Preserving the Good When Whirl is King

Presenter: 
Rev. Henry Simoni-Wastila
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 04/03/2016

Preserving the Good When Whirl is King -- © Henry Simoni-Wastila

 

A few years ago, I set up a church table at a town festival. We were a Unitarian Universalist church and we were shamelessly self-promoting our message. Throughout Saturday, I would return to the table overflowing with pamphlets, candies and even a bowl of water for dogs by the side. How thoughtful UU’s are about all kinds of sentient beings!

During the festival, I wanted to check out how our representatives behind the booth would handle difficult theological questions people would inevitably be asking them. In the role of a passerby, I asked my first question, “Do you believe in Jesus.” Well, there was some laughter. An hour later, I stopped by again. This time I got a bit more technical, “Does Unitarian mean you are not Trinitarian? Don’t you believe in the Trinity?” This time one member was prepared and had a quick come-back, “Trinity -- Isn’t that a new kind of wine?”

You just have to love it!

I’m sure it can be difficult to try to explain what UU’s believe. In fact, there is something contradictory about trying to put into a “nice, concise package” the essence of our religion, because as a non-creedal religion, we abjure creeds, and a creed, after all, is a “nice, concise package.”

Furthermore, if you look at us as a collection of individuals, you will find that there is quite a diversity of belief. I’m not sure you can reduce beliefs to belief. Hence, it would be impossible to come up with a statement about what we all believe in common, because, simply we do not hold an invariable, common belief. That is true of UU’ism in general, and this particular church as well. We are not coins made with the same theological die. It’s not really possible to reduce a plural (beliefs) or a singular (belief).

We are rather similar to members of the same family, who look similar but not identical. They share some features but not all. There may even be no single feature shared by all. The philosopher Wittgenstein called these “family resemblances.” Much in the world can be thought of in this way. Philosophically, this is interesting because carefully defining a set of different items would seem to require the identification of the shared properties or characteristics. Yet, things in the world are not that simple.

While there are certainly shared values between many UU’s, there’s no single creed. Instead of a creed, you could say a covenant holds us together. And this covenant, this interim non-coercive agreement is to go through life reflectively and thoughtfully, collecting insights from philosophers, sharing perspectives from poets, and being awoken to reality by the great seers and searchers of all religious traditions. We wish to avoid the easy illusions of fundamentalism, whether religious or irreligious. And there are, surprisingly, many forms of anti-religious fundamentalism.

In other words, a fundamental part of our covenant is that we want our minds opened up to see the world.

And we also want our hearts opened up to emotional richness.

Thus, our covenant seeks to connect us in bonds of fellowship as we pursue truth and that which is good. Somehow, our way is a way of “preserving the good.” Our faith is a way of passing on, from generation to generation, that which is essentially good in life. We want to be able to hand on those things, those personal insights, those feelings deep in our hearts, over which we have little control, but which guide us, not we them. We seek some means to preserve goodness, or at least carry its light through dark times. We wish to hold it, and to save it, to keep it, and, finally, to share it.

However, walking by the booth at the festival, I am not sure people carrying funnel cakes from the Rotary club, balloons from a local bank and wearing T-shirts from a political candidate are going to have the patience to listen to “preserving the good which guides us, not we it.” That’s a bit too complicated and difficult. People want a religion as concrete as picking up an apple and biting into it.

Our way is not an easy way. It’s not harder than any other, perhaps, but it certainly is not easier. Anyone can make of their religion a facile or easy religion. But to get any insight, it’s going to take some effort. As Paul Rasor, a UU minister, noted, “Liberal theology … points us in a general direction without telling us the specific destination. It refuses to make our commitments for us, but hold us accountable to the commitments we make.” That’s not an easy prescription.

Whirl

In our modern, or post-modern, universe, we appear to be adrift on a sea of the unknown. Aristophanes’ quote “Whirl is King, having driven out Zeus,” fairly well describes our modern age, perhaps even more than the age of Classical Athens. If God, that is, Zeus, is driven out, if we are faced with the “death of God” as Nietzsche would later suggest, then a whirling universe becomes the ultimate reality. Without the divine, mere chance, a meaningless dance of dust and desiccated earth becomes our reality. Whirling matter becomes supreme, when the gods depart. Or so one could argue. And we are using the word “if,” --If Zeus has been driven out.

Walter Lippman argues this way. Having escaping the theological prison of the Middle Ages or the equally fundamentalist posture of the Protestant radical reformation, the modern world should be inwardly free. “These are the prisoners who have been released. They ought to be very happy. They ought to be serene and composed. They are free to make their own lives. There are no conventions, no taboos, no gods, priests, princes, fathers, or revelation which they must accept. Yet the result is not so good as they thought it would be. The prison door is wide open. They stagger out into trackless space under a blinding sun.” This applies to UU’s in a particularly salient way.

Authoritarian belief is gone, but what is to follow?

“They complain, like Renan after he had broken with the Church, that the enchanted circle which embraced the whole of life is broken, and that they are left with a feeling of emptiness.” After disenchantment, people find quickly a world-weariness that cannot be drugged away.

It’s certainly possible to drift. “But it is not possible to be wholly at peace. For serenity of soul requires some better organization of life than [one] can attain by pursuing casual ambitions, satisfying hungers, and for the rest accepting destiny as an idiot’s tale in which one dumb sensation succeeds another to no known end. And it is not possible … to be wholly alive. For that depends upon [a] sense of being completely engaged with the world, with all [our] passions and all the faculties in rich harmonies with one another, and in deep rhythm with the nature of things.” I think that’s what we are looking for. [Repeat.]

“These are the gifts of a vital religion which can bring the whole of a [person] into adjustment with the whole of his relevant experience. Our [forebears] had such a religion. … The acids of modernity have dissolved that order for many of us…. It is plain that we have succeeded only in substituting trivial illusions for majestic faiths.”

It all came apart with World War I. European civilization failed in a total and utter way. Politically, nations could not co-exist. Socially, there was mass death. Intellectually, there was no science that could create a technology that would serve humanity. Religious faith could not hold back the passions of revenge, pride and hatred. Nor could any religion heal the wounds after. And if the destruction during WW I was not bad enough, World War II capped the end of Western civilization with even greater destruction and greater evil. These are among the acids that have eroded faith and even secular philosophies.

He goes on:

 “[Humanity] hangs between heaven and earth, and is at rest nowhere. There is no theory of the meaning and value of events which [one] is compelled to accept, but [one] is none the less compelled to accept the events. There is no moral authority to which [one] must turn now, but there is coercion in opinions, fashions and fads. [Political correctness?!] There is for him no inevitable purpose in the universe, but there are elaborate necessities, physical, political, economic. He does not feel himself to be an actor in a great and dramatic destiny, but he is subject to the massive powers of our civilization, forced to adopt their pace, bound to their routine, entangled in their conflicts. … [The rat race?] They have all the force of natural events, but not their majesty, all of the tyrannical power of ancient institutions, but none of their moral certainty. Events are there, and they overpower him. But they do not convince him that they have that dignity which inheres in that which is necessary and in the nature of things. [Humanity’s alienation.]”

He continues: “It is no wonder that [our] impulse is to turn back from … freedom, and to find some one who says he knows the truth and can tell him what to do, to find the shrine of some new god, of any cult however newfangled, where he can kneel and be comforted, put on manacles to keep his hands from trembling, ensconce himself in some citadel where it is safe and warm.” This is that comfort we all seek. How can our spirituality give us comfort and a sense of security?

 

It does seem, from this very penetrating examination of modern culture, that much of the outer framework civilization has not survived the acids of time. Intellectually, the great advances of science have torn away at the truths and verities of the past. Socially, the churches and political associations based upon those ancient beliefs have been unable to match the emerging armies fitted with advanced technologies of destruction. Our insight into physical nature has outpaced our insight into the human heart.

It seems hard to see what of any meaning survives this process of secularization. I was hoping to find a way of preserving the good. I had offered to you “preserving goodness” as a definition, or better covenant, of what our congregation tries to do: to carry the good forward from generation to generation and to remind ourselves of the good.

But it’s hard, when looking upon what Lippman and others have written, to be able even to begin to define the good. How can we preserve that which we cannot even find? We cannot seem to get our minds to define something necessary and certain that inheres in the very nature of reality that we could call good. It appears there is no “good” only force. At times we think, there is no meaning, only a whirling chaos.  “Whirl has become king over all.” Chaos, or whirl, is an unaware set of conflicting processes with no purpose or end, with no ultimate meaning or rationale.

--A paper bag. Robert Fulghum, a UU minister, is well aware how modernity has eaten away at the foundations of Western culture. One day his daughter gave him a paper bag with some papers she has written on and a couple little plastic thingees she had found. He looked at is and then through in the trash at work. Later he realized his daughter had given him his treasure. The story of how he trashed his child’s treasure is more poignant when we are reminded that the nature of his calling as a member of the learned ministry is to treasure anew facets of our new life after the disenchantment of the old world. But then again, he repented. He saw the light. And he was able to see the value of recording his narrative, that simple story of where he had found a surplus of meaning. It’s not just a story about a child. It’s a story about an adult finding value in the richness of social interaction, a human connection. So, faced with the great questions, I offer as an answer, not an intellectual argument, not a literary construction, but a tattered and torn paper bag. That’s where the meaning is.

This, then, is what Unitarian Universalism means. This then is an answer to the question of how to live life in an age when religious answers, scientific answers, economic answers cannot answer all of our questions. Life is about finding and maintaining the goodness that we cannot find at times. We may not find it were we are wont to look. No, life is not about our personal comfort. Sadly, that is the reality we must face, that the universe was not crafted for our comfort. Life is not about our personal ease and comfort; it’s about co-creating and preserving the places where the good and the beautiful meet.

Our humbled UU minister states further, “Sometimes I think of all the times in this sweet life when I must have missed the affection I was being given. A friend calls this ‘standing knee-deep in the river and dying of thirst.’ So the worn paper sack is there in the box. [He kept the paper bag and other “trinkets of transcendence” in a cardboard box.] Left over from a time when a child said, ‘Here—this is the best I’ve got. Take it—it’s yours. Such as I have, give I to thee.’” Hey, that’s it. That’s where the goodness resides.

As we journey together, try to find the good and try to find ways of preserving it. Yes, search with the philosophers, historians and writers, but do not neglect to look for meaning in the simplest of places. Remember, the treasure of this life is not the whirling chaos around us, but how and why we treasure who and what is around us. Thirteen pennies, a dinosaur, two pieces of candy preserved can re-enchant the world. Perhaps, God ties in here. Maybe our attentiveness to the good, our repentant recognition when we overlook it, and our capacity to preserve the good is our doorway to Divinity. I’m not sure we’ll ever know for sure. But I think there is something we can know. We can all know, that there is, at times, hidden in the open, something in this world that is, mysteriously, transcendently, and wonderfully good.

Shanti, Shanti, Shanti

Peace, Peace, Peace

Shalom, Salaam, Salaam Shalom

Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.