Opening Words: Tao Te Ching, Chapter 33
Knowing others is wisdom;
Knowing the self is enlightenment.
Mastering others requires force;
Mastering the self needs strength.
He who knows he has enough is rich.
Perseverance is a sign of willpower.
He who stays where he is endures.
To die but not to perish is to be eternally present.
Sermon: Does the Universe Have a Purpose?
The writers are on strike, reminding us that Jay Leno, David Letterman, Jon Stuart and all the others have their lines given to them by clever people who live and work behind the scenes, but without whom there would be no scenes, no show.
For better or worse, however, we who occupy pulpits don’t depend on writers, though we make ample use of them – especially the poets who you’ll hear from today.
Sometimes we rely on the children. For example, Carol Baxter writes:
“I will never forget Erin and Emily talking about God when they were 3 and 4. Erin asked Emily how big she thought God was…Emily quickly replied, “He has to be very small because no one has ever seen him.”
Then she tells the story of a little girl who was talking to her teacher about whales. The little girl said that Jonah was swallowed by a whale. The teacher said it was physically impossible for a whale to swallow a human because even though it was a very large mammal its throat was very small. The little girl stated that Jonah was swallowed by a whale. Irritated, the teacher reiterated that a whale could not swallow a human; it was physically impossible. The little girl said, “When I get to heaven I will ask Jonah.” The teacher asked, “What if Jonah went to hell?” The little girl replied, “Then you ask him”.
Then there’s the story about a Kindergarten teacher who was observing her classroom of children while they were drawing. She would occasionally walk around to see each child’s work. As she got to one little girl who was working diligently, she asked what the drawing was. The girl replied, “I’m drawing God.” The teacher paused and said, “But no one knows what God looks like.” Without missing a beat, or looking up from her drawing, the girl replied, “They will in a minute.”
The sermon title doesn’t come from the children, however. It comes from the first in a series of conversations about the ‘big questions’ that the Templeton Foundation is conducting among leading scientists and scholars. To open the conversation they asked Does the Universe Have a Purpose?
It’s a strange question, but the relationship between science and religion is a bit strange. In spite of all our efforts to marry them, there remains a basic estrangement between the two. Which is not to say that you can’t have a spiritual or religious life while remaining devoted to the scientific method – you can be rational and religious; you can, as a rational person, nurture the spirit.
The religious or spiritual life requires a balance provided by the rational – without it one runs the risk of fanaticism; and one can be a fanatic about rationalism as well as a fanatic about the religious.
So the Templeton Foundation has launched a series of conversations, asking big questions about the purpose of the universe – about God, heaven, the soul, and so forth. Their motto is ‘supporting science – investing in the big questions.’
My first sermon, 38 years ago, was titled ‘what are the questions?’ What defines us as human? What makes us different from the other forms of life with whom we share the planet? We are the askers of big questions.
One of the best explanations that describes our human nature – distinguishes us from the other forms of life with whom we share the universe, is found in the Genesis myth of creation. You know the story: the first man and woman eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They lose their innocence and they’re evicted from the bliss of ignorance – the Garden of innocence. They realize that they are capable of both good and evil – creativity and destructiveness.
We humans are the meaning makers. We’re not content to merely survive, as our brothers the bears seem to be, and our sisters the singing birds appear to be.
Last weekend we had our Coming of Age ceremony…the class of ninth graders was asked to respond to some questions:
WHY AM I HERE? WHAT IS MY PURPOSE? DOES GOD EXIST? WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE DIE? HOW CAN REFLECTING ON OUR OWN EVENTUAL DEATH INFORM THE WAY WE LIVE TODAY? WHAT IS THE KEY TO HAPPINESS? HOW HAS OUR RELIGIOUS AND CULTURAL HERITAGE INFLUENCED OUR VALUES? HOW CAN WE LIVE OUR VALUES?
I appreciated listening to our Coming of Age class. While the specific answers were interesting, what was more important was the implicit notion that they have their own answers to the big questions; those answers are drawn from the living of a life. A couple of those for whom music has been important, for example, said that music is at the heart of their credo; that in which they ‘believe.’ I gave one a statement made by Kurt Vonnegut: “If I should die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph: the only proof he needed for the existence of God is music.”
I read with interest the responses to the Templeton Foundation’s question: Does the Universe Have a Purpose. The answers were: Yes. No. Unlikely. Indeed. Not Sure. Certainly. Perhaps. Very likely, and I hope so.
Some examples: Elie Wiesel writes, “I hope so. And if it doesn’t, it’s up to us to give it one. … To put it plainly: though God created the world, it is up to us to preserve, respect, enrich, embellish, and populate it, without brining violence to it. Because the world is fragile and vulnerable, it has always been in danger. And this danger comes from man himself.”
Christian de Duvee, a biochemist, the recipient of the 1974 Nobel Prise in Physiology and Medicine says, “No. I should mention first that this is a loaded question, with several hidden implications. A ‘purpose’ presupposes a mind that conceived it, as well as the ability to implement it. In the present case, this means that the owner of the mind not only created the universe the way it is, but could have created another universe and decided to create the existing one for a specific reason. So the question really deals with the belief in a Creator who enjoys almost infinite power and freedom but, at the same time, goes through the very human process of pondering decisions and acting accordingly…this is a very anthropomorphic vision of God.”
Owen Gingrich, professor emeritus of astronomy and of the history of science at Harvard says, “Yes. Frankly, I am psychologically incapable of believing that the universe is meaningless. I believe the universe has a purpose, and our greatest intellectual challenge as human beings is to glimpse what that purpose is…Quite possibly, the purpose of the universe is to provide a congenial home for self conscious creatures who can ask profound questions and who can probe the nature of the universe itself.”
David Gelernter, professor of computer science at Yale: “Yes. Namely, to defeat and rise above our animal natures; to create goodness, beauty, and holiness where only physics and animal life once existed; to create what might be (if we succeed) the only tiny pinprick of goodness in the universe.”
My response to the question, ‘Does the Universe Have a Purpose?”
We humans have purposes for things we do; that is to say, we have intentionality. We have motives, even if we’re not always aware of our motives – not ‘enlightened,’ as the Tao Te Ching says we need to be. We have reasons for doing what we do, even if we’re not always aware of the deeper reasons for things we do, say and believe.. We have hopes. Goals. We make plans. Those are human characteristics – they are not characteristics of ‘the universe,’ however.
We humans have a sense of purpose; short term and longer term. We care about the ways we’re spending our lives.
We care what others think of us; we care about the legacy we leave – what people will think and say about us when we’re gone.
We live in an amazing, unfathomable universe that sustains life; all life on this planet is in a delicate, intricately woven balance.
So, it’s not the universe that has a purpose – we have a sense of purpose; a sense of direction.
The automobile doesn’t have a purpose, but the driver must take it in a particular direction, and the automobile then serves our purpose. (This may serve as an example with double meaning, since the automobile may is causing such unanticipated problems.)
The universe, with all its life-giving and life-sustaining qualities, provides us the opportunity to live and to have a sense of purpose, a sense of meaning, a sense of direction.
Our basic purpose is to continue to live as long as we can, as well as we can – but that’s not enough for most of us, most of the time.
What’s built in to the Templeton Foundation’s question is our tendency to ascribe human characteristics to things that are not human, like God and the Universe.
The Templeton Foundation’s question is, first and foremost, an example of our human tendency to anthropomorphize – to ascribe human characteristics to things that are not human, like the universe, or God, or the gods.
In psychology it’s call projection: “the attribution of one’s own attitudes, feelings, or desires to someone or something.” This is the key to the question of believing or not believing in God.
“When Peter tells me about Paul I learn more about Peter than I do about Paul.”
In poetry, it’s called metaphor – the leaves don’t just fall off the tree and blow around on the ground – they hold on to the branch for dear life, then they dive down gracefully and then they dance.
While I love poetry and poetic imagery, I get more than a bit nervous when people say they believe the Bible literally, or they take every word of the Koran literally, and they insist that we do, wanting to impose it in theocracies.
The Buddhist says: “The finger pointing to the moon is not the moon, it’s a finger, pointing to the moon.” Those who take the Bible, Koran, etc. literally are like the traveler who is found sitting on top of the sign pointing to the direction they want to go.
We humans are the meaning makers, but we often go too far in assuming we know more than we’re capable of knowing…about the universe, about God, even about ourselves and one another. We look for love and work to help provide meaning and a sense of purpose.
The universe provides us a home – it is hospitable. It is disposed to treat us, as its guests, with warmth and generosity – there’s food, water and means of warmth and shelter to sustain us.
But the universe requires something of us who are its guests – in Biblical language we’re required to ‘have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air and everything that walks on the earth.’ In other words, to be responsible caretakers during our temporary stay in this big hotel; and if we’re not responsible, the universe will evict us.
The question, Does the Universe Have a Purpose, reminds us that we humans tend to take ourselves too seriously. We need to lighten up. The following reading helps lighten up. It’s done in the dialect of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof:
ADAM’S COMPLAINT, Nicholas Biel
On the third day I was dust, ordinary common dust
like you see on a country road in a dry spell,
nothing expected of me,
me expecting nothing neither.
On the sixth day he comes along and blows.
“In my own image too”, he says,
like he was doing me a favor.
Sometimes I think if he’d waited a million years
by then I’d been tired maybe being dust
but after only two, three days,
what can you expect? I wasn’t used to being dust
and he goes and makes me into Man.
He could see right away from the expression on my face
I didn’t like it so he’s going to butter me up.
He puts me in this garden only I don’t butter.
He brings me all the animals I should give them names–
What do I know of names? “Call it something,” he says,
“anything you want,” so I make names up–lion, tiger,
elephant, giraffe–crazy but that’s what he wants.
I’m naming animals since 5 AM, in the evening I’m tired
I go to bed early, in the morning I wake up,
there she is sitting by a pool of water admiring herself.
“Hello, Adam,” she says, “I’m your mate, I’m Eve.”
“Pleased to meet you,” I tell her and we shake hands.
Actually I’m not pleased—from time immemorial nothing,
now rush, rush, rush; two days ago I’m dust, yesterday
all day I’m naming animals, today I got a mate already.
Also I didn’t like the way she looked at me
or at herself in the water.
Well, you know what happened, I don’t have to tell you,
there were all those fruit trees—she took a bite,
I took a bite, the snake took a bite and quick like a flash—
out of the garden.
Now I’m not complaining; After all, it’s his garden,
he don’t want nobody eating his apples, that’s his business.
What irritates me is the nerve of the guy.
I didn’t ask him to make me even dust;
he could have left me nothing like I was before–
and such a fuss for one lousy little apple
not even ripe (there wasn’t much time from Creation,
it was still Spring), I didn’t ask for Cain, for Abel,
I didn’t ask for nothing, but anything goes wrong,
who’s to blame? Sodom, Gomorrah, Babel, Ararat…
me or my kids catch it, fire, flood, pillar of salt.
“Be patient,” Eve said, “a little understanding. Look,
he made it was his idea, it breaks down, so he’ll fix it.”
But I told him one day. “You’re in too much of a hurry.
In six days you make everything there is,
you expect it to run smoothly? Something’s always
going to happen. If you’d a thought first,
conceived a plan, consulted a specialist,
you wouldn’t have so much trouble all the time.”
But you can’t tell him nothing. He knows it all.
Like I say, he means well but he’s a meddler and he’s careless.
He could have made that woman so she wouldn’t bite no apple.
All right, all right, so what’s done is done,
but all the same, he should have known better,
or at least he could have blown on other dust.
Closing words: Praying, Mary Oliver
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.