a sermon by Rev. J. Mark Worth
Albert Einstein once said that a person who has lost a sense of awe and mystery “is as good as dead, a snuffed out candle.” Einstein appreciated mystery. Even though there may be no ultimate answers that apply in all cultures, times, and places, to the “why?” questions that we ask, we go on asking. Why are we here? What does it all mean? Our answers are always provisional, never complete. That is why it is mystery.
- From Albert Einstein, c. 1930, quoted in Harvey Cox, The Future of Faith, HarperCollins, New York, NY, 2009:
“The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed out candle. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly; this is religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man.”
- From Carl Sagan, The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God, The Penguin Press, New York, NY, 2006:
[Carl Sagan was asked whether science will one day come up with a way to demonstrate the existence of God. Sagan’s reply:] “The answer depends very much on what we mean by God. The word ‘god’ is used to cover a vast multitude of exclusive ideas. …
“But let me give a sense of two poles of the definition of God. One is the view of, say, Spinoza or Einstein, which is more or less God as the sum total of the laws of physics. Now, it would be foolish to deny that there are laws of physics. If that’s what we mean by God, then surely God exists. All we have to do is watch the apples drop. …
“But now take the opposite pole: the concept of God as an out-sized male with a long white beard, sitting in a throne in the sky and tallying the fall of every sparrow. Now, for that kind of god I maintain there is no evidence. … And the two examples I’ve given you are hardly the full range of ideas that people mean when they use the word ‘god.’ ”
In 1930 Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein of New York City sent a telegram to Albert Einstein. “Do you believe in God? Answer paid. 50 Words.” Einstein managed it in about 30 words. He said, “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of all that exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings.”
Einstein was expressing his respect for the work of Baruch Spinoza, the 17th century Jewish philosopher. Spinoza, who was excommunicated by the rabbis of his time and place, was not famous in his own lifetime. But he is well regarded today for his courage, convictions, and ideas. Although I am oversimplifying, Spinoza essentially identified God with Nature – everything that exists is God, and God is revealed in the infinite, natural universe. Today we call his theology or outlook “Pantheism.”
Einstein, like Spinoza, recognized the place of mystery in human life. Before the telegram from Rabbi Goldstein, Einstein had already said that the person who has lost a sense of awe and mystery “is as good as dead, a snuffed out candle.”
Science and religion ~
Spinoza and Einstein considered themselves to be religious men, although not traditionally religious. Einstein could recognize both the strengths and limitations of science. As I mentioned last week, science and religion ask different kinds of questions. When speaking of “origins,” for instance, the scientist asks questions of proximate origins: the origins of this or that entity or form of life within the system of nature – the planets, the earth, rocks, living things – how did each arise out of something that came before? These are scientific questions, and rightly so.
Religion asks questions about ultimate origins: What is the source and grounding of the entire universe? Should we regard this whole system as somehow Sacred or Holy, and if so what is our relationship to that Sacredness? Who are we, and where are we going? In other words: What does it all mean?
Science doesn’t ask what it means, only how it works. Ask a different kind of question, and you get a different kind of answer. So the supposed disagreement between religion and science is, I believe, a false issue.
Myths of the origins of things – the Epic of Gilgamesh, Pandora’s Box, the Garden of Eden – these stories were never intended to answer modern scientific questions. They were not written to answer the questions of “how” or “when.” They were written to answer the question of “why” – what does it all mean?
But many people today misunderstand the nature of biblical myths and parables – and so they look for scientific answers in a place where scientific questions were never asked!
Even within the same discipline, religion, our questions have a cultural context. The Egyptians 4,000 years ago lived in one context, and asked one set of religious questions. The Egyptians of today live in a different context, and ask different religious questions than did the ancient Egyptians. The answers are different, because the religious questions that were asked in other ages and cultures were different than our religious questions today.
Some questions, and some answers, survive the test of time better than others. But we are always asking our questions in a particular time and place and situation. Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam – all are products of their time and place and cultural experiences.
Standing in circles ~
On the Scottish Isle of Mull, in the Inner Hebrides, on an isolated corner of the island, there is an ancient stone circle at Loch Buie. Visitors to Mull will find it in a farmer’s field, far off the beaten path. Unlike the larger and more famous stone circles at Stonehenge and Avebury, Loch Buie doesn’t attract many visitors. On a cool, damp day in July of 2004, Mickey and I had the field, the ancient stone circle, the mist, and the surrounding hills, all to ourselves.
Who erected the standing stones and other megaliths of northern Europe? It was so long ago – the circle at Loch Buie is about 4,500 years old – that we do not know. The Druids did not erect the stone circles. The standing stones were already ancient long before the Druids arrived!
What was the purpose of the circles? An outlier at Loch Buie points to the sunset on the winter solstice. An outlier at Stonehenge points to the sunrise at the summer solstice. This suggests the “mixture of wonder and fear” that humans feel, in all cultures, toward the mystery of the natural world and the understanding we have of our mortality within our world.
We imagine that the religion of the builders of those stone circles must have been rooted in nature, and their rituals may have been based on the changing seasons, the movement of the sun, and the phases of the moon – the great mystery of the natural world. Has that sense of mystery disappeared, or is it still the basis for religious yearning?
Pantheism and the Dao ~
In 1705 John Toland, an Irish freethinker, coined the term “Pantheist” to describe Spinoza’s religious beliefs. A Pantheist believes that God and nature are essentially one and the same. Pantheism sees the Cosmos as an all-encompassing unity, understands Nature to be sacred, and rejects the idea of a God that is a super-person sitting on a throne in the clouds, a great Santa Claus in the sky. To the Pantheist, God is not literally a personal being.
Ralph Waldo Emerson and his Transcendentalist disciples were essentially Pantheists. The Transcendentalists were all either Unitarians or they hung out with Unitarians; and they had a strong influence on Unitarian Universalism that persists today. When I first joined a UU church 47 years ago I was told, “Scratch a Unitarian and you’ll probably find a Pantheist.”
The Chinese philosophy of Daoism (Taoism) is often understood to be a type of Pantheism. Laozi’s Dao de Jing (also spelled Tao te Ching) never speaks of a personal creator God, but sees the Dao as “the Way of the Universe.”
In Stephen Mitchell’s translation, verse 34 says,
The great Tao flows everywhere. All things are born from it, yet it doesn’t create them. It pours itself into its work, yet it makes no claim. It nourishes infinite worlds, yet it doesn’t hold onto them. Since it is merged with all things, and hidden in their hearts, it can be called humble. Since all things vanish into it, and it alone endures, it can be called great. It isn’t aware of its greatness; thus it is truly great.
In other words, the Dao is so all-encompassing that every plant, creature, and human originates and lives because of it, and yet the Dao doesn’t seek to dominate anyone or anything. The Dao does not require or even desire praise – I was always turned off by Christian assertions that God wants our praise. That always made God seem small and petty. In contrast, the Dao’s indifference toward praise makes the Dao truly great.
We should be like the Dao – by not claiming greatness, the wise person achieves greatness. Without worrying about divine beings who must be prayed to and sacrificed to, so that they won’t send floods or hurricanes, the Daoist reveres the Way of the Universe, the Dao, and learns from it. Being one with nature, the wise person lives in accord with the Dao.
The mystery of the universe, the self, and the other ~
Religion has often spoken of “mystery.” But the Deists of the Enlightenment (1600s-1700s) saw the word “mystery” as an embarrassment. Mystery had been misused by the Catholic and Protestant churches. Any doctrine that was hard to make sense of – such as the doctrine of the Trinity, which says God is three persons who are one person, and Jesus one person who is two persons, one entirely human and the other entirely divine – was declared to be a mystery. The churches taught that it must be true because it’s incomprehensible!
Mystery had become cheapened into doctrines, things people were expected to “believe.” Church members were expected to take the symbols of religion literally. The Communion bread and wine stopped being symbolic. Catholic doctrine declared that they literally became the body and blood of Christ, even though chemistry and common sense say they are not. The Bible was no longer just “inspired,” but became, for many Protestants, the literal Word of God, perfect in every way, even when it is clearly wrong or self-contradicting.
It’s a mystery. Don’t think for yourself. Just accept the doctrine, they said. But that’s not the way Albert Einstein used the word “mystery.” Einstein was an eminently modern person, a scientist, and for me he helps us reclaim the word “mystery.”
I agree with Einstein that mystery begins with a sense of awe. When I stand in awe of the vast array of stars at night, or the seal poking her head out of the water near my kayak, or the Japanese Beetles making dinner out of my rosebush, I ask what, if anything, it all means. We probably started asking these questions when we were children. Many who struggled with these questions eventually produced great art, architecture, poetry and music, such as the Paleolithic cave paintings, the Parthenon, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, Michelangelo’s Pieta, statues of the Buddha, Tibetan mandalas, and Islamic calligraphy. To repress the spirit of creativity that is inspired by such awe and wonder would, as Einstein said, to be nothing but a snuffed-out candle.
So where does that leave us? As a 21st century American, I stand in awe and wonder when I look at the night sky – especially when I am home in Maine, away from light pollution. And maybe, looking out at the vastness of the universe, I experience something similar to what was experienced by the ancient people who erected the stone circles. I share their wonder and awe and sense of mystery.
And yet I’m a modern person living in a scientific age. I assemble my religious faith and practice from various sources – my Midwestern Methodist childhood, my long-standing skepticism, almost five decades experiencing Unitarian Universalism in its rich variety, and a dozen or more years as a student of Buddhist thought and practice. This mixture is my own because my experience is unique to me, just as yours will be somewhat different because your experience is unique to you. And we hope to keep learning and growing all our lives.
Even though there may be no ultimate answers that apply to all times and places and cultures, we go on wondering and asking the questions. What does it all mean? Our answers are always provisional, never perfect or complete. That is why it is “mystery.”
Mature faith and religious practice never give final answers, but they lean toward the mystery. We begin with awe and wonder, and move forward with faith and practice.