The Promise of Living: An Easter Homily

The promise of living / With hope and thanksgiving / Is born of our loving / Our friends and our labor. / The promise of growing / With faith and with knowing / Is born of our sharing / Our love with our neighbor. These are the opening lyrics from, “The Promise of Living,”[1] which is part of the 20th century American composer Aaron Copland’s opera, “The Tender Land.” The librettist is Horace Everett, which is a pseudonym for Erik Johns, which is a pseudonym for Horace Eugene Johnston, who was an artist and partner of Copland’s.[2]  They lived and worked together for much of the 1950s.

I like this phrase, the promise of living. It speaks to me on Easter morning in a very direct and simple way. It may sound initially as if what I hear in this phrase contradicts the deeper meaning of Easter, but I don’t think it does. Life is a gift, it reminds us, but life doesn’t promise us anything. This beautiful Creation we inhabit and about which human beings have told stories since our very beginnings to explain our very beginnings, doesn’t, in the end, promise us anything. This Earth which rises each spring out of the grey tomb of its winter slumber into new life—this beautiful Earth surely is a gift we receive, yet it makes no promises to us. And this springtime, like every springtime, is a gift to our eyes, our ears, our tongues, our noses, our ready hands and our bare feet—it’s a gift to our spirits; it brings us back to life—but it makes no promises.

This is what I mean: it does not promise us we will live without suffering or heartache. It does not promise us we can avoid fear and loneliness, anxiety and depression. It does not promise us we or our loved-ones will never hear a doctor’s voice delivering a hard diagnosis. It does not promise that our broken relationships will mend. It does not promise that we can somehow prevent hardship in our children’s lives no matter what we do to give them the best childhoods we possibly can. It certainly does not promise us the means to overcome death. And looking beyond our own lives, we recognize there is no promise of a more just society, a more peaceful society, a more loving society. There is no promise that shields us against incidents like the school shooting this past week at Oikos University in Oakland, CA, or the shooting in Tulsa, OK we are now hearing about from Friday. There is no promise that shields our nation from the tragic and terrible murder of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, FL last month. But despite this lack of promise; despite the very real possibility that we will encounter personal trials through the course of our lives—loss, pain, grief, disappointment—despite the many challenges we face as a people, we still must live as best we can. And therein lies the promise. As the song says, “The promise of living with hope and thanksgiving is born of our loving, our friends and our labor.”

There are no promises we can count on in any ultimate sense—no promise from God that our lives will turn out the way we imagine; no promise from the universe that our lives will turn out the way we imagine; no promise from the Earth that our lives will turn out the way we imagine—but there are ways we can choose to live in the midst of crisis, ways we can choose to live so that healing is possible, ways we can choose to live so that confronting hardship with grace and dignity is possible, ways we can choose to live so that a more just, compassionate and peaceful society is possible. Easter informs us that living this way is possible, that we can rise from the tombs in which we find ourselves. For me, the promise of living is born of our choosing to rise. For me, the promise of living is born of our choosing to live with love and hope in our hearts.

Easter wraps around the story of Jesus’ arrest, conviction and execution on the cross—the common form of capital punishment in the Roman Empire—followed by his disciples announcing his resurrection—his rising from the death—three days later.  Many times over the years I have pointed out that this story is built on the foundation of Passover, the Jewish spring-time celebration of liberation from slavery in Egypt which began this year began this past Friday. I have also pointed out that Passover itself, in connection with Shavuot which occurs later in the spring, are built on the foundations of even more ancient Middle Eastern planting and harvest festivals.

These stories and these festivals are beautiful and compelling and provocative. They have captured the human imagination for millennia. Their power, for me, does not reside in the notion that they might somehow be literally true and that they therefore offer some inherent promise to us centuries later. Their power, for me, lies in their ability to touch deep wells of human courage, resolve and perseverance in the face of challenge.  Their power, for me, lies in their ability to touch deep wells of human caring, compassion and love in the face of suffering and violence. Their power, for me, lies in how they remind us that no matter what life brings—no matter what pain, disappointment or illness; no matter what violence, injustice or oppression—no matter what winter tomb we find ourselves in—we can choose to live a certain way. We can choose to rise up like new life in spring. Though the landscape of our lives may at times seem barren, empty, and even hostile to life, we can choose to place seeds in the Earth, to nurture and nourish our gardens, to bring forth life, to bring forth a harvest. We can choose, as the song suggests, to share what we have with our neighbor, to rely on and trust in the caring of our friends, to labor with integrity in the fields of our calling—that is, to work hard at what matters to us. We can choose to ask ourselves, in any situation of struggle or crisis, what does love demand that I do? And we can do it. Friends, we can live in response to love. Of this I am sure: If there is to be any promise in our lives, it comes from our choosing to live in response to love. May we so choose.

Amen and Blessed be.  

[1] The UUS:E choir sang this piece as part of our Easter music celebration.  John Williams’ arrangement of “The Promise of Living” is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=endscreen&NR=1&v=bLM_YTnmLto.

Creation Out of Nothing?

The Rev. Josh Pawelek

Video here

In his new book, A Universe From Nothing,[1] cosmologist Lawrence M. Krauss attempts to definitively answer an ancient question: “Why is there something, rather than nothing?” I’d like to play around with this question this morning—the question of creation. How did the universe, our planet, and life on our planet come to be? How did it all begin? This question lies at the heart of the religious imagination. This question lies at the heart of the scientific imagination. But perhaps it’s most accurate to say, simply, this question lies at the heart of the human imagination. I say this because most of us, at some point in our lives—or at many points in our lives—have experiences wherein we encounter some feature of our surroundings in a special or unique way—whether by seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting or touching—something takes us by surprise, something takes our breath away—as if we’re encountering it for the very first time—we become awestruck, and we wonder: how did all this all begin? These shining stars, this blazing sun, this waxing and waning moon, this solid, green earth, these rolling oceans, these towering mountains, this moist air, this newborn baby, these breathing lungs, this beating heart: how is it possible all this exists? I suspect most of you have asked this question in some way, have wondered about our origins in some way, at some point in your lives. How did it all begin? Why is there something, rather than nothing?

I also assume most people wonder for a few moments, ask the question—how did this all begin?—and then realize the answer is pretty much beyond the capacity of the human mind to fathom. The wondering ends as they go back to whatever it was they were doing. Except there have always been some people who, for whatever reason, can’t let the question go. They keep wondering. They say, “no, this is not beyond our ability; we can figure this out!” They try to make their human minds fathom creation. They are usually either scientists or theologians. And I notice that, for them, the question mutates a bit. It’s not just, “Why is there something, rather than nothing?” It becomes “Did the universe arise out of nothing?” Or “Did the universe arise out of something?” Something from nothing? Or something from something else? The theologians argue amongst themselves. The scientists argue amongst themselves. And of course, as they argue amongst themselves, the theologians—at least the more conservative ones—contend that the scientists are utterly wrong. And the scientists—at least the more secular ones—contend that the theologians are utterly wrong.

For a traditional theological example of the debate over creation from nothing or something, if you were to open a Bible and turn to the very first word on the very first page of the very first book—and if you were reading in ancient Hebrew—the word you would encounter is bereshit. In English the typical translation of bereshit is “In the beginning.” The whole sentence is typically rendered as “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth.” But another translation is possible. The sentence can also be rendered as “When God set out to create the heavens and the earth.” For centuries, if not millennia, in a variety of languages, theologians have debated which version is more accurate, which version might be more akin to how the ancient Israelites understood it, or which version is more in keeping with the latest church doctrine. It might not sound like an important distinction to our modern ears, especially to those with modern liberal religious ears, but it turns out there’s a lot at stake in how one translates bereshit. In short, the more common translation—“In the beginning”—suggests the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo—creation out of nothing—the doctrine that God existed first, before anything else, and that God caused all material to come into existence in order to create the heavens and the earth. The other, less common translation—“When God set out to create”—suggests the doctrine of creatio ex materia—creation out of material, out of stuff, out of things—the doctrine that something existed before God, and God used it to create the heavens and the earth.[2]

Turning to science, consider Krauss’ book, A Universe From Nothing. Full disclosure: I have not read Krauss’ book, and I probably won’t read it unless Fred Sawyer purchases a sermon (which he has) and asks me to preach on it. I have read Columbia professor of philosophy David Albert’s recent review of the book. Apparently Krauss argues that the laws of quantum mechanics provide “a thoroughly scientific and adamantly secular explanation”[3] of the origins of the universe. In short, the universe emerged from a quantum vacuum state, which Krauss defines as nothing, hence the title of the book, A Universe From Nothing. It’s a scientific version of creatio ex nihilo. Albert, who is also an expert in quantum mechanics, flatly rejects Krauss’ thesis, saying it’s “just not right”[4]—though he doesn’t offer an alternative answer to the creation question in the book review. But fear not! Another book I haven’t read—and won’t read unless Fred Sawyer asks me to—is Endless Universe: Beyond the Big Bang by physicists Paul Steinhardt and Neil Turok.[5] They propose the “Cyclic Universe” theory which suggests “the Big Bang was not the beginning of time but the bridge to a past filled with endlessly repeating cycles of evolution.”[6] A scientific version of creatio ex materia! The universe is recycled from the material of countless prior universes.

Again, I think it’s kinda funny and even provocative that the theologians and the scientists are having the same debate within their respective fields. What they talk about and how they get there are radically different, but it comes down to the same two conclusions: creation from nothing or something.

Our ministry theme for April is creation. I admit we did not choose this theme so that we could spin our heads around theological and scientific arguments about the origins of the universe. We chose this theme primarily to match the season, the beginning of spring in New England, the time in the cycle of the year when Earth’s creative energy is immediate and sensual to us; the time in the cycle of the year when the smells, sights, tastes, sounds and the feel of new life are immediate and sensual to us: the fresh air, the first flowers pushing through the barren ground; the first buds on trees and bushes and shrubs; blooming forsythias, azaleas, daffodils, tulips and dogwoods dotting the land; soil turned over and ready for planting; bird-song chiming in the pre-dawn hours; earth worms digging; moles tunneling through our lawns; mice and voles rummaging through our basements, or garages or sheds; grease ants traipsing through our cupboards or across our kitchen floors; mud after the first spring rains; warmth after the long, grey winter. In the words we heard earlier from e.e. cummings, it is the time in the cycle of the year “for the leaping greenly spirits / of trees / and a blue true dream of sky; and / for everything / which is natural which is infinite / which is yes.”[7] It’s a heady season: impetuous, adolescent, lusty, exhilarating, earthy, feverish, sexy and creative. Yes, spring is Earth’s season for creation.

When I started putting my thoughts together for this sermon, I imagined I was going to say something different about creation. Well, not just different—something really cool, hip, clever, maybe a little quirky, but definitely unexpected and outside the box of the usual ways of answering the question of creation. In our weekly UUS:E eblast I even suggested I would offer a new question entirely. My intuition told me there’d be a new question come Sunday morning. But it never came. I don’t have a new question. It turns out I have deeply partisan convictions when it comes to the debate over creation out of nothing or something. But late Friday afternoon I was still trying to figure it out. Do you remember Friday afternoon? It was beautiful. Having already kicked the boys outside to play in the yard before dinner, I decided to join them. Intuition told me that getting away from the sitting-at-the-computer-trying-to-make-my-brain-fathom-where-the-universe-came-from mode and spending some time outside in the dirt with children might help.

The Outdoor Car Tournament Track!

When I arrived outside, Mason ask if we could hold a “car tournament.” To hold a car tournament we first have to build a track for our Matchbox and Hotwheels cars. Once the track is built, we race the cars down it one after the other. If they fall off the track, they’re out. If they make it all the way down, they move onto the next round. There are fewer and fewer cars each round. When there’s one car left we have a winner. Then we start over. When we do this outside, we build the track out of pieces of wood from an old swing-set/play-scape that I store under the shed. We prop it up with bricks, buckets and other junk we have lying around. It takes a while to build because the long, flat pieces of wood need to line up just right so that the cars can drive over them seamlessly. We really get into it. We lose ourselves in it.

 

And there we were, lost in it, building our track with the bright sun beginning to set in the western sky; dust rising around us from our busy work on the track; the azalea and forsythia bushes in full bloom all around us;  spring’s fragrant, fresh air smell in our nostrils; bees buzzing; and the sounds of other kids playing in other yards echoing around the neighborhood—an utterly different experience from sitting-at-the-computer-trying-to-make-my-brain-fathom-where-the-universe-came-from. It’s hard to find words, but I’m trying to describe a full-bodied, sensual experience—as in all five senses engaged. This is the poet cummings asking “how should tasting touching / hearing seeing / breathing—lifted from the no / of all nothing—human merely / being / doubt unimaginable You?”[8] This is a physical experience, a bodily experience, a yoga experience, an embedded experience, a grounded experience where instinct matters more than thought, where the present moment outweighs the past and the future, where the need for play subdues the need for work, and where creativity abounds—not only in our play, but in the color, the fragrance, the energy, the returning life flowing through everything around us. Spring is Earth’s season for creation. And this is what I observe: we create out of the materials at hand—pieces of wood, bricks, buckets, junk. We do not create out of nothing. And the Earth around us creates out of the materials at hand—water, soil, sunlight, air; not out of nothing. In this little dell at the bottom of our hill, where the ground is soft, where the water runs to after the rains, where moss will blanket the ground by the middle of May—in this little Eden—everything is created from something.

I don’t offer this observation in order to win an argument over the correct way to imagine the origins of the universe. I don’t need to win that argument and besides, the words imagination and correct don’t really belong in the same sentence anyways. I suspect some physicists and theologians alike may object to this, but to some degree all our efforts to answer the questions of creation are acts of imagination. So it strikes me that in addition to physicists and theologians, we also need to consult storytellers and poets for their insights. When we do that a picture of our origins begins to emerge—not a proof, not the findings of literary and linguistic Biblical analysis, not the results of rigorous tests of scientific models, not even something we can say is true in any objective sense—but a picture of what resides in the collective human imagination: creation arises out of something.

My search this week has not been exhaustive, but I cannot find a creation story from any culture—ancient or modern—where creation arises out of nothing. So often creation arises out of some massive explosion, some obliterating flood, some destructive catastrophe that ended an earlier age. I read to you earlier a brief version of “Icanchu’s Drum” from the Wichí people of northern Argentina and Southern Bolivia. The new world arises out of the ashes of the previous world, specifically out of a charcoal stump Icanchu is using as a drum. “Playing without stopping, he chanted with the dark drum’s sounds and danced to its rhythms. At dawn on the New Day, a green shoot sprang from the coal drum and soon flowered as Firstborn tree, the Tree of Trials at the Center of the World. From its branches bloomed the forms of life that flourish in the New World.”[9] In other stories, creation arises out of a kind of disordered, ominous, dark chaos. The Boshongo people of the Congo speak of a primordial, watery darkness in which the God Bumba sleeps.[10] Some of the Chinese origin myths involving the God Pan Gu speak of a big, gooey mess surrounding a large, black egg.[11] Even the Biblical book of Genesis speaks of a wind moving across the face of the waters prior to God’s first act of creation. From our story-telling selves, our poetic selves, our intuitive selves, the picture of creation that emerges is ex materia. Creativity, to become real, to have some physical result in the world, must act upon some thing. Judging by the stories we human beings have told ourselves over the millennia, we have a collective hunch that the universe arose out of something, not nothing.

Friday night one of my best friends in the world called from Boston. His wife had just gone into labor—their first child. I took the call as an affirmation, a sign, a reminder of yet another way to look at origins.  None of us came into the world out of nothing. We came as muscles began to contact; we came as a jolt, a bump, a wind, a cut awakened us from our primordial slumber. We came out of the dark, still waters of our mother’s womb. We came into the world in a gooey mess of blood and amniotic fluid.

In the end, the stories we tell of creation (as distinct from our scientific and theological analyses) are not meant to be factual.  That’s why we call them myths and poems. They are meant to tell us something about ourselves and the universe we inhabit.  But even if we’ve never heard them, our bodies seem to know: however it all began, a creative drive lives at the heart of the universe and lives in each of us; and it is, like spring, heady, impetuous, adolescent, lusty, exhilarating, earthy, feverish, sexy. When we set out to create, our bodies know even if our minds don’t, if we want our creations to be real—if we want them to manifest in ways we can see, hear, taste, smell and touch—then we must create out of the materials at hand. I’m not sure there’s any other way. We must create out of  some thing. In this light, creation out of nothing is just hard to imagine.

Amen and Blessed Be.

 


[1] Krauss, Lawrence M., A Universe From Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing (New York: Free Press, 2012).

[2] I found two blogs that explain the difference between creatio ex nihilo and creatio ex materia. Check out:

http://www.religioustolerance.org/crebegin.htm

http://www.evolutionfairytale.com/forum/index.php?showtopic=3507

[3] Albert, David, “On the Origins of Everything,” New York Times Book Review, March 25, 2012, p. 20.

[4] Ibid., p. 21. The full quote is: “But that’s just not right. Relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical vacuum states—no less than giraffes or refirgerators or solar systems—are particular arrangements of elementary physical stuff.”

[5] Steinhardt, Paul J. & Turok, Neil, Endless Universe: Beyond the Big Bang (New York: Doubleday, 2007).

[7] cummings, e.e. “I thank you god for most this amazing day” in Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the Unitarian Universalist Association, 1993) #504.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Sullivan, Lawrence E., Icanchu’s Drum: An Orientation to Meaning in South American Religions (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1988) frontispiece and p. 92.

[10] Dawkins, Richard The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True (New York: Free Press, 2011) p. 161.

[11] Ibid., p. 161.

We Build Temples in the Heart

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Video: Here We Build Temples in the Heart

Here we build temples in our hearts. Side by side we gather. . . .  

 

Here we build temples in our hearts. Side by side we come. . . .

Here we build temples in our hearts—
a temple for each heart,

a village of temples,
none shading another,
connected by well-worn paths,
built alike on sacred ground.

A meditation from Patrick Murfin: poet, social justice activist, labor historian, Unitarian Universalist (and many other things) living in Woodstock, IL. I’ve been searching this week for words that offer a metaphor for what Unitarian Universalist congregational life is all about, a metaphor for what we do as a spiritual community, a metaphor to remind us of the value this congregation holds in our lives on this weekend when we kick off our annual appeal and ask each of us to make a generous financial pledge for the coming fiscal year. These words work for me. “Here we build temples in our hearts.”

What might this mean? A temple in the literal sense is a physical structure a place set aside for worship; a place where the people gather to lift up, praise and celebrate that which is most holy to them; where they commune with their gods and goddesses however they understand them; where they offer their sacrifices, conduct their sacred rituals, sing their sacred songs, dance their sacred dances; where they celebrate their holy days, keep their festivals, welcome their newly born, honor their elders and bid farewell to their dead. In his meditation Murfin references some ancient wonders: the 12th century Angkor Wat Hindu temple in Cambodia; the 5000 year old Stonehenge in Wiltshire County, England; the 13th century Cathedral of Chartres in France; and the Doric columns of ancient Greek and Roman temples.

But here we build temples in our hearts, says Murfin, meaning here in our congregations. What are we building? At our best—and let us agree: we aren’t always at our best; no human community ever is—but at our best we are building—in our hearts, in our interior lives—sanctuary.

Sanctuary, meaning a place of refuge from the storms that batter us from time to time, from the tempests that rage around us; a place of refuge from the fret and fever of the day, from the tumult and the strife that cycle through our lives; a place of refuge from the pressure and the stress that are part and parcel of our living in these postmodern times of hyper-connection and hyper-alienation; a place of refuge from our personal trials and despair; a place of refuge from the mean-spirited, hateful culture-war discourse of our national life; a place of retreat where we may go in those moments when we need some measure of comfort, when we need some measure of solace, when we long for peace in a war-torn world, when we seek rest for our weary spirits.

Sanctuary, meaning a place where we can fortify ourselves in those moments when we face challenges and crises; a place where we can access our reserves of courage; a place where we can find our resolve, our conviction, our next step; a place where we feel grounded and rooted, held closely to our foundations, where we find sustenance, where we find the strength to endure and persevere through whatever crisis may come our way; a place where we find the humility and grace to receive the help, counsel, caring and love of those around us; a place where we recognize our dependence on those around us; a place where our pride softens and we are able to ask for help; where we are able to trust that the help we truly need shall come to us, though it comes often in ways we do not expect and cannot anticipate.

Sanctuary, meaning a place for honesty and integrity, a place where we may go in those moments when the contradictions of our lives, the inconsistencies of our lives, require us to reckon with ourselves, to speak our truths to ourselves, to push and nudge and challenge ourselves, to hold ourselves accountable; a place wherein we can finally make the decisions we have been putting off for too long; a place wherein we may find the motivation, the nerve, the audacity to rise to new heights, to stretch into new postures, to reach for new holds on the sheer rock face, to grow in new directions, to allow ourselves to be transformed, because staying where we are for too long—remaining on the beaten path—the familiar path, the easy path, the habitual path—we finally see it!—is no longer viable; a place where we let go of old, unworkable ways of being, so that new ways may emerge; a spring-time place for renewal, a spring-time place for rebirth, a spring-time place for resurrection, a place to praise the breaking dawn, to praise the “life that maketh all things new,” to praise “the first dew fall on the first grass.”

Sanctuary, meaning a place where our passions reside; where, without any fear, we name our desires, our sense of calling, our sense of vocation; where our vision of our best selves and our dreams for the future all seem possible—where we can resolve to pursue our visions and dreams and make them real in our lives, express them with our words, manifest them with our deeds; a place where our creativity flourishes, where we compose the song our life sings, where we choreograph the dance our life dances, where we breathe out the poem our life breathes, where we tell the story our life tells; a place where we can pay attention to our hunches, our flashes of insight, our inklings and intuitions, that tingling up and down our spines that tells us, “yes, this is the right path, as strange and unfamiliar as it may seem;” a place where we can pay attention and respond to our passions without fear of being told we are silly, unrealistic or impractical; where we can pay attention and respond without fear of being told we aren’t good enough, that we’ll never make it, that what we desire for ourselves is impossible; a place where the suggestion, the message, the solution, the answer coming back from our own sacred depths is Yes! Try! Live!—a place wherein, even though you know failure is possible—because failure is always possible—the suggestion, the message, the solution, the answer coming back from our own sacred depths is Yes! Try! Live! Do not settle for a life in which you are not living.

Sanctuary, meaning the place where we come to dedicate and re-dedicate our lives, to commit and recommit our lives, to offer and re-offer our lives; the place where we can dedicate, commit and offer our lives: to the values we treasure, to love in all its forms, to compassion in all its forms, to service in all its forms, to learning in all its forms, to reason in all its forms; the place where we can dedicate, commit and offer our lives: to all our relations, to the promptings and urgings of the spirit, to the pursuit of a more just and fair society, to care and stewardship of the earth, our planet, our parent, our home; a place where we come to discern the sacrifices we must make—and then make them—on the altars of our inner lives, the whisping smoke of our metaphorical burnt offerings filling our nostrils, at once pungent, at once sweet—pleasing, satisfying, life giving: generous sacrifices of our time, our gifts, our wealth; sacrifices for the sake of our community, sacrifices for the sake of our values, sacrifices for the sake of our children, sacrifices for the sake of the future, sacrifices for the sake of some reality larger than ourselves but to which we are intimately connected.

Sanctuary, meaning the most holy place in the temple—the place consecrated for the keeping of sacred things—the place where the God or Goddess resides, where the angels attend—the innermost sanctum, the Holy of Holies—the place where the stars align on holy nights; the place where heaven and earth meet—the axis mundi, as the scholars call it—the place where we may keep and remember and hold close, hold with great tenderness, hold with great intimacy, all that is sacred to us; the place where we may drink deeply from our spiritual wells; the place where spirit moves into us and out of us; the place where we can grasp and know and trust the divinity in ourselves—our likeness to God, as our Unitarian forebears used to teach; our ultimate reunion with God, as our Universalist forebears used to preach; the place where we can apprehend and grasp our connections, our interdependence, our relatedness to the whole of life, to all that has been, to all there is, to all that shall be.

Here we build temples in our hearts—
a temple for each heart,
a village of temples,
none shading another,
connected by well-worn paths,
built alike on sacred ground.

When I use this language of building temples in our hearts, I am mindful that so much of what we do in this congregation seeks to strengthen and fortify us, seeks to make good on that promise that each of our lives tells a story, each of our lives harbors deep and abiding truths, each of our lives is sacred and worthy. But, ultimately we do not build these temple-sanctuaries in our hearts solely for ourselves. The self matters—it matters immensely—and our religion must take our selves seriously. But our religion, in the end, is not here for the benefit of the self. Our religion is here for the benefit of the world. Our religion builds our temple-sanctuaries—gives us access within ourselves to the paths of refuge, solace, rest, strength, fortitude, passion and integrity—so that we may become bearers of love and compassion into the world; so that we may become bearers of comfort and healing into the world; so that we may discern how best to share our passions with the world, all for the sake of a more peaceful world, a more just world, a more sustainable world.

I think this is good theology. This past week I’ve been involved in a number of conversations about the nature of God—one with the Affirmation students and one with the participants in our adult course, “Theology in a Secular Age.” In both conversations we’ve been naming our inability to believe in a God who somehow is able to reach into and control human affairs—the omnipotent, omniscient God we associate with the beliefs of the more traditional, conservative and fundamentalist religions–the old, white-haired, bearded God who sits on a throne and judges us. We’ve been noting our inability to believe in that God.  We’ve been noting instead that regardless of what one believes about God, whether or not one believes God exists at all, if there is to be more love and compassion in the world, human beings need to make it so. If there is to be more comfort and healing in the world, human beings need to make it so. If there is going to be a more just, peaceful and sustainable world, human beings need to make it so. Regardless of what we may believe about God, the universe or the nature of reality, our Unitarian Universalist congregation teaches us that human beings need to make it so. That is why we build temples in the heart: so that we have the power to make it so.

Hold that thought. Some of you have already made your financial pledge to UUS:E for the coming year. Thank you. Some of you have already signed up to participate in a stewardship pot luck dinner and will be making your pledge then. The rest of you will soon be hearing from a steward, asking for a face-to-face meeting to talk about the value this congregation holds in your life and to ask for your pledge. Thank you for returning their call or email quickly.

We are this year, as always, proposing increases in our budget. Much of this increase is to give our staff a cost of living allowance and to come as close as we can to paying our staff according to the Unitarian Universalist Association’s fair compensation guidelines. We also hope to expand our adult education and Sunday worship service offerings, continue funding our youth advisor and reduce the amount of money we need to borrow from our savings in order to have a balanced budget. As always, we ask that you pledge as generously as you can. We are hoping for a 5% increase in pledge income over last year. If we get a 7.2 % increase we will balance our budget without drawing from savings at all. I am so grateful to our outgoing Finance Chair, Patricia Wildes, and our Treasurer, Bob Hewey, who have done a masterful job preparing our budget and crunching the numbers again and again and again. I am so grateful to the members of the Policy Board who strive so hard to make the best financial decisions they can on your behalf, and who admit they have a hard time saying “no” to good ideas. We have a lot of good ideas! And I am so grateful to Stan McMillen and the Stewardship Committee who work so hard year round to encourage a spirit of generous giving at UUS:E.

They do it for a reason. And we come here for a reason. And it’s not about budgets and staff and numbers and pledges and increased
pledges—though all of those are important. We come because we build temples in the heart. We build temples in the heart, inner sanctuaries, places of refuge and retreat, comfort and solace, honesty and integrity, passion, dedication, commitment and sacredness. We build temples in the heart so that we may live the lives we feel called to live. But we build temples in the heart, not in the end for ourselves, but for a more just, peaceful and sustainable world, because we know: if there is to be a more just, peaceful and sustainable world, human beings must make it so. We build temples in the heart so that we have the power to make it so.

Amen and blessed be.

 

 

On Welcoming Congregations and Radical Hospitality

In the current issue of the UU World magazine, Unitarian Universalist Association president, the Rev. Peter Morales, tells the story of a friend who visited one of our congregations. “When she arrived for the Sunday morning service, no one greeted her warmly. She sat alone during the service. After the service, she had difficulty finding the coffee hour. The invitation … said to ‘follow the crowd,’ but people scattered in several directions. When she finally found the coffee hour, she eventually did strike up a conversation—with another visitor. No member of the congregation spoke to her.” Upon hearing this story, Rev. Morales says, “I winced.”[1]

I wince when I hear such stories; I imagine you do too. I like to think our congregation offers a warm Sunday morning greeting to visitors and long-time members alike. And since we lack a parish hall, our coffee hour is hard to miss. Just turn around. You can sort of miss it if you scoot to the garden level to get your children, but we serve coffee there too. You can’t escape!

Rev. Morales remembers a time when he believed his congregation offered a warm Sunday morning greeting to visitors and did all the right things to let everyone know they are welcome. But, “when we looked carefully at the reality of what our guests experienced,” he says, “we were appalled.” They weren’t as welcoming as he thought. He says, “the difference between our self-image of hospitality and the reality of our behavior was shocking…. We were embarrassed, even a little ashamed.”[2] They changed their practices to be more welcoming and the congregation grew from 400 to 750 members. He concludes with these words: “Hundreds of thousands of people will visit our congregations this year. They are looking for a religious home, for spiritual sustenance. They want to be accepted, to be engaged, to be loved. Smile. Say good morning. Start a conversation. You are about to meet some wonderful people.”[3]

These are good words. I’m sure I’ve offered similar words multiple times over the years. Many ministers do. Our Sunday morning welcome is immensely important. But let’s be clear: the capacity to authentically offer, as I like to say, a warm, hearty, heart-felt, enthusiastic, joy-filled welcome is not simply a matter of agreeing to smile, say hello and start a conversation with someone we don’t know, as important as those practices are. If the welcome we offer is real—that is, if we really feel it, if a spirit of hospitality is pervasive among us, then it must come from some place deep in the heart of our community—and newcomers will know it is genuine. If it’s not real, if we don’t really feel it, if we’re just going through the motions because some authority asked us to, then I’m not sure these small behavioral changes will make any difference. If we don’t feel it—if being welcoming isn’t a central part of who we are—then I’m not sure any lasting behavioral change is possible.

So too with this notion of radical hospitality, which has become a buzzword in recent years. Radical hospitality is both a personal and institutional spiritual practice of being curious about and open to new people and to diverse cultures and life-ways. And it’s more. Radical hospitality reflects a willingness and even a hunger to engage across lines of difference. It reflects a willingness and a hunger to offer service, care and love to new and different people, to those who come to us in need, to those “who come hurt and afraid,”[4] as we said in our opening words. Radical hospitality is impatient. It reflects a willingness and a hunger to go out into the larger community to offer service, care and love rather than waiting for people to visit on Sunday morning. And more than that, radical hospitality reflects a willingness and a hunger to challenge and transform systems of injustice and oppression in solidarity with others who feel similarly called, whether or not they ever decide to visit us on Sunday morning.

Cultivating radical hospitality is not simply a matter of agreeing to smile, say hello and engage in conversation on Sunday morning. Radical hospitality springs from an identity—a  community identity—marked by that desire to serve, to care and to love—all people; a desire not to shut ourselves off from the world (as so many congregations do), but to enter fully into the world, responding to its pain and suffering in healing, life-giving ways; a desire to, as we sang earlier, “break not the circle of enabling love,” and to live as if it is entirely possible to make that circle “wider still, till it includes, embraces all the living.”[5] With such an identity, a spiritual community is poised not only to offer an authentic welcome; it is poised to change the world. With such an identity, a spiritual community will naturally offer an authentic welcome; it will naturally establish ministries that serve, care for and love the world.

Radical hospitality! Sounds great!  Sounds like the key to becoming the best congregation we can be. Except . . . . hmmm. Except if we, as a spiritual community, cultivate that curious, open, welcoming, serving, caring, loving, transforming identity that gives rise to radical hospitality, and if we practice that radical hospitality, I guarantee we will grow. We will change. In five years we won’t be the same congregation we are today.

But—and I’m being completely honest here—I kinda like us the way we are. Don’t you? I’m serious. This is a great congregation. It’s very welcoming. It’s very engaged in the wider world. And while we can always find something about it that could be better, so many of you experience this community—this liberal religious, Unitarian Universalist congregation, east of the Connecticut River on Elm Hill in Manchester—as your spiritual home. It’s not necessarily because of the programs we offer, though those matter—worship, religious education for kids and adults, sustainable living practices, music, tutoring, social justice organizing, family events, small group ministry, mental health ministry, the women’s sacred singing circle and much more. It’s your spiritual home because you can rest here; you can breathe here; you find your voice here. It’s your spiritual home because of the connections and friendships you make here. It’s your spiritual home because it provides comfort, support and hopefully challenge. It’s your spiritual home because the values it professes—freedom, reason, tolerance, justice, equity, compassion, human worth, interdependence, sustainability—are your values, and something in you believes the survival and flourishing of these values is critical to the survival and flourishing of society, critical to the survival and flourishing of humanity, critical to the survival and flourishing of all life on the planet; and you’ve recognized that together, as a spiritual community, we have the power to proclaim these values and manifest them in the world. That’s what makes it a spiritual home. Those of you who go all the way back to the beginning of this congregation and to its earlier generations—you had a vision that led us to who we are today. All of us are grateful. We cannot thank you enough. You collectively invested millions of volunteer hours and millions of dollars to grow this congregation into what it is today—here and now—our spiritual home. So why open ourselves to change?

I’m trying to tease out the tension that exists at the heart of any thriving spiritual community: the tension between the community we are—here and now—and the community we aspire to be. Both sides of this tension matter immensely. The dilemma is that they never quite agree with each other. Occasionally they’re in open conflict. The dilemma is that as we establish a community, we automatically create a “we,” an “us.” I like us the way we are. Even if we don’t mean to, even if it’s not our intent, we set ourselves apart from those outside our community. It’s normal. It’s unavoidable. I suspect this creation of a “we” explains, at least in part, those unwelcoming patterns Rev. Morales describes. Sometimes we become so focused on us that we forget to extend a welcome to those who are not us. We forget what should come naturally to a liberal religious community: radical hospitality.

No human community is perfect. No human community completely lives up to its own ideals. No human community is free from contradictions. In particular, in a liberal spiritual community like this, where we talk about the inherent worth and dignity of every person, where we proclaim a vision of inclusion, where we say there is no theological litmus test for belonging, where we say all are welcome, it sometimes becomes painfully obvious that some are missing, that the circle of enabling love about which we sing is not cast as widely as it ought to be.

Recall the story of the ‘Great Dinner’ from Luke. A man plans a dinner. The context suggests he is wealthy. He invites his friends, the members of his community—his we—but none can attend; they all have excuses. Instead of canceling, he expands the invitation. He says, “bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.” And when that is done and there is still room, he says “go out into the roads and lanes and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled.”[6] He engages in radical hospitality.

So too with us. We like us the way we are and our values compel us to engage in radical hospitality. We’ve worked hard to build our spiritual home and our values demand that we not shut ourselves off from the world, but engage it fully. We like us the way we are and until this house is filled to overflowing with a rich diversity of people mirroring the rich diversity of humanity, we will not have lived up to our highest aspirations. This is our beloved spiritual community and our values inform us not only that all are welcome, but that it is our responsibility to make the invitation, to make space, to make room.

The tension is real, but it ought not to be cause for alarm. When we change in response to our values, the change is invariably good. I’m mindful of how, in the 1970s, the larger Unitarian Universalist community came to a collective, values-based understanding that we were living a contradiction: only five percent of our clergy were women. We needed to examine our sexism.[7] We needed to change. Twenty years later, women made up fifty percent of the clergy. It didn’t happen by accident. It happened through deep, collective soul-searching, a willingness to have healthy conflict and to engage in sustained organizing. It happened through radical hospitality. It has transformed our faith, and we are better for it.

I’m mindful of how, in the early 1980s, the larger Unitarian Universalist community began coming to a collective, values-based understanding that we were living a contradiction: gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people were closeted in our congregations and among our clergy. We needed to examine our homophobia and heterosexism. We needed to change. That change took decades, and we are still changing. But today Unitarian Universalism is steadfast in its commitment to welcoming gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, gender-queer and all questioning people into our congregations and our ministry at a time when many religions are undergoing gut-wrenching conflict. Today we are steadfast in our commitment to working for the civil rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and gender-queer people. Remember, for us, the term Welcoming Congregation refers to a congregation whose members have voted to make and keep these very commitments.[8] We did not make these commitments by accident. We made them as a result of deep, collective soul-searching, a willingness to have healthy conflict and to engage in sustained organizing. It happened through radical hospitality. It has transformed our faith, and we are so much better for it.

This is our spiritual community, and we ought not to feel any guilt or shame that we are who we are or that we never quite live up to our aspirations. We ought to be proud. I certainly am. We have worked hard to become who we are. And our values demand that we pay attention to who is not here, that we purposefully and intentionally make the circle wider still, that our dinner—our meal, our feast, our table—be one at which all are truly welcome, that we practice radical hospitality, that we make ourselves always ready for change.

We print it right in our order of service: “We invite you to take a moment at the end of the service to greet someone you do not know.” I ask you to take that message seriously. Trust that it isn’t a purely cosmetic message. Trust that it comes from a deeply-held conviction that all are welcome.

Amen and blessed be.

 


[1] Morales, Rev. Peter, “Religious Hospitality,” UU World, Vol. XXVI No. 1, Spring 2012, p. 5.  Or see: http://www.uuworld.org/spirit/articles/192460.shtml

[2] Morales, “Religious Hospitality, p. 5.

[3]Morales, “Religious Hospitality, p. 5.

[4] Gilbert, Rev. Richard S., “We Bid You Welcome” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #442.

[5]Kaan, Fred, “Break Not the Circle” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #323.

[6] Luke 14: 16-24.

[7] The Text to the UUA’s 1977 General Assembly Business Resolution entitled “Women and Religion” can be found at http://www.uua.org/statements/statements/20280.shtml.

[8] For more information on the Unitarian Universalists Welcoming Congregation program and history, see: http://www.uua.org/lgbt/welcoming/program/index.shtml

restless sleepers (the motion picture)

On Feb. 19th, spoken word artist Uni Q. Mical joined UUS:E in worship.

See video here: Uni Q. Mical at UUS:E

 

In response to our February ministry theme of “restlessness” she wrote and presented the following poem.

restless sleepers (the motion picture).  

Uni Q. Mical

THIS IS DEDICATED

to the touch screen generation

whose stretch of imagination

is mastered in megapixels

and clustered onto google pages

who

never look you in the eye in conversation

til they update their status on their thoughts,

verbatim. the cadence

of a drone, dripping from cellular phones

an omnipresent reminder that GPS will guide us home

 

to our parents,

grandparents

who make up this society

riddled with restlessness,

aching with anxiety

whose belief in ourselves

is as long as the song our thumbs sung

to these screens

with no thought process

to where these iPhones come from:

factories with no rest allowed,

14 hr workdays, driven to pressure bouts

gotta meet that demand that only the West allows

would rather jump off a bridge than make another gadget

but we grasp em

too far gone to gaze around at Earth’s magic.

 

What are our passions?

 

walking roads less traveled, or climbing corporate ladders?

so many distractions

it drowned out our heartbeats

so our true selves we fear to fathom.

we’d rather

seek happiness thru plasma TVs

who abuse us as consumers

convincing us we’re never good enough

for our own body, mind, or bloomers

diagnose us with the latest disease to hit the market

so we can have an excuse for just why we see ourselves so harshly

instead of putting our mental cars in park

& departing from our darkness

our minds race at the speed of internet

cramming our psyche into characters,

with stress that eats our intellect

 

But who says this is what we should be?

 

from dawn to dream, we’re in a hurry

crossing off a shopping list

of all the things that keep us worried

from your bulky stomach

to that friend you confronted

to the magazine ad with the shoes you never wanted       til 10 minutes ago.

to what new celeb just had a baby

to will i ever be famous? it’s lookin more like MAYBE

if our vehicles need a tune-up,

our souls are overdue inspection

we’re individuals who make up this mass collective

but each person in this group

spends more time second guessing

than believing in our POWER

to topple a system that convinced us we’re infected

 

for thinkin of the good of the people before the profits,

for knowing 9-5s don’t contribute to our self-knowledge.

for the cost of living changing, but not what’s in our wallets

when CEOs get paid billions for all the work done by the “bottom”.

for standing with uprisings

of people who are more than “equal”

who know we’re people of the sun

and our light is never see-thru.

for those who’ve historically wronged this earth,

its citizens, its water

you can’t charge us for the only fluid that knows no borders.

pumpin foods with chemicals FDA’s too corrupt to regulate

how many fast food burgers does it take to send us to heaven’s gates?

convince us we have issues, and tell us to medicate

got hundreds of pills for all us living in a restless state

yet we’re still not fully healed, choose to keep our wounds concealed

but there ain’t a single prescription that will cure us of this fight

for harmony and peace

such dirty words, diseased

but these were granted to us by the universe for LIFE

we live within a system that oppresses all us within

and thinking differently could make you a memory

but right now, we’re re-righting history

snatched the pen out the victor’s hands

included all of us that aren’t just straight, white, rich, or man

 

and we will live to speak of a new millennia

where the strength of six billion folks

used our bare hands and lifted up

this earth from off her knees

told her to stand still, it’s time to BREATHE

shook us all to our inner core

turned off the TV, computers, phones

and listened to our souls,

FINALLY.

This Sentence is False

Rev. Josh Mason Pawelek

“Deep in the human unconscious is a pervasive need for a logical universe that makes sense,” said the science fiction writer Frank Herbert.[1] This is likely not an earth-shattering revelation to any of you. Herbert is not alone in making this observation. A close look at the history of both science and religion reveals at their cores a common, profound human longing to make sense of life, of the world, of the universe, of all existence. I detect this longing at the heart of those words we said earlier from Nicaraguan priest Ernesto Cardinal—his proclamation of a harmonious universe, a unity behind apparent multiplicity.[2]  I detect this longing at the heart of our fourth Unitarian Universalist principle, the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. I detect this longing at the heart of Religious Humanism which has been a central identity for so many Unitarians and Universalists over the past century. For me, this longing—this pervasive need, as Herbert calls it—is at the heart of what makes us human.

Scientists John Casti and Werner DePauli, in their biography of the twentieth century European logician, Kurt Gödel, write, “Humans have always hungered for a certain knowledge, the kind that transcends millennia.”[3] They, too, are referring to the human longing for a logical universe that makes sense. Gödel’s incompleteness theorem says something about this. But before I offer some muddled Sunday morning musings about this, I want to remind you whose idea it was that I preach on Gödel. For the eighth year in a row, Fred Sawyer purchased a sermon at last year’s goods and services auction. He asked me to preach on the significance of Gödel’s theorem for us. This theorem goes far beyond anything Fred has suggested before in terms of complexity. I certainly appreciate and enjoy the challenge, but I confess the math is utterly beyond me. (I take some comfort knowing it’s beyond most mathematicians.) Hopefully I will convey it well. And as always, I will be offering more sermons at this year’s goods and services auction, Saturday evening, Febraury 11th. Tickets on sale now. Please come, please bid!

What is the path to the knowledge that would enable us to make logical sense of the universe? And how can we be sure such knowledge is true? Casti and DePauli write, “we most assuredly can’t find that kind of knowledge in the natural sciences where theories even as fundamental as Newton’s laws of mechanics can be overthrown by relativity theory, which itself may be cast in doubt by observations yet to come. Thus it is always to mathematics, especially the realm of pure numbers that we turn for the kind of certainty that we can really count on, if you’ll pardon the poor pun. In this domain, the truth-generating mechanism we employ is the process of logical deduction bequeathed to us by Aristotle.”[4]

Aristotelian logic begins with a set of assumptions or axioms we take to be true without proof. From those axioms we infer certain rules; with those rules we deduce further truths. For example, axiom: all German Shepherds are dogs. Axiom: fluffy is a German Shepherd. Rule: If all German Shepherds are dogs, and if Fluffy is a German Shepherd, then Fluffy is also a dog. Sounds straightforward, but there’s a problem. (I love it when there’s a problem.) When one digs down deep into the rules of any mathematical system (arithmetic, geometry, calculus, set theory) one is likely to find contradictions—paradoxes—which suggest that maybe the axioms we first accepted as true aren’t entirely true. Paradoxes defy the system’s rules. They are statements that are both true and false. Somehow, Fluffy is both a dog and not a dog. It shouldn’t be possible. A flaw lurks somewhere in the foundation of our knowledge. Such paradoxes are the mathematical equivalents of the statement, “this sentence is false,” which is known as the Epimenides or Liar’s Paradox. Let your mind ponder this for a few moments. This sentence is false.

If it’s false, then it’s actually true … which means by its own definition it’s false … but wait! Isn’t that what it says? This sentence is false? So it’s true … which means it’s false. And so on. It’s a paradox. It can’t be resolved using the system’s rules. Another example is the Barber Paradox. The village barber shaves all those who do not shave themselves. If that’s true, then who shaves the barber? If the barber shaves himself, then he doesn’t shave himself, because he shaves all those who do not shave themselves. But if he doesn’t shave himself, then he shaves himself, because he shaves all those who do not shave themselves.[5] It cannot be resolved using the system’s rules.

A (hopefully) fun mathematical example comes from the twentieth century British logician and philosopher, Bertrand Russell: “The set of all sets that are not members of themselves.” Consider this question: Is the set of all sets that are not members of themselves a member of itself? The philosopher and novelist Rebecca Goldstein writes, “if the set of all sets that aren’t members of themselves is a member of itself, then it’s not a member of itself, since it contains only sets that aren’t members of themselves. And, if it’s not a member of itself, then it is a member of itself, since it contains all the sets that aren’t members of themselves. So it’s a member of itself if and only if it’s not a member of itself.” To which she reacts with two sharp words: “Not good.” Why not good? “Paradoxes,” she says, “have often been found lurking about in the deepest places of thought. Their presence is often a signal (like the canary dying?) that we have managed, sometimes unwittingly, to stumble on a deep and problematic place, a fissure in the foundations.”[6] Why not good? Because they don’t make sense, and we humans long for a logical universe that makes sense.

Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries mathematicians and philosophers tried to create mathematical systems completely free from paradox. The holy grail of such efforts was known as a formal system. I won’t get into the details of formal systems, because I’m not sure I can explain them and keep you awake at the same time. Suffice it to say, those seeking this holy grail believed paradoxes existed in mathematical systems because the numbers and words that made up those systems had certain intrinsic meanings. Paradoxes, they argued, arose from those meanings. If you could drain all meaning from the system you could get rid of paradoxes. Formal systems attempt to do just that. To each of the meaningful numbers, words, axioms and theorems in, say arithmetic, they assign a meaningless symbol. Get rid of meaning, get rid of paradox.[7]

Related to this, remember in logical deduction we start out with axioms we accept as true without proof.  If we can’t prove them, then we must admit we’ve arrived at them by some other means: intuition. They are intuitively true. Yet, Goldstein reminds us, intuitions “are a tricky business…. An intuition is supposed to be something that we just know, in and of itself, not on the basis of knowing something else…. But not all … intuitions are genuine… and how is one to tell when one is in possession of the genuine article? Murky motivations … not only abound but also tend to hide themselves…. You might think that in mathematics … murky motives for beliefs are at a minimum. Still, even in mathematics we can get suckered. Accidental features can insinuate themselves into our most pristine mathematical reasoning, presenting us with propositions that seem intuitively obvious when they are not obvious at all—maybe not even true at all.”[8] Intuitions, said the formalists, also lead to paradox. So, a formal mathematical system—which drains all the meaning out of the numbers and words—also, in theory, removes intuition. Without intuition, without meaning, presumably those pesky paradoxes disappear. A formal system would finally give us that logical universe that makes sense, that knowledge transcending millennia, that hidden r half of Lir’s plan for creation,[9] that unity behind apparent multiplicity.

The faith that such a formal system could be established was widespread in early twentieth-century Europe. It seemed as if a logical, sensible universe was within reach. On September 30, 1930, at a symposium in Konigsberg, Germany Kurt Gödel—at 25 years old—announced his incompleteness theorem. From what I’ve read, nobody was paying attention. It was the last day of the symposium; people were tired and ready to leave. Eventually his theorem was published, became widely accepted, and effectively ended the search for math’s holy grail.

Gödel’s theorem says this: “For every consistent formalization of arithmetic, there exist arithmetic truths that are not provable within that formal system.”[10] Casti and DePauli write, “What Gödel discovered is that even though there exist true relationships among pure numbers, the methods of deductive logic are just too weak for us to be able to prove all such facts. In other words, truth is simply bigger than proof.”[11] In every system there are certain truths—we can intuit them—but we cannot prove they are true using the system’s rules. Therefore our mathematical systems are inherently incomplete. Our knowledge—in terms of what we can prove—will forever be incomplete. The mathematical holy grail does not exist. “Deep in the human unconscious is a pervasive need for a logical universe that makes sense,” writes Frank Herbert, “but,” he continues, “the real universe is always one step beyond logic.”[12]

What Gödel did is fascinating, innovative, thrilling, a testament to his genius, and even funny. When the theorem was first published

many called it a trick. They called him a conjurer, a magician. But today the incompleteness theorem is regarded as the most important discovery in mathematics since Aristotle. Gödel presented a formal system modeled, I believe, after the system—known as a type system—established by Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead in their three volume work Principia Mathematica. He re-coded that system by assigning a special number to each meaningless symbol in the formal system. That’s the part I don’t understand. These are astronomically huge numbers which came to be known as Gödel numbers. Using these numbers he then created a statement similar to “This sentence is false.” He created “This sentence is not provable.” And then he proved it. Hear this: He proved the sentence is not provable. There’s no paradox here. We don’t get caught up in an endless stream of provable, not provable, provable, not provable. He proved it’s not provable. The formal system worked. No paradox. But watch: he proved the sentence is not provable, which means it’s true. Within this system there is a statement that is unprovable, but also true. There are truths we cannot prove. It turns out in any mathematical system (as long as it is consistent) there are unprovable truths. All mathematical systems are incomplete. There are truths that reside beyond proof.

What significance might this hold for us? Part of me that wants to throw up my hands and scream, “I have no idea!” Another part of me needs to remind us Gödel’s theorem is not religion; it’s not theology, spirituality or ethics. It’s cold, hard math and any attempt to draw a spiritual conclusion from it is risky. Gödel once wrote to his mother that “sooner or later my proof will be made useful for religion, since that is doubtless also justified in a certain sense.”[13] While I can find no indication of what he meant by that, he did at one point attempt to prove the existence of God and the afterlife. (I’m not impressed with his theology, which is quite distinct from the incompleteness theorem.) I also wouldn’t be surprised if some more traditional religious thinkers might be tempted to find proof for God in the incompleteness theorem. That thing we can’t prove but we know is true beyond the limits of our mathematical systems, beyond the limits of human knowing? It might look like God to some. But I don’t think the numbers are saying that.

What I take from my brief study of Gödel is this: First, if our mathematical systems and all systems derived from them are incomplete, then we ought to be skeptical of any religious, ideological, political or social claim to completeness. Human motives are often murky. In response to any world-view we ought to remain open to the possibility of truths residing beyond its claims. We ought to accept and embrace the mystery at the edges and perhaps at the heart of any world-view. We ought to align ourselves with the old liberal religious axiom, “revelation is not sealed.” As we sang, “Creative love, our thanks we give that this our world is incomplete.”[14]

Second, Gödel’s theorem does not signal the end of reason and logic. Rather, it was a triumph of reason and logic. It was a triumph of the human mind and a testament to the value and necessity of reason and logic in all areas of our lives including our spiritual lives.

Finally, the incompleteness theorem also confirms that reason and logic, while essential, are not the only path to truth. There are truths they cannot prove. How do we access these truths? It seems to me we do so through intuition, through poetry, art, dance, exertion, prayer, meditation, silence. We access unprovable truths not only through the mind, but through the body, the heart, the spirit. All these ways of searching for truth are necessary if we are to come to the knowledge we long for, if we are to meet that pervasive need. We’ll never fully know a logical universe, but if we learn to trust our intuitions and search for truth in all these ways, maybe—just maybe—we’ll come to know a universe that makes sense nevertheless. Perhaps that is the ultimate paradox, a universe that makes sense, yet its deepest truths lie beyond reason and logic.

Amen and blessed be.

 


[1] Herbert, Frank, Dune (New York: Berkley Books, 1965) p. 373.

[2]Cardinal, Ernesto, “The Music of the Spheres,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #532.

[3]Casti, John L. and DePauli, Werner, Gödel: A Life of Logic (Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing, 2000) p. 3.

[4]Casti and DePauli, Gödel, pp. 3-4.

[5]Casti and DePauli, Gödel, p. 24.

[6]Goldstein, Rebecca, Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2005) p. 91.

[7] Math meets philosophy here. What makes a symbol meaningful? What makes a symbol meaningless? I’m not sure.

[8] Goldstein, Incompleteness, pp. 122-123.

[9] This is a reference to the Composer Henry Cowell’s  “Voice of Lir.” Lir of the half tongue was the father of the gods, and of the universe.  When he gave the orders for creation, the gods who executed his commands understood but half of what he said, owing to his having only half a tongue; with the result that for everything that has been created there is an unexpressed and concealed counterpart, which is the other half of Lir’s plan of creation. See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UlJRf6jmbMc

[10]Casti and DePauli, Gödel, p. 50.

[11]Casti and DePauli, Gödel, pp. 4-5.

[12] Herbert, Dune, p. 373.

[13]Goldstein, Incompleteness, p. 192.

[14] Hyde, William DeWitt, “Creative Love, Our Thanks We Give,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #289.

Fragments of Your Ancient Name

Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek

Video here.

The early 20th century German language poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, writes: “A fracture broke across the rings you’d ripened. / A screaming shattered the voices / that had just come together to speak you, to make of you a bridge / over the chasm of everything. / And what they have stammered ever since / are fragments / of your ancient name.[1] This is certainly not a holiday poem. It’s not particularly seasonal or even Decemberish. It speaks to me about brokenness in the human family, brokenness in the collective human spirit, and even brokenness in God. I offer this poem to you this morning because the midwinter season—this season of the solstice, of the returning sun, of festivals of light, of Advent, of stories of miracles and messiahs, angels and the births of kings; this season of hope and expectation, of promises of peace on earth and good will to all, of shopping and gift-giving, Yule logs, sleigh rides, Santa and mistletoe—the midwinter season, at its best, calls us to encounter ourselves differently, to live differently, to heal the brokenness in the human family, to heal the brokenness in the human spirit, to heal even the brokenness in God. The midwinter season, at its best, calls us away from the fractured rings, away from the chasm of everything, away from fragmentation; it beckons us on towards a deeper meaning for our lives; it beckons us on toward wholeness. We can’t—or don’t—always follow, but it beckons nevertheless.

I want to share some reflections on my childhood to illustrate what I mean by brokenness in the human family, the collective human spirit, and even in God. This sharing may sound familiar to some. I’m revisiting pieces of a sermon I wrote in seminary and then preached several times in the early years of my ministry, including on March 16th, 2003, the very first time I preached for this congregation.

I remember a conversation in a Sunday School class at the Unitarian Society of New Haven in the late 1970s. I was probably ten years old. I think it was our class on the theory of evolution. I can’t remember who the teacher was or who else was in the class.  What I remember vividly is an insight I had in the midst of that conversation that not all natural resources are renewable, that supplies of many natural resources we rely on (like oil) are finite, that our way of life is unsustainable and would inevitably change—perhaps not in my lifetime or that of my children and grandchildren, but certainly within the next few centuries. I offered this observation. The teacher agreed, and then counseled me and my classmates not to worry: science has always found solutions to these kinds of problems; science will find new ways for us to continue living as we are living. Looking back I’m reminded that in that church in the 1970s we still proclaimed a version of the late 19th-century progressive spirituality immortalized in the words of the Rev. James Freeman Clark, “We believe … in human progress onward and upward forever.”

So I didn’t worry. I trusted science. I still do. Growing up with a father who was and is a driven and passionate scientist who has spent his career unraveling the mystery of metastasis, I have learned to trust in science. Being the father of a child who underwent three successful open heart surgeries before the age of three and now lives a normal life and ran a mile in under ten minutes in the middle of October, I am one who trusts in human beings and human progress. This trust is central to what I mean when I call myself a person of faith.

In 2009 my mother’s mother died at age 102 in Hanover, PA. The modern life we are accustomed to, especially here in the United States, was not her life. My faith in science and human progress was not her faith. She and my grandfather were born on farms in rural Pennsylvania Dutch country. She remembered traveling into town by horse and buggy. She remembered walking three-and-a-half miles to St. Bartholomew’s on Sunday mornings where they practiced a modest, agrarian, pietistic Christian faith. I see them now as People of the Earth. They knew the Earth. They knew how to bring forth a yearly bounty from the Earth and its creatures. They knew and respected Nature’s power. They knew hardship and struggle, especially with the advent of the Great Depression. They knew how to adapt to changing circumstances, how to transform hardship into opportunity. They knew something of human limitations, frailties and death. In my view the Earth imparted this knowledge to them, though I’m almost certain they would not name the Earth as their teacher in quite this way. They would be more likely to proclaim that their faith in Jesus Christ carried them through hardship, helped them overcome limitations, and actually saved them from the Earth’s whims and fury.

As a child growing up in a science-oriented, suburban New England household, practicing a rational, Humanistic and often anti-Theistic Unitarian Universalist faith, it was sometimes spiritually disconcerting to visit Hanover. It was in Hanover that I first became aware of people who believed my family and I were destined for eternal punishment because of our rational religion and our rejection of the miracles and the divinity of Jesus. (No one in my mother’s family ever said this, but I heard it at St. Bartholomew’s from time to time.) It was in Hanover that I first recognized my own capacity to judge others harshly when their faith seemed old-fashioned, unexamined and even childlike. And yet God was alive and palpable in Hanover. I listened intently as my grandmother spoke of God’s love. I longed for that love in my life. She spoke of God’s anger too, and hell. I worried about that. I said my prayers at bedtime just in case: Now I lay me down to sleep….  Hanover could be so spiritually disconcerting. I longed for God’s love even as my modern Unitarian Universalist self was intentionally growing distant from God, from the old, unquestioning faith and the old, irrational church that espoused it.

Hanover was disconcerting for other reasons. Even in the 1970s, one could encounter echoes of older life-ways in Hanover: the cool basement rooms with dirt floors and shelves filled with jarred vegetables and fruit for winter sustenance; the antique tractors rusting on back lots; the bleached yellow barns that were there first, before the land was developed for housing and the roads expanded for cars; the beautiful brass bands playing Christmas carols, slightly out of tune, on dark December evenings, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”; the elders’ subtle German accents; the butcher shop down the way; and the fertile land still stretching into the distance, still yielding a rich bounty year after year. For me, a visit to Hanover offered wave after wave of mystical experiences, of heart-beats skipped, of breath-taking beauty, of apprehensions of a simpler, more sustainable life, of pausing, still and quiet, for a few incredible moments in the graveyard where my grandparents had already bought their plots, or sitting in the kitchen in the old house on Frederick Street where my mother and her siblings had grown up; wave after wave of insight into the gifts and blessings of my ancestors, insight into a way of living in harmony with the Earth, respecting the Earth, learning from the Earth; wave after wave of insight into what it means to love and trust a Holy power larger than yourself, to rest in its comforting arms, to praise it for its existence, to thank it for its abundant gifts. But this look—this glorious, deeply spiritual look at what life could be—was a backwards look, a look into a receding world, or so I assumed. It was not human progress onward and upward forever. It was not the future. It looked to my untrained eye like a form of death. Hanover could be so disconcerting.

I didn’t recognize it then, but looking back I see, emerging in me, spiritual fragmentation, mirroring a larger fragmentation in the human family. Without any adult having to say it, without any adult even intending it to happen, somehow I felt compelled to choose between my liberal, Humanist faith, and my grandmother’s traditional, Theistic faith; between my modern, suburban post-industrial lifestyle and my grandmother’s rural, earth-based, old world living. Was the choice really necessary?

We might say, “Fine! So what?!? That’s what growing up is all about, isn’t it? Figuring these things out, making choices, following a path. And you turned out OK Rev.” This is true, but I also can’t ignore the poet’s truth: “A fracture broke across the rings you’d ripened. / A screaming shattered the voices / that had just come together to speak you, to make of you a bridge / over the chasm of everything. / And what they have stammered ever since / are fragments / of your ancient name.”[1] Yes, perhaps growing up requires that we make spiritual choices and box ourselves into certain life ways; but every time we do this we risk growing spiritually fragmented. And for many of us—for many Unitarian Universalists and liberal religious people—the whole idea of God ceases to have any meaning, because the God we typically encounter—often when some well-meaning person tries to convince of God’s reality (sometimes gently, sometimes not so gently)—is a broken God—a judgmental, angry, damning God. They are only stammering a fragment of the ancient name.

What utter fools we humans have been, ripping the Holy apart like this, creating a culture that compels us to choose one piece. What utter fools we’ve been, tearing God into shreds, and then wrapping ourselves in only one shred, or none, growing self-righteous, judging, not recognizing the paucity of our spiritual garment, not recognizing our own shivering in the gathering cold.

I don’t pretend to speak with authority on what a whole God is, but I am convinced human beings have only been able to visit atrocities and injustices, terrorism and wars upon other human beings because we first ripped God apart. I am convinced human beings now confront unprecedented and catastrophic environmental change because we first ripped God apart. I am convinced that our capacity to judge and condemn, alienate and isolate, bomb and torture, exploit and enslave, pollute and plunder, is rooted in our tearing God asunder. When we look out at the world and bear witness to brokenness in the human family and brokenness in the human spirit it is because, after millennia of human existence, we still only stammer fragments of God’s ancient name.

Hanover never should have been a disconcerting experience for a child. Hanover should have been (and I’m thankful it is now) a moment to recognize that the spirit and energy present in humanity, in human innovation, in science, in reason, in our aspirations towards progress—curing disease, advancing technology, eliminating poverty, expanding freedom—is connected to the God who has journeyed as a comforting presence with countless human beings into slavery, into concentration camps, into genocides, into trails of tears, into occupation, into war, into violence; which itself is connected to the God who carried my grandparents through all their times of hardship and struggle, to whom they prayed whether the land was barren or fertile and in whom they placed their trust;  which is itself connected to the Holy Spirit who rode on lush harmonies of brass band Christmas carols, slightly out of tune, on dark, December evenings; which is itself connected to the energy and sustenance stored in jars of vegetables and fruits on cool basement shelves, ready for the long winter months; which is itself connected to ghosts haunting old yellow barns and rusting tractors and to the voices of the ancestors speaking of a more simple and sustainable life; which is connected to Nature, the Earth, the land, the soil that, if respected and treated well by all of us—as the ancients knew—will continue to yield abundance, will continue to sustain life, will continue to enable survival even through the harshest of times; which is itself connected to the Goddess, the Great Mother, the Creative power of the universe; which is itself, in the words of Nancy Shaffer in our second reading this morning, “Peace … / One My Mother knew … / Ancestor … / Wind. / Rain. / Breath …. / Refuge.  / That Which Holds All. / … Water. / … Kuan Yin. / … Womb. / Witness. / Great Kindness. / Great Eagle. / Eternal Stillness;[2] which is itself connected to the God who cries out for atonement for human atrocities; which is itself connected to the God who is clearly powerless to stop human beings from killing each other, yet who offers to us, over and over, through the prophetic urgings of seers and sages and holy people throughout the ages the path of love thy neighbor as thyself; which is itself connected to all the powers and experiences and love that saves us in this life, in a multitude of ways, again and again, if we would only wake up, if we would only notice, if we would only weave back together the tattered shreds, if we would only let God be whole. God’s ancient name must be some version of the word whole.

The midwinter season beckons us toward this wholeness. It’s there in the mixing of the sacred and secular—the nativity scene in the middle of the shopping mall. It’s there in the mixing of the pagan and Christian symbols: the evergreen, that ancient symbol of life prevailing through the winter, decorated with the angels and stars of Luke’s gospel. It’s there in the story of a miraculous birth—the common story of so many gods and goddesses and heroes throughout human history. And it’s there in the message which we associate with Christmas but which resides at the core of so many faith traditions: peace on Earth, goodwill to all. So many fragments come together in this season, pointing us towards a deeper meaning for our lives, calling us to the work of healing the human family and healing the collective human spirit, calling out God’s ancient name, not a fragment; and beckoning us toward wholeness.

Amen and Blessed Be.

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[1] Rilke, Rainer Maria, “I Read it Hear in Your Very Word,” in Barrows, Anita and Macy, Joanna, translators, Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) p. 55.

[2] Rilke, Rainer Maria, “I Read it Hear in Your Very Word,” in Barrows, Anita and Macy, Joanna, translators, Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) p. 55.

[3] Shaffer, Nancy, “That Which Holds All,” Instructions in Joy (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2002) p. 23.