Friday, August 19, 2011

The Meaning of Life - A Sermon for Unitarians

I went “yardsailing” last week.  I saw a great many books, cds, videotapes, and dvd’s on every kind of spirituality and religious fad of the past 30 years.  I thought: Wow. There is so much hunger for understanding in times of confusion, so much searching for answers when they are none, so much anxiety and loneliness and desire to be part of something larger than ourselves.  And so much of the search leads nowhere.

At the last yardsale I heard a customer say something negative or discouraging to which the saleswoman asked “You know what’s coming, don’t ya?”  “Yes, I do,” said the other.  “I read the Bible.”  The woman said “Yup, the Lord is coming soon.”  I hustled away from them.  But I wish I had stayed and asked them about their beliefs.  Why do they believe such stuff?  Don’t they know that every time there is a political or economic or social crisis, someone cries out wrongly “The end is near?”

Recently I saw a fairly good show on the Maya calendar and the theory that the world ending in December, 2012 – because that’s when their calendar ends.  It must be that the world will end because the Mayans said so.  For some reason we tend to look for answers to our big questions by looking beyond and outside of our experience and the world that we know.

The show is called “Apocalypse Island” and features Jim Turner, who became interested and then obsessed by the findings of possible mayan like structures on an island many hundreds of miles south of mexico in the pacific ocean.  (Coincidentally, it is called “Robinson Crusoe Island,” because it was the basis for the Defoe novel.)  In the show Turner finds the island and the stones, but there is never enough evidence to prove his theory.  He continues to believe it to the end even when his colleague on the journey gives reasons for serious doubt.  I sure didn't see anything there.

As the show ended I suddenly realized what was wrong with his thinking and what is wrong with Christianity.  You see, the Mayans had this complex system, a construct about the world and how we should live in it.  And Christian churches built a system, a huge construct over many years.  Both systems are “pre-modern.”

Both Mayan apocalypse proponents and Christians are trying to apply myths and metaphors of the distant past to the present.  But what made sense to those early Christians and what worked for them doesn’t work so well today to our more scientific and rational world view.  What made sense to those early Mayans and what worked for them is over.  There are no Mayans today to live by the complex calendar that they created.  That calendar is simply an artifact of anthropology and history.  It means nothing.  It means no more than resurrection does to many of us.

About ten years ago I took my then boss, Bob Funk, creator of the Jesus Seminar, to a men’s Bible study group at a Presbyterian church in San Rafael, California.  They were very interested in what he said until a man started to figure Bob out the implications of what Bob was saying.  He asked:  “Do you believe in the virgin birth and the resurrection of Christ?”  Bob just said straight out “No one was ever born of a virgin and no one was ever raised from the dead.”  I really thought for a while that I might have to call a fleet of ambulances because several of those present looked as if they were going to die on the spot of strokes or heart attacks.

Richard Holloway, retired bishop of Edinburgh in the Anglican church of Scotland and author of Doubts and Loves, was in the US then.  He was interviewed for a radio program in Chicago and I was able to record it live from the internet.  The interviewer was shocked by what he was hearing, about how Jesus didn’t say or do most of the things the gospels say he did.  So in great frustration the show’s host asked in the last seconds of the program:  “Well, what do you think the gospel of Jesus was if you don’t think Jesus came to die for our sins?”

Without a pause Holloway exclaimed excitedly:  “Life before death, for everyone!”  This is what Christianity should be about, but isn’t.  Christians could construct a new version of their religion on the enjoyment of life, the end of sacrifice and violence, and helping each other.

Holloway made a statement in a lecture that year that astounded me for its simplicity.  When speaking about the Christian beliefs, he concluded “We made it all up.”  Well.  If we made it all up, we can make it all up again.  And that is what we do as a practical matter.  We make up our own answers to the questions of the meaning or purpose of life.  That is my point.  There is no meaning of life that is pre packaged that one can find by looking for it.  So the epigram I saw on a church’s sign board in the ‘60's was true:  “Life is not a puzzle to be solved, but a mystery to be lived.”

John Shuck, my favorite Presbyterian minister, has written 72 entries on the meaning of life on his blog  One of the last is about Lloyd Geering (photo at right), whom John and I first met ten years ago at the Jesus Seminar.  Lloyd who is now 91 has a new book on Ecclesiastes, Such Is Life.  My text today is from his translation of something repeated several times in the short biblical book.

After trying to live by all sorts of goals and rules, the preacher or teacher says:
Let me tell you what I’ve come to realise:
It’s good and proper simply to eat and drink,
and take satisfaction in all the work
we do on the face of the earth.
After all, this is our human lot
during the limited days of life that Nature gives us.

No one can give us a meaning to life.  Christian churches proclaim that a providential, transcendent, supernatural God  gives meaning and purpose to our lives.  That might be, but we don’t know and can’t know.  All claims of revelation are suspect.

Humans eating around a table is the meaning of life.  Good work is the meaning of life.  As a good Presbyterian I learned that “the chief end of man is to glorify god and enjoy him forever.”  Now I would say, “the chief purpose of human life is to enjoy life and make life as pleasant as possible for others.” [I’m not very good at that.]

So here we are and in the UUA you covenant to “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”   Brothers and sisters – there is no meaning to life except what we make of it.  Beware all who tell you what the meaning of life is.  But you already know and live it.

I make meaning by playing my saxophone, writing poetry and other stuff, enjoying my family, working in my woods, rebuilding things.  I find the meaning of life in the great American songbook from 1910-1960.  I find meaning in the snow peas and tomatoes that grow in my garden.  Where do you find meaning?  How do you make meaning of your life? [discussion followed]

Remember Monty Python about The Meaning of Life:  "Well, it's nothing very special. Uh, try to be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try to live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations."

1 comment:

Gary Davis said...

And Gary said, "Amen."