“The Future of Reason” – October 24, 2004
Mark W. Harris
Opening Words – from Emerson’s The Divinity School Address
Alone in all history (Jesus) estimated the true greatness of (humans). One man was true to what is in you and me. . . But what a distortion did his doctrines and memory suffer . . . in the following ages. There is no doctrine of the reason which will bear to be taught by the understanding. The high chant in the next age was, “I will kill you if you say he was a man.” Churches are not built on his principles. He spoke of miracles; for he felt that human life was a miracle, and all that we (do), and he knew that this miracle shines as the character (grows). But the word miracle, as pronounced by the Christian churches, gives a false impression; it is Monster. It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain.
Sermon – “The Future of Reason”
In college I had a friend named Pete who came from Northfield, Massachusetts. Since we hailed from the same part of the state we often rode together to Maine and back for holidays. Pete was a great guy. He was warm and friendly, and also lived down the hall from me. Like me, Pete was a football player. While football at Bates College is hardly what you would call high powered or intense, people do become injured in this sport calculated to crush bones. One Saturday, Pete had some bones crushed, or at least twisted. We saw him carried off the field and into the locker room. After a trip to the local hospital, we learned when he returned to the dorm that surgery was recommended to repair his injured knee. Later when I saw him hobbling down the hall on his crutches, I asked him what his plans were. He mentioned the surgery, but then informed me that he would not be having this kind of invasive procedure on his body. In fact, he would be having no procedures, other than prayer. You see, it turned out Pete was a Christian Scientist. Others of us talked about my friend that day, saying basically, “he’s nuts, he doesn’t believe in doctors?, what’s wrong with this guy?, how stupid can you get?
Stupid or not, Peter never had surgery, and never played football again. Physically the swelling went down, and in a matter of time, he walked again. After he graduated I did not stay in touch, and so I cannot say what the long term ramifications of his decision were. Since then I have been aware of a number of controversial cases involving Christian Science parents and sick children who were not treated medically. Some of the kids who were prayed over eventually died. These are not simple cases as they involve issues such as freedom of religion, parental rights, and the rights of the child to receive proper medical attention. What happens when a child who might have lived, dies because the parent believes with all their heart that prayer is the best response. Probably most of us would say save the child. A life trumps a religious belief any day. Or does it?
The central issue at hand is who has the truth? A Christian Scientist believes that someone becomes ill because that person has something wrong spiritually. Once you have adjusted your life by getting right with God through prayer, you should return to the pink of health. Otherwise it appears that something is fundamentally maladjusted about you, and God is punishing you, or helping you see a better way. Last week we said that we determine whether something we believe is true or not by testing it. Here is the perfect test: if you get sicker, the implication is you are not a good person. While most of us would readily acknowledge that a positive attitude helps when we are ill, or even that marshaling healing thoughts about others in prayer can give added strength, the idea that some vengeful God has picked you out for suffering for some unknown reason seems patently absurd. This is akin to the great revivalists of the 1700’s saying that an earthquake was caused by God because he was angry about how sinful people are, and it was a sign that they should repent. While we acknowledge that others have the right to their own beliefs because we believe in freedom of religion, we also realize when we hear of the content of their faith that, even though we don’t publicly condemn it, we certainly disagree.
We do not believe the same things are true, but sometimes our tolerance makes it seem that we do affirm things that we do not.
The problem is that when children die due to people’s beliefs, we can’t just smile and think to ourselves, oh it’s nice that they have such an absurd belief. Our Parish Committee is presently wrestling with the question of whether to rent space to the spiritualist church. Spiritualists are a religious group that communicate with the dead. It is one thing to promote freedom of religion, but we also have to ask if we want this belief system to be inadvertently associated with us if they use our building. Spiritualism has a long history of quackery and sham to deceive people who otherwise grieve over the loss of loved ones. One of the odd things about this is that mainline Christian churches often question the legitimacy of this group who speaks to the dead, and yet their own central beliefs include such absurd things as virgin births, resurrected dead people, and heavens with angel wings. If they looked at themselves critically, they might realize it is an instance of the pot calling the kettle black.
Truth is a hard thing to discern. No one wants to see their own faults or foibles in the mirror, or in their constituency. Time Magazine featured a recent cover story on, “Who Owns the Truth,” and described how political partisans want people to see the world their way. No where was the twisting of the truth more obvious than in the vice-presidential debate, when one of the candidates denied ever meeting the other, even though it was patently true that he had. This has unnerving implications no matter which way you read it. If he is just lying then there is a question of character with regards to his moral ability to govern. If he is not lying, then it appears that he is delusional, and we would have to question his mental capacity to govern. Do we want someone unstable occupying this office? There are your choices. It becomes so unsettling, we almost believe him, despite the evidence. In fact William James predicted and even okayed this when he wrote in his Principles of Psychology, that reality means simply relation to our emotional and active life. “Whatever excites and stimulates our interest is real. ” This can make for any number of absurd possibilities that are considered real. No wonder James’ descendent Alice in the novel Jamesland, is trying to avoid his influence!
One of Alice’s friends in that novel is the Unitarian Universalist minister Helen Harland. In the reading from the novel we see Helen’s fetish for making fun of religious oddities. The idea is that people’s absurd little beliefs amuse her. Do we find them funny, too? Or is it potentially worse? People are sometimes amused when I relate my background in the Protestant Fundamentalist church of my youth. Many of you have heard of my childhood passion for dinosaurs and my Sunday School teacher who informed me that since these creatures were not in the Bible, they did not exist. The Bible with its non-scientific understanding of creation says that God goes straight from creatures like lions and tigers and bears to people with no millions of years before, after or in between. After she denied my scientifically tested truth, I was sorely tempted to make fun of her fantasies that were ancient myths at best and modern delusions at worst, if you understand them as serious science. She believed in a God who flooded the earth out of anger, sent every kind of plague to torture the Egyptians, and told Abraham to sacrifice his child. There was little historical or archeological truth that was known about this Hebrew tribe who escaped from bondage in Egypt, and yet she believed all the stories were literal truth because someone had once told her they were, even though there was no evidence whatsoever to confirm any of this. While I had all sorts of bones and books and carbon dating, my truth was simply not to be believed. I left fundamentalism behind because it was a religion that denied my mind’s ability to think and to question or doubt any belief that seemed totally irrational.
A half century ago, the historian Earle Morse Wilbur said that the three cornerstones of Unitarianism are freedom, reason and tolerance. These foundations all grow from the beginnings of our faith in eastern Europe when the great Protestant reformer Francis David went on a personal journey from Catholicism to Lutheranism to Calvinism to Unitarianism. Freedom meant the free search for truth. No one should compel or force us to believe anything that we cannot believe. Tolerance meant that we should allow everyone to express their own opinion about matters of faith. In what is present day Romania, the first edict of tolerance in history was declared by a Unitarian king in 1568. Finally, there was reason in the interpretation of scripture, which then was central to all religious belief. This role of reason has, by its very use, expanded to mean the use of all our critical faculties in religious matters. For one thing it became quite clear when people examined the scriptures critically, they found the doctrine of the Trinity was a later addition. Other central dogmas of Christianity were similarly non-Biblical. There were scholars, like Erasmus, who knew this, but could not question the church, until these three hallmarks of Unitarianism, marking a new way to approach faith, emerged more than 400 years ago. Freedom, reason and tolerance meant: continue searching for faith, it is ever unfolding; listen to others, be understanding of their beliefs, and finally use your mind and determine for yourself whether some text or some belief is literal truth or not.
Over the centuries liberal religion centered its open search for religious truth upon the unfolding promises of humanity rather than upon total acceptance of old dogmatic truths about the nature of people and the world we live in. Reason became a liberal embodiment of an affirmation that science and religion could work together in accepting rational truth while still affirming the mystery and wonder of creation. My father once remarked to me that there was not enough fantasy in my religion. He wanted the old consolations of salvation and eternal life, but to me these seemed to be irrational hopes, that made life itself into a literal fantasy, a completely untrue fiction that had little basis in human experience. We Unitarian Universalists have developed a faith that can be discerned through nature, through experience and the world around us. This faith is captured in Emerson’s words to the new Unitarian ministers in 1838 in which Jesus is characterized as a simple human being who merely fulfills the best that is in us, and his life’s deeds are characterized not as supernatural Godly events from beyond, but as part and parcel of the miraculous nature of life itself.
One might assume that this rational approach to life would have gained general acceptance in the world in the wake of the growth of educational knowledge, but something drastic has happened to the future of reason. We have failed to use our critical faculties to challenge the growing world wide onslaught of fundamentalism.. Up until the 20th century most people lived by the meaning of myths. With the debunking of myths by the modern secular world and the use of reason, most people lost their sense of myth and meaning. In response to this, the rise of fundamentalism in Christianity, Judaism, and especially as most publicized in Islam, means that we have large groups of people living around us who absolutely believe that they hold the key to truth, and will seek vengeance upon apostates like us who do not believe as they do. What Sam Harris makes clear in his book The End of Faith, is that it is not just fanatics who have brokered their use of reason for a ticket to absolute truth, it is our friends and neighbors who have accepted these handed down dogmas as primordial truths. What might be construed as mental illness in a different context is accepted as gospel. As Harris says, “While religious people are not generally mad, their core beliefs absolutely are.”
The other night my wife Andrea and I were discussing the causes of this rise in fundamentalism. She theorizes that with the loss of community and the rise of modernism, people feel adrift in the world. There is too much information and too little time or connection to make sense of the things we see and read. The entire last century introduced genocide to the world on a mass scale, and now weapons of mass destruction exacerbate this fear while the media heightens the nearness of a sense of dread. There is heightened anxiety in the world that people’s core understanding of life, family and community are being eroded. In response many people have abandoned reason for absolute truth, a feeling of belonging, and guarantees of salvation. The one sure thing for these people to make sense of the tragedies of life is to believe that it will all be made better by a God who takes care of you, and will guarantee salvation for you and your family. For Islamic terrorists whose world is dominated by Western values, a ticket to heaven is blessed assurance.
These absolute beliefs have implications for us. Whereas modern society was once happy to declare freedom of belief, what happens when our principle of tolerance of others begins to effect society? When a Christian Science child dies, or a pro-life fanatic murders a doctor who performs abortions, we have to take notice that the beliefs have important life ramifications. Sam Harris says this is why we can longer tolerate tolerance to the extreme. These people with absolute beliefs want to impose their absolutism on us, and it behooves us to not accept them with absolute tolerance. What kind of response can we make to a world where even people we consider normal and rational hold these absurd beliefs? I think it is up to us to say these religions play on your greatest fears about life and death, and give you false hopes that at best are just not true, and at worst are downright dangerous. I think it is up to us to be brave enough to live truthfully and help others to, as well. As Nelson Mandela said, it is not our darkness that scares us. It is our light, our strength and our power we are afraid of. We need to be less afraid of our power.
In the novel Jamesland, the minister asks, how do people live in the world? It is clear hat people need consolation for their fears, an understanding of tragedy, and sacred values to uphold them. After his paralysis, people told Christopher Reeve that prayer and faith in God would help, but he continued to be devastated. He tried, but he only ended up feeling there was something wrong with him spiritually, he writes: “Finally, I stopped beating myself up . . . Gradually I have come to believe that spirituality is found in the way we live our daily lives. It means spending time thinking about others. It’s not so hard to imagine that there is some kind of higher power. (But) we don’t need to know what form it takes or exactly where it exists; just to honor it and try to live by it is enough. Because we are human we will often fail, but at least we know that we do not deserve to be punished. That knowledge makes us safe and willing to try again.” I think Reeve probably found he was using all his energy to believe in something ridiculous. God was not going to give him some free ticket to salvation. But he had to face that. There is a story from the Sufi tradition in Islam about Nasrudin. Nasrudin rode the train to work every day. One day the conductor asked him for his ticket. He fumbled around and couldn’t find it. He even looked in other people’s pockets, and then in their bags. Finally the conductor said, “I am sure you have a ticket. Why don’t you look in your breast pocket, that is where most men keep it?” But Nasrudin said, “oh no, I can’t look there. Why if it wasn’t there, I would have no hope.”
Nasrudin feared facing the truth that he might not have the ticket. What if his ticket to heaven was gone? He felt it was better to have false hope than know the truth. Yet Christopher Reeve found false hopes were merely that, false. He was going to have to find hope for himself and he then faced the truth about his situation, and realized how much love and healing he could bring to others, and thus to himself. He helps us realize that we are all loved and worthy however life finds us or what it does to us. Rather than taking the easy way out or follow false truths, Reeve adopted the spiritual discipline of reason. This is a gift we gave to the world long ago, and now it is one that needs to be offered once more. We must give reason a future before ancient, outdated religious absurdities consume us. Life, as we all know, is tiring, draining and difficult. Finding meaning, building relationships, and eventually facing illness and death is painful and difficult.
When we bring reason back to the world we help others focus on their true fears and concerns, and not some false promises. Our promise may be harder but it is the path to honesty and integrity rather than falsehoods and sham. When reason has a future once again we will have loving and truthful relationships, and eventually a more peaceful world.
Closing Words – from Christopher Reeve, Nothing is Impossible
In the process of learning to live my new life, I had no idea that I was becoming a Unitarian . . . Where people can be truly religious because they can be true to themselves, where honest doubt is not taken for heresy, and where the beliefs of the past and the present become the inspiration for future growth and discovery. ”