“Religious Relics” by Mark W. Harris

October 10, 2010 – First Parish of Watertown, Unitarian Universalist

Call to Worship – Annie Dillard, from Holy the Firm

Ladies and gentlemen! You are given insects,
and birdsong, and a replenishing series of clouds.
The air is buoyant and wholly transparent, scoured by grasses.
The earth stuck through it is noisome, lighted and salt.
Who shall ascend into the holy hill of the Lord?
Or who shall stand in his holy place?
“Whom shall I send,” heard the first Isaiah,
“and who will go for us?”
And poor Isaiah,
who happened to be standing there
– and there was no one else-
burst out, “Here I am; send me.”

Reading – “Religion” by Alfred North Whitehead

Sermon – “Religious Relics” by Mark W. Harris

This has been an unusually busy week for me. I had a wonderful time at my son’s wedding last weekend, but as soon as we returned I had to leave again for my study group meeting on Cape Cod. In the meantime I saw this email from a retired minister who is helping to organize a UU history conference with me that is taking place this weekend in Waltham. The email simply stated, “I really need to talk with you. Please give me a call. Betsy.” My anxiety immediately flew into overdrive. It turned out that she just needed reassurance that everything was unfolding more or less according to plan. When I told her my schedule this week, including the need to write a sermon, she said, “Oh just tell them about the wedding. They’ll love it.” While I was a little skeptical about telling you the details of the lobster ravioli on the buffet table or how this old, weak body of mine had to drag itself off the dance floor while repeating the refrain, “Staying alive, staying alive,” or even how the ring bearer ran the other way, and had to be tracked down, I thought there might be some merit in the suggestion. You might wonder, who on earth needs wedding details? But on the other hand you might also wonder if there is something deeply religious, something innate in human nature that implores us to celebrate together the union of two hearts that have found what they believe is enduring love.

Weddings are mentioned infrequently in the Bible, but most people recall that the most famous wedding story is from the marriage at Cana in the Gospel of John, where Jesus becomes the ultimate party guy by transforming all the water into wine. Some people interpret this to mean that joy and feasting are better responses to the divine presence in our lives than fasting. There is something amazing in the midst of community that we ought to recognize. But what is most important is not the miraculous act itself, but that the act represents God’s presence in Jesus. This is an important distinction for us as Unitarian Universalists. And it might make all the difference for how we view religion itself; not as something to explain the world, but as a way to experience life.

Most of you know that liberals historically have taken very rational approaches to religious faith. Our earliest founders read the scriptures with a view towards historical and literary criticism. The Bible was not the divine word of God, but rather how those who came before found meaning from human experiences, and recorded the stories, poetry and history to give context and understanding to their faith. Liberals placed the greatest emphasis on what was seen and felt through the authority of their lives, their human senses. Miraculous acts that were recounted in scripture didn’t fit with the natural and scientific truths we had come to believe about the world. Arguments about Miracles began to transform Unitarianism by 1800. Jefferson took the Bible and literally snipped all the miracle stories out of it to produce a life of Jesus that was worth emulating, but certainly not worshipping like some super hero. Then at the time of the Transcendentalists forty years later, some Unitarians said we must leave Biblical revelation behind, and intuit divinity for ourselves firsthand. Emerson even referred to miracles as monster; they are lies perpetrated by the institution to control people’s lives. Unitarians were developing a religion that placed increasing emphasis on reason and science, keeping in step with modernity. But what that meant in effect was that religion, as it was traditionally known had to retreat as science advanced. Some liberals who viewed religion as superstition or belief in things that just ain’t so or wishful thinking thought this was a good thing because humans would face the truth about life, and assume responsibility for the future of humanity and the planet. But for some of those people religion was a relic of the past that should be outgrown. In this view religion is not a primary human need, but rather is a by product of human ignorance or political repression that we will overcome with the growth of knowledge. The resurgence of atheists like Christopher Hitchens reflect this view.

Sometimes we UUs in our haste to outgrow or reject our past beliefs find we agree with the secularists who are telling us that religion should be outgrown. Are religious beliefs childish, or is the religious impulse something innate in our very being? Which are you? Sometimes it is hard not to fall on the side of the childish. A couple of weeks ago the Boston Globe, a reputable, even liberal newspaper at times ran a story about a woman who had lost a wedding band. She had no idea where it was, and naturally it meant a lot to her. Feeling bereft of what to do to find this precious object, she turned to St. Anthony, and prayed and prayed that it might be recovered. Well, the ring was found. She believed with all her heart that her prayers had worked. The saint or God or some divine intervention had arranged for her to find the ring. Well, this is just crazy, but the Globe considered it newsworthy, and reported it as though it were true. Does this mean when I fall on my knees over Dana’s missing Ipod, and then have it suddenly appear that I have achieved a successful divine intervention? Hallelujah! But what about the wedding band my father lost years ago on the beach when his left handed pitch was so hard the ring flew off his wet hand into the sand never to be found. We prayed. What did we do wrong?

The idea that God answers some people’s prayers and not others is not a very satisfactory religion to me. It leads to a lot of false hopes or self-incrimination and eventually unmitigated anger at God. It is true that as society first developed, religion was a useful thing to explain events that humans could not be understood. This was often scientific phenomenon that they simply could not explain. In the 1700’s earthquakes here in New England were described as a manifestation of God’s anger towards the people because they had fallen away from the faith. This helped lead to a great revival in religion. A missing ring might have been caused by God to test a person’s faith, and a successful discovery would lead them to interpret that their prayers were heard. They believe God led them to the ring, or caused someone to find it, when really it was only a matter of luck. Earthquakes, tides and winds that were once identified with the divine are all natural things that are perfectly explainable now, but there still remain both cosmic and mundane things that are confounding to us, and even as liberals, we are reluctant to say we were lucky or unlucky, or it just happened without cause or reason.

While we can see people still find it useful to explain the unexplainable or the unknown in terms of divine intervention, the question remains whether there will be a day when religion is no longer necessary because we no longer need it for such purposes. In recent years some scientists have used evolutionary theory to explain that religion is not a human adaptation to culture that we will outgrow, but rather is fundamental to our very nature. Darwin understood this when he said, “a belief in all-pervading spiritual agencies seems to be universal.” He was worried that his findings might lead people away from God, but ultimately he did not believe they did. Today I would suggest that the desire for a universal spirit is in the genes. This is not about which religion we happen to choose because that is determined by other familial and cultural factors, but the genetic impulse goes back to that ancient need to make sense of the world. Picture yourself on the plains in ancient Africa, and you hear a rustle in the grass. Now it may be the wind that is causing that rustle, and as a good naturalist that might be true, but if it turns out that that rustle is a lion, then you might become lunch. You are then lost to the gene pool. It is hard to discriminate in this case between lion and wind, but if you believe in lion even if it is wind, you are still more likely to survive in the long run. So we tend to believe in agencies that cause things. This means that we not only tend to believe in God, but we also tend to believe in other kinds of agents such as spirits and ghosts and the like. Our minds do this with all kinds of things. When kids draw a picture of the sun, they give it a smiley face, as it intentionally shines on us, and brings happiness into our lives. Many transplant patients believe the person’s essence is in the organ they have received. We have a hard time distinguishing between natural and supernatural sometimes because we are driven to find a pattern in what goes on, and we long to see intent in what happens.

There is also the question of how religions themselves survive. In his book Darwin’s Cathedral, David Sloan Wilson talks about which religions survive, and which do not. He says the early Christian church survived in part because it provided a strict moral structure in a Roman world that was in chaos. Although Christianity is usually associated with charity to those in need, this was offered to outsiders, but mostly as a means to bring them into the fold, and in fact charity was practiced more within the church to help distinguish insiders from outsiders. In other words they succeeded because they found ways, as Darwin himself said, to enhance group cohesiveness. We have seen that here at First Parish in times of crisis or need, such as the campaign for equal marriage, or the response to the burning of our flag, or maybe support for the Obyats, where finding common cause bring us together and may help us renew our purpose and flourish in the end. Of course one thing group loyalty led to was the development of using your faith to attack or even kill members of another faith, the consummate survival approach, but it does address the fundamental question of how to compete with other groups who want adherents. While we may find this repugnant, it shows the biological urge to survive.

Mostly we know that faith choices are culturally based, and God does not hear one persons prayer more clearly than another. Chances are we know in most instances what is caused by human or natural agency, and many humanists would say we will eventually find out what we do not know. This is not to offer proof that God exists, but only to say that we naturally want to find God. We don’t outgrow the need through knowledge, we fulfill the need by embracing the desire. How do we tap into this innate need?

The comedian George Carlin once said, “Just when I discovered the meaning of life…it changed.” Religion has changed, and we have helped make it so. Once explanation was an important part of religion, and now that fundamental reason for religion is gone. But I see additional reasons that are born out by our experience of the world. Jared Diamond cites organization as a reason for religion. This implies that we can do more together than we can alone, which is reflected in charity work and the like, but I think it goes deeper than this. Even those thinkers like Karl Marx who define religion as an opiate of the masses and believe it will be outgrown, devise a fundamentally religious vision of the ideal society. In other words while religious belief has been rejected, a religious way of thinking has not. Think of politicians who like to attach divine agency to the nation. Religion fundamentally gives a vision of a better life on earth. We ask our members to reach beyond the self to work and help others. We ask our members to care for and listen to each other so that we create a more loving and caring community. While we may criticize the political or economic order, what we have behind it is our vision of a better life on earth. We would take Jared Diamond’s last two reasons for religion, which are rules for good and bad behavior, and locate them in a world community of liberty and justice for all. While we are moving into a world that seems more secular, and it feels like religions are at war with each other, the truth is that those conflicts are born from a modern religious understanding of a world where our faith demands that we understand one another, affirm human rights, and as Whitehead says, ground our vision in the “one purpose whose fulfillment is eternal harmony.”

When Christianity was first developing in the Roman world, members were encouraged to have babies. That makes sense. For a faith to grow and spread and succeed it needs new members, and what better way to ensure your success than reproducing more members. The Shaker approach here in America had its drawbacks, and we all know what happened to them. What this means is that each of us must do our part, and I hope you are ready to contribute. But this is part of our biological and even religious drive, we want our world to continue, or even our way of seeing things. Weddings are one way of affirming that the species will continue – couples, families, children will be created, and we see that even in the joy of the ring bearer running away. He is running into the future.

Another thing about weddings is that we all dress up in our finest apparel. I even bought a new outfit; the one I am wearing today. Someone once said that all brides are beautiful on their wedding day, but this is true of all men and women who make this commitment before family and friends. The clothes signify that this is an important occasion worthy of our celebration. We try to look our best to say that this is ultimately important – clothes, hair, flowers, guests in their finery surround us to stimulate our sense of beauty. It is a mundane world, as Whitehead says, and we have occasional joys lighting up a mass of pain and misery. While that may feel extreme to you, the point is we must take moments of our lives where we are gazing at the magnificent ocean in York Harbor, reflecting on a light house on a island, or looking into the tear filled eyes of one we love, and say my God, what beauty there is to behold in this creation, in you. Beautiful scenery, faces that look and long to know one another, magnificent churches that point to the ideal. This is the natural longing we have for wonder and joy in feeling the miracle of life. This is the want we feel to know the divine.

Finally, this wedding brought together a family that was broken long ago. I was divorced from my first wife when Joel was three, and he is now thirty-one. Over the years there has been much pain, anger, frustration and distress. In this one weekend, despite my initial fears of being together again, we were all one family, crying and rejoicing in the happiness of two young people who are part of us. Here there was forgiveness and reconciliation, and the knowledge of beginning again with a new life. The torch of love is passed. Here is love and forgiveness bringing people together, and bringing hope that two people could find a common life together. New life, a vision, and the opportunity for love – these are the things we feel in our hearts in the wedding, in life, in the innate urge to discover the divine in each other. Even though many explanations fall to science now, and religion may seem fading to some, we still cannot explain the greatest mystery of all, that posed by Paul Tillich decades ago: why is there something, when there could be nothing? And why do we long for that something, that desire for God? Religion will survive as long as we allow ourselves to feel this innate longing to worship and revere the fundamental mystery of creation that lives in the beauty we see, the love we extend, and the life that beckons in all the days ahead.

Closing Words – from Sophia Lyon Fahs

There is a darkness within us when we feel lonely;
When we become discouraged and afraid to try again;
When we long for someone to care for us,
Then our heads drop and our feet drag.

A friend comes to us,
Who understands how we feel,
And helps us to try again,
Whose confidence and love are like a bright light to us.
A friend wakens us out of our gloom
And lights a spark within us.
Our hearts grow warm again.
We can even be joyful.
We feel uplifted and free.
Our warmth kindles a light on the Tree of Life.

Now as a pair the two of us together go forth.
We share in the work of others.
We feel strong to relieve the overtired and discouraged.
Gradually with our help they, too, are lifted to a free spirit
And now two more lights are kindled on the Tree of Life.

The two pairs of hands become four pairs;
And the four pairs become eight.
And so the lights multiply
On the branches of the Tree of Life.

Something holy comes into being
A new love is born again and again.
Out of fear comes courage,
Out of darkness comes strength,
Out of loneliness comes togetherness
That causes love to grow.

And so may the light continue –
Ever growing – ever spreading –
One heart answering to another –
Parents to children –
Friend to friend, friend to enemy –
Never ending – ever growing –
Ever spreading.