Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?
Rev. Kevin Tarsa
Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains
A sermon delivered May 26, 2019
May theme: curiosity
“Let us learn the revelation of all nature and thought: that the Highest dwells within us, that the sources of nature are in our own minds.”
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson in “The Oversoul”
Where do we come from?
I share, in new member classes, that the evolution of religion over many thousands of years traces the gradual movement from external authority to internal authority.
In early human religiosity, the ultimate sources of power and influence were outside of humanity, in the sun, moon, stars, oceans, mountains, weather, earthquakes, volcanoes… Ultimate power and control were ascribed to the most powerful realities that people experienced, personified sometimes as goddesses, gods, and deities of many kinds.
The next ring inward, included powerful animals and trees and plants, sacred objects and images that represented the larger powers that controlled the world and peoples’ lives.
When humans began to live in larger, more layered and more organized groups, power and authority became located in human structures and institutions, seen as gateways to the ultimate powers: temples, religious traditions, rituals, sacred texts and human intermediaries – the designated priestesses, priests and shamans who interpreted the traditions, and sacred signs and writings for everyone else, who communed directly with deities and served as bridges between the human realm and the sacred realms.
With the development of the printing press and more efficient forms of transportation, knowledge and awareness spread – not only geographically, but through more of the layers of given societies. More and more people no longer needed to rely solely on the designated, educated, religious leaders for information, people could read and interpret sacred texts like the Bible for themselves, and so the source of religious authority moved from the institutions, toward the individual. This is when many new varieties of Christianity sprang up in Europe, because people were interpreting the writings for themselves and coming to all kinds of different conclusions. Imagine!
But no sooner did certain people break from a tradition, than they set up their own tradition as the one true religion, proclaiming that they themselves, and their particular interpretations, were THE new and final source for all religious authority.
As Helen Keller put it, “The heresy of one age becomes the orthodoxy of the next.”
It is out of one of those chapters of someone’s new and rigid version of Christianity in the 1500s that Unitarianism and Universalism arose and branched off from Calvinism, a very specific and narrow interpretation of Christian scripture. Our ancestors, from many different streams, were heretics in their times, a word that means, we know from its Greek roots, “people who choose.”
By the early 1800s, Unitarians had shifted to an understanding of Jesus as a fully, albeit exceptional, human being, not uniquely divine; to an understanding of the Hebrew and Christian bibles as human works that needed to be studied as we would study any historic human document, based on what we know about the times and the people; and to a belief that humans are morally and spiritually obligated to apply reason and current knowledge to all religious exploration and understanding.
It was a way of thinking that had been foreshadowed earlier in that diagram of a solar system painted on the ceiling panel of a Unitarian church in Transylvania, no matter what the Catholic church had insisted upon for centuries. The primary source of religious authority was moving then, in our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors, from ancient texts, traditions and institutions, to human knowledge and awareness. It was reached, as William Ellery Channing preached, by each person’s God-given capacity to reason.
What are we?
And then, hot on the tails of that shift in the United States, came the Transcendentalists, who pulled the ultimate source of religious authority completely inside the individual – sort of.
“The soul,” Emerson wrote, “is the perceiver and revealer of truth. We know truth when we see it, let skeptic and scoffer say what they choose.”
Almost all of the New England Transcendentalists were Unitarian or strongly associated with Unitarianism. Many were, like Emerson, Unitarians ministers. Still, they were in some ways a varied lot: Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, Amos Bronson Alcott (Louisa May Alcott’s father), Elizabeth Peabody, Theodore Parker, George and Sophia Ripley, among others. They were called “the club of the like-minded” by outsiders, a description that they more-or-less accepted, saying that they truly were “like-minded” …in that “no two [of them] were of the same opinion.”
What they did hold in common, was an “emphasis on the primacy of self-consciousness” (Gura), the idea that one’s own consciousness is THE legitimate access point to knowledge and truth, and that everyone has direct, intuitive and immediate access to all things divine…if we would but open ourselves to it and not let anything get in the way.
“There is a deep power in which we exist and whose beatitude is accessible to us.”
He referred to this deep power and ultimate unity as the “oversoul.”
Emerson preached that there is no need for a church, for a priest, for a preacher, for a sacred text, for rituals, traditions, or anyone else’s ideas. Every person, of every social and education level, at every age in one’s life, can access ultimate reality through their innermost awareness.
“It comes to the lowly and the simple; it comes to whosoever will put off what is foreign and proud; it comes as insight; it comes as serenity; it comes as grandeur. . . Within us is the soul of the whole.” ~ Emerson
It is a mystical approach, inspired by Vedic texts and European philosophies, and beamed through this America-crafted lens of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
For the Transcendentalists, the final authority for knowing what is true is one’s personal experience and direct, intuitive perception and knowledge.
“We know truth when we see it.”
Theologically, this is pretty much where we still are in our tradition and our nation 150 years later. Although they were both revered and ridiculed in their time, Emerson and the Transcendentalists shaped American thinking significantly, and pointed U.S. culture toward prioritizing individuality and toward the primacy of personal consciousness as the source of authority.
This is evident, I think, everywhere in our national politics now, wherein people come to their own felt conclusions regardless of outside information or evidence that challenges those conclusions.
The thing is, if we follow our tradition, the use of our reason and the application of our accumulating knowledge ought to lead us to the realization that we individuals are not the center of the universe after all, heretical as that message may be in our circles. The world and truth do not revolve around us individuals and our own consciousness.
Ongoing human research keeps pointing out to us that what we are able to see, perceive and understand is shaped and bounded by our genetic blueprint, our life experience, our physiology, our psychology, our neurochemistry, our diets …and the sound of our names.
Okay, to explain that segue…
A relative of mine, Nicholas, just announced his engagement to his fiancée, Nicole. How much more similar could those names be? I think of my friends, Paula and Paul, and Jeanine and George. My first love’s name, early in my young adult life, was Colin. Colin and Kevin. Of the five sounds in our two, brief names, three are exactly the same.
It’s referred to in the research as “the Name Letter Effect” – people disproportionately choose spouses, places to live, and occupations with names similar to their own. We think we are making these intimate and vital life decisions based on our careful evaluation and awareness, when something as simple as the spelling or sound of our names is actually pulling some of the strings.
These kinds of things fascinate me because of what they reveal about human nature in general. I am intrigued by the way that what I eat influences how and what I think and feel. That sitting in a hard chair (as opposed to a soft chair) makes people more uncompromising when they are negotiating.
That having the microscopic parasite Toxoplasma Gondii, which infects almost ¼ (about 22.5%) of Americans older than the age of 12, makes people more extroverted and less conscientious than people without the parasite. All these amazing subtle influences that shape our feelings, our thinking and our behavior without our knowing it, when all the while we think we are choosing freely and with complete conscious control.
Again and again, the message is that we are not as conscious as we think we are of our own biases, of the limits of our perception and awareness, of the invisible influences on our choices and our actions.
Religions In the Hands of an Angry God
The NPR show and podcast “The Hidden Brain,” looks at just these kinds of invisible influences upon us. A recent episode asked, “Where does religion come from?” In it, the host, Shankar Vedantam, highlights the work of Azim Shariff, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, who studies religion from a psychological perspective.
Shariff begins with the assumption that religion arose, evolved and continues because it offers some sort of survival advantage in terms of natural selection, allowing people who are religious to survive and pass on their genetic material to their offspring.
Shariff points out that for most of human history we lived in small groups in which everyone knew everyone and in which everyone knew everyone’s behavior. It is difficult, in small groups, to get away with cheating, or stealing, or killing, or not contributing to the work needed. But when human groups became larger than 150 or so, to 500, to 1000, to 10,000 people, those natural small group controls on behavior were no longer sustainable. People could cheat, and steal, and kill and free-load and get away with it, which is not helpful to the health and sustainability and genetic survival of the group.
Shariff and others say that religion arose as a cultural innovation to allow us to succeed in these larger groups by enhancing trust and cooperation. This is not a new concept. But not just any religion, Shariff says. What worked best to corral human behavior was the idea of “a supernatural punisher” – a large, all-seeing, all-knowing, punitive God. The perfect opposite of what our Universalist tradition teaches. It turns out that believing that you are a “sinner in the hands of an angry god” confers an evolutionary advantage on you and your people.
In one study of college students, Shariff discovered that the more a person believed god to be on the punitive side of the spectrum, the less likely the person was to cheat on a test, whereas the more a person believed their god to be loving, the more likely they were to cheat on a test.
Again. Oh, crap. Not a great selling point for Universalism and liberal religion.
Shariff says that “the societies that have been able to grow [the] largest with the religions that they believe in, have had this idea of supernatural punishment at their core because it is an effective deterrent” and an effective connector to people you’ve never even met.
Shariff points out that “All the world’s major religions today arose at times when human societies were struggling with the challenges of size, complexity or scarcity,” and therefore struggling with trust and cooperation.
Believing in a big, bad God helped large societies, in many cases.
The good news/bad news in these complex times, when trust and cooperation are a challenge, is that there is a chicken and egg reality here: Which kinds of religions reign in a given time and place is context dependent and can change. For example, small groups and societies tend to have small gods who are not particularly powerful or punitive. And “local conditions, like individual ecosystems, can create conditions where certain beliefs flourish and where other beliefs fade away,” says Shariff.
Now, what is considered sacred isn’t necessarily something religious – we sacralize things like freedom, patriotism and our nation, for example – so there are ramifications for our country.
Shariff says that the countries in which religion is least important are the countries with the highest faith in the rule of law and trust in institutions.
On the flip side, as Shankar Vedantam explains:
“Azim thinks that if regulations and good governance provide the trust and cooperation that religious bonds once provided, new kinds of faith might flourish – religions that don’t have an angry god who threatens to punish you if you step out of line, religions that don’t talk a lot about hell and damnation but instead spend more time on building community.”
Where are we going?
So where does that leave us, and what does all of this have to do with curiosity?
I say that we turn to Catholicism.
For a moment.
There is, in Catholicism, a little known and not actively publicized escape clause.
For all its clear dogma and firm listing of what is okay and what is not okay, Catholic tradition notes, in the fine print, that in the end, each Catholic may appeal to the primacy of their own conscience. No matter what the church tradition teaches, one’s personal conscience is the final arbiter when navigating difficult moral questions.
(Pope Francis caught flack and was publicly accused of heresy when he reaffirming the primacy of conscience two years ago, in November 2017. He said that priests are supposed to inform Catholic consciences, “not replace them.”)
I say that what we are called to now is not so much a primacy of isolated personal consciousness as our Transcendentalist forebears taught, but rather to a primacy of conscience that is informed not only by our incomplete consciousness, but also informed by a sense of humility that recognizes that we don’t know everything, even and especially about ourselves….that understands that we must draw on sources of authority both inside and outside of ourselves in order to know what we need to know and need to do…that recognizes that we, as individuals, are not the center of the universe around which all else revolves…that we are not isolated beings.
I’m not suggesting that we let go of our inner authority completely, but that we add to it, couple it with an openness to outer sources of knowledge and authority. It’s part of our maturation as a religious tradition. UUism is rather young, in religion terms, and much like adolescents who need to define themselves – often angrily and with a great deal of drama – as separate from their parents in order to grow into who they are and will become, UUism has defined itself by what it is not, and by a powerfully self-centered theology. Maturing as a faith will require that we remain true to our own consciousness while keeping our hearts and our heads open to answers beyond our own.
A Primacy of Conscience requires that we stay genuinely and endlessly curious.
For the last two and a half years I have been repeating to myself the mantra, “Get curious, not furious. Get curious, not furious,”not always certain that getting furious wasn’t the better way.
But in these times, staying curious is essential.
Emerson valued curiosity as a path to overcoming the fear of not conforming, curiosity as a path to being an individual. Curiosity, especially considering what we are learning about human nature, is also a path to overcoming the fear of being more than an individual, of being thoroughly and intimately interconnected and interdependent.
Emerson saw curiosity as an avenue to staying ever receptive to the ultimate oneness of nature that is named God by many. As many of us might put it, curiosity is about staying ever open to the spirit of love, as we know it now and as it will continue to be revealed.
Deeply curious may we ever be.
Emerson, Ralph W, and Edward L. Ericson. Emerson on Transcendentalism. New York: Ungar, 1986. Print.
Gura, Philip F. American Transcendentalism: A History. , 2007. Print.
Vedantam, Shankar, host. “Where Does Religion Come From? One Researcher Points To ‘Cultural’ Evolution.” Hidden Brain, NPR, 6 May. 2019. https://www.npr.org/2019/05/06/720656274/where-does-religion-come-from-one-researcher-points-to-cultural-evolution
Winfield, Nicole. “Pope Francis reaffirms primacy of conscience amid criticism of ‘Amoris Laetitia.’” America: The Jesuit Review. November 11, 2017. https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2017/11/11/pope-francis-reaffirms-primacy-conscience-amid-criticism-amoris-laetitia
And several online articles regarding unexpected influences on human behavior.