(c) Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering, UCC, All Rights Reserved
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Many of you may have heard of a recent church trend with the formation of Atheist congregations that meet weekly, sing communal songs, listen to messages and engage in serving their local communities – much like many other religiously based assemblies of Christians, Jews or Muslims. As oxymoronic as this trend seems to many people, it likely reflects some envy on the part of many Atheists who want all the positives of church experience, but without religious faith. They have implicitly recognized the advantages of attending and joining a church community.
Even so, I posit a more nuanced explanation for the rise of Atheist churches. Many Atheists have become dissatisfied with an outright rejection of theism. They want something more than a negative belief. They seek something positive, uplifting and perhaps even transcendent. Whether or not some Atheists admit it, they seek mystery, inspiration, and awe. For many people who do not believe in a personal, all powerful and all knowing God, including myself, belief in the power of science to explain all things is unsatisfying. Science offers an incomplete understanding of the mysteries we ponder – why are we here, what purpose we serve, what created the original stuff from which all else is derived?
In that sense, I’m a seeker far more than I am a “rejecter”. As with many things in life, I’ve come to a conclusion that anything founded on negativity is not so good. I’d rather focus on what is positive and so, instead of speaking against something, I find what it is I can be in favor. I don’t reject god as much as I seek a positive god concept within the confines of a natural universe. A god force is out there in some form and within some structure. (I use the word, little ‘g’ ‘god’, very carefully here.). For me, god is a function of the observable, natural world even if humans do not fully understand all aspects of a universal force that might loosely be called god. God, as a function of nature, is a great mystery, a force of wonder, a function of exquisite complexity discovered in physics, astronomy, biology and chemistry. To believe in this type of a natural god is, by definition, the opposite of Atheism. I assert a positive belief in a force that is theistic in terms of it being a type of god. As such, I’m a non-religious theist.
This belief of mine is certainly nothing new. Most say a form of this natural theism originated in the seventeenth century with the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza who was described at the time as being “god-intoxicated” since he saw god in all things. Spinoza advocated what has come to be called pantheism – a combination of the greek word roots ‘pan’, meaning ‘all’, and ‘theos’, meaning god. Spinoza saw a universe of remarkable complexity that nevertheless worked as an integrated whole. God, for him, is not some outside anthropomorphic being manipulating all creation like a great puppet master. God is pervasive, immanent and all-encompassing. God is everywhere and in everything – in a tree, a stone, a star, a child’s face. While some state that pantheism is merely a reverence of nature itself, that the universe and god are one and the same, others reject that simplistic definition. Many people both past and present believe there is a force that is common to all things – a god force that fundamentally explains everything.
As a classical and religious pantheist, Spinoza asserted that god is an actual force that exists in its own right. God is not a being but rather a truth that is a fundamental characteristic of all nature. Science can as yet explain aspects of this force but it cannot fully quantify it. Such is the force that spawned the first cellular life, that designed the human brain, that pushes the boundaries of the universe ever outward feeding on an energy we do not understand and cannot explain.
And that leads me to an investigation of Albert Einstein and his much discussed spiritual beliefs. While many, including Richard Dawkins who is a contemporary Atheist, say Einstein was in reality also an Atheist, Einstein himself would have none of that. As he said, “There are people who say there is no God, but what makes me really angry is that they quote me for support of such views. What separates me from most so-called atheists is a feeling of utter humility toward the unattainable secrets of the harmony of the cosmos.”
Einstein later clarified his beliefs by writing, “The fanatical atheists are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle. They are creatures who—in their grudge against the traditional ‘opium of the people’—cannot hear the music of the spheres.” He adds, “The finest emotion of which we are capable is the mystic emotion. Herein lies the germ of all art and all true science. Anyone to whom this feeling is alien, who is no longer capable of wonderment and lives in a state of fear is a dead man.”
Despite his disdain for angry and arrogant Atheists, Einstein was certainly not a believer in a supernatural god. For him, science and religion are seemingly incompatible but yet they share a common inquiry – to understand what animates the universe. He said at one point that science without religion is lame and that religion without science is blind. Indeed, he also said that, “I am a deeply religious nonbeliever. This is a somewhat new kind of religion.”
What Einstein attempted throughout his life was to give voice to the complex, often paradoxical thoughts he had about theism, god and religion. How can one be a religious nonbeliever? In his vastly superior mind, this was not paradox. As he observed the universe and as he discovered physical laws that describe how things work, he could not prevent himself from still being awestruck. His mind could understand how things work but not why they work. Why does the law of gravity work the way it does? Instead of gravity using the mass of a larger object to attract things, why not repel them? What force initiated relativity and how light, time and space function? For what reason is the universe expanding infinitely? Indeed, if we can even wrap our minds around the idea of an infinite universe, why is it that way? Does it have no beginning? But yet Einstein and science can trace an alleged beginning to the universe at the so-called Big Bang. But what caused the Big Bang? These unanswerable questions of why things work as they do, made the laws of physics and the organization of the universe all the more profound and beautiful to Einstein. Such unknowns were the essence of his spirituality and his confessed humility before the almighty cosmos.
In this regard, Einstein once told David Ben-Gurion, when asked whether he believed in God or not, that despite his great theory on the equilibrium between energy and mass, there must be something behind energy. In other words, something must have given rise to the original energy of the Big Bang. Implicitly, Einstein was saying to Ben-Gurion that, yes, he did believe in a type of god force in the universe that is behind all basic laws of physics and nature, a god force that would explain WHY those laws exist in the format that they do.
Einstein gave voice to his form of religion and belief when he said, “A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms – it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude. What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility.”
What I propose for a Gathering theology, if you will, is a religious non-religion much like what Baruch Spinoza and Albert Einstein proposed. Our minds and our human reason give us great power to understand many things about the natural world. But our minds can take us only so far. They take us to an observation window through which we see a natural world that is supremely captivating, intricate and far bigger than anything we can comprehend. But a mind as powerful and advanced as Einstein’s was still left totally humbled.
For anyone to categorically deny the existence of some great god force – even if that force is an entirely natural force – that presumptive assertion is exactly what many of us find so distasteful about most religions and some non-religions. They are fundamentally exclusivist and arrogant. They presume to have all the answers to everything. Such people are both the fundamentalist religious, and, forgive me to many of you, the Atheist. I propose, as I do in many things, a middle way.
Atheism asserts that there is no great unknowable force that operates our universe – that there is no god force at work, no mystery, no powerful unknown. Atheism implicitly tells us that ultimately science and the human brain will be able to define and mathematically explain all things – not just the how of things – but the why of things. Science, they say, will be able to tell us what began the Big Bang and where that original bang of energy and mass came from. For me, that presumption manifests the height of arrogance. Who are we as humans to presume that we have the unique gifts to explain all things, to find ultimate Truth? Even Einstein is said to have stated that, given the choice, he’d prefer the company of religious believers over dogmatic Atheists since at least they are in awe of something.
Like Einstein, we at the Gathering similarly reject dogmatic arrogance. It is a stated premise of who we are that we begin from a foundation of humility towards all matters of faith, practice and attitude. I myself strive for a demeanor of humility even as I often fail. In my mind, to be humble in thought, in wants, in speech, and in deeds is the greatest of attitudes. We at the Gathering embrace a diversity of ideas, ways of life, politics and philosophies that offer a range of options. Ultimately, we believe not in answers but in questions and in an ongoing exploration of what is good and true. We are seekers in the truest sense of that word. We seek understanding into how our minds work, how our emotions work, how best to live, how best to serve, how best to act toward one another. We cannot say what animates the cosmos even as our experience and reason tell us there is no grey bearded puppet master. All that we rely upon are our own limited powers of reason and observation – or that of great minds like Einstein who are capable of doing such investigations for us. And those great minds, those scientists, they tell us many things but they cannot tell us everything. And Einstein knew that. He had the humility to know what he did not know and could never know. As humans, we are thus left with mystery and wonder. We are left in awe. We are left seeing a small ‘g’ god in the design and workings of all things.
That is why I propose a form of religious pantheism – a worship of the universe, of nature, of physical laws and of the intrinsic divinity in them. In everything we observe, there is some hidden truth beyond the how of its existence. The more humans discover about the universe, the more they find what they do not understand. We exist in a universe of complexity wrapped around complexity hidden within mystery – such that humans may never come face to face with ultimate Truth. But even if we cannot know what that Truth is, we can know it is there.
Science cannot fully explain the music of the spheres – the sublime melody of quarks, protons, atoms, dark energy, planets, and stars all singing the same magnificent tune. But what IS the master composer of that music, and why did it compose as it it did? It is within that mystery – the limitations of science – that we find the god force of nature. And at the altar of tree, star and mind, at the altar of the universe, Atheists and religious believers can unite. We are filled with deep, deep awe at natural beauty and complexity. As humbled humans, we can then find reconciliation between Atheism AND theistic religion. God is paradox. God is dead, and god is alive. God is nowhere, and god is everywhere.
I wish you all much peace and joy…