Insights from the Theological Atheist Men's Club

Rev. Charles Eddis, David Maurice, Richard Ostrofsky, with Rev. Diane Rollert, 23 March 2014

Introduction:  Rev. Diane Rollert

If you hang around long enough during coffee hour you’re bound to encounter Richard Ostrofsky, David Maurice and Charles Eddis (our minister emeritus), deep in conversation about theology, the origins of the cosmos, or the importance of Unitarian identity. They've had an appointment with the free and responsible search for truth and meaning every Sunday for the past two years.

Somehow, in the course of our planning for today's service, one of the three jokingly referred to themselves as “the theological atheists’ club.”  The words “theological” and “atheist” are meant to make you scratch your head a bit. How can you talk about theology, which seems to suggest a quest to understand the meaning of God, and the word atheist, which asserts unequivocally the nonexistence of God? Perhaps this is what the Buddhists might call a koan -- as in, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Although, around here, we use the term “theology” pretty loosely -- as a way to refer to our very human searching and seeking for meaning and understanding in life.

I don't think all three of today’s guests would call themselves atheists. Charles says he is definitely not an atheist.  He says that, like Paul Tillich, he is an “ecstatic naturalist” …   And David says he’s the sort that isn't atheist, agnostic, or believes in a personal God, although he has great respect for the Bible. He describes his sense of the mystery, or mystical, as being beyond all human categories of thought.  And you’ll hear more from Richard about his position later.

That said, I know a good title when I see one, and you are here today as my proof.

When Charles, Richard and David get together, their conversations move like rapid fire.  It's a bit like listening to jazz. At times there is a clear melody. At other times there are three different themes weaving in and out of the main composition. You have to have all your senses alert, including your sense of humour, to keep up with them. This morning, you will hear some of their musings and explorations that have come out of their conversations in recent months, particularly in response to the recent proposal from the Canadian Unitarian Council for a new vision for the future of Unitarian Universalism in Canada.  Charles, David and Richard have great concerns for the generations to come.

So, without further ado, I welcome you to the insights of the Theological Atheists Men's Club. Strap on your seat belts and prepare yourselves for the ride!
A Fellowship of Seekers:  Rev. Charles Eddis

Since last fall, during coffee hour after church, David, Richard, and I have been gathering at a table and discussing who we are religiously. Neither David nor Richard has ever been members of a Unitarian church, though they are interested in this one. Both are thoughtful inquirers. We have had many lively conversations. It has made me wonder who I am, and why I continue here. I have found a perspective  on it all in the very first sermon I gave to the 25 attentive members of the new Unitarian fellowship of Edmonton, Alberta, which I was to help grow into a church of well over 200 members. The date was June 15, 1953. It expresses what I still believe today. (I will read an abridged version of it now, with only some twenty or so words changed.)

What do Unitarians believe? I’ve been a Unitarian myself for some years now, and I still find it a hard question to answer. We have so many differing beliefs in our free church, and recognize the right of those holding those ideas to call themselves ‘Unitarians’. Some are deeply dedicated Christians who make much of middle class Protestantism look like mere sentimental conventionality. Some are devout theists who find God at work in many religions and areas of life, beyond the bounds of Christendom. Others are disciplined, thoughtful humanists, reminding us of stubborn unavoidable facts and realities that religion is too prone to ignore. I think of these differing strands in our church whenever someone asks me what Unitarians believe, and an easy answer escapes me. Unitarians have a strong area of agreement as to what they do not believe, what beliefs they have considered and rejected as false or misleading, but to state this does not help. It used to disturb me, trying to explain what Unitarianism is. I think I’ve found an answer to my quandary ...
People who ask Unitarians what they believe are not asking the most fundamental question. The right question to ask a Unitarian, I submit, is not, “What do you Unitarians believe?” but “What sort of a church do you Unitarians want?”

There is a basic and crucial issue at stake, one which tells you who and what Unitarians are and why they, as a church, are different from most other churches. The issue at stake is the nature of the church and, as I develop the alternatives, I hope you will see that it is more fundamental than belief. Beliefs are intellectual formulations, and come only after the nature of the church has already been established.

The church is usually conceived of as an ‘answering church’. The Christian church came into being because it had found the answer — man’s salvation was found in the atonement and resurrection of Jesus. The church came into being as a witness to the truth, to the answer to all man’s basic questions.

People today, as always, are looking for answers. What answers are available they should have. But people need something more than answers, if they are going to fulfill themselves as human beings. They need to learn to live with questions. "Man" is not a creature endowed with answers. He does not have a warm furry coat, or a powerful body to protect him from other animals. He does not have a society like the ants to regulate all the intricate details of his life. Man is flexible, creative, adaptable, inventive. He is able to meet new situations, new experiences, to discover answers to new questions. He is a doer, a seeker.

Unitarians are not a fellowship of believers. We are, rather, a fellowship of seekers. We are a seeking church, not an answering church. “Well then,” a voice in the back row is likely to ask, “do you ever find anything?” At this point we, who are Unitarians, return to our mysticism: “Oh yes, we find a good deal.”

Strange as it may seem, we do believe, too. We are free from beliefs, in order that we may believe  – in order that we may each of us believe what, inside, we each feel we really must. It’s not imposed:  ultimately, each of us finds it within. And it’s not fixed, rigid, inflexible. If we are what we should be, we are always open to new ideas, always growing in understanding. Some of us come to see and appreciate Christianity as we never could have before, once pretense and conventionality is dropped, and honest doubts can be expressed,  searching questions asked. Many among us find spiritual homes elsewhere.
We are not only seekers, we are a fellowship of seekers. We join together as friends in a common quest, and accept all who would join us in the quest, and grow, as we would grow. We join together as equals, and share together in stating and restating our purposes in the light of new experiences. We stand together as sisters and brothers, ready to share in each other's joys and sorrows. There’s something about the flexibility of Unitarians even here. At our best, we are more open than many to accept people as people, just as they are, with hopes and fears, doubts and certainties, religious perplexities as well as kernels of faith, with needs for friendship and being understood as well as for intellectual sustenance.

What sort of a church do we seek? We seek a church that will serve the basic needs of the whole human being: In the words of Theodore Parker, spoken more than 150 years ago, a church with “truth for the mind, good works for the hands, love for the heart; and for the soul, that aspiring after perfection, that unfaltering faith in God, which, like lightning in the clouds, shines brightest when elsewhere it is most dark.” We invite to join our fellowship all who seek such a church.

A life-long Unitarian has put it very well, and I close with his words: “We gladly walk with those who like to travel with us. If you have more truth than we have found, we need your light; if you have found less, you need our fellowship; if the way is lonely and the quest seems endless, you will at least find understanding fellowship that, however wise it may be, knows that its wisdom is so little compared to all that there is to know, and yet so sure that we all work within the divine pattern, that the quest itself becomes the blessed way of patience, poise, understanding, service, the way of the educated heart.”

(David Maurice spoke without notes.)
Unitarian Identity and the Unitarian Challenge: Richard Ostrofsky

The question of UU identity has long been troublesome, and it remains so today. Some members want their church to stay closer to its roots – liberal and pluralist to be sure, but deist and Judaeo-Christian at its core. Others would prefer to see UUs cut their ties with religion altogether, thinking of themselves primarily as secular humanists, with a corresponding charitable and social mission. Most UUs I've met are basically happy with its pluralism, but some worry that this pluralism erodes its critical faculties, ruling out significant commitment to modern knowledge and thought. As a sympathetic friend who has yet to join UCM, I think its liberal and pluralist stance is basically great, but not enough to provide a clear identity vis-a-vis traditional religions on one hand, and the atheistic humanism of the Enlightenment on the other. Today, the only clear identity I find in UCM is its pluralism – its intentional absence of commitment to any serious, foundational ideas, its rejection of such commitment in community life.

But foundational ideas are important, because it is only in their light that we can begin to understand the world that we are living in. Without some working commitment to a set of foundational ideas, understanding is out of reach. We just accept that life and the world are mysteries beyond our understanding. We bumble along, using whatever preconceptions we have acquired without examining them closely. Foundational ideas are like the axioms in mathematics: the starting point from which investigation can proceed. We may need to change them at some point. At least, we should be aware that some very good and intelligent people are working from different foundations than our own. But we should know which ideas we ourselves are working from, and why are using them. Not to do this is to accept confusion as our normal state.

Now, on one particular foundational idea, I want to ask for a show of hands. (But please feel free to keep your hands down, if you prefer to avoid a public position.) How many of you feel that our world is best understood and explained as a product of Intelligent Design by some divine Creator? How many feel that the world is best understood as an evolving and self-organizing system? How many feel that such a question is not appropriate in this UU context?

 My own view is that the question is not only appropriate but urgent for UUs today, because the question of UU identity cannot be settled now without some answer to it. I'd argue that the culture wars of our modern world are being fought over this question, with fundamentalists in one camp feeling themselves under attack by atheists in the other. Their world is changing swiftly, radically and bewilderingly; this issue cannot be brushed aside, because too much of modern life depends on it.

My own answer, in accord with the working paradigm of nearly all modern science, is for the second option – an evolving, self-organizing Cosmos and Society. My foundational idea is that the world we know put itself together, and continues to evolve through processes of spontaneous ordering and design of which we now have considerable knowledge. It's not that we now have all the answers, and that there are no questions left to ask. Rather that systematic doubt, empirical investigation, and scientific theorizing from the basic hypothesis of a self-organizing world gets us much further both theoretically, technologically and even ethically than the alternative hypothesis of Intelligent Design and Revealed Truth. Of course, I know good people, intelligent people, thoughtful people who disagree with this position, so it should be clear that in what follows, I am speaking only for myself and for those others who believe as I do that the hypothesis of Intelligent Design and Revealed Truth is no longer an aid but a hindrance to understanding.

Now I will ask for another show of hands, with the same qualifier as before: you are free to abstain. Please forget all the 'wounded words' and think in your own preferred language: How many of you believe as I do that some sort of spiritual or religious life – or some concept of enlightenment or grace or call it what you will – still make sense, is still possible and remains worth seeking, even in the absence of some all-powerful, all-knowing deity?

My own position is that this question about spirituality or religion (or whatever word you prefer) is again both appropriate and urgent for UUs, because without it the question of UU identity remains unanswerable, and all the Judaeo-Christian baggage that UUs still carry is pointless. My view, for what it's worth, is that the building of bridges, or some sort of rapprochement, between past and future, between the Judaeo-Christian tradition and the modern scientific worldview, is one of the central intellectual and political issues of our time. Until such bridges are built, the 'culture wars' and outbreaks of religious violence that we read about in the news every day must be expected to continue, because there are people who believe, with some justice, that ancient religious superstitions are making modern problems unsolvable. While there are many others who believe, also with some justice, that the materialism and individualism of the modern world and its rejection of religious duty and religious faith are leading humanity to disaster.

And this brings me to the second part of my talk: what I see as the Unitarian challenge. It seems to me that Unitarians – whether they call themselves by that label or not, whether they come to Sunday services or not – are almost uniquely well-positioned to contribute toward and benefit from the bridge-building that is needed to get over and get past the culture wars of our time. Because they have historical roots and loyalties in both camps, UUs can affirm (if they choose to do so) both of two positions that many people, hunkering down on one side or the other, can only see as mutually opposed. UUs can argue and preach both:
—that religion without a strong dose of Enlightenment rationalism and science has usually been more a force for darkness than for light; and
—that Enlightenment rationalism and modern science alone do not make for a complete human mindset and worldview.

UUs can insist that emotion and values are also needed, and need to be taught and institutionalized somehow. They can urge that some kind of spiritual practice is needed to realize one's full human potential. They can further argue and teach that some kind of religious life is needed for community building and for a broad sense of 'we-ness' amongst families, neighbours and citizens. And all this while welcoming, and sharing bread and ideas, with people who disagree with one another on this and that. It is quite possible to be a pluralist, but still to stand for something yourself. It is possible to be a pluralist, and still have a clear identity.

UUs have been struggling with these issues for a long time. Great UUs like Channing, Parker and Emerson were already struggling with the tension between Reason and Religion, and they could make real progress in reconciling the conflicts of their day precisely because they took both poles very seriously. Today, at least some influential UUs are complaining that Unitarians have turned away from that real vision and mission. They deplore what they see a deterioration in Unitarianism from an earlier focus on reason in religion to a position of radical tolerance. On this point, I think they are correct.

Returning to the question of foundational ideas, there is this to say: The shift from a top-down designed and ordained cosmos to a bottom-up self-organizing one is fraught with human consequences – with theological consequences if you like to think in those terms, and if you can use the wounded word 'God,' as Spinoza already did in 17th century Holland – as a convenient way of speaking about the whole of Nature as a context for human lives. This shift is radical. It implies, for example, that we do not live and die in a benevolently intended world of providence and destiny, but in a tentative, partially random world of possibility and frequent tragedy. Our lives are not about obedience and escape from sin, but about doing the best we can with what we find around us – not an ascent to some place called "heaven," (or escape from a place called "hell,") but a "dance on the edge of the possible," in Stuart Kauffman's phrase.

We must not be surprised that so many people are confused and angered by this collision of worldviews; and I see no serious way to stay neutral because the paradigm shift goes too deep, and because human identities (“souls”, if you'll allow that word) are at stake. I think the best we can do, that anyone can do, is to recognize the concerns on both sides, while affirming clearly what we think we know. It's not that UUs need to study and teach science. But we do need to think very clearly about the human issues that modern science has been raising, and about the "brave new world" being created.

I will close this talk with a quote from a book called The Life of the Cosmos by the physicist Lee Smolin, who teaches at the University of Waterloo, and is doing leading-edge work in the crucial field of quantum gravity. I don't know whether Smolin has ever had any contact or exposure to Unitarian Universalism, but he states very clearly what I see as that movement's fundamental teaching and challenge:

“The world will always be here, and it will always be different, more varied, more interesting, more alive, but still always the world in all its complexity and incompleteness. There is nothing behind it, no absolute or platonic world to transcend to. All there is of Nature is what is around us. All there is of Being is relations among real, sensible things. All we have of natural law is a world that has made itself. All we may expect of human law is what we can negotiate among ourselves, and what we take as our responsibility. All we may gain of knowledge must be drawn from what we can see with our own eyes and what others tell us they have seen with their eyes. All we may expect of justice is compassion. All we may look up to as judges are each other. All that is possible of utopia is what we can make with our own hands. Pray let it be enough.”

Response (What I Didn’t Get a Chance to Say on Sunday):  Rev. Diane Rollert

Thank you to Rev. Charles Eddis, David Maurice and Richard Ostrofsky (who have jokingly called themselves “The Theological Atheists’ Club”) for sharing their reflections this Sunday. Here are the brief remarks I had prepared in response but did not have time to share.

 As Charles said in the very first sermon he delivered back in 1953, we are a fellowship of seekers.  That’s definitely what I signed up for when I became a Unitarian. What I was seeking then and am seeking now is a way to open doors beyond my narrow existence and to respond to those darkest hours when philosophy and lists of principles are not enough. 

Richard asked you to choose between a divine Creator and a world that is a self-organizing system.  He also described this community as one trying to decide between a Judeo-Christian tradition and humanism.  Those choices feel too narrow for me. They lump a complexity of beliefs into two constricting boxes. 

In reality, Richard and I are not that far apart in our views.  I am no proponent of “Intelligent Design”.  I am amazed by all that science reveals to us, and I still live with an awe for what may never be explained.  I have deep respect for religion when it calls us to lovingly and honestly live our lives.

There’s a joke about the zookeeper discovering the orangutan reading both the Bible and Darwin’s Origin of Species at the same time.  “Why are you reading both those books?” he asks the ape.  The orangutan answers:  “I’m trying to figure out if I’m my brother’s keeper or the keeper’s brother!”

I feel a bit like the orangutan.  I’m trying to figure out how I can be both my sister’s keeper and the keeper’s sister.  In other words, what really matters to me is how we choose to live our lives.
The Buddha was once pressed to explain the ultimate source of being – to answer the ‘God question’, you might say. His response was pragmatic:  If a man is struck by a poisoned arrow, you can’t waste time wondering where the arrow came from.  You’ve got to hurry up and remove the arrow before he dies. Life is too short, said the Buddha.  Whether the universe is infinite or finite, your liberation is the same.

Can we share one foundational organizing idea? I am more interested in sharing the journey with you than I am in the destination – and that journey has as much to do with the heart as it does with the head.  I believe we can be united in our affirmation of the inherent worth and dignity of each person, in our encouragement for spiritual growth, and in our free and responsible search for truth that invites us to draw from many sources of inspiration.  Some may wish for something more concrete, but I prefer to live within the liminal spaces, within the “in-between” and the unknown that leaves room for me to meet you where you are. I am less concerned about the single belief that could unite us than I am in finding ways for us to explore our own truths more deeply with each other and to call each other to live up to our values.

Whenever I find myself wondering about what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist I always return to these words from Bill Schulz:

“Unitarian Universalism affirms that creation is too grand, complex and mysterious to be captured in a narrow creed.  That is why we cherish individual freedom of belief.  At the same time our convictions about creation lead us to other affirmations...

That the blessings of life are available to everyone, not just the chosen or the saved;

That creation itself is holy – the earth and all its creatures, the stars in all their glory;

That the sacred or divine, the precious and the profound are made evident not in the miraculous or supernatural but in the simple and the everyday;

That human beings, joined in collaboration with the gifts of grace, are responsible for the planet and its future;

That every one of us is held in creation’s hand – a part of the interdependent cosmic web – and hence strangers need not be enemies;

That no one is saved until we all are saved, where ‘all’ means the whole of creation;

That the paradox of life is to love it all the more, even though we ultimately lose it.   

So Charles, David, Richard and I leave you with much food for thought, a conversation to continue…


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