May 19: “Something Else from Nothing But” with Ministerial Intern, Rebecca Gant
Click here to start at the sermon.
How many of you remember learning about photosynthesis? When you learned that six molecules of carbon dioxide plus six molecules of water plus light yields a sugar molecule and six molecules of oxygen did you stop and say “wow!”? When you learned that animals and plants evolved in such a way that respiration, one of their basic functions, provides exactly what the other needs, did you get goose bumps? Me neither. I remember thinking it was cool, but mostly I worried about getting the chemical equation written down correctly. And my science teacher was more concerned about the science standards than about inspiring awe. But think– the oxygen that we breathe and the carbon dioxide necessary for plant life- animals and plants have been passing these back and forth for as long as there have been animals and plants on this earth.
It’s a shame that we forget to be amazed.
Peter Mayer, a Unitarian Universalist singer/songwriter has a song called “Ordinary Day.” Some of those lyrics are:
I’m standing on a planet, breathing in the atmosphere
Waves vibrating in the air are beating on my ears
Invisible forces are holding me down
I am spinning faster than the speed of sound
There’s a giant black hole in the center of the galaxy
There’s a blueprint of my bones in every single cell of me
And everything with weight is warping time and space
I guess it must be just another ordinary day
Our ordinary days are really rather extraordinary. When we take time to look, we can find reason to be amazed at all that has come together to make our existence possible on this rock hurtling through space.
Our Unitarian Universalist tradition draws from our experiences of awe and the teachings of science in addition to the inspiration and learning from the Judeo-Christian tradition and world religions. At this intersection of wonder and science is a religious orientation called Religious Naturalism.
This spring, I was lucky to take a class with the religious naturalist Ursula Goodenough. She is a cell biologist and professor and frequent writer about religious naturalism. In her book, The Sacred Depths of Nature, she writes that humans’ fundamental existential concerns are these: How Things Are and Which Things Matter.
“How things are” is another way to say “cosmology.” It is the way we try to understand nature and all it includes: the universe; all life, including humans and human systems; rocks, rivers and trees; what happens after we die; why there is suffering or natural disaster or evil.
“Which Things Matter” is a way to talk about a morality or ethos– examples include the ten commandments, or the five pillars of Islam or the Girl Scout Law or a church’s behavioral covenant.
How things are = cosmology. Which things matter = morality.
Goodenough writes “The role of religion is to integrate the cosmology and the morality, to render the cosmological narrative so rich and compelling that it elicits our allegiance and our commitment to its emergent moral understandings.”
The cosmological narrative that Goodenough and other religious naturalists would offer is the story of Nature, backed by science. The narrative includes the big bang, the epic of evolution, the advent of human consciousness and the evolution of cultures.
Consider this part of the story, which I believe fits Goodenough’s description of a rich and compelling cosmological narrative: Scientists believe that life emerged on this planet 4 1/2 billion years ago. They are not exactly sure how it happened- whether because lightning strikes at the surface of the ocean charged the water and formed new combinations of atoms, or whether it happened first at the mouth of a deep-sea vent, where superheated water saturated with compounds came shooting out of the earth’s crust to mix with the compounds in the cold water it found there. However it happened, life emerged from a soup of water and dissolved stardust, all of these components combined and re-combined over billions of years to create biomolecules that could be synthesized by a sunlight-driven chemistry. Something else came from nothing but. Life emerged from non-life. The idea that a soup of chemical compounds was able, over billions of years, to become me and you and every creature on earth is astonishing. And it all happened on this rock orbiting a small star. This planet that is somehow just the right temperature– not too hot, not too cold. Not too acidic, not too alkaline. Just the right amount of sunshine over most of it …
Religious naturalist writer Connie Barlow issues this challenge:
Tell me a creation story more magnificent than that of a living cell forged from the residue of exploded stars! Tell me a story of transformation more wondrous than that of a fish hauling out onto land and becoming amphibian, or a reptile taking to the air and becoming bird, or a mammal slipping back into the sea and becoming whale! Surely, this science-based culture, of all cultures, can find meaning and cause for celebration in its very own cosmic creation story.
If we adopt a religious naturalist orientation, this great story of nature is part of our cosmology- our understanding of How things Are- then the awe we feel helps drive our development of a morality or ethos — Ursula Goodenough’s Which Things Matter.
Unitarian Universalists are explicit about some of the things that matter to us– we have a list of principles that we covenant to affirm and promote. Our ethos includes the idea that everybody matters. That growth is important. And that we are part of the earth and the earth is part of us and it is all worth saving.
Our tradition is called a “living tradition” because we are open to new understandings– we believe that revelation is forever unfolding. We believe that evolution is something that happens in all systems in the universe. We believe that change is necessary and inevitable.
Some changes in nature and in human society happen slowly, incrementally. These are changes in which what comes after is just another version of what came before. Occasionally, though, there is a moment of sudden change, a moment in which what comes after is something different than what came before. It is more than the sum of its parts- something else from nothing but. This is a moment of emergence.
We can see examples of emergence in nature such as when the chemical compounds arranged themselves in such a way that they were able to create life from non-life. Or when the weather conditions are just right to produce “the perfect storm.”
Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Freize write
In all living systems (which includes us humans), [large scale] change always happens through emergence. …Changes that have great impact do not originate in plans or strategies from on high. Instead, they begin as small, local actions. While they remain separate and apart, they have no influence beyond their locale. However, if they become connected [in a system or network], exchanging information and learning, their separate efforts can suddenly emerge as very powerful changes, able to influence a large system. This sudden appearance, known as an emergent phenomenon, always brings new levels of capacity. Three things are guaranteed with emergent phenomena. Their power and influence will far exceed the sum of the separate efforts. They will exhibit skills and capacities that were not present in the local efforts. And their appearance always surprises us.
Do you remember the Arab Spring? While protest and uprising were not new, the confluence of the reach of social media and angry citizens created a wave of protest that had never before been seen. From it emerged a movement that was different not just in size, but because it used social media as an organizing tool, it was different in speed and scope and participation.
I would say that the sharing economy is another example of an emerging phenomenon. Yes, people have given one another rides before, have offered their spare rooms to friends or friends of friends, have loaned a car. But to offer rides, rooms, cars, etc to strangers as a business through the internet is new and different.
It’s important to note that emergence is values-neutral. We can appreciate the process of emergence even when what emerges is not what we would prefer. There are recent emerging movements that give me hope– like the youth-led #NeverAgain movement for gun control after the Parkland shooting and the school walk-out movement inspired by the young climate activist Greta Thunberg. On the other hand, there are also those that concern and horrify me such as the newly emboldened white nationalists and other movements.
Based on our understanding of the big story of the universe and its development, and based on our beliefs about what matters I would say that what we Unitarian Universalists would like to see emerge is what some call the Beloved Community. This would be a world in which all people are treated with justice and the earth is restored to a healthy balance.
Things don’t look good right now for our Beloved Community. You know the issues- rising nationalism, climate crisis, racism and misogyny showing their faces more openly, and so on. I don’t know if we’ll ever get to Beloved Community, but I do believe we can get closer. And I believe that the trying is what is important.
In order for anything new to emerge, the conditions must be right. Like Earth in its Goldilocks position– not too hot, not too cold, but just right. That is one way we can cooperate with the power of emergence– We can help make the conditions favorable for the outcome we want. As Wheatley and Freize wrote, large-scale changes do not come from on high- they happen because of small local efforts. And we can’t get any more local than starting with ourselves.
Would you like to cooperate with the power of emergence to make it a little more likely that a new and true kind of justice will emerge? If so, work to create more justice in and near you. You can start by looking closely at yourself to see where you cooperate with unjust systems and figure out how to stop. Work to heal your wounds so that you have energy to share with others. Find ways to show love and understanding to people you disagree with, even as you maintain boundaries to keep yourself safe. Once you’re aware of your own collusion with injustice and are healing up, you can look beyond yourself to see where you can pool your energy with others who are trying to create change. These networks are where our efforts can be most effective. Creating conditions in which more people love themselves and feel cared for and understood will help movements for justice emerge, and it starts with each of us.
Maybe you feel the most urgency about the impending climate crisis and would like to help an ethic of caring for our earth emerge. You can get grounded in your understanding of the systems of nature- including human systems. You can foster more appreciation in yourself of the great story of nature, how life emerged from non-life, how the epic of evolution progressed, how humans are inextricably bound to the earth. And with that reverence for all that culminated in your existence and the existence of all that is, you can develop practices in your life that honor those processes. You can find ways to encourage and to inform and to support individuals and systems to do better. You can make an opening for innovation and be there to support it.
Or maybe there’s something else you’d like to help bring to the surface. What is it and what conditions can you help create to make that emergence more likely? And who can you partner with so that your actions will be more effective, more inclusive, more liberating?
Wheatley and Freize write: “Separate, local efforts connect and strengthen their interactions and interdependencies. What emerges as these become stronger is a system of influence, a powerful cultural shift that then greatly influences behaviors and defines accepted practices.”
We know that at no moment in our lives are we unaffected by what is happening in the world and at no moment is the world unaffected by our actions. All of us are constantly co-creating reality. Our actions have consequences. Our inaction has consequences. And yet, we want to take action. The good news is that we alone actually can’t make big changes happen- we can only make small, local changes and connect our actions with others. The other good news is that the small changes are all we need. Small actions, when linked with others who are working for the same goal, are what add up to the perfect conditions for something new and better and more life-giving to emerge.
May it be so.