Kearsarge Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
Stone Chapel, Proctor Academy, Andover, NH
Home ] About Us ] Directions ] Invite/Contact ] Minister ] Calendar ] Announcements ] Unitarians ] Links ] Sermons ] [Volunteer]



Sermon given by Rev. Caroline Fairless on 9/16/2012

at Kearsarge Uniterian Universalist Fellowship

Dr. Wesley Wildman is Professor of Philosophy, Theology, and Ethics at BU and he directs the doctoral program in Religion and Science. This morning, I'm attempting to engage Dr. Wildman in conversation, and, even though I have the advantage of controlling this talk (a little Clint Eastwood-like at the Republican Convention) I already know I am in over my head. In his August 19th lecture at the Monadnock Summer Lyceum, Wildman kind of blew the lid off the delusion that spiritual or religious experiences are somehow distinct from – categorically separate from – even on a higher plane than - the neuroscience that has produced them.

Now I have to confess, when my husband Jim tried to share with me his fascination and excitement about the content of Wildman's talk before I'd had a chance to listen to it, and as he danced his way over the high points, I felt my hackles begin to rise, my defenses move into place, and my ears do what they tend to do when I am listening to something I don't want to hear too quickly – they just fill with white noise, the roar of a waterfall works pretty well.

But I did listen, and I took notes, as Dr. Wildman dropped into the framework of his talk, the historical picture, current picture, and moved us into a future picture, his focus on the relationship between technology and spiritual or religious experience.

There is nothing new about this dance, by the way. Cultures have been using technologies for enhanced spiritual experiences throughout history, in the form of pharmaceuticals, for example - mushrooms, peyote, psilicibin, alcohol, THC, and the like; in the form of ritual with biochemical impact – dances, body paint, masks, drumming. Today we might consider these a fairly primitive pharmacology or biochemistry, but really the basic difference between then and now is that we can create, regulate, and control these stimulants; we know how they work. This is not new news.

What is new news, however, is Wildman's predictions; these are his own words:

"The coarse techniques of the past are rapidly becoming refined technologies that promise customized access to spiritual experiences on demand.”

Customized access to spiritual experiences on demand.

I hear those words and the ostrich in me immediately imagines a kind of pay-per-view or pay-on-demand opportunity, you know, where you can push the button for your religious experience of the day. You could all sit at home. It's hard sometimes, to quiet the ostrich, but it's important. Wildman continues:

"Every month new research papers tell us more about the functional and anatomical neurology of many aspects of spiritual experiences, thereby potentially exposing the relevant brain processes to selective inhibition and enhancement.  Whether we welcome or fear it, the era in which we can induce, suppress and control many spiritual experiences, is fast approaching."

In other words, the more we learn about the neurology of spiritual and religious experiences, the better we can induce them, moderate or regulate them, heighten them, and all this on a person to person individual basis. What I want may not be what you want, but guess what, we can each have what we want.

Wildman makes the claim that people will be able to leave an event, tailored individually - picture helmets with magnets - stronger than ever in their spiritual and ethical beliefs. They would understanding the technology; they would come with the  hope of a spiritual or religious experience; and they will leave having received just that. 

Before we get into the implications, though, I just want to repeat, this is the wave that is coming – in many respects it's already here - all we get to do is deny it or embrace it. This is no George Orwell or Aldous Huxley talking about the unfolding of events or even sixty fifty years ahead of the times. This is now. Denial won't make it go away, so maybe we can take a shot at exploring what it might mean, particularly to spiritual and religious communities.

I think this is going to be really difficult for churches, fellowships (even Unitarian Universalists), seminaries, and other faith formation institutes. What will it mean for a church pastor or a seminary professor to contemplate the fact that students and congregants are able to induce religious experiences without invoking a supernatural power, namely God. Ascribing supernatural agency to religious experience, is a common enough practice. How quick are we to say things like “Well, it seems like God is working behind the scenes again . . .” or “This is God's plan . . .” or “God is calling me . . .” or “Where is God in all of this?”

What about the cost to a community's shared spirituality. What's to stop this model from creating self-centered orbits around the spiritual experience that satisfies personal desire and preference? What are the possibilities for abuse?

The pastoral implications are kind of staggering. If our reliance on supernatural agency for the ground of religious experience is challenged – even negated – by the ever-emerging neurological and psycho/social bank of knowledge, what are we to make of centuries of religions organized around a supreme deity or deities? Confronted by the science that illuminates a kind of parallel spiritual universe through the pharmaceutical, the meditative, cognitive and behavioral processes, are we going to just figure that our spiritual and religious experiences no longer have meaning and value if we can't attribute them to  . . . God? Imagine the despair, the anger, the disorientation, the mistrust, the shame.

But I don't see this evolution as an either/or prospect. Rather a both/and. Let me just pick one of the concerns I've mentioned, community. In the present and future that Wildman paints for us, where neuro-science and spirituality are willing or unwilling partners, what happens to community? Clearly I have no answer to that, but I will call on the wisdom of Parker Palmer, the founder of The Center for Courage and Renewal, the non-profit that both Jim and I serve as retreat facilitators.

In his book A Hidden Wholeness, Palmer describes what he calls a circle of trust, a well-defined gathering designed as a safe place for one's soul to show up. speaks to a marriage of sorts – a partnership of solitude and community. “Participants in a circle of trust,” says Palmer, “reach in toward their own wholeness, reach out towards the world's needs, and try to live their lives at the intersection of the two.”

Palmer then goes on to speak to the “paradox of 'being alone together", of being present to one another as a "community of solitudes”.

I think his wisdom speaks to the fear shared by many in religious communities, namely that the science of which Wildman speaks will destroy the fellowship. It need not be that way; the spiritual evolution he's describing can allow both, the paradox of being alone together, in Palmer's words, a community of solitudes. I can live with that, because I have been in many circles of trust, both as participant and as facilitator. I know the soul-power and the common trust and mutual respect of a community of solitudes.

Dr. Wildman has intersected my life at a really interesting moment, as I am holding what is for me, anyway, a significant question. Why is it that we as a culture tend to define ourselves over and against the measure of God. Either we believe in God, or we don't. Or we don't know whether or not we believe. We believe that Jesus is God or we don't believe that Jesus is God. I think of it as the God Presumption, where God is always the end point. It raises the question for me: what might be possible in terms of understanding this world as mystical and sacred - with sacramental value - if we did not presume God as the agent or outcome? And what might be possible in terms of how we understand our proper human place and role within this sacred web? How might this awakening transform our relational behavior human-to-human and human-non-human? Is it possible we might learn to allow our ethics to emerge from knowing our proper place and role rather than from a scriptural morality handed down by a supernatural authority?

The lesson here, says Dr. Wildman, is that we should reject interpretations of the meaning and value of spiritual experiences that are going to make us uncomfortable when we eventually figure out how they work.  Uncomfortable might be the understatement of the decade. The point, though, is that maybe we shouldn't be teaching anything that will later come back to bite.

I think the question is one of movement and process. How do we get from where we have been and continue to be, to where we probably need to be, without incurring real and certainly disorienting spiritual damage, even annihilation. I lean a lot on the poet Antonio Machado, Traveler, there is no road. You build the road as you walk. Many of you here have heard me speak of a concept developed in my last book, the idea of a space between. I began the book in this way: There is a space between things, between all things. The space is sacred, and it is rich with blessing. I know because I have lived in one such space for more than a decade, and I speak from it. In that book I was referring to the space between Church and what I called Not-Church.

Maybe today and into the future, the space between . . .  is that between God & Not-God. I am thinking of it as an essential passage from where we are now into the future that Dr. Wildman lays out. And again, it's a future that not only is on its way, but elements of it are already here. Again, the question is, how do we want to receive it?

The way into the space between is the apophatic way; it's the way of release, of letting go, of self-emptying. None of us can enter that space between if we cling to the propositions and doctrines and theologies on which we have constructed our spiritual and religious lives. I say that because it's a common reaction to things that go bump in the night – to grasp even tighter to all that we've assumed to be true, all that we need to be true. From the space between, and maybe only from the space between, can we begin to negotiate the problematic questions:

One has to do with the validity of pharmaceutically induced – I'll just use that one as an example – religious experiences. Is an encounter with the luminous less valid because I'm sitting in my special chair with a helmet on my head? Is that cheating? Did I get there too quickly? Did I bypass disciplined practice and plain hard work? Is it unethical? Is the sense of spiritual well-being I go home with of lesser value and meaning?

I was twenty-one years old when I moved to New Haven Connecticut and found my first apartment. In fact, I signed papers for the first (and only) apartment I saw. I called my mom, just flushed with excitement and success. My first apartment! A long pause on the phone. “What?” I asked her. A lengthy sigh. “Well, I had hoped it would take longer. It would mean more.” She was telling me that it had come too easily.

Another example. Is the vibrating language of the trees or the songs of the waters or the impishness of the dirt under my feet of any less sacramental value if I don't attribute these mystical encounters to divine agency?

In this emerging world, how will preachers preach and pastors pastor? How will seminaries teach? In all truth, this one does kind of boggle my mind.

I can speak to most of these questions for myself, I can't answer them for you or anyone else. But I can't address them from where I stand right now. I can only address them from the space between. That's where the surprises live. That's where the conversations can happen that don't incur a dualistic, simplistic, yes or no, black or white response. Letting go is hard. To empty self of ego is hard. To step down from the spiritual bulkhead on which we've stood for lifetimes and release – or at least with open hands - the tenets of our various religions is hard. It is the apophatic way, and we can't know the fruits of this process until we engage it. 

We're already in and moving quickly toward an ever more complex world. When years ago I visited the Vietnam Memorial for the first time, I had wandered down the path and was knee deep in names before I understood what was happening, what I seeing. It's where we are now, I think. We're in the throes of a new narrative, and it's all around us, coming from all directions – spiritual and religious, economic, artistic, poetic, ecological.

Dr. Wildman refers to himself as an apophatic mystical philosopher.  I describe myself in the same way.

My hope – or the hope, I think, is this. The science is showing us how intricately interconnected and interdependent we are, and I don't mean just the human species, although the gift to us, of this developing neuro-science – and it is a gift – is the radical elimination of the dualistic tendencies to separate mind from body, body from soul, soul from the neurons and synapses of our brains, emotion from reason, reason from heart. But the interconnection and interdependence of which I am speaking lives species to species as well, animate to inanimate, biotic to abiotic. There is no separation. That's what the science is showing us, and in that – to my mind – lies all religious and spiritual value and meaning. From that very ground of interconnectedness will emerge the ethics for a new narrative, an ethic which can only emerge from true communion.

Home ] About Us ] Directions ] Invite/Contact ] Minister ] Calendar ] Announcements ] Unitarians ] Links ] Sermons ] [Volunteer]