Alison Wohler, February 24, 2013

Unitarian Universalist Society of Amherst

I drove to Florida and back this January.  I don’t particularly like to fly, plus if I drive I get to see family and friends along the way,  And while I’m there I don’t have to rent a car.  In all I was in the state of Florida for exactly three weeks, staying in three different places, but all on the Gulf coast – the West coast.


You know I was a scientist first in my first career life, then an art gallery owner, then (now) a minister.  I find the maxim to be very true: that we are the sum of what came before.  Once a scientist, always a scientist.  Once an appreciator of beautiful things, always one to want beauty in my life.


Wherever I go, science goes with me.  That doesn’t mean I was conducting experiments while I was on vacation.  Probably the closest I came to experimentation was trying to figure out how to extract the meat from my stone-crab dinner.  Stone crabs are definitely named for the hardness level of their shells.   


My scientific perspective, however, goes with me wherever I am.   It was there in my appreciation of the diversity of the sea shore and the mathematics of the shape of the sea shells.   It was in my healthy eating.  It was in the calculation of how much later sunset would be at the end of the three weeks than at the beginning.  Twenty-one days times about a minute a day…  Science was definitely a part of the guided kayak tour through the mangroves one afternoon.  Next to the tropical rain forest, mangrove swamps are the next MOST productive ecological habitat on earth.   Science was in the immature Yellow Crowned Night Heron along the kayak trail, who was decidedly not afraid of people and kayaks.  Science was part of wondering why there were fewer shore birds this year – and sea shells, too.  Figuring out the tide tables, and why there is a difference from one end of the island to the other is science.  Science is in knowing the names of the different shells on the beach, and understanding why some beaches are “dirtier” than others.  What’s a barrier island and why are they so important?


But religion (my definition of religion) was, too.


I have talked to you before about how I think about the word religion – and it’s not most of the definitions in the dictionary that have to do with the divine or things supernatural.  


Twice recently, once on vacation, and once just three days ago, I had opportunities to bring my ideas about religion to some other people.  In my seminar at the minister’s conference we were talking about whether it might be religion that was the common thread in most of the radical social movements in our U.S. history.  I could see that the group didn’t want to use that word: religion.  So I suggested that rather than think of religion only as a practice of belief and worship of a supernatural entity, we could think of religion more in its original meaning, that of “re-binding,” or “re-connecting.”  If when human beings became large-brained enough that they started thinking they were separate from the rest of nature and existence, then religion could be thought of as simply the means we sometimes use to bring us back into right-relationship with the world and each other.  It’s all about relationship, I always say.


I’m still mulling over the fact that one of the other ministers came up to me after the class and told me I should write a book.  In my next life, maybe.


The second time this week that I explained my idea about religion was to a young woman from Deerfield Academy, and her teacher, who had come to interview me for a paper the student is writing about science and religion.  I do this kind of thing, particularly for students, as part of my outreach to the community from our Unitarian Universalist perspective. Along with re-defining religion for her, I also had to explain that I could not speak for all Unitarian Universalists as we are each on our own path to understanding and acceptance.  It’s so hard to answer the questions people bring me (and I’m assuming you, too) from more traditional religious experiences.  We definitely don’t have a pamphlet of Absolute UU Beliefs to hand out to the curious.


Anyway, religion, as a way of reconnecting to the world and to each other, was with me on my vacation too.  


Sanibel is a sentimental, one might even say a spiritual, place for me – where important events and feelings connect, either in the present or sometimes only in my memories.  It’s where my children and I scattered their father’s ashes in the Gulf of Mexico – he wanted to become part of the shells.  Don’t think I don’t think of that every time I pick one up. Ashes to ashes, calcium to calcium carbonate.   It’s where my children spent many of their vacations – learning to swim – learning the names of the shells – buying grapefruits from the same produce stand every year, for 35 years I’ve been doing that.  I have deep connections to Sanibel, its biology and its beauty.


I believe that when we think something is beautiful we take on a special relationship with that thing.  Beauty often lends itself to creating a sense of protection, or conservation, or a feeling of loss when it disappears.  I feel that way among the birds and the “different-ness” of the mangrove swamps.  There is nothing like it here, up north.  We have our own beauty, but it isn’t mangroves.


Religion was in the friendships I renewed and deepened on my trip.  My dearest friend, Miriam, was with me for 10 days.  Ten very relaxing days of reading and talking and going down to the beach, and making flower arrangements, and figuring out how to eat those stone crabs.  Later, at that conference with 420 of my ministerial colleagues I found several with whom to spend closer time – to have deeper, more personal conversations.  


Religion was certainly in the worship services – morning and night for 5 days.  There was a lot of crying going on, for they were wonderful services.   I did have to do a lot of personal translation, for more and more these days UU conferences use a lot of references to God and prayer and praise.  It wasn’t really a problem, it is just language I don’t use much myself.  


I saw religion in the movies I went to see while on vacation.  “Silver Linings Playbook” for example, which is all about the importance of the perseverance of hope and the possibility of redeeming (and healing) love.  


My trips to Florida, and really to any other part of the country with a different climate and vegetation, give me such a sense of amazement that one earth could provide all this variety.  Personally I don’t think I would want to live anywhere but in the deciduous world, but it sure is wondrous to see other ecosystems – right here in this country.  Awe and wonder – are these not religious/spiritual experiences?  The beach with its infinite grains of sand and the reliable waves, there even through the night when I wake up.  Sunrise, sunset, the full moon at night.  Who are we amidst the immensity of the Universe?  What is infinity, anyway?   Who am I?  Little me.


I often wear this necklace when I am traveling.  I’m not superstitious, it’s just that this necklace sometimes serves to remind me of who I am.  Little me.  It’s called a Hamsa, or the hand of God, and it’s from the Jewish tradition.  One of my Andover Newton classmates gave me this as a saying-goodbye present – her family had Jewish roots.  This necklace also has a stone in it, often called the eye of God.  So this necklace is the hand and the eye of God.


Those of you who are not visitors this morning will undoubtedly know that I do not believe in God, nevertheless I wear this necklace and it has great meaning for me.  I think of the hand of God as being the web of existence – the intricately woven web in which I am held and will always be a part.  I am held in the web – in the hand of God.  


I also think of this web as so connected and interdependent (as we UUs say) that my slightest act, my slightest thought, has an effect on the rest of existence.  Therefore I am felt, I am seen, by this web, this eye of God.  I must remember this in everything I do – that I make a difference.  


I am held in the web, but I am also known by the web by what I do.   I am held as if in a hand because it is so infinite; I am known as if by an eye because it is so sensitive.   The holding and the knowing are not “conscious” things in my understanding – but these are the human words we have to describe the feeling.   The hand and the eye of God – by these I know that I am just as much a part of the whole as anyone else (inherent worth and dignity) and that no matter what happens to me, even when I die, I will remain a part of the web of the Universe.


Here is a bit more of the Science and Religion pamphlet by Helen Cohen.  See if you don’t hear the similarities between what I just described as the hand and eye of God, or the infinite and sensitive web of existence, and the way in which Cohen is describing Unitarianism and Universalism.


One meaning of Unitarianism is the belief that all that exists is ultimately one, whatever form it takes: matter and energy, body and soul, mind and heart, all living and non-living things, deduction and intuition, emotion and intellect, love and reason, science and religion. We may prioritize our loyalties by the things we feel closest to, but then we use our reason to remember that we are all one. The Big Bang, while we cannot claim it as proven scientific fact, is a metaphor that harmonizes with a belief in unity.

Universalism entails a belief that everything belongs. Science has uncovered enough about genetics to show us that we belong together within the human family, among primates, among all living things, among the stars. We are at once so small and so securely held by and connected with a vastness beyond our comprehension.


Maybe it’s partly because I’m a minister and in ministerial training we were forever asked to write theological reflections about the tiniest of things, but I am conscious of religious and spiritual implications of everything in my life, especially when I travel and have more time to think – and feel.


But I always take my scientific side with me, too.  I’m trained as a biologist, more specifically as an ecologist.  William Hammond, in one of my favorite books, The Ecology of the Human Spirit, defines ecology as “The study of the complex inter-relationships between living things and their environments, including other living things of both their own and other species.” (p. 87) That sounds like our seventh UU principle to me: “the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part.”


Hammond also writes: “If someone were to ask me what, in my opinion, has been the most important development in Unitarian Universalist religious thought during the more than fifty years of my Unitarian affiliation, I would without a moment’s hesitation, answer, “The recognition of the theological significance of ecological concerns.” (p. 86, The Ecology of the Human Spirit)  This is why I love this book so much.  “The recognition of the theological [religious] significance of ecological [scientific] concerns.”


Science and religion have run into each other, really been almost the same thing for me, all of my life.  Science and religion, for me, are just different ways of seeing the same things.


This is a book called The Passionate Observer.  I must have gotten it before I even began my ministerial training because there is a bookmark in this book from the University of Virginia bookstore – where my daughter did her undergraduate work.  She gave it to me as a gift one year.  Perhaps she had more insight into her mother than I sometimes have into myself – this book sat on the shelf for a lot of years.  Recently I looked at the title and realized “that’s me.”  The Passionate Observer.   It’s by a man who spent his life examining Nature: Jean Henri Fabre.  You are welcome to look at it after the service if you like.


Thank you, Liz, for the gift and for being the wise woman you are and have been for a long time.


I call myself a “Religious Naturalist.”  Maybe religious naturalist is another way of saying “passionate observer.”  I want to be both a passionate observer and a passionate partaker of life.  And I wish that for you, as well.  Passionate observers, religiously taking in our world, not just on the sidelines, but in the thick of it all.  Right here, in the middle of our wonderful, miraculous, scientific and religious, awe-inspiring web.


I’ll close with a poem by William Hammond:


As wavelets in a quiet pond

Move outward from the place where a pebble has been dropped,

And strike the shore, and echo back across the pool,

And strike and echo, strike and echo, again and yet again,

Until at last the motion is absorbed in all the ceaseless microscopic moiling of the water;

So does the influence of every child of [humankind] reverberate, from person to person, life to life –

Individual, recognizable, for greater or for shorter time – 

At last becoming one with, a precious, eternal part of,

The ongoing Soul of Humankind.  (p. 85, The Ecology of the Human Spirit)