The Reverend Kathleen Damewood Korb
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater
IT’S A NEW DAY
You know what this sermon is about. We do it every year, asking you to pledge enough money to keep our doors open in the coming year. We’re doing it a little differently this year, expecting a miracle that you will have accomplished by pledging either yesterday evening or this morning without our contacting you individually to ask you to. We’re trusting you to know how important it is. And you do know. Over the last few weeks a great many of you have risen to the challenge of telling us what the congregation means to you in twenty-five words or less, and you’ve made it clear that we are important to your lives, that you would be deeply disappointed if there were no Unitarian Universalist Congregation here for you. You don’t have to worry. We’re not going away. You’ll see to that.
In this sermon, though, I don’t want to talk about our needs. You know about salaries and maintenance and utilities well enough, and you know that you, yourselves, are the only source of sustenance we have. What I want to talk about is why we are important, even necessary, beyond what we do for the individuals who are a part of our beloved community. I want to talk instead about what we must do for the world not as an individual congregation serving individual needs, but as part of a religious sensibility that can make a real difference in helping us begin to find a way through times that are more dangerous and confusing than I suspect we even know. It really is a new day, and we need to find our own way and help others to find theirs. It is my firm belief that ours is the faith for this new day. I’ve told you that before, and I’ve talked about the things that make me believe that, but I’m not sure I’ve quite put them together in the way that I wish to today.
We often talk about paradigm shifts. Any time people start thinking and behaving in a different way than they did before, that’s what we call it. The real ones, the earthshaking ones, have only happened about three times in human history — that is, history that has been recorded. Before there are records it is prehistory. At the first shift people learned to write and record what was happening to them. This made a huge change in their whole worldview. I would imagine that the need to keep records of the changing of the seasons, the coming of planting time and harvest, the times of summer growth and winter dormancy created the need for a written language. Before that time it was a random universe with many often conflicting powers who could be propitiated or angered but were nearly always arbitrary. With written language patterns began to emerge and the idea of a single creation, a monotheistic religion began to be accepted. Not without difficulty, however. The story of the Old Testament in the Bible is the story of the conflict between the old paradigm and the new. Buddhism and Jainism with their singular visions broke off from Hinduism, and Hinduism itself, though sects worshipping separate gods continued, was changed and those gods became local avatars of the oversoul. Lao-tse tried to do the same with Taoism, but Buddhism became the most powerful influence in Asian religion. However it was expressed or understood, the ultimate power became one. It could still be pretty arbitrary, but at least you knew who to talk to. That change took thousands of years, and though there were still skirmishes here and there, it became the generally accepted worldview, a good dependable one. Part of it took for granted that whatever the power was, it was exclusively interested in human beings as the focus and center of the universe.
Then Copernicus was so tactless as to discover that rather than the sun by day and the starry heavens painted on the backdrop of the night being secondary to a central and centrally important earth, in fact, the earth moved around the sun. Later astronomers discovered that the sun itself was only one star among an infinite number, and neither a large nor seemingly very important one. Isaac Newton discovered the laws of gravity and thermodynamics, and Gutenberg invented the printing press so that everyone else could learn about it too. At the same time Martin Luther was urging people to read the Bible for themselves. “No priest and no pope,” he said mediates between human beings and god. It was the birth of free religion, although I can only begin to imagine Luther’s horror if he realized it. Calvin realized it and burned Unitarian Michael Servetus. The cat was out of the bag, though. People not only read the Bible, they read the new findings of science and the new works of philosophy that took those into account. The Enlightenment was born and so were the scientific method, rampant technology, and inevitably industrialization and colonialism, and the new age was not only brought to, but imposed, on the rest of the world. The universe was no longer one of law but of cause and effect, and it became much easier to imagine a god who established those laws, unchangeably, at the beginning and could not meddle in how they played themselves out, than one who took a day-to-day interest in human lives. It even became possible to imagine no god at all. The religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries were the beginning of the upheaval that followed. Out of the chaos free religion was born — a religion that accepted the scientific world view and the scientific method of learning and understanding truth, rather than relying on the authorities of the previous day, and accepted our own responsibility for moral outcomes, rather than relying on divine intervention, which they no longer expected. Its present-day expression is our religion of Unitarian Universalism, but much of what we accepted and taught has also been accepted by much of mainstream religion, though they are still bound by a first loyalty to a particular view of god’s place in history that we can no longer accept, and a singular source of religious truth.
Now, again, within a mere five hundred years, there is a shift, but it is too soon. We’re not ready. We hadn’t settled down into the last one yet, and now the world is changing again. Einstein’s theory of relativity, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, Planck’s constant, quantum physics, quantum mechanics, chaos theory, and it is no longer a universe of cause and effect, where we know that what we do will give us the outcomes that we need and absolute truth, though beyond us now, is ultimately available. Now the universe is statistical/probable; there might be a range of effects from a single cause; and absolute truth is not only unavailable to us now but can never be achieved by us. Writing, printing, and now it is the electronic revolution that is pushing us forward into an unknown land. And it is truly unknown. At least the last time, though we had to give up revelation to tell us the answers, we could rely on scientific discoveries to point us in the right direction. Now science itself seems to be saying that the direction is in doubt.
And we have so much information! Too much. We are drowning in data, drowning in facts, suffocated by opinions. There are so many channels on TV that we can’t keep track and every third person seems to be posting opinions at least purporting to be facts on the internet. You can find facts there, too, but separating the wheat from the chaff, all the while remembering that truth must always be tentative, becomes more and more difficult. So we choose. We choose these TV channels and no others. We choose to pay attention to these purveyors of facts — or are they opinions? — and no others. There are times when I start to think that it would be a good idea for every self-identified conservative to be forced to log on to truthout at least twice a week, while liberals spend the same amount of time watching Fox news. We might or might not know more than we did before, but at least we would get out of our own boxes for the moment.
There are even scarier consequences of our lack of readiness. Unrest and conflict are inevitable consequences of such a shift as we now experience. The fear that we experience leads us to cling to answers that served us in the past. We can look to this for the rise of fundamentalism, the absolute answers, however inadequate they are, that give people comfort. However, when you are that sure that you have the answer, you can no longer tolerate those who adhere to a different one. As our world shrinks with the instantaneous communication of our electronic systems, these fundamentalisms rub against one another and rather than creating understanding and tolerance, they create anger, even hatred.
Even worse, I think, is the rejection of science. If it is true, as I have read, that 60% of our college students in this country reject the theory of evolution, a theory that is supported by every bit of evidence that has been found (subject, of course, to the adjustments made necessary by new discoveries) it says more than that we are doing a very poor job of teaching science in the grades. It says that we have abandoned it —abandoned the best means we have for at least beginning to get a handle on our new way of being in the world — a way we might not have chosen if we’d had our druthers, but which we cannot escape. The bridge to the future crumbles behind us. We can close our eyes to the future; we can set up systems that give us the illusion of the safety of the past; but we cannot, ultimately escape it, any more than our forebears could escape the new day of the Enlightenment.
And that’s where we come in. As the religion that was given birth in the Enlightenment, we are uniquely poised to help find meaning and purpose in this new day, to discover a path through what seems like unconquerable chaos to the placid waters on the other side. I don’t guarantee that we can do it. We have our own tendencies to cling to the known and familiar, even to leave our own tradition of freedom of thought, belief and conscience to set up codes of what we must believe, or what we must do, having told ourselves that since truth is far from us, we must have something to cling to.
That, however, has never been our way, and if adhered to will keep us from our leap in the dark into an undiscovered tomorrow, a leap we’ll have to make or be pushed off unwillingly as the future inexorably comes. Around a hundred fifty years ago Unitarian poet James Russell Lowell wrote the words we sang last week:
New occasions teach new duties;
Time makes ancient good uncouth.
We must upward still and onward,
Who would keep abreast of truth.
Those words are as true today as they were when he wrote them. We cannot stay still. We must go forward, and we have, because of our free faith, the most adequate tools available to do precisely that.
Our religion began with a healthy respect for science, and one of the most important aspects of science — if it is good science — is that it is self-correcting. Our faith has also been self-correcting, accepting what has first been rejected, expanding our ideas of the true and right beyond what we know today for what is better tomorrow. Our new day must be lived in an ambiguous universe, one in which we must have the courage to move forward without absolute surety and the humility to accept correction when we are shown to be wrong. There’s even a bit of comfort when we think of that ambiguity in the knowledge that although this universe is statistical/probable, sometimes that probability is so strong that we can even call it certainty — maybe even truth. We know, too, that although there are no truths available to us in our finiteness, there are truths that we do not know how to reach or even how they are constituted, but that we can try to come closer to: the truths of beauty, justice, truth and love. It is in their service that our purpose and meaning become clear. But they must be served in this new day in a new way, with their meaning always evolving, changing, correcting itself, based on what evidence we can find in our free quest, on what our reason can tell us, on what our beloved community can contribute to our journey.
We know what this congregation means to us and what the free faith that gathers it means to us. I have faith that each of us will do all that we can to keep it strong and healthy, for its very existence is a hope for the world in this new day. Because of our tradition of freedom; because of our commitment to the truth of evidence and of reason we can go forward boldly into the unknown, knowing that we do not know, but with the assurance that there is always more to learn.