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January 23, 2011: “Skeptics, Believers, Doubters and Dreamers”

An old church story from Ohio, supposedly true: ‘A participant in a communion service in a United Church of Christ congregation in Middletown, Ohio, realized they were serving real wine rather than the customary grape juice. She leaned over to her son and warned in a whisper, “This is the real thing.” Wide-eyed, he responded, “You mean, Blood?”

        Skeptics, believers, doubters, and dreamers; I think that's going to be the first line to a song I'm going to write. It has a nice sound to it, don't you think? I'm thinking of it as a kind of 'gospel' song, but not one where you actually have to believe it.

        Part of it came from two different sources. The first was a book by one of my favorite naturalists who I also find very spiritual, Chet Raymo, titled, Skeptics and True Believers: The Exhilarating Connection Between Science and Religion, and the second from a course by the Teaching Company that I listened to on audio on the drive to and from San Antonio last summer, 'Skeptics and Believers: Religious Debate in the Western Intellectual Tradition.' Then lastly, I read a great article in Christian Century, provocatively titled, 'Against religion The case for faith' (January 03, 2011 by Douglas John Hall).  There's a wonderful quote by the Swiss Theologian Karl Barth, considered neo-orthodox, "The message of the Bible," the young Karl Barth was wont to remark (perhaps because he was minister in a Swiss village that loved to think itself properly religious), "is that God hates religion."

        Most of us, I would guess, would include ourselves among the skeptics, believers, doubters, and dreamers at various times when we think or even experience religion or the sense of the holy, the sacred. I would add 'seeker' as well, if not 'speaker,' since we also like to discuss what we have found.

      Chet Raymo writes: 'In the introduction to my book, Skeptics and True Believers, I defined two frames of mind: Skeptics are children of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. They are always a little lost in the vastness of the cosmos, but they trust the ability of the human mind to make sense of the world. They accept the evolving nature of truth, and are willing to live with a measure of uncertainty. Their world is colored in shades of gray. They tend to be socially optimistic, creative and confident of progress. Since they hold their truths tentatively, Skeptics are tolerant of cultural and religious diversity. They are more interested in refining their own views than in proselytizing others. If they are theists, they wrestle with their God in a continuing struggle of faith. They are often plagued by personal doubts and prone to depression.

True Believers are less confident that humans can sort things out for themselves. They look for help from outside — from God, spirits or extraterrestrials. Their world is black and white. They seek simple and certain truths, provided by a source that is more reliable than the human mind. True Believers prefer a universe proportioned to the human scale. They are repulsed by diversity, comforted by dogma and respectful of authority. True Believers go out of their way to offer (sometimes forcibly administer) their truths to others, convinced of the righteousness of their cause. They are likely to be “born again,” redeemed by faith, apocalyptic. Although generally pessimistic about the state of this world, they are confident that something better lies beyond the grave.

I was careful to point out that even Jesus might be called a Skeptic (“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”), and scientists who are invincibly certain of the authority of their science can be counted as True Believers.’

        Raymo writes about science and nature in such a spiritual way for me because I am skeptic, a seeker, as well as a doubter and sometimes a believer, but not a 'True Believer;' that is, my spiritual discovery of religious experience that adds meaning to my life is a path, a journey, a river, perhaps, flowing, not a one time nirvana-like discovery of the absolute truth known now and forever. Some reviews I read about the book DIDN'T like it for the same reason I did; in other words, true believers would not like his book, or probably, our church. There has to be what I might call a spiritual / religious / psychological openness, a universality, to be able to empathize.  It's not so much that religion and/or God is a matter of opinion, though in many ways I think we could make an argument for that, but that each of us brings our own experience to the so called religious equation.   Think of God as Algebra, not simple addition!

        From 'You Can't Draw a Bead on God: The Mystery we call God is bigger and more wondrous than the images provided by religious doctrine.'  Excerpted from "Embracing the Mystery: The Sacred Unfolding in Ordinary People and Everyday Lives" by Meredith Jordan.

        'Many years ago, early in my spiritual journey, I read a story about Uncle Frank Davis, a Pawnee elder. He told two young journalists that as a boy he had asked his mother how a person becomes wise. His mother explained that each of us follows the path through life that the Creator makes especially for us. Along our unique path, the Creator drops "little slips of paper" to provide us with instructions on the right use of our lives. It's our task, she told her son, to notice the scraps of paper as they fall around us, to pick them up and to put them in our pockets. When we need guidance along life's way, all we have to do is reach deep into our pockets and pull out the slips of paper that, pieced carefully together, comprise our particular map.

        I take the position that God's nature is always changing, continually growing and revealing itself to us in new ways. In my opinion, we have to remain on our toes for whatever (borrowing from my colleague Michael Dwinell) "God is up to" in our lives and in the world today.  This means I cannot assume someone else 'for example, the world's clergy' knows God better than I do and can interpret God to me. I alone am responsible for paying attention to how the Mystery of God continually reveals itself in and through my life. No one else can do this for me. I'm the one who must develop my own relationship with, and understanding of, the nature of the Divine Mystery.'

        Indeed, I would substitute other words for the word, 'God,' because of the confusion and baggage that term has. Each of us defines for ourselves, then struggles to communicate somehow our religious understanding as well as our religious/spiritual psychological needs through relationship in religious community. Our church, our denomination is not a 'creedal' way of being religious; it is instead, covenantal, that is in religious relationship with one another as well as the religious; sense of how we come to describe, and perhaps experience the sense of the sacred, the holy, the spirit of life, which or who some call God and further some call Jesus Christ.

        I don't intend there to be a judgment; there are those who find deep meaning and great comfort in creeds and in true belief. But doubts creep in and perhaps should be embraced and explored as messages from the universe, maybe even God him, her, or itself, instead of suppressed. Maybe doubts keep us from becoming idol-worshippers when the first commandment, and presumably the most important is for us not to try to reduce God to an idol or even take his, her, or it's name in vain! That's why both Judaism and Islam have such strict religious rules about trying to 'picture' God!

        The great religious historian, Mircea Eliade, writes, 'For those to whom a stone reveals itself as sacred, its immediate reality is transmuted into supernatural reality. In other words, for those who have a religious experience all nature is capable of revealing itself as cosmic sacrality.'

        Indeed, the history of humanity and the history of religion are not separate studies, I would argue, but the same!  So would I argue is psychology and religion closely related though practitioners from each area would often disagree! After all Freud saw religion as psychological problem, and argued that God was nothing more than illusion of an expression of infantile wishes; he described religion as the 'universal obsessional neurosis of mankind.'  It begs the question about whether one could be 'cured' of being religious.

The Teaching Company course on Skeptics and Believers, introduction: ‘In examining the challenges to religious thought and the defenses mounted in favor of it through the Protestant Reformation, Scientific Revolution, Enlightenment, and subsequent periods up to the present day and a discussion of secularism, Professor Roberts draws on the work of a stunning range of provocative thinkers each of whom changed the face of the debate and left succeeding minds a fresh array of insights to deal with’

        It's as if each century from the time of the turn, really, of the 16th century, when Martin Luther 'invents' Protestantism in 1517, right in the middle of the Renaissance, when he nails those 95 Theses to the door, has a unique philosophical/theological evolution, one thinker building upon another. Luther, as Professor Roberts says begins a process that splits European Christianity. 'On the other hand, Luther's new idea about 'justification by faith,' means that we are powerless to save ourselves because of our sinfulness and must 

trust or believe that God in his mercy or by his grace can save us.

         In fact, one cannot imagine how the modern philosophy or especially theology could have happened without that split! As I've said before, the floodgates were opened with that beginning, and the world would never be the same, Thank God, if you'll pardon the pun.

        One might even argue that the scientific revolution that followed was also a part of the opening of the doors of the temple to reason and yea, skeptics! Because it is among the Protestants that most of the philosophy and theological changes come; the Roman Catholic church rejects 'modernity' until well into the 20th century, while the 'Protestant' church keeps splitting like a a hyperactive amoeba evolving like crazy! The Catholic church hierarchy also tried to stifle and/or censor any scientific discoveries that might threaten the tradition of the church and scripture, and the Church did control much of European culture. It was as if their religious monopoly was destroyed by Luther and his followers that liberated minds and spiritual exploration, though much of Europe was plunged into outright wars of people who all considered themselves Christians, for the next century or so, but is still played out today, but mercifully, subdued now in Northern Ireland, the war between the Protestants and the Catholics, not unlike the current battles in the Middle East between Shi-ite and Sunni Moslems!

        And perhaps not surprisingly, most Protestant theology came out of Germany, right up to the 1950s, though many philosophers would come out of England, Scotland, and France as well.  The scientific revolution, then was possible only after minds were allowed to think and research without church interference. Philosophy began to separate from theology. And the French thinker Descartes and the famous discovery of the self, 'I think, therefore I am'; in other words trying to prove by reason the existence of God, we start out by proving that we exist because we think, and if we think, we must exist!

        Natural religion or reason comes out of the Enlightenment; how do we know? Through our reason and rational thinking. We can see much of early Unitarian theology here, and some of us still seem to worship rationalism and fear the emotional term, spirituality. The Scottish phosphor, David Hume, who was accused of being an atheist was one of the first to argue with the rationalism of the enlightenment and claim that we must experience and starts empiricism, which believes in the senses telling us about religion and God. He influences the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant who comes up with the idea of a universal morality without the need for a God or heaven or hell. Kant calls this the categorical imperative, similar to the Golden rule, that whenever one acts they must act as if a moral law for all people were being written; in other words act as if whatever you do would become a norm for all people. So you have to then think about your actions as to how they will impact on others and what the world would be like if everyone did what you are doing.

        Another interesting person around this time of the end of the 18th century is Friederich Schliermacher, often called the father of modern Protestant theology; he writes a book in 1799 when he is only 26 that is called, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers. In his Addresses on Religion, he wrote: "Religion is the outcome neither of the fear of death, nor of the fear of God. It answers a deep need in man. It is neither a metaphysic, nor a morality, but above all and essentially an intuition and a feeling.  ... Dogmas are not, properly speaking, part of religion: rather it is that they are derived from it. Religion is the miracle of direct relationship with the infinite; and dogmas are the reflection of this miracle. Similarly belief in God, and in personal immortality, are not necessarily a part of religion; one can conceive of a religion without God, and it would be pure contemplation of the universe; the desire for personal immortality seems rather to show a lack of religion, since religion assumes a desire to lose oneself in the infinite, rather than to preserve one's own finite self."[4]

        Schliermacher comes from a Pietist background and is heavily influenced by the German romanticism that is also current. Pietism was a reaction against rationalism and was more devotional, spiritual, but also concerned with eternal salvation. Romanticism was also a reaction against the rationalism which was seen as cold and unfeeling, so Romanticism was feeling and intuitional, and even more importantly saw nature in almost a divine capacity. Think of the English Romantic poets like Wordsworth or Coleridge, who would deeply influence Emerson and the transcendentalism and I will, argue our current theology in UUism.

        Because I went to a United Church of Christ seminary since it was within commuting distance, and not a UU seminary, I was the minority in my mystical humanistic UUism, and often felt defensive around my seminary colleagues who occasionally wondered out loud what I was even doing in seminary and ministry!  I remember specifically reading Schliermacher for a class and his book, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers, and suddenly I felt like someone understood me and UUism, and it was an 18th century German theologian! It was a similar feeling reading Emerson.

        Oh there were more, of course, theologians and philosophers who were skeptical, doubters, as well as believers and dreamers. Fellow sojourners on a path that we each must take to search for religious meaning as well as relationship. Emerson and Thoreau were such important icons for my generation of baby boomers, especially those of us who were called 'hippies!' Twentieth century Transcendentalists. Romantics! Mystics! Seekers! Skeptics! Doubters, Believers! Dreamers!

        In 1995, five hundred UU ministers gathered in Hot Springs, Arkansas to explore the center of our movement. Is there anything we can all agree on? Even, or perhaps especially among ministers the discussions were long and sometimes heated, but we went through a process together and finally came up with a statement, the Covenant of the 1995 UUMA Convocation: "In the midst of mystery/And the enduring presence of religious community, The creative power of transforming love,/Engages us in the beauty and tragedy of life To awaken compassion, call us to justice,/And invite us to live in harmony with the earth.  In light of our commitment to our Unitarian Universalist faith and our responsibility to our colleagues, congregation and the world:

     We covenant to affirm that at the heart of our faith is a profound sense of the holy and a critical trust in the power of reason. We lift up this universal religious experience, while respecting our different religious languages and symbols, in worship, religious education, fellowship, and service."

        I often describe UUism as a religious community for people who have been turned off by traditional religion, but perhaps that's too negative. Do we come here because we have been turned on, inspired, drawn to religion that makes sense to us, inspires us to become transformed even as we seek to transform the world for peace, ecological as well as economic justice, and most of all deep love for one another, ourselves, and the mystery of the Holy. We want to combine the heart and the mind, and let's not forget the hands to reach out and help! We here this morning make a beloved community gathered to explore the power of love in our lives, how we can make a difference in the world and how we can be in religious relationship.

        Amen, Peace, Shalom, Assalaamu Alaikum, Abrazos a todos, Namaste, Blessed Be, and 'Vaya Con Su Dios...'

‘Science Musings Blog,’ Chet Raymo
Sunday, April 23, 2006
When God is gone, everything is holy

In a posting a week or so ago, I stated that the central contribution of 20th century science was the shattering of absolutes. There is a corollary: The importance of everything.

Once we reject the absolute truth of one thing, whatever it might be — God, a holy book, a law of nature — then everything, even the smallest element of reality — an insect, a leaf, a grain of sand — becomes infinitely interesting. The physicist Heinz Pagels put it this way: “The capacity to tolerate complexity and welcome contradiction, not the need for simplicity and certainty, is the attribute of an explorer. Centuries ago, when some people suspended their search for absolute truth and began instead to ask how things worked, modern science was born. Curiously, it was by abandoning the search for absolute truth that science began to make progress, opening the material universe to human exploration.”

If one wanted to describe this in religious terms, it would go something like this: The absence of God makes everything holy.

But why use religious language when Pagels’ quite satisfactory summation says it all?

Because for some of us, Pagels’ summation is incomplete. We are — for better or worse — religious by nature. Whether by genes or from thousands of years of encounter with the world in wakefulness and dream we have a felt attraction to the suprasensual. We need not apologize for this. The suprasensual does not imply supernatural. The boundary between the mind and the world is infinitely fuzzy, and we are far from understanding the nature of consciousness. Nevertheless, we feel, with Newton, like children playing with pretty stones on the shore of a limitless sea. Any language that gives expression to our transsensual intuitions is religious.

But let me say clearly: All gods are idolatrous, especially any god we personify with a capital G. The great service to humanity of science has been to sweep the anthropomorphic gods away, or, at the very least, to show them for what they are, phantoms of the human brain. What we are given in their place is not Truth, but reliable empirical knowledge of the world, tentative and evolving.

When the slate of superstition has been wiped clean, what are we left with? Silence? Yes, there is something to be said for silence, for retreating into what Thomas Merton called “the prayer of the heart.”

The Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis in his Spiritual Exercises writes of the thing that he — hesitantly — calls Spirit: “We struggle to make this Spirit visible, to give it a face, to encase it in words, in allegories and thoughts and incantations, that it may not escape us. But it cannot be contained in the twenty-six letters of an alphabet which we string out in rows; we know that all these words, these allegories, these thoughts, and these incantations are, once more, but a new mask with which to conceal the Abyss.”

He writes: “We have seen the highest circle of spiraling powers. We have named this circle God. We might have given it any other name we wished: Abyss, Mystery, Absolute Darkness, Absolute Light, Matter, Spirit, Ultimate Hope, Ultimate Despair, Silence. But we have named it God because only this name, for primordial reasons, can stir our hearts profoundly. And this deeply felt emotion is indispensable if we are to touch, body with body, the dread essence beyond logic.”