“Who’s in Charge Here?”
Rev. Julie Kain
Unitarian Universalist Church of Pensacola
Yesterday at the Long Range Planning workshop I was looking through some of the materials that have been compiled about this congregation and I stumbled upon an interesting statistic. In 2005 when this congregation embarked on the bold adventure to search for a full time minister who could be a good match to serve this community, a large survey was administered by the ministerial search committee and its purpose was to create a profile of what this particular congregation is like and to create a profile of what kind of minister it was seeking to meet its needs and expectations.
As a part of that survey, individuals were asked to identify their beliefs and their theological orientations. I was not particularly surprised to learn that the highest category of common response from this congregation at that time identified themselves as “Humanists” and I would suggest that percentage would be about the same today if we were to administer the survey again.
You see it is typical of our Unitarian Universalist communities across the country to have a significant number of folks who do not consider themselves religious in a traditional sense of the world or even for whom religious tradition and language offer little personal value in our quest for meaning in our lives.
So let’s start with a look at Humanism and then survey the human landscape of religious wisdom traditions as we explore the second question in my sermon series—“Questions of Faith”, the basic human question of “Who’s in charge here anyway?”
Humanism is an ethical philosophy that affirms the worth and dignity of all people. It holds the notion that as human beings we are capable of determining what is morally right and wrong because of universal human experiences and a rational approach to making sense of them. Humanism asserts every person’s right to conscience and self-determination, stressing the value of social responsibility while rejecting dependence on beliefs that are based in a supernatural or “other worldly” context. Humanism believes in a noble human aspiration of ethical action to relieve human suffering and to fulfill our human potential for establishing just social systems. Humanism believes that humans have individual and corporate power to change the world and that what we do makes all the difference.
Now as with most human traditions, within the broad category of humanism there are notable variations. Secular Humanism, which is considered by many traditionally religious people to be quite dangerous, is simply a stance toward life held by some people where the concept of a divine presence in this world is not apparent or useful to them personally. Folks who consider themselves “Atheists” simply do not find the God concept compatible with their experience of life. Those who are more comfortable with the term of describing themselves as “Agnostic” find that not knowing about a definitive concept of God is a stance that makes sense, and is quite adequate as they go about the business of finding purpose, meaning and ethical action in life.
Another broad category is Religious Humanism for which adherents either embrace religious language and traditions to affirm human agency and responsibility, or for whom some religious language and tradition has meaning, either in a cultural or personal way, but not necessarily as an exclusive system for personal salvation.
In general, Humanism supports a pragmatic approach to life that is based more in the direct experience of the scientific method, than in texts attributed to divine revelation, or in the trust of an external outside authority.
Do Humanists believe that humans are in charge here? Well, yes and no. Humanists believe that we have created the social systems and traditions that govern human life, but we also reside in a universe that is operating according to principles beyond the full grasp of human agency. We obviously do not control everything, even though we try, especially with the power we have harnessed through science and technology.
Even Humanists will admit that human beings are only one aspect of this material universe, and it does not in fact revolve solely around us. The knowledge and understanding that we can develop as human beings can enhance our quality of life and our ability for ethnical action.
We know from science that we live in a complex world with an Operating Manual we are continually trying to decipher, but we also know from simply being alive that the world is more directly infused with a meaning that is personal to each of us.
Some of us grew up with religious terms that accurately described our sense of “who’s in charge here”, while others of us have found a religious language later in our lives which helps us to do this.
Many people today are simply not comfortable considering themselves “religious” but prefer the term “spiritual”.
As each of us finds a personal meaning to the question of “who’s in charge here?”, there is a vast array of images and names we can reflect upon. There are some basic commonalities we can observe.
If we think of an outstretched human hand, we know that there are distinct differences to the world’s human wisdom traditions, as distinct as each finger of the hand is from one another, and yet the separate fingers are joined at the palm in the universality of human experience. This taps into an underground river of wisdom with many different wells along its course.
For those humans who have experienced the presence of the divine in this world, that presence is recognized with a multitude of names—Creator God, Mother, Father, and Holy Spirit. There are personal relationships in which we perceive with this presence. They vary — from our being a beloved child, to our being loved by a mystical partner, and to our being accompanied by the most faithful and loyal friend.
The divine qualities we as humans have identified carry great power in and of themselves, and are often enhanced by stories of real and mythical people. In addition to a Creator God being the Source of All that Is, many people recognize divine qualities in an Infinite Spirit, in Yearning, in Listening, in Beauty and Joy and Justice; in Nurturing, in Openness, in Hospitality and Forgiveness. Divine qualities include Grace, Creativity, Transformation, Wonder and Mystery. We can see the holy in Playfulness, in Silence and in a genuine and irrepressible Reverence for Life. We can see the quality of the holy in what we know as Love. We can experience a sense of the holy in the present moment and we can feel the power of simply being present.
The Jewish theologian Martin Buber relied on a Hasidic legend of a teacher who lived an unusually abundant life. After the death of the teacher one of his disciples was asked, “What was most important to your teacher?” The student replies—“Whatever he happened to be doing at that moment.”
Here’s another passage on this subject of the divine and simply being present. It is by Macrina Wiederkehr in a book called The Song of the Seed. She writes—“As the stars again become visible tonight, I am reminded of a feast of leisure from my childhood days. I remember, on summer evenings sitting outside on a quilt with Mama waiting for the stars to come out. Looking back at that moment with my adult eyes, I understand that God is someone who has taken the time to sit a on a quilt with me waiting for beauty. She is a mother of presence. I need only invite her into my moments of leisure. Her presence will empower my presence.”
“As I tried to bring a deeper quality of presence to all my works this day”, Macrina continues, “I found God moving through the day with me, like a mother, opening my eyes to beauty. Quietly, joyfully, gratefully without complaining, I welcomed all the beauty that crossed my path.”
Or how about this image of a mother in contrast, by Jim Wallis, the editor of Sojourners magazine? “At times, I think that truest image of God today is a black inner-city grandmother in the U.S. or a mother of a disappeared in Argentina or the women who wake up early to make tortillas in refuge camps. They all weep for their children and in their compassionate tears arises the political action that changes the world. The mothers show us that it is the experience of touching the pain of others that is key to change.”
When we think about the first UU principle of affirming and promoting the inherent worth and dignity of each person, we can clearly see its similarity with the definition of Humanism I offered earlier. But it also ties closely with the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam with its emphasis that humans are made in the image of God. As the Quakers say “There is that of God in everyone.”
The Buddhists extend this idea of worth and dignity throughout creation in the concept of “interbeing”. Sentient beings pervade the entirety of our universe, even in what we consider to be inanimate objects. The Vietnamese Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh talks about it his way—
“Whenever I touch a flower, I touch the sun and yet I do not get burned…The miracle is possible because of an insight into the nature of interbeing. If you really touch one flower deeply, you touch the whole cosmos. The cosmos is neither one nor many. Like Shakyamuni Buddha, you can be everywhere at the same time. Think of your child or your beloved touching you now. Look more deeply and you will see yourself as multitudes, penetrating everywhere, interbeing with everyone and everything.”
This passage is one of many that comes from a mystical tradition of the immanence of the sacred in all that is, a power to literally reach out and touch us in the present moment.
The Hindus identify this divine spirit as the basic Self in all humans and in all creation. As the Hindu sacred text, the Bhagavad Gita reads, “I am the self that dwells in the heart of every mortal creature; I am the beginning, the life span, and the end of all…
I am the sustainer; my face is everywhere…I am the divine seed of all that lives. In this world nothing animate or inanimate exists without me.”
Unitarian and father of the American Transcendentalist movement, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote about it like this – “I believe in omnipresence and find footsteps in grammar rules, in oyster shops, in church liturgies, in mathematics, and in solitude and in galaxies.”
Whether we believe in a divine presence that is embedded in this creation, or a transcendent being who set it in motion and resides in a realm beyond us. Or… whether we don’t, or simply don’t know, the fact remains that as far as we know, no one has fallen out of the universe and despite its Operating Manual being only partially revealed to us, we do know that each moment holds an unpredictable power to teach us more about life.
We are always asking these questions like “Who’s in Charge Here Anyway?” And we are always learning more possible answers…
Kind of like this brief note collected in a book called Children’s Letters to God:
How do you feel about people who don’t believe in you?
Somebody else wants to know.
Signed… A friend.”
As Unitarian Universalists, we have come from a Christian tradition, and yet early on we recognized Jesus as a teacher and distinct from the creator God. We embraced the application of human reason to our religious pursuits in the age of this country’s birth and its influence of Unitarian and Universalist forebears. Our congregations today affirm a radically democratic process of self governance and affirm the rights of our members to their individual beliefs. Although some of us are Theists and use theistic language, most of us agree that humans are called to account for our choices and actions, and that we are all called to care for each other in a radical practice of love.
I’m not sure that we could come to an agreement on the question of “Who’s in Charge Here?” but I think we do agree on the power of love and in the open possibility of the present moment.
I close with words by Theologian Paul Tillich whose faith was challenged deeply by the Jewish Holocaust as so many Christians and Jews was, and which opened the Humanist tradition as both an ethical and religious faith alternative.
“The name of this infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being is God. That depth is what the word God means. And if that word has not much meaning for you, translate it, and speak of the depths of your being, of your ultimate concern of what you take seriously – without any reservation. Tillich concludes- “Perhaps in order to do so, you must forget everything traditional that you have learned about God, perhaps even that word itself.”