Reading: From Albert Camus, in his acceptance speech upon being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, December 10, 1957
Probably every generation sees itself as charged with remaking the world. Mine, however, knows it will not remake the world. But its task is perhaps even greater, for it consists in keeping the world from destroying itself.
As the heir of a corrupt history that blends blighted revolutions, misguided techniques, dead gods and worn-out ideologies, in which second-rate powers can destroy everything today but are unable to win anyone over and in which intelligence has stooped to becoming the servant of hatred and oppression, that generation, starting from nothing but its own negations, has had to re-establish both within and without itself a little of what constitutes the dignity of life and death.
Faced with a world threatened with disintegration, in which our grand inquisitors may set up once and for all the kingdoms of death, that generation knows that, in a sort of mad race against time, it ought to reestablish among nations a peace not based on slavery, to reconcile labor and culture again, and to reconstruct with all (people) an Ark of the Covenant.
Perhaps it can never accomplish that vast undertaking, but most certainly throughout the world it has already accepted the double challenge of truth and liberty and, on occasion, has shown that it can lay down its life without hatred. That generation deserves to be acclaimed and encouraged wherever it happens to be, and especially wherever it is sacrificing itself.
And to it, confident of your wholehearted agreement, I should like to transfer the honor you have just done me.
Truth is mysterious, elusive, ever to be won anew. Liberty is dangerous, as hard to get along with as it is exciting. We must progress toward those two objectives, painfully but resolutely, sure in advance that we shall weaken and flinch on such a long road.
I was a senior in high school when Camus delivered this Nobel acceptance speech. Shortly afterward I set off for college — a state college, a kind of continuation of public school, established and maintained for working-class families. Tuition was $50 per semester. Nearly all of us commuted, driving the old cars for which we paid $75 or $100 and insured for $60 a year.
In those days, for sons and daughters of working class families, a college degree was a ticket on the train of the American Dream.
Camus said that the charge of his generation was to keep the world from destroying itself. He speculated that ‘every generation sees itself as charged with remaking the world.’
There’s a sense in which every generation sees its task as keeping the world from destroying itself; it’s culture, it’s heritage — the need to preserve the status quo, to keep things from changing, is on the agenda of every generation.
What, then, is our charge? What’s on our agenda, now that we’ve entered this new, exciting, challenging, confusing millennium?
I refer to the Unitarian Universalist faith as our chosen faith, because most of us discovered it after being brought up in some other faith system. Those who were brought up in the Unitarian and/or Universalist faith (the two denominations merged in 1961 to form the UUA) also make a choice — without the threat of hellfire or a more personal, immediate condemnation — the choice to stay and to be involved and to support, preserve and enhance this chosen faith of ours.
This is a faith we have chosen, and must keep choosing, for it to be real, to be effective, to truly be ours. We’re here because this approach feels right for us.
So, what is required of us, now? What are the demands of the age on our chosen faith?
First among them is the perennial demand to affirm this faith of ours — this approach to religion, spirituality, ethics or philosophy of life. To affirm it by supporting it.
What I mean by ‘affirming our faith’ is the antidote to taking it for granted, the way we might easily fall into taking too many things for granted — the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the cars we drive — the vacations we take and the educational opportunities for ourselves and our children.
Another demand of the age on our faith is to help make it the kind of place that promotes learning, that encourages the moral life-that addresses social issues and the ethical dilemmas we face individually and collectively.
Another perennial demand of the age on our chosen faith is to avoid focusing too much on the negative — too often we who have left another faith focus on what we do not believe rather than affirming what we’re about.
That was the central motivation for the development of our statement of purposes and principles some years ago — to say what we affirm: the inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice equity and compassion in human relations; the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process — and so forth.
Another perennial demand is to avoid putting down other faiths. We can too easily fall into the negative — and our chosen faith soon sounds like ‘the one true religion,’ an aspect of religion many of us wanted to leave. We’re not perfect. Emerson was right: “There’s a crack in everything.”
We can offer our critique of religious ideas — including those in our chosen faith. But our critique should not be condescending.
Another demand of our age on our chosen faith is that we learn about our history, that we understand and appreciate where that came from — how this faith of ours depended on some who were willing to sacrifice themselves on the altars of truth, justice and freedom so that we could be here, saying what we believe, and not forced to say what we don’t believe.
We have to be careful of suggesting, in whatever ways, that we’re the chosen people — or the only true religion — or the only intelligent approach to faith and spirituality. We need to build in a corrective — to be self-critical. But those are perennial demands on our chosen faith.
What’s demanded of us that’s specific to our age?
One of the demands of our age is to see the best in all the religions — without denying the prejudice, bigotry, racism of places like Bob Jones University. We have entered an age of globalization — we not only see that we’re all one world, one humanity, but we’re connected through ever-increasing forms of communication systems.
Recently Thandeka spoke from this pulpit about Michael Servetus, who was one of our important forebears. Servetus was martyred, burned at the stake in Geneva during the Reformation by John Calvin with his book, On the Errors of the Trinity.
I was somewhat pleased and almost amused to read the plaque in the city of Geneva which apologizes for this terrible deed. It’s an acknowledgment of the failure of that age!
Many of us decided to sever ties with the religion in which we grew up, in part because we learned about the long, bloody trail left by those responsible for terrible deeds done ‘in the name of God,’ or ‘in defense of the Faith,’ and so forth.
We’re here, however, because we acknowledge the need for a spiritual dimension in our own lives, and in the lives of our children. We’re here because we believe we can nurture spirituality without a negative, sin-based theology.
Spirituality must not be an end in itself. We’re involved in the world, in the real, down-to-earth problems and concerns of the world. That’s why we affirm a woman’s right to choose, promoting family planning and sex education for our young people.
We do not agree with those who turn sexuality into sin or who would limit the responsible control of conception.
Universalist minister Hosea Ballou put it well in the 18th century: “Where there is love no disagreement does us harm; where there is not love no agreement does us any good.”
One of the demands of our age on our chosen faith is that we become leaders in inter-faith work, that we help the wider religious community to understand who we are, and what we’re about — the positive, life-affirming principles that are at our foundation.
The more we do that the more we and they will see how similar we are, and, at our core, how we are really the same, as moral agents in the world, and as compassionate persons in search of truth and meaning in our lives.
We’re here because we believe in the need to nurture respect for the integrity of the individual. That kind of nurturing is a life-long task.
On an individual, personal level, what’s demanded is that we keep working at the task of putting all the pieces of our lives in place — to become whole persons.
To do so, we have to keep digging!
Remember the story of La Loba, the wolf woman, from Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ wonderful book, Women Who Run With the Wolves?
La Loba’s assignment was to dig into the desert sands to find old bones. You’ll remember that when she found the bones of a wolf which were perfectly preserved, she carried each bone back to her cave and carefully reassembled them, until she found every one, and then she sang over the bones.
After singing all night long the bones took on flesh and fur and finally stood up and ran into the sunrise, pausing for a second in the distance so that La Loba could see that the wolf was transformed into a woman!
This is what we’re doing — we’re digging into the sands of our past to reassemble the old bones so that we can be transformed — and by so doing, so that we can be healers and helpers in a world full of wounded and needing people. Each of us is wounded, or broken, and in need of being made whole, again.
The demands of our age are similar to the demands of previous ages — the demands on our faith during the Reformation, and the enlightenment — the demands during our early development as a growing nation with its high ideals — the demands on our chosen faith during and leading up to the Civil War, and so forth.
Our forebears were there, and they had a significant impact on those ages.
What’s required of us, here in Westport, serving a large portion of Fairfield County? In a recent speech on ‘the future of community,’ one of our members, Watts Wacker said: “Westport is one of the few communities in the world that could actually dictate not only its own future but indeed serve as a positive model for defining how the future of other communities evolves.”
We’ve been looking at the issue of racial and cultural diversity — here in our congregation — and ‘here in our hearts.’
One of the demands of our age is that we take another, deeper look at issues of race — issues of prejudice or narrowness, both as individuals and as a covenanted community of faith.
We need to take seriously Camu’s suggestion that we ‘reconcile labor and culture again, and reconstruct with all people the Ark of the Covenant.
Remember, Camu was an existentialist. He wasn’t referring to the ark in which the ten commandments are stored. He used the ark of the covenant as a metaphor for reconstructing that which is sacred. To reconcile labor and culture is to pay attention to the division of wealth and the issue of equity — who gets paid how much for what they do? Some work full time for $6 an hour, taking home less than $200 a week and are often among the so-called working poor. Some are paid salaries in the millions by corporations that seem to care less and less about those who perform the labor which allows them to make profits.
The question of money, values and culture came to mind as we watched or heard about the television special “Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?”
In a strange, if not perverted way, this show was a reminder of what is sacred — a reminder that there is something sacred.
It is such an easy target I’m reluctant to join the feeding frenzy of holy criticism.
Perhaps it’s unnerving to be reminded that we all want money, because we need it! We need enough money to survive. And it would be nice to have enough money to feel a sense of security, in spite of what Jesus said about not worrying about it, and the suggestion that those who do worry about having enough money are somehow morally or spiritually inferior. Even Gandhi and Mother Theresa needed and asked for money, some of it accruing directly or indirectly to their personal survival needs!
In addition to money, there are three things that we all need: attention, acceptance and affection.
Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire was more about those three things than it was about money.
The dozens of millionaire men who applied to be the one to marry — and the 50 women who were finalists — were looking for a moment in the sun — their 15 minutes, perhaps, in a world where we feel more and more anonymous. We all need some attention, hoping for affection, needing acceptance.
So each of the contestants wanted to be chosen, but was afraid they would be!
Each wanted a secure partnership, which requires a partner with security — or securities!
Let him or her who is without those so-called sins cast the stones, and let the rest hush up!
I’m not defending that sad spectacle, nor those who produced it. I’m glad it crashed and burned.
But it did and does raise important questions — if we’re not too busy shooting at such an easy target.
The demands of the age on our chosen faith, then, include the work we need to do, first of all, on ourselves, as individuals. May this be a place where such work can be accomplished without a big bag of guilt!
The demands of the age on our chosen faith include work we need to do together, to be sure this is a welcoming congregation, a place where gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual and transgender persons feel welcome; a place which reflects the kind of diversity in the larger community and a place that reflects our deep, true feelings of love and genuine compassion for all.
The demands of the age on our chosen faith require us to continue to work for racial and economic justice.
The next time you feel put out by the attitude of a cashier who is making $6 an hour at Stop & Shop think about what life is like for that person and the family he or she is trying to support or to help support, taking home less than $200 a week for full time work!
It’s not a matter of feeling guilty, or having to justify having a big piece of the pie — that guilt and the inevitable defensiveness which follows will do neither them, you nor us any good.
But our chosen faith demands that we act as moral change agents, helping to make this a more just, a more fair and equitable world.
We have a long way to go.
Carl Sandburg was an active, supporting member of a Unitarian congregation. Much of his poetry points to the demands of the age on our chosen faith — his poetry about the working people, about the process of building and rebuilding cities and communities. It seems appropriate to close with a passage from his Chicago poem Windy City:
Put the city up; tear the city down;
put it up again; let us find a city.
Let us remember the little violet-eyed
man who gave all, praying, “Dig and
dream, dream and hammer, till
your city comes.”
Every day the people sleep and the city dies;
every day the people shake loose, awake and
build the city again.
The city is a tool chest opened every day,
a time clock punched every morning,
a shop door, bunkers and overalls
counting every day.
The city is a balloon and a bubble plaything
shot to the sky every evening, whistled in
a ragtime jig down the sunset.
The city is made, forgotten, and made again,
trucks hauling it away haul it back
steered by drivers whistling ragtime
against the sunsets.
Every day the people get up and carry the city,
carry the bunkers and balloons of the city,
lift it and put it down.