(c) Rev. Doug Slagle, The Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
In less than ten days, across half the planet, the sun’s rays will reach their northernmost point. For a few days, the sun’s northern trajectory will stop. It will go no further before it begins its long journey, over several months, to the southern horizon. Of course, the sun does not journey north and south every year. It’s us – our planet earth – that revolves and tilts in relation to the sun.
For ancient Druids at Stonehenge, Egyptians at the Great Pyramid or Mayans at their Temple, summer solstice was one of the most spiritual days of the year. Light conquers darkness, the sun god gives its blessing to mother earth, and all of creation’s lesser gods respond with vigor and abundance. Summer solstice, for ancients, was the culmination of the creation story retold every year. Born in the cold of winter, the sun matures and grows until it reaches full adulthood in June. All of nature is growing and responding to it – all the better to nourish and feed.
This miracle of the sun’s journey is better understood now. There is no supernatural ability of the sun and earth to bless or punish. They are not gods. The sun and planets operate according to inexorable laws of physics set in motion billions of years ago according to the push and pull of mass and gravity.
My purpose today is not to offer a message on astronomy but to instead encourage our focus on what I call summer spirituality. We will not gather outdoors here on the summer solstice and sacrifice an animal, our crops or some misbehaving Board member! We might, however, use the entire summer season to immerse ourselves in nature and find times to meditate or even pray about our connections to the universe. As we throw off the shackles of indoor climates and heavy winter clothing, we will reunite with the larger universe – in the woods, in our backyards, at the water’s edge. In doing so, we cannot help but thrill at the miracles of existence – and the great mysteries that still perplex our greatest scientists and philosophers. Why do we exist? What purpose does life serve – if any? What set in motion the sun, earth and stars – and why? For me, such questions constitute spirituality – much like they did for the ancients. Basking in the joys of summer, I’m face to face with things much greater than me. And so I often turn inward to reflect and try to better understand myself and the world around me. My message today is meant to encourage our contemplation on such matters.
I believe every person wants to be connected, in some way, with mystery, inspiration and awe. For many people who do not believe in a personal, all powerful and all knowing theistic God, including myself, belief in the power of science to explain all things is unsatisfying. For me, science offers an incomplete understanding of the existential questions I just posed. In that sense, I’m a spiritual seeker far more than I am a “rejecter”. I’d rather focus on what is positive and so, instead of framing my beliefs on what I’m against, I instead speak of a positive spirituality. Therefore, contrary to some who do not believe in a theistic God, I believe that a little ‘g’ god force does exist.
For me, this god force is a part of the observable and definable natural world even if humans do not fully understand it. This god force is a function of exquisite complexity found in nature, physics, astronomy and biology. To believe in this type of a natural god is not belief in a religious god. Instead, I’m a believer in a mysterious force that exists in all things.
This belief of mine is nothing original. Most say a form of this natural spirituality began in the seventeenth century with the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza who was described at the time as being “god-intoxicated” since he saw a little ‘g’ god in everything. Spinoza advocated what has come to be called pantheism – a combination of the greek root words ‘pan’, meaning ‘all’, and ‘theos’, meaning god. Spinoza saw a universe of remarkable intricacy that nevertheless worked as an integrated unit. God, for him, is not some outside anthropomorphic Being manipulating all creation like a puppet master. God is pervasive, immanent, and all-encompassing. God is everywhere and in everything – in a tree, a stone, a star, a child’s face. While some state that pantheism is merely a reverence for nature, others reject that simplistic definition. Many people like me believe there is a separate force that is common to all things – a force that fundamentally explains everything.
As a religious pantheist, Spinoza asserted that god is not a being but rather a truth that animates nature. Science can explain the mechanics of how many things work but it cannot yet explain the why of their first creation. Such is the force that spawned the first cellular life, initiated the Big Bang or pushes the boundaries of the universe ever outward – feeding on a dark energy cosmologists believe exists but can’t explain.
For some, pantheism is the theology of Paganism. Pagans provide the structure and ritual practices that express pantheism – that god exists in everything.
And that leads me to a similar investigation of Albert Einstein and his much discussed spiritual beliefs. While many, including Richard Dawkins who is a modern Atheist, say Einstein was in reality also an Atheist, Einstein himself would have none of that. As he said, “There are people who say there is no God, but what makes me really angry is that they quote me for support of such views. What separates me from most Atheists is a feeling of utter humility toward the unattainable secrets of the harmony of the cosmos.”
Einstein later clarified this thought by writing, “Many Atheists are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle. They are creatures who—in their grudge against the traditional ‘opium of the people’—cannot hear the music of the spheres.”
He added, “The finest emotion of which we are capable is the mystic emotion. Herein lies the germ of all art and all true science. Anyone to whom this feeling is alien, who is no longer capable of wonderment, is a dead man.”
Despite his disapproval of some Atheists, Einstein was certainly NOT a believer in a supernatural god. For him, science and religion may seem incompatible but they instead share a common inquiry – to understand what operates and began the universe. Einstein said that science without religion is lame, and that religion without science is blind. He declared himself to be a, “deeply religious nonbeliever.” I relate to that spiritual irony.
What Einstein attempted to do all his life was to make sense of the complex and seemingly inconsistent thoughts he had about theism, god and religion. How can one be a religious nonbeliever? In his vastly superior mind, this was not paradox. As he observed the universe, and as he discovered physical laws that describe how things work, he was awestruck. His mind could understand how things function but not why they function. What force initiated relativity and the balanced interaction of light, time and space? Why do so-called black holes defy physical laws like gravity and operate according to their own strange principles? Why is the universe expanding infinitely? Indeed, if we can even wrap our minds around the idea of an infinite universe, why is it that way? Being infinite, there should be no beginning and no end. But science can trace a beginning of the universe to the so-called Big Bang. But what caused the Big Bang and why did it happen? What created the infinitely dense mass of stuff that exploded at the Big Bang and thus formed stars and planets? What existed before the Big Bang? Are there other universes that caused it – or, could this universe have been born from nothing? These unanswerable mysteries made the universe all the more profound to Einstein. They were the essence of his spirituality and his humility before the almighty cosmos.
When Einstein was asked by Israel’s Prime Minister David Ben Gurion whether he believed in God or not, he replied that despite his groundbreaking theory on the equilibrium between energy and mass, E=MC2, there must be something that created ‘E’ – or original energy. In other words, something mysterious must have initiated the energy that caused the Big Bang. Implicitly, Einstein replied that, “Yes!” he did believe in a type of god – but not the god of man made religion and theism.
Einstein gave voice to his beliefs when he said, “A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms – it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude. What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility.”
For me, Einstein and Baruch Spinoza describe my paradoxical spirituality. Reason tells me there is no theistic God, but yet there is a great mystery, a little ‘g’ god force in all things.
Our minds give us great power, but they can take us only so far. We stand as if at a window gazing into the cosmos – but the glass is dimmed and not completely clear. We see a natural creation that is supremely captivating, intricate and far more complex than anything we can comprehend. In seeing such finely tuned intricacy, we are rendered speechless and in awe. Despite our own intellectual abilities, we are suddenly aware of how much we do not know and we are left humbled. It is in that precise moment when we might be closest to ultimate spiritual truth. It is a moment when we perceive greatness we can never fully understand.
That is the humble spirituality Einstein pursued. His reason told him there is no big ‘g’ God or puppet master. Angels don’t dance on pinheads, there is no hell, people do not come back to life after dying, and there are no supernatural miracles. But he did say that, given the choice, he’d prefer the company of religious believers over many Atheists because at least they are in awe of something. His humility told him there is a lot he did not understand. God, for him, may not be real but the mysteries of the universe ARE real. In his awareness of that truth, he felt himself in the presence of things far greater than him. One of the greatest intellects in history was one of the most humble. Personally, I find that attitude inspiring.
Like Einstein, we at the Gathering at Northern Hills similarly reject all forms of dogma. It is a stated premise of who we are that we begin from a foundation of humility toward matters of spirituality. Your journey to ultimate truth and enlightenment, what some might call God, Yahweh, Allah, Krishna, or Venus, is yours to choose. It is beautiful and good in its own right. We rely upon are our own limited powers of reason and observation to tell us many things. But our minds, and those of scientists like Einstein, cannot tell us everything.
That is why I believe in a form of atheistic theism – or pantheism – a worship of the god force in nature, our bodies and the physical laws that control them. Like so many things, however, I choose a middle way – a path within the grey zone of mystery that is neither black or white, good or bad, theist or Atheist, natural or supernatural.
For the three months ahead, I encourage a summer spirituality of reflecting and meditating on such matters. How might you hear the music of the spheres – to which Einstein spoke – the sublime harmony of atoms and molecules, birds and flowers, stars and galaxies all singing the same magnificent tune? To do so, you might venture into your back yards, the beach, the woods, the majestic mountains – or stare into the inky black of space. I trust you will find there the glories of which I speak – the fantastic beauty of creation and the inspiring wonders of all existence. At the altar of tree, star and ocean, we can unite in awe and wonder. As humbled people, we will find reconciliation with one another, and our diverse spiritual journeys. God is a paradox. God is dead…and god is alive. God is nowhere…and god is everywhere.
I wish you all much peace and joy…