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My mother, God rest her soul, was one to extol the benefits of wash and wear clothing, sadly mostly polyesters. For women of her age, wrinkle guard fabrics and treatments released her from the toils of ironing all those shirts. She thought it a great liberation from the bane of womanhood. It is amazing how far we have come! From the definition of feminism as less laundry to occupying the White House, almost. All that said, we know that wash and wear, while offering great utility, is never, how should I put this, quite as crisp. I saw in the Dallas Tribune the other day that police departments across the country are going to wash and wear uniforms with the badges embroidered right on the shirt so they don’t fall off during a chase! Of course, officers are still supposed to wear their dry clean uniforms to court. (Dallas Morning News 11/21/08).
Many years ago, one of my parishioners described Unitarian Universalism as a “wash and wear religion”. What she meant was that we want a religion that is immensely practical, able, when it falters, to put in the washing machine of reason and come out with a fresh start. It fits our rather low church nature to not expect you to put on the finery of dogma and creed but to instead ask you to pursue the spiritual path that fits your experience and needs. As Marcus Borg, the great historian of religion once urged, it is time to move beyond the second hand religion of what someone said thousands of years ago, to the first hand religion of what we know to be true today (Paraphrased).This does not – and I repeat does not – mean that this is a belief in whatever you want religion. We encourage the free and responsible search for truth and meaning but we encourage you to match what you believe in how you live your life. That integrity is vital to our life here. Minus the dry clean quality of a doctrine, it is our community that serves as the unifying force in which to form what we hold most dearly and that definitely does not mean pettiness, hatred or exclusion. Ours is a religion based on reason and no more so because of that source of “Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the result of science and warn us against the idolatries of the mind and spirit.” Permit to unpack this dense source of meaning. From the mid 19th century on, Unitarianism has been expanding its understanding of ultimate meaning. Ralph Waldo Emerson and his fellow transcendentalists sought an understanding of God that transcended the bible and Christianity. Through long walks and longer conversations, the Transcendentalists argued that Holiness could also be found beyond books, in the bounty of nature, in his words “The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn”. By the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th century, our theological tent grew again. With stunning clarity scientists such as Borg and Einstein discovered the physics of quantum mechanics; the world it seems is not as it seems. One atom displaced here changes the entire universe and we are intimately and profoundly interconnected in time and space. This coupled with Charles Darwin’s understanding of evolution and humanity seemed to be on its own; part of a grand story, but not necessarily at the whim of a God. So was born religious humanism, the possibility that we could have a religion that taught wonder at the universe, morals based on decency without an Omni-potent Big Daddy, all based on the use of reason. At first this was, even for Unitarians, a heresy. But as time went on, we began to appreciate the power of human reason as its own arbiter of meaning. Thus, we incorporated the rich teachings of humanity’s learning from literature to science into our faith tradition. We have come to accept that wisdom is not just religious but human, sometimes richly so.
Contrary to popular belief we do not worship diversity here: we allow diversity to enrich our journeys but it is not our common faith. We believe that all life is connected in a Holy Whole and that damage to any part damages the rest. It’s a faith that is as strong as the salvation of Christ, as strong as the supremacy of Allah, as strong as the steadfastness of Torah, as strong as the Eastern understanding of Nirvana. It is our common faith. The belief that we are all interconnected is the higher ground that we call the world to, it is the reason we are about the business of building the radically inclusive community. It is true to our heritage as Unitarian, the believers of One God and the Universalists, the believers in Universal love. So strong is this common faith that we could actually save the world with it, testify to congress for it and shout out to the world with it.
Of all the ways towards this truth, none is perhaps more enduring than the gifts of reason. What is reason? Reason is the belief that a statement of meaning has to both make sense logically and have some basis in fact. Using reason is not the rejection of God, necessarily. It is rather the belief that our intellect and experience are sufficient means by which to discover and hold the sacred, the greater meaning to our being here. It is a rich and abiding heritage and, current theocratic tendencies notwithstanding, it is more a part of our world than you think.
Great thinkers like Galileo, Newton, Voltaire, Roseau, John Locke, the Buddha, John Dewey, Margaret Fuller, and Emerson are all part of this rich heritage. Any one of whom brought us forward with the simple idea that we, that is human beings, can actually discover the meaning of our world and existence with the faculties of reason and the use of experience. Blind faith is unseated. Faith in our abilities to discover are enthroned. The fact that you are here, weighing my words, deciding if you agree or disagree is due in large part to the gift of reason.
And it all begins with being able to think. This is the church where we ask you to think, to NOT check your mind in at the door. Humanism in the West started in earnest after the philosopher Renee Descartes claimed thinking itself as the proof of our existence. The only sure truth, he wrote was that we are thinking creatures. Now you can argue with that if you want. but it does make us all pretty unique as creatures. Cogitio Ergo Sum. I think therefore I am. Of course, even that can get you into trouble. Soon after finishing that piece of wisdom, Descartes went out to the tavern with his friends. The evening progressed and the wine ran out. One friend went up to the bar to get another bottle and called out to Descartes, “Renee, do you want more wine?” To which the philosopher replied “I think not” and Poof! He disappeared.
Reason has, since the 17th century forced us to measure what we believe with what we have experienced. It was Voltaire, the grandfather of modern humanism who put it so succinctly:
“All men are born with a nose and ten fingers, but no one was born with a knowledge of God. “
The knowledge of God or of anything beyond what we can see has to be learned and to be appreciated. We may be wired for spiritual inquiry as some neuro scientists have now discovered, but there is no such thing as a God Gene. The hope of reason is that, whether or not you believe in God, the Force or Mother Earth your experience and the empirical facts of science guide your journey towards meaning.
But can reason truly lead us to the ineffable mysteries of the Sacred? Many thinkers both secular and religious don’t think so, the theologian Soren Kierkegaard, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, and the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Gould, all claim that religion and science inhabit different realms, and while science can use reason to explain our universe, religion is decidedly unable to do so. Religion, explain these thinkers, is the realm of the mysterious, the ineffable, the moral.
Perhaps they are right. Reason has its limits in the face of the largely unknown universes of love, fear, hope and the infinity of time and space. Using reason alone forces us to sacrifice the hopeful possibilities of the unknown before us. I can’t comfort a family who has lost a child with reason; beyond the physical reasons for the loss there are no words that reason can provide to soothe that tyranny of grief. We are left then with only our presence, our love, our touch and that love so beyond reason is sacred in and of itself.
No, I believe that reason is a start to discerning meaning but it’s not sufficient alone. Somewhere here we have to accept the fact that we don’t know. Wasn’t this the lesson in the Hebrew story of Job? Job, a righteous man before God, is the victim of a bet between God and Satan, (from the Arabic Satan, or temple spy) while Satan was still an angel. Satan bet God that he could break Job and turn him against God. God agreed and took away all that Job had, his family, his wealth and his dignity. There on a trash heap of ashes, Job finally curses God, who comes roaring out of a whirlwind to put Job in his place. Who are you to try to understand Me? Says God and restores his wealth and family. Now conservatives say this is a lesson in obedience to God, but I rather like the playwright Archibald MacLeish’s conclusion, Job realized that there are limits to what we can know but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use reason and experience to test them. (See his play J.B.) In the end we need both reason and mystery to give our shattered and brilliant lives meaning, as the poet Katherine Towler put it: “Hope is the opposite of desperation—it’s not as comfortable as certainty, and it’s much more certain than longing. It is always accompanied by the imagination, the will to see what our physical environment seems to deem impossible.”
Many years ago after Francis and I had just moved to California, I was doing laundry at a laundromat. We didn’t yet have a washer and dryer. As I was folding my wash and wear shirts a young man noticed that almost all my shirts were white. He commented that it was unusual to see someone with so many dress shirts cleaning them at a laundromat. We got into a conversation and I eventually admitted to being a minister. Remember what I told you about admitting you are clergy in public. Well, he suddenly became very agitated and started raising his voice, “How can you talk about a God?! (I wasn’t by the way) Where was your God when my brother was taken by cancer, even though he seemed to be improving, even though we prayed and prayed? Where was your God when my father left my mother over it and was killed in drunk driving accident? Huh? Where? Tears flowed down his face. A modern day Job right there in the laundromat.
I stared at him for a moment and finally said, “I don’t believe God was there. I don’t believe in that kind of God. I believe in the sacred power of being there for one another when we need it most. I don’t know why your brother died. Or why your father left and was killed. I don’t have reasons why a God would do that. But I do know that you are living through the mystery of that pain, to come out to the other side and offer your own love to the broken. That capacity to love is my God.”
As my colleague Robert Latham said “the most profound and critical agent of human transformation is our answers to the questions of mystery – the more committed in community a religion is to that message, the more powerful a tool of social change it becomes…”(From PSWD UUMA Retreat Jan. 2006)
Neither reason alone nor any belief answers all the mysteries of why we live nor why we die. We are reminded in the hope of reason to be way of idolatries of mind or spirit. Reason and experience alone may not be enough for us to feel a greater connection to the unknown but it sure helps. There is hope in reason, if nothing else it keeps all this talk of God and faith, honest, but reason alone is not enough.
In the midst of all that challenges us, I offer a faith blazed first by reason but made light be a mystery we have yet to discover. In the words of the Iraqi poet, DUNYA MIKHAIL
In this way he makes music.
He lifts is hands to the clouds and braids her tears into a flower.
In this way he sings.
A wave breaking outside the sea.
In this way I go on.
Let us go on in love. Amen.