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July 12, 2009: “Everything is Holy: Scientific Spirituality in Nature”

I used to love the comic strip, Calvin and Hobbs, named after the theologian and philosopher, but don’t let that bother you. But I liked it because it was theological and philosophical as well, of course, as funny. In the strip, Calvin was as boy and Hobbs his stuffed Tiger who became real- but only in his mind’s eye of course. Chet Raymo quotes a strip in his book that I liked: In the first panel , Calvin is alone under the night sky. In the second panel, he screams at the stars, ‘I’m significant!:’ In the third one he seems to be staring into the silent spaces. Fourth panel, he describes a how a chastened Calvin adds, ‘Screamed the dust speck.’

This is significant for a number of reasons. Here is a physics and astronomy professor writing a book titled ,When God is Gone Everything is Holy: The Making of a Religious Naturalist, and he’s using a comic strip as an illustration, but It is a great illustration of that mixed feeling that we all can identify with when we gaze on the night sky in , yes even religious awe and wonder of the vastness of the universe while wondering about our tiny part of it and hoping, demanding that we are significant in some way? And wondering about the creation as well as, of course as the creator’ How did this all start’ And perhaps- Who’s in charge here’ What’s my role’ What am I supposed to do? Who am I? Does God exist? What is Nature?

I didn’t like science in high school or college. I preferred English or History because the way they taught science was basically biology 101 and the test was memorizing things that I didn’t use in many conversations. I think I would have liked to have had Chet Raymo for a professor because I think he taught differently. One of his books, The Path: A One-Mile Walk Through the Universe, was about his walk to work through the woods every day for almost 40 years from his home in North Easton, MA to Stonehill College in Easton. I found two videos on UTUBE and watched them on Friday. I have to confess to envy. my friends, as I watched him walk out of his victorian home and through the woods over an old bridge and thought of what an idyllic life it looked like! Imagine being able to walk to work a mile away and through beautiful and through beautiful forest by New England river over a wooden bridge and through meadows!! But imagine writing a whole book about it that was spiritual and inspring! Even his walk to work was part of his religious naturalism his scientific spirituality.

After he was married and with his Ph.D. in physics he said he moved to the New England of Emerson and Thoreau to be a ‘Thoreauvian sojourner’. Indeed, his seeming Unitarian connections are overwhelming, though subtle and as we often say, without knowing it! He comes from a Catholic background graduates from Notre Dame after all, but is more in the spirit of the Catholic mystics and the many contemporary Catholic naturalists. He is in the company of those writers who give a spiritual dimension to science and nature, who keep the religion in nature as well as science. He talks about the difficulty of science and religion.

‘The militant atheistic biologist Richard Dawkins, whom I admire for many things, thinks its a sham for someone of agnostic temperament to use the language of traditional religion. The word ‘God,’ for example….

But there is something called natural religion (or, if you prefer, religious naturalism) that hides behind and within traditional faiths, and I am not so ready as Dawkins to surrender a venerable and evocative language of praise to to traditional theists. I will continue to pray, if by prayer you understand me to mean attention to the world.

Then he quotes Emerson- ‘Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view’ wrote Emerson; ‘It is the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul?’ And continues-‘And I will try to live- as my Roman Catholic teachers urged me to live- in a state of grace. Not supernatural grace, to be sure, but the myriad natural graces that bless and hallow the everyday.’

What Raymo does is to bring the scientists of the past to the present to help us to see the spirituality of nature so that we realize we are a part of it as well, and that there has always been two kinds of people, if you will, who look at the world in two kinds of ways. For Darwin’s contemporaries, ‘A single explanation sufficed: God did it.’ That wasn’t good enough for Darwin, or for him or for most of us, either.

So evolution, you see. For some, all part of God’s design as well which might include Intelligent Design, but for others, like Raymo and most scientists, a supreme being named God does not satisfy the scientific mind, nor does it mine. For millions, if not billions, God did or does it is sufficient, then plug in your particular religious belief, and there you have it. But for those of us who no longer believe in that God, then what’ Nothing’

 'I no longer believe in the personal, transcendent God of my   forebears' Raymo writes, 'yet I still feel religious, was still   enamored of my Catholic sacramental tradition. I still had no time for    miracles or the supernatural. But the more I learned about the   natural world, the more I stood in awe of its 'inscape'. I longed to   give praise and thanksgiving. And to pray. 'I don't know exactly what   a prayer is,' says Mary Oliver in a poem, 'I do know how to pay   attention.' I pay attention. With other s of a scientific temperament,   I read the Book of Nature. Now in the eight decade of my life, I am   cautiously willing to use the G-word for the mystery I found there,   and unembarrassed to use the word 'prayer' for attending with   reverence to what I see? 

He talked about a dinner one evening when the family were discussing why scientists seemed so much less likely than the general population to believe in God. According to most polls, about nine out of ten Americans say they believe in God while among the members of the American Academy of Scientists, that ratio is reversed. They wondered why.
‘My daughter’s husband posited, only half in jest, ‘Overweening hubris?’
We laughed. Well, yes, there could be some of that.
My daughter then wondered, ‘what does ween mean?’
And although we had heard or used the expression ‘overweening hubris’ all our lives, we didn’t know.
So the dictionary. Ween:V. tr. archaic, be of the opinion, to suppose.
Overweening them means to be arrogantly of the opinion, overconfident in one’s suppositions. Overweening hubris is redundant, but a grand phrase nevertheless’

Sounds like he might be talking about us UU’s doesn’t it? So even scientists, you see, can be overconfident and opinionated when they think they are being factual and objective! Raymo keeps his humility. I have observed how sometimes people who criticize religion as being overzealous and fundamentalist seem to come off sounding that way themselves!

Raymo writes: “I have given up the certainty that I know the Truth. I no longer believe that Christians are any closer to God than right-living people of any other faith. Faith no longer matters to me so much as attention, wonder, celebration, praise” (p. 4). In his eighth decade, what is his personal Credo? “I am an atheist, if by God one means a transcendent Person who acts willfully within the creation. I am an agnostic in that I believe our knowledge of ‘what is’ is partial and tentative — a tiny flickering flame in the overwhelming shadows of our ignorance. I am a pantheist in that I believe empirical knowledge of the sensate world is the surest revelation of whatever is worth being called divine.’

He is a mystic in that he worships the mystery and feels connected to the oneness and also, and here is the most important part, I believe, gives it a value of inspiration, you see. Science never inspired me! Those early Unitarian Transcendentalists Emerson and Thoraeau saw spirituality in Nature and today there are more and more religious naturalists inspiring us with their writings, like Annie Dillard, Ursal Good enough, Thomas Berry, and so many others maybe starting with Rachel Carson and igniting the environmental movement. So he is also a prophet.

“The universe is a unity,’ he writes,’ — an interacting, evolving, and genetically-related community of beings bound together inseparably in space and time. Our responsibilities to each other and to all of creation are implicit in this unity. Each of us is profoundly implicated in the functioning and fate of every other being on the planet, and ultimately, perhaps, throughout the universe” (p. 98).

You see, here’s one of the differences between whether it’s up to us or up to God. If God is controlling everything, then it’s neither my fault nor my responsibility to do anything about the environment. But if there is no God as in Supreme Being that pulls the puppet strings nd there’s only us as part of the interrelatedness, then I better do my part! I also want to to be able to see my part in the universe as significant as well.

He quotes Biologist E.O WIlson’s book, Consilience: ‘The spirits our ancestors knew intimately first fled the rocks and trees, then the distant mountains. Now they are in the stars, where their final extinction is possible. But we cannot live without them. People need a sacred narrative.’

Then he says, 'Can such a narrative be found, one that is not in   conflict with science. ...THe truly evolutionary epic, retold as   poetry, is as intrinsically ennobling as any religious epic, he says.   And religious naturalist agree.'

Last week when I read Emerson’s great words on the Divinity school address of 1838, he was already saying somewhat similar in talking about traditional religion already losing the interest of many people, especially Unitarians and that Nature herself was miracle with no need for supernaturalism! Yet Emerson was not doing away with God as such, nor do I want to either in what I describe n my credo as mystical humanism or on some days as naturalistic theism or yes what I might also describe myself as a religious naturalist. Like Raymo, I retain that ‘itch for God,’ that desire for the spiritual, though no desire for the traditional creeds or beliefs.

 Yet, I know that some still believe, both in our midst and in more   traditional places and that's OK. It's not that they are wrong and I   am right or even the other way around.  Raymo says: 'As I write, two   books that do their best to reduce God Ad  absurdum are being talked   about everywhere: Richard Dawkins The God Delusion and Sam Harris's   The End of Faith. The authors go at religion like B-movie slashers   armed with Ockham's razor, and by the time they are finished there is   not much left but the gory shreds of miracles and superstitions. I   enjoyed bother performances. God  had it coming. But I won't go where   Dawkins and Harris would like to take me. SOmething is amiss with   their militant, slash and burn, atheism. If I can switch metaphors-and   turn the new one on its ear- Dawkins and Harris throw out the bath   water with the baby.

In my inverted clich let the ‘bath-water stand for the mind-stretching, jaw-dropping, in-your-face wonder of the universe itself, the Heraclitean mystery that hides in every rainbow, every snowflake, every living cell. After all, water, as much as anything in our environment, is an adequate symbol for the creative agency that forges atoms in the hot interior of stars, weds oxygen to hydrogen, and wets the earth with the stuff of life and consciousness- an agency worthy of attention, reverence, thanksgiving, praise.?

Yea, even water itself is holy! Even water itself is not so simple, but the very essence of life. Maybe water is God! Think of the sea teeming with life, think of the rain, of the Great Lakes, the rivers and the streams, even the water that makes up most of our bodies…Again it is drawing attention and a religious dimension to even the most seemingly mundane that makes everything holy. Is he not perhaps a priest as well inspiring us to religious devotion of earth and air fire and water’ Of all life upon this planet’ To wonder at it all and not take it for granted’ One of Buddha’s famous most sermons was simply holding up a flower. No words, Just holding up a flower. Was he the first religious naturalist? You either got it or you didn’t. It was not 20 minutes and there were no hymns!

‘Since Galileo,’ Raymo so spiritually observes, ‘we understand ourselves to be part of an endlessly fructifying tapestry of mutual relaltionship and self imposed responsibility, rather than a chain of subservience and domination. We are animals who have evolved the capacity to cherish our fellow humans and to resist for the common good our innate tendencies to aggression and selfishness, not because we have been plucked out of our animal selves by some sky hook from above, but because we have been nudged into reflective consciousness by evolution.’

Yes,’part of an endlessly fructifying tapestry of mutual relationship,’ how about that for another way of saying interdependent web of life? And for social justice -‘evolved the capacity to cherish our fellow humans and to resist for the common good our innate tendencies to aggression and selfishness?’ A moral sense in nature without need for supernatural God. and also that we have been ‘nudged into reflective consciousness by evolution.’ Is that not holy? He goes on to sound even more Unitarian Universalist while also challenging us to become more like Chet Raymo’s description:

‘Any religion worthy of humankind’s future will have these characteristics: -It will be ecumenical. It will not imagine itself ‘truer’ than other religions. It will be open and welcoming to best and holiest of all faith traditions.

-It will be ecological. It will take the planet and all of its creatures into its commandment of love.

_It will embrace the scientific story of the wold as the most reliable cosmology, not necessarily true,but truer than the neolithic alternatives that currently give shape to the world’s theologies. It will look for the signature of the divinity in the extravagant wonder of the creation itself, not in supposed miracles or exceptions to nature’s laws.’

If there is a limitation to Raymo’s writings, it it is that they don’t encourage us to gather in religious community to read them tougher as inspiration to then go out in nature as well, a both and religion of inside and outside rather than either/or. Like Emerson was saying of trying to breath new life into the church rather than creating a brand new form. Celebrating religious naturalism in a worship service WITH hymns and minister and congregation and church building, but also looking out windows into world and beauty and nature and appreciating the outside as well!

‘Although scientists as a group are much less likely to believe in God and the supernatural than the general population,’ Raymo writes, ‘in my experience, they are no less ‘spiritual.’ Microbiologist Ursula Good enough, for example is not a theist, but considers herself deeply religious.’

Interestingly enough she was the theme speaker a the Mountain Desert District Annual Meeting 2 years ago in Denver when I was the interim minister in Boulder, where she talked about being a religious naturalist.

He goes on to quote from her book: ‘In her wonderful book, The Sacred Depths of Nature, she reminds us that the word religion derives from the Latin relgio, to bind together again. She writes: ‘We have throughout the ages sought connection with higher powers in the sky or beneath the earth, or with the ancestors living in some other realm. We have also sought, and found, religious fellowship, with one another. And now we realize that we are connected to all creatures. Not just in food chains or ecological equilibria. We share a common ancestor…We share evolutionary constraints and possibilities. We are connected all the way down.’

It is that sacred connection of oneness that the mystics of all religions of all times tell us about in all the holy books that are beyond God and gods, or perhaps might even be the gods and/or God if we looked at it in another way.

“The universe,’ Raymo writes, ‘ is a unity — an interacting, evolving, and genetically-related community of beings bound together inseparably in space and time. Our responsibilities to each other and to all of creation are implicit in this unity. Each of us is profoundly implicated in the functioning and fate of every other being on the planet, and ultimately, perhaps, throughout the universe.”

Now that sounds more like what I think scripture should sound like for the 21st century; is it not holy? And are we not holy? And is not all life holy that we should love one another and live our lives fully and with great pleasure, yet with the knowledge that we are responsible as well for loving and helping our neighbor. Pay attention to life and to love and to the beauty and wonder of nature. Love life.

We live, as Raymo says, ‘in part of an endlessly fructifying tapestry of mutual relationship;’ may we live as if everything is holy now!

Amen, Peace, Shalom, (Peace in Hebrew), Assalaamu Alaikum(may Peace be upon you in Arabic), Abrazos a todos (Hugs all around) Namaste, (A Hindu greeting the divinity within you) Blessed Be, and let me add one more blessing that I adapdted from the Spanish long before I went in to ministry. ‘Vaya con Dios’ is SPanish for Good-bye, but literally is ‘Go with God,’ SO I adapted it to say ‘Vaya Con Su Dios, ‘Go with your idea or interpretation of God.’

Peace,Love, Shalom, Salaam, Blessed Be, Namaste, Abrazo a Todos, 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.

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 …. 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.”

One might reasonably take issue with Kazantzakis. The word God is so burdened with idolatrous baggage that its usefulness is compromised for the scientific skeptic. Better, say, to adopt Rudolf Otto’s “mysterium tremendum et fascinans,” or Kazantzakis’ own “dread essence beyond logic.” But then, in the end, is any formulation of the transsensual less idolatrous than another?

Let it only be said that the world is shot through with a mystery that manifests itself no less in what is revealed by science — the universe of the galaxies and the eons, the eternally weaving DNA, the electrochemical flickering which is consciousness — than in the creations of poets, visual artists and musicians.

So we stumble forward, trying to avoid the dogmas of blind faith or scientism, We try to make ourselves worthy of the universe of which we are an infinitesimal part. We will not all agree on what worthiness consists of. For me, it is a mix of skepticism and celebration.

Kazantzakis, in the Spiritual Exercises, lodges his Ultimate Concern in the human heart.

A command rings out within me: "Dig! What do you see?"
"Men and birds, water and stones."
"Dig deeper! What do you see?"
"Ideas and dreams, fantasies and lightning flashes!"
"Dig deeper! What do you see?"
"I see nothing! A mute Night, as thick as death. It must be death."
"Dig deeper!"
"Ah! I cannot penetrate the dark partition! I hear voices and   weeping. I hear the fluttering of wings on the other shore."
"Don't weep! Don't weep! They are not on the other shore. The   voices, the weeping, and the wings are your own heart."

So this would be my creed: Strive for reliable knowledge of the world, which I take to be the tentative consensus knowledge of the scientific community. Distrust those who offer absolutes. Listen to poets. And pay attention, even to the least of things — for everything is interesting.

The Meditation that Wasn’t……
This was the song that was supposed to be played during the meditation that I skipped. It was played during coffee hour, but couldn’t be fully appreciated. I’ll play it again. I really love this song and am sure that Chet Raymo must have heard it since the title seems so relevant!

Holy Now Peter Mayer
When I was a boy, each week
On Sunday, we would go to church
And pay attention to the priest
He would read the holy word
And consecrate the holy bread
And everyone would kneel and bow
Today the only difference is
Everything is holy now
Everything, everything
Everything is holy now

When I was in Sunday school
We would learn about the time
Moses split the sea in two
Jesus made the water wine
And I remember feeling sad
That miracles don’t happen still
But now I can’t keep track
‘Cause everything’s a miracle
Everything, Everything
Everything’s a miracle

Wine from water is not so small
But an even better magic trick
Is that anything is here at all
So the challenging thing becomes
Not to look for miracles
But finding where there isn’t one

When holy water was rare at best
It barely wet my fingertips
But now I have to hold my breath
Like I’m swimming in a sea of it
It used to be a world half there
Heaven’s second rate hand-me-down
But I walk it with a reverent air
‘Cause everything is holy now
Everything, everything
Everything is holy now

Read a questioning child’s face
And say it’s not a testament
That’d be very hard to say
See another new morning come
And say it’s not a sacrament
I tell you that it can’t be done

This morning, outside I stood
And saw a little red-winged bird
Shining like a burning bush
Singing like a scripture verse
It made me want to bow my head
I remember when church let out
How things have changed since then
Everything is holy now
It used to be a world half-there
Heaven’s second rate hand-me-down
But I walk it with a reverent air
‘Cause everything is holy now