“The Unclimbed Mountain, the Unfinished Trail” | Kevin Carson

A Sermon Given at the First Universalist Parish in Chester, Vermont, October 22, 2017

There is a saying that we are made strong not by winning easy battles, but by losing hard-fought ones. Failure can be an opening to the grace of personal growth.

There is a famous line in a Robert Burns poem, written in November 1785, that goes, “The best-
laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley,” or as it is usually translated, “The best laid plans
of mice and men often go awry.” The line comes from Burns’ poem, To a Mouse, on Turning
Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough. The context, as the poem’s name suggests, is that he is
apologizing to a poor field mouse whose nest he inadvertently plowed up when turning the soil
in his garden on the heels of winter. Seeing the destroyed nest, he realized that the poor
creature would be unlikely to survive the coming cold weather, despite all the time and effort she had expended in preparing her nest. Her work has been in vain, and she will be forced to
accept defeat. It is a harsh lesson in the cruelty of circumstance to be sure.

All of us may have to face such a harsh lesson in the face of failure someday, but fortunately,
the numerous failures we encounter in life’s journey rarely result in such dire consequences.
Most of the time, the worst we are likely to face is disappointment, frustration, anger, and
perhaps a sense of guilt or shame. When we fail to achieve our goals, we might suffer
financially or professionally in some way, but life usually allows us the grace to recover and
move on, though it may take tremendous effort and considerable time in some cases. It is
simply a fact of being human that our best laid plans will indeed often go awry. After all, who
among us has not failed to achieve some goal in life? But, unless it is a truly fatal turn of events,
the lessons we learn can help us understand what it means to be human.

There are many kinds of failure, but I want to broadly divide them into two categories. There are incidental failures, which may be quite significant or very small, in which I include any failure to complete plans or reach goals due to obstacles or circumstances which may or may not be under our control. There are also failures of character, a category that is uniquely human so far as we know, which are moments when we act in willful opposition to our better selves – what we might call “sin” in traditional theological language. While there are differences between the two kinds of failure, they can sometimes be bound together around a single event, and how we react to both kinds of failure can be very similar. Both can produce very negative emotions, especially fear and shame, and we may find ourselves dwelling on these negative feelings for a substantial amount of time. Even relatively trivial failures can leave us ruminating for days on what we should have said or done differently in some situation, and some deeper feelings may stay with us for a lifetime. It is important that we process our feelings and integrate our failures into the narrative of our identity without simply denying them or forgetting the lessons learned, but we must be careful not to allow our failures to define us.

In the reading this morning from my favorite spiritual writer, Belden C. Lane, he uses the idea of
the “unclimbed mountain” or the unfinished trail as an example of a real incidental failure on a small scale, which can be seen as a metaphor for the more significant failures we experience. It
comes from his book, Backpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as Spiritual Practice, so
from the title you could anticipate he would draw on the experiential spirituality of nature.

Anyone who likes to hike or climb mountains can easily appreciate that sometimes reaching our objective is just not in the cards. Weather, fatigue, or simply overly ambitious plans will force us to turn back or alter our plans on occasion. Just think of the many people who have attempted to climb mountains like Everest, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and making every preparation they could imagine, only to turn back before reaching the summit. I haven’t experienced something quite so expensive, but my wife and I did once travel all the way to Alaska’s Denali National Park for a planned multi-day backpacking trip only to spend one long day hiking in the wilderness before bugging out. For a number of reasons, mostly involving our comfort zone within an unfamiliar landscape, we decided to radically change our plans and return to civilization. We still had a good trip, but it was not at all what we had planned.

I can think of many unclimbed mountains and unfinished trails in my life, both real and
metaphorical, and I’m sure all of you can too. What Lane is trying to say in his book is that
these are useful gifts for helping us see our inherent value and authentic selves, “failure points
us back to the true measure of our worth, to something grounded in nothing that we do, but only what we are.” Who we really are is not diminished by failing to climb the mountain, but this can be hard for us to see sometimes. It is easy to dwell on the failure and imbue it with more significance than it deserves. External factors and our own psychological constitution can also leave us trapped in a persona that makes it hard to admit defeat. We can create unrealistic
expectations for personal perfection, and we can crash very hard when we fall short. As Lane
notes, “In our consumer-driven society, an image of flawless proficiency is crucial to success.
To admit failure in a world that judges value by polished surfaces is to lose your edge as a
commodity in the marketplace. This is as true, sadly, in higher education and religion as it is in
business, sports, and politics.”

Even just the fear of failing to live up to our expectations can evoke strong feelings of shame, or leave us paralyzed and filled with dread. As we learn in his book, Lane’s personal struggles
with feelings of inadequacy as a graduate theology student at Princeton even evoked thoughts
of suicide at one point. He describes how ignorant he felt the first year among the professors
and other students who discussed unfamiliar topics, and how he would run to the library to try to keep up. He felt like a fraud and doubted his own abilities. And, as a theology student
struggling with the search for truth and meaning, he felt unworthy in the eyes of God. He might
have dropped out, or worse, were it not for a candid discussion with a fellow student who
admitted feeling the same way.

So, let me first say a little more about the way Lane’s book is structured to help you understand
where I am about to go with this. Lane’s book is organized into chapters that pair a spiritual
topic with a saint or famous historical figure from Christianity, and he then uses a personal
wilderness experience as the context for diving deeper. The chapter that inspired this sermon,
for example, is titled, Failure: Mt. Whitney and Martin Luther. The reason he chose Martin
Luther is that Luther’s great theological breakthrough was the result of his struggle with his own sense of inadequacy and sinfulness. Luther not only felt he had been a failure in the eyes of his parents by pursuing the monastic life instead of becoming a lawyer, he felt his vocation as a monk was flawed, and that he too was unworthy in the eyes of God. Then, one evening in 1512, Luther was reading Paul’s letter to the Romans, and he had a sudden realization that what he did or did not do with his life was not what mattered. What he was – a human being created in the image of God – was all that mattered, and that even serious failures of character, our most egregious sins, were not beyond the reach of God’s grace. In theological terms, he embraced a doctrine of salvation by grace, rather than the idea of salvation by works. We did not need to purchase our salvation through acts of contrition or earning merit through our deeds, in fact, none of that really mattered. We were already saved by being worthy as human beings, and with his particular beliefs, because of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. The theologian Paul Tillich called Luther’s epiphany: learning to “accept his acceptance.” This idea that we are all worthy in the eyes of God, and faith was all that we really need, resonated throughout the Protestant Reformation, of course, and it was certainly central in the theology of our Universalist ancestors. And though our tradition has become more pluralistic and less Christian in recent times, it echoes still in the First Principle of Unitarian Universalism: we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

No matter how broken or sinful we feel, or how much we have failed to be our best authentic
selves, we possess inherent worth and dignity. Indeed, it is often in the hearts of the most
broken among us – those whose failures are many – that we may come to see the divine light
shining the brightest. Lane recounts a wonderful Sufi story to illustrate this point:
The disciple of a Sufi master once came to his teacher, saying, “Master, I’ve done
terrible things in my life. I know Allah can never forgive me. What can I do?” “Ah, my
son,” answered the master, “Don’t you see? All of us are connected to God by a piece
of rope, one that is the same length for every one of us. When we sin, alas, we cut the
rope that connects us to the Holy One. But when we repent, God is eager to tie the
pieces together again. Every time you tie a knot in a rope, of course, it gets shorter.
Hence, those with more knots in their rope are that much closer to God. So trust, my
son, in the forgiveness of Allah, the Merciful and Compassionate One. He loves to tie
knots!”

I love this image of the knots in the rope which connects us with the divine, and if the theistic
language doesn’t work for you, think of the knots as markers in our personal stories that note
times when we have experienced failures and integrated their meaning into our story – periods
in our lives when we were forced to overcome adversity and disappointment, or make peace
with great failures of character. Some knots may be much bigger than others.

Each human being is a story, and sometimes our greatest failures become the most interesting
and important chapters. They may be gateways to possibilities we never imagined. There is an
old Quaker saying, “way closes, way opens,” and sometimes it is only after the way slams shut
in front of us that we realize we can turn around and look for different opportunities. Perhaps a
layoff from employment makes you rethink your career or vocation. Maybe the end of a
relationship frees your more authentic self to explore new possibilities. The hard part can be
letting go of expectations, and being receptive to where life may be trying to lead you.

So, let the unclimbed mountains, the unfinished trails, the many knots in our ropes – whatever
metaphor you choose to use – become a reminder that your failures in life do not define you.
They may even make you stronger or wiser. We are not the knots. We are the whole rope that
remains connected to the sacred. We are all worthy and beloved beings, born with inherent
worth and dignity.

It is my hope that our faith can help others realize this, and that our faith communities will
always be a refuge for the world-weary souls struggling to find their own sense of worth.
I am thinking that one day, if I live to a ripe old age, I might reflect on the lessons of life and
write a book titled, Trails I Never Hiked to Destinations I Never Reached. I’m sure it would be a
real page-turner, filled with the wisdom that only the grace of failure can teach

Readings


Opening Words
“A Warning to My Readers” by Wendell Berry
Do not think me gentle
because I speak in praise
of gentleness, or elegant
because I honor the grace
that keeps this world. I am
a man crude as any,
gross of speech, intolerant,
stubborn, angry, full
of fits and furies. That I
may have spoken well
at times, is not natural.
A wonder is what it is.

Reading an excerpt from “Backpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as Spiritual
Practice” by Belden C. Lane


There are times on the trail when you have to turn back. Nothing is more discouraging. Maybe
you’ve done something stupid, like lost the map. Changing weather conditions may have made
it dangerous or foolhardy to go any further. Maybe your gear is soaking wet or the black flies
have become unbearable. Sometimes you simply don’t have it in you to go on. Whatever
brings you to that point, you admit defeat and grudgingly head back toward the trailhead.

As I think back on my failure to climb Mt. Whitney, I find comfort in the fact that John Muir didn’t make it on his first try either. On the morning of October 16, 1873, he started out for the peak, leaving his horse to graze in a meadow in one of the lower canyons. After hiking all day, he couldn’t find wood to build a fire so he continued climbing into the night, taking bearings by the stars. “By midnight,” he wrote in his journal, “I was among the summit needles [though still shy of the top]. There I had to dance all night to keep from freezing, and was feeble and starving next morning.” He finally had to turn back. But a week later Muir returned to scale the peak by a direct route from the east side. It was the first time anyone had made the ascent.
We don’t always succeed. But sometimes failure proves to be a better gift. Failure points us
back to the true measure of our worth, to something grounded in nothing that we do, but only
what we are. The cloud-covered majesty of Mt. Whitney, the mountain I didn’t climb, will always remind me of that.
 

What Can We Do | Rev. Jane Dwinell

A Sermon Given at the First Universalist Parish in Chester, Vermont, May 28, 2017

A month ago, I was with 200,000 other concerned citizens at the People’s March for Climate, Jobs, Justice on a sweltering 93 degree day in Washington, DC. There was not enough water — or porta-potties — for all of us, but we survived. A New Orleans-style brass band kept our spirits up, along with the cheering people on the sidewalk. Afterwards, my husband and I (along with a lot of other people) gratefully collapsed at a sidewalk cafe for cold drinks, then made our way to our hotel for a cool shower and a nap in air-conditioned comfort.

Some day, before too long, if nothing changes, we will no longer have the gift of sidewalk cafes selling imported wine and beer, hotels with showers and air conditioning, or transportation to get us there. 

James Howard Kuntsler has written a series of novels that take place in such a future. Set in New York state on the Vermont border, he envisions a world without fossil fuels, transportation only by foot or horse, available food only what is grown in the area, and health care provided by the last remaining doctor without many supplies, and an herbalist. Luckily, there is enough hard cider to keep people happy, but the world is ugly and without hope. There is conflict, and people are struggling.

We don’t have to have that future. I believe we can create a world where everyone will have enough. Enough won’t include Mexican strawberries in January, Chilean grapes, New Zealand beef, or French wine. Enough won’t include a car for everyone, a 5,000 square foot home for a family of three, or open heart surgery and hip replacements for everyone who wants one. But, I think a world can be created where we will all have enough to survive — and thrive — but we must start work on it now. We have no time to lose.

As Bill McKibben said in an article in this week’s Seven Days: 

“In the long run, the damage that [President Trump]’s doing on environmental stuff is the stuff that we’ll never get back. The thing that he’s costing us on climate change is the thing we have the least of, which is time. He’s president during an absolutely critical four years, and it’s obviously going to be a wasted four years. We don’t have four years to spare.”

Winona Laduke, Native American activist, put it this way:

“In our prophecies as Anishinaabe people, we are told that there is a choice between two paths. This is known as the time of the Seventh Fire. And in the time of the Seventh Fire, we are told that we, as Anishinaabe people, would have a choice between two paths. One path, they say, would be well worn, but scorched. The other path, they say, would be not well worn, and it would be green. And it would be our choice upon which path to embark.

“So this is the scorched path. This is what fracking looks like from the air. It is what is known as extreme extraction. Extreme extraction is what occurs when you have consumed as much of the fossil fuels resources of this world as we have. In my life and your life, we’ve consumed about half the world’s known fossil fuel resources, right? … I had a good time. Did you all have a good time? Let’s be honest. It’s been a blast. We’ve had a really good time consuming at this level. … did you guys all get your flowers from Colombia this week? You know what I’m saying. Sometimes I just like to order that Fiji water—you know what I’m talking about?—because I feel like I should have water from the furthest part of the planet. You understand what I’m saying. This is like—it is absurdity, the level of the fossil fuels economy and our level of consumption and entitlement associated with that. We are complicit. That is the fact.”

It’s time to choose the second path, the green one, the not-well-worn one.

But, how do we do that?

Bill McKibben has one answer, one that I agree with:

We can do three things —

We can lobby our elected officials, attend marches and rallies, and speak up whenever we can.

We can live “smaller.”

And, mostly importantly, we can create community.

We are lucky here in Vermont that our Congressmen are smart guys, and on the right side of this issue. I don’t know about you, but I have spent more time in the last five months contacting them than I have in all the years they’ve been in office. Even though Leahy, Sanders and Welch are right on the climate change issue, I believe they still need support and praise for what they do do. I’ve contacted my representatives in Montpelier as well. As citizens, I believe it is our duty to stay engaged with the political process — no matter how challenging it feels right now.

I attend every march I can. Luckily, I am physically able, and financially stable that I can do that. If marches aren’t your thing, or there are other reasons why you can’t go, consider supporting others in your community who do want to go, but for some reason can’t — if you have the money, you can pay their way to the march, or at least pack them a lunch and a bag of cookies for the trip. When the Standing Rock Sioux put out a call last fall for clergy to go to North Dakota for a prayer vigil in opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline, I was not in a position to be able to go. So I checked what I would have spent on transportation and lodging, and sent that money to other UU clergy who could go, but didn’t have the funds.

It can feel frustrating to lobby (or not) our elected officials — clearly, many of them do not listen to their constituents about this and many other issues.  But, living smaller — that I can do. I have spent the last 35 years living smaller, and teaching others how to do it.

The culmination of living smaller for me was when my husband and I designed and built a tiny house on wheels, and lived in it for two years. If you need to put your life and your possessions into 160 square feet, you learn quickly what you actually need, and what you don’t need. We downsized (after already living in a 700 square foot house) for the tiny house, only leaving four boxes of photo albums and memorabilia behind in a friend’s basement. We’re back to living in a 700 square foot house now, but we maintain our “tiny house” lifestyle. 

For me, living smaller means I think about every need or want I have, every decision I make, in terms of the planetary and financial resources it will take to get or do that thing. There are many ways to the same end, but the planetary and financial cost will differ, depending on your choice.

An example — coffee. Never mind that climate change is affecting the coffee trees, and we may not be able to enjoy this great beverage that much longer. Think of all the different ways there are to buy coffee, and to prepare it. You can buy it organically and fair trade raised, or you can buy the store brand at your favorite grocer’s. You can buy it ground or whole bean. You can buy the raw beans, and roast them yourself. You can prepare the coffee in an old fashioned percolator, with a Keurig machine, in a Mr Coffee-type electric machine, with a French press, with an espresso machine, in an old aluminum pot over a campfire, or with boiling water poured through a reusable filter. Or buy it already made at your favorite coffee shop, Dunkin’ Donuts or mini-mart.

Didn’t think coffee could be so complicated, did you?

I choose to make coffee with organic, free trade beans that I buy in bulk and grind myself, with a simple, reusable filter and boiling water from my electric kettle powered by my solar panels. This is the choice I have made, the one I think has the least impact to the planet.

How about drying clothes? Do you just toss them in the dryer, or do you take the time to hang them up on a clothesline or drying rack? Or eating leftovers? (You do eat leftovers, right?) Do you eat them cold, heat them in a microwave, on the top of the stove, or in a solar oven?

We are privileged enough to have choices, but not all of them are equal. Al Gore was right when he talked about An Inconvenient Truth. The time will come when things may get inconvenient — never mind the extra time it takes to hang our clothes on the line, we may be washing them by hand. We make think that our appliances of convenience save us time, but they also consume a vast amount of planetary resources — in the metals and minerals needed for manufacture, in the manufacturing process itself, in the packaging and transportation costs to get the product to us, to the electricity needed to run it, and finally our money that has to pay for the whole thing.

The next time you’re about to hop in the car to go to the store, stop and ask yourself, “Do I really need what I’m about to buy?” “Is there another way to get what I want?” “Is there another way to get to the store?” — riding with a friend, walking, riding a bike, waiting until you have to go to town for something else. I expect y’all live in the country — or at least out of walking and biking distance to stores and services — I did that for many years myself — but that’s one reason my husband and I left the Northeast Kingdom to move to Montpelier and then Burlington — we now walk or bike or take public transportation to almost everything, unless we are leaving town. Saves money, saves the planet — just another example of living smaller.

But, finally, and most importantly, there is creating, building and sustaining community. That’s what a congregation is for — to create a community where everyone can rely on one another in good times and bad. As the planet heats up and resources become scarcer and/or more expensive, we will need one another even more than we do now. The gardeners and farmers among us will need to share food with those who aren’t able to grow it themselves. The strong ones will need to cut, split and stack firewood for those who can’t. We will need handy-people to repair and maintain our homes and community buildings. We will need health care professionals to do house calls, and provide basic advice and care when our health care system implodes. We will need to look in on one another when extreme weather hits, as scientists tell us it will with increasing frequency. 

But climate change is not just about us. We need to care for those that we will never even meet — those who are already being seriously affected by climate change right now — those in drought-stricken areas of Africa, those living on islands rapidly going underwater in the South Pacific, those dying of tropical diseases that are now moving rapidly north and south away from their home at equator.

Paul Hawken, in his latest book, Drawdown, offers 100 things to do that will most likely help to prevent or slow serious climate change. He assembled a team of scientists to look into solutions and rate them in terms of efficiency and cost, and ranked them in order. Several in the top ten will not surprise you — an increase in onshore wind development, solar farms, and rooftop solar, and an increase in forests by reclaiming our tropical rainforests and encouraging “silvopasturing” — raising livestock in the woods.

But the others were more surprising to me.

The number one most helpful thing we can do — which will reduce CO2 emissions by 90 gigatons — is to stop the production of HFCs for refrigerators and, in particular, air conditioners. You may remember the bruhaha about CFCs destroying the ozone layer in the 1908s? The industry went to work on that problem and developed HFCs to take their place. The ozone hole healed — all was well, right? Nope. Turns out the HFCs contribute incredibly to increasing the CO2 in the atmosphere. And, as the climate continues to heat, people living in places like India and the Middle East will need AC simply to survive. There are new, safer technologies to provide cooling, but they are much more expensive, and poor countries like India may simply not be able to afford them. One more reason to have a fairer distribution of wealth in the world — and for our country to its part to help poorer countries.

Two more solutions in the top ten had to do with food. Many of us already know about the destructive practices of conventional agriculture — whether it is raising plants or animals. We are lucky here in Vermont to have a strong agricultural base, and much of it organic. You will probably not be surprised to know that choosing a plant-based diet is of significant help in slowing climate change — 66 gigatons of CO2 removed if we ate more plants and less meat. This doesn’t mean giving up meat altogether, but having plants become a central part of a meal, with meat as a condiment, while being sure to choose meat that has been raised sustainably and not from factory farms. Sure, it’s more expensive, but if you’re eating less, the cost should balance out. You can do as chef and cookbook author, Mark Bittman, does — be vegan until 6 — when you can then add animal food to your meal. Or join the “Meatless Mondays” movement. Or become vegan or vegetarian if that suits you. Once again, we have many choices.

However, the other food-based solution in the top ten is to reduce food waste. If all the agricultural land used to grow food that is later thrown away — either at the farm, at the processing plant, at the store, or in your own kitchen — was a country, it would be the third largest country in the world!  Not only does rotting food produce methane, another greenhouse gas — we need that food to feed the world’s hungry people, of which there will be many more because of climate-change-caused droughts and floods. Think of that the next time to you forget to eat your leftovers!

But, the final top-ten solutions surprised me the most — educating girls and women, and provide free family planning services. There are simply too many people on our planet, and if girls and women can understand their choices, and choose smaller families, we could reduce 120 gigatons of CO2! So, perhaps the most significant thing you can do to slow climate change is to donate to Planned Parenthood and other organizations that provide family planning services world wide and/or organizations that support education for girls around the world.

Knowing that climate change is not just about us hit home for me in January 2016 when I went to Lesvos, Greece as part of a medical team that received the refugees as they came ashore on flimsy life rafts with inadequate lifejackets. As many of you may know, the Syrian War started partly because of climate change. For many years, Syria suffered a climate change-induced drought that caused many farmers to move into the cities to find work to support their families. Crowded conditions and a lack of enough food caused unrest, and a civil war was born.

The refugees seeking safe harbor in Greece came from Syria, and from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and North Africa. They came with nothing but the clothes on their backs, their passports and papers tied around their necks in plastic bags. They came with the elderly in wheelchairs, with the family dog or cat, with babes tucked inside their father’s coats, and with many, many scared and wet children. These refugees were not terrorists, but people simply seeking safety, food, shelter, and peace for their families.

Day after day, in January, with freezing seas and cold winds, these refugees arrived after paying exorbitant prices to smugglers who piled them into boats with small outboard motors and enough gas, hopefully, to get them across the five miles of open Aegean Sea. Some poor man was given a brief lesson in running the motor — most of whom had never even been in a boat — and told to drive. They arrived sopping wet, hypothermic, hungry and cold. We helped them into dry clothes, warmed them with tea and wood fires, cared for their injuries and fears, and sent them off to a UN-run refugee camp. Boat after boat, day after day, sometimes as many as 500 people arriving per day.

These are the faces of climate change. These are the people that I see when I am making a decision about what to buy, what to do, and where to send my money. These are the people I see when I contact my legislators, when I plant my garden, when I work to build community.

They remind me that we are not alone on this journey. They remind me that we truly are connected in the interdependent web of life.They remind me that it is up to all of us, working together, to solve this greatest challenge of our time.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Science Sermon | Nicholas Boke

A Sermon Given at the First Universalist Parish in Chester, Vermont, May 7, 2017

Science is probably all we can really count on. Not science in the sense of what we know now, but science in the sense of a process by which we ask and answer the big questions that we face as individuals, as a species, as inhabitants of this planet and solar system.
Not “scientism,” which actually means simply using the scientific process, but which comes with the connotations of all -isms, as a faith-based system, a set of unquestioned and unquestionable assumptions.

Nope. Science. The processes that Sir Francis Bacon was setting in motion  400 years ago, when he wrote, for example, that “to invent is to discover that we know not, and not to recover what we already know,” because—yes, it was he who said it—“knowledge is itself power,” adding that such processes take time, noting that “to deliberate about useful things is the safest delay” and “half of science is putting forth the right questions.”

Science. 

The process by which we try to figure out everything from how sodium bonds with chloride to make salt, why birds sing, how far it is to the closest “goldilocks”—neither too hot nor too cold—planet, and what makes the human mind the human mind.

That last one, the stuff about the brain, is the one I’ve been paying the most attention to over the past decade or so. Reading books and articles, then viewing lots of my work with teaching and learning through the lens of the question, “What is the brain doing now?” 

Every now and then I meet a neurobiologist or a brain scientist or whatever they call themselves, and I feel like I’m in the presence of some … well, some sort of priest, or at least acolyte, somebody who’s as close to the divine as one can be.

Not because there’s anything divine or even really special about the human brain. Just because it’s there, allowing me to type these words, to read these words while you listen to these words, think about these words or maybe hope that Marilyn brought deviled eggs today, or think about how your son or daughter or grandson or nephew is faring in nursery school or graduate school or with his or her new partner—or whatever that amazing doo-hickey in your head is doing right now as I say the words, “whatever that amazing doo-hickey in your head is doing right now.”

So it was no wonder that when I read that Brown University was culminating its Brain Week with the Brown Brain Fair on Sunday, March 19, I headed over to Sayles Hall to see what was up.
It wasn’t just a matter of seeing what they had to say about the brain. It was bigger. There I’d be, amid some really smart people who’d be manning (or is it personning these days?) tables offering information about everything from Autism to neuroplasticity.

See, because I’d been studying—that’s a loose use of the term—what the research was showing us about the brain, I knew that I’d probably encounter the cutting edge of some of these topics. 

And please remember that when I was messing around with the idea of science while introducing the subject of this sermon, I didn’t call science “what we know about” various things, but “the process by which we try to figure out” various things.

So I knew, for example, that brain researchers (and others) have been studying and debating things like whether there is something that can reasonably be referred to as “human nature,” or whether we’re just a bundle of cultural characteristics attached to a few pretty basic instincts; and whether there is a “self” somewhere in the brain, or whether it’s just an illusion that the brain develops to make life easier for the being it’s in charge of. I knew that some of the older issues—whether there are specific locations in the brain for specific kinds of knowledge, whether the brain can regenerate lost skills, and the like—had been resolved, or so it would appear. 

And I knew that brain researchers have a long way to go.

I know this because of my old friend Steve, a nuclear physicist whom I met in kindergarten in 1952. He’s spent 25 years working on controlled fusion—you know, the possibility that the result of fusing two atoms could be controlled so as not to make a hydrogen bomb, but to release energy that could be used to generate electricity. 

Twenty-five years, essentially messing around with the same formulae in the hopes that the planned experiment, called “ignition,” when lasers would be aimed at some atoms in the hope that more energy would be released than it took to run the lasers, would take place.

Twenty-five years. He finally retired, not long after an only moderately successful effort. He still goes back to the lab to lend a hand from time to time. He’s still hopeful.

Will it work? Will we ever successfully control these fusion reactions to produce the power we need? 

Who knows?

And that’s not just a rhetorical answer. Nobody knows. And nobody will know until we do it, until somebody somewhere can control the energy released by fusing two atoms. Until we do it, we don’t know, either whether it’s possible or impossible. That’s science. You don’t know until you know. You can’t ever say it won’t work. All you’ll be able to say is that it works when it works. 

Trial and error. 

Scientific research.

If the likes of Steve don’t continue working on the problem, we’ll never know.

That’s science.

Science like that pursued by a couple of graduate students at a table sponsored by Brown’s Metcalf Infant Research Lab. One is studying whether babies learn nouns first or verbs. 

Which is it? I asked.

Nouns. Hmm. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Nouns are often things. Things are what make up the world. Makes sense that’s what the brain would want to know about.

This conversation led us off into a discussion of the is-there-human-nature-or-not? debate. Not to answer it. Just to connect it with this research.

And then I asked, Is it nouns first in all languages?

No, he responded. In Mandarin, infants learn verbs first.

Hmm.  Do verbs play a different role in Mandarin from the one they play in English?

Yeah, he said, it’s a more verb-centric language. 

How so?

In Mandarin, you don’t have to always state the noun; it can be implied in the verb.
So we continued with the human-nature-or-not debate.

But I walked away without asking the big question: Why study this at all?

I didn’t ask because I knew the answer. 

Scientists study this because it’s there to be studied. It’s part of the world we live in. It’s better to figure out how the world works and why than not.

Why? Because you never know. You never know what any discovery will do, how it might help, what it might be used for, what it might tell you about things you don’t even know you don’t know anything about. 

This is, of course, not to say that all scientific efforts are benign. We discovered radioactivity over a hundred years ago. A half-century later, we discovered that it could be used to kill more people at one fell swoop than anything we’d ever discovered, leading the Manhattan Project’s J. Robert Oppenheimer to quote from the Bhagavad Gita on watching the first atomic explosion, saying “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” A decade or so later, we started to use it to produce power. In relatively short order, we discovered that producing power like this came with big downsides called Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. 

So, Steve and his buddies got to work.

Or, to use another example, while we’re all benefiting—often without even realizing it—from the computer-based safety features that come with our automobiles, with the algorithms that allow me to find out the dates of Francis Bacon’s life with a few keystrokes, with all the pre-artificial-intelligence-like activities that so much of the modern world relies on, there’s Mr. Physics himself, Stephen Hawking, warning us about the likely downsides of this kind of research.

Speaking to the Times of London, this long-time supporter of artificial intelligence research suggests that the only way to protect ourselves from what the headline refers to as a “robot uprising” if we’re not careful with where we take the research—and where it takes us—may be world government. He explains that “We need to be quicker to identify such threats and act before they get out of control…. [But] this might mean some form of world government..., [which, however,] might become a tyranny.”

Science. 

It’s given us anti-biotics, which have … enabled? caused? forced? … the evolution of superbugs for which there is no cure. It’s given us treatments that allow us to live longer and longer, though some of us live out those last years essentially quarantined in institutions, or in demented states. 

And so on.

To say nothing of the periodic revelation of scientists who have faked their research for personal or professional reasons. To say nothing of the findings—like those that told us to switch from butter to margarine—that further research indicates were incorrect—like those telling us that the kind of saturated fats found in margarine actually do more harm than the animal fats that come with butter; to say nothing of the debates over extremes like vegan diets versus paleo-diets.

And then there’s the fact that science just isn’t as sexy as what most religions have to offer. Here’s what Stephen Dunn has to say about sending his daughter to summer camp at the Smithville Methodist Church:

Then we took our seats in the church and the children sang a song about the Ark, and Hallelujah and one in which they had to jump up and down for Jesus. I can't remember ever feeling so uncertain about what's comic, what's serious. 

Evolution is magical but devoid of heroes. You can't say to your child "Evolution loves you." The story stinks of extinction and nothing exciting happens for centuries. I didn't have a wonderful story for my child and she was beaming. All the way home in the car she sang the songs, 
occasionally standing up for Jesus. There was nothing to do but drive, ride it out, sing along in silence. 

That’s it. There’s science at its bare-bones most basic. “Evolution stinks of extinction and nothing exciting happens for centuries.” 

That’s it. A far cry from an all-powerful God creating this and that out of nothing, just because he wants to, or Sumerian gods or Hindu gods or Aztec gods battling it out for this or that, taking sides with us or them. With suffering that has meaning, with death that offers fulfillment, with big questions that some being actually knows the answers to.

None of the magic and drama. None of the clarity and certainty. None of the purpose and direction. 

Science doesn’t offer us this.

But it does offer the possibility of, eventually, helping us understand what’s really going on. Not why—there’s probably no answer for that—but what, and how, and for how long, and where.
These are really troubling times to live in, with politics all around the world twisting and turning toward inwardness and hatred and violence, with overall climates and specific weather patterns clearly taking new and probably troublesome tacks, with species disappearing while new microbes invent themselves in ways that may make us sicker than those that we’ve conquered.
Through it all, though, I periodically come upon amazing comfort. 

This may come from reading things like what Alexander von Humboldt had to say to the poet Goethe as he began to understand in the early 1800s how amazingly complex nature was, when he wrote, “Nature must be experienced through feeling. Those who want to describe the world by simply classifying plants, animals and rocks will never get close to it.”

Or reading what ethnologist Pierre Clastre discovered about the place of war in primitive societies from his years of research in the Amazon basin. 

Or from watching a NASA video about the seven earth-like planets orbiting a dwarf star at the center of the Trappist One system that a telescope in Chile recently discovered.

Or listening to the young woman at the Brain Fair describing what she’s finding about how babies learn language. Or listening to my friend Steve talking about his hopes that eventually the problem he spent a quarter of a century researching will eventually bear fruit.

I read or watch or hear any of these things and I’m comforted, exhilarated,  that people like this are here, that they exist, that they’re trying to figure out what’s going on, how it works, what it might have to tell us.

No, it’s not as comforting as the idea that some deity cares about me.

But it tells me that there are people who understand that it’s up to us to figure it all out, and who’re willing to dedicate their lives to the endeavor.

Science is no religion, and these people are no saints.

But they may be as close as we can get.

 

 
 


 

In Praise of Diversity

Kevin M. Carson
A Sermon Given at the First Universalist Parish in Chester, Vermont, April 23, 2017

Our Unitarian Universalist faith is a celebration of diverse beliefs, and this is one of our great strengths in an increasingly diverse world. 

If you log into Facebook, or open your email, or even turn on the television these days, it is clear that America is a land divided.  And though the focus has been on politics in the last few months, it is not just a matter of Democrats versus Republicans, or whether we are “pro-Trump” or “anti-Trump.”  We are divided by opinions on race and gender equality, and whether or not our religion really does require us to feed the hungry and welcome the stranger.  We are divided by an economic system that has created huge inequality between the “haves” and the “have nots,” and we disagree on who or what is to blame, and what we should do to fix this problem – even if it needs fixing at all.  We look around and try to discern who is friend and who is foe.  We align ourselves with camps of like-minded folks on issues like immigration and climate change, and too often we are unwilling to even listen to differing points of view.  For some people, even objective facts seem to be open to dispute these days, if the so-called “facts” disagree with their preconceptions about the way things “really are.”  There are many boxes into which each of us can be neatly categorized and sorted, and we can choose to live isolated lives among our own kind, all the while suspicious of “the other” who is not like us.  Our national motto, E Pluribus, Unum, “out of many, one,” seems impossibly naïve, a relic from a more optimistic time.  Indeed, we are plagued with divisiveness, perhaps the most we have seen in our country since the Civil War.  

There is a difference between divisiveness and diversity, but far too often, because of our distrust of “the other” in whatever form he or she may take, we allow our differences to create barriers where none should exist.  In our worst moments, our biases can erupt in open hostility and even violence.  This is very troubling, because it is a simple fact that America is becoming an increasingly diverse country in many ways.  The percentage of our population who are non-white continues to increase every year, across almost every ethnic minority, and sometime within the next few decades, America will soon become a minority-majority nation.  According to the most recent census statistics, 50.2 percent of children under the age of 5 are now minorities.  As this new generation ages, it is inevitable that the shift to a minority-majority nation will become the new normal.  This ethnic diversification will bring with it new challenges for communities that experience different cultures and languages, in many cases, for the first time.  

Religious affiliation is also shifting, with the fastest growing identity group being the so-called “nones” – that is, those who are either not religious at all, or those who say they are “spiritual but not religious.”  While America is still predominantly Protestant, there are sharp declines in membership in almost every Protestant denomination, and even small denominations like ours are either in decline, or see little or no growth, despite a growing overall population.  As Robert P. Jones says in his book, The End of White Christian America, “for most of the twentieth century, in White Christian America the terms ‘Christian’ and ‘Protestant’ were virtually synonymous.”  This is no longer the case.  Roman Catholics are experiencing shrinking numbers as well, and it is evidenced by the frequent local news reports of parish closings in mostly Catholic communities across New England.  Meanwhile, the number of people who belong to minority religious groups continues to increase with the increase in our diverse population. Religion in America today is not what it used to be fifty years ago, and the march toward a more secular and religiously pluralistic society is likely to continue for many years to come. There will always be those of us drawn to traditional religions and spiritual searching, but we are entering unexplored territory in the American religious landscape.  

We Unitarian Universalists embraced religious pluralism a long time ago, so if we play our cards right, I suggest we could experience a remarkable period of growth in the next few decades.  Many of the issues that mainstream Christian denominations are struggling with today are issues our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors debated and settled over a century ago.  In the early 1800s, ministers and other educated people began to learn about Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and other world religions and many of them appreciated the diverse wisdom these spiritual traditions expressed.  New England Transcendentalists were drawn to Eastern philosophy that emphasized the unity of all things.  Around the same time, advances in science, and especially Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, bolstered a nascent Humanism that has become the dominant theological identity in our movement.  By the late 1800s, we were already having debates about whether Unitarianism or Universalism was still a “Christian” faith.  And although the Universalists tended to see themselves more Christian perhaps, the very theological foundation of the faith left the path to religious pluralism wide open.  Universalism was founded on the idea of universal salvation, that all souls – even all of Creation – would be “saved” or reconciled with God in the end. There was no eternal hellfire that awaited even the most despicable among us.  Jesus was still considered the agent of salvation by most Universalists, but, unlike most of their Christian neighbors, Universalists did not require that one “believed” in Jesus Christ as the Savior in order to be saved.  When you take such an inclusive position about salvation, what does this mean for those with very different religious beliefs and practices?  The tent of our faith suddenly became much larger.  We would need a few more seats at the welcome table. 

Our spiritual ancestors were quick to recognize what Thomas Berry described as the “futility of exclusivism” among religious traditions.  We have continued to expand our inclusive faith, and we have opened our doors and hearts to anyone who wants to join us on the journey, as long as they are willing to abide by our values and principles.  These days, many Unitarian Universalists identify as Buddhist or Pagan, in addition the Christians, Jews, and Humanists we have long included in our ranks.  We are devout believers in God, and we are also atheists and agnostics, and everywhere in between.  We are mystics and Religious Naturalists, and we seekers who have trouble even articulating what we believe.  Sometimes you hear someone say, “You can believe anything you want and be a UU,” but that is only partially true.  You can believe almost anything you want as long as it does not demean or diminish the dignity and rights of others.  It would be hard to be a bigot or a fundamentalist of any faith and feel welcome in one of our congregations for very long.  We celebrate diversity in mutuality.  Our faith communities are joined in a covenantal relationship of love and respect.

After traveling around America in the 1830’s, the French diplomat and historian Alexis de Tocqueville famously described America as a “Great Experiment.”  Our young republic was something new in the global politics of the day, a nation where the government represented the consent and will of the people.  It was a democracy where, ideally at least, diverse voices and beliefs could be heard and debated to find common ground, and to promote the common good.  We were not perfect of course, and de Tocqueville rightly criticized the practice of slavery in America as contrary to our professed love of liberty and equality, and then as now, it was largely white male voices that enjoyed a privileged position in the political dialogue. But despite our imperfections, it was a glorious, if messy, experiment based on the idea that a diverse people could create a better world in voluntary community.

I believe our Unitarian Universalist faith is a similar “Great Experiment” in religious diversity.  In the decades since the 1961 merger of our parent denominations into the Unitarian Universalist Association, we have established a framework of Seven Principles, through a grassroots democratic process, to guide our diverse spiritual journey.  Our Principles are not dogma or doctrine like you see in most religious traditions; rather, they are a statement of shared values for how we join together in worship, and in the exploration of the sacred and the meaning of life. Personally, I would like to see the language of our Principles changed to reflect a more spiritual tone, but they are reasonably good as they are.  If you have ever experienced the process of wordsmithing a document by committee, you can appreciate the fact that we ever agreed on the language at all!  

Some of you may not know the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism by heart, or it may have been a while, so let me read them to you.

We affirm and promote:

  1. The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  2. Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  3. Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  4. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  5. The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  6. The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  7. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

It is true that we sometimes fail to live up to the principles we claim to embrace, but we try very hard.  Though I have mixed feelings about the recent controversy about white privilege in our denomination, and the resulting resignations of several denominational leaders, I think it reflects how seriously we take our Principles.  Sometimes, I fear we can be too critical of ourselves as a faith.  If anyone would like to talk more about what has transpired in the last few weeks, please feel free to talk to me about it after our worship service during the coffee hour.

I only wish more Americans would find their way to one of our congregations.  There are so many people who are hurting in the world and thirst for the kind of open and inclusive spirituality that we offer.  Our religious diversity is inherently welcoming.  Because we have embraced a universal understanding of the human story, we have often found ourselves in the vanguard of social justice movements from abolition, to women’s suffrage, to marriage equality.  Both the Unitarians and the Universalists were among the first denominations to ordain female clergy, and we are leading the way by far on the ordination of LGBT clergy today.  We have added many diverse voices to our faith story.  As any ecologist will tell you about ecosystems, there is strength and richness in diversity that is greater than the sum of its parts, and I think the same is true of religious movements.  We are simply better together when we share our unique insights and perspectives.  

Over the last few years, I have preached at fourteen UU congregations around New England, and I am always interested to see the art and symbolic altar objects in each congregation.  Most of our churches have very little art or religious symbols other than a familiar chalice, but some have a wonderful collection of religious symbols representing the diversity of the world’s faith traditions.  At St. Paul’s UU Church in Palmer, for example, the altar includes a cross, a menorah, a Buddha, a dancing depiction of the Hindu god Shiva, and a wild turkey feather.  I particularly like the turkey feather because it reminds me not only of our connection to the natural world, but also the spiritual wisdom of Native Americans.  The wild turkey is such a majestic bird, and it is a fitting symbol of the spirit of the American wilderness.  And especially in the last few months since the election, you often see a rainbow flag displayed prominently inside or outside of our churches. We proudly acknowledge both our religious and cultural diversity, and I think it is very important in today’s unfortunate political climate.

The message these religious symbols convey to me is that we have a deep Christian heritage, but we find inspiration from many other sources.  We value diversity in others, and take seriously the admonitions of Jesus, who said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:39), and that, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places” (John 14:2).  We recognize the holy that dwells in the hearts of the whole human family, and that no single religion has a lock on the truth.  As it says in the Qur’an, “People, We have created you all male and female and have made you nations and tribes so that you would recognize each other.” (Surah al-Hujurat 49:13)

Thomas Berry said of the world’s faith traditions that, “None can be fully itself without the others.”  I think this also applies to the people who make up our diverse faith communities.  None of us is fully our self without the others who join us in the search for truth and meaning.  We complete each other.  Pluralism is not always easy, and sometimes, we may lock horns about the truth and meaning we have embraced along the way.  But as I said earlier, there is a difference between diversity and divisiveness. Let us try our best to keep that in mind.

There is a wonderful saying that is usually attributed to the famous Transylvanian Unitarian Frances David, who lived in the 16th century, but the true origins are uncertain.  It goes, “We need not all think alike to love alike.”  It is a message that encapsulates our faith like no other I know.  It is a message that America could surely use these days.  As Americans awake to the virtues and challenges that come with greater diversity, perhaps the time has come for our Unitarian Universalist faith to finally become that “city upon a hill” of which our Puritan ancestors dreamt, and show the world what beloved diverse communities look like.

Opening Words

“Pied Beauty” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

GLORY be to God for dappled things—

  For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

    For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

  Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;

    And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

 

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

  Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

    With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

                  Praise him.

Reading from “The Cathedral of the World” by Forrest Church

“Welcome to the cathedral of the world.

Above all else, contemplate the windows. In the cathedral of the world there are windows without number, some long forgotten, covered with many patinas of dust, others revered by millions, the most sacred of shrines. Each in its own way is beautiful. Some are abstract, others representational; some dark and meditative, others bright and dazzling. Each tells a story about the creation of the world, the meaning of history, the purpose of life, the nature of humankind, the mystery of death. The windows of the cathedral are where the light shines in.

As with all extended metaphors, this one is imperfect. The light of God ("God" is not God's name, but our name for that which is greater than all and yet present in each) not only shines down upon us, but also out from within us. Together with the windows, the darkness and the light, we are part of the cathedral, not apart from it. Together we comprise an interdependent web of being; if the cathedral is built out of star stuff, so are we. But we are that part (that known part) that contemplates the meaning of the whole. Because the cathedral is so vast, our time so short, and our vision so dim, we are able to contemplate only a tiny part of the cathedral, explore a few apses, reflect upon the play of darkness and light through a few of its windows. Yet, since the whole—holographically or organically—is contained in each of the parts, as we ponder and act upon the insight from our ruminations, we may discover meanings that give coherence and meaning both to it and to us.

This is Universalism.”

Reading from “Religions of India” by Thomas Berry

“In every phase of life, in the intellectual, artistic, and spiritual aspects of life, the total human past is now the past of each people and each individual person. We do not live only in the West or even primarily in the West; we live in the world, the total world of humans. The achievements of India and China are now available to us and form part of our own heritage, as do the cultures of Japan and Persia and Africa. This is the period of the worldwide expansion of the mind in all areas of life. The global spiritual past is the only adequate context for present understanding of humans even though this effort at universal awareness is thwarted by exclusivist attitudes that still exist in the world. Even now, however, the futility of such exclusivism is widely recognized. All live currents of thought seek to encompass the full dimensions of humankind. 

Within this larger world of humankind, the multiple spiritual and humanist traditions implicate each other, complete each other, and evoke from each other higher developments of which each is capable. These traditions implicate each other, for each has a universal mission to humankind. Each is panhuman in its significance. None can be fully itself without the others. Each has a distinctive contribution to make to human development that can only be made by itself. Each must therefore be kept distinctive even as it reaches a universal diffusion among humans. For any tradition to withhold itself from the other societies of humankind or for any to exclude the other traditions is to vitiate and stultify its own tradition and development, to condemn itself to sterile isolation from the only forces that can give it life and creativity. All human traditions are dimensions of each other.”

Thomas Berry, Religions of India, 193–94

Freeze-Dried Religion

by Kevin M. Carson
A Sermon Given at First Universalist Parish in Chester, Vermont, March 26, 2017

The intensely personal mystical experience of religion

In our Unitarian Universalist Association, the long process of ministerial formation leads to what we call “fellowship.”  After completing a Master of Divinity degree and an internship at a congregation and some other requirements, you eventually have an interview with the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, where they ask you lots of questions to see if you are ready to be a minister.  Each candidate submits about an eighty-page packet of materials to the committee before the interview, and among the required materials are a number of short essays on specific topics.  One of the short essays I had to write was a response to the question: “What is the theological context of your call to Unitarian Universalist ministry?”  In other words, how would you describe your personal theology, and why do you feel called to ministry?  With the diversity of beliefs within our liberal religious movement, I imagine the committee receives a wide range of responses to this question.  Some UU ministerial candidates identify strongly with a single spiritual tradition – Christian, Buddhist, or Pagan for example – but most of us are more like the majority of the folks in our pews on Sunday morning.  For most of us, our initial answer to that question would probably be: “It’s complicated.”  As seekers on a lifelong spiritual journey of discovery, it is hard to label or categorize the many influences we have encountered on the way.  You probably wouldn’t be sitting here in a Unitarian Universalist church if you didn’t have ongoing questions, and very few easy answers, as to what life is all about. 

But of course, a ministerial candidate can’t get away with simply saying, “It’s complicated.”  After all, if you have completed all the work to prepare for ministry, you really should have a better understanding of your own theology before you are unleashed on the world.  In my “theological context” essay, I described how I really have three theological contexts that I draw on depending on the situation or question. One is Religious Naturalism, which reflects my understanding of the science behind the cosmos, and how we human beings evolved from this Earth and remain part of her.  Another is Christian Humanism, which is how I describe the source of my ethical and moral foundation – firmly rooted in the teachings of Jesus and the idea of building the kingdom of God on Earth. My third context is Mysticism, and I will speak much more on this in a moment.  I will probably explore this idea of multiple “religious identities” some Sunday in the future, but the reason I am telling you about this today is that, in my essay, I went on to say that, if I had to choose only one answer to this question it would have to be mysticism.

So, what do I mean by mysticism?  It is an intriguing word that seems to imply something magical or even occult.  Perhaps you think I fancy myself to be some sort of wizard.  The truth is far more mundane I’m afraid, but there is an undeniable sense of something sacred and spiritual in my use of the word.  The Oxford Dictionary offers two definitions for mysticism:

Belief that union with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute, or the spiritual apprehension of knowledge inaccessible to the intellect, may be attained through contemplation and self-surrender.

Belief characterized by self-delusion or dreamy confusion of thought, especially when based on the assumption of occult qualities or mysterious agencies.

I don’t believe either of these definitions is sufficient, or really describes my use of the word in broad enough terms, but I can appreciate the conundrum the authors faced in trying to pin down a definition.  Any talk of mysticism eventually bumps into the limits of language and begins to sound vaguely mysterious – you may end up wandering in that “dreamy confusion of thought” the Oxford folks warned us about.  You reach a point when, for example, the ancient author of the Taoist sacred text, the Tao Te Ching, says something like, “The Tao that can be spoken of is not the true Tao.”  Mysticism is ultimately about intuitive understanding, when words fail to convey what can only be experienced.  I think the two important characteristics of mysticism these definitions are trying to capture are: a sense of “union [or unity] with the absolute,” and the relationship between “self-delusion” and “self-surrender.”  So, having admitted that words are insufficient for revealing the heart of mysticism, and can even be a barrier to a deeper understanding, let me risk continuing on with my sermon.

I choose to embrace the label mysticism as my primary “theological context” because it reflects my experience of a sacred creative unity that pervades everything around us, and I am comfortable naming that sacred unity “God.”  More often, I prefer to call this reality the “Sacred Mystery,” since it acknowledges how little we can say about the sacred with any certainty.  Every part and particle, and every moment of the cosmos, reveals the reality of the “interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part” that we lift up in our Seventh Principle, and it is good and holy.  Since I imagine everything that is, or was, or is yet to be, as held within this sacred unity, it makes more sense for me to talk about other aspects of my theological identity – which are more focused on the secular world – as secondary.  To call myself a mystic also reflects my understanding of that first spiritual source we draw upon in our Unitarian Universalist tradition: “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.” I am convinced that we can and do have direct experiences of that transcending mystery, if only in glimpses, perhaps during prayer or from the awe and wonder we encounter in nature, or at other times when we are most aware of our full humanity.   

When I come to Chester to preach, I usually travel on Saturday and spend the night, but sometimes I drive up early on Sunday morning.  One Sunday morning last March, just over a year ago, as I was driving up, I was listening to the program On Being on WGBH, and the guest was Rabbi Lawrence Kushner.  The program was a rebroadcast of a 2014 interview by the host Krista Tippett, and the topic of the program was “Kabbalah and the Inner Life of God.”  Rabbi Kushner is a Reform rabbi, and a long-time student of the Jewish mystic tradition of Kabbalah, in the lineage of his late teacher Rabi Gershom Scholem.  Scholem is credited with revitalizing interest in Kabbalah in the twentieth century.  There are many varieties of Kabbalah that range from a practical focus on ethics to the very esoteric.  Some forms are centered on contemplation, for example, while others search for coded messages contained in the text of the Torah.  There are some forms that have a doctrine of reincarnation, and others that focus on the feminine aspect of the divine.  It is hard to generalize about the practices or beliefs of the Kabbalah tradition, but at its heart, Kabbalah is a search for understanding the relationship between the created world and the mysterious, infinite divine.  In Kabbalah, all being is rooted in the Ein Sof, the Holy Oneness of Creation.

About half-way through the interview, Kushner was attempting to articulate the nature of mysticism, and here is how he described it:

“It’s a handful of smoke. Yeah, it’s real hard to talk about. But it’s the most important thing to talk about. My suspicion is, and I don’t know who … said that ‘whatever it is that makes religion religion, mysticism has more of it.’ It seems to be freeze-dried, it seems to be intensified, focused. It’s the name of the game. It’s the very center of what we are talking about. Because, to be sure, mysticism is intensely personal, and that’s what it always winds up doing for people.”

I love Kushner’s analogy of mysticism as an intensified, “freeze-dried” experience of religion.  If you have ever eaten a freeze-dried strawberry, and tasted the explosion of flavor, you can appreciate what he was trying to say.  In terms of religious experience, it is the difference between a Sunday morning worship service – even a great one – and a moment of real epiphany, a moment when you feel an overwhelming sense of unity with the world, or the undeniable presence of something holy.  It is in such moments that the delusion of a duality between our notion of being an individual “self” that is something apart from the sacred unity is shattered.  This is the surrender of “self” to “no-self” that so many spiritual traditions have discovered in their more mystic forms.  It is the emptiness sought in Buddhist contemplative practices, and the experience of divine union and the Christ Consciousness for Jewish and Christian mystics.  For the Religious Naturalist, it is the recognition of our “ecological self” – the recognition that our own “being” extends beyond our physical bodies in an inseparable relationship with the Earth’s living systems, and even the inorganic processes that sustain life.

I believe that small mystical moments abound in our lives.  They need not be profound experiences that forever alter your path in life, but they might be.  Small mystical moments may present themselves in the most ordinary situations.  We just need to learn how to recognize them.  In his classic work, The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James identified four characteristics of a mystical experience.  First of all, it is transient and unpredictable.  You cannot summon a mystical moment by force of will; they come and go as they please.  The second characteristic is that you are the passive recipient of such moments.  A mystical moment takes you by surprise.  As Rabi Kushner says, “You don’t have the experience, it has you.” The third characteristic James identified is that there is an intellectual component to the experience.  It has what he called “a noetic quality” that leaves one with a flash of insight, revelation, or illumination.  But sharing this insight is problematic, because the fourth characteristic returns us to the familiar conundrum: a mystical experience is ineffable – words fail to fully describe the experience.  Try as we might, it is impossible to fit a mystical experience into a purely rational container, and this is why we need a religion that allows us to explore the meaning and the sheer mystery of the sacred moments we encounter.  Rationalism is not enough.

We Unitarian Universalists are such a diverse lot that I am wary of generalizing about the spirituality of Unitarian Universalism, but I believe it is fair to say that our tradition has a long history of holding reason in tension with the experience of “that transcending mystery and wonder.”  We are guarded and suspicious of feelings that are unprovable, preferring reasonableness in our search for truth and meaning. But, even as we use reason as a tool to probe the mysteries of existence, our exploration often ends in feelings of piety and awe – feelings of wonder that hint at profound spiritual truths.  Reason is important, but we have kept the door open to trusting our intuition, cultivating what the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher called a “sense and taste for the infinite.” Our faith today is a celebration of Transcendentalism and religious individualism, even as we hold on to the great spiritual traditions of the past and explore their wisdom for guidance for living in our own times.  We embrace science and reason and spirituality as complementary aspects of what it means to be fully human, and this is our great strength.  I agree with Rev. Tom Owen-Towle who characterized Unitarian Universalists as“bona fide mystics” because “the substance of our faith points to an ineffable yet undeniable connection with sacrality, both mysterious and sustaining, … [that] our lives are embraced by a mystery that is gracious and trustworthy, and our human fulfillment lies in surrendering to it.”  It is the same sentiment Emerson expressed in the excerpt from The Oversoul which we read together this morning.  Our experience of religion is holistic.  It is intensely personal but at the same time intensely unifying.  

Many people are understandably anxious these days about politics, and the damage that we human beings seem so willing to inflict on our earthly home, but I believe humanity is slowly awakening to a confluence of science and spirituality that can and will change everything.  More and more people are learning the story of how our universe came to be what it is, and there is an undeniable “freeze-dried,” mystical quality to this new understanding as Kushner described.  I hear echoes of Emerson when contemporary scientists wax poetically about nature and the universe, when for example, cosmologist Brian Swimme says, “The deep truth about matter … is that, over the course of four billion years, molten rocks transformed themselves into monarch butterflies, blue herons, and the exalted music of Mozart.”  Friends, if that doesn’t inspire awe and wonder, I can’t imagine what would!  

With our embrace of reason and the importance of the individual experience of religion, I believe our faith is aligned very well with this global awakening.  But in our individualism, we must avoid the pitfall of becoming what Rev. James Luther Adams called a “purely spiritual religion.”  In an essay Adams wrote in 1946, he cautioned that,

 “A purely spiritual religion is a purely spurious religion; it is one that exempts its believer from surrender to the sustaining, transforming reality which demands the community of justice and love.  This sham spirituality, far more than materialism, is the great enemy of religion.”

It may be tempting these days to retreat from the world and simply navel-gaze while the world around us burns with injustice, but to ignore the practical demands of religion would be a great moral failure.  Once we recognize the hidden unity in the world, and our illusion of isolation is shattered, once we see the suffering of others as if it is our own, we are compelled to act to alleviate it.  Or, you could look at from the other direction.  In one on his books, Rabbi Kushner wrote, “A mystic is anyone who has the gnawing suspicion that the apparent discord, brokenness, contradictions, and discontinuities that assault us every day might conceal a hidden unity.” Perhaps it is all of this brokenness and discord that we share as human beings that opens our eyes and instills this “gnawing suspicion” of a hidden unity, and moves us to heal the world.

In this year that has already been fraught with discord, brokenness, contradictions, and plenty of anxiety, it is my wish that all of you allow yourselves the grace of quiet time – time to listen to the still small voice within, time to nurture your inner mystic, time to acknowledge the “gnawing suspicion” of a hidden unity that brings a “peace which passeth all understanding.”

References

Krista Tippet interview with Rabi Lawrence Kushner from 2014, “Kabbalah and the Inner Life of God,” rebroadcast on the WGBH program “On Being,” March 10, 2016, transcript available online.

Brian Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker, Journey of the Universe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014).

James Luther Adams, A Faith for Free Men (1946).

Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers (1799).

Hymns

#42 “Morning, So Fair to See”

#123 "Spirit of Life"

#92 “Mysterious Presence, Source of All”

#298 “Wake, Now, My Senses”

Opening Words from the poem “Tintern Abbey” by William Wordsworth

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;

A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world

Of eye, and ear, -- both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognise
In nature and the language of the sense,
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.

Responsive Reading

#531 “The Oversoul”

Readings

“A Common Destiny” by David H. Eaton

All living substance, all substance of Energy,

 and Being, 

and Purpose, 

are united and share the same destiny.

 

All people, 

those we love and those we know not of 

are united and share the same destiny.

 

Birth-to-Death

this unity we share with

    the Sun,

    Earth

    our Brothers and Sisters,

Strangers

Flowers of the field,

Snowflakes

Volcanoes and Moon Beams.

 

Birth—Life – Death

Unknown – Known – Unknown

Our Destiny: from Unknown to Unknown.

 

I pray that we will know the Awe

    and not fall into the pit of intellectual arrogance

    in attempting to explain it away.

The Mystery can be our substance.

May we have the faith to accept this wonderful Mystery

    and build upon its everlasting Truth.

“hymn to the sacred body of the universe” by Drew Dellinger

Let’s meet
at the confluence
where you flow into me
and one breath
swirls between our lungs

Let’s meet
at the confluence
where you flow into me
and one breath
swirls between our lungs

For one instant
to dwell in the presence of the galaxies
for one instant
to live in the truth of the heart
the poet says this entire traveling cosmos is
“the secret One slowly growing a body”

Two eagles are mating—
clasping each other’s claws
and turning cartwheels in the sky
grasses are blooming
grandfathers dying
consciousness blinking on and off
all of this is happening at once
all of this, vibrating into existence
out of nothingness

Every particle
foaming into existence
transcribing the ineffable

Arising and passing away
arising and passing away
23 trillion times per second—
when Buddha saw that,
he smiled

16 million tons of rain are falling every second
on the planet
an ocean
perpetually falling
and every drop
is your body
every motion, every feather, every thought
is your body
time
is your body,
and the infinite
curled inside like
invisible rainbows folded into light

Every word of every tongue is love
telling a story to her own ears

Let our lives be incense
burning
like a hymn to the sacred
body of the universe
my religion is rain
my religion is stone
my religion reveals itself to me in
sweaty epiphanies

Every leaf, every river,
every animal,
your body
every creature trapped in the gears
of corporate nightmares
every species made extinct
was once
your body

10 million people are dreaming
that they’re flying
junipers and violets are blossoming
stars exploding and being born
god
is having
déjà vu
I am one
elaborate
crush
we cry petals
as the void
is singing

You are the dark
that holds the stars
in intimate
distance

That spun the whirling,
whirling,
world
into existence

Let’s meet
at the confluence
where you flow into me
and one breath
swirls between our lungs.