Wednesday, December 10, 2008

How Can You Stand Not Knowing?

I did a sermon of this title on November 23 at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois and then again on December 7 at First Church Unitarian Universalist in Athol, Massachusetts. I was going to put the full text here on the blog, but the Quincy web site does such a good-looking presentation that I might as well just link to it. They also have a podcast version, which I think is the first time I've been podcast (or podcasted or whatever the past tense is).

While I was preparing the sermon, friends would ask me what it was about. I consistently stumbled over the explanation. I referred to it as "my afterlife sermon", which set up the expectation that I was going to give my theory of the afterlife. That's not what it's about -- which is good, since I doubt that such a sermon would be all that meaningful or transformative, either for me or for the people who heard it.

Instead, "How Can You Stand Not Knowing?" explores why an I-don't-know position on the afterlife is so hard to sell as a genuine religious alternative. In general, even people who aren't sure what's going to happen when they die aren't all that eager to join a church that isn't sure either. Why is that? What are they expecting from religion that they don't think a church can deliver without a clear vision of the afterlife?

I start in the readings with two wildly contrasting views:
  • MacBeth's. Here the denial of an afterlife leads to the nihilistic conclusion that "Life ... is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
  • Forrest Church's. Church is a well-known UU minister who has terminal cancer. He doesn't claim to know what will happen when he dies, and yet he is facing death with an enviable serenity. The reading is from his talk "Love and Death" to the UU General Assembly in June. (In the sermon I also briefly mention another UU who died well without referencing a vision of the afterlife: Randy Pausch, whose "Last Lecture" has been seen by millions.)
The main point I make in the sermon is that a person's vision of the afterlife ripples backwards through his or her vision of life. The unreflective, it-goes-without-saying way of life in America today is based on a traditional Heaven-and-Hell vision of the afterlife. If you just drop that afterlife vision and don't change your approach to life, you're going to run into problems, as MacBeth does. But Church can have a more positive approach to death because he has been living with a different view of life.

The bulk of the sermon, then, is spent listing all the things that a Heaven-and-Hell view does for a believer, and describing how an agnostic vision of life has to be different if it's going to achieve comparable results. The key image here is the contrast between a worldview that is supported by guywires attached to Heaven, versus one supported by a foundation dug into the Earth.

Hope you like it. Love to hear your comments.


Joel Monka said...

Excellent words- I'm saving them for rereading now and then- deserves further pondering.

I am often asked, since my Pagan beliefs are strange to most, about my belief in the afterlife, and get the same astonishment about my uncertainty. Few seem satisfied with my explanation: the Divine is not small or petty; if I make myself worthy of this world, I have no fear of the next. That is also my comfort when thinking of loved ones who have gone before me.

I share Ballou's view that one does not profit from sin, but usually put it in terms of this world, rather than speaking of alignment with love. If you accomplish something by lying or cheating, for example, your accomplishment is tainted. You will not enjoy the company of others who earned their degrees or medals or whatever honestly- you will know, deep inside, that you are a fraud, you don't deserve to be in their company. That's why the corrupt say, "Everybody does it"- trying to feel better about themselves. Then, of course, there's karma- not the metaphysical kind, but the unintended consequences of sin.

Tom said...

VERY Nice!

the way you put Ballou's thoughts on the matter was perfect

"the truly marvelous life is one aligned with the power of love. He pictured perfect love streaming down from God onto each individual, who can then reflect God's love into the world. Far from being sweet, sin smudges your mirror; it breaks your transmission of God's love."


(can you link me up to a place where he says just that? I just read in Wikipedia that he wrote some 10,000 sermons?! wow...

also, a small coincidence- I just drove through Richmond NH this past Saturday - his birth-town... a nice connection to have now for that trip :))

I think Love though, can be seen here "on earth" from a much deeper place than just "belief" ... I think there are conditions in which Love acts, which can transcend ANY belief... and so, Im liking your phrase "then that problem goes away"... if one should get to see how Love acts in the here and now only, and is not connected to a "before" or an "after"- then this transcends time- any notions of good/bad, right/wrong, heaven/hell, just "go away"- when this Love is seen for the truth of our existence... to continue with the Joseph Campbell quote (which I remember well from the very first time I heard him tell it to Bill Moyers):

"Eternity is that dimension of here and now that all thinking in temporal terms cuts off. And if you don’t get it here, you won’t get it anywhere. The problem with heaven is that you will be having such a good time there, you won’t even think of eternity. You’ll just have this unending delight in the beatific vision of God. But the experience of eternity right here and now, in all things, whether thought of as good or as evil, is the function of life."

If we need to pardon the notions of "God" or Heaven from the language, then we easily can, but the message of the world's wisdom traditions have been all about this... this comes to what is meant by "non-duality", that which is beyond the field of opposites...

I get it-

and you captured it well for the UU's you were speaking to...

kim said...

Very enlightening. It makes it feel like UU has a theology after all....
I've been saying for years that, not only do we not know the answer to these questions, but the fact that we don't is a statement by God or the Universe or whatever that we don't NEED to know. And that has a meaning of its own. You've described here what that meaning can be.