Harold Babcock's Sermons

October 21, 2012

Seeking God in the World

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October 21, 2012

 

     “God is in the world, or nowhere, creating continually in us and around us.”
– Alfred North Whitehead 

My sermon this morning is inspired by a little poem by Aytac Aydogan Edwards in her book, Between Two Worlds, entitled “Seeking God”:

We seek God
as if
the vast oceans
and the starry skies,
the soft cooing
of the mourning dove,
and the soothing fold
of nurturing love
are not enough.

I found a similar sentiment in an anonymous poem entitled “Whispers”:         

The man whispered, “God, speak to me” and a meadowlark sang.
But the man did not hear.
So the man yelled, “God, speak to me” and the thunder rolled across the sky.
But the man did not listen.
The man looked around and said, “God let me see you.”  And a star shined brightly.
But the man did not see.
|And the man shouted, “God show me a miracle.”  And a life was born.
But the man did not notice.

We Unitarian Universalists come from a long tradition of persons seeking ultimate reality—that which we call God because we know not what else to call it—in the world as it is.  For us, the world is enough, or should be.  The New England Transcendentalists, with inspiration from the Unitarian minister Ralph Waldo Emerson’s little book Nature, made this search for God in the world almost a part of the American psyche through its central place in the American Literary Renaissance of the 19th century.

Confronted with the vast North American continent and its incredible variety of landscapes, the Transcendentalists and their followers searched for and found evidence of the divine almost everywhere they looked.  Transcendentalism embodied the notion, as beautifully stated by the late Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.”  It was the seeker’s job, as Emerson put it in his famous “Divinity School Address,” to go out into the world and nature and to discover a “first hand” relationship with that God.

Strictly speaking, Emerson and the Transcendentalists were not  pantheists, but “panentheists”: those who find God both within and beyond the material world.  Emerson, after all, also believed in a “vast Oversoul” to which and by which everything and everyone is connected.

A Platonist, Emerson believed that everything in the world had a spiritual meaning or value.  Nature was God’s book–not necessarily God him or herself–awaiting only a careful reader to make the divine visible and legible.  And the Transcendentalists believed that as a part of Nature, not separate from it, human beings could intuit the divine truths which were hidden there.  No need for an outside Revelation such as that found in the Christian Bible.  No need for a mediator, no matter how sacred, between God and oneself.

Visual artists of the Luminist school of painting sought to illustrate this transcendental vision by their use of light.  I yearn to be able to see the world as these writers and artists did, a world in which ultimate reality was unveiled in every dawn and sunset, in every stone and tree and waterfall.   Occasionally, when I am paying attention, I believe that I am able to sense something of what they apparently saw when they observed and wrote about and painted the natural world.  More often, unfortunately, I find that I am just too literal-minded, too mundane, too cynical, or too encumbered to detect the “more” that in my better and more hopeful moments I believe is there.

The idea, as the mathematician turned theologian Alfred North Whitehead put it, that “God is in the world, or nowhere, creating continually in us and around us,” became the basis for what is known as the “process” school of theology.  God understood as the creative force within the universe is not so far removed from the Transcendentalist view of nature, though more physical and less metaphysical.  Process theology, as an attempt to find a bridge between religion and science, became an important alternative to more traditional theologies in the early twentieth century and continues to be influential to this day.  Here’s how the contemporary feminist theologian Carter Hayward describes the relation of the human to the divine:         

We touch this strength, our power, who we are in the world, when we are most fully in touch with one another and with the world.  There is no doubt in my mind that, in so doing, we are participants in ongoing incarnation, bringing god to life in the world.  For god is nothing other than the eternally creative source of our relational power, our common strength, a god whose movement is to empower, bringing us into our own together, a god whose name in history is love. . . .

Whitehead, as we learned in the morning’s reading, spoke of God as “creative process”: 

This creative principle is everywhere, in the ether, water, earth, human hearts.  But this creation is a continuing process, and the process itself is the actuality, since no sooner do you arrive than you start a fresh journey.  Insofar as man partakes of this creative process does he partake of the divine, of God. . . .

Human beings, in Whitehead’s view, are “co-creators” with God.  In other words, it is our job as human beings to make God’s presence and work real in the world.  There is no other way.

Other process theologians, such as the Unitarian Universalist Henry Nelson Wieman, found the locus of God in relationship itself, in what he called “creative interchange.”

The great difficulty with these conceptions of God is that they lack the “personal” element desired by so many of us.  For this is not a God who cares about me, a God who “walks with me and talks with me and tells me I am his own,” a God who is saving a place for me in another, better world.  This is the only world there is.    

On the other hand, as poet Edwards attempts to remind us, perhaps we have always undervalued “the vast oceans/ and the starry skies,/ . . .and the soothing fold/ of nurturing love. . . .”

(I also confess to liking what the late iconoclast Edward Abbey once said about God: “The world’s disorder, cruelty, and desperation could not possibly have resulted from chance alone.”)

Now we know scientifically what the author of the ancient Upanishads only knew intuitively: that everything in the universe is connected in what our UU Purposes and Principles call “the interdependent web of life.”  This ancient view of life can be found again at the beginning of the modern age, though unfortunately it has always taken a back seat to the destructive idea that the natural world is somehow separate from human beings and under their dominion (see Psalm 8).  More than two hundred years ago the German writer Goethe wrote that “in nature we never see anything isolated, but everything in connection with something else which is before it, beside it, under it and over it.”  Even earlier, the English poet Alexander Pope recognized that “All are parts of one stupendous whole/ Whose body Nature is, and God the soul./  In him no rich, no poor, no great, no small./  He binds, he bounds, connects and equals all.”  And the Victorian poet Francis Thompson experienced it as well: 

. . .[T]hou cans’t not stir a flower
Without troubling a star.

If only we had listened to these writers and others like them, and to the voices of women and native people who have a more cyclical and inclusive view of life, things might not be so dire with us as now they seem.

While it lacks the personal element of a more traditional view of God, process theology has the great merit of being in synch with the findings of modern physics and with contemporary ecological understandings, and, I would argue, of ultimately being a more believable approach to what we have traditionally called God.

Poet Alicia Suskin Ostriker expresses a similar sense of the interconnectedness of all in her poem “What’s Your Name”: 

When I call you the One
You glance over your shoulder
Half sneering
Like a big Celebrity,
And I know you’re bored.
 

When I call you the Many
You are suddenly here kissing me
From my feet to my mouth,
Or you’re telling me funny stories
Drying my tears.
 

They say I should try calling you Nothing—
But I don’t know
If I’m ready for that.

Nor am I!  In the end, I am much taken by poet Robinson Jeffers vision of “The Excesses of God,” a God who is present in the world as we know it, and could perhaps be more so: 

Is it not by his high superfluousness we know
Our God?  For to equal a need
Is natural, animal, mineral: but to fling
Rainbows over the rain
And beauty above the moon, and secret rainbows
On the domes of deep sea-shells,
And make the necessary embrace of breeding
Beautiful also as fire,
Not even the weeds to multiply without blossom
Nor the birds without music,
There is the great humaneness at the heart of things,
The extravagant kindness, the fountain
Humanity can understand, and would flow likewise
If power and desire were perch-mates.

Our job as co-creators with God, it seems to me, is to work for a world in which “power and desire” are “perch-mates.”  If we confine our search for God to the world in which we actually live, I think we will find our explorations more rewarding than we ever could have expected.  This world is enough, if we have but eyes to see and ears to hear.  May we go forth into it full of expectation, seeking for that which is there ever and always.  And may we trust that the world we yearn for awaits only the creative joining of our hearts and hands to do God’s work.  So may it be.  Amen. 

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock

Readings: by Alfred North Whitehead and Roy D. Phillips

 

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October 14, 2012

Companionship Along the Way

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October 14, 2012

“Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!”
– Paul Tillich

In his great sermon “You Are Accepted,” theologian Paul Tillich speaks eloquently of the experience of acceptance, which he equates with grace:

You are accepted.  You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know.  Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later.  Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much.  Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything.  Simply accept that you are accepted.

All of us, I am pretty certain, yearn for acceptance.  But many of us, and I include myself in that company, have difficulty believing that it is true for ourselves.  “The greatest happiness of life,” wrote Victor Hugo, “is the conviction that we are loved, loved for ourselves, or rather loved in spite of ourselves.”

In spite of the best efforts of family and friends, many of us remain unconvinced that such acceptance is for us.  We feel unworthy.  How could anyone love us?  Some of us are struggling to recover from a guilt-based religious upbringing and the threat of an angry God.  We cannot possibly believe that we are accepted, in the words of the old gospel hymn, “just as we are.”  Only after an impossible transformation would we ever be acceptable “in the eyes of God.”

More often than not, we feel separated and alienated from what Tillich named “the Ground of our Being,” and others have named God.  He called such alienation and separation “sin”: “Separation is an aspect of the experience of everyone,” he wrote, continuing,

Perhaps the word “sin” has the same root as the word “asunder.”  In any case, sin is separation.  To be in the state of sin is to be in the state of separation.  And separation is threefold: there is separation among individual lives, separation of a [person] from [herself], and separation of [people] from the Ground of Being.  

The word “sin” originally meant something akin to “missing the mark,” as in an archery contest.  So I’m not talking here about some inborn stain of corruption, and I don’t think Tillich was either.  This has nothing to do with “original” sin.  But all of us, to one extent or another, have had occasion to miss the mark, whether in our relationships to ourselves or to others or to the natural world of which we are a part.  And most of us are no kinder to ourselves than we are to others.  But, certainly, all of us long to be accepted as we are.

Acceptance, someone has said, is the beginning of change.  And, of course, some of us need to change!  We know this without being told.  We know where we have missed the mark, and we may even know what we ought to do about it.  But without the sense of acceptance, such change is impossible.  Without acceptance, we remain separated from all that would heal us.

I admit that I am an idealist.  But one of my visions for the church is that it should be a place of acceptance.  After all, Unitarian Universalists have always claimed that “God is love.”  The church should be a place where, as one of my colleagues has said, you can “come as you are” with all of your faults and foibles.  The church, after all, is not for the “already saved,” that is, the already whole.  No, the church is a place for working out our salvation with what the philosopher called “fear and trembling.”  And by salvation, I mean our wholeness and our health.

Why do we come here on Sunday morning, if our mother or father didn’t make us?  Is it because we believe that we have already arrived?  Is it because we have already found peace, already have our proverbial acts together, already feel in our hearts that we are acceptable people?  Somehow I doubt it.

Rather, what I think we come for is companionship, a term which includes not only the idea of company and fellowship, but of conviviality.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines a companion as “an associate at table or at the bottle.”  I like that definition, not because I am advocating over-imbibing, but because it sounds like fun!  We are not a bunch of sticks-in-the-mud, after all.  Companionship doesn’t have to be dry or boring or esoteric or touchy-feely, God forbid!  This is New England, after all.  And I’m from Maine where we don’t do touchy-feely.

I’m still learning, though.  And I suspect that most of us who come here on Sunday morning come at least in part to escape the feeling that we are alone.  Otherwise, why not a solitary walk on the beach?  Why not a ground of golf?  Or, if we want to be alone, at least we come here to be alone together.  We seek companionship, even if it is only the silent companionship of fellow-seekers along the way.

Or perhaps it is that we seek something more.  God is an open question here, or course, but could it be that some of us come here seeking a sense of cosmic companionship?  My colleague in Weston, Tom Wintle, speaks of God as the feeling of companionship along the path of life.  “God means not having to be alone,” he has written.  But it doesn’t matter what we call it.  Besides, as Tillich said, we do not know the name.  “God” is only our name for something which is ultimately unnamable.  Could that something be a sense of companionship, of at oneness in the universe, which we do desperately seek?

In his recent book The Great Partnership, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, “The meaning of life is the realization that you are held in the arms of a vast presence, that you are not abandoned; that you are here because  you were meant to be.”

I suspect that, whether we know it or not, we come seeking both kinds of companionship, the human and the divine.  Not that those two are mutually exclusive, because I believe that they are not.  How important is companionship?  It may be a matter of life and death.  As the Responsive Reading put it, with truth, “we need one another.”  Some of us hate to admit it.  The rugged individualist is still alive and well in some of us.  Emersonian self-reliance has been misconstrued by many of us to mean that we can do it all on our own.  “What, me ask for help?”

But Emerson, we tend to forget, was a theist, albeit a non-traditional one.  For Emerson, self-reliance meant living out our God-given gifts in the most honest way possible.  Which would begin by accepting ourselves as we are, with all of our own unique attributes and insights.  Emerson believed in seeing the world with our own eyes, and not taking other people’s words for it.  “Insist on yourself; never imitate,” he said.

For Emerson, nothing was so holy as the individual, not because he was selfish, not because he thought we should live in a bubble, or go it absolutely alone, but because he believed that what was truest in us was also truest to God.  For Emerson, honesty and authenticity was all.  For only this could one have what he called a “first hand” relationship with God.  “Nothing can bring you peace by yourself,” he wrote.

And although Emerson was reserved, he seldom missed a Sunday morning in church, and though he claimed to find “books in babbling brooks,” and God in nature, he saved his best for his wide circle of close friends.  He was not nearly the loner that his neighbor Thoreau was.

Existence is separation!”  wrote Tillich.  At least, that is our perception of it.  We come here to contradict that reality, at least for a little while.  And sometimes, as those of you who come regularly know, we do!  We come here, I think, to rediscover our connectedness.  We want to believe in it.  Poet Denise Levertov describes what it is we come seeking in her poem, “The Thread”:

Something is very gently,
invisibly, silently,
pulling at me—a thread
or net of threads
finer than cobweb and as
elastic.

          Not fear
but a stirring
of wonder makes me
catch my breath when I feel
the tug of it
when I thought it had loosened itself and gone.

We come here for that “stirring of wonder.”  We want assurance that we are not alone in the universe, alone in our joy or our sorrow or our hope or our despair.  Sometimes, we are lucky enough to sense it.

“Is it really there?” is an ultimate question.  I can only say that sometimes I, too, feel the tug of it.

I feel the tug of it especially when I am able to step back from my daily routine for even a moment, to breathe deeply, and to let my mind go where it will.  I feel it when I am alone, if I pay attention, but I feel it especially when I am with other people.  The Jewish theologian Martin Buber spoke of the sacred as residing in the profundity of the “I-Thou” relationship.  God, if there is a God, is to be found in the companionship itself.  “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus was asked, and he answered by telling the story of a Samaritan.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, answering from his jail cell in Nazi Germany, answered that “whoever is near to us and reachable is the Transcendent,” even though it be someone with whom we might never otherwise associate, or with whom we might not even want to associate.

Could it be that what we have traditionally called God is here among us, now and always?  That the reality we call God is as near to us as breathing?  That we have already tasted paradise in the touch of our friends and loved ones, and in the company of strangers traveling the dark journey with us?  “The more we love,” wrote Jeremy Taylor, “the better we are; and the greater our friendships are, the dearer we are to God.”

That is my hope, of course.  I could never believe in a God who is remote of judgmental, a cosmic “guy in the sky” who hears and sees all and whose main purpose is to punish and reprove.  I truly believe that we do not need God in order to be good.

But we may need God in order to not feel alone.  A God who exists in relationship, a God who is known by love, a God who offers me companionship along the path of life, even during my darkest hours—now that is a possibility that I do not take lightly.  For I have felt it pulling at me, and it has filled me with wonder and not fear.  Not that it solves every problem, or erases the reality of evil in the world.  It is definitely my hope more than my conviction, but it is a hope founded in the real stuff of life and living.

Let us be open to the possibility that we are, indeed, accepted, and that we don’t walk alone.  May we feel the tug of that possibility, and may we feel the wonder of it.  And may it sustain us, from this day forth, until we meet again.  Amen.

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock 

Reading: from “You Are Accepted,” by Paul Tillich: “We experience moments in which we accept ourselves, because we feel that we have been accepted by that which is greater than we are.  If only more such moments were given to us!  For it is such moments that make us love our life, that make us accept ourselves, not in our goodness and self-complacency, but in our certainty of the eternal meaning of our life.  We cannot force ourselves to accept ourselves.  We cannot compel anyone to accept himself.  But sometimes it happens that we receive the power to say ‘yes’ to ourselves, that peace enters into us and makes us whole, that self-hate and self-contempt disappear, and that our self is reunited with itself.  Then we can say that grace has come upon us.”

October 7, 2012

Love and Community

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October 7, 2012 

“The urgent work of community is
to actualize God’s immanence in this world.”
– Ana Levy-Lyons

My sermon this morning is inspired by a comment made several years ago by one of my Transylvanian Unitarian colleagues.  He said, “Love and community are the ultimate goals of life.”  I have thought long and hard about this, and it seems to me that he is probably right.  If true, his statement makes most of our goals—success, accumulation of wealth, fame, power, and even the acquisition of knowledge—seem pretty selfish by comparison.

I find it difficult to argue with the idea of love being an ultimate goal, perhaps the ultimate goal, of life.  Love of the unselfish variety would seem to be one of humankind’s greatest achievements.  It is almost indisputably the highest value in life.  All of us need love, but it is the ability to give love unconditionally which is most remarkable and most essential to the continuation of human society.

Certainly, community has had a lot to do with the survival of Unitarianism in the Transylvanian region of Romania.  The ethnic minority Hungarians who constitute the Transylvanian church have survived by sticking together.  During the terrible times under communism, which ended only in 1989, it was the solidarity of the Hungarian community in its various faiths that gave its people the will to go on.

In the communion service, which our Transylvanian Unitarian friends observe four times a year, Jesus is still remembered, but community is celebrated.  Communicants are reminded that it is community—not the individual—which has the highest value in life.  And in small villages where there is little privacy, and where petty jealousies often thrive, they are reminded also of the need to love one another and to bear with one another and to care for each other through both bad times and good.

I admire this emphasis on community even as I have some reservations about it.  In a critical time I can see how important and necessary it is.  But I worry that the world of today doesn’t need yet another reason to remain divided.  Much as I love my Hungarian friends, we don’t need more nationalism or more ethnic solidarity.  We have seen this to be true most recently in the Yugoslavian wars of the 1990s.  Our American experiment at its best has demonstrated that people of different ethnic backgrounds and national origins can live together and aspire to an identity which at its best transcends either of those categories.  It is one of the things which has made us truly great.

The world, as we know all too well during this election season, doesn’t need more partisanship.  We are divided enough already.

Among our Transylvanian friends, whose mother tongue is Hungarian and whose sympathies more often than not lie with neighboring Hungary rather than with the Romanian nation in which they live, this is a dilemma.  Should Unitarian worship services be offered in Romanian as well as Hungarian?  Or are the wounds of the last one hundred years, since Transylvania was annexed to Romania following World War One, simply too deep?

This would seem to me to be a challenge of community-building the likes of which we are blessedly spared.  These intersecting histories are incredibly complex, as can be seen in the recent struggles to save the European Union.  Could community, understood more broadly than ethnicity or nationality, be part of the solution, rather than the problem?

Here in North America, our Unitarian Universalist dilemma seems to be more about the conflict between community and individualism.  As Ana Levy-Lyons, acting associate minister at the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City has recently written [“The Difference Between Holy and Nice,” Tikkun Magazine, Vol. 27, No. 3, Summer 2012], 

We want community to be available to us—warm, nurturing, unconditionally embracing community—but we also fiercely defend our personal right not to join in. We want spiritual depth but we want to cherry-pick from our religious traditions and evaluate each community practice and article of faith on its own merits.  We insist that we choose our communities and retain the right to leave at any time.

Levy-Lyons refers to this as “worshipping at the altar of freedom.”  She continues, 

. . .[M]any liberals today have taken the concern for rights, liberty, and individualism to the extreme.  I’m thinking particularly of modern liberal movements, including Reform Judaism, American Buddhism, yoga communities, Unitarian Universalism, and unaffiliated spiritual progressives.  Often these movements have come to fetishize freedom as an end in itself—the end in itself—that trumps all others.

I don’t think anyone would disagree that our emphasis on freedom and the rights of the individual have been a source of difficulty throughout the history of our movement, and in fact may explain why Unitarian Universalism has failed to exhibit the kind of growth that many believe it is capable of.

The problem with individual freedom as a guiding principle of our faith is that community and institutions often take a backseat.  Levy-Lyons worries about our liberal faith particularly in the proposition that “good people . . . always try to do the right thing within reason.”  She writes, 

Whether or not good people left to their own devices generally do the right thing is a debate for another time.  Suffice it to say for now that religious traditions have developed detailed ethical commandments and elaborate technologies for remembering those commandments precisely because doing the right thing consistently is hard.  But clearly, to . . . religious liberals, what people ultimately do with their freedom of choice is of less concern than that they have this freedom.  Yes, they value community and social justice and caring for the earth, but freedom is a higher value still.

Freedom was, of course, “a necessary corrective to the institutional violence of oppressive religious traditions and social structures.”  But the question is whether our over-reliance on freedom as a bond of community has in fact hindered our ability to create it?

For our Transylvanian friends, it is clear from their interpretation of the communion service that it is in community that God is made manifest.

In our North American Unitarian Universalist tradition, theologian Henry Nelson Wieman argued for a theology which he called “creative interchange,” that is, the idea that God is present in—and possibly only in—our relationships.  These ideas fly in the face of a freedom which holds that ultimately the individual is more sacred than the community in which he or she lives.  This religious version of “rugged individualism” is being challenged by a new generation of religious liberals like Levy-Lyons who are dissatisfied with the stagnation of our movement and with our seeming inability to consistently build vital and lasting religious communities.

It’s not that individuals do not contain a spark of the divine, a conviction to which I am fully committed.  It’s just that we only contain a spark.  We are not gods unto ourselves.  It takes a lot of sparks to create light.

If the thing that we call God, because we don’t know what else to call it, is most present in community, then we have a lot of work to do, for as Levy-Lyons concludes, “The urgent work of community is to actualize God’s immanence in the world.”  God may exist outside of the world—the jury is out on that, and I don’t expect it to present a verdict any time soon—but it is clear that God is made manifest in the world only through the work of our hearts and hands: the hearts and hands of many people working together in community.  As Levy-Lyons writes, “This kind of community is hard to come by.  It takes spiritual discipline, wise teachers, and the crucible of a live, frustrating collection of flawed humans to practice within.”  And most important, “It takes a willingness to sometimes—even often—set aside one’s private agenda and preferences for the good of the collective.”

Next week I will be speaking about one of the great benefits of this kind of religious community, the idea of companionship along the way.   But for now, let’s imagine what this concept of community might have to say us in the context of our ongoing discussion about the distribution of the Maria Stern bequest.  I’m not going to tell you what to do, but I hope that I am describing at least in part the way it should be done.

Clearly, the kind of community that Levy-Lyons is describing takes hard work.  It takes especially the kind of love that is willing to compromise and the kind of love that finds value in sticking together even when we disagree, the kind of love that even in times of disappointment makes us work harder than ever to move in the direction of our dreams and to realize our highest aspirations.  It’s not about getting mad nor especially about getting even, but about the struggle to build “a world more fair, with all her people one.”

Unfortunately, we will not always agree on the means or the ends.  But in the struggle, something happens.  We advance a step toward our goal.  If even in our disagreement we continue to love one another, I believe that God—in so far as we can know God at all—will be present among us.  It is only when we allow ourselves to be divided that we have failed not only ourselves, but the God who acts in and through us in the holy bonds of community.

What we have here is as precious as it is flawed.  It has always been so, and I suspect that it will always be so.  May we go forth, taking with us the knowledge that we live not unto ourselves alone, but that we are truly part of one another.  May this knowledge lead us onward toward a better world and toward being the better people we long to be.  So may it be.

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock

Reading: from “The Difference Between Holy and Nice,” by Ana Levy-Lyons

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