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[Chalice] This I Believe: Why UU's are a Religious People [Chalice]

Presented October 1, 2006, by Carol Nichols

Opening Words

In the essence of the mind, there is transcendence, the effort to step beyond all horizons. From this, of course, it also follows that the mind violates its own horizons as well; we reflect on our ability to reflect; we know that we know; we know that we know that we know; we know that we have been separated, we know of our thrownnesses, we know of the unattainability of what we strive toward, and we know that we cannot help but strive toward it; we know what we don't know and what we cannot know -- so that the more radically we step beyond our limitations, the better we know them, and the better we know them, the more obviously we step beyond them.

--Vaclav Havel, Letters to Olga

To find God, that which is beyond time, we must understand the process of thought -- that is, the process of oneself. The self is very complex; it is not at any one level, but is made up of many thoughts, many entities, each in contradiction with the others. There must be a constant awareness of them all, an awareness in which there is no choice, no condemnation or comparison; that is, there must be a capacity to see things as they are with distorting or translating them. The moment we judge or translate what is seen, we distort it. To discover reality (what some call "God") there can be no belief because acceptance or denial is a barrier to discovery.

--J. Krishnamurti, On God


The real work or challenge for the individual in his or her practice of religion is mystical work: work that defies set logical structure of science. This work also resists the current mythological constructs of most organized religions, which are already set in stone. Joseph Campbell describes this difficult work in these words: The critical social problem of the mystic everywhere is to abide in God, either as a manifestation of God or as God's devotee, and at the same time to abide in phenomenality, as a material, social phenomenon. For the dualist, this remains difficult: God and world for him are apart. For some UU's, God and the world are incongruities, where for the thinking, rational individual, they cannot co-exist. In a like manner, for the orthodox believing individual, nothing else can exist but their religion's one and only truth about God and the world. For the non-dualist, or the religious seeker who continually works at this problem, Campbell continues: this difficulty exists only at a preliminary stage of the mystic way, antecedent to the realization, since for him, finally, all is found to be in some manner {to be} God.

Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God

The burning question for most UU's, who are truly seekers in a mystical way, is who or what exactly is God.


We being with some definitions:

"Consciousness is one type of highly intense experience of life, but there are other forms present in other species, sometimes with capacities that humans lack, as in fish that can hear ranges of sound or animals that can see ranges of light not possible to our ears or eyes. Nor can we simply draw a line between us, together with large-brained mammals and other beings, as a distinction of "living persons" and "dead bodies." For plants too are living organic beings that respond to heat, light, water, and sound as organisms, and even chemical aggregates are dancing centers of energy. Human consciousness, then, should not be what utterly separates us from the rest of "nature." Rather, consciousness is where this dance of energy organizes itself in increasingly unified ways, until it reflects back on itself in self-awareness. Consciousness is and must be where we recognize our kinship with all other beings. The dancing void from which the tiniest energy events of atomic structures flicker in and out of existence and our self-aware thoughts are kin along a continuum of organized life-energy."

Rosemary Radford Ruether, Gaia and God

"Awe is an intuition for the dignity of all things, a realization that things not only are what they are but also stand, however remotely, for something supreme. Awe is a sense for the transcendence, for the reference everywhere to mystery beyond all things. It enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine .to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing .the stillness of the eternal. What we cannot comprehend by analysis, we become aware of in awe."

Abraham Joshua Heschel, Who is Man?

The Atheist - (My apologies - this term is defined more by what one does rather than what one is.) "One could say that the nineteenth-century atheist had burnt down the house instead of remodeling it. He had thrown out the religious questions with the religious answers, because he had to reject the religious answers. That is, he turned his back on the whole religious enterprise because organized religion presented him with a set of answers, which he could not intellectually accept - which rested on no evidence, which a self-respecting scientist could swallow. But, what the more sophisticated scientist is now in the process of learning is that though he must disagree with most of the answers to religious questions which have been given by organized religion, it is increasingly clear that the religious questions themselves -- and religious quests, the religious yearnings, the religious needs themselves -- are perfectly respectable scientifically, that they are rooted in human nature, that they can be studied, described in a scientific way. Though the answers were not acceptable, the questions themselves were and are perfectly acceptable and perfectly legitimate.

Abraham H. Maslow
Religions, Values and Peak-Experiences

During this summer's discussion series here at Church, one week's topic was advertised as an open discussion on the nature of God. As we sat around our informal table against the painted glass windows of William Penn and friends, braving the stifling heat, one person aptly remarked that if you want a crowd, tell UU's that we're going to talk about God. Although we barely know why, our response and participation is driven by enthusiasm, by a real desire to be heard, and for some, by a freshly rediscovered remembrance of the personal experiences that have driven all but the native-born UU's from the faith of their fathers and mothers.

We have the luxury of a great gift in this congregation: we are free to be openly curious. It is what we imagine that most believers outside these walls may occasionally desire, but perhaps, will not let themselves explore. Or worse yet, within the confines of their church, they may not be allowed to explore.

It is basically this freedom to seek which has brought some people to our church: those for whom the wheel of life has turned to deliver the worst of sorrows. A good number of those who enter this door have done so after the death of a child or a partner or sibling. The order of the universe, the rules of life for them, are out of synch: your son or daughter is not suppose to die before you. Your spouse is meant to live out his or her life by your side. For these among us, the traditional meaning of life and the purpose of God have been questioned at the very basic level. For others, non-acceptance of them personally heightens their sensitivity as to how one defines God, and how a church community ought to behave. These UU's may have been rejected for some supposed offense like race, divorce, interracial marriage or sexual preference. Another group of members, calling themselves UU's, are those among us who lug around the baggage of our former religious upbringing. Or, we say that we have completely left it at the door with no residual evidence, except a passionate distaste for orthodoxy, narrow-mindedness and intolerance. For this group, the greatest temptation might be an extreme manifestation of the same intolerance for the offenders beyond this door, which in itself mirrors what drove some here in the first place. The lucky few (born and raised UU's) have a desire of their own, at times. They often express a deeply-felt longing for cultural background, for scriptural literacy that more traditionally raised acquaintances might possess.

And yet among us are the rationalists, the academics, the scientists, the traditional Christians, Islamics and Jews, and those who have adopted the "exotic" by traditional Christian standards: the Taoists, the Buddhists, those who are drawn to Native American traditions, New Age Spiritualists, and most delightful and exuberant of all, the Earth-loving, tree trunk-dancing, moon-howling, grape-stomping Wiccans.

A motley crew to say the least, but still, it is safe to say, all driven by a desire to seek the truth, and in some cases, to be fascinated by discussion surrounding the "truth" about God -- in whatever way one defines that word.

What is a religious community? Must it be God-centered at its core? Should it be based on a belief that sets it apart from a civic system, a political party, an intellectual or literary movement or a book club? Or as Elaine Pagels suggests, should it be "beyond belief." Catherine Albanese writes about religion for college freshmen at the introductory level of their education and hopefully, at the beginning of their life-long journey of discovery. Her definition reads as follows: Religion here can be seen as a system of symbols (creed, code, cultus) by means of which people (a community) locate themselves in the world with reference to both ordinary and extraordinary powers, meanings and values. (Catherine Albanese, America Religions and Religion)

Please take note: at least, this one scholar makes no mention of the "g" word. By ordinary powers, she means, I think, religion and its central belief (be that God or not) sustaining people through the normal cycles of life: birth, marriage, celebration and tragedy and the ending of life within a community. It is functionary religion or "religion of the pew." By extraordinary, she means transformational power: of prophets, shakers and movers, shamans, visionaries, mystics and those who would turn our average responses upside down. Extraordinary religion visits the world of the transcendent, the holy, sacred or simply, that which is beyond our reach. In native or indigenous religions, all is fused. Ordinary life, the profane, is permeated with the extraordinary life and power, the sacred. Consciousness of physical as well as spiritual reality fuses heaven (if one can locate such things) into an earthly realm below. Religious people (in everyday life) take on the role of the sacred actors that share existence with them. In western, modern religion, the sacred once visited, shared life on earth and then, departed. A revisit will come again in time and at the completion of time for humans. In institutional Western religions, the sacred is beyond us, looking down, guiding, judging, but not usually among and hardly within.

Albanese's definition and her reference to powers do not necessarily locate that power in God. The reality of power itself (expressed through extraordinary and ordinary religious practice) is very real even to those who do not define God in the usual way. If one thinks about the forces that move us even to the highest feelings of awe, it is all about relationships: our relationship to ourselves at the very basic level (or, as some have defined it "consciousness"), our relationship to each other with an ever broadening circle of inclusion (depending on how aware our consciousness is) and our relationship to the world (as part and parcel of us, or as something set apart for us to use, exploit, fear or ignore). These relationships in some traditional religions with God included are often defined in terms of power and submission. But, relationships are also guided by another power, that of love. To Carl Jung, these two extremes are explained in this way: "Where love rules, there is no will to power, and where power predominates, there love is lacking. One is the shadow of the other." If framed in all his awe and majesty and lawfulness, the God presented by some religions is so powerful, so reductive of human existence, so much of an antithesis to interrelational love, it is no wonder that feeling as well as thinking humans have questioned or abandoned that kind of God. The healthy version in most religions seems to be a God whose name is synonymous with love.

"Only in the mirror of relationship, do you see the face of what is." Kirshnamurti wrote that line in his Journal. Like several writers before and since him, he knew intuitively that there is a moment, or rather a string of moments in one's full lifetime, where our ever active consciousness pauses, as it were, to absorb in a sort of timeless way. It is almost as if we center ourselves for an instant, although such moments are often difficult to measure in terms of how long they are. We see something, or realize something very profoundly. It is a form of inexhaustible power or love. And then, our eyes, ears, tongue fail us in their ability to describe what it is that we have registered deeply inside of us.

When the space passengers in Carl Sagan's "Contact" took their journey to galaxies beyond earth, one scientist struggles with what she has seen and felt. And she regrets her training, her education, her intellect. She whispers softly that the mission experts have sent that wrong person to explain what transcendence she has just experienced. She says, "They should have sent a poet." If there is anything to "believe," and if belief is truly based on our experiential reality as human beings, we know what these moments are. We can believe in them.

Eliade has called humans Homo religious. By nature, anthropologically, humans make religions. This activity is as intrinsic to us as walking, talking . . . breathing. We have moments, experiences, states of awareness - like those just described. We house them, contain them at times within religions, as well as in art like poetry. But why do we have such moments? Now, that is the scientific question, and whether the answer lies within a phenomenon called God or not, the question drives UU's to a discussion table with passion.

Many of our avocations, those activities that get us into the "zone" are places where we construct a small stage version of a life that is too large to handle. The perfect game of golf with all its rules and conditions conquered, fly-fishing, the razor's edge of a completely internalized yoga practice or meditation, the solitude of music played internally beyond the drill or the perfection of technique, the smooth feel of clay on the wheel eternally forming the perfect pot. There is an emptiness, a non-judgmental state where one just is. We find deeply within ourselves our "self." And when we turn and see that same sense of self beyond us, when we relate externally as if it were within us, call it what you may: call it God, if you like. It makes no difference. It needs no proof, no believe, it needs nothing. "Only in the mirror of relationship, do you see the face of what is."

Are we a religious people? Are we humans in a human community striving to understand the deepest experiences of ourselves, of others, or our world? If the best function of religion is to point us from the inner reaches of the self to outer realities, then merely in pointing, in the process or effort to link to something greater than our selves, and finding that transcendence actually within us, then yes, we are a religious people. We are reaching toward the Unnamable, and finding it defined within us.

Closing Words

This is an offering from Alan Watts:

If we think God is playing with the world, has created it for his pleasure, and had created all these other beings and they go through the most horrible torments - terminal cancer, children being burned with napalm, concentration camps, the Inquisition, the horrors that human beings go through - how is that possibly justifiable? We try by saying, "Well, some God must have created it, if a God didn't create it, there's nobody in charge and there's no rationality to the whole thing. It's just a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing. It's a ridiculous system and the only out is suicide."

But, suppose it's the kind of thing I've described to you, supposing it isn't that God is pleasing himself with all these victims, showing off his justice by either rewarding them or punishing them - supposing it's quite different from that. Suppose God is the only one playing all the parts, that God is the child being burned. There is no victim except the victor. All the different roles which are being experienced , all the different feelings which are being felt, are being felt by the one who originally desires, decides, will to go into that very situation.

Curiously enough, there is something parallel to this in Christianity. There's a passage in St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians in which he says a very curious thing: "Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who being in the form of God, did not think identity with God a thing to be clung to, but humbled himself and made himself of no reputation, and was found in fashion as a man and became obedient to death, even the death of the cross." Here you have exactly the same idea, the idea of God becoming human, suffering all that human beings can suffer, even death. And St. Paul is saying "Let this mind be in you," that is to say, let the same kind of consciousness be in you that was in Jesus. Jesus knew he was God. {In other words, know the self inside you; and know mirror of the self}.

Wake up and find out eventually who you really are. In our culture, of course, they'll say that you're crazy or you're blasphemous, and they'll either put you in jail or in the nut house (which is the same thing). But, if you wake up in India and tell your friends and relations, "My goodness, I've just discovered that I'm God, "they'll laugh and say, "Oh, congratulations, at last you found out."

Alan Watts, "The Drama of It All," in The Essential Alan Watts

©2006 Carol Nichols

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Nichols, Carol. 2006. This I Believe: Why UU's are a Religious People, /talks/20061001.shtml (accessed July 13, 2020).

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