Richard Dawkins is best known for his outspoken atheism. He is the author of a book called The God Delusion and seems to take pleasure in jousting with fundamentalists on talk shows. And yet he is also the kind of person who could write these words.
“When I lie on my back and look up at the Milky Way on a clear night and see the vast distances of space and reflect that these are also vast differences of time as well, when I look at the Grand Canyon and see the strata going down, down, down, through periods of time which the human mind can’t comprehend. I am overwhelmingly filled with a sense of almost worship. It is not worshiping anything personal. It’s a feeling of sort of abstract gratitude that I am alive to appreciate these wonders. When I look down a microscope, it’s the same feeling. I am grateful to be alive to appreciate these wonders.”
This morning I want to talk about those human emotions that transport us to the place of almost worship, those moments when we stand at the edge of an awe inspiring ocean, caught in rapture by the majesty of the sea and the power of the crashing waves BUT we are not quite ready to jump in and swim. I want us to reflect on those moments that are almost but not quite worship.
When I was Director of Religious Education here in the 1990’s Lois Southworth who described herself as “a little old lady” used to come to every one of the adult education classes I led. At that time her adult son, the Reverend Bruce Southworth, was a well known Unitarian theologian who wrote books about Henry Nelson Wieman and empirical theology. However, Lois was very much a down to earth humanist. In one adult education class I asked members of the group to share a moment where they felt reverence and awe. One person spoke about a sunrise. Another spoke about walking along a ridge with a beautiful view of the mountains. One woman spoke of holding her adopted baby in her arms for the first time. Finally, it came time for Lois to share her experience. She thought for a moment and said with a wry smile, “I guess I am just a good Unitarian. I take everything for granted.”
I share this story because the Unitarian Universalist Church does include many different kinds of people. Those of us who worship. Those of us who almost worship. And those of us who may or may not be able to summon up any such feelings. In the last Board Meeting as things were winding down Mary Rogge bid everyone adieu by saying “Secular Blessings.” We are a diverse church where we frame our beliefs using different words.
As the ancient Hindu scriptures, the Rig Veda, tell us, “Who knows in truth? Who can tell us whence and how arose this universe? The gods are later than its beginning; who knows therefore whence comes this creation. Only God knows, only the God who sees in the highest heaven knows or perhaps even God does not know.”
Another ancient Hindu scripture, the Upanishads, teach us that we should reverence, “What cannot be spoken with word, but that whereby words are spoken…What cannot be thought with the mind, but that whereby the mind can think…What cannot be seen with the eye, but that whereby the eye can see…What cannot be heard with the ear, but that whereby the ear can hear…What cannot be indrawn with the breath, but that whereby breath is indrawn.” This is what we should reverence and this may or may not be what the other people around us adore or worship. In other words religion cannot be a mere social construct, an exercise in group think, but must be a meaningful personal experience.
Jean Wahl was a French philosopher who lived in the early 20th Century who staked out a position between atheism, on one hand, and theism on the other. He put forth the idea of an agnostic mysticism. Where theism says, “There is a God” and atheism says, “There is no God’ agnostic mysticism says, “Since the Absolute is unknowable all we can do is have a reverent relationship with the unknowable.” When we are confronted by the insoluble mystery of human existence we should embrace that insolubility. Acknowledge the partiality of all thought and the limitations of every conception. He argued that “all that can be thought is attached to the unthinkable, as all that is visible to the invisible, and all that one understands to what cannot be understood.” The challenge of a philosopher is to realize that the solution is to stop seeking a solution.
Since the Absolute is Unknowable all we can do is enter into a reverent relationship with the Unknown. We are in relationship with the Absolute whenever we are faced by all that exceeds ourselves. I am reminded of a moment in Alex Haley’s book Roots where Kunte Kinte’s father holds his newborn child up to the starry night and says, “Behold the only thing greater than yourself.”
The Absolute is the experience of everything greater than ourselves. The Absolute is not necessarily something we think about, it is something we feel. There may be different concepts about the Absolute. There may be different theologies and philosophies about the Absolute, however, an encounter with the Absolute can generate many of the same feelings. In other words, we will not reach the Absolute with our knowledge, we will reach it with our feelings. And even though the Absolute is by definition Something Much Larger Than Ourselves it can be felt in every little thing in the cosmos.
Earlier this month I heard astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson interviewed about the 6 new galaxies discovered by the James Webb Space Telescope that are forcing scientists to rethink all their theories about the origins of galaxies. As one scientist remarked, “We’ve discovered something so unexpected that it actually creates problems for science. It calls the whole picture of early galaxy formation into question.”
Tyson was asked to comment on this statement and he reframed the issue by saying that discoveries like this do not create problems for science, they create excitement. They generate a new understanding of the universe, “We delight in this,” he said, “We shouldn’t be surprised that we’re surprised.” We should expect to encounter the unexpected. He said, “When people say that scientists have to go back to the drawing board they do not understand our work. We don’t go back to the drawing board, we live at the drawing board.” When the interviewer asked him, “So this discovery means rethinking everything so what are you thinking now?” Neil DeGrasse Tyson laughed and said, “I don’t know…and there’s nothing wrong with not knowing.” What Tyson says about the science of the universe, the philosopher Jean Wahl says we should say about religion. We should never be afraid to say, “We don’t know…and there’s nothing wrong with not knowing.”
We often get the impression that faith and doubt are opposites. That our faith is at war with our doubts and our doubts at war with our faith. However, there can be no faith without doubt. As the scriptures say, “we walk by faith, not sight.” Or as the philosopher Pascal put it, “If I could never act except on the basis of a certainty then I could never act because nothing is certain.” Faith is about how we act in the face of uncertainty. Faith is about how we move through the Unknowable. And as we move through the Unknowable we can still do some important things together.
We can be thankful for the gift of reason.
We can be thankful for the gift of freedom.
We can be thankful for the gift of compassion.
We can celebrate the wonder of life, the wonder of humanity and the wonder of knowledge.
There is much we can celebrate even as we face all that is Unknowable. Earlier, I mentioned Mary Rogge’s dispensation of a secular blessing to her fellow members of the church board. Her words reminded me of an old story of a man who was very proud of the fact that he bought a Prius to help the environment. So he went to the Catholic church and said to the priest, “I just bought a Prius and I would like you to give it a blessing.” The priest said, “Sure, I’d be happy to help but what is a Prius.” The man was disgusted by the priest’s lack of knowledge about the environmental benefits of his particular car so he went to the Baptist Church and said to the preacher, “I just bought a Prius and I would like you to give it a blessing.” The preacher replied, “I’d be happy to help but what is a Prius?” Once again the man was disgusted so he went to the Unitarian Universalist church which had a great reputation for environmental activism and he said to the minister there, “I just bought a Prius and I would like you to give it a blessing.” And the UU minister said, “I’d be happy to help but what is a blessing?”
In conclusion, I want to say, even though I have always enjoyed this joke I have never felt it rang completely true because it is a blessing to be together with each other every Sunday morning, online or in person. It is a blessing to work together on our shared vision to transform the world through acts of love and justice. It is a blessing to sing together and celebrate together and laugh together. I agree with Rabbi Abraham Heschel who said, “Simply to be is a blessing, simply to live is holy.” Indeed, it is such a blessing that I am tempted to almost worship.
(This sermon was given by the Reverend Chris Buice at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday March 25, 2023)