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[Chalice] Standing Outside the Miracle: [Chalice]
Toward a Unitarian Spirituality

Presented May 31, 2009, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

Opening words:
Quotation from Emerson's July 15, 1838 Divinity School Address

In this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life. The grass grows, the buds burst, the meadow is spotted with fire and gold in the tint of flowers. The air is full of birds, and sweet with the breath of the pine, the balm-of-Gilead, and the new hay. Night brings no gloom to the heart with its welcome shade. Through the transparent darkness the stars pour their almost spiritual rays. Man under them seems a young child, and his huge globe a toy. The cool night bathes the world as with a river, and prepares his eyes again for the crimson dawn. The mystery of nature was never displayed more happily. The corn and the wine have been freely dealt to all creatures, and the never-broken silence with which the old bounty goes forward, has not yielded yet one word of explanation. One is constrained to respect the perfection of this world, in which our senses converse.

Readings for talk:
Again, from Emerson's 1838 Divinity School Address

"Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost, - cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with Deity. Look to it first and only, that fashion, custom, authority, pleasure, and money, are nothing to you, - are not bandages over your eyes, that you cannot see, - but live with the privilege of the immeasurable mind."

"Jesus spoke of miracles; for he felt that man's life was a miracle, and all that man doth, and he knew that this daily miracle shines, as the character ascends. But the word Miracle, as pronounced by Christian churches, gives a false impression; it is Monster. It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain."

As you all know, about 5 ½ months ago I had the most amazing experience of my life. I was actually there in the room - admittedly not really doing very much - when Sebastian was born. I was there talking to Dana while she had her C-section and describing to her what was happening. I was there to actually see Sebastian kick his legs out, see the doctor grab his legs and pull him into the world legs first, head last, which as I understand is not exactly the way it is supposed to be. Of course it would come as no great shock to you if I said this is the most amazing experience I have ever had in my life. That is rather obvious. The absolute truth of that statement is confirmed by asking, if that is the most amazing experience I have ever had, what would be the next most amazing experience? Gee, it is hard to come up with a second that would even be in the same class as Sebastian's birth. Personal accomplishments seem meaningless compared to Sebastian's birth. Even the Steeler's Super Bowl victories, or even the Pirates winning the World Series seem silly candidates for second place if we're talking about comparing it to being right there on the spot to actually see the miracle of Sebastian coming into the world.

I feel grateful in one sense that I was actually there in the room for that momentous event, and in another sense I think to myself: where the hell else would I be? What earthly sense would it make for me or for any father to be anywhere else? The first sense, the feeling of gratitude comes from my awareness of the strange cultural fact that a generation ago or so it would have been unheard of for fathers to be in the room during the birth. Not very long ago fathers were almost always kept outside the door, waiting I guess with cigars, waiting outside the door while the miracle of birth occurs. I know my dad had that experience of waiting outside the door 5 times. I bet you he probably never even thought about actually being there to see the miracle of birth. In those days, it just wasn't done. And Dana tells me even today if we had had the baby in Romania I would be expected to wait outside the door. Millions of fathers even today are still standing there waiting outside the door, standing outside the miracle.

What a senseless custom, to be locked outside the miracle. What would be the rationale for it? Whatever the original rationale, over time it simply becomes what is done. Fathers stay outside. That's just the way we do things. Custom, tradition, the way we do things, the way we think - all these things so often in life do lock us out from experiencing life in its truly miraculous character. They do take us away from rather than toward a deeper awareness and appreciation of the spiritual wonder that is life itself.

Think of those experiences that bring you to deeper awareness and appreciation of the wonder and the mystery of life, of nature, of the world, of the universe. The great philosophical mystic Martin Buber describes faith not as professing as true some ready-made, inherited formula but as "holding ourselves open to the unconditional mystery which we encounter in every sphere of our life and which cannot be comprised in any formula." What are those experiences that do not lock you out but open up that unconditional mystery, and that enable you to hold yourself open to the continuing miracles of life? Would those experiences involve your life as parent, caregiver, lover, friend? Would they involve simply staring up at night at the moon and the stars, feasting your senses on their ancient and - as Emerson said - their "almost spiritual rays"? Being battered around by the powerful waves of the ocean? Walking in the quiet woods? Really listening to the different types of bird songs and perhaps watching a mother bird feed a young bird and teach it to sing? Sitting in your backyard or biking around town keeping yourself open to the opening of first the forsythia and then redbuds and the magnolia and the dogwood and the lilacs and the irises and now the roses?

After all, right now, these days, are days of opening, and everything is reaching out to human awareness. But as alive as creation is right now, human senses too have to be alive and awake. As Buber says, creation "does not pour itself into senses that are waiting, but deigns to meet those that are reaching out." Senses that are reaching out. Unitarians believe in living with senses that are reaching out. And sometimes, as our senses are reaching out, as we are enjoying the birds, the stars, the irises and roses, we can also have something like a radical Emerson moment. We might ask ourselves: Do our religious tradition and mythologies awaken our senses and cause them to reach out to all the magic and mysteries that open in the world and in the universe? Does it really open us to the life of spirit that reaches out to us to be told that Jesus is God's special Son who died for us? Does it enable us to hold ourselves open to the continuing miracles of life if we are told that God long ago made one people His special people and acted to save them from slavery? Does it really give us a profound appreciation for all the miracles of this life if we are told that long ago Allah spoke to His special messenger and his special messenger carefully wrote down exactly what Allah said? Do these myths really take us into a deeper appreciation of the unfolding miracle of this universe, or do they really lock us out of really opening ourselves to wonder and to mystery? Do they keep us on the other side of the door and cause us actually to miss the wonder and the miracle?

Now you probably know where I am going with this. This question - which is a powerful one, even an explosive question - is exactly what Emerson was asking in his famous The Divinity School Address. This question is what fuels the youthful wrecklessness that he displays as he makes this address. He throws up this huge challenge to the history of religions and mythologies. Do they really lead us to become senses reaching out and do they aid us in becoming spiritual seekers, or do they lock the door on our own appreciation of marvel and mystery of what is and shut us out? Emerson leaves no doubt as to how he himself answers that question. Jesus as Son of God is Monster, Not Miracle precisely because it is simply a formula and doesn't have anything to do with our senses reaching out to a deeper awareness of the mysteries and miracles all around us. The mythology of Jesus as God-Man is Monster, he says, because it is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain." Even before giving this address in 1838m Emerson had already resigned his position as minister and abandoned organized, traditional religion. And Harvard Divinity School, which had asked him to give the talk, was very displeased with his radical answers and never asked him to come back.

This, of course, was probably ok with him. You might lock him out of the Harvard Divinity School, but you could never lock Emerson out from the world, a world which he too knew to be always reaching out and opening up to us. To us, as long as we too are spirits reaching out, desiring to hold "ourselves open to the unconditional mystery which we encounter in every sphere of our life."

Emerson in his address shows us something essential about Unitarianism. Unitarianism is always a spiritual daring, a reaching out, a desire not to be locked away on the other side of the door from life's greatest wonders and miracles. We do hold ourselves open to unconditional mysteries and our senses do reach out to all the magical experiences of this life. Sometimes as Unitarians we do our spiritual seeking and our reaching out through the great religious traditions of this world - as our banner here attests - and sometimes we do our spiritual seeking and our reaching out against and in spite of the religious traditions of the world, as Emerson calls us to do. Either way, the important thing is that we live as senses reaching out. We live with a strong dose of Emerson's rebelliousness and defiance. We are not content to wait outside the door and be shut out of life's miracles and mysteries. We Unitarians battle against the many ways culture, tradition, the way we think, just the way we do things, tries to shut the door and keep us from living with a full appreciation of life's miracles and mysteries. Maybe we battle against this in a friendly, open way - hopefully we do - but still as Unitarians we do battle against this.

And the sad truth is, we have so much to battle against. Culture, history, tradition, just the way we do things around here, has so many ways of shutting the door on us and keeping us away from the spiritual treasures of this life. The most meaningful and miraculous moment of your life when your baby is born, and if you're the father you are not supposed to even be there and are supposed to stay on the other side of the door - now that is nuts. "Nuts" here is a technical term which means: a toxic and sad combination of irrational, senseless, lifeless, joyless, spiritless.

We as Unitarians have to do battle against all things in our culture that shut the door on people, that are in that way nuts. Of course all forms of prejudice, racism, sexism, homophobia, everything that prevents people from holding themselves open to others and experiencing others in their spiritual depths is nuts. When I was growing up in our little town the Protestants and the Catholics went to school together but they weren't supposed to become friends and be in each other's homes - that was nuts. There are so many forms of nuts. I realize now that the birth of the baby is of course just the beginning of the unfolding miracle of life. One of the most amazing things is breastfeeding, how the milk is there and the baby just knows where to go and how to get it. The whole experience is miraculous and amazing, but for a while in our culture breastfeeding fell out of fashion. Formula was invented and then marketed as an improvement and for a while bottle feeding became just the way we do things around here, and women were kept outside of what must be one of the most amazing experiences of life, and that is just nuts.

It is certainly a less important example than breastfeeding, but another example is bike riding. The few moments I spend on the bike each day are always among the most pleasurable of the day. Riding the bike is relaxing, quiet, the motion is great, it's very peaceful. But there are many people who are perfectly able but who say "bikes are for kids . . . I haven't been on a bike in 20 years." That's nuts. There are plenty of people who never at night just go out and sit, maybe by themselves, maybe with family and friends, maybe with a nice glass of wine, and look up at the stars and moon and wonder and marvel and think. They never do that because they are inside every night watching TV. That's nuts, nuts in precisely this sense: irrational, senseless, lifeless, joyless, spiritless.

It's now nearly summer and nearly time for the end of the church year. We may be the only church in town that doesn't hold services during the summer. Some people might think because we are not here for services every Sunday in this church building that our spiritual and religious life shuts down for the summer, but we know that narrow and traditional way of thinking is nuts. As Unitarians we are senses reaching out and that often refulgent summer reaches out to us with special opportunities, and we with all our senses reach out to it.

©2009 Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Manning, Rev. Dr. Rob. 2009. Standing Outside the Miracle: Toward a Unitarian Spirituality, /talks/20090531.shtml (accessed July 16, 2020).

The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.