Kearsarge Unitarian Universalist
Living and Partly Living; A Faith for Our Time
The Rev. William E. Nelson
What a joy it is for me to be here with you this fine June day! And what a humbling a circumstance it is for anyone, to find him- or herself in a situation wherein, behind the protective shield of a pulpit, he or she has a room full of people actually intent upon listening to what he or she has to say – in this particular case, listening rather carefully. A few of you, of course, namely the Board of Trustees/Search Committee who have invited me here today, have an idea of what I’m likely to say, since you’ve heard me before. And since my purpose today is to try in fifteen minutes or so to tell the greater body of the KUUF who it is who’s standing before them, it’s possible that you’ll hear echoes of my thoughts from three weeks ago today. But this is not the same sermon put into different words; this is something new for this occasion. It won’t be a survey of all my thoughts, but I’m hopeful it will set the stage – that it will give you who are here some idea of who this guy from the other side of the Connecticut River is.
Talking about religion (or faith, or whatever we choose to call that which is each person’s own spiritual center) can be a very dicey matter, can’t it? Especially for liberal religious folks such as we. It’s never an easy business, mainly because an individual’s religious orientation tends to be so central to who that individual is, so defining of his or her point of view. Religious (or spiritual) identity is at its heart a matter that takes in the whole person, with that person’s peculiar makeup, history, experience, and feelings. And to talk about such a thing in words – in language – is terribly difficult, because each within the makeup, history, experience, and feelings of each person is a unique filter through which words heard are processed. If a person were to use the word “God” in a conversation, for instance, what might you think? On the one hand, you might think, Well, that’s a word describing a historic human reaction to the mystery of being. Or, were you otherwise inclined, you might think, “Uh-oh; there’s that word; O my God, I hope that’s not going to come up very often.” Language, because of its internalization by the hearer, is a constant contaminant. Ask any politician. But here we are – one person talking, forty-some persons listening.
Some of you may know the work of Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian minister who grew up in New York City, but who’s lived in Vermont most of his adult life. I recall some twenty years or so ago, reading in Mr. Buechner’s autobiography, of his early days just out of seminary, when he was a teacher and Chaplain at Phillips Academy in the other Andover, the one in Massachusetts. He recalls ascending the pulpit in those early days – an ascent filled with no small degree of trepidation – and looking out upon the expectant faces of students, faculty, and occasionally some parents, noting to himself that every person in that chapel had come with one question on his or her mind; and that question was, “Is it true?”
I’m paraphrasing here, since that book is packed deep into one of the sixteen boxes of books I brought home from my study at the last church I served as a settled minister, but this is the essence of my recollection: “Is it true that there is something to which human beings can aspire, something in which they can invest themselves that makes it possible to transcend the everyday, the day-after-day, the mysterious business of being itself, to live fully and purposefully, to know who they are, and that whatever life might be, that life is worthwhile? Is there meaning in life?”
Most of us, of course, when we hear the word, “religion,” think in terms of “organized religion.” And, of course, that’s the medium through which most people find and experience religion. But I’m talking about something deeper than that, when I speak of religion.
The great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote: “Religion is . . . the calm bottom of the sea at its deepest point, [that] remains calm however high the waves on the surface may be.”
The calm bottom of the deepest sea; a lovely metaphor of that which keeps us steady in the most turbulent times – even when we seem alone amidst the clamoring masses, the “madding crowd,” as Thomas Hardy put it.
In 1935, the British poet and critic T.S. Eliot wrote a poetic drama entitled “Murder in the Cathedral.” The play has to do with the assassination of Sir Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, in the year 1170. It’s a story of the honor – and the danger – of an individual’s search for truth, and in that search, standing up to overwhelming temporal (and popular) authority, to the megalith of the “Establishment” – whatever particular Establishment that might be. The cast of characters in the play includes a chorus, such as might be found in a Greek tragedy. Early in the play the chorus laments the emptiness of life, saying along the way, “Yet we have gone on living, living and partly living.”
I can’t begin to speak for T.S. Eliot, but I find in the words of his lamenting chorus, those sad words, “living and partly living,” a key to understanding the anxiety of being human, of the longing to be fully human, of the desire to be alive to life itself. Clearly I’m waxing a bit poetic here, using “living” and “life” to describe something beyond our hearts’ beating and our brains’ ticking away, valiantly fighting off the onslaught of distraction, even sleep. By “living” and “life,” I mean that sense of being fully awake and aware of who we are and how we relate to virtually everything around us, including – maybe especially including, one another; of being “mindful,” as our Buddhist friends might say, that sense of being human in the fullest sense of the word.
Being human, of course, can be a pretty complicated matter, at least for most people. This is because, of all creatures here on earth we are, as far as we know, the only living beings that are self-aware. And as self-aware creatures we’re faced with the dilemma of knowing that once we were not, and one day we shall not be, again. In other words, we know that we were born, and we know that some day our lives will come to an end. Among our tasks between those two events is that of trying to make sense of it all. We wonder if there’s really any meaning to life, and purpose for our existence. And it’s at that moment, when the wondering takes hold of our consciousness, that the religious sentiment is born within us.
Now let’s face it: not everyone gets wholly caught up in this wonder business. Some people, as my wife likes to say, have “a hole in their soul.” And even for those of us who do, we have to take a break every now and then, or we’d start to lose touch with reality (whatever “reality” may be – but let’s now go to that particular philosophical realm just yet). We have to take a break because and overdose of intense self-consciousness can have disastrous results; we have to amuse ourselves every now and then.
An interesting word, this wore, “amuse.” I never thought too much about it until sometime in last couple of years I read an article in which the writer noted that the word “amuse” is obviously made up of two different parts – the first syllable, “a,” and the rest of the word, “muse.” Now those of you familiar with Latin will recall that the prefix, “a,” means something on the order of “out of,” or “away from.” “Muse,” meanwhile, is a word depicting a certain way of thinking – “musing” – that involves turning things around and around in one’s mind, contemplating, wondering, dealing with deep thoughts. But this kind of thinking can get pretty strenuous, can’t it? We need a break. And so we “amuse” ourselves. We may go all the way and go to an “amusement park,” for example. There’s nothing like a roller coaster to get your mind off the existential dilemma of looking in the mirror. Or we can read a mystery novel or watch some silly-but-gory show on television having to do with the grisly crimes of which human beings are capable. Or we can have a drink! As the old Irishman said to the person who asked why he drank so much, “It’s the quickest way out of Dublin!”
Oddly enough, even church can be a kind of “a-musement” for some people. Maybe that’s one of the reasons that fundamentalist religions have such an attraction around the world. Freedom of thought can be a scary thing. It’s much more comfortable to invest your belief energy into an authoritarian model: there are far fewer decisions to be made, you know what to believe, and you’re surrounded by people who believe precisely as you do. Very comfortable indeed.
I’ve known a smattering of people who live their lives under such an umbrella. Often they’re very nice people. But I have little tolerance, I’m afraid, for talking to them, unless we agree that their religious lives are out-of-bounds topics for conversation. (They tend not to be real responsive to the abstract positions of the liberal religious mind.)
It’s said that people drawn to conservative religious traditions are seeking answers, while those drawn to liberal religious setting thrive on asking questions. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been a question-asker. The concept of “mystery” is the guiding light on my personal religious path; it’s what’s kept my faith alive over the years. I’m incurably fond of basking in the light of ideas that are fresh and alive and beautiful. I find inspiration in the arts – in painting, in music, in sculpture – and in the wondrous and fascinating dynamics of relations among human beings. I like to be in the company of fellow “sailors in uncharted spiritual seas,” where no idea that broadens the mind and liberates people from the bonds of imposed thinking is ever turned away.
Several years ago, Stephanie and I had occasion to visit the wonderful Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, from which we brought home some coffee mugs. Now I have to tell you that our pantry at home is laden (practically bulging) with such coffee mugs we’ve collected from various places we’ve visited over the years; yet still we bring them home. Upon the mugs we brought from the Chicago MoCA is inscribed the motto, “Fear No Art.” I love this sentiment, and on days when I need a little extra inspiration I take them down from their shelf and “drink in” their message. Much of contemporary art is conceptual in nature, dealing with ideas. Even those pieces that initially appear a bit on the ugly, ridiculous side, have been created to evoke an “Ah-ha!” experience from the humans who encounter them. Some work is better than others, for sure. But they all try. And if we, the viewers, can do our part –approaching them with openness, with joy, and with lack of fear – something good is likely to happen. (“It’s a good thing,” as Martha Steward likes to say.)
The same is true in religion. Our task, as a community of faith, is to be open, to be joyous, to be unafraid. Tradition can be a fine thing; it provides a base, it helps define who we are. But tradition will be effective in bringing out our true humanity only when it’s flexible, when it’s able to bring into itself the needs of people who want to find themselves in the present, in the situation where they are where they “live, and move, and have their being,” as some of you may recall from more traditional worship settings than ours. “You should be pioneers in presenting a living faith to the world,” said Gandhi, “and not the dry bones of a traditional faith [that] the world will not grasp.”
“ . . . living and partly living.” When I stumbled across these words my thoughts resonated deeply what I think Eliot was trying to express. Surely it’s true that every one of us in this room is living, but are we truly living, or just partly living? And if we’re not quite there, if we’re only partly living, how to we go about taking that next step?
From my perspective as a minister, I believe that step is to create what one of my Unitarian Universalist colleagues calls a “spiritual open space” – place we’re free to explore, to express, to laugh with one another, to cry with one another – to take the world very seriously, but not so seriously that we can’t laugh at ourselves from time to time, and learn a few lessons in humility along the way. For we’re all in this together.