by Kathleen Damewood Korb
There's an old story current among ministers of the new young cleric who was preaching his first sermon in which he told everything he had ever known or thought. The problem was, of course, that he didn't have an encore. This is a tendency and a temptation for many of us who are not even new but have been preaching for quite a while. Actually, I would say that I really have preached orally one sermon in my life, and everything else is just an elaboration on the basic theme. Sometimes the theme is simply more baldly stated than others. It occurred to me that since I preach here only occasionally and therefore I won't need an encore, I can just lay it out. You are about to hear absolutely everything I know.

But don't worry. At this point, there is only one thing that I know for certain, and that is that there is absolutely nothing that I know for certain. There are people who are certain about things, and there are those who envy them, but I do not. I think it's exciting that the whole universe, both physical and spiritual, is pretty much open to speculation. I learned that in high school geometry class, when we were introduced to non-Euclidean geometries, and I learned that the axioms of Euclid which seemed so self-evident (specifically the one about parallel lines) were not self-evident at all, that you could play around with them and come up with some very useful stuff. I became aware that the evidence of my senses was of limited value, and that all we can know is limited by our frame of reference. That frame of reference may be expanded beyond the mere evidence of our naked senses with the workings of speculative science, mathematics and philosophy, but it is still limited by the limitations of human experience. This learning was an Epiphany for me, a moment of recognition of ultimate truth .

Epiphany means the manifestation of the holy within the world. It is celebrated in traditional Christianity on the 12th day of Christmas, the day the magi came and recognized Jesus as the holy child. It can be important even to those of us who, like me, do not find the center of our faith in the life of Jesus, because it recognizes all meaningful human experience as being religious, as being connected somehow to the ultimate, to what we may call the holy. For experience to be meaningful at all, it seems to me, it must have a transcendent dimension. However, the transcendent is not separate, but permeates every part of the mundane.

Writing this sermon was an excellent exercise, because practically all my life, I've been trying to come up with a sort of overarching explanation of what life is all about. It has been said that religion is the effort to deal with the twin realities that we are alive and that we are going to die.

The fact of death seems to make life of questionable utility. Here we are, and for what? Just to live until we die? What would be a reason for trying to do more than that? And yet we do. Just living seems insufficient. There have been al I kinds of systems set up to try to defeat death. There've been personal eternities, impersonal eternities, a soul recycling program, the suggestion that we live on in memory or in our children or in our creations, a lot of effort spent in trying to prolong our physical lives, and none of those ideas really seem quite adequate.

Not only that, one of the things I'm really convinced of is that they are all completely irrelevant. None of us is going to get out of this alive: Not you, not me, not the person who eats right, exercises right, thinks positively and has no bad habits, not even the world on which we I ive, and not even, if the scientists are right in their latest theories, the entire physical universe of galaxies, stars and planets which ultimately will collapse in upon itself before getting ready for the next big bang. One of my Christmas presents this year was a Far Side mug that has an angel (admittedly a rather mundanelooki ng angel) sitting on a cloud and thinking, "I wish I'd thought to bring a magazine with me." Well, maybe heavenly clouds and wings seem unlikely at the best of times, but I can't imagine any kind of eternity which wouldn't eventually get pretty boring. Therefore, I've decided not to worry about why we die, which actually seems a pretty reasonable thing to do eventually, but rather to concentrate on why (and how) we live. I think that's enough for a religious discipline to worry about.

It seems to me that the religious quest can be summed up in three questions: First, what is the nature of the Universe, of ultimate reality, of the transcendent? Second, what is the nature of human beings? And last, what is the relationship between them? I was reading over some of my old sermons, trying to put them in categories so I could get some overall picture of what I think I know, and all of them, even the most earthy, deal with some aspect of those questions. Of course, they can't be that neatly separated. We can't talk about the transcendent without referring to the human experience of it, because that's all we know that's all, that is, that's within our frame of reference.

All that's the background. Now I'll try to say what I tentatively have learned about those things over the last half century. First, I'm pretty sure that the universe is real; that it has an objective reality independent of my knowledge or understanding or experience of it. For most of us that seems obvious, but it isn't necessarily so. It is unprovable. Nevertheless, I not only believe that it exists, but that however limited and biassed our perceptions are, its reality bears some relationship to our perceptions of it. You can do all kinds of experiments to prove that we don't really know what we see or hear or feel, and that's all quite true. However, that's all we've got to go on, and there is a general agreement about it.

We can see the stars and feel the warmth of the sun. We can experience other living creatures on this earth. We can hear and feel the wind gusting about us. We can hear and accept the explanations of the dance of the heavenly spheres and the pull of gravity. We can also experience those things which are inimical to us, like viruses which prey upon us and heat that burns and cold that freezes. The universe as a whole, and even that part of it which is the world on which we live and which nurtures us, has no opinion about us one way or the other and cannot be propitiated. It is utterly impartial. Whether we suffer or are happy, whether we are born healthy or crippled or retarded, makes no difference to it, except insofar as those things cause changes in its being, but there is no awareness of such differences in the universe.

It is popular these days, among serious thinkers on the subject, to hold a monist world-view, to see the universe as identical with God. It seems to me that if that is your orientation, you might just as well not believe in God at all. The natural universe and the forces of evolution do not require transcendence to explain them, and though they may be awesome and wonderful, marvellous and scary, it doesn't seem to me that they are of necessity intrinsically holy. There doesn't seem to be any inherent purpose or meaning in the simple existence or natural development either of a butterfly or a galaxy, a human being or all that is, except just to be, and, of course, in the case of living things, at least, to make more of the same. The only possible source of morality and ethics in this world-view is that whatever is good for the earth or the universe is good, and whatever is bad for them is bad. But ultimately what is the point of that? None of us, not even them, is getting out of here alive. However, to suggest a necessity for morality, for ethics, to say that there may be an idea of the good is to say that there is transcendence, there is a dimension of the holy that is not in itself creation, but perhaps we may call it the creative process.

To talk about that at all, though, I have to talk about the nature of human beings and their relationship to the holy.

There is a tendency, both among those who like and those who despise the human race to separate it from the rest of nature. The only way human beings are seen as a part of the natural world is if they live without modern conveniences or human technology. The less we use of what we have created, the more in tune we are with nature, or alternatively, from the classical point of view, the more we use, the more above nature we are. We either glorify or condemn what is, in fact, a part of nature. We evolved quite naturally the ability to reshape our environment, to use tools, to create more and more complicated ones, to reason abstractly, to become so powerful that we can, if we are stupid enough, destroy ourselves and the earth on which we live. This is not against nature. It is rather the natural process . Most animals have enough natural enemies to keep them from gaining that kind of power, but when, through some imbalance (admittedly usually caused by human beings, since we're the only ones who have the power to do it outside of disasters caused by the weather), a species loses its natural enemies, it will destroy its environment and other living things with equal-to-human celerity. We are a part of nature, an authentic part of the "interdependent web of all existence". The problem is that we are in many ways a very destructive part, simply because of our power, both of ourselves and all the rest of it as well.

However, there is something truly wonderful about human beings, too. In spite of our flaws and our sins, our greed and our destructiveness, we have a sense of the holy, a sense of the transcendent, a sense of worship. Worship means celebrating that which is of worth. Everyone has an idea of the good. It may not agree with the ideas of others, but it is there. Even when people do evil, they find they have to justify it as serving the good, however they define it, or else they feel guilty. That idea is seen in its purest form in the aesthetic sense in which we value things not because of their utility, their survival value, but their beauty. Each person defines the good in his or her own way, but that doesn't mean that there are not ways to define it that are not closer to, or farther from what it truly is. I don't think there is an absolute good in some state of being somewhere as Plato did, but I think it transcends our finite ideas of it, and also that we can know, on some level, what it consists of. Our language is value-laden: Justice, injustice; compassion, indifference; love, hate; truth, falsehood; loyalty, betrayal; we could go on and on. We know that justice is better than injustice, though we differ about what, in specific cases, constitutes justice; that truth is better than lies, though we may differ about what the truth actually is. There are times when values may conflict in the real world, or we may have difficulty deciding which should take priority in a particular time or place, but the recognition of those values and the need to choose are the essential part of our humanness, and the focus of meaning for us. As we make our choicest for the good, we are a part of the holy, the creative process.

I had a friend in undergraduate school one of the brightest people I've ever known who had one statement that he made over and over: "You've got to decide what's important." I think he was right on an even deeper level than he knew. It is necessary not just for making worldly decisions but for being connected to that which is of ultimate value. That is the basic act of worship, deciding what is of worth and committing ourselves to it.

And that's what life is about. That's what gives it meaning. It doesn't have to last forever if it is, right now, today, connected to what is transcendent, what is really important, what is of worth. And that really is the bottom line of what I have learned in the last half century. Of course, it's never as simple as that. Deciding what is important is never easy, and in this world nothing is pure. Even with the best of intentions, we are liable to fail both ourselves and others. Even knowing what is right, we are quite likely to do the wrong, but at least even wrong isn't pure. It can comfort us to know that there is no wrong that does not have some small good to mitigate it. With the knowledge of good and evil, we are responsible for our choices, and often, more often than not, I think we tend to at least try to choose the good as we perceive It.

So we need to distinguish what is important from what is not, and what is worth our commitment. Failure to do that is to fall into idolatry, a commitment to a mistaken understanding of what is really important. It is easy to fall into and is punished more clearly and quickly than any other sin, because to worship the golden calf is to abandon the search for truth. That abandonment is punishment enough in itself. So here are some things I would offer to you as being of real importance. These are just the headings, so just grab them as they go by you for your own reflection . I've learned that despite popular belief, it is not important whether or not you are happy. It is probably not even possible to find happiness if that's your whole goal, the focus of your concentration. Happiness is always a by-product. What is important is the grace to count your blessings. I've learned that faith is to be defined as courage in following your ideals and loyalty to them, and is vitally important, but that belief is not particularly important at all, and has little to do with faith. I've learned that as important as love is, respect is more important still, because respect recognizes the inherent worth of the individual. Forgiveness is important and always possible and so arvnew beginnings. Above all, I have learned that integrity of the mind and spirit is not only important but vitally necessary in the never-ending search for truth. Without such integrity we fall into idolatry but with it our search connects us always with the transcendent and gives meaning to our lives.