A scientific outlook and a Pagan outlook can both inform us about leading an integrated life, in which the reality of our experience feeds our quest for meaning. This sermon was written for the UU’s of Fallston by Rev. Lyn Cox, October 19, 2014.
On the evening of July 14, 1791, Joseph Priestley and his wife Mary decided not to go to a party. Joseph was a Unitarian minister, scientist, and philosopher concerned with both natural and political thought. Along with a number of his intellectual colleagues, Priestley had welcomed the French Revolution as a step toward Enlightenment. They planned a banquet at the Royal Hotel in Birmingham, England, on the second anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. Once the party was on the calendar, Priestley’s friends started to hear rumors of violence and convinced him to stay home. Indeed, as people left the Royal Hotel that night, they were attacked. From there, rioters proceeded to the Unitarian New Meeting and Old Meeting churches, which they burned to the ground.
Joseph and Mary anticipated the coming mob and fled their home. Their 20-year-old son, William, and some volunteers remained behind to try save what they could. It is said that William and his friends stayed as long as possible, “continuing to carry books and furniture down the staircase even as the handrails, banisters and treads were being systematically demolished by the leading rioters.” [Wikipedia, based on a reference to Tony Rail, “William Priestley Vindicated, with a Previously Unpublished Letter”, ‘Enlightenment and Dissent’, no.28 (2012), 150-195.] The rest of the family’s possessions, lab equipment, and house were burned to the ground.
Over the three days of the riot, a surprisingly efficient and well-organized mob burned three of four Dissenting churches, twenty-seven houses, and several businesses. The other homes belonged to people who had a lot in common with Priestley, such as members of a scientific discussion group called the Lunar Society. The controversies did not subside. Joseph and Mary Priestley left for America in 1793. He helped found the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia in 1796.
What was it that fanned the flames of hatred so much? What did the rioters have against Joseph Priestley and his friends? Maybe it was his radical scientific statements. Priestley was also one of the founders of the Unitarian movement in England, together with his friend Theophilus Lindsey. (Lindsey led England’s first Unitarian service that we know of at Essex Street Chapel in 1774.) As a spokesperson for a Dissenting church (that is, a faith that was not the Church of England) Priestley lobbied hard to change the laws that excluded Dissenters from things like voting or holding public office. Then there was Priestley’s support of the French Revolution. Tensions were high between the two countries. Some people feared that the revolution could spread and become an English civil war.
Perhaps it wasn’t just one thing, but the whole package. Joseph Priestley didn’t see his clergy person, scientist, and philosopher roles as separate. They were part of a unified outlook on life, one in which all things are connected. The roots of the English and American UU movement can be traced in part to this period of lively debate, when people like Joseph Priestley hoped that science, philosophy, and politics all pointed the way to a better future. Our modern impulse is to compartmentalize, but I think there is room for the unity of mind, heart, and spirit.
A person can be spiritual and also rooted in the world, our own living planet within a universe in motion. Humanism and Paganism, to take just two of many examples, both encourage the practitioner to seek an integrated life, one in which concrete experience informs the quest for meaning, in which discovery feeds awe and wonder even if it challenges what we thought we knew, in which the mysteries of the unknown are an invitation to draw out the best of ourselves. I think a scientific outlook on life and a spiritually earth-centered outlook on life both help us to observe the world as it is, treasure it with awe and wonder, and gather our courage to face the mysteries of the unknown.
Earthly Hearts: Love for This Planet
My own spiritual orientation is kind of a ball of yarn with several strands rolled together. I’m a Unitarian Universalist, of course, which is a tradition of its own. We’ll call that the purple yarn, winding throughout the ball and most obvious on the surface. Unitarian Universalism is the faith I speak about most publicly. I still find meaning in the stories I learned as a liberal Christian kid. We’ll call that the orange yarn, under the surface yet providing much of the structure the rest of the ball hangs on. My family of choice is interfaith UU and Jewish, so blue strands of Jewish wisdom and celebrations keep me connected with people I love. My solitary spiritual practices and ways of seeing the world, the green yarn at the heart of the ball, are informed by Paganism, a cluster of spiritual paths mainly drawing from reconstructed pieces of European and Middle Eastern earth-centered traditions.
Paganism is an interfaith umbrella of many traditions and creative communities. It is not one faith with a spokesperson and an official manual. Paganism does not lay claim to any of the intact indigenous traditions around the world (such as the Lenape, on whose lands we are sitting). My experience with Paganism suggests that many traditions find common ground in loving and respecting the earth. We may have different ways of naming that, different legends that inspire love and respect, and different ways of organizing ourselves to put that love and respect into action. It usually starts with observation, with cultivating a quality of attention to the living things around you and the soil and water supporting you in this moment.
There are a number of identifiably Pagan things I do in my daily life. I begin my morning prayers and meditations by walking clockwise in a circle, clearing the space, finding the ground under my feet, and invoking the four directions. The four directions correspond to the elements of earth, water, fire, and air. Bringing them together in the circle is part of an effort to integrate my thoughts and my actions into one whole life, bringing together the pieces of myself and connecting with my world. I might leave an offering of water or a small amount of animal-friendly food in the forest. If I spill salt, you can bank on the fact that I will toss some over my left shoulder. Yet the time when I feel most witchy is when I’m on foot and I identify some plant or animal I come across in my travels. There we both are, sharing a bit of earth, and I can greet the sassafras tree or the Eastern chipmunk with recognition. Another practice that feels like Pagan spirituality is calling my legislators to ask them to consider environmental impact or promote renewable energy.
In the revised introduction to her book on socially engaged Paganism, Dreaming the Dark, Starhawk explains that “the sacred is immanent, embodied in the world, in nature, in human culture, in action as well as contemplation. Or, to turn it around, the living world, the cycles of nature and human life, are sacred – that is, of primary importance, of a value that goes beyond human expediency. Action in the world, then, becomes a means of connecting with the sacred as well as an imperative in a society in which nature and human survival are constantly threatened” (Dreaming the Dark, Fifteenth Anniversary Edition, page xiii).
What I’m saying is that, to me, being down to earth and honest about what I see, hear, and feel around me is the essence of being Pagan. Observe and report. Share results. Participate in community life in such a way that takes concrete reality into account. Loving mother earth is not just writing songs and poetry for her, although that’s fine, too. It’s paying attention to and caring for what we love.
As it happens, I also have some familiarity with science and with people who are professional scientists. Some of you are researchers or medical practitioners, and you can check me on whether I’ve got this right. It seems to me that a scientific outlook on life is fueled by the thrill of watching what happens next. Scientists seem to enjoy finding out what’s true, as far as we can gather, versus what we thought might be true. If there is a cool application for what we learn, such as helping people to live healthier lives, so much the better. Observe and report. Pay attention. Care for what we love. Is that right?
Sometimes, being intimately familiar with what is measurably true brings a sense of responsibility to use that knowledge well. Jane Goodall writes, “We have a responsibility toward the other life-forms of our planet whose continued existence is threatened by the thoughtless behavior of our own human species… . Environmental responsibility – for if there is no God, then, obviously, it is up to us to put things right.” (Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey, written with Phillip Berman)
Being Pagan and being a scientist are not mutually exclusive. I do think that a scientific outlook and a Pagan outlook encourage some of the same values, coming from slightly different angles. Love and a sense of responsibility for this planet come from knowing it face to face. Prophetic souls have earthly hearts.
Gratitude for What We Know: Awe & Wonder
A spiritual path can help us respond to what we know in a positive, life-affirming way. It is easy to feel overwhelmed or consumed with despair. We might be tempted to ignore what we know. On a good day, our way of making meaning helps us to honestly assess what we know and to respond whenever possible with wonder and gratitude.
Yesterday morning, I met a deer in the woods, crossing the human path slowly and cautiously. I stopped so I wouldn’t startle her too much and looked her in the eye from about twenty feet away. Usually, that’s enough to motivate a deer to move on. “Two eyes in front. Predator. See you later.” I approached her slowly. About ten feet away, she was still looking right at me. Hunting season coming soon (it’s already here for archery hunters), and I don’t want deer to feel like it’s safe to hang around humans, but I was really enjoying this moment of connection. I thought an unusual noise would communicate both my greeting and my encouragement to take cover. I raised my hand to my lips and blew her a big, noisy kiss. She hopped off the path, and took cover in the trees on the other side. A green thread of my Pagan heart went with her. That moment of gratitude sustained me for the rest of the day.
It seems to me that Pagans and scientists are among the people who gleefully connect the dots in an interdependent web. A food chain, a relationship between planets, Fibonacci spirals repeating from nautilus shells to the Whirlpool Galaxy—patterns and connections are totally cool. Finding these relationships might help us make better decisions about stewardship or future research, but the immeasurable value is the way patterns and relationships can inspire awe. A sense of wonder is something to treasure in the human journey. It can bring us inner peace and a desire for outer peace.
Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield said in an interview: “The big pervasive feeling onboard looking at the Earth [from space] is one of tremendous exquisite privilege that it exists. … But I think what everyone would find if they could be in that position — if they could see the whole world every 90 minutes and look down on the places where we do things right, and look down where we’re doing stupid, brutal things to each other and the inevitable patience of the world that houses us — I think everybody would be reinforced in their faith, and maybe readdress the real true tenets of what’s good and what gives them strength.” (From an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross)
For many Pagans who will never go into orbit, the 90-minute view of the world comes around at festival times when we remember our ancestors and look into the future. I celebrate Halloween or Samhain as a turning of the year, a time to give thanks for who and what I come from. We’ll talk more about remembrance and selective memory in November, but for right now I just want to make the point that all of us have flawed ancestors. Some of them lived as very imperfect humans, and left behind a mixed legacy marked with some bad choices. For some of the more recent ancestors, their chief flaw is their departure. Remembering names and faces and stories, giving offerings, lighting candles, these rituals help me embrace the wholeness of history, notice the painful parts, and enthusiastically give thanks anyway. I can cherish the lessons of their lives, their determination, and their efforts that led to my being alive. Watching the struggles of ancestors unfold in story, I can have more patience with some of my still living relatives, the ones who irritate me only because I love them dearly as well as the ones I have chosen to love from afar. Knowing the reality of death, I can begin to forgive leaves for falling, and I can revel in the glory that is revealed only in letting go.
Journeying with Mystery: Courage for the Unknown
During his interview, Commander Hadfield also talked about how to face fear. He said, “It’s not like astronauts are braver than other people; we’re just meticulously prepared. We dissect what it is that’s going to scare us, and what it is that is a threat to us and then we practice over and over again so that the natural irrational fear is neutralized.”
I was reminded of a quote from astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson: “… there is no shame in not knowing. The problem arises when irrational thought and attendant behavior fill the vacuum left by ignorance.” (From GoodReads, referencing The Sky is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist).
For both Hadfield and deGrasse Tyson, the unknown is not the problem. There are lots of things we don’t know yet. How exciting that we have so much left to explore and discover. On the other hand, both of them acknowledge that sometimes we respond poorly to our awareness that we don’t know something. Being afraid might lead us to attack when it only causes hurt, or to flee from something important, or to hide from the face of mystery. We can’t control the unknown, and we can’t be omniscient. We can, to an extent at least, control our behavior.
Being able to look unflinchingly into the unknown and make moral choices anyway is also a Pagan value. There is more to this universe than we have yet discovered. Expressing what we do and don’t know poetically is one way to cope with the void, but somewhere in there we need a discipline for remaining calm when we don’t have all the answers. In practical life, we often have to make judgment calls based on less than 100% of the information we wish we had. Pagan ethics suggests by way of the “rule of threes” that the actions you put out into the world comes back to you threefold. Make your choice, knowing that harm and healing affect all of us together, even if the consequences are unintended. The rule doesn’t say that we should all sit in our rooms and try not to affect the world. Not acting is another kind of action. Cause leads to effect. Do the best you can, and get comfortable with the unknown.
Starhawk writes: “Spirituality and politics both involve changing consciousness. In fact, Dion Fortune’s definition of magic as “the art of changing consciousness at will” could serve for both. Yet there are differences. Effective political action, of whatever sort, needs to offer directions and at least propose answers beyond current problems. But true spirituality must also take us beyond the will, down into the realms of mystery, of letting go, of echoing questions rather than resounding answers.” (From the revised introduction to the 10th anniversary edition of The Spiral Dance, p. 7)
We do need to engage. Our minds yearn to discover, our hearts yearn to connect, our hands and feet yearn to give shape to a life of good purpose. We also need to make friends with unanswered riddles. Panic in response to open-ended questions or in situations where what we thought we knew crumbled is not optimal.
Here again, Joseph Priestley gives us some ideas about how to live, both by positive and negative example. He didn’t get everything right. He had a theory that competed with the new concept of chemistry emerging in France, and he stuck to it throughout his life. He turned out to be wrong, but human learning doesn’t happen if we don’t make mistakes. On the other hand, it seems like he engaged in debate with a contented heart. One biographer wrote, “he entered each controversy with a cheerful conviction that he was right, while most of his opponents were convinced, from the outset, that he was willfully and maliciously wrong. He was able, then, to contrast his sweet reasonableness to their personal rancor” [Wikipedia, drawing from Schofield, Robert E. The Enlightenment of Joseph Priestley: A Study of his Life and Work from 1733 to 1773. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997.]
Furthermore, every time he reached the end of what he could explore in a situation, he changed his situation. Priestley did not abandon his quest or stop learning. An angry mob did not scare him away from any of his vocations. May we all gather such courage in the face of the unknown.
There are many ways to live a life of meaning and purpose while staying rooted in this world. Stories from the roots of Unitarian Universalism, wisdom from scientists, and reflections from earth-centered spirituality all have insights. Observe this living earth, its creatures, and its place in the universe as honestly as you can. Love the world and care for it. Open your heart to embrace wonder and gratitude. Do not let fear of the unknown direct your choices, but bow and dance with the mystery.
So be it. Blessed be. Amen.