“Consider a man riding a bicycle. Whoever he is, we can say three things about him. We know he got on the bicycle and started to move. We know that at some point he will stop and get off. Most important of all, we know that if at any point between the beginning and the end of his journey he stops moving and does not get off the bicycle he will fall off it. That is a metaphor for the journey through life of any living thing, and I think of any society of living things.” William Golding
We Unitarian Universalists are often asked to summarize our approach to religion in a few words–to say, simply, what we believe about God, the Bible, sin and salvation, heaven and hell, and so forth.
What distinguishes us, however, is not what we believe or don’t believe about any of those things. What best distinguishes us, I think, is our view of revelation. We’re not unique in our approach to revelation. Certainly there are Jews, Catholics–and Christians across the board–and Muslims who say what we say about revelation.
Revelation, from a religious or theological point of view, is the assertion that from time to time, and in certain places, God chose to speak directly to specific individuals. To put it another way, God has made his reality, nature and presence known to humankind by his intervention in the affairs of persons or groups of persons.
The Hebrew Bible is chock-full of stories recounting those interventions or ‘conversations with God.’
Our view of revelation, first and foremost, is that revelation is not sealed. That is to say, it’s not a matter of God deciding to talk to some people way back there–it’s more a matter of our deciding to listen.
In this sense, it’s not God that chooses to intervene, it is we who choose to change courses. God doesn’t speak only one language, one religion. The voice of God has something to do with the inner voice of reason, truth, and most importantly, the voice of morality and ethics.
The stories in the Bible, Koran, Bhagavad-gita are not meant to be taken as literal truths. The stories are about the human journey–the spiritual journey is always an inner journey into the depths of ourselves, to understand ourselves and one another better.
Look again, for example, at the book of Exodus, the second book of the Hebrew Bible. Exodus is the story of the liberation of the Jews from bondage in Egypt.
That is to say, it is the story of our life-long ‘exodus’ from that which binds us, or prevents us from being truly free–free from prejudice, hatred, resentment. Those are the things in whose clutches we are in bondage, and our human task is to free ourselves from them.
The Exodus story becomes our story when we identify with Moses. The story begins with the birth of Moses. He is born of a Hebrew woman, a Levite. This woman is afraid for her son and she will do anything to protect him. She knows that the Pharaoh has told the midwives to kill all the male children born of Hebrew slaves. The Pharaoh is afraid that Hebrew male children will grow up to overthrow him if they become too plentiful. Some of the midwives are moved by compassion and refuse to destroy the new-born. That was the case with Moses.
In order to save her son from Pharaoh’s sword, Moses’ mother puts him in a basket and floats it in the water that flows to the Pharaoh’s place. She’s hoping he will be discovered by a non-Hebrew so he can survive. The basket floats to the Pharoah’s daughter, who is without child, and she raises Moses as her own. You know the story.
Being raised in the Pharoah’s home, Moses believed he was an Egyptian, of royal birth. He didn’t realize his true identity. What does that mean? Moses is a metaphor for the process of growing up without really knowing ourselves, or having a misconception about our identity. The Exodus story is about the search for one’s true self, or about becoming our authentic self, which is the essence of the journey toward freedom.
We don’t really ‘know who we are’ until we’re on the journey, until we make decisions; until we are engaged in the process of living our lives–becoming a person.
Inner freedom is the process of discovering who we are, and determining who we will become. That’s what life is about for all people on the planet. If we cannot be authentic, we feel held in some kind of bondage; if we cannot make decisions which will determine who we will become, we are not truly free.
Getting back to the story: Moses saw an Egyptian abusing a Hebrew slave, and something in him reacted–he struck out, acting to protect the Hebrew slave. What was that thing in him that caused him to react this way?
The story suggests that he knew, way down deep, and certainly not consciously, that he was a Hebrew. I like to think it was his human compassion. Why should we care about the Taliban’s oppression of women and girls? Why, indeed should we care about the sexism, racism, homophobia, justice and elitism in our own country?
Moses defended the Hebrew because of his innate sense of compassion, his built-in sense of justice.
The Pharaoh found out what he had done, so Moses had to make a quick exit. The Exodus would come later. For now he had to save his own skin.
This is the first big transition for Moses. He had to leave home before he could return as the liberator. He had to find out who he was and discover his calling. This is the common theme in hero stories. The hero must withdraw and then return, better prepared to serve others.
We see that theme in the legend of the Buddha; the legend says he was raised in the home of a prince and left home as a young adult. He left abruptly, leaving his wife and child. Transition time.
A similar theme emerges in the legends about Jesus–he left his parents in the temple when he was twelve; later he left his family to venture forth to do what he believed he had to do; again he withdrew into the wilderness for forty days. Transition time.
Homer’s hero, Odysseus, left home; he went to battle and then he took ten years to return. Our life journey is our Odyssey.
The theme of withdrawal and return is woven throughout the stories of spiritual journeys. Spiritual journeys are interior.
When Moses was in exile, he helped some women who were prevented from access to the well to water their sheep. They told their father, Jethro, and he welcomed Moses into his home. The story says, he gave Moses the hand of one of his daughters.
Moses settled down and began to raise a family. Then, one fine day, he was tending his father-in-law’s sheep when, lo and behold, he saw a bush that was burning, but wasn’t consumed. It was an amazing sight. He was dazzled. This is revelation, and it is, remember, a metaphor. It’s not something that happened a long time ago to a person named Moses. It’s about you. It’s about me. It’s about a moment when we suddenly see something–an insight, understanding…an epiphany.
The story says that the voice of God came from that famous burning bush telling Moses to take the shoes off his feet for the place he was standing in that moment was holy ground. Holy ground is not a piece of geography–it’s located deep inside what we call the human spirit or soul, if you will.
The voice that came from the burning bush told him to go back to Egypt to free his people. “Who, me?!” he exclaimed. “You’ve got to be kidding!”
This is how the hero begins the liberating quest. The hero isn’t supposed to volunteer for the job, but to express the necessary humility. “Who, me!” Moses did put up the necessary resistance but the voice of God insisted. Genuine humility is one of the important ‘keys.’
As you know from the movie, Charlton Heston confronts the hard-hearted Pharaoh and eventually liberates the captive Hebrews, with God’s help, of course, especially that scene when the waters of the Red Sea part!
But they weren’t free as soon as they escaped from their captors. They wondered for forty years. Moses withdrew once again, this time climbing Mt. Sinai, later to return carrying the famous stone tablets on which God had carved the Ten Commandments.
Jewish theology says that God revealed himself to Moses once again, giving him the commandments. The 603 commandments, or laws, provide the structure by which the people of Israel can organize themselves, settle down and work toward ‘the promised land.’
At some point in our development from child through adolescence, we realize that without order and structure there can be no freedom. The Exodus did not bring freedom. Anyone can leave home. But it wasn’t until the Hebrew people got those commandments that they could realize their freedom. Moses never enters the Promised Land. His task was accomplished and he dies.
Too much order, too much structure, too many rules and regulations can also prevent freedom. That’s what Nazi Germany was about, and that’s what the Taliban has reminded us.
Totalitarianism comes in the form of political oppression and religious oppression.
Totalitarianism is not new–it’s the old enemy of freedom as personified in the story by the Pharaoh, in recent time by the likes of Hitler, and now by the likes of Osama bin Laden and company.
Totalitarianism rears its ugly head in the religious fundamentalisms that say “I’m right. You’re wrong. My way is the only way. There’s only one true religion. God speaks only one language–mine!”
Religious liberalism and toleration says, “You are right, but that doesn’t make me wrong. God is multi-lingual. You hear with your ears, I hear with mine.”
The Buddhist says ‘there are many paths up the mountain.’
Muslims say that God/Allah encountered Mohammed in a cave and God dictated the Koran to him. Mohammed, being illiterate, the story says, couldn’t therefore contaminate the message with his own interpretation. The Koran contains the Islamic religious, social, civil, commercial, military and legal codes.
Muslims affirm God’s revelation to Abraham, and God’s revelation to (through) Jesus and other prophets, but they say that Mohammed was the final prophet–the last person to whom God spoke directly.
The narrow thinking in Islam, like all narrow thinking in any religious group, says, “Either you are one of us or you are the infidel, and as such, the enemy.”
In last Tuesday New York Times, Thomas Freidman said, “We patronize Islam and mislead ourselves, by repeating the mantra that Islam is a faith with no serious problems accepting the secular West, modernity and puluralism, and the only problem is a few bin Ladens.”
He goes on to say, “Although there is a deep moral impulse in Islam for justice, charity and compassion, Islam has not developed a dominant religious philosophy that allows equal recogntition of alternative faith communities. Bin Laden reflects the most extreme version of that exclusivity, and he hit us in the face with it on September 11.”
That extreme fundamentalism is present in each of the three Abrahamic religions requiring believers to accept the idea that God revealed himself directly to those and only those historic characters.
The doctrine of Revelation is the central, common ingredient–that God chooses persons to whom he decides to speak, rather than the idea that we choose to listen to the voice of God, or the voice of reason, compassion and justice which comes from deep within our own minds.
The central tenet of our Unitarian Universalist faith is that revelation is the ongoing process of understanding the true nature of things, including ourselves and one another.
Most of us could chart the theological journey we’ve traveled thus far–a kind of spiritual Odyssey. We could mark turning points along that journey: ‘two roads diverged in a yellow wood and sorry I could not travel both and be one traveler, long I stood…’
Some of us could indicate times of our lives when we have experienced a crisis of faith–a dramatic change, including the experience of losing something which had been essential or at least important in our lives.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve had some very special, important moments which I can look back to as turning points, when certain things became clear to me. I think of those moments, those times when I felt like I had a break through, as my personal epiphanies.
An epiphany is a sudden, intuitive insight–a personal revelation.
One of my favorite examples of the idea of insight or sudden understanding is in the Christian story about the three wise men, the magi, who left their kingdoms, followed a star and arrived at the fabled stable on January 6, the feast of the Epiphany, twelve days after the birth of Jesus Christ. They knew that this was the divine savior. There was no discussion, much less debate about it. The story says that they simply fell down on their knees and worshipped him.
The Divine is located in an infant, full of potential, pure, untainted by the need for power over others or ulterior motives.
I like that legend. It contains an essential lesson about life. Life is a journey–hopefully a long journey. There are some powerful moments when we seem suddenly to understand something, a break through, an a-ha moment. It’s always a surprise, and sometimes we understand something we didn’t even realize we had been pondering.
We are always on the lookout for inspiration. Where do you look? Do you have some sacred literature–something that seems to strike a bell? Hit the nail on the head? A film or play, a piece of music or category of music?
I turn to the poets the way the Three Wise Men turned toward that star in the east.
A passage from Whitman’s Song of Myself hits the nail about revelation on the head. In his signature poem Song of Myself, Whitman asks:
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.
What is he origin of all poems, all music and art?
They come from us, from the Muse. Inspiration. Intuition.
The origin of all poems is human experience, ‘passed through the fire of thought.’ The origin of all poems is the inspiration, the energy it takes, to put experience into words, using metaphors. The origin of all poems–and religions too–is insight, intuition. We know when the artist has been inspired. We see it in the painting, we hear it in the music, the poem; we identify with characters in the myths and legends gathered into any and all of the religions.
The central point is that they all came from people like you and me. Revelation.
Poems that speak to me, like those I’ve gathered in the collection we call Natural Selections, are the poems that speak to me, the poems that touch me because they connect to something in my experience.
At their best, the religions of the world are like poems — they are drawn frum the experience we call being human.
A poem that hits the mark for me is a rare and wonderful gift. Of all the poems I’ve read and heard I’d estimate that one out of ten makes much sense, or strikes a chord, and one out of a hundred sinks into my sacred literature. That’s enough. They survived because they fit me: survival of the fittest. Natural Selections.
I know that there are poems which mean nothing to me but for others bring tears or that wonderful “wow” that seems to come out on its own, like looking at one of those amazing comets streaking across the evening sky.
Just as I continue to experience little epiphanies–or what sometimes seem like big epiphanies–so do I continue to accumulate poems that I can embrace and hold dear, many of which I commit to memory so I can take them out when I need them, so I can roll them around in my head to filter the gold dust, adding to the wonderful treasury.
I’ll conclude with one of those gems fr0m Robert Frost–a poem he titled Revelation. I hope you’ll look at it again and dig into it–it’s about you, and it’s about your marriage, or your primary relationships with your children, friends, and your growing connection with this community:
We make ourselves a place apart
Behind light words that tease and flout,
But oh, the agitated heart
Till someone really find us out.
‘Tis pity if the case require
(Or so we say) that in the end
We speak the literal to inspire
The understanding of a friend.
But so with all, fr0m babes that play
At hide-and-seek to God afar,
So all who hide too well away
Must speak and tell us where they are.