“Renewing Reason” – Mark W. Harris
September 15, 2013 – First Parish of Watertown, MA
Call to Worship – from Thomas Masaryk
You cannot act without knowledge. Even the obtaining of knowledge is an activity, often an activity of immense energy, or, as we say, creative. The search for knowledge means effort, patience, persistence, devotion, honesty – the requirements of an active life, and of a moral life. To comprehend is a moral duty, just the same as the love of one’s neighbor. We do not honor the talents of the scientists and the philosophers, but their great struggle for the truth – that is the moral act.
Reading – from The Orientalist by Tom Reiss
This reading is taken from The Orientalist, which tells the story of Lev Nussimbaum, a Jew who escapes the Russian Revolution, and turns himself into a Muslim prince in Nazi Germany, eventually gaining the reputation of an adventurer and renowned novelist.
In this selection his family is trying to determine where he will go to school.
(See pp. 139-140) The Orientalist by Tom Reiss
When I was growing up I learned the adage “beyond the pale.” Over the years I have used it as a regular term in my vocabulary, meaning something that goes beyond the bounds of what is normal or acceptable. For instance in Little League baseball there was an occasion when the umpire did not show up, and we had to recruit someone from the spectators to call balls and strikes. The fact that the opposing team pushed for their catcher’s father, who was then chosen, went beyond the pale. How could he be fair to us? Then there was that time at the Woodstock Festival in 1969 when we were all waiting for Saturday’s music to start, hanging around the mud hole that was doubling as a swimming pool, when all the men and women took off all their clothes and lounged and swam naked. While exciting for the voyeurs among us, I felt like sun bathing and skinny dipping with complete strangers went beyond the pale, to say nothing of the potential for terrible sun burn in sensitive places. This was truly out of bounds. Most of us can probably think of many things that we would consider, “beyond the pale.”
Yet despite using that term all these years I never learned what the pale meant until I read a book this summer called The Orientalist by Tom Reis. Does anyone here know what the pale refers to? It turns out that the Pale was the largest ghetto in history. It was an area of primarily Polish territories that were annexed by Catherine the Great into the Russian empire in the 1700’s. These territories were subject to virulent Anti-Semitism and food shortages, and the Jews who inhabited them were restricted from living elsewhere in the empire. The official Russian response to the Jewish question was that they could not move beyond the Pale of Settlement. It was here in the Pale, that Lev Nussinbaum’s father was born. Lev later became the Orientalist when he converted from Judaism to Islam. He grew up in Baku on the Azerbaijan shore of the Caspian Sea. Baku was the most modern city on earth at the beginning of the 20th century. Here East and West met often, their fusion fuelled by the city’s power source: oil. In the reading you heard about Lev’s family contemplating where his education would take place. We learned about another boy whose family thought he would receive a superior education in England, but he ends up a virtual idiot with only frivolous interests while sporting a strange way of wearing his pants. So Lev’s family feared he would not receive a good education, but that his mind would devolve to trivialities. He ended up being educated in Germany.
Historically our own Unitarian Universalist faith has had a reputation of being intellectual and rational in its approach to religious matters. We have seemingly always had an emphasis on the use of the mind that Lev’s family initially hoped they would find in England. There is that old joke that depicts two groups heading towards the clouds of heaven. While most people are on the road that points to the gates of heaven, the Unitarian Universalists are instead following a sign that leads to a discussion group about heaven. A rational, inquisitive faith also is evident in how we respond to the words that are set to the music of our hymns. It is said that UUs are not good singers because they are always reading ahead to see if they agree with the words or not, and of course refuse to sing if the words imply any irrational beliefs. Those jokes may now seem dated, particularly because we are not so literal in our response to religious language. Yet they are relevant because of the central place the life of the mind has played in the development of our faith.
Unitarianism has its origins in the growth of the Enlightenment, where scientific knowledge helped people understand that the universe ran on natural laws, not God’s fiats or whims, and that we could come to understand what these laws were through the use of our minds and scientific experimentation. Thomas Jefferson embodied this search to uncover rational truths when he took the New Testament and applied scissors to every miracle story such as virgin births, healings, and the raising up of dead bodies. Of the three cornerstones to Unitarianism, freedom, reason and tolerance, reason was applying the mind to the interpretation of scriptures. We tried to find inspiration from the ethical and historical Jesus rather than from the second person of the Trinity, which to those who found Unitarianism appealing was an impossible, and downright irrational position to take. We would accept no belief that defied the laws of science.
Many of us know from our own experiences that we embraced Unitarian Universalism because it did not require us to deposit our minds at the doors of the church in order to feel spiritually nourished with what was said inside. Many of you have heard me describe my journey to UUism beginning with a fundamentalist Sunday School teacher who denied evolution and said dinosaurs never really existed. Accepting the scientific validity of a document that was written thousands of years ago, long before the birth of modern science, goes beyond the pale. In a Globe column on Thursday, Alex Beam expressed his current concern in his title, “The Rapture People are Back.” Because two obscure passages in the Hebrew scriptures mention the destruction of Damascus, some religious fanatics who believe that Armageddon is coming, think the Syrian civil war is somehow a fulfillment of a scriptural prophecy. These prognosticators want to merge science and history and politics into one rapture soup where all the believers will float up to heaven.
This all makes about as much sense as this very bad movie I saw this summer called “This is The End,” where a bunch of celebrities playing themselves gather for a party at James Franco’s house and the apocalypse breaks out, as bits of Los Angeles burn and fall into the abyss, climaxing at the end of the movie with a dancing ensemble in heaven. I could never figure out if the movie was science fiction or comedy, and then when Emma Watson appeared wielding an ax, I knew it was time to go back to Harry Potter for some magical thinking I could really believe in. While not only a bad movie, it also represents the kinds of ideas being promulgated which beg for a response from liberal religion, not tolerance of every belief under the sun. It is fashionable in all circles these days to decry the intellectual side of our faith, but it is the most important thing we have drawn from. People turn to more magical forms of faith in chaotic times, but it seems to me it is a time in history when we need more rational underpinnings not less. As Rosemary Bray McNatt said, “We have joked for decades about being terminally overeducated. But that is hardly a fault in a world overrun with ignorant religiosity. It has never been okay to be dumb and in these times, an ignorant faith is dangerous.” The use of computers gives the false impression that everyone has knowledge at their fingertips, but much of that is bad information, and people’s opinions. Some people love it because it attacks intellectual elitism, but random, untested opinions hardly qualify as the search for truth.
Despite this long tradition of being known as a rational religion, the intellectual side of our UU faith has come into bad repute in recent years. One can observe the sea change with the increase of rituals along with the use of term “spiritual,” so that our seminarians now have spiritual advisors and spiritual practices, such as regular meditation and prayer Yet the result of this rush to emphasize emotion and ritual has often led to an unparalleled criticism of humanism, and the supposed cold, hard rationalism and intellectualism it represents. This has struck me as an over reaction, and an invitation for UUs to either be ignorant of faith or uncritically accepting of everything. Moreover, we have sometimes assumed that humanists cannot embrace some concept of God, and that the development of the mind and the quest for new truths is somehow not spiritual. My concerns are raised when I hear things like the following. I have a colleague in the ministry whose five siblings, all of whom grew up UU, used to attend UU congregations regularly. The recent trend in some of our congregations to seemingly adopt theism and self-indulgent ritualistic practices has led all of them to quit church. Second, just the other day, I saw an email chain where the hospitalization of a UU was mentioned, and a colleague said she would pray for him, and offered these words, “May the God of love and healing guide the medical team.” I wondered what that meant.
In Zealot, the new best selling book about the life of Jesus by Reza Aslan, the author uses the term beyond the pale when he refers to the Jewish response to the identity of Jesus created by Paul. Paul does not give Christ any of the connotations attached to the term “messiah” in the Hebrew Scriptures, where he is a liberator of his people. Instead, he is not even human, even though he has taken on that likeness. He is the new Adam, the beginning of creation, a God with whom one forms a mystical union. This is not some nice alternative form of Judaism, but rather it is a discarding of every old way of thinking, and making up a whole new creature. Thus Christianity as formulated by Paul, had its greatest success outside of Israel, because what he was saying was totally out of bounds to the Jews. In the same way one could ask if there is an out of bounds of Unitarian Universalism?
Some of you might say, of course not, we accept everybody who wants to be part of our community. Yet does some of this newfound spirituality go beyond the pale of what we might find acceptable? Take the God talk for instance. While most of us can resonate with a universal spirit of love that empowers us all to create relationships or work for justice, how do we feel about a being who intervenes in history? Doesn’t the use of the word God imply some kind of supernatural realm? What exactly did my colleague mean about a healing force guiding the medical team? Putting positive thoughts out into the universe to promote healing is good. But if you think some outside divine force is guiding the hand or changing things based on your prayers, that hardly fits into a Unitarian Universalist framework of spiritual truth. There is an awful lot of chance and luck in the world. There is no reason to believe that everything happens for a reason, yet I have heard many UUs echo that phrase.
One thing that humanism reminds us of is that the nature of God, if God exists, is a secondary concern to how we live our lives, and the spirituality we glean from the living we experience in the natural world. Spirituality is about embracing the wholeness of life, not merely the irrational feelings, the unexplainable or the other worldly. God or not, the spirituality Unitarian Universalists experience must be part of the natural world, and not the supernatural. UUA President Peter Morales writes, “Spirituality is not supernatural. . . . the supernatural cheapens the natural, creates an opposition that contradicts my sense of the spiritual. A true spirituality does not ask me to deny any part of who I am. It does not ask me to turn my back on all that our species has learned in the last thousand years.” Spirituality is not about believing in the unbelievable. If spirituality is otherworldly then it means a rejection of the body, too.
Many years ago Unitarian Universalists listed “intellectual stimulation” as the number one thing they hoped to derive from a worship service. That is no longer true. It has migrated down the list to be superseded by celebrating common values, group participation and fellowship, all clearly a longing for community. Yet too often we seem to define spirituality not as a group experience, but we see it as personal, emotional response, and calling that spirituality can make it self-indulgent. While we want to know others more intimately and feel connected to nature, we must remember that spirituality is not about my feelings being validated or me being comforted. In other words it is not an opportunity merely to affirm myself. It is telling a story, so that we are connected to each other and moved to change both ourselves and the world around us. Sometimes we seem to envision a spiritual life as being separate from life, but in fact my spiritual life is my life lived fully, encompassing both the emotional and the intellectual. This means that while some of my spiritual experiences may be sensual or physical, some of them will be the mind’s wonder of solving a math problem or seeing the results of an experiment, or reading a book to the backdrop of the ocean, or reciting a childhood poem that moves us to tears.
One Saturday morning this summer, several fundamentalist Christians stood on every street corner in downtown Rockland, Maine and waved Bibles and signs declaring their goal to convert us all to their dogmatic Christianity. They had found the truth. The key thing that our rational heritage reminds us of is not that we should be tolerant of every truth people declare, and then affirm them in their diversity. After all who wants to affirm the rapture folks? That is beyond the pale. The use of reason to understand scriptures is an historic UU foundation, which tells us that the search for truth must be diligent and discerning. We should not take the truth lightly, and should remind ourselves that not everything you or I feel is true. Truth is to be explored. Truth is to be tested. Truth is to be verified. And we must continue the search because new truths wait to be discovered. If you think you have the whole truth, you are dead to the world. If you think spirituality is only about feelings, then your mind is dead to the world. Sure the mind by itself may be a corpse cold faith, as Emerson once said Unitarianism was. But he never rejected his Unitarianism; he merely said we must put some feeling in it. He realized our faith needs the balance of mind and heart.
Unitarian Universalists do not need to mimic the evangelicals, and adopt a more razzle-dazzle feeling faith to attract people. What this will do will drive away the people who want to stand up to religious fanaticism, and assert the search for truth that has always made Unitarian Universalism an educated faith that balances the mind and heart.
True spirituality involves the whole self – it is not merely the discussion group about heaven or using scissors on miracle stories, but that is a crucial part of what formed us UUs in the first place, and there is much spirituality in that intellectual search, too. This summer I had one of the great spiritual experiences of my life. My family went on a white water rafting trip in Canada, the five of us on a raft with a guide. Seeing us all in wet suits and helmets was a visual thrill alone. Times of silence and contemplation met us as we floated down the river. We had sights of flowing water and beautiful green mountains before us. Then the strain of muscles and even fear came as we rushed over very scary rapids, thrilled to the core of our beings. We were challenged to reach the end of the ride in one piece, holding the hand of a loved one to prepare for more tests ahead. And what was rational about this crazy trip? All of life brings challenges that we need to take. Sharing those challenges with others is more meaningful than going alone, but it is not about community and comfort, as good as that may feel. It is about challenging each other, finding new truths, not being afraid to forge ahead. A religious community cannot merely stop on the rocks in the river and say this feels good to be together. We need to move ahead in dangerous currents because our liberal faith has a powerful voice that says spirituality needs the mind to challenge old truths we hold and the lies that others perpetrate, and it needs the whole self to embrace life to its fullest. May we as a church love being together, but may we love even more the path ahead which says find the truth, use your mind, heart and body to do so, but remember that liberal religion has a unique and important religious role of intellectual challenge that we should never abandon. For Unitarian Universalists reason is not the opposite of faith, it is the path to faith.
Closing Words – from ― Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
“Reason sits firm and holds the reins, and she will not let the feelings burst away and hurry her to wild chasms. The passions may rage furiously, like true heathens, as they are; and the desires may imagine all sorts of vain things: but judgment shall still have the last word in every argument, and the casting vote in every decision. Strong wind, earthquake-shock, and fire may pass by: but I shall follow the guiding of that still small voice which interprets the dictates of conscience.”