Sermon given at the People’s Church, Ludington, Michigan
[Unitarian Universalist] on Sunday September 24, 2000.
Opening Reading, by Carl Sagan
A religion that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a
religion will emerge.
For me, this quote describes the new, relatively unknown religion of Scientific/Natural,
Pantheism. Natural Pantheism is a small branch, you might say, of the general philosophy
of Pantheism. Pantheism is the belief that all things, animate and inanimate, are of the
same essence or basic reality.
The Pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus identified God or the One Thing as Reason and gave it the quality of Fire, ever-changing, ever-creating, ever-passing through (which, by the way, reminds me of our chalice symbol). In the seventeenth century, Spinoza equated God with the Whole Cosmos, and used the words God and Nature interchangeably. Pantheism itself as a belief or as a philosophy is,
therefore, relatively not so new. Nor is it very specific, with an Oxford American
dictionary definition stated so broadly as, “God is everything and everything is God.”
There are as many types of Pantheism as there are faces in this room. Some are theist,
some are non-theist, and others still are atheist. There are dualist and monist
Pantheists. And while Hinduism itself is more closely related to Pantheism than any other
world religion, there are even some Christian Pantheists, who usually are more accurately
Panentheists, which means a belief that all is a part of a God who is thought to be more
than the sum of its parts.
Confused yet? I certainly was, especially about three years ago when, for a number of
reasons, I’d become disillusioned with my liberal Christian theology, and so I was
searching for a nature-based spirituality that I could really, truly believe in. I’d looked
into Paganism and Wicca, Native American beliefs, and several other new age philosophies.
While I greatly respect many aspects of these beliefs, especially American Indian
spirituality, there were aspects or practices in most of these religions which I just
couldn’t honestly, completely believe in, and despite my admiration, I just couldn’t in clear
conscience pretend I believed in things that I just didn’t. So I kept coming to People’s
Church, and I kept looking.
Somehow, I don’t even remember how, I came across a website at www.pantheism.net
about Scientific, or Natural, Pantheism. While it’s more commonly known as Scientific
Pantheism, I typically prefer its lesser-used name of Natural Pantheism, mainly because
that name more clearly speaks to what I was looking for, a nature-based but rational
spirituality, but you’ll hear the names used interchangeably. With Natural Pantheism, I
found a theology that I could really, completely, and honestly believe in. Right on the
front, home web page was the quote by Carl Sagan that I’d read to you earlier. Let me
read it again: “A religion that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by
modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped
by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.”
So what is this Scientific, or Natural Pantheism? And what’s so scientific or natural
about it? And can a religion be based upon scientific fact and data and on the plain old
natural world without the supernatural, the Unseen, the spirit world, or an Afterlife?
So I pointed-and-clicked further into the website and found a page called, “What
Scientific Pantheism believes.” And here are some excerpts from that page:
“At the heart of pantheism is reverence of the universe as the ultimate focus of
reverence, and for the natural earth as sacred.
“Scientific pantheism – sometimes called Sci-Pan for short – has a naturalistic
approach which simply accepts and reveres the universe and nature just as they are, and promotes an ethic of respect for human and animal rights and for lifestyles that sustain rather than destroy the environment.
“When scientific pantheists say WE REVERE THE UNIVERSE we are not talking about a supernatural being. We are talking about the way our senses and our emotions force us to respond to the overwhelming mystery and power that surrounds us. We are part of the universe. Our earth was created from the universe and will one day be reabsorbed into the universe. We are made of the same matter and energy as the universe. We are not in exile here: we are at home. It is only here that we will ever get the chance to see anything resembling the divine face to face. If we believe our real home is not here but in a land that lies beyond death – if we believe that the numinous is found only in old books, or old
buildings, or inside our head, or outside this reality – then we will see this real, vibrant, luminous world as if through a glass darkly.
“The universe creates us, preserves us, destroys us. It is deep and old beyond our
ability to reach with our senses. It is beautiful beyond our ability to describe in words. It is complex beyond our ability to fully grasp in science. We must relate to the universe with humility, awe, reverence, celebration and the search for deeper understanding – in other words, in many of the ways that believers relate to their God. This real “divinity” is everywhere inside you and outside you and you can never be separated from it. “
The webpage description then continued:
“When scientific pantheists say WE CARE FOR THE EARTH, (or THE EARTH IS SACRED) we mean it with just as much commitment and reverence as believers speaking about their church or mosque, or the relics of their saints. But again we are not talking about supernatural beings. We are saying this:
“We are part of nature. Nature made us and at our death we will be reabsorbed into
nature. We are at home in nature and in our bodies. This is where we belong. This is the only place where we can find and make our paradise, not in some imaginary world on the other side of the grave. If nature is the only paradise, then separation from nature is the only hell. When we destroy nature, we create hell on earth for other species and for ourselves.
And the article concluded with:
“Nature is our mother, our home, our security, our peace, our past and our future. We should treat natural things and habitats as believers treat their temples and shrines, as sacred – to be revered and preserved in all their intricate and fragile
For me, that means that I don’t have to believe or practice or worship anything beyond
what I can directly sense or experience, and that frees me up to be able to revere and
worship those very things and experiences. This also compliments well my Quaker
practice of direct experience, revering the ordinary and keeping things simple. But even
more than in any other religion I’ve found, I am free to meditate on and revere the Real,
without doubt, dogma, or special practice. And I don’t have to be a rocket scientist to
realize the logic of this religion, nor a seasoned naturalist or biologist to appreciate it,
nor a devout mystic who’s mastered difficult practices to attain it. I can simply look up to
the night skies, deep into a flame, or out across Lake Michigan to feel my reverence. A
William Blake said in his famous poem:
“To see a World in a grain of sand,
And a Heaven in a wild flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour.”
Too often it seems like “spiritual” is put in some kind of higher realm than the natural
or physical, even in most current nature-based practices. I think that’s difficult to avoid
when adopting a nature-based spirit religion, when we’ve been raised in a Judeo-Christian
culture that sees “spirit” and “physical” as very different, even polar opposites. Thus
discerning the “spirit” of an plant, animal or a place often becomes more valuable or
desirable than just revering the animal or place just for being.
But with Natural Pantheism, the “spiritual” and the “physical” can truly, rationally be one and the same,
just as modern physics has concluded that matter and energy are really one thing.
It also means, then, that we can take science, a subject matter that had been
intellectualized and compartmentalized quite apart from the spiritual life throughout
most of our education and enculturation, and instead have a way to truly combine it with
religion. I think part of the problem is that historically, western religion was here
before real science and the scientific method, and so once science arrived it was
considered a tool to be used to further our Judeo-Christian imperative, dominion over the
earth. But with Natural Pantheism, our scientific knowledge instead becomes much more
than a mere discipline, or subject matter, or tool for mastery and control, and instead
sees in our growing scientific knowledge how nature truly is a part of us and truly is our
biological and “spiritual” family, a fact that American Indians and other indigenous
cultures intuitively know.
With Natural Pantheism, we can take the best of the nature-based religions and
instead of trying to make ourselves believe in spirits which some of us may have a hard
time with, or in addition to those spiritual beliefs if you’re so inclined, we can substitute
or add to them the awesome facts we’ve gained over the centuries about the real, but no
less wondrous, workings of nature. Now there are some authors out there who’ve done
some great writing on this subject, such as Brian Swimme, Thomas Berry, and Joanna
Macy who’s mediation I read to you earlier, but not until I came upon Natural Pantheism
had I seen it put in such a way that we could take purely natural processes and truly
celebrate them in a religious way.
We can take processes such as photosynthesis, a process which is often taught to us in school in a very matter-of-fact, dry sort of way (just the name of the process is intimidating), and truly celebrate it. Or as Duane Jorgenson showed us last Sunday in his joyous illustrated poem which he shared as the Story For All Ages, one can take a subject like hydrologics – just the term makes me sleepy! – and enliven it and revere and revel in its brilliant cycles. And if you’re really ambitious, or have the natural brain power for it which I don’t and so have to strain to understand, you can look into the natural worlds of the very small, such as subatomic
particle physics so reverently described by such authors as Fritjof Capra in The Tao of
Physics, or the worlds of the very large such as Carl Sagan describes with such honor and
in an approachable form in such books as Cosmos and Big Blue Dot.
We could take any one of these processes or worlds actually recreate them in ceremony
to celebrate and revere them religiously, similar to the Catholic Mass. Really, I’m not
kidding. You born-and-raised Catholics out there might know what I’m talking about. Like,
to celebrate in ceremony the glory of photosynthesis, we’d take a garden vegetable, hold it
up reverently and talk about how it was a glorious joining of light, air and earth to create
nourishment for us, and that as you partake, to remember and be grateful for it’s giving
and how it truly, biologically, joins us in communion.
It’s an opportunity to take what seems like an ordinary, natural fact and puts it into a context of true beauty and awe which it so deserves. And it celebrates us as interconnected human beings. I mean, we really are what we eat – not just what’s on the plate, but what got that meal there, going back to the basic elements it took to make that food, even going back to the beginning of time (remember the Woodstock song that had in the chorus, “We are Stardust”? It’s true!). Again, this is a concept that most indigenous cultures are aware of and taught and
they honor it from childhood, a concept which we westerners are only now grasping the
Natural Pantheism also shows me that I don’t have to believe in heaven or hell; I can
believe that it’s all right here, right now, on this planet. Now of course we can make it a
hell in how we treat ourselves and others, and certainly Nature herself can wreak hellish
destruction. But when we can see the bigger picture, the balancing act that nature must
perform with its occasional, violent, sometimes tragic casualties, we can gain acceptance
and even awe. And truly, most of the time life is heavenly. Have you ever tried this, to
just look around you in a beautiful place, and realize that this is Heaven? It nearly always
brings tears to my eyes; no more grass is greener; this really is all there is, and it
heartbreakingly beautiful, and real. How much more we might respect and care for our
heavenly home! It reminds me of a quote from 1890 of the Native American Salatha, who
was a guide to the famous explorer Warburton Pike. Salatha responded to some
evangelizing by a missionary priest with the following:
Father, you have spoken well;
you have told me that heaven is very beautiful.
Tell me now one more thing.
Is it more beautiful than the country of the musk-ox,
where sometimes the mist blows over the lakes,
and sometimes the water is blue,
and the loons cry very often?
I also don’t have to believe in the typical idea of an afterlife, at least not for this
particular life form that I call “Laura”. However, I do look forward to immortality as my
physical body dies and breaks down and is reborn into who knows what kinds of energy and
matter. I might become any kind of animate matter, as Walt Whitman describes at the
end of his poem, Song of Myself:
“I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again, look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.”
Daniel Quinn, my favorite author who wrote the Jellyfish story I read earlier, describes
this idea in even greater detail and poetic prose in my favorite novel, The Story of B:
“…I want you to travel with me to a place I remember as a child, a plains
wilderness…All I remember is…this vast sea of grass stretching from horizon to
horizon, and the winds stirring it up and sending it into waves just like
the sea…Close your eyes and see if you can picture such a place.
“The important thing to realize is that this isn1t grass. This is deer
and bison and sheep and cicadas and moles and rabbits. Reach down and grab a handful. Go ahead – at least mentally. Have you got it? That1s a mouse. And the mouse, the ox, the gazelle, the goat, and the beetle all burn with the fire of grass. Grass is their mother and father, and their young are grass.
“One thing: grass and grasshopper. One thing: grasshopper and sparrow.
One thing: sparrow and fox. One thing: fox and vulture. One thing, and its name is
fire, burning today as a stalk in the field, tomorrow as a rabbit in its burrow, and the
next day as an eleven-year-old girl…
“The vulture is fox; the fox, grasshopper; the grasshopper, rabbit; the
rabbit, girl; the girl, grass. All together, we1re the life of this place,
indistinguishable from one another, intermingling in the flow of fire….To each of us is given its moment in the blaze, its spark to be surrendered to another when it1s sent, so that the blaze may go on. None may deny its spark to the general blaze and live forever – not any at all. Certainly not me, for all my giant intellect. Each – each! – is sent to another someday. You are sent. You’re on your way. I too am sent. To the wolf or the cougar or the vulture or the beetles or the grasses, I am sent. I’m sent and I thank you all, grasses in all your forms – fire in all your forms – sparrows and rabbits and mosquitoes and butterflies and salmon and rattlesnakes, for sharing yourselves with me for this time, and I’m bringing it all back, every last atom, paid in full, and I appreciate the loan.
“My death will be the life of another – I swear that to you. And you
watch, you come find me, because I1ll be standing again in these grasses and you’ll see me looking through the eyes of the fox and taking the air with the eagle and running in the track of the deer.”
I might also metamorphose into some energy states. Steven W., a fellow Pantheist and
“cyber friend” as my husband kiddingly calls the Natural Pantheists that I e-mail with
from the Pantheism website, described such a possible energy state metamorphosis.
Steven W. wrote:
“I do believe right now in human form, we are both matter and energy, [and that] when we die, our decay will return to the energy state. Einstein also mentioned that all matter has energy in it, but we can’t use it until we release it. Rocks, water, trash all have energy, but [it’s] in a [state called] “Rest Energy “. When this energy is released, it emits gamma radiation, and is believed to be seen all
throughout the universe.… I think that maybe the process does break down when our bodies die, to where our atoms, and energies, are absorbed back into the universe. With this thought/idea… I believe that maybe someone somewhere will see me in the sunlight, a rainbow, or maybe flowing through the warp core reactor… 🙂 Who knows ?”
For me, then, Natural Pantheism answers all those Meaning of Life questions in very
here-and-now, physical, rational ways, yet does so without having to give up worship,
mystery, and awe. But what does this all have to do with Unitarian Universalism? Well,
for me, it has everything to do with it. Because were it not for this religion, for this
church in particular, I likely would not have kept searching until found this particular
path. This religion, especially through the 3rd and 4th principles, not only accepts but
also encourages me to “spiritual growth in our congregation” through “a free and
responsible search for truth and meaning” in whatever form I find it.
And for me, finding how best to express the 7th principle of “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part” has been what has led me to this particular truth at
this particular point in my life. UUism allowed me to be a part of it when I came to
Ludington as a Quaker; it waited patiently for me as I explored other liberal Christian
practices; it held me comfortingly as I went through my dark night of disillusion; it
supported me on my search for a earth-based spirituality that I could believe in; and I’m
confident that it will continue to be a vital support to my religious thinking as I revise my
vision of truth and meaning that I may need to as I meet with new life experiences. As
Vail talked about in her sermon last week, it is here that I’ve found my spiritual home.
She brought up that saying, “Home is where they have to take you in,” and knowing that no
matter what form my spirituality, truth, or meaning may take, that you’ll always take me
in, is a gift that I am so, so grateful to this church for. Thank you!
©Laura Lyons 2000