Preached to the First Parish Church of Norwell, MA Dec 6, 2009
It’s that magical, mythical time of year again. Virgin births and super novas shining directly over a little barn, angels crashing through walls to make shocking pronouncements, roly-poly men with white beards in red suits flying through the sky in a sleigh pulled by reindeer.
Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy,
“Do you hear what I hear?
Ringing through the sky, shepherd boy,
Do you hear what I hear?
A song, a song high above the trees
With a voice as big as the the sea,
With a voice as big as the the sea.”
Do you hear what I hear?
Well, sometimes the answer is just “no.” The word from researchers lately is that some of us are genetically programmed to have a rational view of life, and others are born with a gene that makes them more prone to a mystical experiences of the transcendent. I hope this will come as good news to all of us, who join in a free religious tradition that is not invested in our believing the same things, but in seeking and creating together inner peace, higher consciousness, intellectual challenge, compassionate community and spiritual depth wherever we may find it, by whatever name we may give it.
In our religious tradition, we teach that the key to healthy community is not to get everyone theologically on the same page but to get on our own page in a healthy and mature way. So if someone identifies as an atheist and someone calls himself a Christian and someone else says he is on a Buddhist spiritual path, we consider that a private matter, an expression of individual calling lived out in community. With this new research on the so-called God gene, it may prove true that not only is it emotionally hurtful and even abusive to expect an entire population of people to all arrive at the same conclusion regarding the nature of the ultimate, but a violation of their actual biological composition!
The Dalai Lama has said that his religion is kindness. For those of us who dwell together in covenanted community in the bonds of fellowship and love holding a wide and delightful variety of beliefs and experiences, that definition of religion holds a lot of promise. Our religion is kindness, we may choose to say. Our religion – and our aspiration — is service. Our religion is a push, a pull, a prophetic challenge, and an invitation to look at the world as it is and to love it anyway.
But here we are at a time of year that plops us plumb in the middle of all of that supernatural, unbelievable stuff that I just mentioned: those ancient stories and those song lyrics that we hear and we sing and that remind many of us of the kind of religion that we are not interested in practicing and that, in fact, many of us fled from. That’s not true for everyone, of course – for some folks, all those stars and all that magic, the flying reindeer, the baby in the stable, the Wise Men trekking across the desert is a delight, a source of treasured memories, cherished tradition and spiritual nourishment. For others, it’s dear and quaint and fine… just so long as we don’t have too much of it. And there are those who endure this season of songs and stories with irritation and gritted teeth until it’s over.
There was a time in my own life that I was a teeth-gritter and endure-er of sacred stories, especially Christmas stories. I could not understand how otherwise intelligent people in a scientific age could so earnestly give over their rational minds to the ancient mythos of the holiday. Every year, practically my entire town gathered near Christmas at a place called “God’s Acre,” which was much like our village green in Norwell, only if you put three more churches around it. There was a Congregationalist church, a Methodist Church, and I think a Baptist church – all white, all with New England steeples – and in the center of God’s Acre there was always an enormous Christmas tree lit up by a thousand lights. Beautiful. We would stand in the cold and sing all the old classics – “Angels We Have Heard On High” and “O Little Town of Bethelehem” and “Joy To the World.” I had very mixed feelings about the lyrics. In fact, some of them sent my blood to boiling – mostly the ones about “savior” and “King.”
It took a long time — a lot of thinking and studying and praying — and a lot of paying attention to the way that sacred stories operate in people’s lives for me to embrace those songs. I now cherish them even as I smile affectionately at some of their theological excess.
In my spiritual journey from fundamentalist rationalist to the skeptical, reverent mystic that I am today, I was helped very much from by philosopher Paul Ricouer’s notion of “second naïveté.” Before I explain what that is, let me introduce it with a story that will help lead us there.
When I was in Romania last spring, I traveled to a small city near the village where my grandfather was born. I had one day to find his village, and because I had been robbed in Bucharest and was having bureaucratic trouble with Western Union , I had only a tiny bit of money. The hotel staff in Fagaras helped me write out a little script in Romanian that would help me explain to a taxi driver where I wanted to go and how much money I had. They then hailed me a taxi. As luck would have it, I wound up getting picked up by the only English-speaking taxi driver in the entire city. His name was Gabriel Gulu, and he was very excited to have the opportunity to practice his language skills. I wondered right away about the coincidence of finding an English-speaking taxi driver who happened to share a name with the most famous angel in the gospels. I learned that Gabriel was born on Christmas Day.
Part of the story is that Gabriel found my grandfather’s village and spent the day chauffeuring me around the region, took me to his home for lunch, introduced me to his mother, his daughter and his wife, picked me up for dinner that night, and insisted on driving me almost four hours the next day to Sighisoara, where I would be rendezvousing with Rosalie Vida, our minister in Kadacs.
He was an angel. As we drove to Sighisoara, Gabriel told me the story of his daughter Amalia’s birth.
In 1992, Gabriel and Donna married on Christmas Day, which is also Gabriel’s birthday. The priest was unhappy with them because in the orthodox calendar, December 25 is a fast day, and it is inappropriate to have a feast or celebration on that day. Gabriel and Donna, being modern people but with no desire to insult the church, decided not to have a church wedding and were married at City Hall instead. They thought it a good compromise: they would have the Christmas anniversary they wanted and the priest would be appeased.
Several years after they married, Donna and Gabriel wanted to start a family but they had fertility problems. They saw every doctor in their town and then traveled to Bucharest to see expensive specialists (“More expensive than expensive,” Gabriel told me). When Donna finally got pregnant, they were elated, and then cast into complete despair when she miscarried four months into the pregnancy. They visited the Bucharest doctor again who told them, “I have done everything I can do, and so have you. We have reached the limits of medicine. It is time to seek God’s help.”
Given that Romania has been under Communist rule for so long, this amazes me, but that is a direct quote. Their doctor told them to seek God’s help.
Gabriel went to visit with a priest who is also a good friend. His friend told Gabriel that he should search his soul for any offenses he may have committed against God. Gabriel, a good and hard-working and honest man, could not think of anything at first. And then he began to consider his Christmas marriage in City Hall. He is not a superstitious man, he told me, but a faithful man. He and Donna re-considered what they had done. They didn’t feel that their marriage was anything but a blessing, but they decided no harm could come of being married again in the church, and so they were, thirteen years after their original union – this time in October.
Within the year, Donna was pregnant. Amalia was born the following March. She is a beautiful little girl and their pride and joy.
And so what does one say to this, or think about it? Coincidence? Good luck? Psychosomatic infertility? Thanks for the nice story?
We certainly could think all of those things. One of the stages of faith development, whatever our genetic predisposition to the mystical or rationalist stance, is to critically reject all the articles of doctrine we learned and naively believed as children. This is an important stage of faith, which leads us from mindless acceptance of harmful beliefs and doctrine to a more mature and considered evaluation of what the truth is for ourselves; according to the dictates of conscience and the knowledge earned through study, reflection and experience. From this place of maturity, I could have said to Gabriel, “Listen, I am so glad that you have Amalia, but I really don’t think God had anything to do with it (because God doesn’t punish people by withholding pregnancy from them).” Or I could have said, “Well Gabriel, you and Donna obviously had some sort of unconscious stress about your original Christmas Day wedding that prevented your conceiving a child, and it’s a good thing you engaged in a superstitious ritual so that you could release that stress and have your beautiful daughter. I’m so happy for you.”
Said the night wind to the little lamb,
“Do you see what I see?
Way up in the sky, little lamb,
Do you see what I see?
A star, a star, dancing in the night
With a tail as big as a kite,
With a tail as big as a kite.”
We need not think alike to love alike, said the 16th century Unitarian, Ferenc David. And we need not see alike to love alike. When kindness is our religion and our aspiration, what is required of us is not so much critical engagement but sympathetic engagement, curiosity, a willingness to share the wonder of another’s experience even when it is not our own, and even when we might not interpret its meaning in the same way. Remember what Hamlet said to his friend? “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dream’t of in your philosophy.” In Paul Ricouer’s philosophy of second naïveté, we enter into the mystery of sacred stories not with the naïveté of one who can’t think for themselves, but by choosing to engage the poetic sensibility rather than leading with our critical, intellectual faculties. More simply put, when we have reached the maturity of second naïveté – a kind of chosen innocence — we make a decision to abide together in wonder rather than to dismantle sacred narratives in an insistent search for rational facts.
In that taxi, from a place of second naïveté with my new friend, I could hear the story of Gabriel and his miracle child and simply be glad for his and Donna’s happiness. There are many more things in heaven and earth that I could possibly comprehend. Why not a miracle?
There is a time, a place, and a way to analyze religious narratives for their literal truths, and a time not to. The time to take a scalpel to religious claims is when they are made with the intention or the result of excluding, harming, dominating, or humiliating people, or any part of creation. The time not to is when a person or persons is cheered, uplifted, inspired to do good and brought to a place of deep gratitude and love by a story that may not be based in fact at all, but is nevertheless quite true. We call those myths. We call them stories sacred stories. And as we grow older and wiser, we learn to hear them through the ears of the child; the child who is curious, the child who wants to be a good friend, the child who wonders. We do so in the name of the kindness we want to practice as our religion.