A sermon by the Rev. Mark Worth, Harvard Unitarian Universalist Church, Harvard MA
- From Joseph Spoerl, St. Anselm College Department of Philosophy, from a blog dated Oct. 20, 2008 and retrieved on June 21, 2012. What does it mean to accept the universe? It might merely mean recognizing facts as facts. But it could also mean affirming the goodness of the universe (or at least its non-badness), and I suspect this is what Ms. Fuller meant. The goal of a good many philosophers and theologians down through the ages has been to accept the universe in the sense of affirming its goodness (or at least its indifference). The chief impediment to such acceptance has always been the inconvenient fact that we human beings are all destined to suffer and die.
- From Forrest Church, The Cathedral of the World, A Universalist Theology, Beacon Press, Boston, 2009: I am aware that myth makes people nervous. … There is fundamentalism of the left as well as of the right. … Take the Bible. Both true believer and hardcore atheist test it for facts. To the former they are absolutely convincing. Following the logic of one fundamentalist leader – “I believe that Jonah was a literal man who was swallowed by a literal fish and vomited up on a literal beach” – the scriptural record is an exact transcript of events as they actually occurred. The skeptic finds this incredible and loses his faith. Both forget that the Bible is a religious storybook, not a historical record that will stand and fall on its facts. It is a storybook rich with mythic overtones and parabolic undertones, helping us to set humanity in divine, and divinity in humane, perspective. As for its stories, like every story, their truth depends entirely upon their listeners. They will prove as true as hope and love are true, but only if they awaken us to possibilities for love and hope within our lives.
Margaret Fuller, the 19th century Unitarian, transcendentalist, and feminist author and editor, once proclaimed, “I accept the universe!” And her contemporary, the Scottish essayist and philosopher Thomas Carlyle, responded sharply, “By gad, she’d better.”
The late Rev. Forrest Church writes, “[Carlyle] was thinking of the universe as housing for our bodies; Fuller celebrated it as her soul’s true residence. When our soul is at home in the universe, the universe makes its home in our soul.” For Joseph Spoerl, who teaches at St. Anselm College, a small Catholic college in New Hampshire, Fuller is wrong. He says that philosophers have been trying for ages to accept the universe. The problem with the universe, he says, is that we die. In response to this unpleasant fact, many philosophers say we should accept death, since it is inevitable. The key to happiness, they say, is that we should accept whatever happens to us as either good or at least indifferent; we should accept the universe, and accept the inevitable, not curse it or struggle against it.
Spoerl says “this is a big steaming load of horse droppings.” Death, he says, is an evil, for it means the end of our personal existence, the termination of all our hopes and projects and relationships. As a philosophy professor teaching at Catholic college, Spoerl turns to Church teachings that say, “Man rebels against death…” To be a Christian, Spoerl says, is “to be a rebel against the universe. To affirm the resurrection of the body, the possibility of redemption, and the duty to struggle against sin, poverty and injustice is to reject the universe, not to accept it.”
I appreciate Sporel’s point, and yet I disagree. Yes, of course we should rebel against injustice and poverty. Certainly Margaret Fuller did. For instance, she visited and investigated prisons and the poorest sections of New York, and enlightened the readers of the New York Tribune about conditions and problems.
Second, although we do not welcome death, we know that, without death, there is no life as we know it. Rocks never die, but they never live, either! I would much rather be alive in this universe and have to die some day, than be a rock and never live at all! And third, although Unitarian Universalists tend to dislike the word “sin,” we believe in doing what is right, and opposing what is wrong. Certainly there are some acts so heinous (such as rape and child abuse) that I believe we have to call sin. Our religious ethic is based in what James Freeman Clarke (1810-1888) called “salvation by character.” Salvation is a word we Unitarian Universalists don’t use much anymore. But the word “salvation” is related to the word salve, an ointment for healing. Our salvation, our healing from the hurts and bruises, the wounds and shortcomings of our lives, is resolved in how we choose to live, in who we become through what we do. What we do counts.
Spoerl says we should spend our lifetime raging against the universe. He seems to take the attitude of an old gospel song that says, “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through. My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.” I disagree with that attitude. This world is my home. I’m not dogmatic one way or the other about a life after this one, but I know we have this life, here and now. And this universe is the place where we were given the gift of life! This universe is a good place to be! To me, the gift of life we have been given makes our universe very sacred.
An unsystematic theology ~
I admit that I’m not very systematic in my theology. Some people thought that Fuller’s Transcendentalist mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, was deliberately vague. I, too, can be vague. That’s because I don’t know all that there is to know. Our short sojourn on this planet gives us barely enough time to get our minds wet. To the extent that I speak of God, I do not consider God to be outside of, and separate from, the Universe. On most days I am a pantheist; that is, I believe that God and Nature are one and the same. God is the universe; the universe is God. This is a way of seeing the universe as sacred, infused with holiness. The universe has given us life. Life, I believe, is a good thing, and so I am grateful. Gratitude is a good attitude to have, especially for those of us who are fortunate enough to have reasonable health, sufficient food, a roof over our heads, and indoor plumbing. A good prayer to say is, “thank you!” On other days, however, I think that perhaps God is more than the sum total of all that there is; that God transcends the universe. On those days I would say that at the heart of the universe – a metaphorical place, not a literal place – at the heart of the universe there is an intentional goodness, an Ultimate Reality, from which we have come, that sustains us in the present, and to which we will all ultimately return. And that intentional goodness, that Ultimate Reality at the heart of the universe, is what I call “God.”
And on some days I find myself agreeing with the atheists who say the concept of God is unnecessary. On such days I say, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” I don’t know the right answer; should “God” be synonymous with the Creative Process of universe, or is God the same as our wonderful, sacred, creative universe? Or is God an Intentional Goodness, an Ultimate Reality that is more than the sum total of everything? Or does the word “God” just have too much baggage associated with it to be useful? I don’t know, and don’t have to know.
I am convinced that God is not an old man in the sky with supernatural powers. “God” is a name that I give to the Cosmic Creative Process (from the thinking of process theologians, Whitehead, Hartshorne, Cobb, etc.). The divine creativity of the universe gave us all that there is. Because we are part of the universe, we are part of the creative process – we make choices all of the time, our choices have an effect, and therefore we matter to God. For me, true religion isn’t about knowing all the answers, believing in impossible things, or having the most orthodox theology. Rather, true religion is about how we live our lives, what we do, how we treat one another, the compassion and loving-kindness we show to others and yes, to ourselves as well.
The Cosmos: All that is?
In his Public Television series, “Cosmos,” astronomer Carl Sagan began by saying, “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.” Although some conservative Christians criticized Sagan, many of us are inclined to agree with him. The Cosmos is all that there is, was, and will be. That’s not so say that there isn’t a lot we still don’t know. And it’s not to say that the universe is meaningless. Whether or not there is a supernatural God who has a plan of some sort, we certainly give the universe some meaning by all that we do. We make a difference. We can destroy our planet, or help it to heal it. We can kill one another, or we can show compassion. We are participants in the universe; which, to me, is to say that we are participants in God’s Cosmic Creativity. The Universe is a good home, not a perfect one. We acknowledge, as Buddhism teaches, that the natural process of birth, growth, old age, sickness, and death, is the essence of our human condition; and that our happiness depends on our response to this human situation. And that’s enough for me. If there is another life after this one, we should lead the best lives we can in this one, and the next life, if there is one, will be what it will be. I am confident that no God worth that name will punish us eternally simply because we believed the wrong theology, had the wrong rituals, or belonged to the wrong church.
I’ve heard some people say that we don’t need religion; science tells us all we need to know. But I believe that as important as the scientific method is, science has limits. Science asks specific kinds of questions, and gives certain kinds of answers. Science asks questions like, “After the initial Big Bang, how did the planets and solar systems form?” and, “Given what we’ve learned about evolution, how old is the human species?” These are big questions. But science never asks, “What is the meaning of life? How, best, can we live peacefully in community? Am I my brother’s keeper? What is justice? How can we be happy?” These are ethical and religious questions. They are outside the realm of what science is able to talk about. Because science asks one kind of question, and religion asks another type of question, neither discipline has all of the answers.
Religion and storytelling ~
Religion, for instance, often relies on a method that is very unscientific, yet very human, and I think, very valid: storytelling. Native American, Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic, and Jewish and Christian stories are valuable, even essential, to religion.
Jesus was, among other things, a storyteller. He often taught with parables. The Gospel of Mark says that Jesus taught only in parables. Parables can be “true” without being factual. The facts of the story aren’t important to the truth of the story. The Bible is full of parables – not just the parable of the Prodigal Son, the parable of the Sower, and the parable of the Mustard Seed, but also the parable of Adam and Eve, the parable of the Nativity, and the parable of the Resurrection. The truth of the stories depends on the heart of the listener.
The creation story in Genesis 1-3 is one such story. The beautiful King James translation of 1611 opens, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” (Genesis 1:1-3)
Here’s how the same passage is rendered by the Jewish Publication Society in a 1985 translation: “When God began to create heaven and earth – the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water – God said, ‘Let there be light;’ and there was light.”
This newer translation says, “When God began to create…” taking the verse to be introductory to the first act of creativity, the creation of light. The terms “heaven and earth” are an expression of totality by using two opposites, a phrase that is meant to indicate a totality of everything. “When God began to create everything,” or as Carl Sagan might say about the Cosmos, “all that is or ever was or ever will be.”
Creation myths are symbolic narratives about how the world began and how people came to inhabit it. Genesis doesn’t pretend to be scientific. The Bible never uses the word “science;” it has no concept of science, and we do it an injustice if we mistake it for a science textbook.
The Book of Genesis is a symbolic narrative, not a literal history. It is storytelling. The Genesis story explains our relationship to the sacred order of the universe; it tells about human relationships and our relationship to all of Creation. It is a narrative about our home in the universe. It affirms that the Creation is good (Genesis 1:31). We were meant to be here; we belong here. Margaret Fuller was right: we have a home in the universe. And when our soul has a home in the universe, the universe makes its home in our souls. We can begin building our little heavens right here and right now, if we choose to do so. Amen.