" Onward and Upward… Forever?"

February 23, 2003
First Parish in Norwell
The Reverend Victoria Weinstein

READINGS " Our Blue Planet" an e-mail sent by Laurel Salton Clarke
Laurel Clark of Racine, Wisconsin, was a submarine doctor with the U.S. Navy before joining NASA in 1996, traveling to the depths of the oceans before soaring above as a mission specialist helping with science experiments on the space shuttle Columbia. The mother of an 8-year-old son, and a Unitarian Universalist who was a long-time member of the Olympia Brown Unitarian Universalist Church in Racine, Wisconsin, she was on her first shuttle mission when Columbia disintegrated over Texas. The day before she died, she sent an e-mail home to family and friends:

Hello from above our magnificent planet Earth. The perspective is truly awe-inspiring. This is a terrific mission and we are very busy doing science round the clock. Just getting a moment to type e-mail is precious so this will be short, and distributed to many who I know and love.

I have seen some incredible sights: lightning spreading over the Pacific, the Aurora Australis lighting up the entire visible horizon with the cityglow of Australia below, the vast plains of Africa and the dunes on Cape Horn, rivers breaking through tall mountain passes, the scars of humanity, the continuous line of life extending from North America, through Central America and into South America, a crescent moon setting over the limb of our blue planet.

Magically, the very first day we flew over Lake Michigan and I saw Wind Point (Wisconsin) clearly. Every orbit we go over a slightly different part of the Earth. Whenever I do get to look out, it is glorious. Even the stars have a special brightness. I have seen my 'friend' [the constellation] Orion several times. I feel blessed to be here representing our country and carrying out the research of scientists around the world.

Thanks to many of you who have supported me and my adventures throughout the years. This was definitely one to beat all. I hope you could feel the positive energy that beamed to the whole planet as we glided over our shared planet.

Love to all,

THE SERMON " Onward and Upward… Forever?"

There comes a moment in time when every religious idea and every ideological position stand challenged, perhaps on the precipice of extinction. As religious liberals we claim to be open to such cataclysmic deterioration, even when the cherished principles that face a steady dismantling are our own cherished notions. Our faith calls us to be brave; courageous enough to receive fresh revelations about the nature of humankind and Divinity and ever ready to abandon those outworn ways of thinking that no longer serve even those truths we hitherto believed unshakable.

I believe that religious liberals have come to such a moment here at the outset of the 21st century. At the end of the 19th century, a moment of great promise, a historical deep breathe between the ravages of the Civil War and the harrowing ordeals of the first and second world wars, our forebears set forth a Unitarian article of faith that was best expressed by the Reverend James Freeman Clarke, who in 1886 wrote " Five Points of a Theology for the Future" in a sermon included in his collection called, most fittingly, " Vexed Questions in Theology." Here are Rev. Clarke' s five points of a theology for the future:

1. The Fatherhood of God
2. The Brotherhood of Man
3. The Leadership of Jesus
4. Salvation by Character
5. The Continuity of human development in all worlds,
Or the progress of mankind onward and upward forever.

While we might regard the first four points as either quaintly outmoded, downright misconceptions or deep truths that we would nevertheless attempt to express in less gender-exclusive terms today, today let us concern ourselves with the final point of Clarke' s optimistic future vision, namely, " the progress of [hu]mankind onward and upward forever."

Here, a good 117 years past the casting of that vision, what is our evidence that that bedrock of Unitarian faith is worthy of our continued support? What is the evidence that humankind has indeed progressed onward and upward even since 1886, if we cannot yet speak for the " forever" projected by Rev. Clarke?

When we think of progress, what images come to mind? Do vast machines launching off into space serve as symbols of progress to you? The image of people standing in line to vote in a peaceful democratic process (including women, a sight that would have been unfamiliar to 19th century Unitarians although many of them believed it was an important social improvement yet to be achieved)? How about a child getting a simple vaccination shot by a kindly doctor in a white coat, thus protected from the ravages of polio, measles or scarlet fever – is this what comes to mind when you think of progress? Perhaps the satisfaction you feel when you get behind the wheel of your comfortable car and can get somewhere in thirty minutes that by horse and buggy would have taken four or five hours,

or when you hear that little voice tell you " you' ve got mail" and you are able to express your loving regards to friends in China or Sweden with the simple push of a button – perhaps this feels satisfyingly like progress to you. It certainly does to me.

The liberal notion of progress is that it is a good thing, perhaps a costly thing, but a phenomenon worthy to be celebrated and actively engaged in. Note our UU sister and astronaut Laurel Salton Clarke' s happy missive from far above earth in the space shuttle Columbia, when she says all in the same breath: This planet is astonishing in its beauty, and we are doing science around the clock. In Laurel' s worldview, spiritual awe and the quest to more deeply know and understand our planet through the intellectual discipline of science are partnered within us as natural human instincts. Contrary to so much popular thought that casts religion and science as natural opponents with contradictory methods and goals, Laurel, and most of us, affirm that science and religion are warm and natural bedfellows.

Our theological assumptions about progress are that forward movement is the way God works, or, if you prefer, progress is the natural movement that humanity has been destined to make since that miraculous accident we call evolution endowed us with the gifts of consciousness, reason and the opposable thumb. Time marches on and we march with it, ever ready to integrate into our brave new world those things we create by the confluence of imagination, discovery and necessity (the mother of all invention).

In her book The Battle for God, author Karen Armstrong helpfully points out that progress means very different things to liberals and to conservatives.

In the liberal mindset, we move ever forward to a better day, to fresh insights and new world orders, believing that this is how creation fundamentally works. Always seeking to cast off the bonds that restrain us, we tend to regard time as a linear proposition moving forward to some kind of, if not perfection, at least a more ideal state than the one in which we exist today. We are ever hopeful. Affirming the goodness at the heart of being, we strive to bring about the realm of justice, peace, freedom and dignity -- a realm to which we believe all beings belong, by simple virtue of their birth as equal children of God.

According to Karen Armstrong' s explication of the conservative position, time is regarded as a kind of circular proposition, or perhaps a spiral-shaped –history is a sacred story – a mythos which harkens ever back to a moment of clearer virtues and a primal connection to God' s original intent. Progress is therefore perceived to be present in those institutions, ideas and inventions that preserve what is eternal and constant, and therefore divinely ordained. There is a holiness at the heart of being that was better known in the eons long before the confusions of modernity: we are all children of Eden, and we need to find our way back to the Garden.

Armstrong' s respectful analysis sheds some light on some of the extreme tensions between liberals and conservatives in power in the United States at this moment, as Armstrong informs us that " in a conservative society, social stability and order were [and presumably are] more important than freedom of expression." (p 34) With this in mind, one begins to better understand the motives and mindset of a John Ashcroft or a Tom Ridge, even if not necessarily to accept them.

In an anxious political climate, such as the one we are presently in, the liberal urges and pushes something new to be birthed by a struggling society, while the conservative digs in his heels and pulls on the reins of tradition, looking back to a golden age when authority was unchallenged and therefore, ideally, a more uncomplicated good could prevail. The conservative worldview suggests that we have already had the Good revealed to us, and it may not necessarily be waiting beyond that next hill, as the liberal so ardently wants to believe.

Further, there is this important theological difference which separates them: whereas the liberal regards human beings at any moment in history as fundamentally improvable beings (particularly if given an opportunity for personal and social education and advantage), the conservative is greatly influenced by Calvinist concerns about the depravity of human nature. And in this article of faith, it should be obvious to us today that both sides have ample evidence to support their positions. We seem, as a species these days, most spectacularly depraved and intent on destruction and chaos… and we seem also to be unmistakably capable of remarkable wisdom, ingenuity and compassion.
One of the most confusing social realities today is that the liberals and the conservatives often cross lines of loyalty and adopt pieces of each other' s prevalent ideologies. We see the liberal environmentalist, for instance, seeking for ways we might somehow recreate a moment in time when Planet Earth was less scarred and threatened by human enterprise, and practitioners of feminist spirituality do the same thing, reaching into the far past to embrace ancient goddess-worshiping cultures. But wait: reaching back into a presumably more Godly past has always been the special commitment of the religious conservative! Likewise, President Bush, speaking at a memorial service for the
seven astronauts lost when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated said,

" This cause of exploration and discovery is not an
option we choose. It is a desire written in the
human heart. We are that part of creation which
seeks to understand all creation. We find the best
among us, send them forth into unmapped darkness
and pray they will return. They go in peace for
all mankind. And all mankind is in their debt."

They are lovely words, amenable to our Unitarian tradition and far more caring to my ear, and probably yours, than the sentiment expressed by General Charles Baldwin, Air Force Deputy Chief of Chaplains who declared, "God is still in charge!" during another memorial service (prompting my colleague Rev. Steve Crump to exclaim " theology alert! theology alert!" ). Bush' s words, you will note, speak of exploration as inescapable human destiny. The other exclamation is typical to the religious conservative mentality, as it relinquishes every event to a distant and capricious deity.

Perhaps this cross-pollination of ideologies is one of the reasons for our cultural obsession with reality television, news coverage of largely inconsequential although lurid crimes, and fascination with the private sins of publicly admired men and women. It is as though the entire world, and most especially the United States (the most religiously pluralistic nation in the world) is sitting together on a collective living room sofa that functions as a kind of stand-in for the Roman amphitheater, watching with baited breath and bitten nails as the circus of human nature gets played out before us. It is the Christians (or the gladiators!) and the lions all over again -- with human nature represented by both the voracious, merciless lion and the vulnerable, pious and faithful martyrs (or the strong and wily gladiators) -- and we really don' t know who will prevail. We are not sure whose vision of human nature will emerge as the most accurate. We are becoming afraid to look.

Unfortunately for the optimistic Unitarians, for whom James Freeman Clarke was such an important leader and living emblem, " the progress of mankind onward and upward forever" is most assuredly not assured. Clarke was certainly not so naïve as to believe that this onward and upward movement would occur without struggle and setbacks: he was, in fact, a Unitarian with the thoroughly Universalist understanding that God never stops working on us, as is evident in his cherished hope for what he called " the continuity of human development in all worlds." Even beyond life, beyond death, progress for the individual soul is possible.

For those who accuse Unitarians of possessing a moronic, rose-tinted view of human nature, and who fault us for even daring to hope for such steady progress as goes onward and upward forever, we must respond by affirming that progress is not merely technological but also moral, and we must not abandon faith that mankind is still capable of climbing the steep learning curve toward moral betterment.

To regard progress with exclusively heavenward gaze is a mistake, and a dangerous one. For as we so poignantly have cause to remember this hour, all that goes up must come down, and sometimes with a deafening explosion. We cannot afford, either as a species or a planet, to thrust forever forward and upward in the manner of a conquering hero who feels entitled, by mere fact of brute strength or even cleverness, to plunder God' s creation in service of our vision of progress, or to inflict even our helpful advancements on those fellows of our species who have not come to desire those advancements for themselves.
Progress, if it is anything worth hoping for, is an inescapably interdependent phenomenon. We live not side by side in neat and tidy rows, but in an intricate web of political, environmental, emotional and spiritual eco-systems. Whether in the small, family unit or the family of humanity, planetary events unmistakably confirm our hunch that what happens to one is indeed the fate of all.

We are in an historical predicament of tremendous magnitude and deadly seriousness, a predicament that involves multitudes of nations and which weaves webs too complex for all but the most devoted observers or brilliant minds to understand. We can regard that web as a sticky and treacherous thing, or we can regard it with love and awe and a sense of purpose and adventure as did the international crew of Columbia astronauts Rick D. Husband, William C McCool, Michael P Anderson, David M Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Salton Clark and Ilan Ramon. May their courageous journey beyond the limits of our own stratosphere prompt us to ever embrace the bigger picture, and to hold to a vision of progress that travels not only onward and upward, but inward and interward, forever.

Small as is our whole system compared with the infinitude of creation,
Brief as is our life compared with the cycles of time,
We are so tethered to all by the beautiful dependencies of law,
That not only the sparrow' s fall is felt to the uttermost bound but the vibrations set in motion by the words that we utter reach through all space, and the tremor is felt through all time.

(Maria Mitchell, 1818-1889, Astronomer and Unitarian)