Sunday, October 10, 2021

Thinking about the Great Questions of Human Existence



Rev. Kit Ketcham

Oct. 10, 2021

When I was a kid, growing up in a pretty strict Baptist minister’s household with my very devout parents, every religious question seemed to already have an answer, an answer that never changed much.

Who is God?  Well, of course, God is Jesus’ father and is everywhere, sees everything, controls everything, and will punish anyone who does bad things.  And, oh by the way, God is love, also.

What is the Bible?  Well, it’s God’s message to us, his people, and every word is true.  It is a history book and tells us all the important events of Jesus’ life, as well as what came before Jesus arrived.

Who was Jesus?  Jesus was the son of God, born to a human mother.  He was perfect, never did anything wrong (unlike me), and he was God too, in a way.  And he died on the cross to save us from our sins.

What is a sin?  It’s anything you do, deliberately or accidentally, that makes God mad at you.

What should I do with my life?  Well, as a Christian, you are expected to give your life to God in service.  You can be anything you feel capable of being, but your primary mission in life is to serve God and teach about Jesus and how to be saved.

There were slight variations on the theme, every time the questions were asked, but there was always an answer, always pretty much the same.  And questioning those answers was frowned upon, even though the correction might bes delivered lovingly and sincerely.

It was pretty soothing to know that there were answers to everything, that no question about God or life or good and evil was unanswerable.  At least when I was ten years old.

At age ten, I knew better than to ask a second time, knew better than to argue with the answers, knew better than to voice my own opinions, as they began to come along, with education and with the advent of my own ability to think critically.  By the time I was in college, though, and away from home, the answers to my questions were beginning to shift.  I wasn’t so comfortable any more with the old answers.

And over the years, I came to understand that there were questions underneath these questions.  That my question about God and what or who God was could be stated another way:  who or what is in charge of the universe? Or is anything or anyone in charge?  What runs the universe? How did the universe come to be?  What is the power beyond human power?

My question about the Bible could be rephrased too:  how do I know what to believe?  Who can I trust, when it comes to spiritual teachings?  If the Bible was written by humans and humans aren’t perfect, how could the Bible be perfect?  Are there other writings that are inspirational and that I can trust?

As I grew older and somewhat more wise, I came to understand that there are many heroes like Jesus, that there were many stories about those heroes and heroines, and that some of them had very similar miracle stories, as in being born of a virgin or healing people or performing other miraculous deeds.

When it came to the idea of sin, it occurred to me that maybe the question beneath the question is “what is human nature and why do humans so often behave badly toward each other?”

Human beings question things.  Human beings are even more curious, I think, than the legendary cat, the one curiosity killed.  And the questions we ask as we develop our own worldview and ethical standards tend to stir up a lot of the world’s anxieties:  “Is it ever okay to end a life?  How was the universe created?  Who, if anyone, should be privileged over others?”

When I went to seminary in 1995, I had certainly heard the word “theology” many, many times.  To me, at that point, it mostly meant doctrine or dogma, beliefs by various religions that formed the backbone of their religious practice and were the standard by which people became members of that religious community.

Literally, the word theology means “study of God” and for many religions, that’s what it is.  But non-theistic or pluralistic religions have a different take on it; it’s more the “study of the sacred” or ultimate value and a recognition of the idea of sacredness.

Because people who are agnostic or atheist or Buddhist or pagan or any non-theistic religious path have reverence for the sacred but do not necessarily have a concept of God, at least not a traditional concept of God.

Yet most human beings who are introspective at all or critical thinkers do ask themselves big questions and the questions tend to be similar in nature.  In seminary, I learned to think of these questions in categories.

There is the question of ontology or being:  who am I?  what is the nature of humanity?

There is the question of epistemology or knowledge:  how do I know what I know?  What is the ultimate source of human knowledge?

There is the question of cosmology, or rulership:  who or what is in charge of the universe?  What is the power that infuses life with meaning?

There is the question of soteriology:  What can heal me or make me whole?

And there’s the question of eschatology, or the end of days:  What does my death mean?  What is the state of human beings beyond death?

These are questions of ultimate concern for humans, questions that circle around us throughout our lives, changing form, expressed as yearnings, even depression, and joggling us into attention from time to time.  These are the questions that live deeply within us and, depending on the circumstances of our lives, arise to haunt us on occasion, even when we think we may have answered them once and for all.

Over time, doctrines and dogmas have developed to answer these questions in certain ways.  Religious doctrines and dogmas are efforts to institutionalize thinking about the great questions of human life.  Most religions expect their followers to believe in and follow the doctrines and dogmas in order to attain the blessings of the universe, or God as they understand God.

Unitarian Universalism does not have specific doctrines or dogmas that we are expected to follow.  We have our seven principles (going on eight, with the proposed addition of a principle about anti-racism), and these principles are behavior-based, rather than belief-based.  We do not test people on whether or not they adhere to the principles at every moment.  But our principles nevertheless suggest approaches to the great questions of human life.  And one unique feature of our faith tradition is that we are open to new truth and can change our thinking if compelling evidence presents itself.

We as individuals find our answers in our own experience of life; we are guided by the ideas of influential other humans, our own early religious learnings, science, the philosophies of many world religions, and our own knowledge of the earth and its cycles. We bring all these influences into this community and learn to live with the diversity of thought that we find here.  We do not all hold the same theology and that is good.  We do tend to hold similar values.

How and why did we humans begin to think about these questions?  Human beings from time immemorial have puzzled over their relationships with the world around them, recognizing that we have so little control over some of the events of our lives, and wondering how to influence those powers that seem to supersede our powers.

Out of a desire to influence the uncontrollable universe, ancient human beings devised ceremonies and behaviors that might convince the universe (or the gods) to favor them:  sacrifices of goods, crops, animals, even fellow humans.  They learned to work in concert with the universe, planting crops at certain times, using all the materials they had at hand as tools, as fertilizer, as shelter, as food, using the stars and planets, sun and moon as directional guides.

Out of these ancient practices grew many of today’s traditional religious practices and beliefs:  baptism of humans represents cleansing---of food or bodies or clothing—or the soul.  Jesus’ death on the cross is seen by many Christians as the ultimate sacrificial gift, as recompense for human sin, which was the function of sacrifice in ancient times, to appease angry gods.  Prayer for mercy from the weather gods expanded to become prayer for any number of blessings, including success in the stock market or on the football field.

Still, despite our growing sophistication, our scientific understandings, and our differences in religious thinking, we still feel a drive to be in right relationship with the universe.  We study it, we want to understand it, we stand in awe at its beauty, we think about what our lives within it are like, what we’d like them to be like, what our potentialities within that universe might be.  And we do what we can to influence and/or moderate the universe’s effect on our lives.

In past centuries, it has also become increasingly obvious that our relationship with the earth (and the universe by extension) has become toxic; we lost sight, over the centuries, of proper care of the earth and its resources.  So our efforts to reclaim a right relationship with the earth have resulted in a heightened awareness of our need to befriend and care for the earth as part of our being in right relationship with the power of the universe.

What is the function of questioning in human life?  What does it mean that we ask questions?  In the beginning, we humans needed to learn how to survive on the planet; we asked questions of the earth, of our companions, of the animals we saw.  We built upon those answers to create a body of knowledge about the earth and the universe which enabled us to live more comfortably.

Since the beginning of time, human beings have asked questions about answers that seemed incomplete or based on faulty reasoning or, as our understandings of how things work developed, too reliant on supernatural forces which could be debunked.

Even the most seemingly-solid answers were open to question as humanity evolved into an organism which had a great capacity for understanding, for high levels of reasoning, for exploratory methods which could open doors to ideas never before considered.

Questioners in ancient times were often seen as heretics, as sorcerers, as eccentrics whose wild ideas were dangerous to the established order.  As religions became more institutionalized, questioners of the orthodox answers were often anathematized or excommunicated, from the body of believers, even executed.

As we consider what Unitarian Universalist theology has become, as it diverged from orthodox Christianity, it is useful to draw a general timeline of our theological history.

We are a descendent of the religion established in the wake of the prophet Jesus’ ministry on earth, over 2000 years ago.  However, when that religion (now called Christianity) institutionalized the doctrine that the Divine was three Beings in one (now called the Trinity and defined as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit), our religious ancestors disagreed.  At that time, this heretical strand of belief was called anti-Trinitarianism but gradually acquired the name Unitarian, for its understanding of the Divine as One Being.

Some years, perhaps centuries later, Universalism as a religious idea, also heretical, formed in response to the idea of hell and eternal damnation for nonbelievers.  Our religious ancestors observed the nature of God and decided that if God was love, then God would not condemn beloved children to eternal hellfire, even if they misbehaved badly.  This too was considered a heretical idea and was an underground movement across Europe before moving to the American colonies.

During the Enlightenment period of the 18th century, when reason was advocated as the primary source and legitimacy for authority, scientific inquiry, and democratic principles, reason began to make an impact upon religious and political life, spreading rapidly across the European continent and into the fledgling United States of America.

In the mid19th century, the rational Enlightenment Christianity of Unitarians was also modified by the thinking of the American Transcendentalist writers and philosophers, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Margaret Fuller.  These thinkers began to see the Divine in the natural world and expanded the horizons of religious thought with their poetry, their essays, and their lectures.

In the early to mid 20th century, Humanism, having developed out of the Enlightenment period, became a strong pillar of Unitarian thought, as Unitarians diverged farther from their Christian roots.  

In fact, for a time, Unitarians pretty well disparaged their Christian heritage and, indeed, even today some are made uncomfortable by some of the implications of that heritage, particularly as evangelical fundamentalism has devolved from Jesus’s teachings to the mouthings of the Prosperity Gospel preachers and their ilk.

In 1961, the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America, seeing that their numbers were small but that their open-minded approach to theology was similar, joined forces and became the Unitarian Universalist Association, probably the most liberal of all the protestant denominations which grew out of early Christian roots.

Over the decades since the merger of these two small but influential denominations, our UU theology has been modified.  Today Unitarian does not mean a belief in the Unity, the Oneness of God, as much as it means a belief in the Unity, the Oneness of the human species and the understanding that all humans are related to one another and are a part of the interdependent web of all existence.

Today, Universalist does not mean a belief in heaven for all, as much as it means a dedication to acceptance and understanding of the great diversity of the earth and of the human community, seeing that diversity as essential to a healthy and productive life that must be available to all.

We here in this congregation are the product of the coming together of a Rational religious philosophy as represented by Unitarianism and a Spiritual religious philosophy as represented by Universalism.  In this congregation, we meld strong scientific and rational ideals with a desire to explore our inner emotional and spiritual depths, acting these out as we strive to bring love and justice to the world around us.

We work hard at respect for individuals and divergent viewpoints; within this congregation we have Christians, we have Jews, we have Buddhists, we have atheists and agnostics, we have Deists and and pagans and none of the above.  We have lifelong Unitarians and Universalists and Unitarian Universalists.

Our aim in this congregation is not to dwell on the differing theologies we may hold, for we understand at a very deep level that it is our behavior toward each other and the earth that matters. Our theologies may inform that behavior, but our principles guide us toward a common set of goals, emphasizing our responsibility to treat each other with respect, kindness, and humility.

In his book “Letters to a Young Poet”, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote these words, with which I’d like to close:

“Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart.  Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language.  Do not now look for the answers.  They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them.  It is a question of experiencing everything.  At present, you need to live the question.  Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.”  (And haven’t we all been there?)

Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.              


BENEDICTION:  Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place.  Let us go in peace, remembering that we all have questions about what it means to be who we are and what our lives should be.  May we be patient as we seek our answers, looking to each other for the emotional and spiritual and mental connections we crave, and may we strive to live with open hearts and minds, so that our answers are not rigid but loving and accepting of those with other answers.  Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

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