Rationality and Spirituality

A sermon by Dan Murphy

Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashua

26 January 1997

The quest for spirituality is one which has become increasingly significant to me in recent years. To characterize it as a quest, though, is to miss the essence. For like certain other uniquely human experiences, it doesn't appear on demand, it can't be quantified or defined exactly, and it isn't provided as the reward for prodigious zeal or will.

How, then, do I propose to spend the next 15 or 20 minutes talking about that which can't be defined or analyzed, and which, I assert, is more likely to elude us the harder we search for it? Am I about to be caught in a dilemma similar to that of the poor soul who once asked Louie Armstrong what Jazz is, only to be told, "Man, if you gotta ask, you'll never know".

Or am I about to fall prey to the kind of temptation which sometimes overcomes talk-show psychologists to analyze and explain humor, and who only wind up proving yet again that if you have to explain the joke, it isn't going to be funny.

This, rationally speaking, would seem to be the dilemma anytime we undertake to explore spirituality in a verbal context such as a sermon or dissertation, yet explore it we do. I believe that this is actually the third time within the past year that I've been responsible for the word "spirituality" appearing in a service title here. As I said, it is something which is of increasing importance to me.

Some people don't seem to have to think much about it. They enjoy the experience of it as a part of their culture, quite possibly their religious tradition and upbringing, and their community. Others have not inherited that kind of tradition, or perhaps, have had to set it aside as a conscious decision and choice. This, I notice, is true of many UUs.

From sharing life stories with others in the congregation and elsewhere, I know that many have made a choice to take leave of their family religion, often because of an accumulation of offenses to rational and even sensible thought that could not be reconciled or ignored.

In my own case, I grew up in a Presbyterian church -- not, by any means, the most fundamental or literal of Christians, but also not the most liberal. The church was not a particularly large focus of my life, but I did attend services regularly and did experience a sense of spiritual connection there. I also accepted with little question various elements of theology and dogma, and these seemed at the time to be inseparable from the overall spiritual experience, although I didn't really think about that question one way or the other at the time.

Fortunately, the church of my youth did not hold to fundamentalist or biblical literalist beliefs that would have offended my general understanding of science and nature -- things such as creationism and various biblical miracles. Otherwise, my break might have come sooner than it did. What it did presume and require, however, was a belief in what I call an anthropomorphic God -- a God in the image of man, with human characteristics such as anger and jealousy; a God who would listen to prayers and decide in his (always the masculine pronoun) infinite wisdom whether to grant your entreaties, or not; a God who would punish you if you weren't "good". This is a belief which ascribes to God one of the darker aspects of human emotion -- the urge to punish that which offends us, and simultaneously disparages the goodness and worth of humans beset by natural or chance misfortune.

It was in my freshman year of college that I came to the realization that this whole view just didn't hold water. There wasn't a particular issue that pushed me over the threshold, nor was there any new bit of scientific or philosophical knowledge that did it. There were several influential books that I read at the time, including the novels of Ayn Rand, but ultimately I just confronted the fact that there was no evidence for the stories and myths that constituted this theology and no rational basis to continue acting as if they were true. The God of this theology required you to take it on faith, but only if you have the faith is there a god to establish the requirement. Rationally, this is what we would call a circular argument.

At this point, then, I quite definitely and in short order discarded the religion of my youth. I didn't begin to doubt the existence of God; I didn't become an agnostic -- rather, I became quite sure of what God is not -- a kind of superhuman being, one with more power but who thinks, emotes, and acts as we do; who tinkers in the affairs of humans in arbitrary and sometimes painful ways; and who plays this game with us: promising salvation in reward for blind belief, belief which requires suspension of the very powers of thought and observation which are the greatest and most unique gifts of whatever creative force did being us into being.

I set all that aside, along with affiliation with any religious institution or establishment. In retrospect, I know that I threw out a few babies with that bath water. I didn't know how to sort things out back then, and it didn't really occur to me to try. Fortunately, religious practice and institutions are not the only ways to come by spiritual experiences, and there are other ways also to grow and expand one's awareness and openness to spiritual richness.

Time doesn't permit me to recount all of the turns that my spiritual journey has taken, but I do want to note that some of them served to awaken my sense of spirituality and community and thereby be open to a reconnection with a religious institution and family -- an event which occured when I joined this church not quite three years ago.

Indeed, what impressed me about my first experiences here was the rational and sensible view of life and religion that I found. On the one hand, we don't depend on professions of faith in certain personal deities, nor allegiance to certain stories of interesting but irreproducible events. On the other hand, we embrace and deal with all aspects of our humanity, seeking to affirm and honor that which serves us, and to support each other in avoiding choices and behaviors which do not.

We also provide a spiritual space and context for ourselves in immediate ways, such as the Sunday morning worship service, and, hopefully, in other less immediate ways both communal and individual. Some might wonder how we do this. We've surely all heard a question something like, "if you don't believe in God, what do you even go to church for?" Here again, one might be tempted to answer, "if you have to ask, you'll never know", but that wouldn't be particularly kind, nor I think, very close to the truth in this case. Perhaps here, asking is potentially an important step toward understanding.

There are, of course, many reasons why we each come to church and participate in any of a large variety of ways in this community and its activities. In some of these ways, we serve others, both within our church community and outside of it, and these are important activities. In other ways, including spirituality, we serve ourselves, and these are no less important. Our spiritual experience can ground us, renew us, and give us the clarity to see the path ahead and the greater truth.

And, as I said at the outset, I think it is fair, even if a bit daunting, to consider how we view spirituality, how we might come to experience it, and how it is integrated into a context that is also affirmatively rational, thoughtful, and committed to the search for truth.

The problem for many, both within and outside of UU congregations, is that spirituality seems closely tied to religious beliefs and practices which we do not embrace. Praising God with, well, "religious" fervor may be very spiritual if you believe that God is listening, but what if you don't believe that? Singing and telling stories about miraculous events may be awe-inspiring if you believe these events took place, but what if you don't? Devout Christians may experience a profound and spiritual sense of thankfulness when the words are chanted and the message repeated, "Jesus died on the cross to save you". For many of us, that is neither a literal truth nor a spiritually inspiring concept.

It may also be that some of us have feelings of distrust and suspicion around some of these practices given the energy it took to break with past religious affiliations and the political purposes to which some groups put their theological imperatives.

Does it, nonetheless, serve us to experience a depth of spiritual connection like that? Yes, I think it does. Can we have that without relying on unacceptable theologies and mythologies? Yes, I think we can.

And having said that, let me hasten to add that we need not and do not put aside all such traditional paths to spiritual connection. When I sing the familiar hymns, for example, I resonate with the emotion and spirit of their poetry and music. Knowing that we share here a context where my allegiance to literal theology is not on trial, I can look beyond or around some references and words that I don't embrace and simply accept the experience of the whole.

More the the point, however, I believe that our powers of rational thought, our growing awareness of the nature of the universe, great and small, though scientific exploration, and our advancing, although still very limited, understanding of who and what we are as human beings can all lead us to moments of spiritual experience and renewal. In other words, rational thought and our commitment to it does not require us to deny or forego spirituality; rather it can in the most powerful of ways, lead us to broader and deeper spiritual experiences. Rationality and Spirituality -- it's no accident that we possess both of these uniquely human gifts.

Therefore, let me now explore some paths to spirituality through rational thought, but as I do so, I want to resolve the issue I posed at the beginning. For indeed, discussing spirituality is not likely to be a spiritual experience. What we can do is learn how to be open to such experiences, how it is that we can find them without searching, and how to let go of the barriers to spiritual surrender that we may unconsciously be erecting. In what may seem like a paradox, we can take rationally determined steps to lead us to what is fundamentally a non-rational experience. We can think about what is involved, and then let go of that thinking and just be absorbed in the experience.

Rationality and Spirituality. I said that these are uniquely human gifts, and I'm quite certain this is true. No animal has a sense of spirituality. A dog may be happy, a cat may be content. A bird may be in pain, or not. None can do what we are doing now -- imagining, hoping, fearing -- not from any immediate threat or circumstance, but only from thoughts and concepts. And it is only through thinking such thoughts that we get to the spiritual experience, even though the experience itself involves all of our being -- mind and body, intellect and emotion.

We don't know exactly how or when mankind first became self-aware or first began to think logically. However, I suspect that it was soon after that that our fore-bares also experienced their first spiritual moments. Somewhere in the evolution of thought and, I'm sure, communication, a group or groups of humans began to conceive of themselves and of their birth, life, and death, and along with that conception came the conception of something greater than themselves. That something took many forms -- gods, spirits, nature, and so forth. And we can trace the latter stages of that thinking in the histories of world religions. From tribal gods, to gods on Mount Olympus; from many gods with individual personalities, powers, and problems, to one god, more abstract, more universal.

With those first concepts and bits of rational knowledge also came something else -- the ability to think of questions that couldn't be answered, to experience both knowledge and the limits of knowledge, and to see the world operate rationally and predictably in some ways, and irrationally and unpredictably in other ways and at other times. This was the birth of the spiritual -- those moments when we would imagine that which defies conception, when we would stumble upon some awareness of our place in the world, when we would confront the paradox of our evolving knowledge and control side by side with our total vulnerability to forces much greater than ourselves.

Somewhere back there, as we experienced what it was to know, to be aware, and to control, we also discovered the fear of not knowing, of not being able to know, and of being powerless. Out of these fears, we created gods and goddesses, creators and saviors, and rituals to curry their favor and enlist the beneficial exercise of their power. For surely, if we're not in control, there must be someone who is.

This indeed is the awesome world that we came to inhabit when our distant ancestors metaphorically ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge. We traded in blissful ignorance for knowledge and power, but with that knowledge came the awareness of death, the fear of the unknown, and the realization of vulnerability.

Even as metaphor, I continue to find the stories of creation and the garden of eden fascinating and full of insight quite remarkable given the distant age in which they were created. Although creationists might dispute it, I find in the story of Adam and Eve an awareness that humans did indeed evolve to what we now call intelligent beings. It seems to me that the authors of those stories long ago must have looked around and considered how animals live their lives without thought for the morrow. It must have occured to them that we were once like that, neither planting nor herding, unaware and content.

One way that I think the old stories get it wrong, though, is to suggest that Adam and Eve chose to disobey God and eat the fruit. On the contrary, the power to choose was one of the results of this transformation into rational beings, however it took place. We did not choose to become rational or aware, but it happened. Only then could we know what it means to choose; only then could we conceive of alternatives and decisions; only then could we learn about rules and how to keep them or break them.

So here we are, endowed with a rational mind unlike any other creature on earth. On the other hand, we have a physical body with much the same needs and vulnerabilities as many other creatures. We also have the remnants of instincts and pre-verbal thought patterns that inhabit the realms of the subconscious and manifest themselves in what we call feelings. And it is at this boundary that the spiritual exists. The spiritual experience is an emotional one, and it is the expression of the workings of our mind and heart in ways that are beneath awareness and outside of rational thought.

The amazing thing, though, is that it is our conscious thought that creates the mental landscape, builds the superstructure of hopes, fears, expectations, and values which give rise to most of our emotions and feelings. Of course, if the body is injured, we feel pain; without food, we feel hungry. These are the workings of instinct and feeling that we share with many creatures. On the other hand, when we hear an unkind remark and feel pain, when we hear of a friend's success and feel joy, when we become anxious imagining accidents and misfortunes because a loved one doesn't call when we expect -- these are all feelings that arise from the interplay of our conscious and subconscious. It is our emotions reacting to the fantasy that our thoughts create, regardless of how closely they match some objective reality.

This same awesome power of thought leads us both to fear and to love, to restless anxiety and to spiritual tranquility. What makes the difference is knowing that we have the power to choose, and then practicing making the choice that we want.

As we look again at some of the western religions with which we are most familiar, we can see that often this path from rational thought to the boundaries of the unknown produced feelings of discomfort and fear. These were addressed by the invention of deities whose power could compensate for our own lack thereof, and theological structures which purport to explain that which we can not directly observe. With those theologies acting as a kind of guard rail, people could venture into the spiritual realm, close to the abyss of the unknowable, yet feel safe and protected.

There is, however, another way, and it is the way of other equally ancient peoples. It is a way that lets go of the fear of the unknown and instead embraces it. It is a way that accepts ultimate vulnerability and knows that no guard rail can really provide protection. It is the way of surrender.

This path of spiritual surrender is certainly not unknown in western religion, although it is often lost in the noise of theologies and the imperatives of hierarchies. It is reflected in the oft-quoted prayer that begins, "Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change, ...". It is to be found throughout the teaching of Jesus, even as they have come down to us through establishments that base their existence on who he was supposed to be rather than on what he taught.

Let me be clear here that I am not advocating that we forego worldly concerns and enter monasteries. Nor does surrender mean giving up purposeful and courageous efforts to bring justice and compassion to the world. I find enormous satisfaction in the pursuit of intensely logical and rational professional activities, and I enjoy setting goals and accomplishing them. I believe that the world does benefit when we each seek to develop and employ the talents that we have, given due regard for the well-being of other people and our environment.

However, just as there is a time for work, there is a time to turn from work; a time to let go of goals, objectives, deadlines, plans and purposes, and to surrender to the timeless, the boundless, the unattainable, and the infinite.

I was struck just last week by a quotation that Rev. Nieuwejarr read near the end of his sermon. It almost seemed designed to set the stage for my thoughts this week. Paraphrasing, it began, "When I was young, I used to achieve a spiritual experience by thinking about infinity."

Thinking about infinity. There it is -- as clear a path between rationality and spirituality and I can describe. From infinity, a concept explored by both mathematicians and philosophers, to a spiritual moment when the mind exhausts its ability to grasp the unreachable and surrenders to the ultimately unknowable. It is going to the edge of the abyss and jumping off! Experiencing that moment of letting go, of surrender, of overcoming the fear of falling and finding that one indeed does not fall.

Indeed, infinity is an amazing conceptual creation of the human mind. Back when I was a freshman in college, I took a course on elementary number theory which included a section on the mathematics of infinity. It is at once a mathematical and philosophical concept about which we could talk for hours. However, let me just recall a couple of the basic mathematical properties of infinity and perhaps jog your own memory.

Infinity in numerical terms, is at once the largest possible number and the assertion that for any given number, there is always a larger one. Another remarkable property of infinity is that, if you have an infinite number of something, then no matter how many you take away, there is still an infinite number of them left.

If this is a little mind-boggling, don't worry -- there's not going to be a test. What I hope to have hinted at however, is that there may be a spiritual experience waiting just after the point when the mind boggles -- whatever the subject of contemplation.

More generally, I have long found contemplation of the scientific knowledge of astronomy and the universe to be both an intellectual exercise and a spiritual experience. It will, if we are willing to take the risk, bring to mind all the most basic of questions about who we are, why we are here, and where we are going.

I do not find that advancing scientific knowledge makes it harder to experience the spiritual; on the contrary. In my experience, the more we learn of the details of creation, the more amazing it seems. Whether it is the micro universe -- the structure of atoms, the compositions of DNA and genes, or the macro universe -- the origin of stars and galaxies -- the more we know, the more awe-inspiring it becomes.

It may be that the experience is the same as it has always been. However much we know, or think we know, there is still a point where knowledge ends and we can only wonder at the rest. Perhaps knowledge itself is infinite; no matter how much we acquire, there is still an infinite amount more. Our knowledge and capacity for conceptual thought has perhaps grown, but when we reach the limits of it, we can only stand in appreciation of the mystery and wonder of it all.

Transcending the mystery and wonder is a fundamental part of our UU heritage, and it is another way of describing the spiritual experience. There are many ways to travel that path, and I hope I have hinted at a few of them this morning. Before I close, though, I want to return to that most fundamental of questions. It is the first question that the Bible seeks to answer, and although some of the details have to be adjusted given current scientific understanding, the old story suggests to me that people have been thinking about this question in much the same way for a long time.

Consider: the best contemporary scientific view of the origin of the universe is that it took place somewhere between 4 and 12 billion years ago, and that the universe began in an instant, exploding outward from a point -- initially a ball of pure energy without even atoms or the familiar sub-atomic particles of high-school chemistry and physics. After expanding for a time, particles condensed out of this primordial plasma and, as they cooled, formed atoms of hydrogen and helium. Much later, as expansion continued, the evolving matter began to clump together, and the clumps became stars and galaxies, nebulas and quasars. This is the scientific theory.

The old story says, "In the beginning, God said 'Let there be light.' And there was light." In concept, not much different from how we now see it. Neither view can even try to explain how something came from nothing, why that particular moment brought forth creation, or for what actual purpose.

Science now tells us that the earliest and biggest stars burned their fuel and died, and in the atomic furnace of their violent deaths, they created the elements of carbon, oxygen, and so on which would later combine to form planets, water, minerals, and eventually, life.

Yes, the atoms in our body were formed long ago in the bursts of supernova, or even longer ago, in that plasma of pure light and energy that filled the infant universe. A light that, by the way, radiates to this day, equally from all directions, still filling all of space.

The old story says that God put human beings here on earth. What we now conclude, rationally, is that we are born of the stars. Which is the more awesome and spiritual concept? That is a choice that you get to make.

It is a mystery, glorious and awesome, humbling and yet empowering -- stars were exploded to provide the source and sustenance for our life. It is a mystery -- are we alone in a universe so vast and so rich with stars much like our own? For the moment, we have no sign that it is otherwise. What we do have is each other, a broad extended family of some 5 billion souls, together in the vastness of space, each alone in the individuality of our consciousness and thought, and yet connected in ways that cannot be rationally known.

As we bring to a conclusion this journey of the mind, I would invite you to close your eyes and imagine. With your eyes closed, imagine this space -- the space where you are sitting right now... become mindful of this moment, your body, and its weight on the seat; the support of the floor under your feet. Notice the sound of this space. Now, in your mental image, include others in this space... still with your eyes closed, be aware of others near to you and within this room... each unique and separate, yet connected in ways known and unknown. Now let your mind bring into your thought and include others from other times; those who filled these same seats and heard this same space weeks and months and years ago. Include in your presence these others who also came searching for truth and connection, who prepared a way for us, and whose spirits live in our collective consciousness. Imagine too, the light that fills this room; light unbounded in time or space; light from the sun and the stars, and light from the ancient moment of creation; familiar light, and light of mystery and wonder. Let the room fill with this light and encompass each soul in its energy...

Then, when you are ready, pause and gently open your eyes... look around... and behold the light that does indeed fill this space.

Spirituality and rationality are twin gifts of the tree of knowledge. As the world's first rational creatures, we continue a process of evolution whose beginning was inconceivably long ago and whose future is still an unknowable mystery. We exist here for but a brief moment in this vast sweep of time, yet we play a part which is essential in the design of creation.

Let us use our rational power to extend the limits of knowledge ever further, to scale the heights and plumb the depths of creation, to search for truth even though truth is infinite, and to gain knowledge even while ignorant of the ultimate purpose of knowing. And when we come to the limits of knowledge, the inadequacy of rationality, and the elusiveness of truth, let us accept the gift of spirituality. Let us surrender to the mystery and wonder, listen to the wisdom of the heart, and rejoice in the experience of life.

Let us too draw strength from the knowledge that there are others with whom we each share both this humble place in the universe and this awesome awareness of that place. May we know that we are connected, and that connection is called "love", and it too, is a mystery.

Let us be thankful for love; let us be thankful for life. And let us break bread together in the spirit of life and love. So may it be.