At the end of college and seminary I thought I knew a lot. I wondered why more people didn’t ask me anything. I had read and loved, but not self-applied, those great lines of Alexander Pope: “We think our fathers fools so wise we grow. Surely our younger sons will think us so.”
I remember my former in-laws at the time of a breakdown saying to me, you say something very annoying to us. What could that be? They said, you start a lot of statements with, “You’ll have to agree with me.” I knew I said that a lot, but I did not see how that could be annoying. I had read and loved, but not self-applied, the line of thinking of Plato that wisdom comes with age and only people of a certain age and wisdom, which includes humility, can be trusted with any kind of authority over others. I think I am learning and self-applying the fact that wisdom doesn’t necessarily come with age. When I hear someone say, or myself think, we are older and wiser now, I want to chime in, You are surely half-right.
Hadn’t we all learned in school that life is a journey of actually learning how little we do know? And if you happen to have children, or be close to somebody else’s, they will remind you how little you actually know. I have been impressed with a scientist’s presentations of a Great Courses series on modern advances, and the conclusion he would often state in his responses: science is progressing along many lines, but we really don’t know very much.
A book sits on my shelf. I bought it a long time ago but haven’t got far into it. The title is, TWO WORLDS ARE OURS by the theologian, John Macquarrie. It is an exploration of the history of Christian mysticism, which frankly I have read about in the past but not found that interesting. The idea of the book or at least the title is age-old. We are body and spirit, physical/material and spiritual. We can know a lot about the body, the human body, plant and animal life, fauna and flora, and we can know a lot about the body of the planet and heavenly bodies in space. The laws and rules for knowing and learning more about all those physical realities are well established. The Dalai Lama in his book our midweek class read, THE UNIVERSE IN A SINGLE ATOM, restates the rules of science pretty well: cause and effect, repeatable experiment, objective observation and measurement. That’s one world, one reality so to speak. The other world suggested in TWO WORLDS ARE OURS is something else altogether. We call it spirituality, our spiritual journey. We all have it, we all own it, TWO WORLDS ARE OURS.
We here are proud of our heritage of respect for everyone’s spiritual journey. No one here has more of a grasp on that world than anybody else. What we hope to do is to encourage each other to keep growing in your own spiritual brand. I suspect all of us at times feel, we don’t have much grasp, and sometimes we feel we are losing what grip we have on that world within. We are here to reassure each other, when some of us walk through the valley, we want to reassure one another: it will come back and you will come back. You will keep growing. That’s one thing we want to do and be for each other in a congregation. To be human means to be shaky at times; love will do that to you; people we care about will do that to you.
A major turnoff for me in religion is people claiming to KNOW more than they can possibly know, which often means confusing metaphor talk, which is really the only way we can talk about the spiritual world, confusing metaphor talk and scientific, objective physical world talk. I can’t believe there are so many American people who actually believe the world was created on a certain date in 4004 BCE. People who believe that cling to BC, forget BCE. You know there are theme parks to take you back as close to that year as possible. At least Disney is up-front about magic and fantasy; you go there for escape and to help the Florida economy, and because your grandchildren make you.
What we know and how we know about matters spiritual is completely different from what we know and how we know about matters physical. And here I can say with conviction, I really don’t know. But that doesn’t keep me from grasping, grappling, groping, searching, often, seemingly in the dark. The fact is, we even mean different things by spirituality.
For me -- and of course I can only talk for me -- spirituality is not about another world I can hope to figure out some day, or even enter some day, that day seeming sooner than it used to. That sense of spirituality as another world has been affected, I would say, in a clearly prejudiced way, has been warped by creative people like Cecil B. DeMille and Rod Serling, creative people who tried to translate the metaphorical into the physical. which reminds me of the Mormon pavilion of the 1964 world's fair. They showed a movie of people in heaven, all ages, happy, in white robes. And I left thinking I would be better off dying soon so I can be young for eternity.
For me, spirituality and holy are about worth, not what we are worth in assets but what we are worth as humans, and what we deem as the most worthy, worthwhile, valuable, and what our actual living, our practice shows that we love. Worship means what we ascribe worth to, what we center our lives around, what we value more than anything else. So, spirituality for me is reflecting on all that, how honest am I and how committed am I to that being the real for me? How big is the gap between what I profess and how I live? Big enough to bring the word hypocrisy to mind?
One area or concern that most people would place under the umbrella spiritual -- and really all I can say is I don't know -- is the whole matter of the afterlife. In that area I think the rules for knowing are a whole lot different than what we usually mean when we say we know something. Those of us who were present in one of our book discussions years ago when we got onto the topic of eternity and what we thought it meant, those of us who heard our beloved and late friend Martha Michelsen, a proud UU, say she didn’t know how it could be but she hoped and she believed that someday she would be with her daughter who had died of breast cancer just a few years previously. As we heard her say that, we could only feel, (i)May it be so.
In our book discussion, which we call a faith discussion, we invite sharing with this understanding: You won’t try to talk us into it and we won’t try to talk you out of it. I guess that’s also what we mean by encouraging each other on our spiritual journeys here. I know there are people in the class and in this congregation who believe in reincarnation in some way. Belief in reincarnation is as old as the human race, which I assure you, predates 4004 BCE. It goes against my grain, or my core belief, but if I am wrong, I hope I won’t be penalized someday, or, at the worst, have to come back as a fundamentalist.
(Parenthetically, one thing that deeply impressed us about the Dalai Lama’s book was, here was a very spiritual man studying with his vast resources the world of science and finding similarities between ancient Buddhism and modern science. One point he made over and over was that people err by closing the door to new knowledge. He calls that a metaphysics, or an ideology or a world view and that commitment may focus us or orient us but the error is in concluding there is no more truth or reality than what we can see. Here is one of the world’s most spiritual people writing this: “I have argued for the need for and possibility of a world view grounded in science, yet one that does not deny the richness of human nature and the validity of modes of knowing other than the scientific.” The error lies in closing the mind too soon and to me that’s also the error of religious fundamentalism.)
I got a clue about what knowing means in spiritual matters when I came home briefly from college and was taken to lunch by my home minister in Troy NY, the minister who had a lot to do with my wanting to be a minister. He was very loving and very conservative theologically, from Asbury Kentucky, and I decided to add to the lunch menu all the doubts I had discovered in college. So I asked him how in the world he could be so sure about things like the virgin birth of Jesus, the physical resurrection, the absolute inerrancy -- meaning, no human flaws, no human anything, it was all of divine origin -- the perfectness of scripture. He responded in this disarming way: He did not know any of the things he believed for sure, but he was living as if they were true. And he thought that, even if wrong, they had positively guided his life.
That conversation has guided mine. Religion, spirituality is not about what we know and can prove to be true in this world or the next. A line from Christian scripture puts it this way, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” A similar phrase from the Judeo-Christian tradition is “by faith and not by sight”. Meaning, what we believe, what we’ve committed to, not what we can prove to be true. As I keep saying, it’s more about what we want to be true, and what we want to contribute to being true more so than what we know to be true.
What we know religiously is what we are committed to as if it were true, because it is true for us. What are the basics of this truth that hopefully we are living by?
The Dalai Lama says that compassion, the alleviation of suffering was Buddha’s driving passion, and Karen Armstrong, historian of the great religions, writes that all the main world religions lifted up compassion as the ethical core. I don’t think it’s unwarranted skepticism that makes me ask, why in the world isn't there more evidence of that? Why do the religions we have known best seem better at separating the sheep from the goats, and what did goats ever do to earn that negative? In that time-worn distinction, the sheep are those loved and tended by the good shepherd and the goats are the rejected. Jesus, take that put-down of the goats back!
As alike as we all are, and scientists say our DNA is about 99% the same, and our DNA is even about 98% the same as the animal world, as alike as we all are, humans seem to need to fix on differences. And differences, minuscule in the scheme, the DNA of things, can be used to use and abuse, to put down goats or people for just being who they are.
We UUs say we believe in the inherent dignity of all people. Do we really treat each other as if we know that to be true because we want it to be true and are committed to it?
A little humility about how much we actually do know is a good thing, and hopefully opens us up to learning a little more. But more than one author has written, we know enough to live committed lives, lives committed to the truth, like the dignity of all. The problem isn’t the knowing but the commitment. We are against putting down and separating out, even goats. Amen.
I Don't Know, a sermon delivered by the Rev. Bob MacDonald at 1stUUPB, Sep 7, 2014.