© Mark Rahman 2006. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
August 27, 2006

All knowing. All wise. All seeing. Omnipotent. Omnipresent. Infinite mercy. That which passeth all understanding. King of Kings, Lord of Lords. The Infinite.

These are the familiar epithets in the West that pertain to God or ultimate spirit. They seek to give some idea of the grandeur, the power, the difference in scale that compares our meso-cosmic world to an infinite being or substance. This seems natural in the modern age that can see back to the beginnings of time, measure the universe, and develop such counterintuitive ideas as a finite boundaryless universe and quantum mechanics. Some may feel beyond awe of the infinite, but not find the concepts overwhelming or unreasonable when applied to religious ideas. They are not the ideas of our time, but come from an earlier day when awe was the intended function. Further back when magic was the dominant form of unseen action, God or the gods were not quite so infinite, however powerful.

In early Mesopotamia gods were, like all politics, local. Each city-state had its own gods for that area. If you traveled elsewhere, then you sacrificed to the gods of that area because your own were far away. The realm of the gods was elsewhere, but not remote. Every city-state would build a ziggurat, a step pyramid, that had a house for the god at the top. The house or temple was a halfway point where heaven and earth intersected. The priestly elite could meet with the god at this place. The intersection of earth and heaven could come even closer in the form of god-kings such as the pharaohs of Egypt or the Emperors of Japan. They were a permanent presence instead of temporary visitations.

The Greeks widened the notion of locality to include the whole culture. Zeus et al. were atop Olympus, which was far from most Greek city states. While some of the gods were patrons for particular cities, as Athena was for Athens, they could come to situations where both sides of a war would be praying to the same gods.

However widely the Greek gods ruled, they were still limited in the sense of being creatures of creation, rather than creators. They arose from elemental forces that also created the world. The Hebrews had a different way of seeing God. God was the creator, the creator of all. All material, all plants, all animals, all people, all everything. If other gods there be, then they are part of the Hebrew God's creation. God has a chosen people, but he/it/she is still the god of all others, too. God as the creator becomes a universal force that is everywhere, and is the context within which that everywhere takes place. God is so separate that he only meets with a select few by way of visions, dreams, or the odd burning bush. Angels carry out most actual face-to-face meetings now that God is considered so separate, so outside of the material world. By the time of the church fathers, God is not just really, really big but officially infinite. Nonwestern cultures also have infinity as a central tenet. In Hinduism the universe is a cycle of creation and destruction without beginning or end. God exists beyond anything we can conceive, and the gods of the myths are manifestations for our benefit because we possess no better understanding. In Bhuddism Nirvana is attained by peeling away all attachments to this world and ego until only the connection to an infinite remains. Throughout the world infinity has become the common usual way of thinking of the spirit realm.

God has become infinite. But what exactly does that mean. To help us on the topic, I have asked Gregory Bell to detail what is involved. Younger minds get around new and different concepts better than we old geezers.

Infinity is intuitively easy to understand. If you have a number line, then you can always add another number and another with no largest number in sight. This is a potential infinity. Time and the set of all whole numbers are common examples. It is different from a space that has no boundary, but is still finite. Infinity cannot exist in the physical universe, which has merely approximately 10 to the 80th elementary particles; only the idea of it can.

The modern theory of infinity was worked out by Georg Cantor in the 19th century. There are 2 types of infinity, countable and uncountable. Countable would be all of the integers added together, because they can be counted in sequence. Uncountable would be all of the real numbers between 1 and 2. You cannot name them in order because between any two real numbers there can always be another real number. It turns out that uncountable sequences are actually larger than countable sequences. If you match up all the numbers in each type of infinity, then there will be leftovers in the uncountable set. It also turns out that the amount of numbers between 1 and 20 is larger than if you added all the numbers between 1 and 2. This is an infinity of infinities and so on in an infinite hierarchy.

Also, infinity plus x equals infinity, even if x equals infinity. While you may have larger infinities, you cannot get them by addition, only by concept.
Wait a minute. Infinity is infinite, right?
And nothing is larger than infinity, right? Then how can one infinity have more members than another?
It doesn't have more, it is just bigger. After all, while numbers lead to infinity, infinity itself is not a number. Do not be limited by dimension. It is not only different from what you imagine, it is more different than you can imagine.
Well, if infinity plus infinity equals infinity then does it follow that two infinities equals one infinity, and dividing by infinity we have two equals one?
No, since infinity takes in not everything that is, but everything that could be, two together is still only one of everything that could be.
Infinity is a conundrum.
Infinity is a paradox!

One of the ancient writers knew a little about infinity and time. Saint Augustine wrote on the matter in Book Twelve of the City of God. It can be a little difficult to follow but goes as follows:

"To say there was a time when time was not, is as absurd as to say there was a man when there was no man; or, this world was when this world was not. For if we are not referring to the same object, the form of expression may be used, as, there was another man when this man was not. Thus we can reasonably say there was another time when this time was not; but not the merest simpleton could say there was a time when there was no time. As, then, we say that time was created, though we also say that it always has been, since in all time time has been, so it does not follow that if the angels have always been, they were therefore not created. For we say that they have always been, because they have been in all time; and we say they have been in all time, because time itself could no wise be without them. For where there is no creature whose changing movements admit of succession, there cannot be time at all. And consequently, even if they have always existed, they were created; neither, if they have always existed, are they therefore co-eternal with the Creator. For He has always existed in unchangeable eternity; while they were created, and are said to have been always, because they have been in all time, time being impossible without the creature. But time passing away by its changefulness, cannot be co-eternal with changeless eternity. And consequently, though the immortality of the angels does not pass in time, does not become past as if now it were not, nor has a future as if it were not yet, still their movements, which are the basis of time, do pass from future to past; and therefore they cannot be co-eternal with the Creator, in whose movement we cannot say that there has been that which now is not, or shall be that which is not yet. Wherefore, if God always has been Lord, He has always had creatures under His dominion - creatures, however, not begotten of Him, but created by Him out of nothing; nor co-eternal with Him, for He was before them though at no time without them, because He preceded them, not by the lapse of time, but by His abiding eternity."

Time, therefore, is a countable infinity, proceeding one day or second at a time. It lasts forever, but is qualitatively different from a truly infinite being. Forever is not as big as eternity. Augustine is saying that an infinite realm and the physical world can coexist but do not commingle. Only by a great power may anything pass between the realms. Even the angels live between Earth and God's own state of being. Infinity is beyond our senses and our ability to understand. A very modern understanding of time from about 410 of the CE, is it not?

Is there any implication for a spiritual frame of reference in the present day? It gives a clue. Some of us are familiar with the phrase "I don't know if it really happened this way, but I do believe it's true." Paradox can be something that is true but cannot be made a fact. Infinity can be thought of in this universe, can be described, can be manipulated mathematically, but can never be made into a fact nor really absolutely understood. Paradox means understanding is not available for all things. Explanations, no matter how revealed, will help little. Dogmatic instruction may provide conformation but will not advance understanding.

One more part of the puzzle to come: The model is presented in Karen Armstrong's recent work, The Battle for God.

"We tend to assume that the people of the past were (more or less) like us, but in fact their spiritual lives were rather different. In particular, they evolved two ways of thinking, speaking, and acquiring knowledge, which scholars have called mythos and logos. Both were essential; they were regarded as complementary ways of arriving at truth, and each had its special area of competence. Myth was regarded as primary; it was concerned with what was thought to be timeless and constant in our existence. Myth looked back to the origins of life, to the foundations of culture, and to the deepest levels of the human mind. Myth was not concerned with practical matters, but with meaning. Unless we find some significance in our lives, we mortal men and women fall very easily into despair. The mythos of a society provided people with a context that made sense of their day-to-day lives; it directed their attention to the eternal and the universal....

"Logos was equally important. Logos was the rational, pragmatic, and scientific thought that enabled men and women to function well in the world. We may have lost the sense of mythos in the West today, but we are very familiar with logos, which is the basis of our society. Unlike myth, logos must relate exactly to facts and correspond to external realities if it is to be effective. ...Logos is practical...logos forges ahead and tries to find something new...achieve a greater control...invent something novel."

Armstrong goes on to say that the West is not alone in having lost a connection to mythos. Many religiously minded individuals have also lost a sense of mythos when the myths that had given the world meaning, no longer apply to how the modern world is changing. Change not from an old way to a new way, but change without end. Myths for a society are never able to gel nor have they the ability to withstand inspection in a logos-driven world. Many respond by having logos become the basis of religion by asserting a literal interpretation of scripture without mythos. At such times there is no room for other ways of seeing the same ideas and contexts. There can be only one truth in the real world the way one plus one makes two or hydrogen and oxygen make water. Evolution, age of the earth, cosmology must all be real as scripture is said to say, not as data and science say. That scripture is a story that explains truths as people may understand them is not permitted and our touch upon meaning is lost.

And here am I. Rationalist. Atheist. Generally nongregarious. Logos to the hilt. But twelve years ago I happened into here completely without intention. Home had found me. And now I understand why. Remember infinity? It is just one small example of something that can prove a larger concept than ourselves can exist. Where there is one, there may be more. There may be a different one for every person. Is it important to have a spiritual connection? I remember Reverend Barbara Meyer's sermon on mental health and healing. Many different factors go into healing, having different effects and imports at different times. The one constant in healing was developing a spiritual practice. If spirituality - mythos - is important in reconstructing a human being, it must also be important in constructing one.

Which finally brings me to Unitarian Universalism. A noncredal religion is comfortable with not only not having all the right answers, but also with not all the same answers. Each person may bring to bear their own separate being, personal experiences, and just plain serendipity. The connection to something larger than one's self can be appropriate to the individual. Meaning derives from the feeling of connection even if it is not the same connection that all others have. UUs offer the opportunity for each to seek a responsible truth. While individuals may not change much once they are set in their ways, as the generations pass society is able to change. The need is not there to protect our views by forcing them on others. I find it curious that rational science can offer a return to myth for those who have subsumed themselves in literal religion.

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