My sense of the eternal ultimos natural
Unitarian Universalist Church of Pensacola
Greetings to you all,
I have reflected on Sean Carroll’s words for some years now, and they have stimulated me to offer this talk today, especially about, From eternity to here, and the ultimate theory of time.
And before I get started, what did you all – do with that extra second of time we were gifted with last midnight?
There is a famous phrase from a famous movie that goes like this—”fasten your seat belts, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.” Well, I don’t know if this will be that bumpy, but it will be a ride, so make sure you are centered on your seats, as I do have my strong opinions and I do imagine.
We are 3 days from the 4th of July, our celebration of independence, and I want to speak this morning on the subject of independent free thought and speech. This past May 3, via Congressional Proclamation, was the very first National Day of Reason, celebrated by nearly 20 some thousand on the National Mall. And, this current weekend, right now going on up in Talledega, AL is the 23rd annual Freethought & Independence Day Gala. Both of these events are about real freedom. Unlike the Fort-nite for Freedom that just concluded by the US Catholic Bishops ask-ing for prayers and fasting to protest our government directing all institutions, regardless of excuses to offer birth control via there insurance plans. And, of course the Catholics are bemoaning that they, the Bishop bosses are not free to dictatorially impose their rules denying women the freedom of choice. Or how about the church sign I saw the other day that said, “one nation under God, with liberty.” Talk about liberty, talk about freedom, in my earlier days I was twice elected to municipal government, but in 6 states I could not be elected to government office, or if I wanted to, I would have to lie about professing and believing in a god. Think about these points regarding freedom and liberty and you decide what is forthright and honest.
Our fore bearers came to this land first and foremost to, in my opinion, to have liberty and freedom. There is no doubt they brought their belief systems with them of course, and most of their religious beliefs at least where Judeo-Christian in structure, and they were not adverse to the new government they were creating to proclaim their religion as foundational. But some new Americans also believed that real freedom could only be attained by a separation of church and state. And so, after the articles of the constitution were formed , they began to make amendments and they worded the very first amendment to state that we were to have the freedom of choice. “The government shall make no law respecting religion, or prohibiting the free exercise there of.” The freedom to not be imposed with relig-ion, or the freedom to choose religion, was the very first amendment to the original articles of our nation.
In many ways nothing has changed to the present day. The debate or battle for a religious or secular government goes on and on. Florida has just chang-ed law so students can give so called “inspirational” speeches, and a column just 2 weeks ago by Gene Policinski of the First Amendment Center tells of how in Tennessee officials would not allow the high school to publish an article by the editor, a senior, on what it is like to be an atheist in a school where most students profess Christianity, and where the school officials were promoting that belief system by their practices. So, today I want to talk about the two mindviews that stir this issue and spur this debate and present my view and offer my way of living as a minority in this cultural and religious mindscape.
Ah, these two mindviews, this world of dualism. Here I wear my yin-yang shirt depicted with the tree of life and the rays of the energy of eternal existence. Yin and Yang, and although they are opposing, they are not in opposition to one another. As part of the Tao, they are merely two aspects of a single reality. Each contains the seed of the other, which is why we see a black spot of Yin , in the white of Yang and vice versa. They do not merely replace each other but actually become each other through the constant flow of the universe. But with the present day debate of the sectarians versus the secular it seems quite difficult to foster a blending of thought. How can the godfree blend with the godful, when we godfree people don’t have “as glorious” a vocabulary? How can we give speeches that are as “inspirational” as the believer? As compared to emotional religionism how do we promote exciting rationalism? The words of science are self explanatory but still leave me wanting. Where are the artistic, the romantic, the wow words to express our amazement and wonderment of life? What words will tell our story?
Well, I want to tell you a story, and you will be the first to hear it, but not the last. And, afterwords anyone who would like to add to this story, great, join me. This my story of actual thought, and also of what I imagine, about eternity and the ultimate.
Because language is more than speech, I will be using some new words today of which a few of you may have heard me use, but most of you have not. I have begun to become what is called a Neologist, a creator of new words. I started on this path of new vocabulary about 15 years ago, when sitting in the kitchen Muffie and I were discussing what all of life was about and what we came to agree upon was,
it really does depend on what the definition of is—is! If you recall, that statement was posed in a famous political scandal, in court.
Back to our kitchen, we began to banter about what we both really thought defined our realities. Miriam Webster says, God equals supreme reality! And we both said to each, really? It wasn’t relative to our realities, and neither of us felt we could relate to the idea of supreme-ness anyway, and if it made itself evident and thus relevant, could we relate to it, making it a relative reality, or not? After some more banter we agreed that each persons reality can be defined differently, and so many do seem to live in different worlds, but we amazingly agreed also that actuality must be only what naturally IS. And so we discussed what, what is it,—this actuality. The talk went around the table for awhile more, and Muffie reminded me that I may still think I am a kid, and that was my reality, but it’s not actuality. And then, voila! Muffie said that she thought the only actual real effect upon all of existence—is energy, which can be neither created, nor destroyed, and is the only actual element that is nature itself. I thought wow, from a supreme reality of a god, to a natural actuality of energy, was a big difference in how the world was trying to explain their views of eternity and one of them for me finally made sense! So from that day on I have been not a believer in the supreme, but an “awarer” of the actual, I had returned to thence, to original birth awareness.
In order to give merit to this simple definition of what the actual IS, of course, I needed to do some reading—and read I did.
Miriam Webster, again says IS, is the third person singular present indicative of BE. There’s a lot to talk about there, but the word BE is the important one for me. That that be, that that is. The definition for be by MW is, after a lot of first and third person clarifications, is to exist in actuality. There it was, actuality is the indicative of be. And, the definition of being is, –active or essential part. I was on my way! I read more and more about what be–eed, —–like, The First 3 Minutes of the Universe, by Steven Wienberg, and the Cosmic Jackpot by Paul Davies, Carroll’s From Eternity to Here, and The History of God by Karen Armstrong, and Occidental Mythologies by Joseph Campbell, and the use of Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. But, then I thought for new words, I will also have to think outside of the books, to explain my view of “from here to eternity”.
Alright, now what do I say? What do I call this actuality? How does just energy get its place in daily vocabulary, when it is used all the time in very common speak? I mean this energy of is—is, —-is of what all of is. I knew I had to define it better, because language is more than speech.
I needed to find words to express myself in honest sincerity, so that I no longer left one questioning what I really profess, and also be able to look myself straight in the mirror. If then, the being of energy, per the laws of actuality, can neither be created nor destroyed, than what we have is an eternal constant. I’m not talking about quantitative or measured energy like BTUs, or therms, etc., I’m talking about the infinite causational energy as the actual thing. Energy that exists, we have discovered, even in a vacuum. Energy that is light, that is bright, and the dark energy we know is there. Also, I am talking about the force that is truly and actually with us, for which I will say——the force is with you always!
For me, this is what song # 187 sings of when it speaks of “the it that sounds along the ages”. The it, that is the sound of the vibrations of energy, the actual music of eternal time. I refer to this energy with a word I’ve coined as energeal(spell), and I used it the chalice lighting. The energy of allness-energeal.
Now having talked about energy for awhile I am saying to you, energy is my mindview of actuality, but what about the other view? The dualistic and separatist views of existence. What about the sectarian view and the great omnipotent deity? The great and powerful Yahweh or Allah?
This view and idea of a creator god was then also discussed at the kitchen table for awhile, around numerous possibilities like Pascals Wager, and using Occam’s Razor, etc, but we both finally agreed we did not have the sense of it and we could not tell it to another. So the question then was what do we tell others? How do we explain, express, and describe life with our ideas about what — is-is?
I decided I needed words that didn’t exist. Why that decision? Because it seemed, tho arguably, to me the vast amount of definitive language about the glory of life was religious, and it was heard and read every day in books and papers, and on television and now the internet. And the religious language is being pushed hard at schools in every state, just like Florida, regarding inspirational speech.
Now, don’t get worried that I am trying to start a new language, just some new words like are constructed every day in the techno world, to help me explain my mindview, my lifeology, my explanation of life.
There’s two of them right there. Mindview versus worldview. The first is personal think, and the second is group think. And, lifeology. We have many -ologies and -osophies. We have philosophy, theosophy, theology, biology and these are called studies of the ways of life, but when used in speach, already they begin to define somewhat where a person is in their point of view. But lifeology—–what a good word to start off asking a new acquaintance when we want to know what they think is—is, what the universe is. “So, what is your lifeology?” Which is less direct than, “How do you define what is—is?” It’s an easy opener, and then one can say, “ I don’t know?” (agnostic), or “God is it!”(theist), or “It just is.”(atheist). These answers are what most of us, eventually, want to know about another. Instead of the question like we got shortly after arriving in Pensacola from a real estate person only minutes after we met, which was, “Where do you go to church?” Wow! What is your lifeology would have been much better, as I wasn’t ready to respond, to such an assumption of his theistic worldview.
So, what would I say if I wanted to express or describe myself more in life than just agnostic, or theist, or atheist? And that brings me to the one word that gives me definition, and defines who I am. In my struggle to find a word, and the realization that I had to make one up, to construct one, how and what was to be my criteria? I decided to work on what I then coined as a word for the combination of rhyme and nym, (from synonym and antonym, and of course acronym), and I made rhymonym. Why did I want rhyming? Because as I tried to explain my feelings of life, I wanted to put it verse, and prose, lyrics, phrases, and mottos, and that meant that I had to find sound and syllable matches to words of similar usage in theistic vocabulary, so that when I felt great joy, or wanted to sing an old hymn, or wanted to make up a new song with new prose, I could do it. As I worked on the one biggest word I was seeking, the one word to define eternal energy to anyone who heard it, I began to see that word as what I labeled, a counter-balance word. So if someone was describing a lifeologic event and they were to use an all inclusive power word, what would it be? That big word of course then had to be a counter-balance word to the sectarians biggest word, the word with the most weight, god. When the word god is used in our world regardless of language, is there anyone who doesn’t know what it stands for? The great omnipotent deity. The great invisible power. Or the very vague enigmatic yet all inclusive god of all, and all of god, and that gets combined with general nature at the same time, so that nature becomes a god. With all of that, — that goes with this last god standing story, it has accumulated, over thousands of years, a lot of baggage.
But wait, even as a Humanist I know I have a great invisible power, and I don’t call it or treat it, or worship it as a god. What can I call it in a rhymonymic form that people will recognize it for what it means? It came to me in the same kitchen some weeks later. I named it acronymically after energy and the universe and nature. It was e,u,n.(sp) And when I looked that up on the Great Internet, I found the spelling only and originally as old Breton-Celtic meaning cardinal number “one”. There’s some old Scottish and Gaelic possibilities too, but not appearing as e-u-n. So there was my word, in old world meaning number one, and I called it eun(yoon) for universe, and eun(yon) for the one infinite yonder. And, I made one very important rule–never, ever capitalize it in a sentence, it did’nt require it.
Now I can speak on this for a long time, but it’s simply, in acronymic form, energeal(energy of all), universal, nature, and eternal, ultimos(ultimate most, natural, or e,u,n,(yon), which is all inclusive inclu-ding e,u,n(yoon) the cosmos. And there was another of my neologic words—ultimos. It means– all of, all encompassing, ulti is the all, and mos meaning the of and the is. I did this because the out there in space, the word space, was just to common and blah. So let’s talk about space for a moment so I can explain fully, the ultimos.
Where can I start? Out of Africa, into Asia, the world was large, but yet so small. It was flat they thought, and what was with the sun and moon and all those billions and billions of stars? Jump forward a few thousand years ago into the era when those with empiricist and religious power made ruling opinions and imposed explanations. But, let me speed up, more please. The world became round, but was fixed, it then rotated, and then it orbited, and then in a solar system, then in a galaxy, and now multiple thousands of galaxies. Wow! What’s next? Anything else?
Now, this is what I imagine—- Multiple universes, and many of them. Not parallel like on TV’s Fringe, where there’s two of me, or stacked like the turtles one on top of another, but an eternity of universes in ultimos. Universes coming and going for the infinite forever. Some will argue about the 2nd Law of Thermo Dynamics about heat loss, and that our universe is a closed system that will shrivel up, but I see it as open and evolving and changing and repeating thru time. How do I imagine this? Take a look at this link that shows scale of size. Have any of you seen this link? I show it to introduce another new word in just a few moments.
Talk about the scales of size, from the quantum on up and out, and back again. And way out there, to infinity and beyond, that out there past the universe, past our cosmos, that’s ultimos. We are speeding out there at the speed of light or faster as a neutrino, so how can there be any boundaries? For me there is no alpha or omega for ultimos, because infinity, the ultimos is immeasurable. It is infinite eternity where all things happen, energies, and matters, by spontaneous energeal causation create expressions of multiple universes forever. These are what I call not just the big bangs, but the great whoomphs of expressive flames created by energy’s yin yang with matter. It requires no creator or controller for eun is eternal. What a wonderment to teach children about eternity, and they should be wowed by the facts and the story.
So, now I will give examples of how I say eun/eun to explain everything, and speaking of everything, in science when we discuss quests and searches for understanding of actuality, we use theories. I call them big and small theories depending on the facts or ideas available. Like the big theory of evolution in all ultimos, things evolving for forever, which is the one thing that never changes besides death. That is a big theory based on facts. How about this theory. TOE, or the theory of everything, which is still in the development stage as an idea theory. TOE is hoped to eventually prove actuality and it’s make up. The TOE would sum up all things of ultimos of which I already call, and this is the next new word, the “thingsum of eun”, TOE. There is a euneun word and counter-balance to the word kingdom. Thingsum(spell), or s.u.m. of all things, the thingsum of eun. And, ideas are things, including ideas of godly enigmas. It’s this thingsum that I call e-prime(spell), and means eternally primordial, making eprime a counter-balance to divine.
Those are a few singular words, but how about some phrases? Another example of counter-balance is to the sectarian motto that was forced on the nation in the 1950s, and is in every courtroom, and on many vehicle license plates. Our original motto, e pluribus unum, out of many-one, and adopted by an act of Congress in 1782, was perfect. My counter-balance motto is “in eun we must!” Think about it as you perhaps will the next times you see the imposed motto that was put upon us.
How about OMG? Which I always want to ask, really? I prefer OTE, oh the eun, because whenever anything happens it’s always the result of energy and mass expressing somehow, some way. How about, “here in this place of eun go I/we?” Or, eun speed, which is really fast, or oh, the eun of it, or, yeah eun, and then (yoon)eun parents and eun parents, you know which is which now, right? Oh yes, one more; eun caress our planet earth! Now there’s a bumper sticker for you, and especially placed on a solar panel of the ISS. What I wouldn’t say is, eun damn it, for though eun is the infinite eternity of all things, including ideas of supreme beings and giant space aliens, eun does not take action per our requests, it will not act on our behalf, yet everything is an act of eun. So I don’t ask eun to bless something, nor damn something. It’s just not sensical, not a natural sense.
Speaking of sense, the phrase, “common sense” is used all the time. Have you ever thought about what is commonly said by people who use numerous rote deitist phrases in daily speak? I think it is time we move forward in speak with a natural sense. Not from an habitual common sense, but natural sense, for many things that are said and done commonly make no sense, because they’re not natural. A couple of examples are sports players and their pointing to the sky. If it were me I would want to grab some more energy for the next time I need to excel. How about ideas being especially blessedly gifted? A gift from the great being. Consider Bell Labs and their discovery of the CMB in the 60’s. That was some discovery. Today Alcatel-Lucent(Bell Labs) files 7 patents a day! Gifts of a god? Transcendent reception, or human cognition? These ideas are from long, long studying and super hard work, and they’ve got to be of a natural sense, and these people deserve the only credit. These theistic ways of non-human thankfulness make no sense to me.
For me the sense of eun is a fully natural, actual, factual, linguistic expression of life. It’s down to earth and infinite in ultimos, it’s all one and all at the same time—e unum pluribus, out of one are all things, the thingsum of eun.
Theses are some of the examples of a word, eun, that describes the allness, the oneness and wonderment of infinity of which we are all a part. But what about the dimensions I haven’t yet mentioned? There’s 1-4, and the 5th, and the 6th, and then the greatly imagined, dimension of soul, and of course its salvation and the great escape. Ah, the soul! Isn’t soul, —the soul, isn’t this word the reason for all the fuss? Like what is it really? I have heard many definitions, from the actual Greek to breathe, all the way to the the idea of eternal consciousness. Really? After 60 some years I get tired some days of my own consciousness, do I really have to be conscious for forever? I have an acronym word for this too! S.O.U.L. Spirit Of Universal-Ultimosal Life, and energy is the spirit of all life. Spirit, defined for me, is the principle of consciousness, and to be in –thus state, requires energy to be synapsing all the time, or I cease to be conscious. My soul is this eternal energy which without, nothing happens, no energy, no expression, no consciousness. The actual power in our lives is e. It is the whole-e. Don’t glorify it, don’t worship it, don’t capitalize it, just respect it, for it is we. It is energy, that is my spirit, and it is eternal, and thus my spirit that is my soul goes on for ever and becomes many different things. This segment is a whole n’other day for talking about the persona of people, and of other worlds, and the differences of spirit, and spirited, and spiritual, and they are different, so I will move on, but I will say, that I am spirited, and my spirit is me, being in e, free to be, to seek and to see, and then——–I end, and pass on in cosmic redeux.
And yes, the end of this talk is nigh. There is no way to really close this subject, for eun is never ending but I will try and wrap this up. And there’s another acronym, the word W. R. A. P., for worlds religions and philosophies, but that’s for another days talk. This talk, of my sense of eternal ultimos, is natural to me. Who am I to try and nick name eternity? It just kept streaming in my mind, and for me, is nothing egotistical about it, for it is about complete oneness and all, including any proposed kingdoms. It is my story. It’s how I feel and think that this life of mine, an energeal gift of my parents, that arrived at birth and leaves me at death, that this life is amazing and awesome and filled with wonderment, and is, oh- so short compared to the immeasurable eternal time. This eternal source of life is something I am not agnostic about, nor apologetic, and I sincerely want it to be conspicuous actuallity, offering what Sean Carroll calls for as a complete and coherent and simple understanding of reality. The energeal ultimos, the thingsum of eun is my eternal truth.
In 3 days it is Independence Day, think about it. Secular people, non theistic people, good and moral natural free thinking people want the liberty to live life without the force of an others belief, put upon them. I am not saying at all that religions cannot exist. I do not mean to ridicule religions, as they have their merits of goodness, and offer many, many helpful ways to assist people, but I do want respect and freedom from religion in a free country. Keep in mind there are many, many religions and thousands of sects, not just the dominant ones, and I will defend the right of any person to concoct and create any idea, and if they want to believe something in small theory without fact it is there choice. But I will stand up against them when they force belief systems that use mystical stories of afterlife upon a free people. When they manipulate a nations law system to promote and imply, when they attempt to force make believe in science class, when they use the law to benefit themselves to be tax exempted or special privileged over others. Religions for thousands of years have been ideas of explaining life, and are realities to many still, but to me they are not actuality, and not what I imagine.
May the children of the future be free to learn and understand this difference between believing mystically in a kingdom, and living actually in the thingsum. So teach, your children well! What makes this place special is that with your religious education classes you give your children the freedom to believe or not,— to think what one wants, — to make there own choices—to pursue one’s happiness. That makes this place a congregation, where free thinking people, can find natural people, and can make it a home.
And so, I proclaim this coming 4th of July, as always, that I want to be free to express my lifeology and help the millions and millions of others who with free minds and thinking with there eyes wide open want to go, just like Buzz Lightyear, across the eun—iverse, and into infinity that be eun, the eternal ultimos natural.
Thank you, the force is with you, as so it always is.
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Emerald Coast
Rev. Rod Debs
March 20, 2011
Also presented at UUCP-June 17, 2012
Story: “The Evil Wizard” by Joshua Searle-White (What If Nobody Forgave? by Colleen McDonald, 1999)
Have you ever known someone who would pick on you or your brother, your sister? What did you do? What would happen then?
This is the story of an Evil Wizard, and of a girl named Esmeralda. Esmeralda is a pretty normal nine-year-old girl except that, for several years, she has been on adventures all around the world, saving all kinds of people and animals from the clutches of the Evil Wizard. And the Evil Wizard is, well, evil. He is totally and completely mean and rotten. Once he stole a whole forest of animals and put them in cages in a cave underneath the ocean; Esmeralda had to save them. Once the Evil Wizard stole a space-ship and went to the planet of the Hoodoo and tried to start a war there—he tried to get all the yellow-striped Hoodoos to kill the green-striped Hoodoos; Esmeralda had to stop him. And once he went to Shangri-La where everybody is happy all the time and does nothing but ride merry-go-rounds and water-ski and eat chocolate; he tried to wreck the fun and make everyone miserable; Esmeralda had to catch him and put him in jail.
Esmeralda spent a lot of her time chasing the Evil Wizard around the world, into space, under the oceans, up the mountains, and she caught him every time. But the Evil Wizard kept coming back. As many times as Esmeralda stopped him from doing terrible things, he kept doing more. As many times as she put him in jail, he kept breaking out. It was very, very frustrating, but Esmeralda kept doing it because, after all, these creatures and people needed to be saved from him.
Then one day, Esmeralda decided to go on a trip of her own. All her other adventures had started when the Evil Wizard had caused trouble somewhere, and Esmeralda had gone to help the poor victims. But this time was different. This time, she was going on an adventure all by herself. It was a Saturday, and she was going to climb to the top of a mountain—a mountain she had wanted to climb for a long time. She got her backpack, her magic hat, her binoculars, some food, and some extra socks, and she headed off along the trail.
As she walked along, she was enjoying the smells and the sun and the leaves on this summer day. But she hadn’t been walking for ten minutes when whom should she see, sitting on the path ahead of her? You guessed it: the Evil Wizard, dressed in his gloomy robe, grinning at her. “What is he doing here?” she said to herself. “I fight and fight and fight this guy, and every time that I think I finally have him put away, he’s back again. I can’t believe it!” And just as she thought this, the Evil wizard darted off the path and into the forest. She began running after him, thinking, “This is it. This time, he is not getting away. I’m going to catch him, and when I do, I’m going to put him where he will never come out again. I don’t ever want to see his ugly face again.”
Esmeralda ran and ran, dodging trees, climbing up hills, jumping over streams, gaining on him, getting closer and closer. Finally, as the Evil Wizard ran around an enormous boulder, Esmeralda climbed on top of it and jumped off, landing right on top of him. He flailed around and tried to escape, but Esmeralda doesn’t lift weights for nothing, and he was caught. And Esmeralda thought to herself, “This is finally it. I’m going to put him where he will never get out.” She looked around, and right there, next to this boulder, was a hole in the ground. She dragged the Evil Wizard over to the hole, and stuffed him in. Then she looked around and spied a small rock underneath the boulder. She kicked that rock out of the way, and the boulder rolled right over the hole, sealing the Evil Wizard in.
“Phew!” she gasped. “He’s trapped now. He’s never coming out. And I am FREE!” Esmeralda turned and walked back to the trail, picked up her backpack, and started off again when she heard a sound behind her. She stopped. Slowly, she turned around… and there was the Evil Wizard, on top of a log, staring at her. Esmeralda threw herself onto the ground, pounded her fists, and kicked her feet. “That’s impossible! You can’t be here,” she cried. “How did you manage to escape again?” Then she thought, “I shouldn’t have just put him in a hole—I should have dropped him off a cliff and let him tumble onto the rocks. I should have taken him to the ocean and let him get eaten by sharks!” And then she looked at the Evil Wizard. He looked at the trail, and she looked at her watch. And she realized that she’d spent most of the day, in fact, she had spent most of her life trying to conquer the Evil Wizard, and nearly forgotten about her climb up the mountain.
Esmeralda thought about that for a minute, and then she realized something else. “Maybe trying to get rid of him isn’t the answer. If I wait to go on my adventure until I get rid of him, I might never get anywhere. Something has to change.” “Okay, Evil Wizard,” she called out to him. “This is it. I’m going on this journey, and I’m not going to let you take over. I won’t let you do anything evil, but I’m not taking off after you just because you decide to show up. This is my adventure. If you want to come along, okay, I’ll have to deal with you, but you’ll also have to deal with me.”
And Esmeralda took a deep breath, shouldered her backpack, and proceeded up the mountain. And the Evil Wizard—well, he looked around, hopped off his log, and went after her; but she continued in the lead.
Message The Persian poet Kahlil Gibran wrote of those who disagree:
“You are my brothers and sisters…, here as my companions along the path of light, and my aid in understanding the meaning of hidden Truth.
“I love you for your Truth, derived from your knowledge. I respect it as a divine thing, for it is the deed of the spirit.
“Your Truth shall meet my Truth and blend together like the fragrance of flowers and become one whole and eternal Truth, perpetuating and living in the eternity of Love and Beauty.”
St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) expressed this same liberal spirit toward disagreement, calling for a kind of civility when he wrote: “We must love them both – those whose opinions we share and those whose opinions we reject. For both have labored in the search for truth, and both have helped us in the finding of it.”
Unitarian Universalist congregations gather with an explicit covenant of civility. We promise to affirm and promote the “right of conscience,” the right of each person to their integrity. Our covenant goes so far as to declare: “Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision. As free congregations we enter into this covenant, promising to one another our mutual trust and support” (UUA Bylaws).
This civility among people who disagree was first legislated in Transylvania (now Romania) under Unitarian King John Sigismund by the Diet of Torda in 1568. The Edict of Religious Toleration of 1568, declared, in part: “… in the matter of religion… in every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well, if not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve. Therefore… no one shall be reviled for his religion by anyone,… and it is not permitted that anyone should threaten anyone else by imprisonment or by removal from his post for his teaching, for faith is the gift of God…”
Liberal democracy is founded upon these principles of “the right of conscience” and the working out of public policies through representative government designed to serve “the general welfare” rather than the private interests of ideology, power or wealth. Yet, we have seen a break-down in civility with hate-radio and TV opinion-reporters and evangelical religious and secular extremists. New atheists claim that ridicule is required to address “religulous” ideas, and Tea Party activists shout down those with whom they disagree.
Incivility, fear and hate is nothing new. In the 18th century, John Murray’s preaching of Universalism in the new United States was dangerous heresy to those convinced that God would damn most of humankind to hell. Here is an account of how The Father of Universalism in America responded to incivility:
“While the Rev’d John Murray was delivering a discourse upon Universalism, some person threw a large stone at him. It crashed through the window and fell upon the floor. He picked up the stone, which weighed fourteen pounds, held it up to his audience and remarked to them, `Brethren, this is a solid and weighty argument, but it is neither rational nor convincing.’” Murray continued—speaking with the royal `we’:
“We cannot persuade ourselves that scurrilous epithets are any more rational or convincing than weighty stones. In spite of the severe visitations we have for nearly thirty years received, and which we are still receiving from professional brethren with whom we differ, we are yet of the opinion that logical reasoning is the best argument with which to disseminate truth. Ridicule, misrepresentation, abuse, everything of the kind, may be used, but they are not argument. They may, it is true, as they have done, hold the sway for the time being. It is, however, only a question of time for truth to develop itself and enlighten humanity.” (Horace R. Streeter, Voice Building, 1871)
Universalist Hosea Ballou had this to say about evangelism: “The law of heaven is love.” “Ministers who threaten death and destruction employ weapons of weakness. Argument and kindness are alone effectual, flavored by the principles of Divine love.”
I grew up within the Evangelical Christian world of revival preaching, outdoor camp meetings with rough-cut benches and wood shavings under big tents, long altar calls with all six verses of “Just As I Am” (without one plea but that thy blood was shed for me)–all six verses repeated over and over again. The guilt and fear was, in my opinion, abusive—especially to children. After college, I saved my money to study philosophy in graduate school so that I would be able to stand nose to nose with theologians and be more than an angry young man. I wanted to know the Bible better than they did. I wanted to get the monkey of a religion of fear and guilt off my back.
Today, I am able to distinguish between the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount who taught, “Love your enemies,” and the imperial conquering Christ as presented by the first-century Messianic Jews who wrote the New Testament. To ridicule Christianity whole cloth would be to throw the baby out with the bath-water.
Within this last year, I have come to a new understanding even of the theology of the cross, that an imperial God requires the blood sacrifice of his son in order to forgive sins. The more I reflect upon Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and addictive behavior, the guilt and self-loathing in an dog-eat-dog society that drives workaholics and losers alike, the more I understand the function of a theology of divine redemption. No matter who you are or what you have done, the almighty king and judge of all creation declares that your repeated failings, your shameful addiction, your unnamable actions in the frenzy of war—they are all forgiven. You who can never forgive yourselves, by the sacrifice of God’s only son, the price has been paid by his blood, and you have been redeemed, forgiven, an adopted child of the king of all creation.
Not only by following the loving-kindness of Jesus, blood redemption is also a saving faith for many. Their integrity and their wholeness requires Christian redemption no less than our integrity requires Unitarian Universalism of us for our wholeness.
To ridicule the Christianity of Fundamentalists, to ridicule the Islam of the Taliban or of the Saudis, to ridicule the Judaism of the Israeli military occupation and settlements would be as misguided as to ridicule Christianity as represented by Jonestown, the Branch Davidians, or the Third Reich. Nor should we ridicule atheism based on the atrocities of Stalin or Mao Zedong. There are many versions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and of atheism. It takes suspending judgment, it takes listening and respectfully engaging believers, it sometimes takes open-hearted scholarship to discover the value and worth of others’ faith as well as the offensive qualities.
When it comes to literalist interpretations of ancient sacred texts, atheists who accept literalist readings of Scripture and ridicule Christianity, are just as misguided in their literalism as the evangelical who embraces literalist mis-readings of Scripture and cries, “Lord, I believe. Help thou my unbelief.”
John Murray said, “We are yet of the opinion that logical reasoning is the best argument with which to disseminate truth. Ridicule, misrepresentation, abuse, everything of the kind, may be used, but they are not argument.”
Certainly it is easier to ridicule a person or their beliefs than to reason against the dogma of believers. The great danger of incivility is that, like Esmeralda chasing the Evil Wizard, we become like those we make our opponents. We become ideologues with whom you cannot reason.
In his Autobiography, the elder statesman among our nation’s Founders, Benjamin Franklin wrote: “Disputing, contradicting and confuting People. . . get Victory sometimes, but they never get Good Will, which would be of more use to them.”
Today we are witnessing people’s revolutions against autocratic governments in North Africa: Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain. A reporter for the BBC cited a study of the relative effectiveness of peaceful demonstrations in contrast to those demonstrations that were attacked and turned into violent confrontations. Peaceful demonstrations succeeded. It seems that the cycle of violence breeds violence. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means.”
Perhaps it is too easy for me to preach nonviolent resistance—work-stoppage, boycott, sit-ins and peaceful demonstrations from the ivory tower of relative peace and security in this country. However, the cycle of violence is very real. Violence breeds violence in return. What can we do?
Perhaps we might clarify our goal. Do we wish to control, to coerce others? or to share influence? The power politics of authoritarian control involves violence rather than dialogue, indoctrination rather than education, coercion rather than reason. If the goal is to share power with others for the common good, then dialogue, education, and nonviolent negotiation of differences are the means consistent with the ends.
The more we know about oppression in the world, the more we see of tragedies and atrocities and the grinding destitution and disease around the world, the more we want to change the world, not by degrees, but now—no, yesterday! We find ourselves willing to use any silver bullet, to turn the world toward justice. We want more than influence; we want control to stop the suffering.
Paul Tillich wrote: “The first duty of love is to listen.” Among Unitarian Universalists in discussion, do we practice listening around the circle? Sometimes—OK often we find it hard to listen when we think we have something that would enlighten everyone. In spite of our self-perceived brilliant insights, we would be wise to listen 90% of the time when there are ten present. “The first duty of love is to listen.”
Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk from the Vietnam War era, advises:
“Though we all have the fear / and seeds of anger within us,
we must learn not to water those seeds, / and instead, nourish our positive qualities–
those of compassion, understanding, / and loving kindness.” –Thich Nhat Hanh
How do we change the world? I am sorry to disappoint you by saying that you and I do not have the power to control the world and independently put an end to suffering and injustice. Despite wishful thinking, and a deep longing for justice, we know this.
But our influence is far greater than we can imagine. If we practice compassion, listening for understanding, the loving-kindness that all humankind long for, both the just and the unjust, we influence the world. If we learn to live our covenant of mutual trust and support, not only with those with whom we disagree here, but also with those with whom we disagree throughout the world, we can hold one another to a higher standard of compassion and justice by our modeled behavior. Children are watching.
Piet Hein offers us a way to change the world: “If we want peace, the things we must accomplish to deserve it, are, first, to win each other’s trust, and second, to deserve it.” May we invest our energies in building the wholeness of mutual trust and support.
“Go out into the world in peace. Have courage.
Hold on to what is good.
Return to no person evil for evil.
Strengthen the faint-hearted. Support the weak.
Help the suffering. Honor all beings.”
Chalice Lighting (Opening Words): The elder statesman of our nation’s founders, Benjamin Franklin, who was a member of Joseph Priestley’s Unitarian Chapel in London, wrote these words: “Disputing, contradicting and confuting People… get Victory sometimes, but they never get Good Will, which would be of more use to them.”
Chalice Extinguishing (Closing Words): “Go forth in fellowship–that quality of relationship among human beings that respects, listens, and invites hidden possibilities, and gently summons each to our better selves.” (anon)
Unitarian Universalist Church of Pensacola
Full disclosure: I am not a theologian nor a historian nor a philosopher nor a scholar of religious belief systems. I know that we have some very accomplished and knowledgeable individuals among us, and I admire them that. I just got here because I ask a lot of questions, more often to myself than out loud. And I came to be giving this talk entitled, “What is our Eternal Truth?” – see, a question – because I got to thinking about a few lines that I heard right here at church. Those services provided me with what any good UU service should offer: They spurred me to thoughtful consideration, research and reflection. My talk this morning will cover some of what I learned and am learning.
First of all, each week, we recite together our church covenant. As you all likely know, Unitarian Universalism is not a creedal organization but a covenantal organization. This means that instead of espousing a creed or set of beliefs, we affirm a covenant or promise. One of the things that we promise to one another in this congregation is to “seek the truth in love.” This line of our covenant, of course, mirrors the statement in our 7 Principles asserting that we promote “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” I noticed in our congregation’s covenant, though, that we’re talking not just about some imprecise concept of truth but the truth. The addition of the article “the” changes the meaning and implies a singular truth. So here I go thinking: What is this truth? We believe in the pursuit of truth, but how do we know if we’ve obtained this truth? And how do we discriminate one person’s or group’s truth from another?
Some of these questions were already floating around in the back of mind when I heard something else about truth here one morning. On Easter Sunday, Rev. Julie spoke about the work and teachings of Jesus, whose radical acts of love and hospitality inspire us today. Rev. Julie observed that Christians view Jesus as a savior who died to bring eternal life to all who believe in him and accept him as their Messiah. Unitarian Universalists, meanwhile, regard Jesus as a great inspiration and model for an authentic life. Rev. Julie closed her Easter talk with meditation words from Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nat Hanh reminding us that we are a part of a larger cycle of birth, life and death and of the world around us. This life cycle was called an “everlasting truth.” This phrase – everlasting truth – influenced the title of my talk this morning.
Further piquing my interest in the truth about … the truth was a talk given by Rev. Julie one Sunday in which she told a story about The Mystery. She related that, about the great questions of life, “The Mystery was silent about these things.” Instead of speaking to these age-old questions, “The Mystery kept quiet, hoping they would figure it out themselves.” The Mystery advised, “Don’t’ listen with your ears; listen with your heart.” She concluded, “When we act on our feelings of thankfulness and joy, The Mystery will play with us and through us.”
Remember, we have a promise to one another in this church that we will “seek the truth in love.” Then we hear about one “everlasting truth,” which is that we humans are a part of an ongoing and interdependent cycle of life. This cycle can be summed up with the old joke: There are only two things you can be sure of in life: Death and taxes.
But then, on the other hand, we are told that there is a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty and doubt that we have to work our way through in our lives without much guidance. As they say, kids don’t come with insruction manuals. Well, there aren’t instruction manuals for heartbreaks or frustrations or overwhelming joys either. It would seem that there are some Knowns or commonly accepted realities and a lot of Unknowns that we might be making up as we go along.
There are a series of conferences called TED conferences featuring world-renowned speakers and thinkers in the sciences, technology, art and humanities. Talks from these conferences are called TED Talks and can be found online at ted.com. As an aside, I highly recommend TED talks as enthralling resources in your own pursuit of knowledge. Brene Brown – a doctor of clinical social work who studies shame, vulnerability and resiliency – remarked in her TED talk that “religion has gone from a belief in faith and mystery to certainty. ‘I’m right; you’re wrong. Shut up.’” We UUs can relate to what Brene Brown means by that; many of us are probably here because we have rejected the certainty and stepped out into the uncertain. We are seeking truth, but we still recognize that not all things can be proven. We value scientific knowledge, but we retain some of the mystery and wonder that makes life exciting.
Brene Brown’s remark is a humorous reminder that the pendulum has been swinging from absolute faith in religious doctrine to rejection of all things supernatural for a long time.
Michael Werner recounts in “Humanism and Beyond the Truth” how humanism emerged in the 19th Century in response to both the Enlightenment and the Romantic Movement. Werner writes: “A basic tension arose when the Enlightenment replaced religion with critical reason and science as the bridge to a better life. The Romantic Movement countered with the view that our emotional, intuitional, prescientific awareness was more important. These dialectical polar views seemed to be synthesizing at the beginning of this century when many humanists seemed to integrate heart and mind, reason and compassion.”
Werner argues that humanism today places too great an emphasis on truth reached through the use of science and reason. Werner writes, “There are limits to reason and science in all areas, but much more so in the area that talks about how to live our lives.” Werner observes that “much of the universe is chaotic, unexplainable, or without clear-cut choice.” He advocates a pluralistic approach to avoiding deep and hurtful conflicts when faced with these complex situations. He offers a successful marriage or long-term relationship as an example of how, as people, we learn to allow some overlap or blurring of the lines of truth in order to get along, live with and enjoy the company of others. As an alternative to rigid adherence to science and reason, Werner proposes a mix of those methods coupled with environmental and biological considerations and our own intrinsic motivation and inspiration that spurs us to decision making.
Werner cites research such as that published in the books Descartes’ Error and Emotional Intelligence to support his argument that it is our emotionality more than our rationality that govern many of our choices and actions. This is especially true of ethical choices. There may be a very strong rational argument for why something is the right thing to do, but we won’t act unless something about the situation moves us. The driving emotional forces of fear, love, hate, envy, grief, empathy, and happiness are very powerful.
This I know to be true, both empirically and intuitively. As a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Certified Addictions Professional, I help people who are incarcerated or who have been involved in the criminal justice system overcome a pervasive pattern of drug and alcohol use, criminal activity and self-destructive behavior that threatens to destroy their lives and the lives of those close to them. I am talking about people who have stolen from their own parents or grandparents to get money for drugs; people who have plowed their vehicles into guardrails or telephone poles while driving drunk not just once or twice but three, four, or five times, incurring extensive injuries and expense to themselves and others; people who detest where their lives are going but who continue to do the same things again and again that keep them in a bad place.
I assure you that reasoning with someone in this sort of state is virtually useless. There is an idea that criminals or addicts or alcoholics make rational choices and weigh out their options before acting: “But if I get caught carrying these drugs or selling this stolen property, I’ll get a five-year prison term.” That idea has been disproven. Instead, research shows that people with these sorts of behaviors tend to discount the negative consequences that might happen to them and overvalue the payoffs they get from their behavior.
Change begins with the establishment of a relationship, a feeling of trust and acceptance. It’s the idea of “You’ve done some bad things, but you’re not a bad person.” There has to be hope that things can get better. Sometimes this hope or inspiration comes in the form of religious faith. At times, religion provides an inroad or a starting point. There is a sense of community right off the bat and a network of supportive people to lean on. We have seen this in our prisons and jails, where faith- and character-based rehab programs are very popular with inmates and show promising results for future success. The way I look at it, religion provides a foundational set of moral or ethical standards to anchor people and provide structure in our society.
I was not raised in a church. My family by history is Catholic, but my dad was agnostic, and we didn’t practice or attend Mass when I was growing up. As a teenager, I started attending a Lutheran church with a friend and became something of a zealot. I really admired Martin Luther and appreciated that he opposed the Catholic hierarchy and worked to bring the scriptures to the common people. I was, by choice, baptized and confirmed at the age of 15. Then I entered a four-year relationship with a Jehovah’s Witness and studied that religion for a while.
Trying to figure out my own belief system, I used to think that religion would be so much simpler if each person just read the Bible and came to their own understanding of what God wanted them to know. I used to say that there should be a rule that no one could talk about or debate religion or try to convert or proselytize to others. Doing so, I saw, only led to arguments and wars, splintering and the creation of so many separate religions and denominations that it makes your head spin.
I must have been a budding UU even then because, as it turns out, the UU Rev. John Brigham, whose Closing Words we’ll hear in a bit, espoused roughly the same philosophy. Brigham reported that UUs don’t talk much about God because our knowledge of God and the universe is limited. As a result, we don’t want to make any claims that are untrue. “It’s fine to make guesses and spin metaphors about God,” Brigham said, “but we certainly shouldn’t make claims that these are infallible truths! It’s wise just to speculate tentatively or stay thoughtfully silent.”
The flaw in this line of reasoning, however, is in the fact that many people are like me. Our minds get going, and, as we ponder God and faith and eternity and tragedy and on and on and on and – All of that uncertainty starts to get a little uncomfortable. We have to check our ideas against the ideas of others and get some reassurance about what we fear. As the Lebanese-American poet Khalil Gibran wrote, “You talk when you cease to be at peace with your thoughts.” When we are not at peace, we may look for resolution of our inner turmoil with a faith community.
Gibran was born into a Maronite Catholic family but evolved into a mystic Christian influenced by Christianity, Islam, Sufism, Hinduism and theosophy. Theosophy, which literally means “divine wisdom,” is a philosophy concerned with direct knowledge of the divine, mysteries of humanity and nature. These influences are reflected in Gibran’s writings, notably his famous book The Prophet. In that book, Gibran writes about how the wisest teachers allow their students to come into their own knowledge rather than force feeding them facts. “If [a teacher] is indeed wise, he does not bid you enter the house of his wisdom but rather leads you to the threshold of you own mind.”
The concept of a teacher leading a student “to the threshold of [her] own mind” brings us back to what Rev. Julie told us about The Mystery. The Mystery encourages us to figure things out ourselves and “listen with our hearts.” We listen with our hearts when we put our faith into action, when we demonstrate our compassion and our reverence for the divine within us all.
In the liberal Christian magazine Sojourners, a review of a new book caught my eye. The book, Faitheism by atheist and humanist Chris Stedman, illustrates the sort of faith in action I’m talking about. Stedman writes about the growing chasm and animosity between believers and non-believers. Stedman’s tagline seems to be, “I don’t hate God. I love people.” He argues that hate is not just wasteful, it’s toxic. Stedman promotes a vision of a world where all people can be proud of who they are and work together to promote the common good.
The common good was a cause also championed by the well-known black sociologist and scholar W.E.B. DuBois. DuBois was raised as a Congregationalist but disavowed organized religion as an adult. However, he recognized the important role of the church, especially in African-American social and moral life, and some of his writings reflected a spirituality that he didn’t express publicly. In his 1904 poem Credo, DuBois wrote: “I believe in the training of children, black even as white; they leading out of little souls into the green pastures and beside the still waters, not for self, or peace, but for Life lit by some large vision of beauty and goodness and truth.”
DuBois alludes to “some large vision of … truth.” There is no article “the” like in our covenant and no “a” either. Recall that DuBois was an early civil rights activist at a time when many whites used threats and terrorism to maintain their version of truth in the form of white supremacy. Surely, DuBois would have been skeptical of the assertion that there could be a singular truth. As Rev. Brigham said, we must remain cautious of advocating infallible truths. Truth is an ever-unfolding ideal, and the process of discovery is as important, if not more important, than what we ultimately discover.
So what is our Eternal Truth? You really want to know? Well, based on what I have learned so far … it’s still an enigma. Life is a journey, not a destination. But while you’re out there looking for that truth, remain open to the world and the beauty it offers, and don’t forget to love each other.
Our Closing Words today come from the UU minister John Brigham:
“Go your ways
Knowing not the answers to all things
Yet seeking always the answer
To one more thing than you know.”
Rev. Julie Kain
Unitarian Universalist Church of Pensacola
Over the past few weeks I have been talking about how Unitarian Universalism got to be such a ‘big umbrella’, encompassing a wide variety of beliefs and perspectives. Now we may not be as diverse a group as Meg Barnhouse just described in the tour bus going to the Taj Mahal, but we are certainly more diverse than most congregations, and faith communities of all kinds, meeting in Pensacola on a weekly basis. I’ve talked about Unitarian Universalism being called a “chosen faith” because so many of us have made our way here by leaving other traditions. Either we found that our previous tradition didn’t fit with our own religious conscience or we didn’t fit into our previous tradition’s expectations of us, or both.
As Unitarian Universalists, most of us have traveled paths in our lives where we did not fit neatly into prescribed categories. We have tended to march to the sound of a different drummer, wandering off from mainstream conventions, venturing into new territories, many times on our own or maybe with one or two trusted friends. You might even say that most of us as Unitarian Universalists have become quite familiar with living on the fringe. Not comfortable in the middle of any homogenous crowd, we tend to gravitate to its outside borders where there is more room to move around and choose our own paths.
Hey, isn’t there a television series on now called Fringe? I imagine there are at least a few of us here who still watch TV. Yes, there’s a show on television called Fringe and it’s a creative science fiction series that kind of follows in the footsteps of the X-Files with its wacky writing about strange occurrences. It even has a character that shows up occasionally played by Leonard Nimoy, who was Spock on the original Star Trek series decades ago. In this new show called Fringe, the fringe is actually the interfacing of parallel universes – one being the reality we know as daily life and the other as an alternate reality with all the same people, but they have chosen slightly different life paths and experienced a different series of events. Whenever the two universes overlap and come into contact with each other, there are crazy distortions and some very confused people.
Apparently some physicists these days are talking about not necessarily parallel universes, but rather multiple dimensions of reality. When I lived in California with my daughter I took her to see Stephen Hawking when he spoke at the University of California in Davis. Of course, he used an automated voice and there were long pauses as he entered his thoughts into the technology that projected his words to his listeners. He has a great sense of humor actually, but I must confess I wasn’t able to follow all his scientific talk even though he was trying very hard to speak plainly for the general public. He did talk about string theory though and the idea that like a shaft of hair with some split ends, alongside the main reality we know to be true there are alternate strands branching out and pursuing other possibilities simultaneously. These other possibilities are not usually visible, but apparently there is some evidence that they exist. This may be one of those cases where the truth is stranger than any fiction we might invent. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around it, but I think it’s a good exercise to try every once in a while.
This image of the’ fringe’ or ‘border’ between multiple realities, and even the image of string theory with multiple dimensions of the same reality, are interesting ones for us as Unitarian Universalists. We are not strangers to the experience of choosing an alternate path, of exploring options in our lives that are not always the most obvious or visible ones presented to us. In a number of different ways, the typical Unitarian Universalist simply doesn’t fit neatly into mainstream categories or homogenous groups. We have always been a little different from the rest, shall we say? Am I right?
Think now of your own path to this place of being here in this particular UU setting today, even if you are here for the very first time. Many of us who have been in Christian settings before and even some other faith traditions, grew uncomfortable with the exclusivity we experienced – the shutting out of the other. We would hear in so many words “If you are not _______ (fill in the blank), you don’t belong here.” For many of us this practice of exclusivity did not jive with the teachings of love and acceptance that inspired us. We encountered situations that appeared contradictory or hypocritical, where one thing is said and another is actually done.
Let’s face it, that’s part of human nature. It’s frankly quite difficult to walk our talk all the time. It’s easier to say one thing and do another. So we are all guilty of contradictory or hypocritical behavior to a certain extent. But we do usually try to live by our deepest values, even though they are challenging to live by, especially when the ‘rubber meets the road’ in everyday life.
I mean think about how difficult it is to truly practice the radical hospitality that was attributed to Jesus’ behavior in his day. He consorted with all kinds of the wrong people – women, outcasts, criminals and strangers. He really pushed the known boundaries of the Kingdom of God in his time, and this notion is still pushing at the boundaries of accepted norms today.
I’ve heard it said that Unitarian Universalists, because of our personal histories of not fitting neatly within the usual categories of homogenous groups, are a people who are familiar with living along the borders. We have often pushed against the boundaries of accepted norms of who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’.
As Unitarian Universalists, we know what it means, when we are the ones who are not ‘in’. We know what it feels like to be outside the accepted boundaries. We know how it feels when we are not accepted for who we are. We know what it’s like to be the “other” in our midst, to go against the grain of what is expected of us. Am I right?
Pause for a moment and think about the various settings you have found yourself in your own life – when you felt like an outsider, different from the rest and struggling just to hold your own. Have you thought of at least one occasion yet when you felt like you just didn’t belong?
I remember how nervous I was when I was in seminary and it was time for me to do my student chaplaincy in a regional trauma center. I was in a small group with other student chaplains, but as a Unitarian Universalist, I didn’t feel like I fit in with either my Episcopal colleagues or being a chaplain at all, since to me it held connotations of being Christian. Oh and besides that – it is a hospital! I was one of those people who get nervous just entering a hospital, even as a visitor!
Now seeing as it was my fourth year in seminary I’d gotten used to the idea of meeting with fellow UU’s in a pastoral setting. I didn’t have a problem with meeting with people to listen about what was challenging in their lives and being supportive, but my idea of walking into a stranger’s hospital room to offer support and potential counsel, knowing that they probably assumed I was a Christian candidate for ministry was way out of my comfort zone. At first.
I had to get over my discomfort with not fitting a label I was pretty sure was assumed about me. I had to figure out how to just go in there and talk with a fellow human being who happened to be in the vulnerable situation of wearing a hospital gown. I knew that there would be a time when I’d be asked to pray with a hospital patient and I would be even farther out of my comfort zone. I learned to ask specifically what the patient felt like praying for and I learned to listen closely for the personal hopes in which a patient found comfort. I learned to pray with, and for, another person. It did not come naturally to me, or easily, but I learned how to do it! Whether they assume I was a traditional Christian (whatever that is, or not), was beside the point, when the ‘rubber met the road’ and I walked into a perfect stranger’s hospital room. It was another border that I grew familiar with and found that I could travel along. These days when I go to the hospital to visit someone (and usually they are Unitarian Universalist, but sometimes not), I sometimes chuckle at how nervous I felt before just walking into the building.
It’s still not the most fun place to be, as anyone who has spent time in a hospital as a patient or visitor knows, but it is a place where the preciousness of life is known and felt and shared, among companions along life’s path.
When you think back to the times when you felt you didn’t fit in, didn’t go along just to belong, you know what it feels like to be an outsider. You know what it feels to push against the boundary or borders that often separate us. Having known that experience and chosen to remain true to what you have known of yourself, how do you think that has helped you to relate to other people who may be struggling at the boundaries and borders of their lives? How has your own experience of being an outsider equipped you to welcome the stranger in our midst, to reach out to someone who is outside their comfort zone?
Whenever we are able to navigate and negotiate the boundaries and borders of our lives and to see the common humanity in the person who is struggling under a label of being different or other, we are building a bridge of understanding, a bridge of acceptance. In a world where insular pockets of homogenous groups are getting more difficult to maintain, we need to learn how to build bridges of understanding along the borders and boundaries that divide us. We need to listen to the stories and songs of our neighbors whose lives may have been radically different from our own, and yet who share so many of the same hopes, dreams and aspirations that we hold dear.
Rather than being separated by our real differences, may we find the ways to celebrate them, learn from them, and appreciate the common bonds that still unite us in the human family. Perhaps you’ve known what it’s like to always be the new kid in town, or perhaps you have known the struggle of being gay in a culture that has allowed judgment and bullying to escalate into violence, even of the most desperate kind in the form of suicide. Perhaps you have felt so isolated by the borders and boundaries that have defined your life that you have come to doubt yourself in the depths of your being. Perhaps you couldn’t find a friend to turn to in your loneliness.
You, my friend, are not alone here – in this company of travelers. Let’s share our stories and songs with each other and help to make the world safer for all of us. Let us continue to push the boundaries and borders that separate us, honoring our differences while building bridges of understanding and human kinship. May it be so.
Rev. Julie Kain
Unitarian Universalist Church of Pensacola
Have you ever made a promise that you found was hard to keep? I bet you have. For those of us who have kids, we can easily identify with Meg Barnhouse’s story about the pumpkins. We say, we’re going to do something for or with the kids and then, maybe it rains. And if it doesn’t rain, something else happens, like the car breaks down. Despite our best intentions, it is hard to keep the promises we make to kids.
Oh yeah, and then for those of us who have been married or in committed relationships – which are both built on promises made – we really know how hard it is to keep a promise, don’t we? Oh yeah, the closer we try to build our lives around and with another person, the more we learn about what happens to our best intentions over time. Yes, when the rubber meets the road, our sweet sounding promises are often put to the test. Right?
With all this nice cool weather I’ve been starting to get into the spirit of the fall season, haven’t you? One of the things I love about this time of year is the pumpkin patches. You know those few places where your eye is treated to the warm orange glow of a large congregation of pumpkins. For those of you who know how much we enjoy Meg Barnhouse’s stories, you’ll understand how I had to take the opportunity to include the one about Dumpster Pumpkins. It’s not really a story for the kids, although they’d probably appreciate it, but it is a good story to help us think today about how Unitarian Universalism got to be such a ‘big umbrella’. It has to do with promises, both the beauty of making sweet sounding promises and the challenge of keeping them.
Do y’all know what I mean when I say that Unitarian Universalism is a big umbrella? Other than a Unitarian Universalist congregation, where else will you find Christians and Jews sitting with mystics and poets, scientists sitting with atheists? How did this come about in a religious movement? I’m here to tell you that it has something to do with promises.
In contrast to the majority of religious communities which are built on common statements of belief, often formulated in a creed of some kind, Unitarian Universalists build communities on a statement of intentions, promises made to one another, which in marriage are called vows, and which in our UU communities is called our covenant.
As Unitarian Universalists our religious roots are found in the Jewish and Christian traditions especially in those places that affirmed that revelation is not sealed, but ongoing. What does this mean exactly? It means that no text or scripture, no body of knowledge about the human condition and its place on this earth and in this cosmos is complete unto itself. No, the nature of life and human beings, is that we are constantly growing and changing. Our curious minds are always seeking more understanding of ourselves and the world we live in. We believe that there is always much more we have yet to learn and so we say that revelation is not sealed. We certainly don’t already know everything there is to know. We are open to learning.
The chalice lighting ritual that is commonly found in UU settings embodies our commitment to our coming together to learn. We light a flame that symbolizes our ongoing process of coming together with an open chalice of our being to receive more insight, more knowledge, more wisdom, more understanding. We open ourselves to the greater wisdom that lies within us, that still, small voice that knows what is true for us. When we believe that revelation is ongoing and not sealed in any one scripture or text, we are honoring what there is to learn from each other, from the multiple perspectives that many different people can bring and we are honoring our own right of conscience. We are able to pursue the paths of growth that speak to us personally. We feel the courage and commitment to honor our own paths to growth and wisdom, even when they are different paths than the ones our families might have chosen for us, or our school teachers or religious leaders. As Unitarian Universalists we have permission to march to the sound of a different drummer, and to feel empowered to know it is the sound of our very own heartbeats.
For Unitarian Universalists, our covenant tradition came out of the Protestant Reformation, a reaction to the Catholic and Anglican Church, that affirmed every person’s direct relationship with the divine or a greater knowledge that was not necessarily provided through set doctrines or absolute statements of faith and which did not depend on the role of religious intermediaries acting on our behalf, such as priests or saints, or any intermediary.
The covenant tradition of Unitarian Universalism is part of the Congregationalist churches that sprang up in the American colonies, where the democratic process and the voice and ideas of every person was affirmed as the standing authority of the church.
Unitarians emerged from the early Congregationalist churches, when they insisted that human reason be applied to Biblical scriptures. Not only did they want to recognize that the Bible was written by various people over time in specific cultural and social conditions, the doctrines of the church, any church, were also created by humans and therefore set in a particular cultural and historical context. The term Unitarian emerged from the Congregationalist churches when the doctrine of the Trinity was challenged as being an idea imposed by church fathers and not necessarily even found in the Bible.
While the doctrine of the Trinity was the current issue of debate among the Congregationalists at the time, the larger issue reflected in the new name of the Unitarians was the use of reason to analyze scripture, and all of human experience really, and that the Bible and even the very life of Jesus, was a text and story set in a particular historical context. It is a great story, an important story, but we also know that the world is a much bigger place than the biblical Middle East of Jesus’ times. This placement of the biblical text and Jesus’ life in a cultural context, which is to be understood through a lens of human rationality, focuses the strength of the tradition on Jesus’ teachings, rather than the documented stories of his life.
The Unitarians in the American colonies were people who believed strongly in the value of education and they were highly educated. They applied their learnings to the betterment of the emerging American society, building up democratic institutions in government, education, healthcare, and all aspects of corporate life. While I don’t have time to go into the rich history of Unitarians who served as founding fathers – and mothers – of American society today, their passion for not just learning, but for social justice is a major reason why Unitarian Universalists provide a wide umbrella of views today.
The Universalist strand of the story is the other major reason for the big umbrella today. In the American colonies the Universalist message was of a loving God who would never condemn any of his or her children to eternal damnation for believing the wrong thing or making a mistake, which is what sin is about. The Universalist message was a much needed antidote to challenge the common image of the times as ‘human sinners in the hand of an angry God’. The American puritan tradition of right conduct enforced by parental authority with shame, guilt and punishment was meant to correct a fallen, sinful nature in humans. Eventually the message of a loving God and human nature as not only capable of good, but generally wired with best intentions won the day. Eventually the Universalist message of a loving God softened the mainstream Christian tactics and Christian Universalism extended to an openness to a diversity of religious paths. If you believe in a loving God and a loving nature in people everywhere, you are inclined to be open to the various ways that this love is supported and expressed. The Universalist Christian stance opened to the wisdom of other religious traditions beyond Christianity, and to the commitment to lead an ethical life in nonreligious people such as academics and scientists.
In the histories of both Unitarians and Universalists, you will find a commitment of social justice-making. It is based on a simple idea that society is meant to support the common good of both the individual and the community, and we are the ones who make that happen, despite our various religious ideas or inclinations.
Out of the intellectual and social creativity of the American colonies, also emerged a distinctly American philosophical tradition – Transcendentalism. Ralph Waldo Emerson was a Unitarian minister who left the ministry to focus on writing and lecturing. He is the most prominent spokesperson for the American Transcendentalist movement, but it really had multiple expressions throughout American society in aspects of education and the arts. The essence of American Transcendentalism builds on the democratic principle of the value in each person’s direct experience of the world as a source of knowledge, both moral and practical. This direct experience of the world acknowledges all of Nature as a great teacher and lifts up the human capacity for thinking and making decisions that helps to create so much of the life of human communities.
In the twenty-first century, with advances in science, both the Unitarians and the Universalists communities became a refuge for curious minds that would no longer acquiesce to supernatural religious beliefs. Not only was there a space in our communities for scientific thinkers, we had made a space for the full participation of women, for people of various classes and ethnic backgrounds, and a space for gays and lesbians.
The democratic affirmation of every person’s worth and dignity opened our communities to the pursuit of a variety of life paths. This promising to walk together to affirm each other, to learn from each other, and to share of ourselves is what holds us together as a religious movement , rather than a common creed of belief. Our promising to walk together is what we call a Living Tradition, meaning that it is growing and changing all the time, just as we are growing and changing.
Instead of common beliefs or doctrines that bind us together, we promise to walk together around shared values which help to guide us on our way. The seven Unitarian Universalist principles are the most recent statement of those values. They are printed each week on the back of our church bulletin. Inside the front of our hymnal, aptly called Singing the Living Tradition, is a page that has both the seven principles and the list of many sources from which we share. You are welcome now to pull out the hymnal so that you can look at them with me. You’ll find the page after the Table of Context and just before the first hymn.
Rather than reading the whole list, I’ll lift up the main points of our sources, the first being “direct experience of people in all cultures that is Life affirming”, the inspirational words of women and men who challenge us to live lives of integrity and to confront injustice, wisdom from throughout the world’s religious traditions that inspire ethical living, including but not exclusive to, the Jewish and Christian traditions which teach the golden rule loving our neighbor as ourselves. Then we also have the contemporary learnings of reason and science, and the ancient wisdom of earth-centered traditions which is equally needed in our world today as we struggle to understand the human role as stewards of a precious planet.
When you look at our seven principles and the sources of our Living Tradition of Unitarian Universalism, you can see why we are so engaged in some of the most pressing and controversial issues of our time. A Living Tradition is designed, like an umbrella, to meet the present demands of our time. So UUs are there, talking about immigration legislation in our neighboring state of Alabama, we’re talking about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in our country’s military, we’re talking about calling financial leaders in this country into account with the demonstrations on Wall Street and throughout our country.
Our Living Tradition is about the promises we make to each other to walk together through thick and thin, celebrating our sweet sounding vows to each other, whether they are in a new member ceremony like we had in our service last week, or in wedding vows between two committed women in one of the few states that will permit it.
We also keep our promises by jumping into the dumpster of life sometimes, to rescue accidentally discarded pumpkins or accidentally discarded best intentions. All of this is part of the Living Tradition of Unitarian Universalism and in times like these, when the many challenging rains of life are threatening our skies, it is good to have a big umbrella. Amen.
Rev. Julie Kain
Unitarian Universalist Church of Pensacola
Even though the Unites States is considered one of the most religious of all the world’s developed nations, people who self-identify as “nonreligious” is the fastest growing religious preference marked on current survey with 15-20% of the population. Among younger people, one in four marks “no religion.”
In the polls, of course, there is a discrepancy between those who self-identify as atheist or agnostic (which still carry a significant stigma) and those who simply answer the question – Do you believe in God? with “no” or “not sure.”
Clearly more people are claiming the right to think freely when it comes to matters of religion, and yet traditional religious values and pressures are still common place in our culture. In recent years more attention has been focused on the discrepancies of religious thought and science, andthe discrepancies within religious movements. Discrepancies can be seen as contradictions embedded in text and doctrines, and contradictions between espoused values and actual behaviors. More people are turning away from established religions, not only because our current scientific knowledge has outdated long held beliefs about the nature of the universe, but people are turning away also because of the harmful and sometimes deadly consequences that some religious stances cause against our brothers and sisters. It has been said that more violent acts have been justified in the name of religion than to any other cause. While some recent authors give this as one reason to challenge all religious belief, my own opinion is that people have used, and will use, any rationalization, religious or otherwise, to pursue violent means in certain situations.
But apart from the harmful and sometimes violent and deadly repercussions of some religious beliefs, there is another large grey area when it comes to matters of religion. This is the amount of doctrine and belief that simply doesn’t make much sense in the contemporary world, and yet is still clung to as articles of faith.
You may not consider yourself an atheist or agnostic, meaning one who does not believe in God, or one who simply does not know whether or not God exists, but you may prefer another term to self-identify as someone who is not religious. Maybe you consider yourself a skeptic, a cynic, a seeker, a rationalist, a freethinker, a naturalist, a deist or a secular humanist. See, so many labels to choose from! And just as there are variations and multiple diversities within religious traditions, there is a significant variety of differences among the fastest growing group of the nonreligious. I don’t want to take the time here to unpack that list of labels I just rattled off, but I do want to lift up a few definitions to help sort out the terms.
“Free thought” and “freethinkers” belong to a tradition where a philosophical viewpoint is formed, not on a religious basis, but rather on the basis of science, logic and reason. Freethinkers do not feel bound by outward authority, social traditions or dogmas and have tended to be liberal in regards to racial, social and sexual equality. In the United States, freethinkers were often involved in the abolition of slavery and in the women’s movement. One of the leading books to document this tradition in our own country is called Freethinkers, A History of American Secularism by Susan Jacoby. The list of prominent Americans range from the earlier times with folks like Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and includes more contemporary folks like Margaret Mead, Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan. African American history has its share of freethinkers as well – from Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman to more contemporary times with Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker.
The term “humanism” is probably the largest umbrella for nonreligious people, and some people who consider themselves ‘somewhat religious’ too. Humanism is broadly defined as a philosophy that is not based in theism or supernatural beliefs, but rather in the human ability and responsibility to lead an ethical life. Humanism broadly supports both personal fulfillment and the greater good of humanity. Is humanism considered a religion or a faith? No, not really although it does rely on a set of personal beliefs. Humanism, like free thought, atheism and agnosticism, could all be better called both a personal philosophy and a life stance.
Unitarian Universalism is no stranger to freethinkers and humanists. We are often called the “chosen faith” because we are sought out by folks who have found their previous traditions too restricting for their own conscience. Surveys done in the past fifteen years among Unitarian Universalists show about half of all UUs self-identify as” humanist” and there is a sizable portion of folks who refer to themselves agnostic. Between 20-30% identify as earth or nature centered, and a bit smaller percentage for atheists, Buddhists, theists, Pagans, and Christians. In 2005, a UUA study was released called “Engaging our Theological Diversity.” Next Sunday I’ll be talking amore about how Unitarian Universalism got to be such a ‘big umbrella’, holding or covering this wide range of orientations.
Back in 1998, Chet Raymo, a longtime science writer for the Boston Globe newspaper wrote a book called Skeptics and True Believers, The Exhilarating Connection Between Science and Religion. Raymo is an author of several other books as well and a professor of physics and astronomy. He talks about the growing cultural divide in our country and the whole world between the two intellectual positions that he describes as ”Skeptics” and “True Believers.”
He writes, “We are Skeptics or True Believers. Skeptics are children of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. They are always a little lost in the vastness of the cosmos, but they trust the ability of the human mind to make sense of the world. They accept the evolving nature of truth and are willing to live with a measure of uncertainty. Their world is colored in shades of gray. They tend to be socially optimistic, creative and confident of progress. Since they hold their truths tentatively, Skeptics are tolerant of cultural and religious diversity. They are more interested in refining their own views than in proselytizing others. If they are theists, they wrestle with their God in a continuing struggle of faith. They are often plagued by personal doubts and prone to depression.
True Believers are less confident that humans can sort things out for themselves. They look for help from outside – from God, spirits, or extraterrestrials. Their world is black and white. They seek simple and certain truths, provided by a source that is more reliable than the human mind. True Believers prefer a universe proportioned to the human scale. They are repulsed by diversity, comforted by dogma, and respectful of authority. True Believers go out of their way to offer (sometimes forcibly administer) their truths to others, convinced of the righteousness of their cause. They are likely to be “born again“, redeemed by faith, apocalyptic. Although generally pessimistic about the state of this world, they are confident that something better lies beyond the grave.”
Raymo lifts up the issues and topics being wrestled in this great cultural divide. The questions apply to the nature of the universe and the contrasting views on evolution and creationism. He looks at peoples’ beliefs about heaven, hell, angels, aliens, miracles and astrology.
As a scientist, Chet Raymo, identifies himself as a skeptic, but he embraces the language of a religious naturalist. He resonates with what he calls the’ primordial religious experience of deep awe and wonder’ at the expanse and beauty of the universe. Raymo celebrates the accomplishments of science and the technological advances it has provided, including the outstanding achievements of Hubble Space Photography, but he acknowledges the current limits of science. There is so much we have yet to understand – not just about the universe, but about ourselves as well. And so added to the list of beliefs in which skeptics and believers disagree are the human questions about consciousness and soul.
Since Raymo’s book came out in 1998, there has been quite a stir provoked by best-selling authors identified as a movement called New Atheism. The term New Atheism emerged between 2004 and 2007 with the writings of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris – known also as the four Horsemen, referring to the Christian Apocalyptic text of Revelation. The so-called New Atheists are less accommodating to religion, superstition and religious fanaticism than previous secularists. The stance of New Atheism declares that religion is no longer to be tolerated, but instead it needs to be actively countered, criticized and exposed in its contradictions and inconsistencies through the use of rational argument at every opportunity.
The New Atheists have been accused of being overly aggressive, vicious and rude in their arguments that challenge the taboo subject of religious faith. Even nonbelievers are known to take offense by their tactics of rationality. But the New Atheists don’t mind the accusations or the media attention. They subject themselves to the thorough skepticism that scientists undergo and don’t seem to mind the competitive spirit of rigorous debate, at least among opponents of their own choosing. The New Atheists have also been accused of reductive science worship and that while being outraged at religious violence targeting minorities like women and homosexuals, they do not include any vocal women or people of color in their ranks.
But as I mentioned before, there are a variety of perspectives represented within the growing tide of nonreligious people who are taking a stand to be heard and who are speaking out. There are a number of organizations working for visibility with their own leaders and leadership styles. And there are efforts for many of these organizations to come together in a coalition especially to lobby in Washington D.C. on legal matters. The lobbying efforts are challenging the resistance of the representation of nonreligious people in American politics and governance, and advocating for the continued separation of church and state in the schools, in the military, and in the courts. Religious freedom and freedom of thought is a foundational value of American democratic tradition, and yet these freedoms continue to be challenged in the public square.
At times, we may find ourselves feeling shocked by the challenging rhetoric of our day. We are shocked both by reactionary tactics to preserve a status quo that’s held as some kind of Golden Age from the past, and shocked as well by provocative and sometimes even militant resistance to the status quo.
We need to remember that historically marginalized people have often had to resort to provocative measures, even militant measures, in their attempts for recognition and acceptance. The challenge always is to not only think critically about the perspectives with which we disagree, but to apply that critical thinking to our own ideologies, assumptions and beliefs.
Our human knowledge and human wisdom grows through a process of confronting dated ideas with new perspectives and sometimes new information. I hope this morning’s service will be only one among many explorations and conversations about the role of religion in contemporary thinking and the many ways that Unitarian Universalists are free to engage with it.
There is no easy summary or convenient stopping place in this ongoing exploration, and so in closing, I offer two short poems by the poet Mary Oliver. The first is called “In Blackwater Woods” –
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
And the second poem –
Still, what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled —
to cast aside the weight of facts
and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world.
I want to believe I am looking
into the white fire of a great mystery.
May it be so.
Rev. Julie Kain
Unitarian Universalist Church of Pensacola
Now I would imagine that among those of us gathered here today, some of us may be feeling too busy in our lives right now. Maybe most of us feel this way. There are always so many details to attend to: bills, appointments, groceries, cleaning the bathroom, mending the broken chair or torn favorite shirt. Then there are the demands on our time that come from our jobs, our families, our community commitments. Oftentimes we feel pulled in many directions at once and yet somehow we muddle our way through our “to do” lists, calendars and date books.
And yet while this is certainly true for many of us, there are some among us who genuinely do not feel busy enough. “How can this be?” the busy ones ask.
Well…perhaps some among us are honest about the deeper question of “how are you today?” which is “how is it with your spirit?” And when they check in with themselves – their minds and hearts and bodies – there is a sense of longing for something more. Perhaps it’s a sense of direction or perhaps it’s a genuine desire for closer companionship in their lives.
When I talk about it this way, I bet that even the folks who identified with feeling too busy can resonate with a sense of longing for something more as well.
We humans are growing beings. Always reaching somehow toward whatever kind of light in our lives draws us taller.
While many—if not most of us—do long for a clearer direction, a simpler path and a closer companionship with another along it, many of us are also carrying specific burdens with us along our ways.
I bet almost every one of us has some kind of pestering, nagging issue that we may have even been carrying around with us for years.
Now the range of things that can weigh us down is wide. Before I start talking about some of the familiar ones, I want to pause a moment here to let you see what comes to mind about you in your own life, in case something didn’t immediately pop into your head.
What’s the thing that has gotten you hooked with worry, that has made your mind go round and round while stressing your body in its particular stress point—maybe headaches, or tight stomach, or aching knee?
Probably all of us here today have something we’ve been chewing on for some time. Guess what! Join the club, that’s what it means to be human. So instead of always feeling annoyed about these parts of our lives, sometimes major ones, that aren’t working right maybe sometimes we can stop to appreciate that this is where our real personal and spiritual growth happens.
Not in the comfort zones, but in the annoying discomfort ones of our lives.
Now let’s look at the familiar sets of issues that weigh us down as burdens. First – there’s people and relationships. It may be at work or school or it may be at home. Maybe it’s your brother who lives across the country from you who you haven’t really talked with in years, or maybe it’s a neighbor who always seems to rub you the wrong way.
Second is all the issues related to our feeling of security, physically and financially. Are you worried that your job may be phased out? Or perhaps you’ve been looking for work and just can’t seem to find the right thing or even anything at all? Some of us here may be worried about losing our homes – not being able to keep up with bills or maybe the responsibilities of keeping up the place. Some of us are trying to figure out how to apply our education and life experience to work, while others are struggling with the transition to retirement. All kinds of everyday challenges are the burdens we are carrying round with us today.
The third category of issues that present us with challenges to our growth are issues of personal well-being – our emotional, mental and physical health. This is just another of the territories which come with the equipment we were issued as human beings. Not a single one of us has escaped facing some kind of significant health issue at some point in our lives, right?
All this is to say that we share a common humanity through our day to day struggles of moving through life. We’re all in the same boat of struggling to meet the challenges that come our way. It is a very big boat.
Not only have we all faced a vast array of human challenges, I’d venture to say that most if not all of us assembled here have faced—and somehow miraculously overcome—major obstacles that have appeared on our life paths.
Whether it was a difficult childhood, an unexpected trauma, a loss of a loved one or the painful end to an important relationship. Perhaps it was the loss of a job or an exciting opportunity. Maybe it was an addiction that started out as a simple coping mechanism and grew out of control. Or perhaps it was a physical affliction that for a time overshadows the rest of our lives.
Everyone is presented at one time or another with a major obstacle in their lives. It hold us back from doing lots of things we’d like to do, while preoccupying our minds and hearts as we search for ways to get past them, or simply to make it through intact.
In this room, we have courageous human beings who have lived through war and abuses of all kinds. We have those who have triumphed through the dark despair of losing a child, the wrenching grief of a loved one’s suicide and the horrible sentence of terminal disease. We have friends among us who have been forced to adapt their lives to physical disabilities and barriers of all kinds that have prevented them from pursuing their deepest dreams.
We humans here are a complicated lot. We have known our share of burdens to carry.
And yet, we are survivors.
The resilience of the human spirit has graced every one of our lives at some critical point when we thought surely we could not go on. Life has taught us each in our own ways the basic techniques of holding on when the winds are raging round us.
Eleanor Roosevelt who had both an immensely difficult and an immensely rewarding life was known to say this -“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’” Roosevelt assures us with these words – “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
We have to be careful and vigilant as we face life’s greatest challenges not to fall too deeply into a mode of finding blame – either with ourselves or others.
In Wayne Muller’s book which we heard from earlier today called Legacy of the Heart, Muller relays a story about Jesus. By the way, the subtitle for Muller’s book is “The Spiritual Advantages of a Painful Childhood.” Muller wrote “Some people once brought a blind man to Jesus and asked him, Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? They all wanted to know why this terrible curse had fallen on this man. And Jesus answered, ‘It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him.’ He told them not to look for why the suffering came but to listen for what the suffering could teach them. Jesus taught that our pain is not punishment; it is no one’s fault. When we seek to blame,” writes Muller, “we distract ourselves from an exquisite opportunity to pay attention to see even in this pain a place of grace, a moment of spiritual promise and healing.”
Some people in their lives end up feeling battered, wounded and sometimes crippled by life’s challenges, but most of us can recall, if we allow ourselves to, the often hidden gifts and strengths we have received and earned by living though our hardest times.
We have been given a new passion to appreciate the simple joys of life, and sometimes even the courage to pursue our deepest passions. Our difficult experiences have taught us a profound understanding of what others in similar circumstances are facing and wrestling with. We can offer a genuine hand of comfort and support to those in the midst of their own crisis.
Here’s a true story by author Dawna Markova from her book called No Enemies Within. She wrote“When I was in the hospital, the one person whose presence I welcomed was a woman who came to sweep the floors with a large push broom. She was the only one who didn’t stick things in, take things out, or ask stupid questions. For a few minutes each night, this immense Jamaican woman rested her broom against the wall and sank her body into the turquoise plastic chair in my room…Of the fifty or so people that made contact with me in any given day, she was the only one who wasn’t trying to change me…she just looked and saw me. Then she said simply, ‘You’re more than the sickness in that body.’
“Without any instruction from me, this Jamaican guide had led me to a source of comfort that was wider and deeper than pain or fear.
“It’s been fifteen years since I’ve seen the woman with the broom” Markova writes, “I’ve never been able to find her. No one could remember her name, but she touched my soul with her compassionate presence and her fingerprints are there still.”
It’s important for each of us to remember that we are always more than any of the burdens we are carrying. We are more than our greatest insecurities, more than our disabilities, more than any of our current challenges, or healing scars from the past.
We can keep ourselves busy with meeting all the demands and obligations of our every day lives, but I hope that each of us can slow down every once in a while, long enough to appreciate all that we’ve been through in our lives, and the people we have become because of it. May we be able to rest in the quiet every once in a while, feeling connected with our struggling brothers and sisters and yet being able to put our own burden down for a time. In the quiet, may we find a peace of mind, a peace in our bodies, and a peace like a burning flame within our hearts. May we be nourished by the peace for a time and strengthened… for when we take up our burden again.
Rev. Julie Kain
Unitarian Universalist Church of Pensacola
Many people may be familiar with author Riane Eisler from her controversial and international best-selling classic The Chalice and The Blade which came out in 1987. Last summer Eisler spoke to UU’s at our annual General Assembly in Portland, Oregon about her newest book The Real Wealth of Nations.
Eisler fled her native Vienna, Austria from the Nazis first living in the slums of Havana and then later in the United States. Eisler has been preoccupied throughout her life’s work as a social scientist, attorney and social activist with this question: “Why, when humans have such a great capacity for caring, consciousness and creativity, has our world seen so much cruelty, insensitivity and destructiveness?”
In 2004, Eisler was invited by the Dag Hammarskjold Foundation to participate in a forum on the future of economics. The conversation there started with a critique of dominant economic analysis that is known as “neoclassical” based largely on the modern capitalist theory of Adam Smith who wrote the “bible” of capitalist theory in 1776, that we know as The Wealth of Nations.
Smith was born in Scotland and developed an optimistic vision of the future based on the central belief that although people are inherently selfish, this selfishness could work for the common good if the market was left alone to regulate production and commerce without governmental interference. He believed the forces of the market would counter selfishness through competition. He used a familiar phrase “the invisible hand of the market” to promote the idea that competition would lead to higher living standards.
The critique is our current economic models of capitalism, socialism and communism, have not been able to successfully address the mounting global problems of poverty, overpopulation and environmental degradation. Instead of providing higher living standards for everyone, free market capitalism has helped to concentrate wealth in a small percentage of the population. These economic systems have proven to be dysfunctional in many ways. Eisler is among social theorists who believe strongly that we need a Caring Revolution as an antidote to our high-tech mentality that is still guided by values of conquest, exploitation and domination.
Eisler asks us to look at our beliefs about human nature. Then she encourages us to help rethink and remake the economic systems we have created.
Growing our awareness of a pervasive economic double standard is an important step in this direction.
For instance, we know about mainstream economic indicator tools such as the GNP and the gross domestic product. These are tools that are supposed to tell us how well we are doing economically by looking at our overall productivity. But a huge part of every nation’s economic productivity is not recorded in these indicator tools such as how the basics of food, health care, and education are distributed – much of what is considered the “housework” of caring for the young, the sick and the elderly, or the extensive contributions of volunteers, much of which is supplied by women. The real wealth of nations should not be the amassing of assets by a few but rather the human potential of the many.
The United Nations Human Development Report publishes that the value of women’s unpaid work is estimated at $11 trillion each year. The report suggested that “if national statistics fully reflect the ‘invisible’ contribution of women, it will become impossible for policymakers to ignore them in national decisions.” The report also documented that “if women’s unpaid work were properly valued, it is quite possible that women would emerge in most societies as the major breadwinners or at least equal breadwinners—since they put in longer hours of work than men.”
A shift toward an economics of caring would replace these traditional indicators with global quality of life measures. With this kind of approach it has been proven that a better predictor of quality of life is to show the status of women, rather than the gross national product.
Nordic nations such as Finland, Norway and Sweden have found that investing in caring policies and programs – from universal healthcare and childcare to generous paid parental leave has been an investment in a higher quality of life and a more innovative economy. From 2003 to 2006, Finland was ahead of even the U.S. in the world economic forum’s global competitiveness ratings.
In an economics of caring which Riane Eisler firmly states is the real wealth of nations, all activities that go to nurture and actualize human beings and our natural environment are given a higher value than activities that promote military spending, environmental, and human, degradation. Instead of being counted as gross national product, these activities could be considered gross national costs.
Eisler asserts that much of our dysfunctional economic behavior is based on that assumption of human nature as basically selfish and the false justification that selfishness leads to greater productivity. She points to recent results in the field of neuroscience to challenge these assumptions.
In a study with 18 month-old babies, scientist Felix Warnekan in the field of evolutionary anthropology discovered even young babies are actually physically programmed to respond in caring and helpful ways. Without rewards or praise, babies would repeatedly offer to help retrieve objects that were accidentally lost, and fail to respond when items such as clothespins and books were intentionally thrown.
This may not seem like a strong case of biology over culture but we all know that our neurochemistry provides a unique pleasure to us whenever we are genuinely caring toward a child, a friend, a lover and even our pets. Scientists can argue that it is a grace of evolution, that when offered a choice, we choose mutual caring over selfishness and greed.
Eisler helps to point out that the stress of competitive conditions has been proven to override our innate desires to bond with others. The cruelty we see even in families is often the result of poorly coping with stress. So many of us have experienced the results of poor parenting because our parents were under pressures they simply do not know how to cope with and not due to a lack of love from them.
Neuroscientists know that children who are abused or neglected will most often continue the pattern in their adult life unless they experience some kind of supportive, respectful environment.
The costs of not being able to provide good childcare and healthcare are enormous – from crime, mental illness, and drug abuse to the shameful loss of human potential. Evidence from neuroscience supports policies of good care, especially for children.
Our UU principle which affirms the inherent worth and dignity of every person is often connected to our human responsibility for ethical action. As UU’s, often we overemphasize our imperative for good moral character and neglect our basic need for love, acceptance and support…as we are. The power of our caring communities is a testimonial to this and to our Universalist heritage which affirms a loving God under all conditions and for all people.
This Mother’s Day, may we each affirm the quality of caring that has supported us through life and its invaluable contribution to our personal sense of wealth and well-being. May we feed empowered to offer care to our families, friends, communities and even strangers, knowing that the simple act of affection can work wonders. And may we reach out and offer comfort to all of those who are feeling isolated and neglected this day. May we each feel the care of others freely given our way.
The value of caring is real and it is often greatly underestimated and unacknowledged. In closing I share this passage by Kay Hardie as quoted in the book Some Do Care by Anne Colby and William Damon – “I am one of these people who have been loved every day of my life. I am a person who has been told by the words or actions of those people closest to me, ‘We just think you’re great. You can just do anything.’ I remember thinking a long time ago that in this painful world, if you have been given the kind of things I’ve been given which is the gift of limitless expectations for your life, and security, and a nest to come from, one that was warm and safe, and you look around you and if you have any sensitivity at all, you know that’s not the way most people got their start or live their lives. And for me I would think it would be the road to madness if you didn’t try to give some of it away.”
Rev. Julie Kain
Unitarian Universalist Church of Pensacola
I must confess, personally my mind does not want to consider Rebecca Parker’s hypothesis that rather than anticipating the Apocalypse, it has already happened. There have been some terrible things that have happened in our not very distant past and yet it’s hard at times not to imagine how much more terrible it could get. It reminds me of the classic line from Laurel and Hardy – “This is one fine mess you’ve gotten us into!”
But seriously now – ,this question which is fourth in my sermon series called Questions of Faith, this question, just “How Are We Saved?” is really kind of a perennial one. I think it has two major dimensions. One is how is the world saved, and second, how am I personally saved, as an individual.
All of the world’s major religious traditions hold the prospect that human beings can find a way out of the suffering, confusion and alienation that we experience in life. Although each of the traditions is distinctive despite their commonalities, there are basically three categories of human thinking about the religious question “How Are We Saved?”
One category of thinking is that we are saved as both a species and as individuals by living in harmony with the dynamics or laws of nature. The second category of human salvation has to do with ethical living. All traditions agree that adherence to a core of ethical values can effect a transformation of the human condition. The third category holds that right relationship with our creator God and each other will save us.
Religious doctrine about the source, nature and function of what has saving power for humans is referred to theologically as the area of “Soteriology” which comes from the Greek word “soter” which means “savior”. While Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism have more elaborate soteriologies, the other major traditions address the question as well.
For instance, Confucianism holds a classical Chinese view of human nature which is that people are naturally capable of choosing between either good or evil actions. The central concept is that we all have an innate capacity for moral improvement. Now the successor of Confucius, Meng Zi, took this original concept further with his belief that not only can we choose, but human beings are essentially good and naturally inclined to ethical betterment.
Even a later Confucian teacher who was more skeptical about human nature, Xun Zi said that despite human’s natural tendency toward self-centeredness, we can be taught through proper education to be more ethical in our choices. An interesting contrast that we find in Confucianism is that when people choose to act selfishly they hurt themselves and others but it does not damage the essential relationship between the human and the divine as other traditions teach.
While people can always have the opportunity to right their wrongs if they are willing to face the responsibility of neglected or sabotaged relationships, in Confucianism there is no notion of salvation or redemption as we find in other traditions but rather a focus on exemplary persons who serve as moral role models such as the Buddha.
In Buddhism discovering our own inherent Buddha nature is the way out of human suffering, while Hinduism provides many paths to an experience of oneness with God which is known as yoga or devotional practices. In Buddhism and Hinduism, salvation is seen in the simple sense of a release from the status quo that sees no antidote for human suffering.
In Christianity we find a doctrine of not only salvation but also redemption. It is said God sent his son Jesus to die and rise from the dead in order to prove human victory over both evil and death. In addition, believers not only feel “rescued” through the actions of Jesus but also embrace the concept that Jesus redeems them to a previous state of innocence which existed prior to humanity’s fall into sinfulness. This word redemption comes from the Latin to “buy back” which helps to explain the Christian concept. Buddhism and Hinduism, while having their own doctrines of Soteriology, do not share the Christian concept of reinstatement to a prior state as part of their belief systems.
In Taoism, all things exist naturally in a primordial harmony which is a balance between Yin and Yang forces at work in the world. When things go wrong in nature or human society, according to Taoists it is the result of disequilibrium between the Yin and Yang forces. Taoists acknowledge the human tendency to seek control and to attempt to dominate even nature, but they believe in the end nature will always restore a basic balance.
Interestingly, Taoists believe that humans are able to purify themselves of disharmonious qualities even to the extent that we can live eternally and join a Paradise of Immortals. They say a purified human can choose to die in a physical form but more often they find a substitute for the human body and slip unnoticed toward the external paradise. While some Taoists share this concept of immortality beyond death, as in the resurrection, there is no single savior recognized in Taoist thought.
Islam, like Judaism and many indigenous traditions, focus on a right relationship with the Creator God and with other humans. The Muslims are called to practice the Five Pillars of Faith – first acknowledging the one God and Muhammad as a prophet, then encouraging extensive daily prayer, giving to the poor, fasting during Ramadan, and pledging to make a once in a lifetime pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. In a similar way, practicing Jews strive to preserve their community and do acts of justice making while honoring the cohesive force of Judaic law.
The religious question of “How Are We Saved?” is often tied to a sense of human survival against all that threatens to destroy us collectively and personally. We humans have always been at the mercy of the forces of nature and the frailty and foibles of human nature. Religious traditions offer us a sense of security and agency as we face any threatening circumstance that life brings our way.
While there is security in the effort to do the right thing and seek harmony with nature, some traditions teach that even the strongest and most pure of heart among humanity still need assistance from something greater than a human power. The word “Grace” is often used when referring to the superhuman or divine aid known as the power of salvation.
All of us know of situations where despite the fact we were aligned with the integrity of our strongest values, we have continued to suffer. We have been treated unfairly we have been at the mercy of poor health and mean-spirited people. The wrongs that have been done to us have not been righted. We are still vulnerable to doubt and heartbreak. We disappoint ourselves, and we are at times terribly disappointed in our fellow humans.
So how are we saved? We can know the beliefs that offer a sense of security and wisdom. And some of us have experienced the presence of some kind of grace in our lives during the hardest moments. Whether that was described by us as the presence of God, or simply something greater than us, such as peace, compassion or maybe even…Love.
Although there are many ways to look at the questions of salvation and redemption, all of us at some time or another have sought to be more of who we are. We’ve longed to become more whole, more balanced and redeemed not in the sense of being paid back but more like achieving our full value, of cashing in a coupon to reveal our hidden strengths and talents.
And a critical part of seeking wholeness, which is one way that we are saved, so to speak, is to heal the parts of ourselves and others that serve to hold us back and distract us with pain.
Rebecca Parker likes to refer to a phrase often used by a recent UU luminary, James Luther Adams. They remind us that “there is a love that holds us and will never let us go.” Whether this is a compassionate presence of the divine or simply the power of our guiding principles in life, there is a love that does not let us go, and never gives up on the possibilities of our being more whole, more healed, and even saved when we need it most.
“Once I was lost but now I’m found… How sweet the sound of amazing grace.”
May the power of love working in our world, in any and all forms, be the power that saves us one and all. Amen, Shalom, Namaste, and Blessed Be.