Sunday, October 16, 2011

Sermon to the UU's -- "Joys of Secularism!"

I spent my whole career in the PC without having read or knowing about Lucretius. I checked Calvin’s Institutes and discovered that he had read Lucretius, but called him “filthy.”

But August 8 in The New Yorker was this article on Lucretius by Stephen Greenblatt, who has written a new book about him called Swerve. The story tells how The Nature of Things or The Way Things Are was lost during the dark ages, roughly 450-1200 c.e.  Or rather, these years were called “the dark ages” because books like this got lost! So it was a lost book rediscovered in 1417 by a monk, a copyist, Poggio of Florence in a monastery in Fulda, Germany.

His finding it set the world on a new course. The world swerved as explorers and scientists and politicians and other thinkers began to see the world in a new way and to re-make the world according to their imaginations. They began to face the world with excitement rather than terror, with possibility rather than imprisonment to traditions, not in spite of there being no eternal soul or afterlife, but because of it!

Within 200 years Lucretius was required reading for literate people.  As modern as Lucretius sounds, Greenblatt warns us that Lucretius was not our contemporary, but believed that the Earth revolved around the Sun and that worms generated from soil decay. But Isaac Newton read it and Lucretius gave him some new, big ideas.

A lot of peple in the midlands of England who were friends and/or related to each other read it: Joseph Priestly in England, a Unitarian minister and scientist had read it. He and Ben Franklin sailed on the same ship to the U.S. in 1794 and did experiments together, testing Lucretius on waterspouts!  They found that waterspouts come upward from the water and not down from the sky as Lucretius had observed.  Later, Priestly figured out that there were atoms in the air! I wonder where he got that idea.

Priestly and some friends and relatives formed the “Lunar Club,” to discuss science and philosophy. Richard Price, another Unitarian minister and philosopher read Lucretius. One was Josiah Wedgwood of pottery fame, who was a Unitarian and a grandfather of Charles Darwin. And Erasmus Darwin, another Grandfather of Charles was there,too. Matthew Boulton and James Watt of steam engine fame had read Lucretius and joined the group.  Thomas Jefferson, who said that Unitarianism was the quintessential American religion, owned 3 copies. [This was before Joseph Smith and the Mormons!]

We can imagine these early Unitarians, before they left Christian churches, reading Lucretius and wondering “Doesn’t this make more sense than some of the other stuff we were taught?”

As I have read some of this history I began to realize that there would be no America, no industrial revolution, no modern science, no modern world - no Unitarian-Universalism – without the rediscovery of Lucretius! This is the swerve that greenblatt writes about: what would have happened if this book by Lucretius had not been found, copied, and shared in the 15th and 16th centuries?

After reading about Lucretius, in the very next issue of the New Yorker, was another article that caught my eye on "Secularism and Its Discontents:" Is that all there is? Secularism is living without appeal to the supernatural or belief in supernatural agency. The author, James Wood, notes that most atheists and agnostics have spoken as if they sense the disappearance of God as a death or loss. Secularism results in “disenchantment” of the world, so that sadly there are no longer miracles and no more heaven to hope for. There is no more magic! [I will return to this.]

Books by atheists have traditionally been deconstuctive and negative. Older atheists often missed God and religion when they gave them up. Newer books have taken a different turn, accepting and celebrating the way things are and the way life is. Book titles include: Nothing to be frightened of,  A Secular Age: “the achievement of the secular world,” and Joy of Secularism, is a book of essays on the positive condition of life without a providential god or spirit. These are not primarily a denial of the world of spirit and religion but an affirmation of the world we’re living in now.

When I worked with Bob Funk, founder and director of the Jesus Seminar, he wanted to finish a little book he was writing called, A Credible Jesus, so that he could write a negative book on “the incredible Christ.”  I was one who talked him out of it.  It was time to move from deconstruction to construction of a new story. And Don Cupitt of England, who has written 40 books over 50 years, has moved step by step to an increasingly positive view of affirming life in a disinterested universe, even crediting Christianity with paving the way for secularism today, in books titled On the Meaning of the West and A New Great Story.

If you have read any Harry Potter you know about “Muggles.” These are ordinary and dreary people who don’t believe in magic! Of course there truly is no more magic, but JK Rowling would have us enjoy the ride through a magical alternative universe. But we aren’t muggles unless we fail to see the magic in everyday life and the wonders of the cosmos!

Secular (non religious) explanations of the world (modern physics, astronomy, evolution) have not made the world less wondrous, and have not undermined the validity or the authority of our wonderment. We take pleasure from the flight of a bird, and understanding how it flies and how it evolved does not detract from this pleasure. These things as they are, are magic to us! And there is no less mystery in the universe.

What Lucretius said, combined with the essence of the Hebrew prophetic tradition, and the Jesus wisdom tradition, is made simple and understandable in the affirmations of the UUA. These are moving and can fill the human spirit because they affirm life and fairness and caring and peace. The last one especially makes me think of Lucretius: “We respect the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”

And so I am helping you in your interim period without a minister guide – The theory of interim ministry in most churches is that this is a time for “rethinking and renewing denominational ties.” So Celebrate your history and traditions, knowing that you stand on the shoulders of giants.

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