First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County

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Beautiful, Invincible Reason

October 6, 2013
Rev. Sandra Fees

Reading: Incantation by Czeslaw Milosz

Human reason is beautiful and invincible.

No bars, no barbed wire, no pulping of books,

No sentence of banishment can prevail against it.

It establishes the universal ideas in language,

And guides our hand so we write Truth and Justice

With capital letters, lie and oppression with small.

It puts what should be above things as they are,

Is an enemy of despair and a friend of hope.


Sermon by Rev. Sandra Fees

There’s a story by Jacob the Baker called “The Reason for Religion Is Not Reason.” Jacob was an actual baker. He became known for scribbling his thoughts on bits of paper as he waited for the bread to rise. One day he decided to slip sayings into the loaves he was baking. After that, people started to come to him for wisdom and instruction, and his stories and parable eventually were written down. This is one of them.

A young woman was troubled by something Jacob had said. She asked him for clarification. She said, “Jacob, did you say that what is holy has no beginning or end?” Yes, said Jacob. “But that’s not possible,” said the woman. “That’s because only the possible can be measured,” replied Jacob. The young woman struggled to understand. She said, “Jacob, you aren’t making sense.” To this, Jacob nodded his agreement. Then he placed his hands in front of the woman, covering her eyes, and said, “You see, reason explains the darkness, but it is not a light.”  (by Noah benShea)

Reason has long been seen as providing explanations but not illuminating the spiritual path. Jacob is not the first or the last to find that religion’s purpose isn’t reason. Reason has often been seen as the enemy of faith and as a threat to spirituality and belief in God.

Even some contemporary Unitarian Universalists have become somewhat critical of rationality and reason. It has been blamed for a too-strong emphasis on individuality, criticized for squelching passion, joy, and reverence, and considered hostile to belief in God. It is not uncommon to hear contemporary Unitarian Universalists say that we spend too much time in our heads and not enough time on matters of the heart.

Yet reason remains a cornerstone of our religion. And for very good reason. Without it, religion can become fanatical, fundamentalist, hypocritical, and intolerant. Just think about school prayer, marriage defined as between a man and a woman, limits to a woman’s right to control her own body, religious intolerance, and human rights abuses, to name just a few.

Unlike Jacob the Baker, E. Burdette Backus, a 20th century Unitarian minister, understood the limits of reason but nevertheless equated reason to the light of a candle. He said:

It had originally a very earthy and practical purpose, namely that of solving the problems that press in upon … daily life. Although it continues this immediately pressing function, it has far outsoared it and seeks to penetrate beyond the starts to find answer to the riddle of the universe. Our reason makes many mistakes; it is frequently taken captive by our desire, so that we believe things not because they are true but because we want to believe them. It cannot give us absolute and final certainty, but it has established substantial body of verified truth; it is steadily increasing the amount of that truth. For all its limitations it serves us very well, and those who advocate its abandonment are simply telling us as we grope our way through the dark by the light of a candle to blow out the light. (from a sermon)

Reason may have its limitations, but it lights our path. Reason helps us live better and creates more justice. These are all important aspects of religious experience.  Only when taken to an extreme do reason and rationality flatten out our experience and deny the richness of our emotions. In a few weeks, we’ll explore more fully the relationship between reason and reverence.

To better understand how it lights our path, it’s helpful to consider the context in which reason and rationality arose – in Western culture and in Western religion. Chief among the cultural and intellectual changes during the 1600s and 1700s – known as the Enlightenment - was the Scientific Revolution. Prior to the Enlightenment, people were living in a very different world. They relied on others to make decisions for them and to tell them what to think. The earth was the center of the universe. The Bible was the source of knowledge about God and life and pretty much everything. Everything unfolded according to God’s plan. The universe was considered to be young, and God still very involved in the immediate events of people’s lives. There are certainly still people who hold aspects of this worldview, even today.

Along came Galileo, Kepler, and Copernicus who brought new insights into the cosmos. Francis Bacon stressed the scientific method of observation and reasoning. Rene Descartes came to his now famous conclusion, “I think, therefore I am,” and offered a logical approach to problem-solving. With Isaac Newton came new understandings of gravity and laws of motion. These seminal figures altered accepted understandings of humanity’s place in the universe and human capability. Their systems of reasoning and scientific methodology questioned long accepted truths. (various sources)

Human progress was no longer understood as something accomplished through blind obedience to authority – religious or otherwise – but instead through intellectual and spiritual enlightenment. Authority shifted from external sources to conscience and human intelligence. This meant individuals could “investigate the entire world without worrying whether their findings were in line with church doctrine or other established authority,” says Paul Rasor. (Faith without Certainty) This was a huge shift in authority. It made it possible for people to challenge corruption, superstition, hypocrisy, and injustice – inside and outside the church. The church did not welcome the challenges.

Our Unitarian forebears, as you might expect, embraced the Enlightenment. The Italian Faustus Socinus, born in 1539, led the Unitarians into the Enlightenment. He called for reason in religion. Those who adhered to this philosophy came to be known as Socinians. They used inner reason and conscience as sources of authority. For this, they were considered dissenters and heretics.

In the 19th century, the Unitarian William Ellery Channing was preaching that religion can and should be reasonable. In his “Baltimore Address” Channing declared reason as valid and necessary for the interpretation of scripture. He used reason to conclude four ideas, all of which contradicted Christian orthodoxy. Channing advocated the unity of God and the humanity of Jesus and rejected original sin along with eternal suffering and denied Jesus’ death as a blood atonement. Channing’s Address was one of the catalysts for Unitarianism’s schism with liberal Christianity. (From UUA Tapestry of Faith, Faith Like a River curriculum) Channing advocated for the free mind. He said: “I call that mind free which jealously guards its intellectual rights and powers, which does not content itself with a passive or hereditary faith. … which listens for new and higher monitions of conscience.”

The 20th century brought the Humanist Manifesto, which included among its 34 authors Unitarian ministers. It cultivated religious humanism in our UU faith. William Schulz describes religious humanism as “a religious movement that emphasized human capabilities, especially the human capacity to reason; that adopted the scientific method to search for truth; and that promoted the right of all humans to develop to their full potential.” (“Our humanist legacy: Seventy years of religious humanism,” by William F. Schulz, Nov/Dec 2003)

Our fifth Unitarian Universalist source draws from these humanist teachings. According tot his source, “Humanist teachings … counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.”

We have seen the impact of extreme irrationality in the world. It can lead to mass murder, school shootings, abusive relationships, and other atrocities. Religious fanaticism has led to massive killings, wide-scale destruction, and genocide – in the name of God and religion. In contemporary times as much as in earlier times, reason serves as an antidote for the irrationality, superstition, and fanaticism in the world. Unitarian historian Earl Morris Wilbur said we use reason in religion to help prevent fanaticism and to cast out superstition. (qtd in Jim Eller).

On a personal level, it also takes a great toll. Reason is a protection against such fanaticism and it also opens doors. It means using our innate thought process to question, to create, to explore, to learn, to think, to experiment, to innovate, to assess. It means exercising freedom in matters of the spirit. We Unitarian Universalists embrace the search and ask the hard questions, even hard questions, about God, human nature, the beginnings of life, and what will happen to us after we die. We can actually be a little fierce in our questioning. The use of reason elevates life and reminds us what’s in our best interest. It calls on us to be our better selves and to seek a higher purpose. It pushes us to ask what works best, to evaluate truth, and to explore new ideas and new thoughts in a freer and less censored way.

My experiences with mental illness within my family and in my work as a minister remind me of the importance of reason and rationality in daily life. There are terrible costs in human happiness, in relationships, in people’s ability to be productive and make meaning when people suffer from mental illness.  Science has taught us that mental illness isn’t the result of being possessed by demons – that people who are mentally ill aren’t evil. Mental illness is based in genetics, traumas, and other physiological, societal, and psychological events.

And it can be treated. Science has helped bring medication and treatment to address some, though not all, of these struggles. Cognitive behavioral therapy is being used to facilitate better results for individuals who are bipolar or suffering from serious depression.

Whether we are working to eradicate religious fanaticism or understand mental illness from a scientific perspective, reason can and does shine a light. Reason supports the common good. It helps people rather than harms them. Reasonable practices create equity and ensure human rights. Reasonable practices build community. They promote kindness, caring, compassion, love, tolerance, and diversity.

The exercise of reason is indeed beautiful. I wish it were invincible. Poet Czeslaw Milosz writes that it “guides our hand so we write Truth and Justice with capital letters, lie and oppression with small.” We Unitarian Universalists would probably want to edit that a little, because we speak of multiple truths rather than one Truth. But Milosz’s point is that reason creates truth and justice and challenges lies and oppression. That truly is a beautiful thing.  Reason deters fanaticism, extremism, and irrational, damaging behaviors. That is why he calls it “an enemy of despair and a friend of hope.”

We practice reason by embracing science and applying it to our interpretations of sacred texts, including but not limited to the Bible. We practice reason by keeping an open mind and by practicing tolerance. We practice reason by testing our own beliefs – through inquiry, through mindfulness, which has become quite popular within Unitarian Universalism and you will notice has the word mind in it. We practice reason through meditation and other practices that bring us greater insight into our own behavior and how our minds work.

Our Unitarian Universalist faith is a thinking person’s religion. We ask: Does it make sense to believe what I believe? Is it reasonable and responsible? Does it benefit or harm society and the community? Does it make us stronger? Does it advance the common good? Does it create more love and kindness? Does it free the spirit?

Reason isn’t the enemy of passion, love, reverence, or religion. It shines a light. It is the enemy of despair. It is a friend of hope.

Blessed be. Amen.