Religion is like music – you begin with a structure, with an ordering of notes and with words, in the case of vocal music, and the singers and instrumentalists use their talents and the discipline of learning and practicing…
It’s the same with religion – you begin with a structure, with an order of service, if you will…a form, a liturgy, and you use your talents of interpretation and meditation and create something unique…
We bring ourselves to this hour, welcoming thoughts and feelings that come, inspired by the music, the words, the architecture…
Remembering loved ones who are absent, and appreciating loved ones who are nearby; learning again and again what it means to forgive and to be forgiven, to appreciate others and to feel appreciated…
May this time together today help us to find and nurture that deep place, the soul, as we nurture a spirituality that takes away the pain, a spirituality that heals and helps us find a sense of wholeness in the brokenness of the world, and the brokenness of our own lives.
Sermon: The Religious Impulse
I want to talk about something basic to our human nature and basic to our reason for being together as a religious community – the religious impulse.
Religion, as you know, comes in all sizes, shapes and colors. Emerson said, “The gods we worship write their names on our faces, and (every person) worships something, have no doubt about that.”
Many men and women claim that they have no religion, and some are quite openly antagonistic toward all religion. So is Emerson wrong about this? Does everyone worship something?
Well, it depends, of course, on your definition of religion and of worship.
My personal definition of religion, as the origin of the word suggests, is ‘the life-long process of re-connecting with other people, re-connecting with an ever-changing, ageing, failing-and-succeeding self, and re-connecting with Nature, or God, if you will.’
It’s not only about ‘connecting,’ or making meaningful connections, but it’s about re-connecting. The difference is important because to re-connect reminds us that we were connected before birth, and we will return to that ‘connection’ when we die.
My definition of religion does not require a belief in God or the gods or a higher power. Indeed, all such beliefs are temporary since our beliefs change as we grow or evolve, as we gain knowledge and experience, as we grow in wisdom.
Wisdom is not merely the accumulation of information; wisdom is a deep understanding of the way everything is inter-connected. Wisdom connects the dots.
My definition of worship, as its origin in the old English word ‘worth-ship,’ is the conscious and unconscious process of valuing – of placing value on something. Worship is the internal process of creating one’s own hierarchy of values; worship is about things you love, and things you love more than other things…or people you love…and those you love more, those you love the most.
The religions generally tend to point to the supernatural. They paint pictures of unseen-but-hoped-for heavens, and undesirable hell fires to be feared. For that reason many people who will tell you that they are ‘not religious.’ Many of those same people will add, “…but I’m spiritual.”
In this sermon I’m asserting that the religious impulse is universal. It is a basic, built in and necessary part of our human nature. Yes, it comes in all sizes, shapes and colors, some of which are not very pretty, but there is a common denominator – or several common ingredients.
It’s clear that all the religions were invented by humans, but what is it in us that had the impulse or need to create them?
It’s fair to ask if we humans have outgrown the religious impulse or the need for religion. Certainly there are people who say they have outgrown and will say that they don’t ‘worship’ at all. They would say that Emerson’s notion that ‘the gods we worship write their names on our faces’ is just a little piece of poetry, a simple metaphor.
The religious impulse as I understand it, is deeper than all the different religions. It’s deeper than all the various aspects or ingredients of religion. It is universal – it is inherent in whatever it is that makes us human – the human spark.
The deepest aspect of our human nature is the drive to survive, which we share with all life on the planet – to prolong life as long as we can, as evidenced when people are pulled out of the rubble after seven, eight and even ten days in Haiti.
Our survival instinct is not limited to our personal survival – it’s evidenced in our tendency to produce progeny that will allow our genes to continue after we’re gone, or even our tendency to want to adopt children who need a good home.
What drives so many us to want to do have, raise, or to help children in need?
There’s something about the religious impulse that supports the survival instinct. It’s not only about our personal, individual survival, but it’s about the survival of the human race, the survival of our clan – the people with whom we identify, beginning with loved ones, and by extension the survival of human life on the planet.
The religious impulse can, of course, become destructive; there’s a nasty negative side to the religious impulse that can become so powerful that it overshadows the positive aspects.
The religious impulse created all the religions, each of which creates a sense of community on the one hand, but can engender such fierce loyalties and strong sense of superiority that it sets up camps of the saved against the infidel, the believer against the unbeliever, those who are ‘one of us,’ against ‘the outsider.’
Nationalism, for example, is an expression of the religious impulse – it’s a response to being a citizen of the nation into which one is born and raised, or an adopted nation; it’s part of the religious impulse that can get out of hand and become destructive.
When there is a real and present danger, when there’s a genuine enemy out to do us harm, the religious impulse brings people together in mutually supportive and protective ways that allow us to survive by responding to attempts to destroy us.
That, I believe, is what has happened in one crazy corner of the Muslim world – killing indiscriminately in the name of Allah, or God…in the name of religion.
The same thing happened in Christianity in the Crusades and the Inquisitions.
On the other hand, the response to disasters, like the earthquake in Haiti, has a religious dimension to it – the best part of the religious impulse that cuts across denominational lines.
There’s something in us that feels connected to all of humanity…there’s something in us that allows us to pull together for collective action to respond and to help victims, without regard to whether they share the same religion or race or ethnicity as those with which we identify.
Religious historian Karen Armstrong says, “Like any other human activity religion can be abused, but it seems to have been something that we have always done. It was not tacked on to a primordially secular nature by manipulative kings and priests but was natural to humanity.”
Natural to humanity? That’s what Nicholas Wade suggests in his recent book, The Faith Instinct, How Religion Evolved and Why it Endures.
Wade is a New York Times science writer who locates religion as appearing very early in our human evolution. The religions are like kilns into which the wet clay is fired and out comes a solid bowl; we are the clay and religion gives us social solidarity.
Wade’s point is that religion binds us into groups that expand our supportive network from the families into which we were born to people to whom we’re not related. He says that we did not become religious because we became social creatures but rather we became social creatures because we became religious.
In Darwin’s terms, religion gives us a survival advantage because it helps us to form close, caring, mutually supportive alliances with unrelated people for whom we are willing to live and die – survival of the ‘fittest.’ Baptism, circumcision, confirmation, born again, the last rites…ingredients to make sure you ‘fit in.’
In his book, The Faith Instinct, Nicholas Wade says, “For the last 50,000 years, and probably for much longer, people have practiced religion. With dance and chants and sacred words, they have ritually marked the cycles of the seasons and the passages of life, from birth to adolescence, to marriage and to death.”
“Religion has brought meaning to millions in their personal lives. Its rituals have given believers assurance of control over unpredictable adversities. In the face of daunting fears, of famine, sickness, disaster or death, religion has always been a wellspring of hope.”
“What is religion, that it can evoke the noblest and most sublime of human behaviors, yet also the cruelest and most despicable? Is religion just a body of sacred knowledge bequeathed from one generation to the next? Or does religion, being much more than just a cultural heritage, spring from a deeply ingrained urge to worship?”
“The purpose of this book is to try to understand religious behavior from an evolutionary perspective.”
He’s not trying to put a pin in the faith balloon, so he says, “That the mind has been prepared by evolution to believe in gods neither proves nor disproves their existence.”
The basic point is that there has been, and there continues to be, a survival advantage to people who practiced and continue to practice religion in some form.
Wade compares religion to language: “Like language, religion is a complex cultural behavior built on top of a genetically-shaped learning machinery. People are born with instincts for learning the language and the religion of their community…both faculties are instruments of communication.”
It’s quite obvious that language contributes to our survival. It contributes to our quality of life. So does religion. Religion helps us to interact, the way musicians interact to create something that none could create alone. Religion helps us to feel connected to a group, a congregation if you will…a community.
Music, Wade reminds us, is an essential aspect of religion or religious expression.
He says, “People survive as social groups, not as individuals, and little is more critical to a social species than its members’ ability to communicate with another.”
Music is a form of communication, interaction, and cohesion – just like language.
The text of the central piece of music says:
“You better mind what you say,
You better mind what you say
Because the words can make or break your day,
You better mind what you say.
It is a word that can build up or betray.
It is a word that can bolster or that can fray.
Don’t let the wrong words steer you astray;
Don’t let the strong words bring you dismay.”
Wade carefully compiles the scientific evidence that shows that humans are hard-wired to believe in the transcendent without calling it God – the transcendent can be Divine or it can simply be an awareness of something unknowable but realized from one’s personal experience.
We are, by nature (human nature) religious; we have a kind of religious gene which needs expression – we need a faith to live by, even if we refuse to embrace specific religious beliefs or practices.
Wade argues that the Darwinian expression of the evolution of mankind depended not only on individual natural selection, the survival of the fittest, but also on the natural selection of groups. And groups that subscribe to a religious worldview are more apt to survive — and hence pass on their genes.
The religions provide parameters for morality and ethics which help us to survive as a species, as a collective.
Generosity, sympathy and compassion emerge out of our religious nature; the idea of the hero or heroic deed has a religious dimension.
In Christianity the cross became the central symbol for the ultimate sacrifice, the ultimate martyr.
The faith instinct does not need to be in conflict with the use of reason. The faith instinct doesn’t have to be rigid – we can have it both ways. Indeed, we must have it both ways: we need to feel connected to other persons, we need to learn how to re-connect when there are breaks in our important relationships, we need to feel re-connected to an ever-changing, imperfect self, and we need to feel re-connected to the natural world which sometimes seems to betray us with earthquakes, floods and tsunamis. And we need to use our rational minds. Religion need not be anti-intellectual.
The religious impulse is connected to the human spark – the insight and imagination that distinguish us in the animal kingdom.
Since the music this morning was jazz, I want to say something about jazz as a form of musical expression comparing it to our Unitarian Universalist approach as a form of religious expression.
Jazz allows the musicians to take turns doing a riff, a solo improvisation, after which they return to playing their part with the others. We do our religion that way.
In Jazz, and in our Unitarian Universalist approach, there’s a basic structure but no hard and set rules – at any moment something unexpected may happen when one of the musicians or members of the congregation comes up with a new idea and expresses it with a musical instrument or with a committee!
We want to have religion or spirituality or a standard of morality and ethics without a narrowly defined theology.
We want to have a religion or, as I prefer to say ‘an approach to religion’ that lives within the bounds of rationality – a rational approach to religion need not be an oxymoron!
We Unitarian Universalists are the jazz music of religion and people in traditional religions are often confused and ask what we’re about.
Louis Armstrong came up with a good response to the question ‘what is jazz.’ He said, “If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.” Sometimes I think that would be the best response to the question ‘what is a Unitarian.’
I came across a musical group who call themselves What Is Jazz? The group was formed by musicians Chad Alger and Derek Shoemaker.
The group, What Is Jazz? is a sort of jam band, but they are interested in playing and experimenting in all different types of music: jazz, blues, funk, soul, world music (Indian and African rhythyms), classical, progressive rock, classic rock, psychodelic, experimental, new wave (like Elvis Costello), folk, etc., pretty much anything thats a little bit different. If its good music, they’ll listen to it and play it.
Now doesn’t that sound like us…like Unitarians? We unapologetically experiment with all different types of religion: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Native American, paganism, etc. Jazzy…
About their group Chad Alger says, “One of our main missions as a band is to try and expand people’s horizons. We are getting people to listen to lots of different types of music and maybe get them into a style that they didn’t know that they liked.” We love it when people say, “I really don’t like religion, but I like this.”
Alger says, “We are also really trying to service the music. A lot of artists nowadays are playing music for reasons that aren’t pure. Their goals are mainly to become famous, rich, or to receive some kind of notoriety. So it is our goal to have fun and enjoy making music, and to teach others about the purity of the art form.”
We Unitarians are trying to get people to listen to lots of different types of religion and maybe get them into a style all their own – to tap into the purity of the deepest religious impulse, rather than accepting or rejecting religion for ‘reasons that aren’t pure,’ that don’t really come fr-m that deep place where the religious impulse comes from…the soul, if you will.
To paraphrase Chad Alger we can say, “It is our goal to have fun and enjoy religion and to teach others about the purity of the religious impulse that lives deep within them.”
Did you know that in 1987 the US House of Representatives and Senate passed a bill proposed by Democratic Representative John Conyers, Jr. to define jazz as a unique form of American music? (Easier than passing a health-care bill!) It says, in part,, “…that jazz is hereby designated as a rare and valuable national American treasure to which we should devote our attention, support and resources to make certain it is preserved, understood and promulgated.”
Religion can become idolatrous, of course, and the most insidious form of idolatry is the notion that anyone who doesn’t agree with you is wrong; not only wrong, but an infidel that God in his wisdom would have you remove fr-m the face of the earth.
Rationality, however, can become a form of idolatry – the notion that anyone who believes in a traditional notion of God and heaven or reincarnation is wrong and their belief needs to be purged. We Unitarians can easily slip into a sense of superiority looking down on anyone who embraces traditional religious beliefs.
In honor of our jazz musicians let’s close with a poem by Hayden Carruth.
Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey, by Hayden Carruth
Scrambled eggs and whiskey
in the false-dawn light. Chicago,
a sweet town, bleak, God knows,
but sweet. Sometimes. And
weren’t we fine tonight?
When Hank set up that limping
treble roll behind me
my horn just growled and I
thought my heart would burst.
And Brad M. pressing with the
soft stick, and Joe-Anne
singing low. Here we are now
in the White Tower, leaning
on one another, too tired
to go home. But don’t say a word,
don’t tell a soul, they wouldn’t
understand, they couldn’t, never
in a million years, how fine,
how magnificent we were
in that old club tonight.
Closing Words: Henry David Thoreau:
My life partakes of infinity…I go forthe to make new demands on life…to do something in it worthy of it and of me; to transcend my daily routine…to have my immortality now…in the quality of my daily life.