MUSIC John Hong (2003), Nun Danket, Hymn Organ Improvisation, New York South Presbyterian Church, Juilliard organ. [Track 01]
I light the chalice... [Light the chalice]
The Flaming Chalice
Is our symbol, our copyright
Taken through Europe, and across the world.
Why is this?
Because the high flame, which reaches ever higher,
Is that of ever-expanding Reason -
But it is held within the Covenant of our Fellowship,
Which is of our discussion in this space and through time.
And we proclaim the Religion of Reason.
HYMN The first hymn is Hymns for Living 280, 'Morning Has Broken', the words actually by Eleanor Farjeon, made famous by Cat Stevens (now known as Yusuf Islam), sung to Bunessan 55. 54. D. [Track 02]
Morning has broken
Like the first morning,
Blackbird has spoken
Like the first bird.
Praise for the singing,
Praise for the morning,
Praise for them, springing
Fresh from the word!
Sweet the rain's new fall
Sunlit from heaven,
Like the first dewfall
On the first grass.
Praise for the sweetness
Of the wet garden,
Sprung in completeness
Where his feet pass.
Mine is the sunlight!
Mine is the morning
Born of the one light
Eden saw play!
Praise with elation,
Praise every morning,
Of the new day!
Let us pray
We seek the grace to cast away the darkness:
To say we are sorry for what wrong we have done
And for what right we could have done but did not.
Let us now in all humility put on the vest of light
To wear for the difficult actions of the daily journey,
So that, if the day ever came,
We could give a good account
Of what we intended to do
And what we did do.
Make us watchful, and make us faithful,
That we may not sleep through our concerns,
But be active and aware,
And able to become joyful
In the service of others and ourselves.
There is the race before us,
Which we have little choice but to run.
We find that our feet and legs drag,
In what seems to be a weight upon them,
As we tackle what comes before us.
In running this race,
Let us pause to see what precisely drags us back:
And here in this place loosen them off,
To move more speedily
In our relations with one another -
And within ourselves.
So prepare the way ahead:
Asking ourselves and those around us
To help clear the paths that they and we pursue,
So that we who walk and run the journey
Can, in hope, say that it fulfilled
What we did and who we can be.
Let us be glad
When the journey brings the lightest day:
The morning star arises in our hearts,
And the whole day dawns;
The radiance arrives and floods upon us
In a revelation of truths
That can even more generate sweet silence;
And all this brings us to a new birth,
Confirming our faith in our worth,
Confirming the insight of our minds,
Confirming the journey on which we are set,
And on which we continue to humbly move.
Let us give thanks:
Let us give thanks for the elements and compounds that sustain us.
We come from carbon,
This earth and ourselves, products of dying stars
Coming to new life.
We depend now on our living star:
The sun, radiating its energy,
Allowing chlorophyll to cause growth,
And allowing the eaters to feed.
We depend on the compound of air:
Just enough oxygen not to burn all in sight,
With nitrogen abundant in air and on earth;
And we breathe what the plants discard,
And the plants breathe what we discard.
We depend on the compound of water:
Two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen,
Make life startlingly abundant;
Into water we can die,
And out of water we come to new life.
Dying, and rising, and, revived, living afresh,
Everything baptised into the life abundantly;
The Spirit, sweeping over the waters,
And washing anew.
And we are thankful for fire:
The energy of recycling,
Cleansing and renewing the possibilities;
One fire making more fires:
Converting matter to energy,
In a cycle that began
When energy became matter,
and became all living things.
Such required all these elements and compounds
That keep the round of life alive
And for which, we, being alive,
Can only express a thanks,
A thanks with:
The fire of energy,
The water of life,
The air we breathe,
And the earth on which we stand.
MUSIC Yusuf Islam God is the Light [Track 3]
This is from the Hindu 'Shvetashvatara Upanishad' chapter 3 verses 1 to 5 and chapter 4 verses 1 to 5.
Brahman, attributeless Reality,
Becomes the Lord of Love who casts his net
Of appearance over the cosmos and rules
It from within through his divine power.
He was before creation; he will be
After dissolution. He alone is.
Those who know him become immortal.
The Lord of Love is one. There is indeed
No other. He is the inner ruler
In all beings. He projects the cosmos
From himself, maintains and withdraws it
Back into himself at the end of time.
His eyes, mouths, arms, and feet are everywhere.
Projecting the cosmos out of himself,
He holds it together.
He is the source of all the powers of life.
He is the lord of all, the great seer
Who dwells forever in the cosmic womb.
May he purify our consciousness!
O Lord, in whom alone we can find peace,
May we see your divine Self and be freed
From all impure thoughts and all fear.
May the Lord of Love, who projects himself
Into this universe of myriad forms,
From whom all beings come and to whom all
Return, grant us the grace of wisdom.
He is fire and the sun, and the moon
And the stars. He is the air and the sea,
And the Creator, Prajapati.
He is this boy, he is that girl, he is
This man, he is that woman, and he is
This old man, too, tottering on his staff.
His face is everywhere.
He is the blue bird, he is the green bird
With red eyes; he is the thundercloud,
And he is the seasons and the seas.
He has no beginning, he has no end.
He is the source from which the worlds evolve.
From his divine power comes forth all this
Magical show of name and form, of you
And me, which casts the spell of pain and pleasure.
Only when we pierce through this magic veil
Do we see the One who appears as many.
[Easwaran, E. (1988), 'Shvetashvatara Upanishad': The Faces of God', The Upanishads, London: Penguin Arkana, 219-225.]
HYMN We sing now a hymn to piano accompaniment. It is Hymns for Living 038, 'Wonder', by Alfred Noyes, and the tune is Eventide 10 10. 10 10., otherwise used for 'Abide with Me', written by William Henry Monk. [Track 04]
Knowledge, the say, drives wonder from the world:
They'll say it still, though all the dust's ablaze
With marvels at their feet - while Newton's laws
Foretell that knowledge one day shall be song.
We seem like children, wandering by the shore,
Gathering pebbles coloured by the wave:
While the great sea of truth, from sky to sky
Stretches before us, boundless, unexplained.
It's Valentine's Day! Aristotle wrote this about Love:
But to love is better than to be loved. For love is an active pleasure and a good thing; whilst merely to be loved creates no activity in the soul. He that loves, in so far as he loves, is conferring benefit; whilst he who is loved, in so far as he is loved, confers none.
[Haddon, C. (1989), The Yearbook of Hope and Inspiration, London: Michael Joseph, for February 16.]
He also wrote that:
Love is composed of a single soul inhabiting two bodies. (And that:) Friendship is a single soul dwelling in two bodies.
[Select Aristotle Quotations, brainyquote http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/a/aristotle105270.html and http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/a/aristotle143026.html ]
A reading from The Qur'an: at Surah 25, 'The Criterion', verses 58-63.
And put thy trust in Him Who lives and dies not; and celebrate his praise; and enough is He to be acquainted with the faults of His servants;-
He Who created the heavens and the earth and all that is between, in six days, and is firmly established on the Throne (of Authority): Allah Most Gracious: ask thou, then, about Him of any acquainted (with such things).
When it is said to them, "Adore ye (Allah) Most Gracious!", they say, "And what is (Allah) Most Gracious? Shall we adore that which thou commandest us?" And it increases their flight (from the Truth).
Blessed is He Who made constellations in the skies, and placed therein a Lamp and a Moon giving light;
And it is He Who made the Night and the Day to follow each other: for such as have the will to celebrate His praises or to show their gratitude.
And the servants of (Allah) Most Gracious are those who walk on the earth in humility, and when the ignorant address them, they say, "Peace!";
['Surah 25 Al Furqân The Criterion', The Quraan in Arabic, Muslim Access [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL: http://www.muslimaccess.com/quraan/arabic/025.asp.]
Some words of Roger Penrose, the phycisist, from his 1989 book The Emperor's New Mind:
We know that at the sub-microscopic level of things that quantum laws do hold sway; but at levels of cricket balls it is classical physics. Somewhere in between, I would maintain, we need to understand the new law, in order to see how the quantum world merges with the classical. I believe, also, that we should need this new law if we are ever to understand minds!
And Later he writes:
In the discussions of the Mind-Body problem, there are two separate issues on which attention is commonly focused: 'How is it that a material object (a brain) can actually evoke consciousness?'; and, conversely; 'How is it that consciousness, by the action of its will, can actually influence the (apparently physically determined) motion of material objects? These are the passive and active aspects of the mind-body problem. ...My question is: 'What selective advantage does a consciousness confer on those who actually have it?'
[Penrose, R. (1989), The Emperor's New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 386, 523.]
Now some moments of meditation and prayer, knowing that however we may differ in our understanding of these, this house is nevertheless at one.
We pray for people and conditions other than our own and including our own.
The God of our understanding surely hears us when we pray in faith. We seek to be steadfast in faith, dynamic in hope and to pursue the mystery of love. Let our mundane thoughts become divine thoughts, and let our silences be filled with peace. We seek reassurance that the will of our minds is in accordance with divine will, that free of presumptions we come into harmony with one another and that, in general, our thoughts, wills and affections may be pure, joyful and robust.
We pray for people of faith. We pray for those from the East who see time as essentially spiral, bringing life round and around, and for those from the Near East who see time as essentially linear, that what they do intervenes in a history that is being played to an end point.
We pray also for our Unitarian Churches, and in particular for all the important work volunteers do in committees and trusts. We pray for our ministers and lay leaders, that they may be maintained in their faith and continue their learning, that they may forever seek to broaden their outlook and understand further what it means to be actively tolerant and thus welcoming of broadly based congregations. Grant our congregations grace to grow in intensified fellowship and mutual support and in the spirit of freedom, reason and tolerance.
In considering Unitarian Churches away from home, we think of the village Unitarianism in North East India, assisted ably by Helpme Mohrmen in his ongoing co-ordinating work and we also remember the congregation at Mumbai.
We pray for the world. Again our concerns include the political conflict in Iran. We pray that peace may come in Afghanistan. It is a month since the earthquake in Haiti, and our thoughts are with the reconstruction, that in the future Haiti may be so rebuilt that such a natural event cannot again have such devastating consequences. Also our thoughts concern this our country, as it moves towards a General Election only weeks away. Politics is about what is decisive and necessary, and we hope that its battles are fought with honesty, without personal rancour and, we hope, good humour.
Our families, friends and neighbours are ours because we are theirs. Give grace too towards our families and friends, many of whom we love but may not explicitly share our faith. We pray for those who find faith difficult, who wilfully reject its possibilities, and for all those who have honest doubts and see that doubt can be the engine of faith itself: the trust that we can build carefully and without glorification.
Some people are not as well as they could be, and they are in our thoughts. Let us also consider B, who has been undergoing an operation and include the medical staff who day in and day out exercise their vocation of care for others. There are others unwell who may be known to us too. [Pause]
There are people undergoing stress, and difficulty, perhaps who fear for loss of a job, or are already unemployed. There are those whose personal relationships may be in severe difficulty. There are those who mourn the ones who have died. We consider those in difficulty and those who have left the living. [Pause]
Rejoicing in the fellowship of ourselves, and the faithful before our time, all of us within the covenant of fellowship and burning the flame of reason, we commend these prayers for the betterment of others and ourselves. Amen.
MUSIC Considering one of the closest relationships we have, here is a story about the difficulty of life's transition between father and son, as sung by Yusuf Islam. Yusuf Islam: Father and Son [Track 05]
HYMN Our third hymn is 036 in Hymns for Living 'Star Born' by John G. MacKinnon, to the music as shown, Abridge C.M. [Track 06].
Ye earthborn children of a star
Amid the depths of space,
The cosmic wonder from afar
Within your minds embrace.
Look out, with awe, upon the art
Of countless living things;
The counterpoint of part with part,
As nature's chorus sings.
Beyond the wonder you have wrought
Within your little time;
The knowledge won, the wisdom sought,
The ornaments of rhyme;
Seek deeper still within your souls
And sense the wonder there;
The ceaseless thrust to noble goals
Of life, more free and fair.
Ye earthborn children of a star
Who seek and long and strive,
Take humble pride in what you are:
Be glad to be alive!
Last week I mentioned presenting papers to the In Depth Group at St. Mary's Church in Barton-upon-Humber. The next one meets on Tuesday 16 February, so this sermon is based on that paper. The subject is Thomism and Reason in Christianity. Thomism is named after Thomas Aquinas: presumably because Aquinasism is too much of a mouthful. He was the Mediaeval theologian who deliberately introduced Reason into Christianity.
Now, reason is something Unitarians should be interested in, and Unitarianism is derived from Christian roots, so this history of reason is relevant, especially if the question is asked: 'Did Thomas Aquinas successfully absorb Reason into Christianity or was it always the case that Reason would re-emerge as its own entity?'
So let's go back to the initial expansion of Christianity. In its earliest days it can be categorised in three branches. There was the Jewish, the closest to the beliefs of Jesus, that died off with the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE; there was the plugging into an existing Gnosticism, the view that the world was evil and only the spiritual is pure, and, thirdly, the Hellenistic, that of the available Greco-Roman culture of the day. Pauline Christianity plugged directly into that culture, because he was himself that sort of borderline person between the Hebraic and the Greco-Roman and as such communicated a Christianity to the Gentiles as a salvation-through-Christ religion.
Nevertheless there was the older Greek culture that informed the one the Romans used and transmitted. This is the background of Aristotle and Plato, and before them Socrates.
Socrates lived between 470 and 399 BCE and he affirmed that thought could reason. Then Plato, living from 429 to 347 CE, said that all realities had pure forms that we can think about in the heavens. Aristotle lived later from 384 to 322 BCE, and he said that pure forms existed within the objects themselves as their essential characteristics.
Now there is an essential difference here. Plato, locating pure forms in the heavens, affirms the other worldly and the purity discovered by mathematics and metaphysics. Aristotle, who was a very wide ranging thinker, except for mathematics, and locating pure forms in the world that we live in, encouraged observation and reasoning from below. It is from him that we received this-worldly Reason. He was not a scientist, in that he did not experiment, but later on people who used Aristotle did experiment, and from this we received science.
Now, when Christianity initially expanded, it was into an exhausted, frustrated and violent world of Roman power. In that setting, Aristotle (for all his importance) offered very little relief, but the Plato side encouraged mystery cults and salvation religions. People could escape into that Plato world and Christianity was the biggest and best of them all. Not only was it salvationist, thanks to Paul, with the mystery of the Eucharistic meal, but it offered a kind of rationality: it offered Gentiles jealous of the Jewish synagogues and their one God a way to worship the one God through a salvation figure with mysteries attached and without having to take the snip or obey Jewish Law. Furthermore, up and down the trade routes, traders and their whole baptised families could use the Christian label as a badge of trust, and thus the faith spread.
The other important background idea, that Hellenistic Christianity absorbed, was the contemporary Stoic view that the world consisted of a single society, of equal people, with a universalist outlook and a principle of order. The Stoics were optimistic regarding human reason and about ethical outcomes, just like Aristotle, Plato and Socrates. Yet Christianity was soon going to become profoundly pessimistic about human nature, even without being Gnostic, and not just because it erred more towards the Platonic.
Augustine of Hippo, who lived between 354 and 430 CE, turned the early synthesis of Hebraic and Greek within Christianity into a theology focussed upon revelation. Under Augustine's need for the revelation of God, humans were less capable than Aristotle assumed: indeed, we were all caught up in original sin.
Now, just as the Bible contains no doctrine of the Trinity, nor does it contain a doctrine of original sin. There are various views on human capability and incapability in the Bible, and this is why the Eastern Church does not have a doctrine of original sin.
But if you have original sin, then reason will be as flawed as its human producers. And whereas Aristotle also taught that ethics came from reasoning, under Augustine ethics were purely dependent upon theology and revelation. Sinners cannot produce ethical outcomes!
Augustine was about 50 years old when in 410 CE the Visigoths sacked Rome, and the classical world was traumatised. Pagans blamed the Christians and the Christians wondered why even the righteous were suffering. There was thus no Kingdom of God on earth. So Augustine took up the theme, and his City of God was a heavenly city, not a city on earth. Thus we had Plato again, up in the heavens. But Augustine went much further. In the earthly city most were destined for eternal punishment. As a result, knowledge from and of this world was of little worth. Thus Aristotle was pretty much dead and rather forgotten.
Come the early Middle Ages and as a result of the aggressive expansionism of Christendom, and the subsequent decline of Islamic culture, intellectual materials preserved and enhanced by the Islamic culture - by Arabs and others - came into the Western orbit. Works were now being translated from Arabic into Latin, and some of these, like the self-contained argument for reason in Aristotle, were seen as a threat and direct competition to the intellectual substance of Christianity. This is the situation Thomas Aquinas faced. But, before he lived, there is someone else of significance.
This is the Persian scholar called Ibn Sina, who has the Latinised name Avicenna, and he lived from 980 to 1037 CE. He used Aristotle positively: he set out to reconcile such rational philosophy with Islamic theology. His writings were also released into Western Europe. Half of his writings are versified; he produced some 540 volumes with 240 or so survived. Like Aristotle, Ibn Sina was a very wide ranging thinker, covering among many matters the fundamental concept of momentum in physics, aromatherapy, logic, engineering, geology, medicine and theology. Even the Soviet Union recognised his importance when in 1980 it celebrated the thousandth anniversary of Ibn Sina's birth by circulating various commemorative stamps, this being because his birthplace Bukhara is within the Soviet Union. Appropriately in nearby Qishlak Afshona, a training college for medical staff was named after him and contains a museum.
Ibn Sina memorised the Qur'an when seven years old; he read Aristotle some forty times, although it took a small booklet on Aristotle to clear his confusions. One way he cleared his mind when studying philosophy was to leave his books, carry out wudu, go into the mosque, and do salah (prayer) until receiving inspiration. He worked into the night and sometimes a dream would lead to a solution.
Nevertheless, it is Thomas Aquinas who introduced optimistic reasoning into the Christian tradition so dominated by Augustine of Hippo's pessimism. Faced with the outflowing intellectual and cultural results of Islamic learning, such as Ibn Sina's, this was perhaps necessary.
Thomas Aquinas, who lived between 1225 and 1274 CE, said that if we reason correctly it will agree with revelation. Therefore, reason is not a threat to revelation. At the time, however, conservative theologians opposed him, preferring the sufficiency of revelation and seeing reason as a competitor.
Aquinas did find contradictions. For example, the Aristotelian system said that the universe had no beginning and the soul was not immortal whereas Christianity said the universe began and held that the soul was immortal. But this was also relatively simple for Aquinas to solve: if reason disagreed with revelation, it had not employed a necessary argument.
However, Aquinas produced one of his proofs of God's existence using one of Aristotle's arguments: this was Aristotle's view that an object cannot move itself. Thus Aquinas produced a chain of reasoning backwards, that everything that moved needed a mover, and eventually there was a prime mover and that was God.
Aquinas produced five such chain arguments about God. Anselm of Canterbury, who had lived from 1033 to 1109 CE, had produced a chain Ontological Argument, but Ibn Sina had earlier produced a more rounded chain argument of contingency and necessity in the Metaphysics section of The Book of Healing.
Aquinas went further in his affirmation of reason, arguing that reasoning and experience were entirely to be trusted for questions not affecting salvation. This was because God had made the intellect to be used, and to affirm the intellect was to love God.
The problem was the scholastics of Thomism never escaped the overarching viewpoint that the natural order depended upon the supernatural order. The light of reason still needed a divine light. It was always a Church based reasoning system.
It was when thinkers rejected a pure world above and argued for the unity of scientific laws (as Newton did) that reason began to break out from the hold of theology. The universe became not finite and limited but infinite and uniform. Grades of perfection were of no interest.
Nevertheless, Thomism or neo-Thomism survived the decline of the Mediaeval world, in that many argued that a united and infinite knowledge still needed a pure guarantor of reason. Truth needs a guarantor, and that was God.
The Protestants of the Reformation believed in one Truth, but Thomism became associated with its original Church and the Roman Catholic Church defended Thomism long past modernity: so that in 1893, Pope Leo XIII issued an encyclical letter Aeterni Patris, making the stance of St. Thomas Aquinas normative for the Church. So what had once been progressive and argumentative was turned into something anti-modernist and institutional. Although Vatican II in the early 1960s caused neo-Thomism to rapidly deflate, its assumptions lie behind comment such as Pope Benedict's when he said very recently that dissent against him is a failure to put the right argument.
Unitarians were, of course, modernists. They evolved their beliefs, even if they also believed that truth is one and ultimately, if mysteriously, guaranteed by God. However, I want to tackle this.
The chain of reasoning backwards no longer works.
During his time at the secret wartime code-cracking centre at Bletchley Park, north of London, Alan Turing produced some mathematics that show self-generating phenomena. Actual self-generation was demonstrated by the Russian scientist Belusov, although Belosov knew nothing of Turing's mathematics. In the 1960s John Conway's The Game of Life showed how simple rules could create computer patterns lasting either a few or thousands of generations. Mandelbrot showed via fractals that simple iterating maths could generate incredible nature-like forms, like trees. Relativity and quantum science shows that causal chains end up in what is unalike - so there are no pure forms; it is also meaningless to ask about what came before the beginning of time. In other words, causality is self-producing and we are always within where we are.
In other words, we do not have Truth with a capital T, but truths relative to themselves. This really is, or should be, the death of Thomism and indeed the Avicennism of Ibn Sina. The irrational is behind the rational, and we have to analyse only from the first relevant phenomenon in any chain of reasoning. And in chaos theory, we cannot know the outcome of so many events simply because tiny differences iterate into hugely different outcomes.
My own argument, for Tuesday, is this: Christianity is a linear time system and that divine cause, intervention and outcome is the very stuff of Christianity. After all, Christ as 'God the Son' is intervention into history. Yet the whole basis for this, in Pure Forms, and in causal chains, is dead and gone, and reasoning is something that has to be relative and phenomena based.
As for Unitarianism, I have long argued for relativity, for questioning realism, and for seeing religion as more like art. Religion, I think, is about something more personal, deep, reflective and contemplative. It is not about doctrines that rely on proofs. The proofs are not there. Reason did break away from Aquinas's absorption, but reasoning went on even to dig the grave of its own founder Aristotle, as well as those like Aquinas and Ib Sina who used him.
COLLECTION and NOTICES
HYMN In Hymns for Living the final hymn we sing today is 233 'Others Call it God' by William Herbert Carruth and the music is as given for this hymn: Aurelia 76. 76. D.
A fire-mist and a planet,
A crystal and a cell,
A star-fish and a saurian,
And caves where cave-folk dwell;
The sense of law and beauty,
A face turned from the clod
Some call it evolution,
And others call it God.
Haze on the far horizon,
The infinite tender sky,
The ripe, rich tints of cornfields,
And wild geese sailing high;
And over high and lowland,
The charm of golden rod
Some people call it nature,
And others call it God.
Like tides on a crescent sea-beach,
When the moon is new and thin,
Into our hearts high yearnings
Come welling, surging in,
Come from the mystic ocean
Whose rim no foot has trod
Some people call it longing,
And others call it God.
A picket frozen on duty,
A mother starved for her brood,
And Socrates drinking hemlock,
And Jesus on the rood;
And millions, who, though nameless,
The straight, hard pathway trod -
Some call it consecration,
And others call it God.
In extinguishing this flame, we do not remove our reasoning, for we are refreshed for its power of conversation throughout the week; but until we gather again, our fellowship is no longer its cradle. Amen.
[Extinguish the flame]
MUSIC Yusuf Islam The Beloved [Track 07]
Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful