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There are times in most of our lives when we experience feelings of wonder and awe. It is the enormity and power of an object or thought that moves us in ways which transcend intellectual description. To be in awe is to feel that one is in the presence of vastness – something greater than the self – either an object of immense physical size or a metaphorical force of a great power.
As humans, we often seek to accommodate the uncertainty we feel when we encounter vastness. We are motivated to make sense of that which is greater than us. Humans have long used theism and religion to understand powerful forces in the universe. Something is so vast and so complex, many people believe, that only a god could have created and sustained it.
It is for that reason that other people, like many atheists or humanists, are wary of these feelings of wonder and awe. Atheists often do not acknowledge a sense of spiritual awe because it implies, for them, a rejection of logic and a reliance on religious superstition. Even so, people can encounter something awe inspiring without needing to religiously make sense of it. Much of science, for instance, is motivated by mystery – by an awareness of something unknown and in need of investigation, testing and understanding. Indeed, feelings of awe are felt by scientists, rational thinkers and the religious. One group relies on logical inquiry and discovery. The other relies on myth and supernatural explanations.
Religious awe, therefore, should not and must not invalidate feelings of awe in those of us who are non-religious but nevertheless spiritually inclined. I assert that it is good and perfectly normal for us to welcome being awe inspired – to be moved and emotion filled when reflecting on or encountering something great or powerful. That kind of feeling can lead us to positively act in ways that improve our world. Logic, mystery and awe all work within us in order to motivate how we live and serve. A thinking brain and an emotion inspired spirit are not incompatible.
A few years ago, I travelled to Sedona, Arizona with my partner Keith who was visiting there for the first time. We took a long hike on the first day and ventured up a canyon. As we descended down from the top, an expansive vista opened before us – of red rock formations, deep green pine trees, an azure sky and billowing white clouds. I looked over at Keith and his eyes were filled with tears. Alarmed, I asked him what was wrong. He looked at me as the tears flowed and he simply said, “It is all just so beautiful.”
Having visited Sedona many times before, I had begun to take for granted the natural beauty of the place. I’d lost my sense of awe and reverence for it.
But I can also clearly remember moments in my life similar to what Keith felt then. Along with many of you, I’ve been privileged to witness childbirth. I vividly recall the moment when my daughter Amy came into the world – her little body emerging, blinking and a bit stunned at the lights and the new environment. It’s an emotional moment for any parent to see but I also remember being filled with wonder at what had just happened – an amazement at the mystical awe of new life, of my minor participation in bringing it about, and the overwhelming love and attachment I felt for my new daughter and her mother. I stood their with tears in my own eyes – moved in a way that was, as I recall it, a profound spiritual moment.
Albert Einstein believed that there are three impulses which can motivate humans to be spiritual. The first impulse, based on a primitive understanding of how the universe works, is influenced by fear. Some humans react with fear toward things they don’t understand and so they invent or believe in supernatural causes – gods and goddesses – to explain them. The second impulse is motivated by a desire for social morality. Einstein believed the need for order leads some people to create or believe in a theistic being who rewards or punishes behavior – all in order to control society. The third impulse that leads other people to spirituality is one he believed is the most mature and which originates in feelings of awe and mystery. As Einstein said, “The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle.”
As a member of the Humanist Society of New York, Einstein was clearly not a theist. The highest purpose for people is to strive for the ethical treatment of fellow humans, he believed. It is certainly not to worship a theistic God – who he said is nothing but an expression of human weakness just as much as he believed the Bible is an honorable but primitive collection of myths.
What Einstein and many other scientists promote is not a rejection of spiritual feelings and emotions. Science, logic, reason or rational thought are often the means to experience spiritual wonder. Our thinking brains lead us to the point where we realize we are small, insignificant, and minor in the totality of an infinite universe. What moved Keith at the sight of beautiful rock formations, or me at the birth of my daughter was not awe at a supernatural god who forms such things. Instead, such feelings were motivated in us by an awareness of the natural explanations for the awesome phenomena we witnessed – at the billions of years of wind, rain and time that shaped mountains, or the intricacies of biology, DNA and chemistry that combine to give life. Such forces, such power, such mystery that often science can’t yet fully explain, these spark in people soul stirring emotions of gratitude and humility. Those feelings are the stuff of spirituality – the kinds of feelings that invite silence, deep meditation and even worship, if you will, of ideas and truths we struggle to assimilate into our limited brains.
I believe such transcendent moments of awe are essential for us. Not only does spirituality humble us in a recognition of how small we are, that humility helps eliminate any arrogance or self-centered thinking in us. We come to understand and see deep within ourselves – within our souls – that life and existence are not about the self. Yes, we were each beautifully and wonderfully made, but we were made as a minor part of vastly greater things. Compared to the billions of stars, the powers of gravity, thermodynamics, evolution and human biology, we as individuals are mere motes of dust floating through the cosmos. Our existence is so insignificant that any feelings we may have of grandiosity or entitlement are comical.
And that, my friends, will lead us to fulfill our human purpose. We exist to serve not just the self, but others. We exist to make a positive difference in the universe – no matter how small. We exist to live and work as a part of the fantastic cosmic whole – to use whatever power and intellect we have to ethically serve all creation.
That is why I believe we assemble each and every Sunday. It is not just to stimulate our minds or fill our brains with facts and figures. Nor is it to simply meet in social community. Churches are not lecture halls or clubs. For us, our two churches are spiritual change agents – places that stimulate our thinking in order to inspire our souls. That is one of the beauties of progressive spirituality or Unitarian Universalism. The mind and spirit compliment one another – working together to initiate change in us so that we can then help one another, nurture our families and serve the needs of a hurting world.
Importantly, our churches initiate change in us is not just through our our intellects. As I’ve said before, relying on reason and logic alone for spiritual explorations will only produce cold intellectualism. We must also consciously seek in our Sunday services moments of wonder, awe, introspection, emotion and even worship as we contemplate things greater than ourselves – things like the power of love, the beauty found in nature, the joys of community, the gratitude for all we’ve been given, or the inherent dignity and goodness of every human. Our desire is not to experience emotional moments simply for their feel good value, but to use such awakening experiences to humble us, fill us with appreciation and prompt us to an even greater desire to love and serve.
I know that most of us attend our two churches because we are spiritually inclined people – those who seek thoughtful insight. What I have found in myself, however, is that too often I ignore or take for granted opportunities to experience moments of awe, joy or peace. Much like I did in Sedona when I walked amidst towering mountains but did not fully sense their beauty, or when I awake some mornings and barely notice a wonderful sunrise, I too often fail, when I’m in church, to embrace a moment of soul deep introspection. I focus, instead, on the tasks at hand – to conduct a service, to learn a few facts, to think about what I will do that afternoon. And I miss the opportunity to awaken my soul and discover not just what I need to learn and know, but which I need to feel.
My default, in many of my Sunday messages and, indeed, in many of my actions, is to think my way through them. I’ve come to understand, however, that thinking my way through life is not sufficient. My head and my knowledge lead me only so far. I must remind myself to also feel my way through life – to be sensitive to and aware of people around me and their hurts or needs, to discern those times to just sit and reflect, to not overlook opportunities to awaken my soul with awe, wonder, gratitude and love. When I am sensitive – or aware – or awakened, I find from those spirit filled moments a renewed ability to then exercise my mind in meaningful ways. If I feel a heightened sensitivity to the needs of others, I will likely be prompted to take action of some form to help. If I am awakened to the gratitude within me for all that I have received, I will be more aware of all that I have yet to give and, hopefully, to then give more. If I embrace moments of silent meditation, I will be far more calm and far more understanding in how I deal with life.
These are all reasons why I am a part of a church and why I believe Sunday services are useful in our lives. I come for the community. I come to have my mind stimulated. But I also come to be spiritually awakened – to find a moment or two or three to experience the wonder of what I need to feel.
I encourage myself, I encourage all of us, to remind ourselves of the spiritual reasons why we are here. Whether it be during Michael Tacy’s beautiful music, from a smile received from a friend, a thought from a reading or hymn, perhaps a word from the message, or an inspiration from a time of silent reflection, I encourage us not to take such experiences for granted. Our souls and our spirits benefit from these moments and our lives, as a result, are enriched.
Sunday services offer us ways to improve ourselves and ways to help one another. They can inform us about the beliefs of other religions and the social justice needs in our world. But, more than just knowing about such things, more than being intellectually informed of them, we must also feel and experience them in our souls. Right now, in this special hour we share every Sunday, may we willingly enter for just a moment or two, the realm of awe, wonder and worship that will sustain and strengthen us to meet our life purpose……….I wish you all much peace and joy.
Instead of a usual heart to heart talkback time when you are welcome to comment on the message, I ask us to instead use this time today for reflection and meditation.
For a few minutes, while Michael now plays contemplative music, I ask you to sit in silence, as still as possible. [Pause] If you will, please close your eyes and begin this meditation by focusing on your breathing. Gently inhale and exhale – focus on each breath, allow any other thoughts to simply enter your mind and then drift away. Use your soft breathing to give you peace. [Pause]
With this sense of calm that you now have, gently bring your mind to think of a place, an event or a person in your life that fills you with feelings of wonder, gratitude, or love. Fill your mind now with an image of that place, event or person. [Pause]
Allow yourself to focus on the beauty, love and goodness of this image your mind now holds. [Pause] Focus on the feelings your image gives you. Recall the feelings it has brought you in the past. Do not be afraid of powerful emotions – give them the respect they are due. [Pause]
For the next minute or two, simply go where your spirit takes you. Go with what you feel and not what you think. [Pause] Rest in your emotions, reflect on what they are telling you, meditate on what they mean and how they want you to live and serve. [Pause] If you can, find right here, right now, a message that your soul has for you…