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August 18, 2019: “Perdition in Providence”

Perdition and providence are two seemingly conflicting states of being.  The former is being eternally punished, the latter is being guided with foreseeing care.  But the two can exist together, even in concert with one another, in more ways than one.

Reading From “Inflammatory Essays,” by Jenny Holzer    Jared Hammond

In 1979, long before free agency could get an artist’s work sold or even noticed, Jenny Holzer took what one art historian called a “DIY-approach” to promotion.  Over the course of about four years, she wrote 31 treatises, inspired by the writings of incendiary authors of the past, from Emma Goldman to Adolph Hitler.  From them she created a uniform writing style of her own.  Each treatise was edited to exactly 100 words on 20 lines of text in all capitals, as if she were shouting.  They all looked similar, printed on colored copy paper.  She called them “Inflammatory Essays,” made thousands of copies of each, and set out under the cover of night to plaster them around the city of New York.  

They are now part of the permanent exhibit of the Tate Museum.  This is one of them.

Avert thy mortal eyes from sights that sear the orbs of Men.  Keep thy thoughts from the labyrinthine path that leads from arrogant knowledge to fiery destruction.  Seek not the lightning strike that summons life nor the dark vortex that is death before the redemption.  Neither cry aloud nor shake clenched fists at the god whose plan is terrible but perfect.  Conceive no theories, build no stopgaps against the inevitable and the divine.  Instead love thy wife and tender children, grasp and savor the bounteous earth.  Concern thyself with what was freely given as thy birthright.  Venture more and invite perdition.

Sermon “Perdition in Providence”    Rev. Denis Letourneau Paul

Inspiration can be light and ephemeral like a leaf, or cold and hard as stone.

The words that Jared just read, the words of Jenny Holzer, were etched deeply and permanently onto the thick granite slab of a bench, anchored among the plants in plaza on the campus of my alma mater.

It was in the city of Providence, Rhode Island.

And the word that resonated most for me was the last word: perdition.  

Perdition in Providence.

If you don’t know, Perdition means eternal punishment, a state of final spiritual ruin, agony of the soul.  Damnation.

Providence couldn’t be more different.  The word providence has the same root as provide.  It means the foreseeing care and guidance of God or Nature over the creatures of the earth.

You can see why the idea of Perdition in Providence made me laugh out loud.  But the phrase also begged the question:  

Can we be in a state of perdition and providence at the same time?  

On the surface, it seems like God, if God exists, would provide for each person, until such time that they do something beyond redemption, something so horrible, something so selfish and devoid of penitence, that they enter a state of perdition.  Whether they are damned to any hell may just be irrelevant:  their soul is so ruined it’s beyond repair.  Any care that a creator, or Nature itself, could offer would be soundly rebuked.  Refused.  Mocked.  Even retaliated against.

But the Universalist in me tells me there is more to it than that, something less extreme and applicable to everyday life.

If you’ve taken the New to UU class that I offer on the first Sunday of each month from September to May, you’ll know that I base each lesson —on theology, history and Polity — on the six word elevator speech my husband uses to explain Unitarian Universalism and its historical context.  

One God.  Many names.  No hell.  

It’s a great summary for the uninitiated, and certainly more true than the shorthand “you can believe anything you want.”  But it isn’t the full picture.  Because Universalism isn’t as simple as believing that there is no hell.  There’s actually a lot of variety in that theological label.

Overall, historical Universalism says that heaven is available to everyone.  Not just Christians or Catholics or Protestants or the people who fall in Calvinism’s category of “The Elect,” the few worthy of access to Heaven.  Heaven is available to everyone. 

Don’t think Universalism means that you get there automatically, because you don’t necessarily.  But. You have the chance to secure your place in the everlasting joy and comfort of heaven by doing good in the world, making amends for your misdeeds, atoning for shortcomings, and doing your best to do what is right in the world.

For historical Universalists, getting into Heaven isn’t easy, but anyone can work hard and make it happen.  It’s very much the American Dream in a sense.

But not long into the American Project, in 1810, the first controversy erupted in the fast-growing, fast diversifying faith.

Hosea Ballou and Edward Turner were ministers and friends.  Close friends when they realized they disagreed about one major point of Universalism, and it quickly turned into a battle.  Unlike the current Republican President, they believed you could disagree, you could even be opponents, without becoming enemies.  They didn’t become enemies.  But they did actively recruit allies to argue with them in very public discourse.  

Turner and his group of Restorationists believed that everyone, eventually, is restored to being in right relationship with God the Creator.  Those who lived exemplary lives go directly to heaven upon death.  But those whose thoughts and actions were less pure go to purgatory.  Or maybe hell.  Depends upon how righteous you feel about your own restorationist life, I guess, but the important part is that God will eventually restore his relationships with all of his children.  

It’s Ballou and the Ultra-Universalists who believe that there is no hell, that everyone gets a pass, and goes directly to heaven, the love and grace of the creator being powerful enough to restore each of us to a state of pure goodness and joy upon our deaths.

Imagine how cool that would be, how generous the idea is.  God provides so much grace, goodness, guidance and forgiveness, that even if we act against that providence in life, we are provided for in heaven.  Even if we make such a mess of our lives here on earth that it becomes its own hell, its own perdition, we are still provided for.

Think about that for a minute.  The love of the creator is so great, that your soul is made pure by that love when you enter the great beyond.  And it’s not like you’d be up there all smug, feeling like you got away with something.  You’d be up there grateful.  Humble.  Contrite.  Cleansed.  Basking in the love of providence.   

But that’s not exactly where we are now as Unitarian Universalists.  The Ultra Universalists may have won that argument, at least over the course of centuries, because the shorthand now about Universalists is they believe that God is too great to damn anyone to hell.  But we also have our Unitarian roots in the people who believed they are too good to be damned to hell by any God.   Hell, for Unitarians, has always existed.  

For other people. 

But in bringing together Unitarians and Universalists in 1961, something new was created, something beyond the sum of the parts of two formerly separate denominations.   We are humanists.  

We are rooted in liberal theology, the belief that meaning, understanding of the nature of the divine, comes from human experience and is made greater by reason.  We are constantly testing our faith in humanity against our experience.  

The question we ask now is Who is the Creator?

Some of us believe in a beneficent God, that doesn’t usually look like a father or the head of a triune superbeing.  Some of us believe in a force of creation that isn’t anything like a human, but more of an ever-expansive generative force.  Some don’t connect to any idea that might be called God at all.

But one thing we all agree on is that as humans in a long evolution across millions of years, we are all co-creators, together with the ever expanding universe.  We have the power to care for it or destroy it, so, as co-creators, we have a responsibility to care for one another.  A covenant that we make with each other and the world.

That means that each of us is the simultaneous source and recipient of providence.  

Sometimes we give loving care to other living beings.  Sometimes we receive guidance from Nature itself. 

The trick is knowing the difference, knowing when you are giving and when you are receiving.  Or both.  As Unitarian Universalists, we know —from our own experience — that the more we receive the more is required of us to give back, just to maintain the balance that all life depends upon. 

We know that the more advantages we have — the more health, wealth and influence we have — the more responsibility we have to protect the well-being of those with less.   

Of course, this is different from the idea of noblesse oblige, the moral responsibility of the rich and powerful to give of their resources to the people they have power over. 

We UUs try not to get lured into arrogance about our knowledge.  We try to keep learning.  To be truly humble.  But it’s not always easy.

I want to read again Jenny Holzer’s Inflammatory Essay

Avert thy mortal eyes from sights that sear the orbs of Men.  

Keep thy thoughts from the labyrinthine path that leads from arrogant knowledge to fiery destruction.  

Seek not the lightning strike that summons life nor the dark vortex that is death before the redemption.  

Neither cry aloud nor shake clenched fists at the god whose plan is terrible but perfect.  

Conceive no theories, build no stopgaps against the inevitable and the divine.  

Instead love thy wife and tender children, grasp and savor the bounteous earth.  

Concern thyself with what was freely given as thy birthright.  

Venture more and invite perdition.

In the context of thinking of ourselves as co-creators, It feels like a reminder that to believe oneself to be the recipient of divine providence, guidance and care from creation itself, is to risk stagnation.  Worse, to bear the responsibility of co-creation is to risk a loss of humility or even a loss of identity, and the comfort we take in just being ourselves.  

If we believe ourselves to be both the grantors and recipients of providence, we must risk, we must venture to explore whatever it is that is out there, above us, or below us. 

To risk is to invite perdition, to push ourselves so far out there that we dance on the edge of failure.  And fall from time to time.  It’s better to try something generative and creative and fail than to do nothing and welcome destruction.  The way I read that essay, to do nothing is to avoid your responsibilities as co-creators of the world.  It’s about guidance AND care in covenant.  It’s about mutuality.  And our shared duty to put the needs of the whole before the needs of self.  To put creation before self preservation.

Buzz Aldren, when he landed on the moon, did something that didn’t get any press at the time.  While Neil Armstrong planned a pithy and concise turn of phrase, Aldren planned on taking a small kit given to him by his church,  and for his first act on the moon to be communion.  

NASA at the time was being sued by Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the founder of American Atheists, for violating the separation of church and state by reading from the book of Genesis on Christmas Eve during the Apollo 8 mission, broadcast across the country.  so, he was asked to scrap his plans.  

Here are the words Aldren used to describe the event.

I poured a thimbleful of wine from a sealed plastic container into a small chalice, and waited for the wine to settle down as it swirled in the one-sixth Earth gravity of the moon. My comments to the world were inclusive: “I would like to request a few moments of silence … and to invite each person listening in, wherever and whomever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours, and to give thanks in his or her own way.” I silently read the Bible passage as I partook of the wafer and the wine, and offered a private prayer for the task at hand and the opportunity I had been given.

Neil watched respectfully, but made no comment to me at the time.

Perhaps, if I had it to do over again, I would not choose to celebrate communion. Although it was a deeply meaningful experience for me, it was a Christian sacrament, and we had come to the moon in the name of all mankind — be they Christians, Jews, Muslims, animists, agnostics, or atheists. But at the time I could think of no better way to acknowledge the enormity of the Apollo 11 experience than by giving thanks to God. It was my hope that people would keep the whole event in their minds and see, beyond minor details and technical achievements, a deeper meaning — a challenge, and the human need to explore whatever is above us, below us, or out there.

It makes sense to me that Buzz Aldren, as a Christian, would choose communion.   Christians do the act of communion as a not just a celebration of the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth, but as an attempt to emulate him and continue his work.  When he instructed his disciples, his students, on the night before he died, he showed them how to symbolize his work and his sacrifice, and told them “do this in memory of me.”

Communion was meant to be a regular reminder that everyone bears the responsibility of co-creation, a reminder to live out that responsibility the way he did: by healing the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned, defending the oppressed, and even caring for the earth.  The whole earth.  And everyone in it, without exception.  Jesus, after all, was the original universalist. 

So, I get what Buzz Aldren was up to.  If I were up there, I would probably want to light a chalice, if I could figure out how to make a candle burn in that atmosphere.  The flame in the chalice is my reminder to “rise, to reach the mountain peak, strong and free, ready to receive, to partake, and to bask in the golden rays of love.”

Obviously, I haven’t read everything Buzz Aldren said or wrote in his lifetime.  I am positive there is plenty that I would disagree with. 

And we all know that it’s easier to exude humility when your successes have been universally amplified as heroic, as his have.  But my feeling, what I choose to believe about his actions, is that in celebrating a solitary communion on the bright side of the moon, he didn’t seek to prove he was right.  

He just did what he needed to do for his own soul, and invited everyone on earth — everyone — to pause for a moment of contemplation and gratitude.  

In sight of the distant earth, he wasn’t moved to  judge who was right or wrong or who had the right to live or die.  He didn’t lash out over things weren’t perfect or because someone was trying to control, his religious impulses.  

Buzz Aldren, in celebrating a solitary communion on the moon expressed a love of humanity, grateful for the rights and responsibilities that come with being a co-creator.  In his life, he ventured more, braving challenges that few humans can fathom.  And in doing so, he invited what could have been — had the mission failed — an invitation to perdition.

So yes.  We can be in a state of perdition and providence at the same time. Because we create both.  We are givers and receivers of Providence, makers and inhabitants of perdition.  Right here.  On this perfect sphere that looks so fragile from the moon.

We can either spin ourselves into a fury over the failure of others to live out the plan of the God they claim, or we can pull ourselves together, love our families and the people closest to us, find strength in their presence and care, and take responsibility for our shared present and future.

We can fear the minor hell our lives can become if we venture out into real stewardship of this planet, or we can sit idly by, risking nothing, but damned to the very real hell this planet can become if we continue to do nothing.

I’m energized and terrified by the words of Jenny Holzman.  More now than ever.  and honestly, I would be completely overwhelmed — paralyzed by the vastness of what’s being asked, if it weren’t for images like the one of Buzz Aldren, doing what he needed to do to remind himself of his humble power of providence for the earth and all creation. May the flame we light each Sunday, help us to find the fortitude to take responsibility for our own spiritual well-being, caring for others in our own quiet ways.  May we be humbly mindful of the ways in which we are responsible to and for one another, and risk it all for something that brings a new perspective, a new understanding of what it all means and what it is that binds us together. 

May we all venture more, and invite the little discomforts in order to prevent the big perdition, for ourselves and our whole planet.