In uncertain times
At moments when it seems that darkness has won
We need to bring light
May the light of this flame
Touching our faces
Bring love to our hearts
And new strength to our intentions
May we then become the light
And vanquish the gloom from our world
From Science and Religion (1941), by Albert Einstein
The more a man is imbued with the ordered regularity of all events the firmer becomes his conviction that there is no room left by the side of this ordered regularity for causes of a different nature. For him neither the rule of human nor the rule of divine will exist as an independent cause of natural events.
To be sure, the doctrine of a personal God interfering with the natural events could never be refuted, in the real sense, by science, for this doctrine can always take refuge in those domains in which scientific knowledge has not yet been able to set foot. But I am persuaded that such behavior on the part of the representatives of religion would not only be unworthy but also fatal.
For a doctrine which is able to maintain itself not in clear light but only in the dark, will of necessity lose its effect on mankind, with incalculable harm to human progress.
Words by Ralph Waldo Emerson
The Gods we worship write their names on our faces; be sure of that. A person will worship something, have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts, but it will out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.
The Exhibit, by Lisel Mueller
My uncle in East Germany
points to the unicorn in the painting
and explains it is now extinct.
We correct him, say such a creature
never existed. He does not argue,
but we know he does not believe us.
He is certain power and gentleness
must have gone hand in hand
once. A prisoner of war even after the war was over,
my uncle needs to believe in something
that could not be captured except by love,
whose single luminous horn
redeemed the murderous forest
and, dipped into foul water,
would turn it pure. This world,
this terrible world we live in,
is not the only possible one,
his eighty-year-old eyes insist,
dry wells that fill so easily now.
Message, by Andy Pakula
To some extent, I’d like to distract you today. I’d like to be funny and light and show pictures of adorable baby animals. Most of us are struggling right now to some extent - struggling with the political changes going on around us that seems to be unravelling decades of progress toward human rights and justice.
But I’m not going to go for light distraction today. I’ve got two reasons. First, because I’m not nearly amusing enough for the level of distraction you need. You need level 8 distraction and I can only provide about 2.5.
And second, I won’t go for distraction because we also need to find ways to stay with the reality of our world. Our world needs people who are committed to justice and to love, and that means that we need to find the things that give us enough strength and resilience to stay with the realities.
And staying with hard realities is not only hard, it is part of what religion is here for. As author Elizabeth Gilbert put it “To sit patiently with a yearning that has not yet been fulfilled, and to trust that, that fulfillment will come, is quite possibly one of the most powerful 'magic skills' that human beings are capable of. It has been noted by almost every ancient wisdom tradition.”
The aged uncle in Lisel Mueller’s poem needed to hold to his conviction that unicorns once walked the earth with power and gentleness - and that this could be possible once again. There are worse things to believe in.
It is said that there are no atheists in foxholes. I’ve been assured by people who know that this is not true, but the message is clear enough. When we are terrified and distraught - when all seems dark - we find ourselves in need of something to hold onto - something that will assure us that somehow everything will be alright - or at least something to give us the strength to face what we must face.
One of our regular practices here is to sing Comfort Me just after we have shared sorrows within this community. The song is about the longing for comfort. It doesn’t say where we are seeking that comfort, but our love of that song reminds us of the reality of that yearning.
I have, at various times in my life, been in need of strength and courage and comfort. I imagine most of you have too. There have been frightening times when I found myself silently reciting the only Hebrew prayer I could remember from my childhood - with part of my mind clinging to those strange words and part looking at myself at least a bit shocked.
To do something like this, despite my slightly self-judging reaction - is very very human. We are wired as we are and it is normal for us to reach out for comfort and assurance when we feel we don’t have it within us to make it on our own.
I have recited prayers and extemporised prayers with people who were in terrible places and needed the comfort that gave.
I have also been with people whose faith was shattered totally when something terrible happened - something terrible that they thought their faith would protect them against.
I would not want to insult theists by suggesting that comfort in hard times is the only reason they believe in a supreme being. It is not. There are theists whose belief is an integral part of their work for justice. There are theists who feel they have had personal encounters with the divine. There are theists who hold to belief because provides the ethical underpinning to make them the people they yearn to be.
And yet it is also true that belief in God is bolstered for many because of the comfort and reassurance it provides.
I titled this message ‘God of the Gaps.’ That phrase refers to the tendency of many religious people who are hungry for proof of God’s existence to take the gaps in scientific knowledge as evidence for the existence of a creator-God.
We need only look at what is called Intelligent Design to see this in practice today. Intelligent design is an attempt to leave space for God in evolution. It picks holes in the scientific understanding of how life came to be and how it change over time. Intelligent Design attempts to appear scientific but it seems more like a desperate effort to keep room for the starring role of supernatural being in the drama of creation.
For many, a world without belief in such a God seems unbearable. It is a world where suffering can be without justification, where life and its struggles are meaningless, where disaster can strike at any moment, and where there is no assurance that it’s all part of a greater plan.
And while I and my fellow non-theists might smugly congratulate ourselves on having the strength to go it alone - with no need of supernatural crutches to support us - I think the reality is not quite so one-sided and simple.
We all reach for something. We all need something to remember and to turn to. We all need a story or a philosophy or a set of beliefs to hold on to in such times.
The God of the Gaps notion can be used to criticise theists, but it was actually a Christian Evangelist who first condemned this tendency among his co-religionists.
He was a 19th-century Christian evangelist by the name of Henry Drummond. He worried about Christians who point to - in his words - "gaps which they will fill up with God." He felt that such shrinking gaps were too small a place to anchor the concept of God. He spoke for a God that worked through the scientific, saying "the God of Evolution, is infinitely grander than the occasional wonder-worker, who is the God of an old theology.”
The God of that gaps is dangerous for believers. Science has a disquieting tendency to explain what only a few years earlier we thought of as beyond explanation.
And that means that those who anchor their beliefs in the current holes in our knowledge leave their beliefs dependent on ignorance. Knowledge becomes dangerous. Science become an enemy. The wonder of the world - when confined to what is supernatural - becomes ever smaller. As Julian Huxley wrote in his book, Religion without revelation:
“Operationally, God is beginning to resemble not a ruler, but the last fading smile of a cosmic Cheshire Cat.”
And yet, we all need things to turn to. We need sources of strength and comfort and meaning that do not disappear with the advance of knowledge.
I think there are many answers amongst you. Some of you turn to nature for its ability to centre you and put things into a greater perspective.
Some turn to practices like meditation or prayer or rituals that help you to focus on what matters most in your lives.
Some believe in powers of various kinds and call upon those for strength.
I want to suggest that this is something we all need to think about and consider seriously. As Emerson said, what we are worshipping, we are becoming. And to change that to words that might fit slightly better, what we turn to for strength and mean changes who we are and how we live.
If we find strength and meaning in the marketplace, then we become ever more firmly consumers.
If we find strength and meaning in justice for all, then that becomes more and more our centre.
What we find to be of greatest help is, to some extent, determined by our histories. The Hebrew prayers were certainly like that.
But it is also a choice, as Emerson implied.
I choose to reach toward love and interconnection.
When times are hard, I feel stronger because I know that I am not alone. I know that we are interconnected across space and across time. Our struggles are not ours alone. They are shared with myriad beings.
And when I am disheartened and begin to feel there is no point, no purpose, meaning comes from the power of love and the calling that power. It comes from the understanding that only love can heal our world. It comes from the conviction that no one is unworthy of love or undeserving of dignity.
So, I believe that - aside from any other practices and beliefs we may have - we can find strength and meaning by growing the love amongst us.
I would like to close by leading you in a meditation from the Buddhist tradition. There it is called metta bhavana and it is a practice for learning to hold compassion and positive regard for all.
[Service closes with meditation]
In difficult times
Hold fast to what strengthens you
To what gives meaning to your lives
Hold fast to one another
As we step forward to build a world of justice and love