a sermon delivered to
The Unitarian Fellowship of Prince Edward Island
10 August, 2003
by Dr. John
W. Baros-Johnson, minister,
the Universalist Unitarian Church of Halifax, N.S.
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we must measure the pace of existence, the weight and the structure
of every thing. For Love would be thoughtless if we were not bodies;
and Truth would be lifeless if we could not sing.
were the lines which caught my attention in the poem I shared
with you earlier. They got me to wondering: what do bodies have
to do with our thinking and our loving? and what could our singing
and celebrating of life have to do with truth? In the Spring,
we talk a lot about celebrating Nature, but it’s not until
the Summer that we get around to it. Yet, when we look around
us, Nature seems to be in peril. Almost everywhere you look, we
humans are depleting the resources we find in Nature faster than
those resources can be replaced. How could we have come to be
the first chapter of the book of Genesis in the Jewish Scriptures,
El, which is the earliest Hebrew name for God, says to Elohim,
the council of gods: "Let us make humans in our image, after
our likeness; and let them have dominion over ... the earth."
The Scriptures then continue: “So God created humans in
his own image, male and female created he them. And God blessed
them and said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill
the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the
sea, and over the birds of the air and over every living thing
that moves upon the earth.”
with you these passages from the beginnings of the Hebrew Scripture
in order to illustrate how deeply ingrained our attitudes toward
Nature are. These passages are not the cause of our present ecological
anxiety, the dislocation of our relationship to Nature. Passages
like these may not have caused the problem, but they did help
develop a certain attitude toward nature, and over the centuries
these images have helped sustain that attitude, an attitude which
has contributed to our present ecological anxiety.
scriptures were most likely written in the 6th century BCE, but
they contain several layers of material from the earlier oral
tradition. Some of the layers of that oral tradition have been
dated back to the 15th century BCE.
the time they were written, it was only a dream - perhaps even
an impossible dream - that one day humans would dominate the earth
and subdue all the other species. These are people who had either
experienced or had heard stories about floods, or about ships
being lost at sea, or about the cities being destroyed by fire
raining down from a nearby mountain. For them the notion that
humankind had been given dominion over all the earth could ONLY
be a dream.
in mind also that folks who lived back then knew less than one
tenth of one percent of the varieties of living things we know
about today. How could they have subdued germs, for instance,
if they did not know what a germ was, much less the hundreds of
viruses and bacteria we track nowadays?
was only a dream, perhaps, but we seem to have taken it seriously.
We developed notions of civilization, notions of personal safety
and economic security, notions which made it desirable to clear
the forest for our farms, or to kill off wild, animals which might
destroy our crops or threaten our domestic animals.
only did the ancient scriptures tell us we were justified in doing
what was necessary to take care of ourselves and our own, but
we had a license from God to dispose of all the other living things
on this planet as we saw fit. "Be fruitful and multiply,"
we were told.
Biblical terminology is definitely hierarchical: "have dominion",
it says, "subdue". We are not being asked to be partners
with the other species. We are being commanded by God to take
command, to control the other living things in the sea, in the
sky, and on the face of the earth.
what about ourselves? Don't we humans fit into the category of
"creatures that move upon the earth"? Does that mean
we are to subdue ourselves or to have dominion over ourselves?
the earlier leaders of the Jewish community - and, later, the
Christian and Muslim communities - had taken these passages to
mean that we are to control ourselves as well as controlling the
other species, then maybe we wouldn't be in the ecologically difficult
situation in which we find ourselves now. But they didn't understand
humanity as part of Nature. They understood humanity as above
the extent self-control was encouraged, it was understood as the
effort to control that part of you which was most like Nature.
People who wanted to be spiritual leaders were encouraged to fast,
to control their body's hunger for food. They were encouraged
to be celibate, to control their hunger for sexual interaction.
People who expressed a hunger for spiritual nourishment were encouraged
not to get in touch with Nature but to be as UNlike Nature as
possible, to deny as much as possible the Nature within them.
fact the ancients even divided humanity according to gender so
that women were considered part of Nature, much more so than men.
The writer of the Gospel of John wanted Christ, “0 Logos,
to be so pure that he could not bring himself to tell us that
Christ was born at all. He does not tell us about the virgin birth
as Matthew and Luke do because to do so would be to admit that
God had interacted in some way with a woman. The concept of God
in the Gospel of John is so pure that it was unthinkable that
Christ would be born at all. Instead he tells us that ‘O
Logos "was made flesh and dwelled among us."’
you noticed in the passage from the Jewish scriptures, written
almost a thousand years earlier than John, the authors had difficulty
with the pronouns. At one point they said: “let us make
humans in our image, in our likeness,” then they said, “
So God created humans in his own image, male and female created
why did our ancestors take this route? Why couldn't they assume
that men and women could exercise self-control? There are many
different factors which influenced these things, of course. I
don't mean to sound like the answers could be so easy as this.
But since I'm speaking to an audience gathered in the spirit,
I'm going to focus on dynamics which are spiritually relevant.
were so much a part of peoples' lives in ancient times that they
thought of spiritual things in terms of hierarchies as well. In
other words, the controller always had a higher status than the
controlled. Who controls me? The chief of the village. Who controls
the village chiefs in a given country? The king. Who controls
the king? The emperor. Who controls the Emperor? Ahhh... God?
That worked for a while until the Romans suggested a new answer
to the question by proclaiming their emperor as God.
you set up a hierarchy of control, there is always the problem
of who controls the controller. There's a famous paradox which
one of my teachers shared with us in Logic class when I was in
undergraduate school. A barber is hired by a village. The barber
is granted a specific mandate: He is to shave only those men in
the village who do not shave themselves. The problem is: the barber
himself lives in the village. Does he shave himself?
controls the controller?
implies a degree of alienation, a distinction between controller
and controlled. Ancient societies assumed that the controller
and the controlled could NOT be peers. Whoever is in control has
a higher rank than those who are being controlled.
is a sense in which the early Christian church understood the
need for self-control as they developed the practice of celibacy
as a spiritual discipline. But not everyone can live up to that
ideal, as we see in the headlines today. It is one thing to encourage
the practice of celibacy as a way of reminding yourself that you
are responsible for your spirituality. That is a lesson that can
be learned in a few weeks or a few months. A person who likes
that lifestyle may want to do it for a lifetime, but I don't see
anything in that practice which helps a person to be a spiritual
and I believe more importantly, there are other ways to understand
the workings of the spirit, ways which do not pit spirituality
AGAINST sexuality. Celibacy, as it was traditionally explained,
was based on the neo-Platonic notion that sex is spiritually corrupting
and therefore anyone who practices sex is not fit for spiritual
leadership. The true Christian life was thought to be the celibate
life, but, if you found you could not resist the temptation to
participate in sex, then for heaven's sake get married so you
won't have to spend eternity in hell for your sin.
making celibacy into a spiritual ideal, the early church encourage
those hungry for spiritual nourishment not to get in touch with
Nature but to be as UNlike Nature as possible, to deny as much
as possible the Nature within them.
defense of celibacy, I think it is a form of sexuality just like
zero is a number. Zero might be a lack of quantity, but it is
just as much a number as any other. The problem is not celibacy
per se but the insistence that those who practice celibacy are
somehow uniquely empowered for spiritual leadership.
Roman Catholic Church is not the only religious group to advocate
celibacy as a spiritual discipline. The contemporary Brahm, Kumari
sect of Hinduism, for instance, advocates celibacy in order to
free women from a lifetime of household slavery.
is an important part of our spirituality, maybe more so during
some periods of our lives than others, but it's always there.
To say that sexuality is inexorably opposed to the life of the
spirit, well, it doesn't seem to fit with the Christian notion
that serving the hungry and the poor IS the same as serving God.
you remember the passage in Gospel of Matthew in which Jesus teaches
his disciples that those who have given God shelter when he was
homeless or provided him with food when he was hungry - these
are the ones who will find a place in heaven.
his disciples answer, "When were you ever homeless or hungry,
Lord?" and Jesus answers, "In as much as you have done
it for those who are the least among us, you have done it for
meeting peoples bodily needs is an activity of positive spiritual
value, then meeting sexual needs is likewise an activity of positive
any case, I don't think we should be surprised to find a sexual
anxiety at the core of many of the world's traditions of spirituality.
is associated with our bodily lives in this world and, therefore,
it was part of the world of suffering and death. Sexual activity
is one of the functions of the body, one of the major hungers
of the body and sooner or later the body will die. It is quite
normal to fear death and to wish that there was some part of you
somewhere that lives on. The traditional way of acknowledging
the fear of death while at the same time rising above it, is to
say that your body dies but not your spirit.
I have noticed in my lifetime is that our memories of the deceased
live on IN us, memories which derive from the very physical and
sensual experiences we shared with the deceased during his or
her lifetime. This seems to be true of the great spiritual leaders
of the world's religions, as well. Because they were bodily persons,
they were able to teach the spiritual truth to those who lived
in their lifetimes and to generate a body of literature which
would teach spiritual truth to us who have come along hundreds
or thousands of years later.
It would seem that spirituality is not something separate in and
of itself. It would seem that spirituality is a quality of our
physical, sensual existence. It would seem to be the case that,
without a body there can be no spirituality. This is what Jesus
seems to be saying when he tells his disciples that they can ONLY
come to God the Father through himself, the son. In the 14th chapter
of the Christian Gospel of John we hear: ... As you believe in
God, believe you also in me.. I am the way, the truth, and the
life. No one comes to the father except through me.
least we can hear Jesus saying this if we interpret the Gospel
of John generously at this point. I mean by "generously"
that we understand the Gospel of John as a mythic story and not
as a literal story or an historical fact. If what John is writing
is not literal but mythic, then it is a story which can address
our need for meaning in life in a sustaining way. This is what
is meant by "living truth". It's not just a truism that
you can live by, but a truth you can live in.
living truth of any story is not just the facts on which the story
may or may not be based. The truth is not just in what God says
or in what Jesus says or in what Mary says. The truth of the story
is in the relationships which we see enacted in the story.
relationship between Jesus and God as depicted in The Gospel of
John is the relationship between body and spirit - as the authors
of John understood it. And what Jesus is telling us in this passage
is that if you believe in him, you believe in God. If you believe
in the body and care for the body and respond to the needs of
your own body and the sufferings of those around you, then you
are responding to God.
the 17th and 18th Centuries, many of the famous' spokespersons
for science said something very similar. Criticized by some church
officials that what they were doing was in contradiction with
the teachings of the church, many scientists responded by claiming
that the study of Nature WAS the study of God, that we can see
the mind of God in the workings of Nature.
don't have to meditate with our eyes closed, although that might
also be a path to God; we don't have to spend years reading the
sacred scriptures although, that too, might be a path to God.
If we study nature thoughtfully and caringly, if we are rigorous
in the standards of our research, the early scientists often said,
then, by studying Nature we can better understand God.
the general public at that time - and also many scientists - did
not think they were seeing the mind of God in the workings of
the human body - or, for that matter in the workings of the human
community. In fact, I don't think we can blame the occasional
scientist who decided that we certainly could NOT see the mind
of God in the workings of the various churches. Likewise, during
the Enlightenment Period, very few Christian churches were entirely,
comfortable with the work of scientists.
was a tendency to romanticize Nature in those days, much the same
as they would later romanticize the Noble Savage here in North
America. Maybe because they romanticized Nature they didn't see
the nature within themselves. Not too many scientists nowadays
publish papers which describe what they are doing as studying
Nature in order to better understand God.
are things that came to mind as I was thinking about Nature and
the role we play in it
as the cycle of the year brings us around to the chill of winter,
the disappearance of growing things, and the facade of death,
so that cycle brings us back again to the new appearance of growing
things, the outburst of new life.
new life is the birth of new spirit, new hope, new possibilities
of truth and meaning. The birth of new bodies bring with them
the possibility of new spirits, yes, but even the birth of your
body anew as you awaken each morning brings with it the possibility
of new ways of loving people thoughtfully.
Yes, we must measure the pace of existence, the weight and the
structure of every thing. For Love would he thoughtless if we
were not bodies; and Truth would be lifeless if we could not sing.
we were not bodies, how could we hope to do the things which might
effectively express our love. If we were not bodies how could
we respond to the needs of others?
truth? How could we have ever thought that truth alone would set
us free? How could we have thought that all we had to do was uncover
the truth and it would magically speak for itself and all the
world's problems would be solved? Truth needs our participation,
it needs our interpretation to make it understandable, it needs
our advocacy, it needs our singing to bring it to life. By singing
or painting or dancing or doing whatever work we do as a way of
loving others, we give life to truth by making truth part of our
would be thoughtless if we were not bodies, and truth would be
lifeless if we could not sing
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