By Everything That Is Holy
The title of this sermon might be a common oath, the kind of thing a speaker might have said in olden days to underline the depth of his or her sincerity. Now oaths are used in cursing, but they are also a way of trying to make what one says more credible. Witnesses in courtrooms and public officials on assuming office, might use an oath naming God directly, as in “so help me God.” But many religions frown on bringing God into secular matters, and Jehovah’s Witnesses or Quakers will not normally take an oath naming God. One alterative is to broaden God into everything holy.
This congregation is largely humanist, if the recent survey is to be believed, and that is my experience of you. So many of us in this room have little use for the term “God.” We might find it too personal, or too restrictive, or too much an echo of childhood religions we are trying to outgrow. But what about holy? Does that term have any meaning and more importantly does it matter?
The way I have put it here, “by everything that is holy,” claims a little less than the title of Peter Mayer’s song, “everything is holy now.” Mayer’s song is very powerful, but I worry if everything is holy, does that mean that nothing is? Doesn’t “holy” contrast with an opposite like secular or profane?
Maybe this is not what you want to think about. Maybe you are wondering what any of this has to do with the guy in the academic robes with the cow on the cover of your order of service. Let me introduce him and see if it will shed some light.
The man in the robes is Harvey Cox, one of my favorite professors at Harvard Divinity School. Until recently, Harvey occupied a very old endowed chair at Harvard called the Hollis chair. That chair figures in Unitarian history back in 1805, for it was a struggle over that chair which led the liberals to move towards a split with orthodox ministers in New England Congregationalism and eventually led to the adoption of the name Unitarian. Harvey Cox is not a Unitarian but an American Baptist minister; but he takes as his field of study religion and culture, and has written several key books on the subject.
He also has a keen sense of humor. When he was getting ready to retire from his endowed chair, he researched the terms under which the money was originally given to Harvard, and realized that one of the privileges bestowed by that document on the person who occupied the chair was the right to graze his cattle on the Cambridge Common. So around commencement time of the year he was retiring, Harvey rented a cow, and dressed in his academic regalia, proceeded to graze the cow on the common.
Many years before, Harvey Cox had written a book called the Feast of Fools, which describes medieval occasions of social inversion where the jester wore the crown of the king and ordered everyone around. In that book is a chapter called Christ the Harlequin in which Cox considers the image of Jesus as a fool, a holy fool.
“[T]he symbol of Christ as clown has deep historical roots. One of the earliest representations of Christ in Christian art depicts a crucified human figure with the head of an ass. For years experts have disputed about what it means. Some think it may be an arcane sign, others a cruel parody. Either could be the case. But it might also be true that those catacomb Christians had a deeper sense of the comic absurdity of their position than we think they did. A wretched band of slaves, derelicts, and square pegs, they must have sensed occasionally how ludicrous their claims appeared. They knew they were "fools for Christ," but also claimed that the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men. Christ himself for them must have been something of a holy fool.”
Christ, of course, is an object of veneration for billions of Christians around the world, one of the holiest of the holies, and I love the fact that Harvey Cox could argue that this holiest of religious characters might also be thought a fool. But that wasn’t the only thing which drew me to this picture. There is also the cow.
It’s highly unusual to see a cow on the Cambridge Common today, of course, but it is not at all unusual to see cows grazing on village commons in India. That is because to Hindus the cow is holy.
So to me this picture represents what might be ends of the spectrum of holiness. Jesus, represented by Harvey Cox, is a holy fool; the cow is a holy cow: in Hindu thought, cattle are holy because they are the reincarnation of people with a lot of good karma.
But can you have holiness without personifying it in the figure of a God? Chet Raymo thinks you can. The prolific nature writer for the Boston Globe and retired professor from Stoneham College in Easton wrote a book several years ago called “When God is Gone, Everything is Holy: the Making of a Religious Naturalist.” Any of you who have heard my friend Ursula Goodenough speak here are familiar with the term “religious naturalist.” It is the proposition that we start with nature, with the world presented by our senses and by science; it is closely allied with humanism, and like humanism, it doesn’t render God so much impossible as unnecessary.
Raymo places himself in this religious naturalist camp, but is not ready to give up the idea of the holy. Rather, he wants to transfer the religious awe which Christians traditionally reserve for the divine to the mysteries of nature. He writes:
“We fully accept the scientific view of the world, and regard as superfluous any appeal to the supernatural. Yet we are not adverse to being called religious. Our response to the natural world is one of reverence and humility in the face of mystery that transcends empirical knowing – now, certainly, and perhaps forever.”
Raymo was raised as a Roman Catholic, and he locates Religious Naturalism in a particular stream of Christian thinking opposed to the mainstream supernaturalist position which flows from St. Augustine.
“[T]he [naturalist] tradition has been espoused by voices as various as the fifth century Celt Pelagius and the twentieth-century scientist/mystic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. ... If one were looking for a patron saint of religious naturalism within the Christian tradition one could do no better than to read the sermons of the thirteenth -century Dominican friar Meister Eckhart. ...
“Two things in particular distinguish the Eckhartian tradition from the Augustinian: a unitary rather than dualistic understanding of the world, and an unwillingness to speak of God as a person, or, for that matter, to speak of him (her? it?) at all. Fall/redemption, body/soul, matter/spirit/, natural/supernatural: these distinctions, in the Eckhartian view, are artificial impediments to a fully joyous engagement with the creation. And, it must be said, these same oppositions are at the root of the current tension between science and religion. The first step in Eckhartian spirituality is to say ‘yes’ to creation, withholding nothing...”
Let’s think about that word holy. Our English language comes partly from Latin sources and partly from German. Holy is on the German side of the family and is related to the words whole and health and hale.
Those are all good words. It is good to be whole, it is good to be healthy, it is good to be hale. But if we substituted one of these related words in the sentence “everything is holy,” it would not be true. Not every thing is whole, some things are partial, some things are broken. Not everything is healthy, some things are unhealthy, some things are diseased, some things are not even living so the terms healthy and diseased do not apply to them.
Black Elk, the Oglala Sioux medicine man whose vision we read at the beginning of the service said
And I saw that the sacred hoop
of my people
was one of many hoops
that make one circle,
wide as daylight and starlight,
And in the center grew one mighty flowering tree
To shelter all the children
of one mother
and one father.
And I saw that it was holy.
This is a beautiful vision of holiness, but where is that which is broken, unhealthy, partial? Maybe the holiness is so all-encompassing that its comprehends the unholy as well.
This idea of a naturalistic holiness has a lot to recommend it. You can feel the luminance as great nature writers like Annie Dillard and Mary Oliver describe their encounters with nature.
But if you compare this kind of holiness with the holiness attributed to God in the Judeo-Christian scriptures, you realize that what it is missing is the idea of sacrifice. Our word sacrifice comes from Latin
sacer, “sacred rites” and “facere,” to make or to do, so the root meaning of sacrifice is performing sacred rites.
Note that the root meaning does not involve giving something up, which is very much present in the common usage of the word sacrifice today. The present meaning derives as much from history and theology as from linguistics. In the Hebrew Bible, God establishes sacrifice in the sense of giving up a portion of food, giving it over to God, as early as the second generation of humans; the first murder comes about in fit of jealousy over sacrifice. Cain the farmer kills his brother Abel the herder out of jealousy when Abel’s meat sacrifice is more pleasing to God than Cain’s grain sacrifice. Later in the Torah, elaborate rules are enacted for performing animal sacrifices to Jahweh, and the Hebrew Bible also documents animal sacrifices performed by the Canaanite neighbors of the Jews.
Sacrifice was a means of connection to God, a means of worship. God is depicted in the Hebrew Bible as having a distinct personality, though sometimes a puzzling one. One of the most puzzling passages in the Hebrew Bible is the agedah, or sacrifice of Isaac. Why, after God has promised to make of Abraham a great nation through his descendants, does he order Abraham to negate that promise by killing his son as a sacrifice to God? Does this imply that love of God and obedience to Him should be so strong that they outweigh the natural love of a father for a son?
The ethical problem is not resolved in Judaism, but is such a powerful motif that it is imported into Christianity in the idea that Jesus is the son of God and the meaning of Jesus’s death on the cross is that God has sacrificed his own son to expiate the sins of the world. Orthodox Christianity elevates Abraham’s act in the near sacrifice of his son into God’s supreme act of love in actually killing his son.
Our Universalist ancestors, of course, pointed out that it does not make any sense that God, who is the aggrieved party in human sin, would in effect pay out of his own resources the debt that was owed to him by the sinful human race.
However illogical the orthodox Christian theology of atonement is, it has created down through the centuries in Christian minds a powerful association between sacrifice and holiness, which points out a problem with this idea of holiness for non-theists. How can we participate in the holy if we do not sacrifice in some sense?
But maybe we can participate. We can go out to watch the sunset, we can listen to the red bird singing in the sunlight, we can get involved in measure to preserve this jewel on which we live. We can even give up some elements of our fossil fuel lifestyle.
We don’t have to believe in a supernatural realm to worship, that is, to give worth to things around us. And it’s not just the natural world. We can hold holy things which are totally the product of human culture. Many of us in the political maelstrom of the present moment latch onto political/legal concepts such as the rule of law, democracy, public integrity. Yes, they are part of culture not of nature, yet we fight to preserve and advance them. We value them; does that make them holy?
What about the values that Lincoln said the nation was founded on: liberty and the proposition that all are created equal? Are these holy, when the founding fathers who first wrote those words despoiled them by enslaving African humans and removing indigenous ones?
I entertain a hope, perhaps it is a vain one, but I cling to it as a drowning sailor clings to a piece of driftwood, that this nation may move towards making those words in the Declaration of Independence true. And it can’t be soon enough for the marginalized members of society.
And yet it is vital that our quest for the holy not freeze into dogma. I distinguish a UU approach to faith from the orthodox Christian approach. The orthodox Christian denominations hold to varying degrees that they – the church and the scripture on which it is based -- have worked out the important matters and have put it down in a creed or catechism. If you can’t say the creed, you shouldn’t be a member of the church. They might even refuse you the right to take communion.
The way I see Unitarian Universalism, our approach is more fluid. We are based not on creeds but on covenants, and though covenants are recited in UU congregations, as in this one, every Sunday, there is no uniform wording; each congregation chooses its own. One variation used in other churches what I have always liked has the line “the quest of truth is our sacrament.” Not truth itself, not the end product, but the quest.
We offer a religion which questions all your answers. And the questions are definitely holy, perhaps holier than the answers.
When I was growing up in the Episcopal church, I studied my catechism in confirmation class, and I still can remember the definition of the word sacrament: “an outward and physical sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” A sign is something that stands for or represents something else in a common cultural understanding. We have agreed as people who use the public roadways that a piece of metal in the shape of an octagon painted red will be a sign that a motorist should stop at that intersection before proceeding.
If the quest of truth is a sacrament, what does it signify? To me it signifies that truth itself is the product of multiple points of view.
So if I swear by everything that is holy, I am including the doubts, the questions, the blind alleys, the experiments which offer inconclusive results or anomalous results, the things which don’t add up.
Let me leave you with this question: can you see the holy in someone who disagrees with you about fundamental matters of the day? Can you stay true to what you believe in and still embrace the holiness of the possibility that you are wrong? In Kipling’s words, can you
“ keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,”
“trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too”?
Here’s the takewaway: being a humanist, atheist, agnostic or religious naturalist does not require you to discard all notions of holiness. It does suggest that your notion of what is holy be bigger than one set of answers to the big questions, a holiness which embraces paradox and contradiction, which allows for imperfections, defects and flaws, which values the questions as much as the answers.
This I swear by everything that’s holy, including Harvey Cox, Jesus the fool and the holy cow grazing on the Cambridge Common. Amen.
READING “Holy Now” by Peter Mayer
When I was a boy, each week
On Sunday, we would go to church
And pay attention to the priest
He would read the holy word
And consecrate the holy bread
And everyone would kneel and bow
Today the only difference is
Everything is holy now
Everything is holy now
When I was in Sunday school
We would learn about the time
Moses split the sea in two
Jesus made the water wine
And I remember feeling sad
That miracles don’t happen still
But now I can’t keep track
‘Cause everything’s a miracle
Everything’s a miracle
Wine from water is not so small
But an even better magic trick
Is that anything is here at all
So the challenging thing becomes
Not to look for miracles
But finding where there isn’t one
When holy water was rare at best
It barely wet my fingertips
But now I have to hold my breath
Like I’m swimming in a sea of it
It used to be a world half there
Heaven’s second rate hand-me-down
But I walk it with a reverent air
‘Cause everything is holy now
Everything is holy now
Read a questioning child’s face
And say it’s not a testament
That’d be very hard to say
See another new morning come
And say it’s not a sacrament
I tell you that it can’t be done
This morning, outside I stood
And saw a little red-winged bird
Shining like a burning bush
Singing like a scripture verse
It made me want to bow my head
I remember when church let out
How things have changed since then
Everything is holy now
It used to be a world half-there
Heaven’s second rate hand-me-down
But I walk it with a reverent air
‘Cause everything is holy now