A touchstone of liberal religion is the idea that the revelation of religious truth is not sealed in a book of scripture, a particular myth, one prophet’s insight, or any particular religious authority or hierarchy. It’s open and ongoing. What does this mean about how Unitarian Universalists practice religion? Notes on faith without certainty.
“Revelation Is Not Sealed”
Michael Dobbs was swimming contentedly when he heard his brother screaming: “Come back! Come back! There’s something strange happening with the sea.” What could he be fussing about, thought Michael? All was idyllic, with barely a ripple anywhere. Then he noticed the water around him rising with astonishing speed. Soon an inland sea rushed over the beach road, flattening nearby houses. “The [incredible] speed with which it all happened seemed like a scene from the Bible,” marveled Dobbs. “I half expected to catch sight of Noah’s Ark.” Grabbing hold of an unmoored catamaran the brothers bobbed up and down as the water rushed into the village beyond the road.
When it finally stopped rising they relaxed, briefly; only to realize—to their horror—that the floodwaters were now receding as quickly and dramatically as they had risen. All around them people, debris and boats were bobbing furiously. “For the first time,” confessed Dobbs, “I felt afraid, powerless to prevent myself from being washed out to sea.” As it turned out, Michael and his brother survived—unlike an estimated quarter million who were killed, fourteen years ago, by a tsunami triggered by a powerful earthquake under the Indian Ocean off the coast of Sumatra.[i]
The world of today is the result of four billion years of history, of evolution, of constant changes, of slow mechanisms that take thousands of years to mold and form, to destroy and create. We who live but seventy or eighty years cannot comprehend time on so vast a scale. A mere second or two on earth’s twenty-four hour clock, human beings are planetary latecomers. But the earth, which spawned us out of carbon and earthly minerals, is ancient. The earth has seen millions of tsunamis in her time, and millions of earthquakes.
That certain areas—like Sumatra—are especially prone to such activity has long been known, but it’s only over the last half century that geologists have come to understand why: plate tectonics. Plate tectonics theorizes our planet’s surface as a continuous network of mobile belts that divide the world into large rigid plates. Wherever plates collide, tension builds—day after day and year after year. When the plates finally shift, as they did on the day after Christmas 2004, trillions of tons of seawater are displaced—with calamitous results.[ii]
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Plate tectonics is a scientific theory, one of many that came of age in the 20th Century and that reveals something awesome and miraculous about the world we inhabit: it’s in constant flux. Some faith traditions see conflict between science and religion; Unitarian Universalism does not. While we have long embraced science and the scientific method there are a good many orthodox traditionalists who do not. Fundamentalists of various stripes, for instance, live in a world that is not alive. Neither fluid nor in process, their world is rigid and closed. To fundamentalists, truth is unchanging; it was revealed once and for all as far as they’re concerned. (Like the bumper sticker I saw a couple of years ago in Orange County, Ca., one of the more “conservative” areas of Southern California that read “God said it. I believe it. And that settles it.”) Unitarian Universalists see things differently. For us, revelation is not sealed. It keeps happening, whenever minds and hearts are both open and engaged.
The really great and essential fact about scientific revelation is that doesn’t pretend to be “true” in any absolute sense, nor final. It is, rather, the tentative organization of mere “working hypotheses” that—for the present—appear to take into account all the relevant facts now known. This is also true of Unitarian Universalism. Neither in science nor UUism has anything been settled; there is only a continuing search, and minds eager to grow. At its best our faith, like that of science, embraces new ideas and possibilities rather than the petrified rigidity of some canonized, revealed, Capital “T” Truth.
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So it’s not too strange for most of us to discover that Terra Firma, as scientists now believe, is not so firma after all. Indeed (in the exclamation made famous by a wide-eyed Dr. Frankenstein) “it’s alive!” Tsunamis, earthquakes, floods, erosion, hurricanes, volcanoes, tornadoes, rivers, lakes, glaciers, crashing plates, shifting continents, deserts, forests, jungles, tundra are all evidence of the living energy that earth has created since its formation. Moreover, so are we evidence. “We are the earth, upright and proud,” in the words of this morning’s second hymn, “…in us, it’s rivers flowing.”
With new discoveries and new information, science continually reappraises and reinterprets itself; it keeps evolving. A second example is the Gaia hypothesis, a contemporary scientific theory suggesting that evolution is far subtler and more complex than first proposed by Charles Darwin. According to Gaia, evolution cannot be limited to the adaptation of organisms to their environment. The environment itself is shaped by a network—an interconnected web—of living systems capable of adaptation and creativity.
So which adapts to which? Each to the other—they co-evolove. As [the naturalist] James Lovelock has written: “So closely coupled is the evolution of living organisms with the evolution of their environment that together they constitute a single evolutionary process.”[iii]
A single interconnected web: the web of life. Scientific Gaia sees the world and its wonders as far more miraculous than anything supernatural, and sees the world of nature—not some far-away Heaven—as realm of the divine.
Fundamentalists, of course, don’t see it that way at all. To them scripture, interpreted literally, is the realm of the divine. We UUs, on the other hand, take the Bible—and other sacred literature—seriously, but not literally. After all scripture, like anything else, can be studied analytically and empirically, in the manner of anthropologist Victor Turner[iv] and the late U.C. sociologist Robert Bellah.[v] Social scientists of their ilk, and Unitarian Universalists generally, interpret scripture metaphorically. And also as evolving spiritual and ethical insights revealed to our ancestors in centuries past: the “life of ages, richly poured” we sing about in another well-loved UU hymn.
Tim LaHaye, author of the popular Left Behind series of novels, believes that Heaven, not Earth, is our true home. LaHaye predicts that soon he and other right-thinking Christian fundamentalists will be whisked off to Heaven via the Rapture. The truth of the matter, however, is very different. The truth, according to Gaia, is: we do not come into this world at all. We came out of it, in just the same way that a leaf comes out of a tree or a baby out of a womb. Just as Jesus affirmed in this morning’s first reading that one doesn’t gather figs from thistles or grapes from thorns, so also one doesn’t gather people from a world that isn’t peopling. Our world is peopling, just as the apple tree apples, and just as the vine grapes. If we are natural products of this earth and if we are intelligent beings, it must be that we are the fruits of an intelligent earth, symptomatic of an intelligent energy system—for “one doesn’t gather grapes from thorns.”[vi]
So it is that for some contemporary neurologists, evolution does not negate but actually amplifies their religious faith. Consider: brain scientists Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquili believe
…that the remarkable tenacity of religion is rooted in something deeper, simpler, and healthier than weak-minded denial or sheer psychological dependence. Evidence suggests that the deepest origins of religion are based in mystical experience, and that religions persist because the wiring of the human brain continues to provide believers with a range of unitary experiences that are often interpreted as assurances that God exists…. Evolution has adopted this machinery, and has favored the religious capabilities of the religious brain because religious beliefs and behaviors turn out to be good for us in profound and pragmatic ways.[vii]
Consider, finally, yet another scientific marvel: fractals, an aspect of Chaos theory. Fractal geometry analyses irregular shapes—clouds, coastlines, and the like—found throughout the natural world. The randomness and unpredictability of such phenomena is one reason for the “man against nature” dichotomy so frequently affirmed by many religious traditionalists. Despite American philosopher Henry Adams’ adage that “chaos is the law of nature, order the dream of man,” modern science suggests otherwise. Shorelines and mountain ranges; cauliflowers, ice crystals, the patterns in a peacock’s tail: all fractals… and all of them revealing astonishing patterns with an uncanny order. Where the opening verses of Genesis hold that “In the beginning…was chaos and desolation,” fractal geometry reveals an order to nature—a primal order—far deeper than anything the authors of Genesis ever imagined[viii].
Unitarian Universalists embrace science and the scientific method because, as a rule, we find it more amazing, more wonderful, and more miraculous than anything found in the dogmas of orthodoxy.
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Okay. What do we do about all this? What does it mean?
John Horgan is a senior writer at Scientific American. “One of the great paradoxes of modern science,” he explains, “is that the more it tells about the origin and history of the cosmos and of life on Earth and of Homo sapiens, the more mysterious our existence becomes.”[ix] In so saying, Horgan is but echoing a classic line Lao Tzu’s: “the larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder.”
Fundamentalists and some orthodox traditionalists would have us abandon scientific theory and accept dogmatic creedal statements as though they were the last word—the only word. As Unitarian Universalists we cannot do this, for we are inspired by science just as we are inspired by nature and by art, literature and music. We understand scientific discovery as similar to breakthroughs in these other fields—and fully compatible with religion. With the spirit of religion, anyway, if not always its letter. As Neo-Transcendentalist nature writer Annie Dillard explains in one of her poems,
God empties himself
into the earth like a cloud.
God takes the substance, contours
of a man, and keeps them,
dying, rising, walking,
and still walking
wherever there is motion.[x]
Wherever, that is, there is life.
As Unitarian Universalists we marvel in that life. We affirm the scientific method as a means of more deeply understanding its complexity, its beauty, and its precariousness. Appreciating science, however, is not all there is to our faith. Unitarian theologian and longtime University of Chicago Divinity School professor Bernard Meland defined our worship as “the deep, elemental, appreciative response…toward vast and mysterious environings, out of which…life has arisen and is sustained.”[xi] Surely, we are called to so worship.
YES, science helps deepen our understanding and sense of wonder, but that is only the beginning. Or should be only the beginning. It’s by virtue of the insights of science that we can more joyously celebrate life—and the Sources creating and upholding it: our definition, like that of Professor Meland, of worship. And that is what I ask of you this morning. As UUs we are called, not to prepare for some rapturous escape from life, but to try our best—by science and other means—to more fully understand life. And also to praise it, and to serve it. Albert Schweitzer was both a man of science and of great faith. He was also a longtime, dues-paying Unitarian whose motto and modus operandi was REVERENCE FOR LIFE. He believed in science and religion. He believed in living a life of service and worship and praise. I challenge each of you and all of you as Unitarian Universalists: go, and do likewise. Amen.
[i] Dobbs, Michael. “Tsunami: First Person,” Washington Post, January 3, 2005.
[ii] Winchester, Simon. Krakatoa (HarperCollins, NY, 2003) pp. 98-114.
[iii]Capra, Fritjof. The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems (Doubleday, NY, 1996) p. 227.
[iv] Turner, Victor. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. (Aldine Publishing Co., Chicago, 1969) and Drams, Fields and Metaphors: Symbolic Action In Human Society. (Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, 1974).
[v] Bellah, Robert. Varieties of Civil Religion (Harper & Row, NY, 1980) and Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Harper & Row, NY, 1986).
[vi] Watts, Alan, quoted in Myths To Live By by Joseph Campbell (Bantam, NY 1972) p. 253.
[vii] Newberg, Andrew and D’Aquilli, Eugene. Why God Won’t Go Away (Ballantine, NY, 2001) p. 129.
[viii] Lorenz, Edward. The Essence of Chaos (Univ. of Washington Press, Seattle, 1993) pp. 168-179.
[ix] Horgan, John. “Can Science Solve the Riddle of Existence?” Adbusters, Issue #58 (Vancouver, BC, Canada) 2005
[x] Dillard, Annie. “Feast Days” (excerpt), from Tickets for a Prayer Wheel (Bantam, NY, 1974) p. 18.
[xi] Meland, Bernard E. “Modern Man’s Worship,” (Journal of Religion, Spring, 1934) p. xiv.