(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 23 August 2015. Copyright 2015 by Everett Howe.)
Last spring, when Rev. Tera invited me to come preach at Throop some Sunday in August, neither she nor I had any inkling that I would wind up being your new intern minister, starting in September. I am really very happy to start this relationship with all of you here at Throop.
Traditionally, an intern minister’s first sermon at their teaching congregation is a personal introduction of sorts, telling the congregation something about who the intern is — their history, their path to ministry, their theology… but technically, my first sermon as your intern will be next month, so today I will not tell you too much about my own background. But I will tell you a little bit; I will start with a little bit about my beliefs, and a story.
For my beliefs, the short version is this: I am a humanist; I do not feel that there is any innate meaning to the universe, but I do believe that people can give life meaning. Also, I am an atheist; by which I mean that I do not believe in anything that I would call “God.” If you keep all of this in mind, the story I will tell you becomes more interesting.
For three years, starting in 2012, I was a volunteer on the “lay ministry” team at my home congregation in San Diego. One duty of the lay ministers is to be available after each service to listen to people; if someone has a joy or a concern that they would like to share with someone, they look for the lay minister on duty at the back of the sanctuary, and go over to talk for a while. Sometimes people are excited and want to share good news; sometimes people are going through a tough time, and they need to tell someone about it, to get some emotional support and to know that they are not alone; sometimes people just want a hug.
The first time I was going to be on duty as a lay minister I was nervous. I was prepared — the lay ministry team is trained by our ministers in techniques of pastoral care — but training is different from real life. What would it be like if someone with a serious problem came to me for sympathy and help? Would I be able to be present with them, and to listen? Would I be able to avoid the temptation to try to fix things? — because some things can’t be fixed, and often what people need is not advice, but rather someone to be with them on the journey.
That first morning, as I was walking the few blocks from my parked car to the church, I was nervous about these questions. I centered myself by thinking about another aspect of lay ministry: part of the job is to be a living manifestation of the concern the whole church community has for the welfare of its members. The lay minister is not just one concerned person; they represent something larger: the spirit of love of our community. “May this spirit of love work through me,” I thought to myself, “and be visible to those who come for help.”
“May this spirit of love work through me, and be visible to those who come for help.”
“Huh,” I thought, as I walked into the sanctuary. “I think that was a prayer. Funny thing for an atheist to be doing.”
The title of this sermon is “Why are we here,” and maybe it’s not so clear what that story has to do with this question. But I have to admit that the title may be a little deceptive. I did not mean “why are we here?” in the grand philosophical sense; if you came here hoping that I will reveal the secret of life and of our role in the universe, I won’t be doing that… today. What I meant by that title is: Why are we — you and me, the people in this room — here — here together this Sunday morning? Why are we at church today?
Of course, we each have our own answers to this question; we each probably have several answers. And personally, I’ve come up with a number of different answers for myself over the years. What prompted me to talk about this today, though, were some ideas that were coming up for me this past semester in seminary while studying Unitarian and Universalist history. I’d like to talk about an argument for why we might not want to be here, an argument with deep roots in our Unitarian history.
[Right about now Rev. Tera may be feeling a little nervous… “Is the intern really going to be telling people why they shouldn’t be at church? Is it too late to reconsider this whole internship plan?”]
At the beginning of the 19th century, William Ellery Channing was one of America’s most prominent liberal theologians. For 39 years he was the minister at what is now called the Arlington Street Church in Boston, and in 1825 he helped found the American Unitarian Association. One of the things that made a theologian “liberal” at that time was the belief that the Bible should be viewed as a book written in language suitable for a particular time and for particular people, and that any truths it contains are subject to interpretation. The liberal theologians thought that God communicates to people not just through the word of the Bible, but in other ways as well; for instance, through the workings of the natural world, through the details of creation. But in 1828, in a sermon he gave at an ordination, Channing spoke of yet another way we can learn more about the Divine. He said,
That man has a kindred nature with God, and may bear most important and ennobling relations to him, seems to me to be established by a striking proof. This proof you will understand, by considering, for a moment, how we obtain our ideas of God. Whence come the conceptions which we include under that august name? Whence do we derive our knowledge of the attributes and perfections which constitute the Supreme Being? I answer, we derive them from our own souls. The divine attributes are first developed in ourselves, and thence transferred to our Creator. The idea of God, sublime and awful as it is, is the idea of our own spiritual nature, purified and enlarged to infinity. In ourselves are the elements of the Divinity. God, then, does not sustain a figurative resemblance to man. It is the resemblance of a parent to a child, the likeness of a kindred nature.
To modern ears, it almost sounds like Channing is saying that people created God, not the other way around. Channing wasn’t saying that, because for him God was a given. But he was saying that God is like us — or, at least, like the best parts of us — and that we can learn about divinity by studying our own natures. Pretty wild stuff for the time, especially if you were a Calvinist.
Channing also championed an idea he called “self-culture” — culture as in cultivation and agriculture, as in helping one’s mind and soul to grow. His idea of self-culture included studying “nature, revelation, the human soul, and human life;” it included (as he put it) “control of the animal appetites;” it involved interacting with superior minds, for instance through reading. It involved what Ralph Waldo Emerson would later call “self-reliance” — figuring out one’s own opinions and holding true to them, even if they are unpopular. In short, self-culture involved knowing oneself better; by this, Channing believed, one could be closer to God.
Both of these ideas of Channing’s took firm root in the Transcendentalist movement, of which Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of the principal members. Emerson’s essay on self-reliance celebrates independence of thought and of spirit, and is still often included in high-school and college English curricula. Henry David Thoreau, another member of the Transcendentalist movement, is perhaps most famous for his book Walden, an account of his two years of simple living at Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts. His cabin was in fact not very far from civilization, and only a mile and a half from Emerson’s house, but his ruminations and meditations on nature and solitude and self-reliance are quintessentially American. Walden is also often taught in high school, and it still resonates in American culture. Some of you may be familiar with Annie Dillard’s collection of essays Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, or with Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild, which was made into a movie last year. I recommend both books; and they both live in the shadow of Thoreau’s Walden.
Thoreau’s writing encourages isolation and contemplation of nature; Emerson championed the strength of the individual mind andsoul. But what did the Transcendentalists have to say about church? In 1838, Emerson was invited by the graduating class of Harvard Divinity School to give a talk. He himself had already left the Unitarian ministry. In his speech to the graduates, he told an anecdote about being at church and not being inspired by a particular preacher. He said:
A snow storm was falling around us. The snow storm was real; the preacher merely spectral; and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out of the window behind him, into the beautiful meteor of the snow.
When faced with a bad sermon, Emerson’s first thought is how he would rather learn from nature. To be fair, Emerson was not against sermons — he just thought they had to be good — or, as he famously put it in that same passage, they should be “life passed through the fire of thought.”
Now, the Transcendentalists were not just some eddy in the backwaters of history. Their ideas greatly influenced American culture — and Unitarianism specifically. Two of the hymns we sang this morning had words by Emerson, and I counted at least 24 hymns and readings in the grey hymnal with words from 8 different Transcendentalists.
So the Transcendentalists are important to our movement. And what do they teach us? God is reflected in our own souls; and we can learn spiritual truths through contemplation, reading, immersion in nature, and intentional solitude. Also, bad sermons aren’t worth sitting through. So again, why are we here? There’s a perfectly solid theological basis — set forth by Unitarians and Transcendentalists — for why we might just as well stay home and read a book, or go hiking up Mount Wilson to look at flowers and trees, and the wonders of creation.
Well, what are some of the problems with this argument?
One of our Unitarian Universalist principles is “the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” The Transcendentalists were really into the free search for truth and meaning, almost intoxicated by it. The idea that you could learn about God just by self-reflection was powerful; and, as a professional mathematician, I have to point out that they found philosophical justification for this idea by appealing to mathematics. Mathematicians come up with universal truths just by thinking, they said; why not theologians?
But they ignored one important aspect of mathematics — after you have convinced yourself of some mathematical statement, and think you have found a proof for it… you need to try to explain your reasoning to someone else, to see whether they find any mistakes. The Transcendentalists conveniently left out this part of the process.
Our UU principle is “the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” I think that the responsible part involves coming into community. Here, we find that the truths that seem so apparent to us may not be so clear to other people; here we find other perspectives, ones that we may not have considered; here, perhaps, we learn some humility… which, incidentally, is a characteristic that I personally do not find in Emerson’s writings.
Channing’s idea is that God is reflected in our own souls, and therefore we can find divine truth by introspection. But if God is in everyone’s souls, then we can equally well find divine truth in community with others.
There are many reasons to come to church. It can be a time apart from the rest of the week, a sabbath. Worship, with music and words and silence, can put us in touch with the things we find divine. It can be a time when we reflect on our values, and ask ourselves whether we are living them as well as we would like to.
But for me, one of the main reasons for being here is to build a beloved community. A community that supports each of us; that challenges us to be our best selves; that helps us think about the mysteries of life, and of death; that gives us companions through good times and bad. In the words of our responsive reading, “All our lives we are in need, and others are in need of us.” We live out this fact by being together, here.
I said at the beginning that I do not believe in anything that I would call “God.” But as I’ve started on this path towards ministry, I’ve learned from talking with many people that I do believe in some things that some other people might call “God” — for instance, that thing that we are creating, week by week, by coming here.
May the spirit of love work through all of us, and be visible to all those in need.
Blessed be. Amen.