The New England Transcendentalist, Margaret Fuller, liked to summarize her religious philosophy by declaring, “I accept the Universe.”
Thomas Carlyle, a Scottish friend of Emerson, had a reputation for irascibility, combined with a well-honed sense of humor, was told of Margaret Fuller’s declaration, “I accept the Universe,” and responded, “Ye, gads, she’d better.”
While we Unitarian Universalists put a great deal of emphasis on the rational mind and the use of reason, holding on tightly with one hand, we also have an idealistic side, affirming that ‘love is the spirit’ that binds us…that we can be change-agents, helping to make the world better.
We embrace a religion, or an approach to religion, without the imposition of theological assertions – we don’t tell one another what to believe about God, the afterlife, and so forth.
Our approach to the Great Mystery of Life, or religion, combines the use of the rational mind with an appreciation of Nature, Beauty and Compassion…Love in all of its forms.
Our insistence on the use of reason is balanced by our appreciation for the emotional, the intuitive – a spiritual aspect of life.
The heart of our faith is compassion…our care and concern for one another, our care and concern for the earth, and our tendency to equate God and Nature. Emerson, in his first book, which he titled Nature, suggested spelling God with a capital N.
This, in part, is what Margaret Fuller’s declaration said: “I accept the Universe.”
The foregoing provides a round-a-bout way of introducing Stephen Greenblatt’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Swerve, How the World Became Modern.
The Swerve is a book about another book – or rather a book-length poem by the Roman poet Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, written about 50 B.C.E..
Greenblatt’s book, The Swerve, How the World Became Modern, which won a Pulitzer Prize, is the story of how Lucretius’s poem was saved from extinction and how it influenced the Renaissance and Enlightenment.
The foundation blocks of the universe, said Lucretius 2,000 years ago, is the atom…the infinite swirling, mingling particles that make up all matter and swerve here and there to remix and re-mingle to create new forms of life, or make some forms of life extinct. One of those swerves resulted in the form of life that is humanity — the life each of us is experiencing right now.
Today we would call what Lucretius wrote “basic science,’ but when his poem was rediscovered and quoted in the early part of the 15th century, a dark time in terms of religious persecution, it was basic heresy, and many who dared to quote from it were burned at the stake or crucified, or put to death in a variety of other nasty ways of doing away with non-believers – heretics.
One of the points Lucretius was making in his book On the Nature of Things is that the life of the mind is critical to one’s freedom – the life of the mind and the life of the spirit, must be in partnership. They work side by side – not in competition or conflict.
In his poem, Lucretius asserts that atoms, or the elementary particles of matter are the ‘seeds of all things,’ and are eternal, though the ways in which they organize or combine are temporary.
Greenblatt says: “The Spanish-born Harvard philosopher George Santayana called this idea – the ceaseless mutation of forms composed of indestructible substances – ‘the greatest thought that mankind has ever hit upon.’”
“Out of the stars have we come…stardust and sunlight mingling through time and through space…” is the way Unitarian minister Robert Weston put it.
Here are the key points Lucretius expresses in his poem:
–The elementary particles of matter are eternal, they are infinite in number but limited in shape and size; they are in constant motion in an infinite void…
–The universe has no creator or designer…there’s no over-arching plan or scheme. He says, “Providence is a fantasy.”
–“Everything comes into being as a result of a swerve.” It’s those swerves that result in the variety of forms of life on the planet and in the universe, and that process is eternal.
–“The swerve is the source of free will.” In human terms it’s about the decisions we make as we move through the days of our lives.
–“The universe was not created for or about humans.”
—“Humans are not unique.” There are lots of life forms similar to ours.
–“Human society began not in a Golden Age of tranquility and plenty, but in a primitive battle for survival.” In its earliest stage, human life was basic and brutal…civilization evolves very slowly.
—The soul dies with the body, there is no afterlife.’
— ‘The elementary particles that form us will be dispersed.’ (Genesis 3, 19: Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust…In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.)
–“All organized religions are superstitious delusions,” based on fear, ignorance and wishful thinking.
–“Religions are invariably cruel.” He points to the stories of King Agamemnon sacrificing his daughter, Iphegenia…and the story of the first patriarch, Abraham, being willing to sacrifice his son Isaac…as evidence of superstitious delusions that dominate religion.
Referring to Lucretius, Greenblatt says, “Writing around 50 BCE (Lucretius) could not, of course, have anticipated the great sacrifice myth that would come to dominate the Western world, but he would not have been surprised by it or by the endlessly reiterated, prominently displayed images of the bloody, murdered son.”
—There are no angels, demons, or ghosts…the creatures with which the Greek and Roman imagination populated the world.
—The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain…the greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion… understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder…knowing the way things are awakens the deepest wonder.
Lucretius was a follower of Epicurus, or Epicureanism – that the highest good is the increase of pleasure and the reduction of pain. Jefferson, in the final years of his life, said that he was an Epicurean, which explains why he revised the original text of The Declaration of Independence from ‘…life, liberty and the pursuit of property,’ to ‘…life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’
Jefferson’s personal library, which was extensive, included five copies of Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things!
In early July, while I was immersed in Greenblatt’s book, The Swerve: How the world became modern, news came from scientists that it appeared that Higgs boson had been identified. The Higgs boson, a subatomic particle, is the one responsible for things being solid in the universe, rather than a floating mass of tiny, unconnected atoms; the Higgs boson gives matter mass…it’s the glue that hold things together, like you and me.
Some called it ‘the God particle.’ Apparently some scientist said it with tongue in cheek – but scientists don’t call it ‘the God particle,’ knowing some will give a literal interpretation, fashioning an anthropomorphic god who has a Master Plan.
For those of us who read the Biblical stories as insightful myths, Higgs boson is a scientific way of telling the Genesis story of creation, how “God,” metaphorically, made everything from the dust of the earth and He fashioned Humankind from clay.
I prefer to think of Higgs boson as “the religious particle,” because it’s what causes or allows things to be connected: the word religion literally means ‘to bind,’ or to ‘re-bind.’ (to connect, or to re-connect.)
British physicist Peter Higgs has for nearly 50 years predicted the existence of this sub-atomic particle and spent his working life trying to identify and understand it.
Like Margaret Fuller, he could say, “I accept the universe.” To truly accept the universe requires an understanding of what the universe is, and Higgs wanted a better understanding.
About 2,000 years ago, Lucretius delineated the universe he ‘accepted.’ About 150 years ago Walt Whitman said in Leaves of Grass “…every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”
Today, for most people in the world, it’s a given — everything in the universe is made of atoms, and that inside atoms are electrons, protons and neutrons, and they are made of even smaller building blocks: quarks and subatomic particles.
Last Tuesday, five days ago, on September 11, the headline in scientific news said, “The Higgs Boson Discovery Is Now Real Science”
The article announcing the presumed discovery last July said, “Without mass, particles wouldn’t hold together and there would be no matter. In the 1960s, British physicist Peter Higgs and others theorized that a new particle must be creating a “sticky” field that acts as a drag on other particles. The atom-smashing experiments at CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research, have now captured a glimpse of what appears to be just such a Higgs-like particle.”
I was not familiar with Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things, but as I read it and learned more about it, I couldn’t help but think of its similarity to Whitman, who wrote:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
My tongue, every atom of my blood form’d from this soul, this air
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and
their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not until death.
Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy…
Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much? have you reckon’d the earth much?
Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self…
We need some kind of faith – but we do not need to believe in the ancient myths. We do well, however, to discern the seeds of truth curled up inside those myths. We need to nurture a rational mind, free to tell unfettered truth.
To me, faith is like a living organism – it moves through stages, it goes through changes, not only the changes of a lifetime, but the ways it changes in any given day…sometimes dominated by the emotions, other times by the mind.
With Margaret Fuller I can say, “I accept the universe.” What about you? Do you accept it? And what, really, does that mean?
That’s the basic question we’ll explore in the weeks ahead.