Today is the second in a series of 7 services that reflects on Unitarian Universalist Sources. The bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association Section C-2.2.1 states “the living tradition which we share draws from many sources.” And then it lists six sources. The first source is “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.” That’s a mouthful. Lets break it down and see how this source can be meaningful to us.
For me this is the most meaningful source, and I think in many ways is a foundational idea of Unitarian Universalism. Direct experience, not just something we read in a book, or something someone tells us, but our direct experience. This was the basis of the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s. With the advent of the printing press, more people had access to the Bible. Before the printing press, people they were dependent on hearing the truth from a select few. Whereas Roman Catholics focused on Church doctrine, Martin Luther one of the early leaders of the reformation in Germany, focused on the texts. and proposed that everyone should read the Bible for themselves.
Of course Luther believed that if everyone read the Bible for themselves, they would agree with his interpretation over the Catholics Church’s interpretation. But a funny thing happened on the way to the reformation. As you can guess many people had many different interpretations of the Bible. This is why there are so many different denominations in Christianity. The point is that it was each individuals direct experience with the Bible that informed them. As with any idea it can be taken to an extreme. Some of the radical Protestants known as Anabaptists (not related to the current day Baptists) tried to re-create their version of early Christianity in the town of Munster. This experiment led to extreme abuses of women and death to non-believers. Any good idea taken to an extreme can end up being corrosive and destructive.
As Unitarianism developed through the centuries, and particularly the Transcendentalists in the 19th century, individual experience was paramount. This I think was epitomized by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his writings Self Reliance where he states “A person should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across their mind from within, more than the luster of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet we dismiss without notice our thought, because it is ours.”
This is why our principles include the free and responsible search for truth and meaning and the right of conscience. Direct experience, not only with the Bible, but with the world at large and with our inner world informs us. Sort of like the game telephone, where one person tells another and then another person until by the time it reaches the last person the message is garbled. We need to have the direct relationship with what we consider sacred, and a direct relationship with other human beings. Not third hand knowledge and rumors, but direct communication to better understand the universe, others and ourselves.
This concept of direct experience though instead of being in relationship with others has often led to individualism. And individualism without relationship has always been in tension with our human nature of communalism. Unitarian Universalism although not alone in this, has had a virulent strain of individualism which can ultimately end up being as destructive as the town of Munster at least metaphorically. It is one thing to have individual beliefs, it is another to condemn others for their different beliefs. So it is imperative that we learn to be in right relationship with each other despite our own individual beliefs differing from each other. A minister I met recently had a tattoo that said, “I may be wrong” I thought that was a great way to think about our opinions. It doesn’t mean we will not have our own opinions, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t share our opinions, but it does remind us to keep an open mind to be changed and to pause before we start condemning others. Let us build a model, let us be the model of learning how to live with unity among our diversity.
Our first source though points our direct experience to the experience of that transcending mystery and wonder affirmed in all cultures. I think the phrase all cultures might be a bit broad and assumptive, but clearly the majority of historical cultures we are aware of would fit into this category. Transcending mystery and wonder. I imagine as they were wordsmithing the creation of this source, they were thinking, how can we describe the word God, without using the word God. And I understand the reason they felt the need to do that. I know the word God has a lot of different meanings for different people. For some of us who were raised in more traditional religions the word represents an old white man with a beard who has supernatural powers. And as much as we may have redefined our definition of God over the years the word brings back the memory of a rejected theology. In some cases it is a reminder of others vision of a God that was used to condemn us. Yet for others the word does not have any negative connotation, and they find it strange that we use this juxtaposition of words to avoid those three letters. So trying to be sensitive, when I use the word God, I try to use it in context. Now when I talk to that old man in the sky, and I admit I do talk to God every now and then, in the dark of the night, when hope seems dim, when I want to make the unknowable knowable, when I want an answer to the unanswerable question, I quiet my mind and ask the tough questions, and the answer I get back is always the same. And it seems to always be in the voice of my grandfather, it always says “stop worrying so much, Look within, you have within you the answers that you seek.”
But my concept of God is deeper than that. It is why I actually do like the phrase transcending mystery and wonder. There are experiences that people have that unexplainable. For instance, I for the first time two weeks ago purchased a dehumidifier. I was shocked that within just a couple of hours, where there was no visible water, I now had a bucket of water. From what was unseeable is now seeable. Now some things like this can be easily explained and as each year passes we gain new understandings of the universe. But as each year passes we find new unknowable mysteries to pursue. The picture on the front of your order of service is from the NASA website of the Eagle Nebula taken by the Hubble Telescope. It is over 7,000 light years from earth. The highlighted area is an enlargement of a small part of this Nebula and it is thought that this area which is called the “Pillars of creation” are Incubators for new stars, new creations, new galaxies. We don’t really know this, but based on the best information we have, we theorize this. Others theorize that these pillars have already been destroyed by a supernova but due to its distance from us we have not been able to see it yet.
There is so much about life that we will never understand or cannot perceive with our senses, that we are forced to theorize about, and we spend so much time arguing about it, that we forget to just be in awe. To be in awe merely of our existence, to be in awe of the majesty of the universe as shown in the picture, to be in awe at the beauty all around us, the beauty of nature, the beauty in creation, the beauty that is inside of each and every one us. Being curious about a mystery is important. By searching we find out not just about the universe, but we find out more about ourselves. Why are we here, what is our purpose in life, why do we exist? These are important questions. But sometimes we just need to be with the mystery. Just to experience the mystery, to accept it as mystery, not to idolize it, but to live with the sense of awe and wonder about our existence. And when you live intentionally with a sense of awe and wonder it leads us to a renewal of spirit. And that is important for us. Every day we experience suffering. We see it in the world, in the newspapers, on TV, we are driven to distraction with work and responsibilities, and email and facebook, and we have our own very personal suffering. To deal with this, to overcome this, to transcend our suffering, we need to balance those experiences with experiences that remind us of awe and wonder. Some of it is just an attitude of how we will confront the world we live in. Do we believe that we are separate individual entities unconnected to others? Or do we believe that our lives are interconnected, and interdependent, that we are a part of the entire universe, and what we do impacts the entire universe.
If we face our existence that way, if we transcend our vision of our isolated selves, that means that we are also part of that transcending mystery and wonder. Each of us, and if each of us is part of that transcending mystery and wonder, when you look in the eyes of another person, think about how you should treat that person. I am reminded of that liberty mutual insurance company television advertisement, where one person helps another and upon seeing that, another person helps another person and so on and so on. In it, the people were watching the good deeds of others and it influenced their actions.
To experience the transcending mystery and wonder requires us to pay attention, to pay attention to others and to ourselves. What this source is asking of us is to be open to the forces of the universe, to believe that we are part of something greater than just ourselves, and to experience the universe and our existence in it as part of a unified whole. And what are those forces of the universe. Each of us are those forces, as well as everything else, seen and unseen. Known and unknown. But it is not enough to just be open to the forces of the universe, for as we know force or power in of itself is a neutral entity. We know our power, our knowledge of the universe our actions can be used to either create or to destroy. Is it any wonder that many religious stories from around the world throughout history talk about creation and destruction and re-creation. Our source of our religion informs us to be open to the forces that create and uphold life. Not to destroy but to create. Whether that be to create a human life, to create a family, to create art, to create an idea, or to create a Congregation. To create, not destroy. To use the forces that the universe provides us, whether seen or unseen, whether known or unknown,
Whether you are an atheist and just believe in the material forces around you or if you believe in a transcendent or incarnational God or anywhere in between or beyond, do you use that force to create. And it is not enough just to create something. We specifically say we have to create and uphold life. It is not enough to create a life if we do not uphold it. It is not enough to create a Congregation which is a life into and of itself, but we must uphold it. We must nurture life, we must provide for life, we must lift life out of suffering so that it can see the awe and wonder within themselves. So all can see themselves as part of the transcending mystery and wonder of all that is and their place in the universe. And what would it mean to us individually if we were to renew our spirit and to create and uphold life. It would require us to be intentional about how we live and how we treat each other, it would require us to be open to change and it would require us to act in the world to respond to its needs. As Annie Dillard wrote “We are here to abet creation and to witness to it, to notice each others beautiful face and complex nature so that creation need not play to an empty house” What will you choose to notice, How will you choose to act? What will you choose to create? What will you choose to uphold? Let us look to the best of ourselves and to the best of our future. May it be so.