Sermon “Faith for a New Age”
Copyright: Sarah K. Person
Delivered: January 26, 2014 to the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Middleborough
As modern beings, how do we preserve our sense of mystery and wonder in this scientific age? Should we even try? In his book “God Revised” Rev. Dr. Galen Guengerich asks us to evolve our understanding of religion and what it has to offer us. If you consider yourself spiritual but not religious, this is a great opportunity to discern the necessities of your mind and heart.
I came across an advertisement the other day. Plastered across the top were the words “Do you Believe?” Underneath was a picture of a nice-enough looking gentleman and at the bottom was a plug for a Christian singles dating site. Now, my first response was “Believe what?” which I assume means I was not the target audience for this ad.
Now I get the real question. The real question is, are you a good person, a decent person? Or are you going to take my time and my money and my heart and leave me stranded. The question “Do you believe?” is one short cut to the answer. If you believe in the same things we do, we are all worthy of dating one another.
So how about you? Are you a good person, a decent person? And here are our key questions for today: how do you know for sure? How do you know the one sitting across the aisle from you is a good person, a decent person? Someone you can trust? How do we know anything about anything for certain? Why is it important to be sure? It’s important because we want to know where we stand and why we matter. And this is where religion and science and reality intersect.
I love science – not because I want to know why everything is the way it is, well yes I do – but because I love being in a state of wonder. For years I was a National Geographic junkie. What makes you look up in wonder? The first time I saw the aurora borealis, I didn’t understand what I was seeing. It looked like living moonlight or wisps of clouds moving the way no clouds I’d ever seen. I couldn’t wait to find out more, and it didn’t keep me from marveling at them.
There are some lines from Walt Whitman that remind me of the auroras:
“You air that serves me with breath to speak!
You objects that call from diffusion and give them shape!
You light that wraps me and all things in delicate equable showers!
I believe you are latent with unseen existences, you are so dear to me”
They command us to look up into the night sky and ask, what is there? What is there? We know so much from our scientific explorations and logical explanations and yet we know we know so little – only a fraction of what there is to know. But that doesn’t stop me from feeling a fascination and gratitude for such wonders, and a deep humility in the face of them.
One of my former neighbors and fellow dog-walkers taught science in a private Orthodox Jewish religious school. One day she growled her frustration that she was not allowed to teach about dinosaurs. Come again, I said. She was not allowed to teach about evolution or that dinosaurs had ever existed. It would violate the truth revealed in scripture. I thought, but they’re such magnificent creatures! How could anyone deny them!
This is a thriving school, in the middle of a bustling intellectual community. Even though I struggled with it, I figured there must be something attractive to those parents about ignoring what nature and experience have to teach us, in favor of what scripture has to teach us. But, what happens when these children go out into the world? And my next thought was; they would have learned how to wear enormous blinders and do just fine. And my next thought was; what size blinders am I wearing? Hey, I’m a minister, this is theology and it comes with the territory.
Getting back to this issue of what the children were learning, I tried to put myself in their parent’s shoes.
I imagine it comes down to figuring out what we think we need to know, and what our children need to know, to know that they are good and decent people, and to find good and decent people. It comes down to figuring what we need to know, and what our children need to know, to live lives of purpose and meaning. We need to know who am I, why am I here?
What is important for you to know and believe in order to live a good life? Rev. Dr. Galen Guengerich ponders these questions and more in his book God Revised. Now, he starts by examining how we relate ourselves to the Bible and how we have been expected to experience God, but he expands pretty quickly into the totality of the way we experience life. He says: “[T]he question comes down to which comes first, belief or knowledge. Put more precisely, we’ll ask whether belief is a subset of knowledge, or knowledge is a subset of belief.” The parents who chose that school for their children believed that the knowledge it imparted needed to be a subset of their beliefs.
Do we who are not orthodox Jews do the same thing? You bet. We do it every time we repeat a fact from a source we believe is authoritative. Wikipedia. Encyclopedia. Carl Sagan. Stephen Hawking. Our favorite newspaper or radio station. Our parents. I tend to come at it from the other direction. I think that my beliefs need to emerge from what I know, and also from what I realize I don’t know. I rejoice in not knowing everything – it opens me to my mission to discover and my responsibility to wonder. But the reason for all of this is the same. I think that those parents and I want to, and want our children to live good and productive lives; and for that, the world, in all its ups and downs, has to make sense.
The Bible is one source for our confidence that we know something is true and valuable. For others, there are other sources of truth: Science is one. Reason is one. Cultural tradition is another. History is another.
Those of us who do not see ourselves reflected in the Bible seriously doubt what it has to tell us. Those of us who do not see the marvelous things we know about the world reflected in the Bible seriously doubt that it can demand anything of us. Guengerich lays out the difficulty we have in these modern times with believing in the supernatural God of the Bible, or the way established religions interpret the Bible as truth. Atheists would prefer no god to a supernatural god. Guengerich believes that an idea of God is necessary to religion, but not necessarily a God above or outside of the laws of nature. Why is this important, you ask? Well, many of us, according to a recent study that’s about 94 percent of Americans, we experience our lives in such a way that we need some idea of God to make sense of it.
As a minister, I lift up science and reason and leave some room for mystery and wonder. And I spend a lot of time questioning what I think I know and figuring my ignorance is way more than I imagine. I am comfortable with the fact that I have to find my way to whatever is holy and sacred about us and around us. I need to have a sense of truth out of everything I’m learning about existence, I need to have a sense of how this helps me to be a good person and to move with purpose and meaning in this life. To what, we ask, should we, can we, give of our time and our treasures and our hearts so that we can be transformed and transforming? I’m glad to be here, finding the way together with you. And that fact of togetherness plays a key part in my journey and I hope yours as well.
This question of how do we know, and what to believe are at the heart of any religious community. And they don’t go away even if we don’t belong to a religious community. According to that same study, the fastest growing proportion of people of faith are the “nones.”
Rise of the nones:
- Spiritual but not religious
- Looking for what speaks most to their spiritual longing. Looking for spiritual connection but don’t want to think of themselves as beholden to a particular spiritual connection.
- Tens of thousands of people on their census data checked themselves off as UU but not reflected in our congregational membership. They don’t feel the need to join a community.
So, what do we have to offer to the “nones”? If we truly mean to be relevant, then we have to consider the challenge they pose to us. What do we have to offer? And, what do we have to offer those who would much rather spend Sunday morning eating brunch in their pajamas? How would we answer the question “Do you believe?” What does religion mean to us? Why do we gather together?
We answer the first question by saying; the question is not what “we” believe. We do not believe the same things or reach the same conclusions. The question is what do we share, and how does that help us to act in the world. We share a reverence for the gift of this life and this world. We share a connection with each other and with all of it, with everything. We share a desire for truth and for searching it out, and we share a responsibility for this world and our journeys upon it.
What does religion mean to us? Religion is our way of changing ourselves and our world for the better. That’s it. That’s why we’re here. Guengerich says religion gives us a sense of identity and purpose above and beyond. This is what transcendence means. It is, in Guengerich’s words “the ability to go beyond the limited confines of our daily lives and see the reality of the world and our place in it. … the feeling of being deeply connected to everything : all that is present as well as all that is past and all that is possible.”
“As we sense our dependence upon other people and things, we also glimpse our duty to them. This sense of obligation leads to an ethic of gratitude, which takes our experience of transcendence in the present and works toward a future in which all relationships … are fair, constructive and beautiful.”
The reason for a religious community, in case you, too, find yourself wondering why you might want to come to church instead of spending Sunday morning in your pajamas, is that connection we have to one another. We bear witness to one another; to the good, the bad, the ordinary and the sublime. We bear witness to our search for what is real and true. We bear witness, and we let each other know we matter.
If for no other reason, this may be the most important thing we do. I learned something about this last week. This affirmation can happen anywhere, anytime. In a conversation with one of my sisters, I discovered that she had few memories left of our family stories. She remembered feelings, but she didn’t remember what people had done and said. Our exchange suddenly went deep. These narratives were vital to us; they bore a direct influence on how we had turned out today, and gave reasons for our struggles. I discovered that I was the witness to her life. I had the narratives that explained so much. I had the context and was able to tell her and fill her up in a way I never expected. Those fundamental questions – who am I, why am I here – they also include whose am I, where did I come from, why do I matter. We need to tell each other we matter, and why and how. And we need to be able to hear the answers. And we need to do this regularly. That’s a good reason to get out of our pajamas.
What is my text, my source?
My text is the text that’s written on the world, and on your faces in in your voices. I believe in you, in all our latent unseen existences, and you are dear to me.
 Walt Whitman “Song of the Open Road,” in Leaves of Grass, The “Death Bed” Edition (New York : Random House, Modern Library Paperback, © 2001), p. 185.