Is Nothing Sacred?

by Rev. Dr. Edward A. Frost

Presented 2012 January 15 to the congregation of Mountain Light Unitarian Universalist Church in Cherry Log GA.

Last week, a young man driving at an estimated ninety miles an hour chose to end his life by deliberately crossing the median strip on a busy Atlanta highway, plowing into oncoming traffic. He hit an SUV head on, killing himself and a man and a woman and their two children. And you say there is a God and that this God notes the fall of every sparrow? And did God "note" the action of that young man and the four innocent people whose lives he snuffed out?

Writing in the New Yorker magazine, James Woods enters the theological field by setting out what he calls "The Virginia Woolf Question." The question is raised in Woolf's most metaphysical, perhaps most theological novel, "To The Lighthouse." Mrs. Ramsey, the central figure of the novel, has died. Her dear friend, the painter Lily Briskoe, sits at her easel deep in mourning. Next to her sits the poet, Augustus Carmichael. Woods writes, "…suddenly Lily imagines that she and Mr. Carmichael might stand up and demand an explanation of life."

Woolf writes, "For one moment she felt that if they both got up, here, now on the lawn, and demanded an explanation, why was [life] so short, why was it so inexplicable? [She] said it with violence, as two fully equipped human beings from whom nothing should be hid might speak, then, beauty would roll itself up; the space would fill; those empty flourishes would form into shape if they shouted loud enough Mrs. Ramsay would return. "Mrs. Ramsay!" she said aloud, "Mrs. Ramsay!" The tears ran down her face."

But Mrs. Ramsey will not return and there would be no explanation for this–no answer to "life, the universe and everything." And the young man would not have his suicidal and murderous mind changed. The family's SUV would not swerve aside. There would be no explanation for this. Sixteen million people would die for a madman's vision. There would be no explanation for this. There would be no explanation because God, they say, is dead or gone away or never was.

The horror or the beauty of this is (as some atheists maintain ) that there is no cosmic parent, no "everlasting arms" to cradle and protect. We creatures, born not of the dust or of Adam's rib but of flesh and blood, must make our own way. Godot is not coming.

Some say atheism–the denial of the existence of God–began in the Renaissance with the rise of Reason; others say God was killed by Darwin and his "Origin of Species." Some say a philosopher declared it. But surely as humankind began to stand there were a few who dared to doubt the thunder was an angry god. And surely there were some who thought the prophets who claimed to speak for God were simply mad and that Moses was but a sorcerer about whom fanciful tales came to be told. It did come to pass that the atheist fell into disrepute and lived under a cover of "don't ask, don't tell." After all, the vast majority of western people assumed the existence–and the particular interest–of a divine being–a people who, despite all evidence to the contrary, and despite the awful cries of "Why?" met with silence, put this nation "under God" and installed the Presence in the halls of justice and government. There have been those who have objected to all that–some in defiance, some in anger, some in disdain. Until recent times, it required considerable courage to announce oneself as an atheist–to publicly raise reason over religion.

In the 19th century there was the famous–some said (and many still say) the infamous–Robert Ingersoll. Ingersol is little known today but in his time he was an orator in great demand in spite of the powerful religious revivals of his day. He was a courageous activist for justice, never failing to poke and prod the conscience of the nation and forever calling out the hypocrisy of government and politicians. "In our era," Ingersoll said, "the road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action." That, to me, has the ring of Martin Luther King, Jr. to it.

Ingersol was probably more an agnostic than an atheist. He didn't so much deny the existence of God as he did consider the matter irrelevant. But he despised creeds, religious dogma, and what he considered to be the useless churches. And of the Bible he said, "If [one] would follow, today, the teachings of the Old Testament, he would be a criminal. If [one] would follow strictly the teachings of the New [Testament][one] would be insane. "Ingersoll was a hero to the rational-minded minority of his day and reviled as devil's disciple and antichrist by the faithful.

Speaking of famous atheists, some may remember the founder and president of the organization "American Atheists." In 1963, as an attorney, she brought the case Murray vs Curlettto to the Supreme Court which ended the practice of prayer in public schools. Murray loved to "stir the pot." She fanned the fires of the media whenever she spotted religion attempting to slip into the public tent. In 1964 she became so controversial that Life Magazine declared her to be "The most hated woman in America."

In 1995, Madelyn Murray, her son and a granddaughter were kidnapped and murdered by her former office manager.

In our own time, atheists can openly display their denials of God in bookstore windows and join the battle of reason over belief and faith on the talk show circuit with hardly a whisper of rebuttal from pulpits and seminary podiums. Richard Dawkins, atheist, scientist, Oxford professor, did rattle some pulpits and pews of the faithful with the his recent book "The God Delusion"–mainly because Dawkins, like many outspoken atheists, tends to be condescending toward believers. The late Christopher Hitchens also took the condescending route with his book "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons everything".

Frankly, I have never understood why so many self-described atheists are such avid evangelists for atheism. I call them "fundamentalist atheists." It seems to me that their fervor for making converts of believers is a fervor not all that different from that of those fundamentalist believers desperate to convert unbelievers to the beliefs of Christianity. The evangelical or fundamentalist Christian is at least attempting to save our souls from eternal damnation but what is the goal of the enthusiastic atheist?

The Christian might assume that my ignorance of salvation in Christ will consign me to everlasting hellfire. But if the believer is ignorant of the rational values of non-belief it seems to me his or her ignorance is harmless. While I was minister of our congregation in Atlanta was frequently approached–again, with fervor and urgency–to join an organization called "Freedom From Religion." I suppose the assumption was that it would be a publicity plus if they could snag a minister and a Unitarian ought to be an easy catch.

The members of "Freedom From Religion" and other organizations of activist non-believers confuse belief or unbelief in God with religion. Regardless of whether or not I believe in God this week I have no desire whatsoever to be free from religion, the religious or the spiritual. I have spent my adult life preaching religion, extolling the religious life, and encouraging spiritual experience and growth. Atheists like Dawkins, take the position that belief in God is ignorance, plain and simple and that rational thinkers merely need to free believers from the silliness and abuses associated with religion by confronting them with rational argument. Again, I really don't understand why they feel the need to take the time and trouble to attempt that but, that aside, the fact is that just as the non-believer is seldom converted to faith by rational argument, the believer is highly unlikely to be converted to atheism by appeal to reason and intellect. Sometimes, when someone discovers that I am a minister he or she feels obliged to tell me they don't believe in God–as if casting down the clang of an armored gauntlet and challenging me to a cosmic duel. If I'm in the mood, what I like to say in response is "Tell me about the God you don't believe in."

Often the God the unbeliever has deserted turns out to look rather like the Headmaster in a Harry Potter movie, who keeps a massive ledger detailing the sinful course of our lives, and who does nothing more critical to the universe than creating the color purple. Too many atheists assume believers to be, as Dawkins says, silly or ignorant or intellectually immature. It's a lack of humility that does the atheist a disservice.

None other than Albert Einstein 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." If Einstein is quoted as having said there is no God, he is being misquoted. Einstein certainly did not believe in a God who lives in the sky or looks like Santa Claus or the headmaster of Hogwarts' School. But Einstein did say that he believed himself to be a deeply religious man. In one of his most frequently quoted statements, 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. [One] 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. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only I am a devoutly religious man.

As I say, this is one of his most often quoted statements (perhaps because he was so often asked about his religious beliefs}. But, of course, his statement didn't satisfy everyone. Boston's Cardinal William Henry O'Connell said, "The outcome of this doubt and befogged speculation about time and space is a cloak beneath which hides the ghastly apparition of atheism." But Einstein's sense of the religious was no "ghastly apparition" of atheism. To repeat the most critical statement: "To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness."

Einstein also had a concern about atheism–a warning, if you will. "[One} who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle." This is that "near enemy" of reason and doubt–to be drawn into the conviction that there is no God in heaven and that, therefore, nothing is sacred: as if, with "the death of God" all that is sacred crumbled into mere physics. To bind atheism with the absence of awe with the absence of wonder and the mysterious, to insist that every human experience must be reduced to rational, scientistic explanation is indeed to "snuff out" that candle that is often the saving light of humankind's soul and spirit.

For aeons beyond our imagination humankind has conjured, worshipped, loved and feared one form of God or the companies of gods. We looked above and outside ourselves for comfort, for understanding, for the meaning of existence itself and for laws as if written in stone to compel our morality and our ways of living with and sharing the earth with each other. But in his last work, published after his death, the mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote, "The old gods are dead or dying and people everywhere are searching, asking: What is the new mythology to be, the mythology of this unified earth as of one harmonious being?" It is critical to sustain a life that is blessed with enthusiasm, empowered with meaning and purpose. It is essential that we not forsake that sense of awe and the joy of wonderment and mystery and surrender it for mere denial. We must continue to find ways to move beyond the too simple and often simplistic litany of what we do not believe. Those old heroes of atheism had their day, when, in the face of religious fervor, scorn and, yes, the occasional tossed rotten tomato, it required courage to carry a banner of disbelief. But to my mind the "new atheists"–like Dawkins and Hitchens and others–are going over old ground.

What is needed in our time is devotion to a life which is grounded in truth and reason but which is at the same time devoted to the religious quest. I firmly believe that to have a life of fulness, health and happiness we need to confront the world with truth and reason–but that we also need to nurture our capacity to cherish the wonder and mystery of earth and nature, the wonder and mystery of our own being and the infinite worth of every being.

The old gods of my childhood and youth seem dead or dying–and I no longer seek them or call their name. But I believe there is a sacredness in our lives and a sacredness in life itself that has it own immutable and eternal truth, and I believe we are enriched in its presence and diminished to that snuffed out candle when it is denied.

I have felt something sacred in the late night alone in that ancient cathedral and may have heard there the shrill draw of murderous swords and shivered with the death of the Archbishop. And in the early morning chill of a winter night I had no doubt of an abiding presence in that Memorial to Lincoln, the Emancipator. Is that not sacred ground? At dawn I watched from the place I knew as sacred as the sunlight flew across the desert and climbed the mountain toward me and blessed me as deeply as any divine hand.

… And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear, – both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognise
In nature and the language of the sense,
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.

Excerpted from "Tintern Abbey" by William Wordsworth.