(c) Rev. Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
The following message was delivered by Rev. Doug at First Unitarian Church of Louisville, Kentucky as part of a Pulpit exchange with its Minister, the Rev. Dawn Cooley.
On January 7th, 1610, the famous Renaissance astronomer and scientist Galileo Galilei pointed a telescope he had made toward the planet Jupiter. During his observations, he saw what appeared to be three stars arrayed very close to the planet. The next night he again saw what he called three stars, along with a new one, but they each had changed position relative to each other and to Jupiter. Over the next week, he continued to see these stars remain in the vicinity of Jupiter while moving with it across the sky. Very quickly he deduced that he was the first to discover small moons revolving around Jupiter. This was long sought evidence, he concluded, of Copernicus’ revolutionary theory that the earth, along with other planets, likewise revolve around the sun.
Galileo later published his findings in several books. His writings caught the eye of the Catholic Church which immediately condemned them as false. Not only did a sun centered planetary system contradict many verses in the Bible, it was also in conflict with Christian theology which believes God created humans as the center of his attention. It’s why he demands human obedience and loyalty. The earth, as our home, must be the center of the universe. For people to live on a relatively minor planet revolving around the sun, this renders them insignificant. A sun centered cosmos questions not only the truth of the Bible, but the very existence of God.
As a result, the Church’s Council of Inquisition investigated Galileo, put him on trial and, in 1633, condemned him as a heretic. It said about Galileo and his observations, “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.” At an advanced age, Galileo was sentenced to torture and imprisonment. While the sentence was later reduced to house arrest, he was confined there for the remainder of his life. His books were burned and banned.
The Church’s response to Galileo is a reminder of what motivated the horrific events that happened on September 11th fifteen years ago today. Too many people close their minds and believe only ideas told to them by ancient texts, Ministers or other external sources. Finding comfort in dogmatic certitude, as opposed to thinking on their own, many people are stuck in patterns of belief that close doors to learning, growth and discovery.
Each month, I present three messages based on a single thematic topic. Instead of today interrupting my September message series on Pathways to Enlightenment, I decided to continue it for you with a message on one pathway to enlightenment through Seeking.
Last Sunday, the first of my September messages was on what I believe is another path to enlightenment – through Serving. I suggested that if we accept the fact that humans are not the reason the universe exists, contrary to what most religions claim, we will move beyond a mostly selfish desire to live forever in Heaven and avoid its alternative. We will be more humble and thus discover our true purpose. That is: Humans have an innate desire to do good, love, and act kindly to others. We are servants, plain and simple.
Today, I hope to suggest that seeking is also a way to become enlightened. To seek is to be ever curious about life, the universe and why things exist. Seeking is a desire for inspiration, it’s a feeling of awe at the beauty of nature, it’s an embrace of change, it’s a yearning to explore one’s inward self, it’s a hunger to continually grow, it’s a willingness to dream and dare. Seekers ponder the unexplainable, they question and doubt, and they are listeners more than talkers.
The opposite of seeking is to have a closed mind about anything new. It is to assert absolute knowledge on any subject. It’s what the Catholic Church said in response to Galileo’s observations – that only they, and the Bible, are correct. It echoes religious fundamentalism and the hateful motivations of the September 11th hijackers who believed their interpretations of Truth are right – and all others are to be attacked.
The 17th and 18th century Age of Enlightenment came too late for Galileo. It began to flower soon after his death. Enlightenment ideals emphasized reason over superstition, and science over religion. Philosophers of the time like David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and John Locke advanced ideals of Humanism. Concerned with the well-being of people, it was and is a revolutionary belief system. Indeed, Humanist and Enlightenment philosophy helped inspire the American Revolution and its assertion of inalienable human rights.
Contrary to Christian doctrine that says people are the reason God created the universe, Humanism is instead a humble belief. We are not the pinnacle of creation. The cosmos does not revolve around us, and neither is it designed to serve only our needs. We are not privileged creatures who deserve to live forever in Heaven, or anywhere else. Logic informs us we will die like all things. Since that is so, Humanism leads us to see that it is we, not a god or goddess, who are to do the work of building a better world. It’s we who must serve and advocate for those who hurt and suffer.
This humble awareness also informs us how to think and act. Since science tells us that we, like all things, are made of the same chemicals that comprise trees or distant planets, we can no longer believe we are special. We also can no longer claim that any faith based Scripture is ultimate truth. Indeed, a human centered belief system, versus a religion based one, helps us realize how inaccurate knowledge from supposedly divine revelation is.
The universe and its forces of energy and gravity are far more complex and mysterious then most religions assert. The cosmos was not made in six days, but instead was formed over billions of years – and it continues to form. Man was not made from the dust of the ground. Woman was not fashioned from the side of man to be his helper. Other creatures and life forms, including humans, did not spontaneously come into existence. Assertions found in many Scriptures are pre-scientific, faith based ideas that lack any reasonable evidence.
Immanuel Kant, one of the foremost Enlightenment philosophers, said that the Age of Enlightenment was an end to humanity’s immaturity that relied on Scriptures and external sources to tell them how and what to think. Enlightenment, Kant said, is about learning to think for oneself – to use one’s mind to examine, analyze and understand things on one’s own. “Dare to know!” is his most famous statement. We must have the courage to use our minds to arrive at a truth that is logical and honest.
And that is the essence of seeking. It is to be a skeptic toward any proposition one considers – even the idea that one should be a skeptic! Seeking is deeply rooted in humility and the awareness that we know so little. I believe that to be a seeker one must be radically open minded and tolerant towards all others, and their beliefs. That does not mean one necessarily agrees with other beliefs – but rather that one endeavors to understand, listen and learn from them. Only then can one make reasonable – but gentle – conclusions.
Seeking new awareness is also about having empathy for others. Seekers refuse to judge, and instead try to figuratively walk in another’s shoes. Such is a mindset, for instance, that empathizes with the racism African-Americans have historically faced. It seeks to understand ways such humiliation has affected how black men and women feel, act and think. It seeks to understand how conditions such as poverty, homelessness or addiction are the result of past and current racism. A seeker is therefore someone who wants to learn, experience and grow.
By not judging, by seeking to instead empathize and learn, true seekers ask lots of questions. Indeed, I believe that asking the right questions is a key to enlightenment. Dogmatic answers close minds to further inquiry. Questions open minds to potential new realities. What purpose do humans have? Is the universe infinite and, if so, what does that mean? Are there other, parallel universes? What is the value of doubt and skepticism? What is love and how can we define it? What are the legacies we can leave behind that allow us to figuratively live forever?
Seekers and questioners also find greater enlightenment by detaching themselves from strong opinion or belief. By letting go of preconceived ideas, for example, about who is a friend or enemy, or who is good or bad, we can seek and perhaps discover the truth of what it means to be truly good. Enemies are not necessarily those who oppose us, or people we may believe are bad. And friends are not necessarily ones who agree with us, or people we think are good .
Many of you may have heard that Mother Teresa was made a Saint this past week. Despite all of the stories about her compassion for the poorest of the poor, there are also criticisms that she lacked medical knowledge, relied on prayer as treatment, and thus ignored effective healing methods. Many people in her care, it is claimed, needlessly suffered. Was she truly a Saint and good person, or perhaps she was someone far more complicated?
What I find fascinating about her are recent disclosures that she lived many years in doubt about God and religion. In letters she wrote to confidantes in the 1950’s, Mother Teresa seemed more like a skeptic than she did as a nun with strong beliefs. In 1959 she wrote, “In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss of God not wanting me — of God not being God — of God not existing.” She repeated this sentiment numerous times. Clearly, she experienced a crisis of belief.
I have no idea what caused that, but I imagine it is similar to what most honest and aware people experience. Many of us have our own dark night of the soul when we question all that gives us purpose and hope. As painful as the episodes might be, for me such a time was immensely enlightening.
I experienced my dark night of the soul twelve years ago when I came out as a gay man. I finally determined to live my truth. But with that came a time of despair. Friends who once said they loved me, instead abandoned me. My belief in a loving God suddenly became irrelevant and even false. Organized spirituality, in any form, was something I turned my back on – since my previous church had proven to be judgmental and hypocritical. It condemned me for revealing one small part of myself – even though I remained the same minister and person they once said they loved.
After over a year in that dark state of mind, I began to read about spirituality that is instead open, free and affirming. I became a seeker. I learned about alternative ideas and ways to interpret religion and the Bible. I eventually rejected theism and found, instead, belief in what I call a natural, little ‘g’ god – a god in nature and in all people – a universal force of compassion, gentleness and kindness.
That period of time led me to conclude that even what I find spiritually true now, must still be questioned. I have much to still learn and ways to still grow. I still fail to do what I know is right. I often don’t practice the peace, love and humility I aspire to have. I still hold unconscious prejudice in my heart. All of this means I must continue to seek, question and learn. It means I must still examine and meditate on everything.
Ultimately, I believe we only know truth when we realize we don’t know it – but that it must continually be pursued. That is a hallmark of Unitarianism and it expresses itself in every part of our lives. Seekers are first and foremost humble. They know what they don’t know. They know they are not special nor do they have access to ultimate truth. Seeking will lead us to greater peace, gentleness, empathy, forgiveness, listening, curiosity, and, as I claim, greater enlightenment.
And with that, as I say every Sunday to my beloved community In Cincinnati, I wish this beloved community here in Louisville, much peace and joy.