All Souls Kansas City

“To Be Shaped By” March 18, 2018 with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons


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When is a black hole not black? When it explodes, said Stephen Hawking, who died earlier this week. The inherent finitude of the human body’s material existence finally caught up with the greatest scientist of our generation; the strange energy of his dauntless spirit is now free to roam the cosmos that fascinated him at will. Confined by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis to a wheelchair for most of his adult life, Hawking devoted his mathematical brilliance and rigorous curiosity to what he considered the largest and most interesting question of all: where did the universe come from? It’s not that the rest of us don’t think about this topic ever, but even the scientifically inclined among us are usually content with approximate answers that we still don’t entirely understand. I know I am. Hawking’s intellectual precision led him to focus on black holes, those time/space anomalies of gravitation so dense that even light cannot escape from them. Through sheer force of mathematics, performed largely in his head, he demonstrated that a trail of particles continually escapes from black holes, and that the holes themselves eventually explode and disappear. “Hawking radiation,” as these particles are now known, is one of the most intriguing and generative scientific discoveries of the past half century.

So tell me, what do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Of course, we can’t all be Stephen Hawking. But it strikes me that this unapologetic atheist offers a fine example of what Paul Woodruff is talking about when he speaks of something to stand in awe of; finding an object of reverence that human beings did not create, and do not control or even fully understand. Hawking was increasingly clear throughout his career that he did not subscribe to any traditional concept of god, or religion. Yet he often used god as a shorthand metaphor for the sum total of the universal laws that undergird the operation of the cosmos; if we could find the Unified Theory that he and his fellow physicists are seeking, he famously claimed, we would ‘know the mind of god.’ But the actual object of his reverence – his respect and humility, his continuing enchantment, his awe – was the laws themselves. Their structure and operation was something to which he gave his reverent attention, seeking to know and understand. That quest took him into realms of imagination where few could follow – a search for truth that led through the most bizarre and unlikely notions of what goes on in the space all around us. To even begin to understand black holes is to challenge all our common-sense, Newtonian ideas about the world of our shared experience. It is, I would suggest, an act of faith, to accept that such counter-intuitive things are real, just because the calculations say so. Stephen Hawking had that faith – that the universe of space and time is an orderly reality, governed by regularities that the human mind can observe and understand; that the logical progression of a mathematical equation, when it is accurately solved, is to be trusted, and its implications will be true, however improbable they first appear. Stephen Hawking’s life was shaped by that assurance, and his commitment to it.

What is your life shaped by?

This is the question that underlies the meaning of the word ‘worship’, from the good old Saxon ‘weorthe’, from which we get ‘worth’ and ‘worthy’, and ‘scipe’, from which we get the verb ‘to shape’. People often ask, both from within and from outside this liberal, creedless Unitarian Universalist tradition, why we would use the word ‘worship’ to describe anything we do, if a significant number of us do not believe, just as Stephen Hawking did not, in any self-aware divine personality called god. The answer is that the word, in its most basic meaning, has no necessary connection to ideas about god. Wor-ship is about shaping, or being shaped by, what is of worth. It is about the covenants that we undertake – with our partners, our children, our communities; the ways in which we come to understand the responsibilities around which our lives ought to be structured – whether to truth, to our art, or to the common good. Or, indeed, to god, if such a concept forms part of your moral or relational universe.

Paul Woodruff makes a similar claim about the virtue of reverence, in his book about the relatively non-theistic cultures of ancient Greece and Confucian China. Greek society featured many anthropomorphic deity characters, with superhuman abilities but none of them had any discernable moral standards. China, in the first century before the common era, had the concept of an impersonal heaven that functioned to maintain balance within the natural forces of the earth and the moral activities of human beings, but had no personal attributes. Yet both societies deeply valued and cultivated the capacity for reverence. The attitude of reverence might take various things as its object; the skill to be nurtured was partly the ability to recognize that which was worthy of reverence when it appeared, and then to show honor in an appropriate way. Mere groveling was never considered proper reverence, says Woodruff, and I would take the same position about worship.

True worship, like true reverence, calls upon us to shape our lives in ways that enhance our human dignity and the quality of our living. They may, at times, invite us to confront a reality that makes us sad, like the passage of time, or uncomfortably aware of something we would rather not know about ourselves, either as individuals, or as a community or a species. It is in the nature of a genuine object of reverence that it reminds us of our finitude, and asserts the claim of values greater than our own self-interest. Yet something profoundly enlarging happens to us as individuals in that encounter. When our lives are in fact shaped by that which is of more worth than our own impulses or our own comfort, they come to have meaning that transcends mere arbitrary luck, that is satisfying in a way that selfishness can never be.

But this is not a one and done proposition. The experience of reverence comes and goes; worship is a practice that gains skill over time, like playing a musical instrument, and loses power if neglected. And, we have to choose it for ourselves. Once you are an adult, no one can force you to sit down and practice scales on the piano. Even more so, while someone else can drag you to a church gathering and make you sit through it, no one can ever force you to actually examine your conscience, or take an ideal for your own, or lift your heart and spirit into the holiness of what your life might mean, to yourself and others. Only you can be responsible for what you give your worship to, and make the object of your reverence. Many folks will try; many forces will propose themselves as proper objects of reverence, and not just specific religious alternatives, either. Capitalism, high fashion, democracy, fast cars, elitism, your college, physical fitness, books, law and order, wealth, your family, or any number of social or political causes will appeal to your ideals, and ask for your loyalty and your reverence.

Some of those causes, and the people who lead them, will be dangerous, and destructive. But that won’t necessarily make them less appealing in the moment; charisma is a powerful force, and the outcome is not always clear in advance. The only insurance I know of against the appeal of that kind of morally paralyzing, emotionally hypnotizing, privilege flattering snake oil sales pitch is to have a prior commitment to values that can help us stand firm against the tides of popular opinion. Demagogues have cajoled their followers throughout history, and the people who oppose them, with steadfastness and at great personal cost, are always those who have cultivated a reverent loyalty to higher values. Remember, it was not the politically sophisticated German churches that opposed the rise of Hitler and provoked his wrath, but rather the congregations who insisted that it was Jesus, not the Fuhrer, to whom they owed their allegiance.

So how do you choose? Where do you find the assurance that the object of your reverence is worthy of your worship – that it deserves to shape your life? This, to me, is the great challenge at the heart of Unitarian Univeralism; no one is going to answer that question for you; no one is going to take that responsibility from your shoulders. We will never tell you what you must worship, or give your loyalty to, or hold in reverence. I hope that we will, every Sunday, and every day of the week every time we meet, offer you abundant examples and possibilities. I hope that my words and actions say, this is what it looks like – one way that it looks, anyhow – when a life is given to freedom and reason, to the search for truth and human connection, to handing on what is worthwhile from the past to inform the beautiful possibilities of the future. I hope I will always be eager to join you in a conversation about what you want your life to say – either to figure out what that might be, or how to do it more effectively – but I hope I will never try to hand you the answer. Because that is a useless exercise. I also hope we can caution one another against the idolatries that lead us into cruelty and separation and falsehood and suffering. We can offer warnings, but we can never compel.

When we come together for public worship, we offer in community what we have learned, and experienced, and guessed, about how we might best shape our lives around the things that are worthy of our honor, and loyalty, and trust. I have never believed that I must accept the notion of a conscious, personal deity in order to shape my life around worthy ideals. But with or without god, I need that practice, and those reminders; the examples that we show each other again and again through the arts, and by sharing, and remembering our history, and by the rituals that build reverent connection into our very bodies. When someone asks me what I worship, I think it is perfectly legitimate to say ‘the holy’ – and to mean by that, that I seek to mold my life around those ideals and values that are larger than my own finitude, and life-giving to others as well as me; the transcendent good that I did not create and do not control, that summons me to justice and compassion and creativity and joy. I would no more want to live without that activity as part of my life than I would wish to give up music, or reading, or sharing meals with people I love.

Let me say again, in case you haven’t heard it before, or have forgotten, that the important thing about preaching, or any other aspect of worship, is not what the minister thinks, but that the minister thinks. My task, and my goal, is never to persuade you to agree with me, but rather to give thought to your own ideas, and to measure your understanding against the best heritage of human wisdom that I can find to share with you. I’m not saying I won’t strive to be as persuasive as possible, but at the end of the day I would rather have your thoughtful disagreement than your unconsidered assent. It’s not my job to decide how you should live your life – only to suggest some of the landmarks and possible pitfalls of the human condition that we could all benefit from paying attention to. And to testify, ever and again, to my experience that the examined and intended life is more beautiful and satisfying than the unreflective one.

Spring is beginning to steal across the prairie, my friends. Crocuses have opened in the sheltered hollows, and the buds of the Lenten rose will unfold in a day or two; perhaps in time for the equinox on Tuesday. Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear, and the spinning globe, and all the stars? Like Mary Oliver, like me, Stephen Hawking may not have known exactly what a prayer is, but he knew how to pay attention – such exquisite attention that the whole cosmos unfolded its secrets on his inner eyelids, stranger than any creation story we have imagined, and more splendid. Throughout human history, people have worshipped the coming of spring, finding in the beauty and the harshness of the seasons, in the earth’s pouring forth of new life, an object of reverence, a force worthy of our loyalty and emulation. We have fallen out of the habit, I know. But what are we going to do, with this wild and precious life? Have a little reverence. Pay attention. Sing.