September 6, 2009
The Reverend Kathleen Damewood Korb
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples
SOMEWHERE ON THE HELIX
This July I was asked to preach at the UCC church on Seagate on the topic, “What hope does your faith tradition offer the world? This is not that sermon, which was in some degree tailored to them, but a variation on the theme, a theme that you have heard from me several times and will probably hear again.
The Preacher said, and it has been said many times, “There is nothing new under the sun.” I have been challenged by this statement because, as you have already heard from me more than once, I believe rather that there is something so new that we don’t even recognize it or understand it, seeing it only in bits and pieces; something so new that if we do not begin to learn its meaning it may well destroy us. It is not that I fear that the human race will disappear. Although certainly we have become able to create our own physical destruction, I am sanguine enough to hope that we will be too intelligent to allow our pollution or our powerful weapons to destroy the whole race or perhaps even the planet that sustains us. It is rather that the changes may be such that our humanity itself is in danger. It is necessary for us to begin to understand it, to create a context within we can make the necessary decisions, the important choices. The reason I talk about it so much with you is that I also believe that we, as the only religion that really understood and internalized Enlightenment thinking are the ones who can take the leadership in creating that context.
When the preacher in Ecclesiastes made his plaint, for him so it must have seemed. Changes happened more slowly in his day, and human nature had never changed at all, as perhaps it still has not. We are still driven by the instincts for survival that generate the fear and greed which are the bases for all human evil, and to balance them the equivalent drives for justice and compassion which enable the well-being not just of individuals but of the whole race. There has also always been within us that divine spark which tells us that this survival, either of one or of all, is not the most important thing. What matters more than that is that our lives should have purpose and meaning, a significance beyond our mere existence in this beautiful world that we did not create and in a universe whose whirling, stately dance we do not even understand.
History, we say and feel, repeats itself. We speak of swings of the pendulum, of recurrent happenings. That’s not really exactly how it works, of course. It is more like a spiral, almost like the helix of our DNA, which seems to go back and forth, but never really in the same place. Not only that, it is not a geometrically perfect thing. It’s more like a slinky that has gone down the steps, down the piles of books set up for it, off the table, to the chair, to the floor, and somehow managed to get stretched in spots. There are places in history like those stretched spots, and we, today, are in the midst of one of them. In those times changes are so great that even our understanding of ourselves, our universe, even the transcendent, metaphysical reality within which we find meaning, become profoundly different. They are dangerous times when we feel the ground upon which we knew we stood slipping from us, but they are also times whose changes can mean advances of body and mind, of soul and heart that are almost unimaginable. It probably says something truly profound about human beings that such times occur when new ways are found to store and share our information and our stories, our science and our gods.
We don’t know and can’t know what things were like before the first great change when those who became human began to speak. Surely, however, speech was necessary before a simian tribe in northern Africa could begin the migrations that took human beings, all with the same ultimate ancestry, as proven by DNA tests that have only recently become possible, out to populate the whole globe which to them was so huge that they couldn’t even remember, after a while, except in stories, their common origin. Those stories often told of a random universe, where suffering or joy depended on the whim of powerful creatures who became a pantheon of gods. This was the time of a religion of sacrifice, where gods could be placated or bribed — perhaps. Too often the stories had to tell of times when no human service or solicitation could make a difference to them.
Change then must have been slow, over thousands and thousands of years. Then all over the world, it began to seem necessary that there be a way to keep records, to go beyond the oral tradition. Writing was invented in various places, from the hieroglyphics of the Egyptians, the cuneiform writing of the Chaldeans, the ideograms of east Asia, and the genius of the alphabet developed by those who lived in the eastern Mediterranean and given to the western world. With the records that could then be referred to, it became clear that our universe was not random at all, but instead was one of law. The worship of various gods mostly gave way to that of a unified power, a single god or a single principle who had created the world according to a particular plan. The plan itself might be arbitrary, but it was consistent. We have tended to believe, in our western arrogance, that eastern faiths maintained their pantheons, but there, too, a single source for the universe and for life on earth was predicated. It might be Brahma, or the Tao, but the little gods of daily worship were subject to it. It was inevitable. With writing was created an understanding of the universe as something governed by laws that we could neither change nor question, but only adore their source and obey it. With this great change civilization became possible and so did monotheism and the great philosophical systems of the Greeks, the religion of the Buddha, the Jains, and the Vedantic Hinduism that is still practiced; the new ideas in the East that produced Confucius and Lao-tzu, and a new sense of our place and purpose in the universe. These religions were different in many ways, but they shared the sense that ours was a universe that was at least a little dependable. Spring would always come after winter, and crops would necessarily ripen in the fall. So creation willed and so it would be — until the creator willed otherwise.
These changes took many generations, and I would not even argue that they were universal. After all, giving up the joys of the old gods, or even the excuses of animism, would seem hardly worth the new world-view. Socrates was executed in Athens, and the Hebrews could only convince their enemies by the sword. Reading and writing were, after all, rare, and confined to few of the leaders, but, mostly, the new ideas won out, and some sort of monotheistic world-view became assumed by nearly every one.
Then came the printing press, and because of it the advances in scientific knowledge, the Copernican revolution, Newtonian physics, the removal of the earth from the center of the universe, and the triumph of Luther. The religious wars begun then still continue in pockets of the world today, but they have become more and more irrelevant as the new understanding of the universe — and of God — became the accepted world-view. The universe was no longer one of arbitrary law decided by a supreme being who interested himself in the day-to-day workings of the creation, but one of cause and effect, and whoever created it became more and more distant, and to some people almost unnecessary. God was, the Enlightenment thinkers suggested, a great clock-maker who wound up the universe and left it to continue by it. He was the uncaused cause, the unmoved mover, and all we had to worry about were which causes would create which effects to bring about the perfect human being and the perfect society. It was even possible to believe in evolution, natural selection and the survival of the fittest. Truth was discoverable, perfection was achievable, and God’s perfect laws could not be broken even by God. The technology made possible by the new science would enable a new society whose progress would go onward and upward forever.
Not everyone was convinced of this new way of looking at ourselves, at the universe and at God, any more than they had ever been convinced by these kinds of new ideas, but it became the foundation of public discourse and the faith of those who formed public opinion. This time, though, things happened so fast that only a very few hundred years later, the whole apple cart was upset again, and this time it is not the educated, the opinion leaders and the scientists who are exclusively involved, but almost every human being on the planet is being brought face to face with a new reality — whether we like it or not. No longer are we confined to stone tablet, parchment scrolls or even printed books and magazines and newspapers. Now there is a true mass medium to bring us the news that truth is not discoverable, values are not universal, the universe is not cause/effect but statistical/probable, even the good we try to do is more likely than not to have very unpleasant, unintended consequences, and God — well what in the world shall we do with God in such an ambiguous universe? What shall we do with ourselves when there is no absolute right and wrong, no universal law of right belief, of right behavior, no universal law of anything? It is not merely that we have forgotten the place in the forest, forgotten how to light the fire or say the prayer. It is that we no longer even believe the story. Everything is finite, relative, culture-bound, temporary. Where can we find purpose, where can we find meaning, when nothing is eternal, nothing is greater than our temporalities?
I said that we were in the midst of this stretching point, but, immersed in it as we are, we are still only at the beginning. We are still denying, hoping that it will go away, trying to make it smaller, easier to deal with. We’re doing it in a lot of different ways. The most obvious way is to simply say it isn’t true, to return to simplistic, authoritarian ways of thinking. The rise of fundamentalist religions all over the world is a massive effort to ward off this uncomfortable reality which we neither understand nor wish to embrace. The “feel-good” religions which are not fundamentalist but which preach simplistic notions of divine power and love which will protect us and provide for us are another avoidance technique, as is, I would argue, the concept of multi-culturalism — the good liberal’s ideal. It is a concept which while intended to increase acceptance and understanding of difference is used instead to build walls higher and justify our greater separation.
Human identity finally depends upon our sense of a defining connection to something that transcends our individual littleness and loneliness. To accept that truth cannot be found and that there is profound and valid disagreement about how we should live our lives and what we should value seems to deny that such transcendent reality is either real or transcendent, and so some of us try to tell ourselves that we can be defined by this group, this culture, this ethnic background, this language, this set of customs shared by a bunch of other people.... We raise tolerance to the highest value, being willing to tolerate even the intolerable as long as it can be defined as a cultural verity. We feel that we can no longer make rules for humanity but only for ourselves, while others in retreat to authoritarian answers defend themselves with violence and punish with draconian severity anyone who doesn’t follow the rules whose transcendence we no longer believe in. We know that these finitudes cannot tell us who we are and what we are for in an ambiguous universe, but in default of answers we will take less than we need. These pseudo-answers can only put off the evil day when we must admit that we do not believe the story any more, and so far do not seem to be able to find one to put in its place. Whatever that story may be that we must discover, however, what it must tell us is that the barriers that are raised between us, barriers of language, of religion, of tribe, of geography, cannot stand.
The one thing that our electronic age, television and the internet, guarantees is that ultimately, finally, we will and must become one world. What happens in Afghanistan or the Sudan matters here to us. What happens here ultimately will and must matter to them, not because of our political power, but because we have a new world that connects us all and must define our humanity within that connection.
That doesn’t mean that we must lose our separate stories, forget the place, the fire, the prayer, but rather that we can save them as we have never before been able to save stories. The prayer, the way to light the fire, the place in the forest, need never be lost again, but the story can only be sufficient for us if it belongs to us all — if the story of African heroism is as much mine as the story of the British constitution, and all of them are a part of the human story. That story that can be ours today will tell us that we are all members of one human race; that we must, understanding that truth is not available, accept the call to truth; knowing that justice means different things to different people, find a way for all of us to answer some transcendent call to justice. We must all learn that we are obligated to compassion, not just for those whose faces we recognize or whose nature we approve, but for all people. The story must somehow tell us ways to live unambiguously in an ambiguous world, ways to hold on to truth in a statistical/probable universe, and ways to define ourselves still through the purpose of our service to what we cannot define, but which calls us to goodness and beauty beyond the confines of our knowledge.