“A UU Eschatology” by Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – January 8, 2012
Call to Worship – from Joel 2:28-29
And it shall come to pass afterward,
That I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even upon the menservants and maidservants
In those days, I will pour out my spirit.
Responsive Reading – #465 “The Wisdom to Survive” by Wendell Berry
“Preachers Warn” by Charles Simic
(printed in the New Yorker)
This peaceful world of ours is ready for destruction—
And still the sun shines, the sparrows come
Each morning to the bakery for crumbs.
Next door, two men deliver a bed for a pair of newlyweds
And stop to admire a bicycle chained to a parking meter.
Its owner is making lunch for his ailing grandmother.
He heats the soup and serves it to her in a bowl.
The windows are open, there’s a warm breeze.
The young trees on our street are delirious to have leaves.
Italian opera is on the radio, the volume too high.
Brevi e tristi giorni visse, a baritone sings.
Everyone up and down our block can hear him.
Something about the days that remain for us to enjoy
Being few and sad. Not today, Maestro Verdi!
At the hairdresser’s a girl leaps out of a chair,
Her blond hair bouncing off her bare shoulders
As she runs out the door in her high heels.
“I must be off,” says the handsome boy to his grandmother.
His bicycle is where he left it.
He rides it casually through the heavy traffic
His white shirttails fluttering behind him
Long after everyone else has come to a sudden stop.
“You must always be intoxicated” by Charles Baudelaire
You must always be intoxicated. That sums it all up; it’s the only question. In order not to feel the horrible burden of Time which breaks your back and bends you down to earth, you must be unremittingly intoxicated.
But on what? Wine, poetry, virtue, as you please. But never be sober.
And if it should chance that sometimes, on the steps of a palace, on the green grass of a ditch, in the bleak solitude of your room, you wake up and your intoxication has already diminished or disappeared, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, ask everything that flees, everything that groans, everything that rolls, everything that sings, everything that speaks, ask them what time it is and the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, will reply: It’s time to be intoxicated!
If you do not wish to be one of the tortured slaves of Time, never be sober; never ever be sober! Use wine, poetry, or virtue, as you please.
Sermon – “A UU Eschatology” by Mark W. Harris
This is an odd sermon title, I know. You are probably thinking why would he go back to his Bible study seminary days and drag out a technical term that has little or no relevance to Unitarian Universalism. Eschatology means teaching about the end time, and thus it conjures up images of the end of the world. It was a central theological issue to early Christian communities, many of whom believed that Jesus was going to return to earth and bring about the Kingdom of God. The teaching often surfaced among those who despaired over the present course of human history. These included the community at Qumran, known to you especially by the Dead Sea Scrolls. Evangelical Christians still teach about the eschaton, a predicted time for the second coming of Jesus, or the rapture when the saved will be drawn up into heaven with Jesus, and the reprobates like us will begin our slow and eternal burn for being non-believers. For all its images of apocalypse, and our world being destroyed, there is an undercurrent of hope in this kind of theology. The hope is that God will change things utterly and suddenly, and the world will be redeemed and transformed so that peace and justice reign forever and ever.
There is a certain judgment implied in the word. With John the Baptist before him, central to Jesus’ teaching was an exhortation that people should repent, and prepare for the coming of the Son of Man. While we UUs have tended to downplay this part of Jesus’ message, preferring the “let’s love our neighbors approach,” there was something revolutionary about it. The dissatisfaction with things as they are, tended to foster a spirit of revolt against Rome. There was a prophetic imperative underlying it that things must change or all will be lost. And while the fervor waned so that an institution could be built, and an empire accommodated, the idea of an end of history still existed within Christianity, and has since known periods of popularity, such as in 1844 when William Miller predicted the end of the world. His followers sold their worldy goods, donned white sheets, and climbed the hilltops to wait for God to draw them up to heaven. The appointed day passed, then another day was chosen, which also passed, and eventually the chosen day was put off to a more distant time, and history witnessed the advent of a sect known as the Seventh Day Adventists.
Predicting the end of the world is tricky business, at least when it is an end that God will bring about as part of a plan or due to a judgment of human wickedness. Yet this human proclivity continues to surface. We have one this year based on the Mayan long count calendar, with prognosticators saying that the world will implode on December 21, 2012. This might interfere with Margaret’s planning a solstice service. She better start early. See I treat it like a joke because the fact that some of these evangelicals take this kind of stuff seriously makes me a little nervous. They say increased floods or earthquakes are a sign from God that something catastrophic is in the works, and according to them, these are only the first signs of worse things to follow. At issue is whether we are talking about a disastrous end, or a time when a new era of enlightenment or spiritual renewal occurs, and the world is made anew.
Because this seems like such an odd subject to us, you would not think it part of a Unitarian Universalist understanding of faith, and yet the most popular articulation of liberal religion in the late 19th century were the five principles of James Freeman Clarke, which affirmed the Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of Man, and the Neighborhood of Boston. No, sorry, wrong articulation of provincialism. The last three were the Spiritual leadership of Jesus, Salvation by Character, and the Progress of mankind, onward and upward forever. It was that “progress” one that was the substitute for traditional Christian eschatology. It was that great belief that things would forever be getting better – less hunger, fewer wars and that someday, we, with God’s help, would establish the Kingdom on earth. One can see some of this belief in progress in certain hymns we still sing, such as the closing one today, “wonders still the world shall witness.” Look at #139 – “They shall know a world transfigured.” We plant the seed for what will be the new world of peace and love and justice founded upon our innate human goodness and our worlds of science. Hymn #140 is about building the glorious golden city. It says the prophets foretold that we would build this place where only wise and righteous men and women dwell. And again we see the words, “the world transfigured.” Then you see Felix Adler, the founder of the ethical culture movement wrote this. And what year did he die? (1933) Who came to power in 1933? (Hitler) And what happened to the universal liberal belief in progress? ( it disappeared)
This section of the hymnal actually begins to enlighten us as to traditional UU understandings of the future, religiously speaking. Look at the section indicator at the bottom of the page – “In Time to Come.” Go back to hymn 138. When I was a young minister I often chose, “These things shall be a loftier race,” ending the first verse with “the light of science in their eyes.” So the underlying dream of a future eschaton does exist in our articulation of faith. Look at the UU Principles – who ever talks about number six – the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all? At the time of the Unitarian and Universalist consolidation, they talked about a religion for one world, which meant a kind of blending of all the world’s faiths reflecting a belief that people really could live in harmony, and the world’s religions were really not that different. Now we talk about multiculturalism where to speak of harmony or oneness is blasphemy because we affirm difference, not likeness. While this may reflect postmodern life, where we have seen ethnic and religious clashes ruthlessly affirming differences, one wonders if we can envision our time to come as “these things shall be a loftier race” anymore? I don’t pick the hymn now, but maybe that is an indication of the end of the naïve vision, where the white liberals finally have realized that they no longer have the God given right to set the equation that equals our formula of what the future should be.
Whether you are a religious pundit or not, predicting the future is fraught with peril. The tradition of visioning a future of redemption or enlightenment has always characterized religion. The prophet Joel whose words began our service today foresaw a time of dreaming dreams and realizing a world transfigured, and he goes on to echo Micah, and the famous beating of swords into ploughshares. These are the kinds of visions that give us hope in the midst of present struggle. Yet having been born in 1951, I have known a world of wars and the rumors of wars, but also an actual “eve of destruction,” too, the title of a popular song from my teen years. For many of us there were the childhood years in the wake of the dropping of nuclear weapons in 1945 where we practiced bomb drills in school by hiding under our desks, watched neighbors construct bomb shelters, feared for our lives during the Cuban missile crisis, and saw films of nuclear winter where people and landscape were completely obliterated. In preparation for this sermon, I pulled the book The Fate of the Earth by Jonathan Schell off my bookshelf. I had considered putting it in the More Than Words collection box out back because I pondered its continued relevance. Our president pushed through a new START treaty, but it often seems like no one pays any attention to nuclear weapons any more. It’s odd isn’t it? I remembered marching in Oakland against weapons, listening to Helen Caldecott speak, spending time fearing the end of the world, and now the binding of Schell’s book is cracked and broken, and I wonder if it still matters.
Sometime last year, I was walking out the door of the town hall, and one of the employees there, whose name I have forgotten, said to me, “Hey, it’s Mr. Extreme Green.” I said, “Me? Why do you say that? He replied, I see you walking everywhere all over town. While I am not quite as faithful a green man as he implied, it did strike me, like the fear of nuclear winter, how much I had been made aware of global warming, partly by a spouse who eschewed the use of paper towels, and partly by a congregation who said we must do something about this ecological crisis because, if we keep to our current patterns of consuming energy, we will destroy our beautiful green home. I saw the films of rising tides destroying major cities, and it reminded me of those bomb films I saw so many years ago depicting the devastating effects on people and cities. Either way, through weapons of mass destruction or weapons like automobiles fed by our insatiable thirst for oil, it seemed like the time to come for our faith was not so much the loftier race, but whether a home for our race would be here at all. And even though it was not God’s plan for the future, it became clear that our plan for the future must be a radical transformation of our values of individual fulfillment and personal consumption.
So what did does this imperative tell us about time, and the future? The poet Baudelaire says we must always be intoxicated in order to not feel the burden of time. One could certainly take this reading the wrong way. Baudelaire was an addict who lived a wild life, and so for him to suggest constant intoxication is worrisome to me. I have known too much about those who use intoxicants to become drunk to avoid the pain of life. Yet there is something about the burden of time, marked especially by new years that push us to ask ourselves what will happen to me, or to my children? Will I be alright? Will they? We may worry about loneliness or pain over time, and so to avoid our feelings we do use intoxicants, and if not alcohol, then we become consumers of clothes or electronics or something because the burden of time does wear on us, and we worry about emptiness. And Baudelaire wants us not to be sucked in by whatever we use to fill our time. He says let time stand still. Being intoxicated is to fill yourself with passion for something. Be present. Be awake, and in effect find your end of time in the present moment. So my love for history fills time because I am present to it so much, and for you that might be poetry or painting, running or walking. Our eschatology is fulfilled in a love of being present in the moment now, to each other, to what we love, much like Jesus would have said about the kingdom being within.
Can UUs have an eschatology of being present to the moment? The traditional understanding of the end of time is that time would literally be no more. That is difficult for UUs because we come from this tradition that worshipped progress. We saw things always getting better. In fact our idea of improving character throughout life, even in an after life, was the foundation of the self-help movement. The implicit message was that you are not good enough, but that you always need to improve. Part of that message is that everything always needs to grow, and get bigger and faster and better. It plagues our economy and it plagues our world because it represents an endless race for more and better in our world and in our lives. I was happy to see that the old buying plan called “layaway” is back in the stores. For decades we have lived on a philosophy of buy now and pay later,” but it was have whatever you want, whenever you want it. Layaway means you will save, you will plan, you will hold back, and you will get the item when you are able to pay the bill. With arms we built more. With gas, we consume more. And who is going to pay? We do not have a sovereign right to take what we want from the creation, when we all depend upon it for survival. Layaway would mean we wouldn’t just use up the earth, we would realize it as a foundation for life that must last forever.
The idea of things getting better in the early 20th century resulted in a social gospel message that we could create the kingdom of God on earth through our reforms. But the century took our idea of divine human nature and confronted us with the holocaust, and it took our yearning for peace, and gave us nuclear weapons. These helped deter the idea of progress and a kingdom on earth in any religious sense, but oddly enough the environmental, military and social upheavals have led the evangelicals to use the various worsening or chaotic world conditions as a predictor of the second coming. It is like the infamous James Watt, Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior who was reputed to have said that it did not matter if he protected the trees because Jesus was coming soon anyway.
It seems to me that liberals have really become the conservatives of our time. We want to preserve the beautiful world we have. We don’t promulgate some ideology that has no basis in reality. We are now the realists who say be limited, use what is local, live simply. But moreover, we must remember that our task, as Jonathan Schell said, is to preserve ourselves, and our environment, and not to create; nature or God does that. It is our longing to create and control that leads to a use of power to destroy. What we have long known is that the present and future are in our hands. Long ago Newton said that people couldn’t really foretell the future, but they wanted to know it was fulfilled because it meant that the world is governed by providence, that God has a plan. Evolution taught us that any notion of plan was random, and God would not preserve or save us. I think that is right.
Recently I announced in the newsletter that my son, who is named for the prophet Joel, and his wife were gong to have a baby. Just a week ago the baby died. We don’t really know why. It is sad, and will probably be something they carry in their hearts forever. This did not happen for any divine reason. No one was being punished or rewarded. It just happened. They will try to move forward and have a baby, and hopefully it will work out. That’s what much of life is: finding meaningful work and relationships in the short time we have, move ahead in fits and starts, in joys and sorrows, and try again, hopefully preparing the way for those who follow. Preachers, like the poet Charles Simic says, may warn us that the world is ready for destruction, and the days are few and sad, but we should always say to those naysayers, Not today, Maestro! We are born to live fully, to love one another, to try again, to ride with our shirttails flying. Our eschatology is to live now, but it is to live now in harmony with each other and with the earth, in order that our grandchildren, if we are so fortunate, might be born, and we could live to teach them to love this planet, and embrace its beauty and its people so that there might be hope for a future. On Friday I conducted a memorial service for a 38-year-old woman who had cerebral palsy. She had died suddenly, and it was very sad. After I came home, I saw Andrea who told me that she was returning from the Y on Friday morning, and was driving up Main Street. As she approached Church Street she saw a parade of wheelchairs, 20, 30, 40 strong, all lined up and headed for First Parish. They were coming here to express their love for this young woman. Andrea said the sight of all these wheelchairs made her cry. We might normally say those people won’t know much of a life, and won’t achieve much, and yet think of all they achieve with bodies that don’t work – What was in evidence mostly was their ability to love a friend. That is really what we should teach as our eschatology – find the kingdom right now in the love you give, the love you live – not harming another, not harming the ground you walk upon. Seeing all those wheelchairs was in some way a benefit of that progress we once believed in. Andrea said it made her feel proud that there was a place where they all could go. Maybe it signals there is a little more love in the world, and a little more justice in society and that growth can give us hope for the days to come.
Closing Words – from James Baldwin
For nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it
is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is
always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down
rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are
responsible to them because we are the only witnesses
they have. The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each
other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to
hold each other, the moment we break faith with one
another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.