© Dr. Chris Schriner 2007
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
December 9, 2007

What's the point of having freedom if we don't use it? As Unitarian Universalists we are free to explore all sorts of ideas, but we could do better at encouraging our members to actually grapple with the big questions of meaning, value, and ultimate reality. I want us to bring theological discussion into the open, rather than hiding our beliefs for fear of causing conflict. So I gave a talk here recently called "Going Beyond the Long White Beard," exploring creative approaches to belief in god. Today we will look at spirituality from another angle, talking about secular or naturalistic philosophies of life including atheism and agnosticism.

Secular humanists reject the idea that we live in a two-story universe, divided into the physical universe and the non-physical world of gods, angels, devils, and so on. But if you are shopping for a spiritual home there is a lot to be said for buying the two-story model. The first story, the world that we physically occupy, leaves a lot to be desired. This world is full of evil, tragedy, and injustice; life ends in death; and meaning is threatened with meaninglessness. It sounds like the old Peggy Lee song, "Is That All There Is?"

Our spiritual home may seem incomplete without a second level of transcendent goodness and meaning. But this does not force us to believe in a supernatural "second story." Instead, our "second story" could be a second story that is told, a story that unifies our experiences into a coherent narrative that gives life meaning.

Finding meaning is such a basic human need. I have known many atheists who experience the joy of living in spite of suffering, tragedy, evil, injustice, and death. But without meaning, spiritual fulfillment is impossible. Without meaning, life can shrink down so that we turn into frantic little rodent-critters - running the old rat race, dashing through the maze to grab some cheese, over and over till the end. Both theists and atheists need a second story, a meaning-story, a story of what it's all about.

If you are a secular humanist, one way to think about this is to ask what plays roughly the same role in your life that god plays in the lives of theists. If you are atheistic or agnostic, what "hits the god-spot" for you, or if you prefer, what feeds the need for meaning? Some days ago, I sent our members an email with three questions about this. Your answers to these questions suggest several ways of finding fulfillment without believing in a supernatural second story.

Here's the first question: If your spirituality does not focus on god, then what is of ultimate value for you? In other words, what is sacred, holy, and precious to you? What calls forth your commitment and allegiance? And what do you turn to for healing and transformation?

Several of you talked about why you are not attracted to the idea of a supernatural god. One person mentioned that after reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, she saw many reasons not to be a theist. Secular humanists often feel as if the miraculous promises of traditional religion are rather far-fetched. It is smugly said that there are no atheists in foxholes, but anyone who does a reality check on that old saying will see that it is baloney. I have certainly known atheists who maintained their disbelief even when the going got very tough. They just did not see theism as a reasonable alternative. I'm reminded of the story of a fellow who "stumbles into a deep well and plummets a hundred feet before grasping a spindly root, stopping his fall. His grip grows weaker and weaker, and he cries out, 'is there anybody up there?'

"... a beam of bright light shines down on him. A deep voice thunders, 'I, the Lord, am here. Let go of the root, and I will save you.'

"The man thinks for a moment and then yells, 'Is there anybody else up there?'" [from Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein, Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar, p. 52.]

The emails I read from humanists about what is ultimately precious to you tended to focus on being connected with something greater than yourself - connected with other people, with humanity, with all living things, or with the cosmos. Tracy Barnett wrote, "What is sacred and holy is the interconnectedness of everyone and everything - the 'human-ness' that we share - the thing that connects us all." Greg Bell focused on connection with humanity, finding nothing else to be worthy of service.

Before I go on with the sermon, I invite you to consider this question yourself in a time of meditation and prayer. If your spirituality does not focus on god, what do you see as ultimately significant and deeply precious? And what do you turn to for healing and transformation? If your spirituality does focus on god, you might think about the ultimate values your belief in god encourages. Does a god or goddess speak to you in some sense, calling you to be faithful to higher principles? Or if you don't receive messages from a deity, how does reverence for a holy being or a sacred force help you focus on what's right?

So now let's close our eyes or look down, and meditate or pray about these ideas in our own ways. What is of ultimate value for you? How do these values connect with belief in god, or how do you connect with these values without such a belief? Let's continue for a little while in the silence. (Meditation.) Amen.

Let's hear some brief comments from a few people about what you experienced. (Discussion.)

Thanks for those sharings. The next question I asked in my email was, "Do you have a regular spiritual practice that helps you focus on what is of ultimate worth?" Several suggested finding a state of mind which is calm and clearly aware, "just being" in the moment. One person mentioned subtle ways to do this, "like deliberately taking slower alternative routes between home and work." He also said, "I find that being wholly present in the moment and place where I find myself is a way to keep focus in my life." Not surprisingly, meditation was commonly mentioned as a way to be here now.

Paul Davis listed several approaches to heightening his awareness and reflecting on the big questions. He wrote, "I frequently ... engage in: thinking while taking a walk, re-reading important books (Bible, Bertrand Russell, classical Greek philosophy, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, etc.), discussion with friends, and meditation. Perhaps my most nearly regular spiritual practice is attendance of MPUUC Sunday services."

Paul also mentioned what he called "wild ideas." He noted that, "These are unlikely to be true, but not impossible, and they perhaps shed light indirectly on what might be true. Among them are the notion of multiple time dimensions, so that, at death, while our consciousness does not continue in our hitherto known time dimension, it does continue in another. Another thought is the ultimate merging of all our consciousnesses, so that eventually we all come to compose (or create) God."

It won't surprise you to hear that Unitarian Universalists cherish nature. One atheist said that she finds "nature to be a spiritual tonic ... spending time with my dog, growing flowers, hiking, swimming in a lake, going out to the ocean, going outside during a windstorm ... watching the moon rise over the hills, watching hawks and pelicans out at Quarry Lakes."

Notice something important here. These people are not saying they meditate or watch the moon rise and then do something extra to inject meaning into that experience. They don't need to come up with 10 good reasons why watching a hawk at Quarry Lakes is inspiring or ask some higher authority whether "being in the moment" helps us find fulfillment. A sense of meaning will frequently well up within us automatically when we stop, breathe, and be. (That's one reason some of us come to the service on Sundays.) Finding value and significance is part of our nature, part of our heritage as human beings. It came as standard equipment - it is not an optional extra. Like other aspects of our humanity, this ability to make meaning can be damaged by problems such as disturbances in brain chemistry. Some people who have been biochemically depressed say that after taking medication their sense of meaning returned and it felt like this was their natural state. And it is.

Another way to find meaning is to conscientiously practice caring. Here's another comment by Tracy Barnett: "The only spiritual practice I have is to always live responsibly. This is spiritual and requires conscious effort, conscious decisions, and is practiced every day, all day."

One of our new members, TJ Jaramillo, stated, "I will drag myself out of bed after five days of no sleep just to make sure there's water in the dog dish." He also mentioned helping people "understand one another," and he added, "Those who give of themselves for others remain my heroes and my role models."

An older Unitarian Universalist wrote, "In order to be 'immortal,' we must leave a legacy of goodness, kindness, consideration, caring ... and all the other 'ethical' hoo ha. If we don't pass this on, we are nothing. You know, 'random acts of Kindness' !!" She listed some of the good things she has done in her life, including participation in the early Civil Rights movement, and concluded that even though her contributions were tiny in the great scheme of things, because of conscientiously doing her part, "my immortality is fixed." I hope all of us can say that when our hair has turned gray.

So our spiritual practices include slowing down to be here now, communion with nature, and actively practicing caring. These are ways to claim our human birthright. We are creatures that make meaning like birds make songs.

The third question I asked in my email was, "Do you have a creative or unusual approach to non-theistic spirituality?" Since the theme of our next all-church retreat will be Spirituality and the Arts, it was fitting that several of you mentioned artistic appreciation and expression. Bobbie Burri noted that "... careful observation and drawing ... feels like a spiritual activity - getting closer to the most precious 'sacred' wondrous.... [And also,] moving to music is a way that I sometimes am able to feel and release a wide range of very strong emotions. I may feel as though I'm living another person's agonies or strengths." People also appreciate literature, including the Bible as literature. One person wrote, "Some people are very shocked when they learn that I am both an atheist but also a student and a lover of the Bible. To me there is no contradiction. ... I happened to read the short book of Philippians last night around 11 pm. I am so inspired by Paul's words even though I don't subscribe to his theology."

And Greg Bell mentioned using a creative space for reflection: "In the shower I think about both the fringes and the cores of my philosophy, challenging, reinforcing, and replacing what I believe ..."

Lately when I pause to just be, I have tried to remember to situate myself, to get a sense of where I am in the larger picture - situating myself in time, in the great human journey - situating myself in space, in this town, this planet, among the stars - situating myself spiritually, in the broad sweep of religious and philosophical exploration, and in my chosen faith of Unitarian Universalism. Just stopping to notice where I am helps ground me in being part of something greater than myself, something mysterious and magnificent - and meaningful.

In the book of Genesis, we read that after creating the world, God looked at creation and saw that it was good. There was no need to manufacture a sense of meaning and value and add this to the experience of creation. The feeling that the creation was good just came from God's heart. Perhaps the person who wrote those words expressed it this way because that's the way we humans respond, if we will only pause and take in the wonder of it all. As the choir sang today, "I see skies of blue and clouds of white, the bright blessed day, and the dark sacred night, and I say to myself, 'what a wonderful world.'"

Both theists and atheists need a second story, a meaning-story to lift life above the rat-race, a story of what it's all about. If you are an atheist or agnostic, this story may just be that meaning comes from within. You don't have to search for it out there like you're looking for the holy grail. It is here with you now. It is closer to you than your own breathing. Your second story may simply amount to blessing the first story, blessing Earthly life with all its flaws and ambiguities. "Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home," and our home is in our bodies, our minds, our planet, and the great beyond. This is enough, and more than enough.

Theists too can affirm that meaning comes from within, based on the idea that we are made in the image of God, and we can bless our lives as the Hebrew God was said to have blessed his world. If we were made in the image of a meaning-making god, we are also makers of meaning, we also contain an inner light which enables us to say Amen to our lives and our place in creation. As we have seen in other sermons, the spirituality of theists and atheists is much more similar than one might suppose.

I want to close with words of thanks to everyone here who is seriously searching for spiritual fulfillment. I thank you if you're a theist, I thank you if you're an atheist, I thank you if you're conscientiously confused about the whole thing. As a Unitarian Universalist you have the right and responsibility to create your own philosophy of life, and you get to do this in community with other sincere seekers. May Mission Peak help you find zest for the endless quest, wherever your journey may take you.

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