First, I would argue that religion and science are not in competition with each other, where one has to win and one has to lose. Steven Hawking in answering this question takes a very narrow view of religion. As I have spoken of before the word religion comes from the Latin “to bind together”. Religion to me is how people come together to deal with both the known and the unknown in the world and in their lives.
The known would be how to live in this world with the facts that we are aware of in our everyday life. From the very basic, How do get food and shelter for our families to how should we share resources equitably, How do we peacefully co-exist with all others. What do we consider just and fair? Hawking as well as many other scientists seem to feel that science can give us answers. I would argue that science gives us tools to use to find answers. Yes science has given us the ability to cure diseases which allows us to live longer. However it doesn’t help us to appreciate our life or teach us how to live our life. It doesn’t help us answer the question how do we find meaning and purpose in life. We have the capability now through technological innovation to feed everyone in the world. But it doesn’t explain why if that is so, why so many people starve to death every day in this world. Science has harnessed the power of the atom, but it hasn’t taught us how to prevent its use from causing self- destruction of the humanity. Science doesn’t teach us how can we find hope in the face of such challenges, or how we can learn to forgive ourselves and others when tragedy occurs. These Questions, I look to religion to guide us.
Then there is the unknown. The questions that have no answers. It is the question that Steven Hawking himself desperately wants to know the answer to. He asked “Why does the universe exist? Why is there something as opposed to nothing”. To which I would add “why does Humanity exist, why are we here in this place at this time? And I will take that down from the macro view of human life to the micro and particular view. Why are we here today joined together in this community. Why do you come together week after week to join together? If we can answer that question, we can find our identity as a congregation, and as a religion as a whole.
Within that question lies one of the answers. We ask questions, We don’t come here with pre-ordained answers neatly wrapped in box. We come here to engage the unknown, to be informed by each other, to learn, to grow, to be challenged, to change to reach our highest potential as human beings. We undertake our fourth principle “The free and responsible search for truth and meaning” with a sincere devoutness. While reading Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism without Beliefs, I was moved when he states “the term agnosticism in the larger culture has come to mean “I do not want to know” versus the reality that agnosticism means “I don’t know” but he goes on to call agnosticism a “passionate I don’t know that confronts the enormity of having been born instead of reaching for the consolation of a belief.”
We come here not only to help each other to answer those questions about the known and unknown, but to create a community that walks together in the ambiguity that maybe we will never know the answers to these questions. To share in the joys and sorrows of each others lives, to hold each other accountable to our highest selves, and to help lift each other up when we do not reach them. And I would argue that there are many others who are yearning to find such a community.
So I encourage you to live out in all your actions the religious mission in all your actions which is for this congregation to
create a vibrant, welcoming, diverse church family
embraces individual searches for meaning
devotes itself to community good.
embraces individual searches for meaning
devotes itself to community good.
This is the identity you promote, and I encourage you live that identity so that we appear authentic to all who we come in contact with. Since it has been over 5 years since it was created, next year we hope to re-visit this mission and see if it should be re-affirmed or whether it needs to be changed to better reflect who we are today.Hawking also went on to say that “science will win because it works”. Well sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. We really don’t know. Clearly science had a hard time last year with the oil spill in the gulf of Mexico and with Japan’s Nuclear Reactor. But the question is, will the consequence of that failed science lead us to a move towards alternative renewable fuel sources that do respect the interdependent web of which we are apart. For one of the benefits of science is that it should become self-correcting as evidence and observation either supports or disputes an experiment. Hopefully we wont all be dead by then.And it is also true that the question you start out with, will direct what answers you find, and as well the cultural predilections of the observer which often factor into the results of experiments. As an example, in the early 20th Century there were many scientific studies of brain size that “proved” racial inequalities that were subsequently discredited. The “science” of Eugenics in the twentieth century promoted the idea that humanity could improve and evolve through social engineering of the population. In the United States this took on a particularly virulent form. Many states passed Eugenics laws that forbade marriage between certain groups of people. It also allowed the state to sterilize those whom they considered “undesirables” This was based on the notion that criminality and poverty were hereditary. And it was accepted because it was a “scientific” fact. Facts we now know that were completely culturally biased and not based on science.
There are many who feel that the increase in acceptance of Eugenics in America accelerated as labor unions gained more power due to the increasing number of immigrants needed as a result of industrialization. I think we see again today how forces today in our society rise up against immigration. We should be using our hearts as well as our heads to determine how we reach our highest ideals, and to consciously think about how we as a human society want to structure ourselves.
Of the religious authority that Hawking spoke of. I would look to our UU sources. I think it is not coincidence that our first source of authority lifts up our direct experience of humans. However conclusions that people make about observed facts are highly influenced by their perspective.
And it is easy to come up with false conclusions from reason or from lack of complete facts. “Story of plant managers”. - Manager A comes in and runs his machines 24 hours a day, and never shuts them down for repair. His productivity goes up and he is promoted. Manager B is then hired to replace him. The machines due to lack of repair the machines break down, so Manager B has to shut down the machines for repair due to breakage in the machine. Manager B is fired for lack of productivity. Facts without context are misleading. I point all this out about science and observation, not because I am anti-science. No I am quite happy that someone invented vaccines and Lipitor, so I will live longer, and I am quite happy I do not have to go out hunting for my dinner tonight, that I can just stop at Hyvee on the way home.
I point this out to show that scientific conclusions are influenced by culture and perspective. This is why it is critically important to gain perspective of other people, cultures and ways of living. This is why it is important to engage deeply with each other and others who may be different from us, especially when we disagree, so we can gain as much wisdom as we can from different perspective. We can not only eliminate some terrible misconceptions that lead to terrible conclusions, but we can learn of different ways of being, we can learn different knowledge that can add to a collective wisdom that will help us answer those unanswerable questions.
Our UU identity is shaped by our willingness to be open to and challenged by new ideas, new teachings, and then to be self reflective and when necessary to become self corrective. UU continues to build on knowledge that it gains over time. We are constantly challenging that which are deeply held truths, as new information makes itself available. What was once a certain truth became obsolete. UU religion keeps looking for new ways to understand the mystery of the universe. We build on what we know and we continue to be willing to open to new learning and new revelation.
We are not only open to new knowledge and turning it into wisdom, but we are willing to do something about it, we are willing to put that wisdom into action. In fact our religion and its history informs us that it is our moral imperative to do so. To change ourselves, to change our community, to change the world. With the onset of technological communication advances it is the world is already changing rapidly. Shall we sit idly by and watch from the sidelines or will we jump in and try and have an impact on the outcome of humanity.
How does your experience as a UU inform your life and your actions in the world. For I believe our identity is our lived identity. Not what we write on a website, Not what we think, but how we act in the world. I would go another step and ask, How would you like your experiences in this religious community to inform your life and your actions in this world. And when you answer that question, you can create your identity, by building the world you dream about. So my conclusion to the original question posed is that yes not only can UU identity change, but that our identity is that we must change, and we must be intentional about changing to not only answer the changing questions and conditions of the universe, but also to discover the questions we should be asking. May it be so.