater understanding of our situation, our hope, and our power to make a difference.

            In a world without end,

                        May it be so.

Apocryphal Tales

Apocryphal Tales

12-9-07
Rev. Douglas Taylor

Menorah Lighting Blessing: (Transliteration:)

            Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam,

            asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hadlik neir (shel) chanukah.

Translation:  “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe,

Who sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to kindle the Hanukkah lights.”

Reading: 1 Maccabees 4:36-59             – The cleansing and rededication of the temple

Sermon:

It took me a while to find the story of Hanukkah in scripture.  The book describing the events is in a portion of the Bible known as the Apocrypha.  The Apocryphal Books are positioned between the New Testament and the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures; it includes the books of Tobit, Judith, the Wisdom of Solomon, Bel and the Dragon, Psalm 151 and 1st and 2nd Maccabees.  None of these books were included in the Hebrew canon of Holy Scripture yet the Greek version of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint includes them.  Many early Christian authors refer to them.  The term ‘apocrypha’ means “things that are hidden.”  This could mean that the books were hidden or removed from common use, or it could mean that they contain hidden lore.  Another term used to describe this collection of books is “Deuterocanonical” which translates as ‘added later to the canon.’  Modern Catholics commonly accept these books as a part of the canon while Protestants have followed the Hebrew canon by excluding them.

All that to say, among the many versions of the Bible that I own, most of them do not have any hint of the scripture I just read to you.  And perhaps you noticed something missing even from the version of the story that I read.  What is the most common understand of Hanukkah?  That they light the oil that was to last one day and it lasted instead for eight!  “The Miracle of the Hanukkah Lights” is not part of the Hanukkah story in scripture.  The story in Scripture is about rededicating the temple after a grand military victory against the Greeks who had defiled the temple.  Some jokingly suggest that the miracle is that a band of men cleaned up.

Originally the reason for celebrating for eight days seems to have had nothing to do with miraculous oil.  “A number of historians believe that the reason for the eight day celebration was that the first Hanukkah was in effect a belated celebration of the festivals of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret.  During the war the Jews were not able to celebrate [these two holidays] properly; the combined festivals also last eight days, and the Sukkot festivities featured the lighting of lamps in the Temple” (Wikipedia and others)  And yet, over time there developed another story, a folk legend perhaps, to explain the eight days.

From the website of Temple Concord, the Reformed Jewish congregation here in Binghamton, I read about how

The rabbis of long ago faced a dilemma; they did not want Chanukah to be looked at as a military victory alone. In the Talmud, the rabbis recorded the legendary miracle of the oil: When the Maccabees had cleansed the Temple and they were ready to kindle the Eternal Light, only one small jar of oil marked with the seal of the High Priests was found. It would last only one day and it would be eight more days before more oil could be prepared. But a great miracle happened; the oil lasted for eight days. [The time it took to have new oil pressed and made ready] According to the rabbis this is the reason we celebrate Chanukah for eight days.

The Talmud is a record of rabbinic discussions written around 500 CE.  There is great care taken to distance the ritual of Hanukkah from any formal glorifying of military victories.  The world was changing and one small military victory – however heroic – was not important enough or memorable enough to continue to be potent in people’s lives.  Therefore, we focus on the miracle of the oil and the religious work of the rededicating the Temple.  Thus the oil can be seen as “a metaphor for the miraculous survival of the Jewish people through millennia of trials and tribulations.” (Wikipedia)

And so Hanukkah may have at one time been simply the anniversary of a great victory, and while that may still be something worth celebrating; the holiday has taken on several other meanings.  It is a festival of Lights, it is a commemoration of Religious Liberty, it is a story of Consecration and Dedication. The word Hanukkah literally means dedication.  Each recasting of the story holds onto the concept of dedication to something holy and important in the face of cruel forces that seem overwhelming.  The modern renderings of the meaning of Hanukkah speak of Lights or liberty or re-consecration; yet always that original story of struggle is there in the background – not always coming through as a story of violence and warfare, but certainly of the struggle.

And so we have Lights and Liberty and Re-consecration as the modern meanings of this minor Jewish holiday.  Of those three, to message that this is a time of re-consecration is most easily connected to the historic roots of the story.  That is what the Maccabees were doing – re-consecrating the temple!  They were cleaning it after defilement, rededicating it after misuse.  And as they were cleaning out the outward symbol of their faith, it is also a time to consider the defilements of our inner faith.  Re-consecration: making it holy again, making it a fit vessel for the sacred once more.  This is an elegant personalizing of the communal story.  You, yourself, must clean out your inner space as well and rededicate your life to become once again a fit vessel for the sacred.

But it need not be only that.  You can take the imagery of cleaning the temple inward to self-consecration, and you can also take the imagery outward into the world.  The Environmental movement has gotten a boost from the Green Menorah concept.  There is an insert in the order of service that explains the Green Menorah Covenant and if any of you want to take up the challenge, you don’t need to be Jewish and you don’t need to wait until next Hanukkah to begin. People concerned for the Carbon crisis are taking the image of the lamp oil from the story to now speak of renewable energy and ways to re-consecrate to lands that have been defiled.  We must find ways to our lamps burn more efficiently so as to use up only one day’s fuel yet give eight days of light.  The earth needs our care and attention.  We rededicate ourselves to the work to which we are called and rededicate our holy places to the purpose for which they have been created.  There is great value amidst the struggle to remind one another of the purpose of our work.  The only glitch to recasting of the Hanukkah message in this way it that the idea of rededication is already a deep part of the Days of Awe.  In a way it shifts the minor festival from being Christmas-lite to being Rosh Hashanah-lite.  This is probably why the message of Hanukkah as a time of consecration and rededication is not the most prominent version available.

Many look to the Hanukkah story as a message of religious liberty: the fight for the freedom to worship and practice your religion without coercion from outside forces.  There is a delightful Hanukkah story of Religious Liberty from Billings, Montana. This is a true story that happened maybe 10 years back.  Most of the folks in Billings are Christians and put up their Christmas trees.  There were also a handful of Jews in Billings also, and they displayed menorahs in their windows.  As it happened, there was a gang of skinheads in town who would go around town breaking the windows of any house in which there was a menorah.  This happened a few nights in a row.  The local newspaper carried the stories but not much was done about it.  That is until the editor of the newspaper came up with an idea.  He printed in the newspaper full size menorah.  That evening, nearly everyone in town had cut out the menorah from the newspaper and displayed it in their windows.  Suddenly nearly every house in town had a menorah in it.  Under the menorah was written, “Not In Our Town.”

One colleague (Rev. Joshua Snyder) tells this story and says it is an example of not just tolerance, but community.  The people in Billings did not just tolerate their Jewish neighbors.  They did not just mind their own business and not fuss about each other’s faiths.  They understood that a threat to the Jewish families in town was a threat to them all.  Their religious beliefs differ, but they are part of a community.  In this way, religious freedom has a communal level that must be acknowledged.  Likewise, the Hanukkah story heard as a tale about religious freedom is heard not in the individual sense.  It is a story that teaches us to stand together in love against the forces of hate, be they the skinheads or the ancient Greeks.

There is certainly something to be said for this idea that the Hanukkah message of religious liberty is a good and noble message.  However, there is a difference between the original story in which a small bond of Israelites struggled to have their religious freedom and the story of people struggling to allow all people to have that freedom.  It is an obvious progress from one to the other, but not a necessary one.  The Puritans came to what they called the New World that they might be free to worship as they saw fit and to make others around them worship in the Puritan way as well.  There is a difference between the struggle to be allowed to worship as you see fit and the struggle to allow all to worship as each sees fit.  But if, indeed, that broader sense of freedom is where we are headed with this idea of religious liberty then that’s where I’m headed too.

Lights, Liberty, and Re-consecration: the message of Hanukkah over the centuries has evolved from one of victory over an overwhelming foe into a message of dedication.  The tone is sometimes highlighted as re-consecration and a dedication to the earth, other times the tone is one of championing religious liberty.  Hanukkah is best known now, however, as the Festival of Lights and using the imagery of Lights, the holiday carries a message of hope during dark times.  There is something remarkably powerful about lighting candles amidst struggle and difficulty.

Yesterday I had the honor of officiating at the memorial service of a community peace activist.  Anne Herman was not a member of the congregation, though she was deeply connected to our community and many of the people here.  Her life was an amazing travelogue of trouble spots in the world from Iraq to Chiapas, from Fort Benning to the domestic shelter.  Anne was an activist for peace and an activist for hope.  One of the speakers who shared stories of Anne yesterday spoke about the power of lighting candles.  Rev. Tim Taugher reminded us that in South Africa during apartheid people would light a candle and place it in the window as a sign of hope.  At one point the government made it illegal to have a lit candle.  It was as illegal as carrying a gun.  Rev. Taugher said the children used to joke about it saying, “Our government is scared of lit candles!”  And indeed they were right to be scared for there is a power in a lit candle that is stronger than a gun.

And so we light candles to remember that the evils of the day will eventually be overcome.  We light candles as a sign of hope.  And each night we light one more candle than the night before until the last night the menorah stands ablaze with eight candles for eight nights along with the ninth servant candle – all in a row, each proclaiming hope and holiness in its small flickering way.

On the first night of Hanukkah, when only the one small light is lit with its companion servant candle, an extra blessing is traditionally offered that says:

            Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe,

            Who has kept us in life, sustained us, and brought us to this moment.

“… to this moment!”  That is another remarkable quality of a lit candle.  It exists in the moment and lasts but a short time.  You can’t hold onto that moment, you can’t cling to it.  Once the candle is burned down it is gone.  All you can do is hold it in your memory or light another candle!  A candle is for this moment and this moment alone.  A new one can always be lit, but that’s just it:  We must keep lighting them.

In his essay “The Soul of Chanukah,” Rabbi Shimon Apisdorf writes that:

Hanukkah is about the imperceptible human spark that enables people to reach far beyond their perceived limitations. It’s about the power of a diminutive flame to pierce a great darkness. It’s about a tiny band of people that is able to overcome the most daunting of foes.

The lights of Hanukkah remind us of the awesome subtleness of life, of how little things can make a profound difference… we discover the soul in the flame, and begin to reclaim the soul in everyday life.

So Hanukkah is a time to reflect on that to which we dedicate ourselves, and on what we need to re-consecrate in our own lives and in the world around us.  We shall light candles, we shall celebrate religious freedom, and we shall strive to re-consecrate the earth.  We shall honor our Jewish brothers and sisters during their holiday season.  And we shall remember that we are in a struggle, non-violent though our side of it shall be, a struggle to bless the world with every breath.

In a world without end

May it be so.

Faith, Hope and Misery

Faith, Hope and Misery

December 2, 2007
Rev. Douglas Taylor

Advent is upon us. Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the Christian season leading up to Christmas.  “Advent is marked by a spirit of expectation, of anticipation, of preparation, of longing.”  It lasts four Sundays and each week a candle is lit to represent some aspect of the spirit of the season.  Typically Hope is the first or second theme.  There is not a set pattern that all churches follow but Faith, Hope, Love and Joy is one configuration.  Hope, Peace, Love and Joy is another.  Advent means: arrival, or to come.  But what is coming? Dennis Bratcher, Director of the Christian Resource Institute and The Voice, writes that:

Advent is marked by a spirit of expectation, of anticipation, of preparation, of longing. There is a yearning for deliverance from the evils of the world, first expressed by Israelite slaves in Egypt as they cried out from their bitter oppression. It is the cry of those who have experienced the tyranny of injustice in a world under the curse of sin, and yet who have hope of deliverance by a God who has heard the cries of oppressed slaves and brought deliverance!

                                    (http://www.crivoice.org/cyadvent.html)

That is what the whole concept of the Messiah is about: deliverance from injustice and oppression!  The lead up to Christmas is not supposed to be about lights and decorations in the trees, shopping and giving gifts; advent is about the expectation of deliverance from injustice.

The world is a mess.  That’s not news to anyone here.  But our culture seems to have this overwhelming need to hide from it all; to not notice the problems of the world.  Our culture seems to want this time to be all joy and happiness and light; meanwhile there a growing anxiety going unaddressed in our midst.  With the wars and natural disasters, school shootings and the environmental crisis looming in our minds; we enter into this season of Advent with its theme of expectation and dealing with injustice.  And instead of being encouraged to make a difference we are fed a steady diet of commercials and Christmas music.  This pattern of playing nothing but Christmas music from Thanksgiving Day to Christmas morning began during the 2001 holiday season following the September 11 terrorist attacks. Several stations have moved it up to begin the week before Thanksgiving.  A few stations even began the all-Christmas music play-list as early as October 31st last year!  It is a bald-faced attempt to distract people from the worries and anxieties by ‘getting them into the Christmas Spirit.’

This sort of thing reminds me of the story of a priest who stopped reading the newspaper because the reports disturbed his prayers.  There are some religious traditions that encourage their adherents to avoid the world, to turn away from it lest they be tempted to conform.  A hallmark of liberal religions such as Unitarian Universalism is our insistence that we face the world with our eyes open, to engage in the travails of the day allowing that engagement to impact our faith and vice versa.  Indeed it is harder to stay engaged with the overwhelming injustice in the world and maintain an optimistic outlook.  It is hard to sell a gospel of hope while acknowledging a discouraging reality of suffering and injustice.  Yet that is exactly what we do here.  We offer a gospel of hope in the face of the world’s terrors.

James Luther Adams, our 20th century Unitarian theologian has written that our optimism is a foundational aspect of our way of faith.  “The resources,” he writes, “that are available fro the achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate optimism.”  He goes on to claim that all prophets, those in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures as well as those from contemporary times, all prophets speak with an active expectation of righteousness without neglecting the tragic reality of life.  Adams says they “recognize this tragic nature of the human condition [and] continue to live with dynamic hope.”

People are struggling with this kind of thing, and religions are learning that traditional answers are coming up short.  There was an article in the Christian Science Monitor back at the end of July began with the line: “People in the pews want to know why, if God is loving, the innocent suffer – and they aren’t always happy with the answers from the pulpit.”  The article was a report on the annual Craigville Colloquy, which had chosen to deal with the theological issues of misery and tragedy.  Attendance was unusually high.  Attendance this year was unusually high, a fact which organizers credited to the effect of recent tragedies such as 9/11, hurricane Katrina and last spring’s massacre at Virginia Tech.

“It’s getting harder to give answers that do in fact satisfy,” says [UCC pastor] Rev. Richard Coleman. Events are producing “a whole rash of dying, killing, and suffering that for us just doesn’t add up. That makes the old question more intense because we want someone’s life, when it ends in death, to have some meaning” and not simply succumb to the inexplicable.

                        (Christian Science Monitor article from the July 25, 2007 edition)

Just counting natural disasters, the amount of death and destruction is staggering. The 9.3 magnitude earthquake (3rd largest ever recorded) causing the tsunami that devastated coastal areas of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, southern India, and Thailand, killing some 275,000 people was only three years ago.  Hurricane Katrina, from August 2005 caused nearly 2,000 deaths was clearly not only a natural disaster – it was a disaster of politics, race and class.  Three months later 40,000 people were killed by the magnitude 7.6 earthquake in Pakistan.  Other reports double that number.  Famine in Niger, flooding in Central America, mudslides in the Philippines, and yet another earthquake in java this time, adds up to many more thousands dead just in the past three years.  Bangladesh had a cyclone last month causing 4,000 deaths.  Such overwhelming numbers, it is hard to take it in.  Plus there is massive species extinction, a growing environmental crisis, wars in the Middle East and elsewhere, slavery resurging, the AIDS pandemic in Africa, genocide in Darfur, torture, terrorism, and yet the world is still a breathtakingly beautiful place and all people are precious.

As the pastor from that article said, there is “a whole rash of dying, killing, and suffering that for us just doesn’t add up.”  The message of hope – even during the Christmas season – is a hard message to swallow in the face of such suffering and tragedy.  And I am one, to be sure, who has been caught trying to say our situation now is worse than in any other time.  And whenever I catch myself saying “The tragedies and atrocities we face are worse than ever before,” there is always someone saying, “Things have always been bad.”  Indeed, listen to this poem written by Theognis, a 6th-century Greek poet.

Hope is the only good god remaining among mankind;
the others have left and gone to Olympus.
Trust, a mighty god has gone, Restraint has gone from men,
and the Graces, my friend, have abandoned the earth.
Men’s judicial oaths are no longer to be trusted, nor does anyone
revere the immortal gods; the race of pious men has perished and
men no longer recognize the rules of conduct or acts of piety.

That certainly sounds contemporary: restraint is gone, people don’t trust each other, and no one recognizes the rules of conduct.  The only rule of conduct these days is: whatever you can get away with.  So, I’ll concede that certain basic aspects of what’s wrong with the world today are what have been wrong all along.  There have always been earthquakes and wars and devastating diseases, people who have pushed the boundaries of decency.  Certainly!  There are, however, two things which cause me to say we are facing suffering and injustice at an unprecedented level today.  Fundamentally, nothing has changed and what we are dealing with today is not new.

And yet, the first major difference is very simply a matter of statistics.  We have nearly twice as many people on the planet now as we did when I was born.  The global population was roughly 3.7 billion the year I was born.  We are at 6.7 billion now.  It took us millions of years to reach our first billion human beings on the planet; we reached that mark in 1820.  It then took us only 110 years to reach 2 billion.  30 years after that there were 3 billion.  In 14 years we had 4 billion, another 14 years so another billion added on.  12 years later in 2000 we saw 6 billion.  Anyone here born in 1965?  We’ve doubled the world population since your birth.  You can’t tell me that twice as many people on the planet have no impact on the amount of trouble we experience.

The other feature that has dramatically altered our situation is technology.  We have instant communication and access to information.  A few hundred years ago if an earthquake happened in China people in the Europe wouldn’t know about it for months if ever.  Now we hear about it as it is happening, as if it is happening nearby.  When someone walks into a political office in New Hampshire with a bomb strapped to his chest, or actually road flares using this weekend’s example, everyone can hear about it and have a chance to get anxious or upset about it.  At another time in history, few people would have that chance.  We would have heard about the story after it had been resolved – without the concern of what would happen next.  Instant news raises the anxiety of society.  It’s not that more bad things are happening, simply that we know about more of them as they are happening.  And I could make an argument that indeed more bad things are happening – seeing as there are twice as many people on the planet as there were 40 years ago; but regardless of that, the anxiety that is charging through our culture now has very little to do with how much has gone on and more to do with how aware we are of what is going on right now.

And yet, paradoxically, we are distanced from suffering.  A few hundred years ago illness and death were not contained to hospitals and nursing homes – they happened in the family living room.  Now when there is illness and death we call a specialist and send the aberration away.  And then we sit down in front of our TVs and computers and witness several violent events each evening!  We have instant access to the details and the pathos of the story, both fictional and real, but no relation to it.  We have no agency to actually deal with the information.

At times I grow frustrated with myself and you all around me.  The world is on fire and I preach sermons about enlightenment, religious literacy, balance, and what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist.  And yet, it matters.  With a deep breath I remind myself that life is an ebb and flow, a breathing in and a breathing out, sermons gentle inspiration and sermons of fierce conviction.  The trick is to not turn fully away from the fierce heat of reality during the moments of retreat lest we be tempted to escape into denial.  For in that escape the great anchor of hope is perverted to spurious faith.  Funny, is it not?  Some religions warn against engaging with the world lest ye be tempted and here we warn against not engaging lest ye likewise be tempted!

Which brings me back to Pandora and power of hope. The Greek story of Pandora is told to explain why evil and suffering exist.  The moral almost seems to be: Curiosity killed the cat.  Pandora couldn’t resist looking in the box, it was so tempting!  Eve, I mean Pandora, was set up!  How could she not fall for the trap!  “Don’t eat from that tree in the middle of the garden.”  “Don’t look in this box we’ve given to you as a part of the special gifts from the Gods!”   I understand the logic, the people wanted to understand why there was suffering and tragedy in the world.  They also wanted to affirm that God or the gods were in control.  So the Gods made suffering a part of the plan: the question then becomes, “why?”  And we could spend years on that, indeed people have.

But here is an interesting question that was raised by one commentator.  Does the box serve as a prison or as a pantry for hope?  Is hope left in Pandora’s Box to indicate that it is readily available to us all or is it caught in there and held against us?  Do we read it pessimistically or optimistically?  Some have suggested that, contrary to the way most people understand the last line in the story, hope is held captive and was not released into the world.  This leaves us with only ‘empty Hope.’  “Not only are humans plagued by a multitude of evils, but they persist in the fruitless hope that things might get better.”  (Beall, E. “The Contents of Hesiod’s Pandora Jar: Erga 94-98,” Hermes 117 (1989) 227-30)  Marx called religion the opiate of the masses, a tool to keep people hoping for more when there is no more.  Perhaps our propensity for hope is simply one more cruel trick of the Gods to keep the game interesting, lest we all quit.

Bot, no!  Such is not the case!  Thankfully, life is not a cruel trick.  The hope in which we trust is a hope that is not contained.  We believe in a hope that is grounded in reality because we will not blind ourselves to what is really out there.  The hope we preach here is a compelling call to engage with the world because we have a crucial role to play in making life meaningful and beautiful for ourselves and those around us.  For all the atrocities recorded in the news, there are thousands of deeds of courage and love that are catalogued no where – though accumulated in the heart of each person.

We may be tempted into apathy, our culture would thrive it seems to have us complacent.  But we don’t go in for conformity.  Going with the flow has never been one of our virtues.  Our faith is a dynamic interaction with the world, an active engagement with all of reality.  We look out at the world and say, “Yes it is beautiful, yes it is good.  Yes there is trouble and violence and terror but we will not hide, we will not give up.  Life is still worth the love and hope we offer.”

James Luther Adams said that Unitarian Universalism and other prophetic liberal religions answer ‘yes’ to life.

The affirmative answer of prophetic religion, (writes Adams,) which may be heard in the very midst of the doom that threatens like thunder, is that history is a struggle in dead earnest between justice and injustice, looking towards the ultimate victory in the promise and fulfillment of grace.  Anyone who does not enter into that struggle with the affirmation of love and beauty misses the mark and thwarts creation as well as self-creation. (from “The Five Smooth Stones of Liberalism” in On Being Human Religiously by James Luther Adams)

No false hope for us to cling to in fear.  No empty hope will serve here.  Our hope lies in seeing reality and suffering for what it is and knowing that together we can work to improve the situation.  Therein lies our hope.   Do light a candle this advent season amidst the struggle for the hope and expectation that resides within you and those around you to yet bring forth an opening that will allow for one more step toward a more just and beautiful world.

In a world without end

May it be so

Emerson and the Downfall of Religious Literacy

Emerson and the Downfall of Religious Literacy

Rev. Douglas Taylor
Oct 28, 2007

I bumped into an interesting book this past spring titled Religious Literacy by Stephen Prothero.  Prothero argues that we have become religiously illiterate as a nation.  He claims this alarming development is weakening the very fabric of our democracy.  And further claims that the solution is to reintroduce the teaching of the Bible in our public schools.  On the jacket cover of the book Prothero write:

The United States is one of the most religious places on earth, but it is also a nation of chocking religious illiteracy.  Only 10% of American teenagers can name all five major world religions.  Nearly 2/3 of Americans believe that the Bible holds the answers to all of most of life’s basic questions, yet only half of American adults can name even one of the four gospels and most Americans cannot name the first book of the Bible.

Prothero sources one of those scenes from a 1997 Tonight Show episode where Jay Leno asks the average person on the street how much they know about the Bible.  “Interviewees told him that God created Eve from an apple, that Jacob gave his son Joseph a new car, and that Matthew was swallowed by a whale.”  (Ibid p 30)  “10% of Americans believed that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.  Only 1/3 know that Jesus (not Billy Graham) delivered the Sermon on the Mount.  A majority of Americans wrongly believe that the Bible says that Jesus was born in Jerusalem.”  (Ibid p30)  “Many high school seniors think that Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife.”  (Ibid 6)

What does it matter that we are loosing our Bible trivia knowledge.  So what?  Prothero begins his book recounting his experience of watching television coverage of the FBI closing in on David Koresh’s Branch Davidian compound in Waco TX.  He calls it a case of death by religious ignorance.  He wrote that he wanted to call the FBI and warn them that they were playing into the role Koresh had set up for them as described in the biblical book of Revelation; and that if they were to give Koresh more time it might have ended differently.  Prothero is quick to say, “might have,” acknowledging that the many people how saw Koresh as hell-bent on death and destruction may very well have been correct.  But the scene sure did play out as if Koresh was taking the Book of Revelation way too seriously.  The FBI acted like they were dealing with a deadly group of irrational and incomprehensible people, but that’s just Prothero’s point: The situation was comprehensible from a religious perspective.

Prothero demonstrates that America has descended into pious ignorance, but it is a descent that has a long history.  Prothero notes that the Evangelical attempts to write pious Evangelical-style Christianity into the fabric of the founding of our nation is laughable; but so is the liberal secular attempts to tell the story of our history as if religion played no part.

Throughout the history of America religion has played a critical role.  The nineteenth-century abolitionists wrestled with the biblical passages about slaves obeying their masters.  The Women’s movement had to deal with passages enjoining women to remain silent.  The temperance movement and prison reform, public education and care for the insane were all issues that were fought with the bible in hand.  What does the bible offer in terms of the issues of the environment, gay marriage, or abortion?  Are we blind to the ways in which policy is being and has always been influenced by moral and doctrinal arguments from the bible?  Surely we are not blind to the impact religion has on foreign policy!  Yet we still step in it seeming unwittingly.  Not wanting to overstate Prothero’s case for him, there certainly are situations in which this religious illiteracy, our national amnesia of biblical trivia, is dangerous.

It’s some how, this is partly Ralph Waldo Emerson’s fault!

Typically such a dire decline is blamed on the rabid secularist agenda of the cultural left.  But Prothero lays the blame at the feet of some of the most religious people in America!  Mostly he blames evangelical fundamentalists, but we on the religious left get a share of the blame as well.  Prothero suggests the decline is seen primarily by the shifts of religious focus that have transpired right under our noses beginning a few generations after the birth of the nation.  There are four shifts mentioned: the shift from head to heart, from Doctrine to Story-telling, from Bible to Jesus, from Theology to Morality.

The shift from head to heart is seen in the way “Evangelicals actively discouraged religious learning” (Ibid p93) and in the story of a Methodist bishop who opposed the building of new seminaries to educate new clergy saying that faith was strongest in a soul unfettered by book learning.  He backed that statement up admitting that he would opt any day for a preacher without education over a preacher without passion. (p87)  The days of the dull, dry, dreary Sunday sermon have long since been buried in the pages of history.  Now the sermon is a moving and inspiring experience instead of an education of the people.  And it is not only the sermon which has gone through this sift: the shift is articulated by one Sunday school teacher who said, “the efficacy of moral and religious instruction consists more in what our children are brought to feel, than what they are taught to know.”  (p106)  And is that not unlike some of our R.E. philosophy?

The shift from Doctrine to Storytelling follows easily after this.  Partly due also to the advent of bestselling story serials published in the magazines in the 1800’s.  Harriett Beecher Stowe wrote that the world was “running mad for Stories,” adding, “Soon it will be necessary that every leading clergyman shall embody his theology in a serial story, to be delivered from the pulpit Sunday after Sunday.”(p108)  The pulpit was quickly in competition with newspapers, plays and novels; and today we contend also against TV, movies, celebrity watching, and the Internet.  Lincoln once said, “When I see a man preach I like to see him act as if he were fighting bees.” (p89)  Preachers are no longer called upon to be scholars so much as entertainers.

Prothero mentions this third shift from Bible to Jesus to demonstrate that people don’t ask, ‘What does the Bible tell us about such a situation?’ and instead ask, “What would Jesus do?” Often this approach has no connection to a scholarly study of the Theology and Ethic of Jesus demonstrated in scripture and is instead simply a free-floating exposition of a modernized Americanized Jesus.  Yet we ask “What would Jesus do?” as if we are using such a ploy to tell ourselves only what we already plan to hear.

The last shift is perhaps the most striking and critical: from doctrine to morality.  Prothero writes that what happened was a:

…collapse of religion into “values” and “values” into sexual morality, which in turn functions via an odd sort of circular reasoning as a proxy for religiosity.  At least in popular parlance, what makes religious folks religious today is not so much that they believe in Jesus’ divinity or Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths but that they hold certain moral positions on bedroom issues such as premarital sex, homosexuality, and abortion. (p101)

Interestingly, this is where the religious left really takes the cake.  There were three components came together from within the religious left that carved this path, leaving it wide open for the evangelicals to follow through behind.  First, was the social gospel movement with Rev. Walter Rauschenbusch from “Hell’s Kitchen,” arguing that “it was more important to care for the poor than to memorize the Apostles’ Creed.” (p112)  Many set aside denominational differences for the sake of the greater good of women’s suffrage or temperance for example.  The Social movements that swept through churches rallied people to do good rather than believe correctly – emphasizing morality over doctrine.

The second ingredient in the mix was the effort of Non-denominationalism.  In the justice-making work there were efforts to smooth over the distinctions and differences between the various denominations working together to bring about the Kingdom of God.  So, without talking about different understandings of infant baptism, the sacrament of communion, or who is or is not going to be in heaven, there arose a sort of watered-down version of Christianity that could be called ‘golden-rule-ism.’  It is an attempt to create a religious sentiment that can cover the variety while not raising contentious differences.

The third direction this comes from is the public education movement.  Reformer and Unitarian Horace Mann undertook strenuous efforts to offer something that could hold the differing religious perspectives together.  Prior to his work to create a public system of education, the land was dotted by various sectarian parochial schools.  Mann’s goal of universal education took a giant step forward by developing a universal Protestantism that could be palatable to all present (except, of course, the Catholics – which was apparently on purpose.)  This generalized, standardized religion was focused on virtue, character, and piety: in other words, morality without doctrine.  (p95) Mann’s success allowed for significant strides forward in terms of public education, but the ramifications mixed with the other forces push religion into a shift from doctrine to morality.

So here is Unitarian Universalism we can find echoes of this shift, we occasionally will live and preach and believe as if theology and doctrine are at best outdated, while living by the creed of Thomas Paine who wrote “my religion is to do good.” (p112)  I’m not going to argue against activism, I will argue in favor of balance.  For when we forget the theological base from which we reach out then become rootless and easily manipulated into whatever the latest pet cause may be rather than being grounded in the strength of conviction.

Where does this leave Emerson?  To unpack that we must look back to Prothero’s arguments for the shift from head to heart.  Prothero compares the religious right and religious left efforts to drive the shift from head to heart by calling one low brow and the other highbrow.  Evangelical characterized the lowbrow form, and Prothero continues saying:

This lowbrow anti-intellectualism found a highbrow analog – that historian Christopher Lasch later called “the anti-intellectualism of the intellectuals” – in such liberals as the Transcendentalist sage Ralph Waldo Emerson and the poet of democracy Walt Whitman.  Both of these men labored to make religion more personal and less abstract, to free it from both doctrine and dispute.  Emerson was an heir to the Puritans, but he was as dismissive as any camp meeting preacher of the Christian creeds.  “We can never see Christianity from the catechism,” he wrote, preferring the purview “from the pastures, from the boat in the pond, from amidst the songs of wood-birds.”  Echoing Emerson, Whitman sneered at Christianity’s doctrinal dimensions in favor of a more experiential faith.  “The true Christian religion,” he wrote, “consists neither in rites or Bibles or sermons or Sundays – but in noiseless secret ecstasy and unremitted aspiration.”  (p 107)

Well, that’s us!  Guilty as charged.  While this is an accurate summation of Emerson’s perspective, I think it unfairly leaves out a wealth of understanding that sets the scenario up to leave Emerson in a poor light.  Indeed Emerson felt that we ought experience our relationship with the universe, with God, rather than memorize formulas regarding other people’s interpretations of such experiences!  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)  And his Divinity School Address leads up to this ringing line: “Let me admonish you, first of all, to go alone; to refuse all good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of [humanity], and dare to love God without mediator or veil.”

But we err when we believe that Emerson’s call to refuse all good models is a call to ignore the thoughts and writings of other people’s experiences.  Instead it is a call to also have your own experiences and to value your own above all others.  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.  Emerson was a well-read, classically trained scholar.  But today he is seen as an easy advocate for being ‘spiritual but not religious,’ and is quoted as an authority in numerous vacuous, feel-good, pseudo-religious schemes.

Therefore, Prothero and I argue, we would do well to be more aware of the religious trivia that pervades our culture.  And I suspect Emerson would not disagree provided the end goal was still self-actualization and not simply the memorizing of Biblical Trivia.  As Prothero says near the end of his first chapter, “the more you know about religion, the less likely you are to be suckered by one of its elaborate cons.” (p 37)  He argues for teaching about the Bible and its influence in our culture.  He urges for there to be a World Religion course as well.  If you want to see the specifics of his reasoning on that I suggest reading the book.  He states early on, “My goal is to help citizens participate fully in social, political, and economic life in a nation and a world where religion counts.” (p15)

I suggest that in order to maintain our balance as a faith tradition and as a congregation we would do well to keep both our activism and our personal spirituality well grounded and informed by regular exposure to theological reflection on the scriptures and doctrines of the world’s religions, particularly the Christian scripture and tradition that has so deeply influenced and influences the culture in which we live.

So if over the next few years you hear me quoting more from the Bible or wrestling with Christian theology, take heart that our goal will be to better understand our Unitarian Universalist theological perspective in the context of the religious landscape around us.  And in so doing, will connect more richly in our justice work and understand more deeply in our spiritual searching.

In a world without end

May it be so.

Seeking Enlightenment? Inquire Within

Seeking Enlightenment?  Inquire Within
10-21-07
Rev. Douglas Taylor

I spent quite a while reading up on Enlightenment.  What is it?  How do you get it?  What’s it like?  What do I need to do to become enlightened?  And I discovered that according to several sources: I already am.  Yeah, it’s sort of a let down.  I thought it would involve more work.  Here’s the real kicker: you all are already enlightened too.  Well, maybe not all of you.  But chances are pretty good that most of you are or at least will be by the time we’re done with this service.  Of course, I’m not saying we’re all ‘fully enlightened.’  Apparently there is enlightenment and then there is enlightenment.

You see, there are at least two general schools of Enlightenment and therefore two different definitions of what it means to be enlightened.  In the Theravada Buddhist tradition, your affliction due to attachment and ignorance will successively be burned away through stages of enlightening experiences until the final stage when full enlightenment is achieved.  At this point Nirvana has been reached and the material “world of Forms ceases to arise.”  Which means a fully enlightened being will cease to exist from our perspective – and we will cease to ‘arise’ from their perspective.  Only a very few can achieve this state.  In this version of how it works, none of us here are ‘fully enlightened’ or anywhere close.

Mahayana Buddhism, on the other hand, is not interested in such a goal.  Or, more specifically, the goal is seen as unachievable until all sentient beings are ready and we can all transcend together.  However, the possibility of this being achieved by all sentient beings is, from our current perspective, so minimal that we can say this final goal is not really an attainable goal; therefore Mahayana Buddhism is not interested in such a goal.  Instead we say enlightenment is ongoing; there is no final point when someone can say, “I am fully enlightened.”  If you are enlightened, there will continue to be more breakthrough experiences because life is always evolving.  Or, as philosopher Ken Wilbur says, “In this sense, you are never ‘fully’ enlightened, anymore than you could say that you are ‘fully educated.’  It has no meaning.”  (Wilbur, Ken, A Brief History of Everything p216)  And, this kind of Enlightenment depends primarily on noticing reality for what it is.  And all of us can do that, and as I said earlier, quite likely have at one point or another.

Generally speaking most people speak of enlightenment as a process of awareness or of awakening.  Thus the Buddha is the Awakened One.  The encyclopedia tells us, “Enlightenment broadly means the acquisition of new wisdom or understanding enabling clarity of perception.”  This does not imply the need for ‘enlightenment’ to be a once-and-final state of perfection of perception.  Yet that is the way it is used at times when we tell a story of “this person became enlightened.”  Although at other times the story conveys the sense that the experience was one moment of enlightenment that subsequently faded and could be recalled. The basic definition says Enlightenment is the acquisition of new wisdom or understanding enabling clarity of perspective. This leaves room for both interpretations.

To add a layer of confusion, the encyclopedia continues saying,

However, the English word covers two concepts which can be quite distinct: religious or spiritual enlightenment and secular or intellectual enlightenment. This can cause confusion, since those who claim intellectual enlightenment often reject spiritual concepts altogether.  (Wikipedia)

I have been heard to say, “Unitarian Universalism is the heir of the Enlightenment.”  When I say this I am referring to the western ‘Age of Enlightenment.’  Intellectual enlightenment is the product of learning which can be achieved through reading books.  Spiritual enlightenment is the product of wisdom which can be achieved through reading the book that is you.  “Not an easy task at all, for every minute of the day brings a new edition of the book!”  (DeMello, Anthony, One Minute Wisdom p 177)  The western and eastern versions of Enlightenment are not mutually exclusive, but they are arguably difficult to hold at the same time.

Usually when people look for an equivalent in the west for this eastern concept of enlightenment, we point toward “Salvation.”  Salvation is the end-goal of Christian religion, while enlightenment is the end-goal of Buddhism.  We can argue that generalization, but the perception is out there.  The most obvious argument against the comparison of Salvation and Enlightenment is that to be Enlightened is to be awake and to be Saved is to be accepted.  Being accepted and being awake are clearly two different things.  Enlightenment actually fits better with the Christian concept of Epiphany, “an illuminating discovery often resulting in a personal feeling of elation.”  It is a sudden moment of understanding and insight.

Have you ever had that happen to you?  What was it like?  What was the content of the experience for you?  I could describe two or three such moments in my life, epiphanies or experiences of enlightenment, such as the story I’ve told of a stone in the woods that taught me of the interconnected oneness of everything.  Buddhism is full of these stories.  The Buddha, they say, practiced every form of asceticism known in India at the time in an effort to attain enlightenment.  Finally, while sitting under a bodhi tree he was enlightened.  The Buddha taught his disciples the secret of enlightenment saying,

When you draw in a deep breath, oh monks, be aware that you are drawing in a deep breath.  And when you draw in a shallow breath, oh monks, be aware that you are drawing in a shallow breath.  And when you draw in a medium-sized breath, oh monks, be aware that you are drawing in a medium-sized breath.  (DeMello, Anthony, The Song of the Bird, p18)

For Jonathan Livingston Seagull it was found in his complete absorption into the task of learning to fly.  Jonathan’s awareness was centered completely on learning the limits of his body and striving to overcome these limits.

Other stories illuminate the utter ordinariness of the trigger or tipping point into enlightenment.  After years of training, the disciple begged his master to give him enlightenment.  Then master led him to a bamboo grove and said, “See that bamboo, how tall it is?  See that other one there, how short it is?”  And the disciple was enlightened.  (DeMello, Anthony, The Song of the Bird, p18)

Another time, a disciple asked for enlightenment and the Master smiled, “Tell me, my dear, when you were born did you come into the world like a star from the sky or out of it like a leaf from a tree?”  All day long she pondered that strange question of the Master.  Then she suddenly saw the answer and fell into Enlightenment.  (DeMello, Anthony, One Minute Wisdom, p121)

Or I explain it with the shortest of the Buddha’s enlightening sermons: he had his disciples sitting around him; he reached down, plucked a flower and held it up.  He didn’t say a word.  One disciple was instantly enlightened.  That story reminds me of one I read about Thich Nhat Hanh.  He has walking across a collage campus with several people after a lecture.  It was fall and many colored leaves were on the ground.  Suddenly Thich Nhat Hanh stopped, pointed to a leaf and shouted, “You’re faking!” All of these stories of the moment of enlightenment hold a common element: the utter ordinariness of what caused the tipping point of awareness.  The trick seems to simply be being fully aware of what is really there in front of you.

Total awareness and absorption into what is right in front of you is what you need.  This level of absorption or attention is often noticed in a cat watching squirrels running to and fro just on the other side of the window glass; or in the play of small children.  Jesus said you would need to be as a child to enter the kingdom.  Give us the spirit of the child.  “The child who trusts, the child who imagines, the child who sings; the child who receives without reservation, the child who gives without judgment.  Give us a child’s heart, that we may be filled with wonder and delight.”  (from responsive reading #664 in SLT hymnal)

They say that children, walking around the world with eyes of wonder, are already awakened.  As you grow up, and in our modern western culture that seems to happen rather quickly, you take on attachments and worries.  Jack Kornfield retells the story of American painter James McNeill Whistler from a hundred years ago and how he experience the worlds attempt to make us “grow up” and leave the innocence of childhood behind.  Whistler was in an engineering class at West Point Military Academy.

The students were instructed to draw a careful study of a bridge, and Whistler submitted a beautifully detailed picturesque stone arch with children fishing from its top.  The lieutenant in charge ordered, “This is a military exercise.  Get those children off the bridge.”  Whistler resubmitted the drawing with the two children now fishing from the side of the river.  “I said get those children completely out of the picture,” said the angry lieutenant.  So Whistler’s last version had the river, the bridge, and two small tombstones along its bank.  (Kornfield, Jack, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry,  p10)

And we spend our lives trying to resurrect that spirit within us.  We search for that essential innocent wonder from childhood when attachments and worries did not command such a hold on us.  And yet younger and younger our children are subjected to the forces of our consumer culture that relies on instilling in us the drive to acquire and the desire to fill some assumed inner vacancy.  We search through the personalities thrown at us on TV and the self-help books populating our bookshelves for answers.  But the answer is not something that can be found out there.  As the title says, “Seeking Enlightenment? Inquire Within.”

In Unitarian Universalist circles we often speak of spirituality as being a journey, an unfolding adventure of self-discovery.  Here, we encourage each to find for themselves the path to understanding and enlightenment.  This is something, then, that we share with the eastern religious quest for enlightenment.  Your faith is not something that can be handed to you; you must uncover it for yourself.  And the clues may be out there, but the actual discovery is within you.  We gather as a community to encourage one another in deepening understanding.

William Houff’s book, Infinity in your Hand, begins with a one-panel cartoon of two monks sitting meditation, the older one saying to the younger, “Nothing happens next.  This is it.”

Jack Kornfield reminds us: after enlightenment, the laundry. Being enlightened does not stop the world from being in need of peace and justice or you from being who you’ve always been.  You are simply more aware, more awake.  And thank goodness for that!  It would be awful if the best and most enlightened among us grew unrecognizable and aloof after enlightenment.  Instead, we remain ourselves and stuck with the same life we had prior to our new understanding.  Except after enlightenment, we are better equipped to handle everything.

Anthony DeMello writes:

After enlightenment nothing really changes.  The tree is still a tree; people are just what they were before and so are you.  You may continue to be as moody or even-tempered, as wise or foolish.  The one difference is that you see things with a different eye.  You are more detached from it all now.  And your heart is full of wonder.  When the Zen master attained enlightenment he wrote the following lines to celebrate it:  “Oh wondrous marvel: I chop wood! I draw water from the well!” (DeMello, Anthony, The Song of the Bird, p16)

Again we speak of wonder.  How often are you struck by wonder?  Is that still a part of your life?  Can it be?  We don’t need to go wandering off to Tibet or hide away in some cave to achieve enlightenment, to uncover again our sense of wonder and oneness with all that is.  It does not involve a detachment from the woes and injustices of life.  Indeed it is really being aware of what is really happening that we uncover the resources needed to be whole.

“There are three stages in one’s spiritual development,” said the Master.  “The carnal, the spiritual, and the divine.”

“What is the carnal stage?” asked the eager disciples.

“That’s the stage when trees are seen as trees and mountains as mountains.”

“And the spiritual?”

“That’s when one looks more deeply into things – then trees are no longer trees and mountains no longer mountains.”

“And the divine?”

“Ah, that’s Enlightenment,” said the master with a chuckle, “when trees become trees again and mountains, mountains.”

(DeMello, Anthony, One Minute Wisdom p 47)

In a world without end

May it be so.