“Constituents in the Heart of an Emergent God” | Kevin Carson

A sermon given at the First Universalist Parish in Chester, Vermont, June 10, 2018

Science has come a long way since Jonathan Edwards preached his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” in Enfield, Connecticut in 1741.  Theology has come a long way too, though you wouldn’t know it in most American churches on Sunday morning.  In this follow up to my sermon, “The Double Dark Night of the Soul,” we will explore some of the exciting ideas about “God” that modern science and theology reveals.

In Medieval Europe, theology was considered a “science” because it concerned not only God but the physical world we live in.  In fact, theology was called “the queen of the sciences.” While some medieval scholars explored questions in areas of what we now call the natural sciences, the overarching standard of “truth” belonged to the accepted orthodox Christian theology of the day.  If your “science” conflicted with accepted theological “truth,” then your findings were obviously wrong.  If you had a different opinion about that, well … that could be very dangerous. You might easily find yourself tied to a burning stake like a number of our theological ancestors.  When I was in Rome a couple of weeks ago I saw a statue commemorating the philosopher Giordano Bruno, for example.  He was held prisoner in the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome for three years and then burned as a heretic by the Inquisition in the year 1600.  His “crime,” in the eyes of the Church, was supporting the Copernican model of the solar system and a form of Unitarian theology. We owe a lot to brave individuals like Giordano Bruno who continued to advance the evolution of both science and theology through even the darkest times.  And though fundamentalism in a variety of forms continues to plague the human family, the world has generally grown more tolerant of diverse religious views, and so today we see an incredible smorgasbord of beliefs and practices.  

The story of our Unitarian Universalist faith lies mostly in the Western Christian lineage, but you can see a similar evolution of ideas among other great religious traditions.  Change is inevitable, because human beings learn and explore.  Despite what we might claim about our personal beliefs, or even the most cherished doctrines of the church, new ideas come along from science and philosophy and the old thinking simply must adjust.  And when it comes to ideas about topics like God, or the afterlife, if we are honest, we have to admit that all theology is at its core speculation.  Theologians can only speculate about the nature of the sacred and make reasoned arguments to support their propositions.  Theology is not something that can be proven by logic or experimental evidence.  We don’t even think of theology as a “science” anymore, because it cannot be tested by the scientific method, but that doesn’t mean there are no theological truths that stand the test of time.  Theology changes when old assumptions are challenged and we discard ideas that no longer make sense.  It is a healthy process, though it can be painful to abandon the old as we struggle to embrace the new.  Sometimes old beliefs don’t go quietly, and wars have even been fought over competing religious ideas.
As religious liberals, we are more willing to explore new ideas and take theological risks, and historically we certainly have.  For our ministers, this has sometimes come at great personal and professional risk.  We claim to respect the freedom of the pulpit, but we too have a long history of ministers who found themselves preaching too far outside of the mainstream, and it seldom ended well.  Even someone as exalted as Emerson ruffled quite a few feathers among the Unitarian establishment when he spoke of revitalizing religion by tapping into the lived experience of nature and the divine.  It is really no surprise that after seminary, he left the ministry after less than three years.  

On the Universalist side of our family tree, the “good news” of universal salvation was central to the preaching you would hear on just about any given Sunday in Universalist churches like this one, usually backed up by dozens of biblical citations to “prove” its theological correctness.  

But, sometimes even the idea that everyone was worthy of God’s love and salvation was too much to tolerate.  According to one legendary story, once, when Rev. John Murray was preaching in Boston in the late 1700s, one of his opponents threw a large rock through a window, narrowly missing his head.  Without hesitation, Murray picked up the rock and said, “This argument is solid and weighty, but it is neither rational nor convincing.”  Then, laying the rock aside, he announced, “Not all the stones in Boston, except they stop my breath, shall shut my mouth.”

These days, it is uncommon to hear much real theology preached on Sunday mornings even in liberal churches, and I think that is unfortunate.  It is easier, and honestly safer, for many of us, to simply revisit familiar themes that speak to the human condition within a comfortable context and language, without pushing the theological envelope even a little.  We may not fear being beaned in the head by a rock or burned at the stake anymore, but in some religious circles, especially in more conservative churches, uttering anything too controversial can still be quite risky.  Also, I think many ministers shy away from the best theology they study in seminary and beyond because it is complex and challenging.  It is admittedly hard to preach on very complex topics without feeling you are only scratching the surface.  Good theological conversations can last many hours, and if you get an opportunity to really explore such topics within a congregation, you will find we have all kinds of interesting ideas to consider. Unfortunately, most people are limited to what they hear on Sunday morning, and there are many other subjects that rightfully compete with theology for attention in worship.  Deep theological musings week after week would also become overbearing.  Sometimes, when we come to church, we just need to be comforted and “lay our burdens down.” But, if our faith hopes to remain relevant and vital going forward, I do think we need to make time for more theological exploration in our pulpits.  Our faith, after all, is a journey of discovery, and Sunday morning is the best chance most people have.  

I hope that most of you were here in November for my sermon, “The Double Dark Night of the Soul,” when I talked about how our theological thinking must adjust to the reality of a universe full of dark matter and energy that is proving to be more bizarre and mysterious that we might have imagined.  This is the follow up I promised, that was unfortunately delayed quite a bit by events in my personal life. But if you missed the first one, or if it’s been too long to remember what I said last fall, it’s okay.  What I want to explore in the rest of my sermon today is one possible answer to the question I asked in the earlier sermon: where might “God” exist in a universe than is mostly invisible, constantly evolving, and still very mysterious to the one form of intelligent life on Earth that has emerged with the capacity to even ask such a question?
So, let’s begin by considering where God is not.  If you read the blurb about today’s service, I mentioned that the title of my sermon today is intended as an homage to the famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” that Jonathan Edwards preached in Enfield, Connecticut in 1741.  That sermon is considered to be one of the exemplary works of religious thinking during the so-called Great Awakening period in America, and it is filled with images of the horrors of hellfire and damnation that await those who are not saved.  It was literally a sermon that intended to scare the hell out of everyone, so they would repent and turn to Christ for salvation.  As an example of his imagery, Edwards famously compares humanity dangling over the pit of hell to a spider dangling by a web over a fire.  The only thing keeping our depraved, sinful selves out of the well-deserved enteral fires of hell is the grace of God – and God is very angry with us.  I’m guessing that most of you these days would find such a sermon troubling to say the least.  

Our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors had a lot of trouble with these ideas too, so their theology evolved over the next several decades toward a more benign view of the Almighty, and a more sympathetic understanding of humanity.  They acknowledged that we human beings are capable of great sin, but they also saw that we are inherently capable of great good and worthy of salvation.  But, even so, they still held onto the idea that “God” was something apart from the universe.  He was “out there” somewhere, pushed farther and farther away as our knowledge of the universe expanded.  God increasingly became the “God of the gaps” our second reading described.  Then, after a few more decades of scientific discoveries, Humanism swept through our faith and very nearly pushed the idea of “god” completely out the door.  It seemed like we had to make a choice between having a conventional concept of God or having no god at all, and the debate has remained contentious to this day among Unitarian Universalists.  But what if there is at least a third option?

When I was here in May I talked about Religious Naturalism as the core theology of our faith, and today I want to take a deeper look at one of the many strands of thinking that comes under that general philosophical label.  So, let me begin by unpacking what I mean by the unusual title of today’s sermon: Constituents in the Heart of an Emergent God, and it is probably best to start at the end and work backwards.  

What do I mean by an emergent God?  In general, emergence describes something that comes out of something else.  In this case, I am specifically talking about an idea from the field of Systems Theory that refers to a quality or trait that can only be realized by a system at a certain level of organization.  For example, think about all the layers of complex systems that make up a living creature.  At the lowest levels, there are elementary particles, then atoms, then molecules, then complex molecules like DNA, then cells, then organs, then systems of organs (like the circulatory system), then finally the organism.  At each level of complexity, there are attributes or traits that have no meaning at lower levels, and could never be anticipated by looking up the chain.  We say, for example, that cells and organisms have the quality of “being alive,” but you could never predict the quality of “being alive” by only looking only at the billions of atoms at the lower levels, or even the multitude of chemical reactions between molecules upon which life depends.  So, we can say “being alive” is an emergent quality of a cell or organism.  Another example is the quality of “intelligent behavior,” which is an emergent quality of organisms with complex brains.  These are demonstrably real qualities that are easy to observe and describe, but they only exist within a certain context.  

Now, let’s take this up a level to the level of society. We can talk about something like “market forces” or “culture” or “the media” as if they are real things, but these concepts are emergent, and only exist when there is an underlying society of human beings that enables their existence.  Here again, clearly these concepts are “real” in the context of society, since we can all understand them and give examples, but they make no sense at the level of an individual, and are absurd to speak of at the cellular or atomic layer.

So, back to this idea of an emergent God.  What might that mean?  Nancy Ellen Abrams, who is a philosopher of science and a religious naturalist, explores this idea very nicely in her recent book, A God That Could Be Real.  She begins from this simple proposition: “If we look for God in what is real, the argument about God’s existence is over, and we begin to discover its true nature and relationship to us.”  She then develops the idea of an emergent God using the same kind of arguments about emergent phenomena that I just described.  She writes, “God is endlessly emerging from the staggering complexity of all humanity’s aspirations across time … Each of us is directly connected to the emerging God.”  In other words, an emergent God is a phenomenon that can exist because of human consciousness – and only because of human consciousness.  It may be startling to say out loud, but an emergent God simply could not exist without us, but that doesn’t make God any less real.  Let that sink in a little … an endlessly emerging God that arises from the combined aspirations of humanity, with each of us connected to this sacred creative force.  

Taking it a step further, the idea that “God” emerges from our combined human aspirations is why I say we are “constituents in the heart” of this emergent God. We are constituents because it is through the mutuality of humankind that an emergent God has existence.  We, and everyone who ever lived, or will ever live, are all part of God.  It is an idea that sounds very familiar to Emerson’s description of “that Unity, that Over-Soul, within which every man’s particular being is contained and made one with all other.” It is an ancient idea – as old as the mystic teachings of holy men and women through the ages – and yet, by embracing the concept of emergence from the scientific world, it presents us with an image of God that is both relevant to contemporary theology and consistent with the truths about the universe uncovered by the latest physics and cosmology.  This is important because recent scientific discoveries may very well be able to describe the origins of our strange and wonderful universe, with its mysterious dark energy and matter, without appealing to a creator, and this is one of the last refuges for a “god of the gaps.” For those who find the concept of “God” to be useful and relevant, it may soon be hard to locate God anywhere else with any intellectual integrity.

And if you think this is just Humanism hiding behind some clever use of “god” language, remember that emergent phenomena are real within the right context.  Emergent God theology proposes that such a God is as real and worthy of worship as any other concept of God we might propose.  The important element is that consciousness must exist first, and it is consciousness that allows us to overlay meaning on the events we experience.  As Abrams suggests, you could say, “God did not create the universe.  God created the meaning of the universe.”  It is because of our combined human journey through time that we have values and apply names and meanings to the world of our senses.  You might even say God is the conceptual framework that holds the universe together.

As I warned you earlier, I can only give you a glimpse of the possibilities of Emergent God theology in a Sunday sermon.  If this kind of theology appeals to you, also consider this is just one among many new ideas about God that have been proposed over the last century, as theology tries to reconcile with our growing scientific understanding of the universe.   There are fascinating theological ideas ranging from very complex philosophical frameworks like Process Theology, to thinking of God as the creative force at work in the universe, and even to so-called “non-realist” ideas that God ultimately has no objective reality but is merely a useful mental concept at best.  

Each idea is worthy of exploration, but I find  the idea of an emergent God – humanity’s God that arises from our shared aspirations – a God that brings meaning to the world, is a God I could relate to and celebrate in worship .  An emergent God invites us to retain the language and rituals of our human story while exploring bold new possibilities that are exciting, and sometimes a bit challenging.  That said, I should note that one thing about this I am struggling with is whether we should extend these ideas beyond human consciousness to the differing levels of consciousness present in animals and potentially even in plants.  And for that matter, what about other intelligent life forms that likely exist in this vast universe – or even a multiverse?  Does this imply there is a pantheon of different emergent “gods” spread across time and space? 

Mind blowing isn’t it!  I hope this gives you some good theological thoughts to chew on over the summer.  What we reflect on in Sunday morning worship can present some powerful ideas and implications. I am reminded of a great quote about Sunday worship, from the author Annie Dillard, who said, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.”

So, I say to you this morning, let us be bold in our theological journey!  It’s how we roll as Unitarian Universalists, and it’s why we have communities like this one to support us in our explorations.  Each of us must examine new ideas to see what might be a good spiritual fit, and this often changes over time.  I hope sermons like this one will help stimulate your imaginations.


Opening Words

“Where Does the Temple Begin, Where Does It End?” by Mary Oliver

Where Does the Temple Begin, Where Does It End?
There are things you can’t reach. But you can reach out to them, and all day long.
The wind, the bird flying away. The idea of God.
And it can keep you as busy as anything else, and happier.
The snake slides away; the fish jumps, like a little lily, out of the water and back in; the goldfinches singfrom the unreachable top of the tree.
I look; morning to night I am never done with looking.
Looking I mean not just standing around, but standing aroundas though with your arms open.
And thinking: maybe something will come, someshining coil of wind, or a few leaves from any old tree – they are all in this too.
And now I will tell you the truth. Everything in the worldcomes.
At least, closer.
And, cordially.
Like the nibbling, tinsel-eyed fish; the unlooping snake.Like goldfinches, little dolls of goldfluttering around the corner of the sky
of God, the blue air.

First Reading         

excerpt from The Over-Soul by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1841)

“The Supreme Critic on the errors of the past and the present, and the only prophet of that which must be, is that great nature in which we rest as the earth lies in the soft arms of the atmosphere; that Unity, that Over-Soul, within which every man’s particular being is contained and made one with all other; that common heart of which all sincere conversation is the worship, to which all right action is submission; that overpowering reality which confutes our tricks and talents, and constrains every one to pass for what he is, and so to speak from his character and not from his tongue, and which evermore tends to pass into our thought and hand and become wisdom and virtue and power and beauty.  We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles.  Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty; to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE.”
Second Reading    excerpt from Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s Foreword in A God That Could Be Real by Nancy Ellen Abrams
“For centuries we have been stuck in a futile battle between believers and atheists, with each lampooning and denouncing each other’s beliefs.  It is my hope that [… we can enjoy] a new revival of true cultural dialogue, debate, and exploration.  We must move beyond the polemics and polarization that have come to characterize so much scientific-religious and interfaith discourse in our time.
The God that I worship is not one that sits in Heaven, apprehensively worrying that humanity will discover his (or her) secrets.  No, not at all.  The God that I believe in commands us to love God with all our mind and wants us to keep learning and discovering and exploring every inch or millimeter (or nanometer) of creation.  Over time, we graduate from more simplistic understandings of God to richer and more complex ones.

Far too often God is a “God of the gaps” – where we fill our lack of knowledge with a belief that there must be a God.  For many centuries, when our understanding of the universe extended just to the planets and heavenly stars, we thought God resided just beyond.  Then as our knowledge of the universe expanded, we have pushed God farther and farther out in space in time.  God must be much more than just a placeholder for what we do not yet know.”

“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

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


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.

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.”


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).


#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”


“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.



this unity we share with

    the Sun,


    our Brothers and Sisters,


Flowers of the field,


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
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
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
is having
déjà vu
I am one
we cry petals
as the void
is singing

You are the dark
that holds the stars
in intimate

That spun the whirling,
into existence

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