Skeptical, Practical, Mystical
Over the last few years I've been retooling my theology some. Over the years I've discarded, or in some cases lost, so much that I once believed in that I realized that the tapestry of my faith was looking a bit threadbare. I needed some new threads to weave in—ones that are both stronger and more colorful than the one's I'd let go. [And isn't that the beauty of Unitarian Universalism, when we see a gap in our faith we have the freedom to go out and seek that which we need and bring it home to share.] A combination of working with a Jungian psychologist, a Catholic priest some of you met recently, Father Bill, becoming an older parent, as well as some reading and meditation led me to realize some specific needs I have for my spirituality. I hope to always have a fluid, evolving spiritual life, but three themes will, I imagine, remain steady. Of my faith, I choose that it be skeptical, practical, and mystical.
Way too many years of the academic study of religion left me with a lot of knowledge about how religion functions sociologically and how all religions morph over time and steal from other traditions. Someone once said, “The less the people know about how sausages and laws are made, the better they sleep at night." I now feel that way about theology. I cannot take religious claims at face value—I know too much about how they're made. And I don't want a religion that flies in the face of basic science or far worse, common sense. I don't require everything about it to be literal, but it cannot simply form a bulwark of denial against reality. Skeptical.
I also want my spirituality to be practical. I have little interest in argument for argument's sake. I love a good philosophical discussion as much as the next fellow, but at the end of the day I want my faith to have a clear, noticeable impact on the quality of my life and world. My faith should encourage me toward wholeness and growth—and moving toward justice in the world. I like author Barbara Kingsolver's take on this, “I've about decided that's the main thing that separates happy people from the other people: the feeling that you're a practical item, with a use, like a sweater or a socket wrench.” Practical.
Finally, and I know this may seem at some odds with my other two qualities, but I do want some sense of the mystical. I define this need for mysticism in two ways. First, to paraphrase David Eckel, a professor of mine at Boston University, mysticism is the experience of union or communion with a larger reality. My spiritual practices have to engender experiences that get me out of the narrow confines of my own ego and make me feel connected to and part of something larger than myself. Second, I also include the meaning of mystic here as “inspiring a sense of mystery, awe, or wonder.” I want a faith that inspires me, surprises me, leaves me staring slack-jawed at the wonder of it all. Too much logic and science makes Nathan a dull boy. My faith needs wonder. Mystical.
And so, having come up with this pithy little triumvirate, I set about trying to see what such an animal would actually look like in the wild. My immediate concern was that this may be an endangered or even extinct species. Does such a thing exist? Everywhere I look I see religions that are mystical, but not practical—too much self-absorbed naval-gazing that doesn't actually move out into the real world of oppression and injustice. Some strains of Christianity suffer from this through an excessive focus on apocalyptic mythologies. Some American Buddhists also suffer from an excess of self-absorption, ironic in a faith that seeks to do away with the ego. Some perspectives offer plenty of skeptical, but no mystical—all head, no heart, no art. Finally, some are too focused on the outer world—lots of marches and occupations but no meditation. I'm not trying to be excessively demanding here, I just need a rational god, if there is one, and well-balanced diet for my soul, if I have one. So I thought, read, lived, and struggled with these questions and challenges looking for another path.
Julia and I love to spend time up in the Salida/Buena Vista area and I happened to pick up a flyer for their yearly lecture series during a weekend trip. Michael Dowd, a pretty well-known name in UU circles, was giving a talk later that summer entitled, “Evolutionize Your Life: How a Meaningful, Science-Based View of Human Nature and the Trajectory of Big History Can Help Each of Us.” That sounded pretty-darn promising. Julia is the plan-maker par excellence, so I asked her to help make sure we were up there for Rev. Dowd's talk. Salida is a little further than I normally go to hear a talk, but I was really struggling with these questions of faith and I had some hope that Dowd's perspective might be helpful. I went, and I was amazed and inspired. How many have heard Michael or his wife, Connie Barlow, speak? I highly recommend them, and I'll just say right now I think we should make a strong effort to bring them in sometime soon.
I haven't the time this morning or the expertise yet to recreate Michael's talk—nor would I want to. That said, a lot of what I'll talk about this morning is directly inspired by his work and I've liberally incorporated his insights. I'd like to speak about just a couple elements of his talk that have touched me and helped me move in the direction of reclaiming an awe-inspiring, consistent, coherent theology. One made me hopeful for a sense of the past, one made me hopeful for the future, one I'm still trying to figure out. I hope you find them as exciting.
One of my favorite bands is Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, and one of my favorite songs of theirs is Joni Mitchel's Woodstock. Twenty-some odd years ago, while lying in a small room in Kuzuha Japan, a friend and I were listening to the song. I opened up the CD case and read the lyrics and were blown away. “We are stardust, we are golden, we are caught in the devil's bargain, and we've got to get ourselves back to the garden.” I loved the metaphorical quality of the lyrics—I had no idea that they weren't all metaphor. The concept that we are stardust is literally true.
You see, one thing I think we can lose in Unitarian Universalism is a sense of place in the Universe—perhaps mostly for those of us who are not theistic or connected through a strong earth-based connection. My friends who are more traditionally religious have this clear sense of a personal god. They have this comforting belief that even amidst the chaos, pain, and suffering that is all but inevitable in a human life, God has a plan and so each individual has a place in the cosmic plan. Matthew 10:29-31 expresses this quite beautifully, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows." I don't know about the sparrows, but it doesn't take much omniscience any more to count the hairs on my head. Hell, my toddler can do it. I don't believe in a god who is in sovereign control of the universe. And yet, I so want to have a sense of place within the universe and not just be a small, ultimately insignificant mote of dust on a slightly larger mote of dust. I'd like to think that I am connected to the whole in some real way.
Some of our most beloved and learned scientists offer insight on this sense of alienation that lies at the intersection of science and sacred. The holy prophets, one living, astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson, and one now of blessed memory, Carl Sagan, both connect us to the universe at a deep level by pointing at the origins of our very being. In the beginning, the sages tell us, the universe burst forth in a brilliant explosion that brought forth the most humble element—hydrogen. From this simple beginning, the stars ignited and blazed. As with most beauty, raw material combined with pressure and time gives birth to the new and breathtaking. In this case, the heavier elements like carbon and nitrogen burst forth as the stars themselves die and cross the vast distances and time to form the earth and then, of course, after billions of years more, something grows out of the earth, the universe has finally reached a level of complexity that allows the cosmos to contemplate the cosmos. Human beings emerge. Seemingly so individual, so separate. And yet, each of us here is made up of atoms that were almost entirely born in the infinite heat of an incredibly distant star aeons and aeons ago. We are, quite literally, stardust. Parts of us have been around for billions of years. I don't think a carbon atom has consciousness, but I can't help but wonder at what some of my atoms have seen as they careened across unimaginable distances and through countless iterations of inanimate and then animate life.
I know this is different than the kind of connection one gets in a personal relationship with the Judeo-Christian God, but if that framework no longer can hold for you, spend a moment acknowledging the literal truth of your ultimate ancestry. You are a child of the stars, and I believe blessed with that same beauty and brilliance. Your millions-times-over great-grandparents smile down upon you every night and ask only that you shine like they do—each beautiful and unique. And if you want magic, majesty, and mysticism, just remember that the stars you see in sky no longer exist in that state. That light is years old—in the case of Polaris, the North Star, it is close to 700 years old, and yet we see it right now. We can't see too much further back without help, but the Horsehead Nebula light is 1500 years old, and the Pillars of Creation were destroyed 6000 years ago by a supernova, but we won't see it for another 1000 years. And the Hubble Deep Field Image looks back almost 13 billions years old to see around 10,000 galaxies. To look up is to look back in time—and that is magical.
It was just Ash Wednesday this week and, as I have for years now at Memorial, I distributed ashes to Christians who want them. The traditional liturgy includes a line from Genesis, “Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.” It is a touching ritual actually, but this year, as I said the words from that ancient text, in my heart, I couldn't help but hear, “From stardust you came, and to stardust you shall return someday.”
Increasing Diversity, Increasing Complexity, Increasing Cooperation
The second idea that Michael talks about that I found genuinely hopeful was what there is a clear overall direction to evolution, sometimes called 'evolution's arrow”—not one driven by an external force or designer, but as a natural consequence of the process itself—though I make no claims to understanding how such a process began—and I don't mean this as a backdoor invite to some theistic explanation, though I don't discount such reasoning either. Evolution is the story of simple structures coelescing into more and more complex structures. In terms of straight biology, life starts as single-celled organisms and progresses, primarily as a result of external stressors, to multi-celled ones to lizard to furry things to us—incredibly complex creatures imbued with not only self-awareness, but millions and millions of little single-celled bacteria now living in our guts in a symbiotic relationship. This simplicity to complexity has a fractal-like quality in that at each level of resolution you get this move from simple to complex. The universe moves from simple elements, hydrogen, to more complex ones like Oxygen or Carbon. Life goes from simple single-celled to more complex multi-cellular forms. And Dowd points out that civilization moves in this direction as well. We go from small roaming tribes to clans to simple villages to city-states to modern countries to global alliances and interconnections. And along the way, at each level; universal, biological, sociological; there are increasing levels of cooperation as well.
I am tremendously pessimistic at times, but even still, I cannot deny that we have far more interpersonal and international cooperation than at any point in human history. We are, and rightfully so, aghast at the wars we now engage in, but war is less frequently the answer now than it was in the past, and we cooperate on so many more things than we fight on the battlefield for. We are making progress, slow though it may be.
I see us as evidence of progress. We are a religious tradition that has, over centuries, increased its commitment to openness, to science, to interfaith understanding and wisdom. Last Sunday I went to the ordination of one of my chaplains. As I sang the hymns and read the words, I was convinced that we are the future of religion. It may take a very long time to get there, but to echo the now famously paraphrased words of our ancestor, Theodore Parker, when he said, in 1853, "I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice." Our sight may be limited, but our aim is consistent on the goal of true wholeness and invitation into relationship for all humanity. We have a better story and one that rings true with what our brightest minds have proven—that human beings are not in the world, we are of the world, as Rev. Dowd say, we grow out of the earth like a peach grows out of peach tree. We understand the interdependent web of existence and seek to find our right and responsible place within it. We have a better story, one that understands that the creation accounts of a thousand religions are true stories, even if they are not literal stories—and our ability to see that the power of metaphorical truth is more important in matters of religion than literal truth means that we will support and promote a free and responsible search for meaning for all people. I could go on, and engage each of our principles, but suffice it to say that we have the better story, and we should be far more willing to let our light shine.
There is one final insight from scientists like Sagan and sages like Dowd that I'm still trying to understand the implications of for my own understanding. Let me quote Dr. Sagan:
“We are the local embodiment of a Cosmos grown to self-awareness. We have begun to contemplate our origins: starstuff pondering the stars; organized assemblages of ten billion billion billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least, consciousness arose.”
It has taken 14 billion years for the universe, at least locally, to achieve self-consciousness. As is often the case, our wisdom traditions intuited what we now now scientifically. Hindu myths talk about a cosmic consciousness that was lonely and so split it's consciousness so that it might now others, but then forgot that is was ultimately one. We are creatures that have grown out of the universe, this earth and yet our actions so often display a forgetfulness of this basic fact. I'm still figuring out what this means for me theologically. What does this journey toward awareness mean and what are its implications. But also more concretely, what does this mean ecologically. How do I act, eat, move so that I show my awareness of connection and responsibility to a global ecology and community.
And so I went to hear Rev. Michael Dowd, and I was inspired. I started finding a set of understandings that were skeptical, practical, and mystical. Dowd spent his hour or so talking about what he calls “evidential theology”—theology that doesn't dismiss science, but rather draws the sense of awe, mystery, and inspiration from the scientific history of the universe. He told a story of the universe and its awesome unfolding, he told what can be a new mythology. One that can blend science and true religion; one that can ennoble our journey and not denigrate discovery. I am now a convert to this new mythology, though I am just learning it's tales. It is tale that can unite us and help move us forward, both as a specific faith tradition in need of common language and as an interfaith community. What Catholic reporter Jane Blewer brilliantly called, “A single tale of such holy and mysterious content as to capture the soul – scientific in its data, mythic in its form.” I hope we as a community will explore this new mythology together: skeptically, practically, mystically.
Amen, blessed be, namaste.