Don't believe anything just because you want to. Believing something doesn't make it so. Test ideas by the evidence gained from observation and experiment. If a favorite idea fails a well-designed test, it's wrong. Get over it. Follow the evidence wherever it leads. If you have no evidence reserve judgment. Remember you could be wrong. Even the best scientists have been wrong about some things. ..
Science is a way to keep from fooling ourselves and others. These values undermine fanaticism and ignorance. After all, the universe is mostly dark dotted by islands of light.
Learning the age of the earth, or the distance to the stars, or how life evolved, what difference does it make? Well, part of it depends on how big a universe you want to live in. Some of us like it small. That's fine. Understandable. But I like it big. And when I take all of this into my own heart and my mind, and when I have that feeling I want to know that it's real. That it's not just something happening inside my own head. Because it matters what's true. And our imagination is nothing compared to nature's awesome reality. I want to know what's in those dark places, and what happened before the big bang. I want to know what lies beyond the cosmic horizon and how life began. Are there other places in the cosmos where matter and energy have become alive and aware? I want to know my ancestors, all of them. I want to be a good strong link in the chain of generations. If we come to know and love nature as it really is then we will surely be remembered by our descendants as good strong links in the chain of life, and our children will continue this sacred searching, seeing for us as we have seen for those that came before. Discovering wonders yet undreamed of, in the cosmos.
[Cosmos: a Spacetime Odyssey- episode 13 "Unafraid of the Dark"]
This year our whole family has been watching the remake of Carl Sagan’s classic show “Cosmos” this time narrated by Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. In the very last minutes of the very last episode he said two things that I think sum up the key to Unitarian Theology. The first shows a faith in truth and a faith in process:
“Don't believe anything just because you want to. Believing something doesn't make it so. Test ideas by the evidence gained from observation and experiment. If a favorite idea fails a well-designed test, it's wrong. Get over it. Follow the evidence wherever it leads.”
We believe that religious truth is not something we receive from an authority. Nor do we subscribe to that popular refrain “Unitarians can believe whatever they want.” Instead we believe in observation and experiment, in following the evidence wherever it leads. The root of this faith in evidence and observation is the well-spring of our tradition - and deGrasse Tyson puts it so beautifully: “… it matters what's true. And our imagination is nothing compared to nature's awesome reality.” Our imagination is nothing compared to nature’s awesome reality.
This is a fall full of weddings. I have the incredible privilege of marrying two couples in this congregation who have been together for decades, and a young couple I recently met who have been together for just a couple of years. New couples are full of visions of an imagined future, whereas couples who have already spent a lifetime together are not entering into marriage in the abstract, they are committing to and, celebrating a very particular relationship.
When I was a young married woman, I often felt self-conscious that my marriage didn’t look like marriages in the movies. Older married women would fill my mind with should: “he should do this” “if he loved you he would do that” “a healthy marriage is like this.” But as years passed, and against all expectations my partner Eric and I stayed together, I realized my fundamental mistake. We as UUs believe that each and every person is unique and special. Well how on earth could you put together two absolutely unique people and create a marriage that looks just like, well, any marriage you have ever seen before? Our marriage was so much happier when I finally let go of what I imagined a marriage “should” be and just enjoyed the very really marriage I was living each day.
Like our handsome prince Ronald [from the Paper Bag Princess], we have to decide if the princess of our dreams is the one who will risk life and limb and come to our rescue with her courage and quick wits, or whether she is the princess that looks like the one we have imagined.
In her introduction to the Starr King Presidents lecture this past June at General Assembly, Rebecca Parker carefully proposed that:
“Love seeks to know the other as "other." Not as an extension of oneself, not as a reflection or as utilitarian presence to be there for one's use but as an other of sacred worth in the other's own rights. From the other's own perspectives, the other's own practices and values. Love seeks to know the other as other and to preserve and protect the just-so-ness, the "otherness" of the other."This is something Prince Ronald has not yet figured out, but I have a strong suspicion that any partnership that can last for 31 years is made up of two people who understands their partner to be “an other of sacred worth in the other’s own rights.”
This is part of what makes the early days of a relationship so challenging. Not just a romantic relationship, but with friends, co-workers, neighbors. Because we are constantly creating in our imaginations the person we expect them to be. “A good neighbor does this” “ A friend would do that” or on the other side of things “What else would you expect from that kind of person”. And so when your princess shows up in a paper bag, when your friend forgets your birthday, when your son drops out of art school to become a football player, this is a powerful moment. This is the moment when you know you are witnessing the other as other- not just as the person you expect them to be.
Let’s face it those expectations are powerful. Every day each of us does something because “it’s expected of us.” So when you experience someone exercising their freedom to be who they truly are, that moment can be disappointing, can be frustrating, but, as Neil DeGrasse Tyson says “Our imagination’s nothing compared to nature’s awesome reality.” We may have to grieve the loss of the beautiful, spotless princess, but if we can let go of that imaginary being, we give and receive the gift of being present reality. The reality of, for example, a roommate who doesn’t wash the dishes the way I would. A partner who doesn’t show love the way I do. A friend who doesn’t grieve the way I expect. Here is the other-- defying and frustrating our expectations. The challenge is, can we lay aside which “might” have been, what “should” have been, and give our attention, our presence to what IS.
Unitarian Universalist have preached tolerance of the other for many decades, but I am proposing something further. Love, as Rebecca Parker says, seeks to know the other as other. This is where the alchemy of love occurs, the magic of love- when something totally UN-expected happens, something I would never have come up with myself. This is the moment when we realize our relationship with our partner, our child, our friend is “real. That it's not just something happening inside my own head.” There are, in fact, strains of theology that propose that this whole reality that we perceive is “all in our own heads, just a dream” and maybe that’s true, maybe it’s not, but the moment your grandson says that surprising, jaw-droppingly unique thing, you know that at least this is a dream you share with another.
When I was young I looked everywhere for the God I had read about in the Old Testament-- the God of burning bushes and parting waters, who offered commandments on the mountaintop. I never did meet this God. But remember what God says to Moses in the story of the burning bush, when Moses asks “who shall I say has sent me?” God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’ [exodus 3.14] What could that mean for our free and responsible search?
One of the new authors I have been introduced to on my sabbatical is Thomas Hart --a Catholic Theology professor and a Family and Marriage Counselor. He writes:
“Coping well with reality is coping well with God. Escaping reality into a separate realm, however spiritual the motive, runs the risk of missing the real encounter with God, and the kinds of growth that come from that encounter.” [p. 34]
Hart is suggesting that if we are only looking for God in burning bushes and parted waters, maybe we are missing something. I know that we here today are a very theologically diverse group. And so I offer to the theists and the agnostics this proposition- to try to know God as God is, instead of what we expect God to be.
Those expectations come from many places, from scriptures, from an old Sunday School teacher, from television. Sometimes those expectations come from past experiences -- times in our life when we had a felt sense of the divine, or sought God and found nothing. We found god hiking on a mountaintop one awe filled day, but when we return to that very spot it feels empty. We create a very small place for God to exist in our own imaginations, one with clear rules and expectations that God so often disappoints. What if our spiritual expectations are coming between us and what Is? Because God is most certainly “other” – can we allow God to be God? To be other? " Not as an extension of oneself, not as a reflection or as utilitarian presence to be there for one's use but as an other of sacred worth in the other's own rights.”?
In my own personal theology I believe that God is indwelling in everything that is. There is no place in this amazing universe of ours where God is not. Whether you are looking through a telescope, or a microscope or into the face of your roommate or neighbor, the divine is not separable from what you see.
Now I want to assure the atheists in our community that I didn’t forget you. The words of deGrasse Tyson are not only the principles of scientific exploration, but can be guidance for spiritual exploration as well:
“Don't believe anything just because you want to. Believing something doesn't make it so. Test ideas by the evidence gained from observation and experiment. ... Follow the evidence wherever it leads. If you have no evidence reserve judgment. Remember you could be wrong. Even the best scientists have been wrong about some things. .. Science is a way to keep from fooling ourselves and others. These values undermine fanaticism and ignorance.”
When a scientist comes across something in their experiment and observation that defies their hypothesis, I imagine this must be very discouraging. When you realize that the person you married is never going to take ballroom dance classes with you, or even pick up her socks off the floor, this can fill us with anger and grief. But when we can begin to let go of what we hoped would be, when we can grieve and release what we expected to be, we can finally begin to see what is real, to come closer to the truth of the other, of our world.
Jesuit Theologian Walter Burghardt describes contemplation as “A long loving look at the real” and this is how I see our UU spiritual journey, whether we are theist, atheist or agnostic. This is where our shared mission to “grow spiritually” begins. I want to draw special attention to that word “love.” Rebecca Parker used it, Neil deGrasse Tyson used it too when he suggested “we come to know and love nature as it really is.” Remember back to a time when someone in your life looked at you with love… remember how that made you feel…Now remember a time when someone looked at you with disappointment, looked at you as if you had failed a test you didn’t even know you were taking. Love matters. It shapes how we respond to all we encounter. While reality is constantly growing and changing and evolving, let us be careful that our dreams of what might be doesn’t keep us from looking with love at what it already is.
Let’s open our hearts and minds to the world around us as it really is. Let’s take time to appreciate it and love it, not as we want it to be, as we expect it to be, but as it is unfolding in this moment. Reality does not exist in the abstract. By definition reality exists in you, as you really are in this moment, in me, as I am in this very moment, and in the sometimes surprising and even maddeningly unpredictable moment that emerges between us. “I want to know that it's real. That it's not just something happening inside my own head. Because it matters what's true. And our imagination is nothing compared to nature's awesome reality”