(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering, All Rights Reserved
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Galileo Galilei, as many people know, is famous for his multiple discoveries on the atomic nature of matter and our solar system. Using his own observations and mathematical models, as well as borrowing ideas from Copernicus’s original observations, Galileo showed that the planet Venus revolves around the sun, that comets do the same and that moons circling Jupiter, which he discovered, prove his theories. But such facts that he observed by telescope and had shown to many others, they were immediately labeled as heresy by the Catholic Church. They contradicted several verses found in the Bible saying the earth is stationary and that the sun revolves around it. Centuries of Christian dogma holds that the Bible was and is the inerrant and infallible word of God. It is the source for all Truth and cannot be incorrect.
The earth was made by God as the center of the universe, such dogma claimed. The sun, stars, planets and other celestial bodies revolve around it. This geocentric universe was crucial to theological belief in God’s creation and his establishment of humans as the purpose for all existence. A heliocentric or sun oriented planetary system, as Galileo observed and proved with his math, was a direct threat to that viewpoint. If the earth and humans were not central to God’s creative plan to have all things worship him, if the Bible was somehow wrong in its geocentric verses, the whole structure of belief in God and the Bible could be questioned. And, of course, that was a dagger at the heart of ecclesiastic control over human affairs. Despite irrefutable evidence that even Church astronomers of the time had observed, the Church told Galileo he was wrong. His observations, science and math were false. The Bible is Truth no matter what.
At an advanced age, Galileo was put on trial for heresy. A unanimous Inquisition verdict was rendered against him on June 23, 1633. It stated, “The idea that the Sun is stationary is foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture…” Galileo was sentenced to life imprisonment. Because of his fame and age, the sentence was commuted the next day to house arrest for life. Galileo was then confined to his home, under guard, until he died in 1641.
It was not until 1758 that the Church ended its ban on Galileo’s books and teachings. Nevertheless, the Church has continually held that it was correct in putting him on trial because, it says, the science at the time was imperfect and Galileo’s ideas threatened social order. As recently as 1990, Cardinal Ratzinger, the future and current retired Pope Benedict, stated in a speech about the Galileo affair, “The Church at the time of Galileo kept much more closely to reason than did Galileo himself, and she took into consideration the ethical and social consequences of Galileo’s teaching too. Her verdict against Galileo was rational and just.” Such a statement is breathtaking in its refusal to admit error. And that points to a major problem with religious dogma. Once a religious creed or dogma is stated as fact, once Scripture is determined to be infallible and inerrant – as fundamentalists say about the Bible and Koran – there can be no subsequent admission of error. To do so brings the entire creed, doctrine and Scripture into doubt. If one part can be wrong then the entire whole can be wrong.
My shortened history of Galileo’s persecution, therefore, offers us a reason why religious dogma and creeds, like the Christian Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds, are not only impractical but dangerous. They are inflexible and give rise to irrational thinking that refuses to accept new understanding, revelation and discovery. As I have set out this month to review Unitarian Universalism, the primary hallmark of that denomination is its refusal to accept, enforce or state any religious creeds. As we saw last Sunday in my message on the history of Unitarianism, it has used human reason to logically evolve its understanding of spirituality. Humans, Unitarians believe, have yet to discover absolute Truth. Even science continues in its quest to understand existence and the cosmos. As rational humans, therefore, we must open ourselves to many streams of spirituality, philosophy and science all to be used as tools to question, search and understand what is true for us individually. Unitarians are radically tolerant in that regard. Instead of insisting on one set of beliefs or Scripture, persons have the freedom and responsibility to determine their own spirituality and then to freely believe it. All are welcome within UU churches as long as each respects all other persons and their beliefs. Ultimately, Unitarian Universalists believe there are many paths that lead toward Truth and all are valid.
Since there are many viewpoints within Unitarian Universalism, members nevertheless unite in a common understanding of life from a humanist perspective. Human ethics and rights are the common focus – instead of dogmatic theological beliefs. In that regard, it is our duty and purpose to continually work to improve life for ourselves and others – to be change agents who work to create a better earth right here, right now, for everyone.
Such Unitarian principles have been arrived at by logic and experience. And that is why Unitarians refuse to proclaim any form of a religious creed. While people have the freedom to believe in them, creeds are not based on empirical evidence that all people accept. Creeds exist within the realm of religious faith, and such faith is a matter of the heart and soul, not of the mind as confirmed by observation and experience. While all beliefs are respected in the UU, none are stated as absolute Truth precisely because they cannot be proven. In other words, humans cannot know creeds, they can only believe them – and that is a very important distinction.
And therein lies a problem, as we see in the Galileo affair. Religions assert that they know their doctrines and dogmas as facts when they are, instead, beliefs. For instance, I can believe pigs fly – and forgive me if that sounds condescending toward religion. But I and others cannot know that pigs fly as a fact because reason and experience do not prove it. If, however, I am respectful to you in my beliefs about flying pigs, and I’m willing to listen to your counter arguments about them, you will hopefully accept me within your congregation. We each have the freedom to believe as we wish. And that is precisely what Unitarian Universalists do – all are welcome but nobody’s religious beliefs are stated as creedal fact. Unitarians further ask that each person remain humble enough in what they personally believe such that they are open to accept new knowledge – something the Catholic Church refused to do for Galileo.
Unitarian Universalists do, however, believe in the ability of human reason and experience to determine what is universally good and ethical. Toward that end, they put forth a set of visions or principles which are based on human logic and thus the foundation for their denomination. The seven UU principles are: (show slide)
1) The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
2) Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
3) Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritually grow;
4) A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
5) The use of the democratic process within congregations and in society at large;
6) The goal of world community to promote peace, liberty, and justice for all;
7) Respect for the interdependent web of all existence.
Other religions demean these principles saying they are so all encompassing that they do not form the basis of a distinctive spiritual community. They are wrong. The principles assert a belief in universal values to which almost nobody, no matter their religious beliefs, could disagree. In other words, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and others can all agree with them, and most importantly – and this is a key idea – all can BELIEVE in them because reason and experience tell us each principle is true. The UU denomination is one of the few places (the Gathering being another) in which true religious cooperation and acceptance are goals that members, however imperfectly, attempt to meet. Is this not a vision of a society to which all aspire – a place of coexistence between persons of every color, gender, sexuality, religion and ethnicity? Is this not a vision of an earthly heaven, a kind of kingdom of God that Jesus and other prophets advocated? I assert that it is. (Next slide)
If you recall from my review of Unitarianism last week, in 1819 William Ellery Channing delivered a sermon which quickly led to the establishment of the American Unitarian Association. In it, he stated his desire to establish a church that was purposefully non-sectarian – one that members of all faiths could find fellowship in a joint effort to practice the ethics of the human Jesus. This church would not claim to be the one true church, as Catholics assert, but instead be the one human church in which all people, of all religions, find freedom, acceptance and respect. The only way this could be achieved, Channing said, was to abolish all creeds. He foresaw the problem that was revealed in Galileo’s heresy trial. Creeds divide. They are factual assertions that are implicitly non-factual because they cannot be proven. But religions say they are fact and that very claim creates divisions because other people make similar claims about their own creeds. Hate, conflict and violence follow. Unitarianism, on the other hand, was founded on the very same ideals which we hold at the Gathering: we welcome everyone but, in order to promote peace, we will not assert a particular religious creed or dogma.
After my message last Sunday, Mary Anne Berry shared with me her insight that belonging to a Unitarian church is more challenging than belonging to a traditional church. One has the responsibility to determine one’s own beliefs – to search, study and think one’s way through multiple theologies and philosophies to arrive at a spiritual path that is personally meaningful. That is not easy, she said, because one is not told what to believe.
And that echoes a Reformed Jewish understanding of God. If you recall the Biblical Exodus story of Moses encountering God at a burning bush, Moses is startled when the bush speaks to him. “Who are you?” Moses asks. “I am who I am,” God, in the form of a burning bush, replies. That translation from ancient Hebrew has been shown to be incorrect by several Reformed Rabbis. The Hebrew, “Ehyeh asher ehyeh” is more appropriately translated as “I am becoming whatever I am yet to be.” And that is a totally different statement of God’s self-identity than “I am who I am.” In the original Hebrew, he is not claiming to be unchangeable. Instead, the updated translation has him saying he will change, he will evolve, he will continue to become whatever he will finally be – a truth yet to be finalized. He’s not locked into being, as the Christian dogma asserts, God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He might become god the gay drag queen, god the impulse to love and be loved, god the dirty homeless woman crying on a street corner. Who knows? But let us endeavor to find out!
Whatever it is that people believe defines ultimate Truth, or god, this has yet to be finalized according to Unitarian Universalism. We say the same here at the Gathering. And that is uncomfortable. We must live with uncertainty about an afterlife; uncertainty about the existence or non-existence of God, about if there is a supernatural creative force, about a reason for life. As much as we can believe certain things about a creator, existence and an afterlife, we are nevertheless uncertain. Nobody has the evidence to claim their religious or non-religious beliefs are facts. And that ought to fill everyone with profound humility in what we do or don’t believe. We could all be terribly wrong!
What I find attractive about Unitarian Universalism is that it offers a spiritual identity within the confines of a historic church. It has a long history of rigorous philosophical thought and struggle behind it. I like that the UU church emerged from western and Christian roots – of which I am familiar by tradition – and it has now also embraced eastern and other streams of spirituality which I find attractive. I can worship the transcendent and the ineffable, I can personally pray or meditate, without needing to fully understand what I am experiencing. I can rest in uncertainty and still find spiritual beauty, wonder and awe. For me, Unitarian Universalism embodies three short phrases: Open minds. Open beliefs. Open hearts.
Too often I find that dogmatic religious beliefs become arcane discussions much like the debate Thomas Aquinas is said to have had over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Ultimately, what is the point? We at the Gathering and our UU friends say much the same. There are starving kids outside these doors. There are people who hurt and grieve. There are the defeated and forlorn who have given up on life. There are millions of oppressed who are denied rights of dignity, freedom and justice. These are things that really matter. People everywhere ask the very same question: how can this life and this earth be improved for the one human family? No matter what any of us believe spiritually, that is an eternally true creed ALL people can accept.
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