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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM

Onward and Upward—Forever?

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, February 7, 2010

            The story goes that, once upon a time in a large American city, the zookeepers arrived one morning to find that their prize gorilla had escaped! They searched and searched, all over the place, but to no avail. They were frantic; they couldn’t find the beast anywhere. Then, the phone rang; it was the city library; apparently, the gorilla had broken into the main branch of the library sometime in the middle of the night. The zookeepers rushed downtown to the library, and there they found their gorilla, hunched over a table in the reading room, with the Bible at his left hand, and a copy of Darwin’s Origin of Species on his right. The gorilla looked awfully confused, and finally he looked up and said, “Oh, I’m glad you’re here. You see, I’m trying to figure out if I’m my brother’s keeper or my keeper’s brother!”


            Such is the struggle for people in certain religions, I suppose. But not for most of us, I would bet.


            I think I would be safe in saying that most of us here this morning (maybe even all us here?) believe, to one extent or another, in the theory of evolution. Not that we give it a lot of thought necessarily, in our day to day lives; not that we dwell that much on it. But we don’t, I suppose, have any major problems with it, with the idea that, over years and years and ages and ages, life has evolved upon this planet, and that our present species, homo sapiens, is but the latest in a long line of primates. That’s just something that most of us, I would say, accept as a given. It doesn’t threaten us. It doesn’t undermine our understanding of the world. It doesn’t call our whole religion into question.


            Of course, such is not the way it is for many people in our land. There are, of course, battles raging in various places to reduce the ideas that Darwin taught from the realm of accepted science to that of mere theory. There are school boards that even insist that religion, in the form of various theories of so-called “intelligent design”, be taught in science class—alongside Darwin, as “equally viable” concepts of creation. In many ways, Darwin is at least as controversial today as he was when he wrote, about 150 years ago.


            Certain religious figures didn’t like Darwin one bit back then, just as many don’t like him now. They feel threatened by his views of how things have come to be. Darwin’s theories don’t jibe with how their faiths see the world.


            But Darwin isn’t an issue for us now; and he wasn’t an issue for our religious forbears either, whether they were Universalist or Unitarian. Indeed, from the nineteenth century on, both Universalist and Unitarian clergy have embraced the theory of evolution wholeheartedly; we see it not as a threat, but often as a refreshing complement to our own religious views. Indeed, many of our nineteenth century Unitarian forbears were so enamored of an evolutionary perspective that they even wrote it into their “Five Points of Unitarian Belief”. Based largely on the work of the Rev. James Freeman Clark, a major figure in 19th century American Unitarianism, these “Five Points” held sway in Unitarian churches well into the 20th century. (They were sort of like the UU “Purposes and Principles” are to us today—only pithier, more to the point, and easier to remember. They were what they posted on the walls of their churches back then, and read to one another during worship services.) The “Five Points” of Unitarian Belief were:


1. the Fatherhood of God;


2. the Brotherhood of Man;


3. the Neighborhood of Boston (only kidding!) Number Three is really: the Leadership of Jesus;


4. Salvation by Character;


and—last but not least (what we’re talking about today). The Fifth Point:


“the Continuity of Human Development in All Worlds, or the Progress of Mankind onward and upward forever.”


            The Unitarians thought so much of evolution—they had so much faith in the continual development of human progress, human knowledge, even human nature itself—that they wrote it right into their statement of purpose! That’s faith.


            They weren’t just saying that it was possible or even advisable for human beings to evolve and progress: they were saying that it was inevitable; that it was, in effect, pre-ordained. Their declaration—that the human race was, in effect, on a limitless escalator (even though I don’t know if they actually had escalators in the late 19th century or not)—upward, Upward, UPWARD! – that progress was onward, Onward, ONWARD—was not, they said, merely the result of hope, or faith, or wishful thinking. It was, rather, an objective reality—a scientific fact—something that could be justified by looking at the verifiable data at hand. Human progress was demonstrable and provable; you could see it all around you; and its continuation (forever, even) was something that you could deduce through reason. Robert Ingersoll, one of the leading free thinkers of the day, went so far as to predict that the days ahead looked so rosy that “The future will verify all grand and brave predictions.” Things will be even better than we think they’re going to be, Ingersoll declared.


            That was, shall we say, a rather optimistic view of human possibilities.


            That was then, and this is now. And a lot has happened in the century (plus) since. As Doug Muder, a columnist for UU World has put it:


            “But what did the future really bring? Two world wars, the Great Depression, and the Holocaust; the Russian Revolution, which promised so much and turned out so badly. By the middle of the century we had the H-Bomb, the Cold War, and McCarthyism.”


            Muder continues:


            “The second half of the 20th century saw another cycle of idealism and disillusionment. The Civil Rights movement didn’t end racism. Vietnam didn’t end militarism. And we lost the War on Poverty.”


            To which we could add a whole dark litany of human absurdity, from the Killing Fields of Cambodia to the Rwandan genocide to the horrors of 9/11.


            No wonder nobody remembers Clark or Ingersoll or their confreres, and that no one but historians (or the occasional minister) can spout the Unitarian “Five Points”.  


            No wonder we don’t talk about the “inevitability” of human progress any more.


            Like the Titanic that was supposed to be “unsinkable” such heady optimism sank in the icy waters of the real world.


            There seems little place in our current worldview for utopian visions, and we may more often than not identify with the words of the great Italian writer, Ignazio Silone: “I am saddened by all enterprises which seek to save the world. For they seem perhaps the surest way to lose oneself.” Or, as Rev. Dr. Joshua Snyder has written, “Anytime we reach for Utopia… we stumble…. Utopia is impossible. We are not perfect and never will be. Life is too complicated and there are too many other people that mess up our perfect society. As the Greek playwrights pointed out again and again, self-aggrandizement is the royal road to self-destruction. Perfection, Utopia, and enlightenment are a fool’s dream. Ecclesiastes says they are a dust blowing in the wind.”


            Or, as Vaclav Havel put it: “… the world has had the worst experiences with utopian thinkers who promised all that. Evil will remain with us, no one will ever eliminate human suffering, the political arena will always attract irresponsible and ambitious adventurers and charlatans. And humankind will not stop destroying the world. In this regard, I have no illusions.”


            That’s a rather stark way of viewing the world, it seems. Perhaps. Or, maybe it’s just a realistic one, born from going through life with eyes wide open, and casting a cold eye on the often dicey ways of human nature.


            Not long before his death, the great modern philosopher Bertrand Russell delivered a radio address on the BBC/st1:stockticker>, in which he said: “I have found [in my life] that those who know the most are the most gloomy about the future.”

            There’s a cheerful assessment of what awaits us.


            But Russell didn’t leave it there. He went on to say that this honest assessment made it all the more critical for men and women of goodwill to rally to the cause of the survival of our species and our deepest values. Or, as Erich Fromm wrote, “In matters of life—be it of the individual or of society—it does not matter whether the chance for cure is fifty-one percent or five percent. Life is precious and unpredictable, and the only way to live it is to make every effort to save it a long as there is a possibility of doing so.”


            We are called to do good, not because life is on an inevitable escalator to Nirvana, and our progress is pre-determined. No, we are called to do good precisely because “life is precious and unpredictable” and any human progress that will (perhaps) occur depends on the actions—the will—of each and every one of us.


            We may have no illusions about human nature. We may even be pessimistic, truly, about the prospects for our nation and our world and our human race. But that doesn’t excuse us from acting, from playing our full role in doing what we think is right. As Albert Schweitzer said in his autobiography, “To the question of whether I am a pessimist or an optimist, I answer that my knowledge is pessimistic, but my willing and hoping are optimistic.”


            We do not live by facts alone.


            We live the deeper life of the spirit—the deeper life of our true humanity—through vision and hope; through faith and courage.


            And we don’t do it alone. We live not by ourselves, or for ourselves, but as part of a common web of all humanity, indeed of all life. Our actions are joined with those of men and women of goodwill and sacrificial spirit everywhere. “None of is alone can save the world,” Rebecca Parker has written, “but together—that is another possibility, waiting.” And Mother Theresa taught us that “the sum of all we do is but a drop in the ocean. But if you do not do your work, the ocean will be one drop less.” By extension, if we all do not do what we are called to do, the ocean will be so many billions of drops less. That is how the wellsprings of caring and compassion run dry.


            Even if together we can not bring about Utopia or the Kingdom/st1:PlaceType> of God, there is much we can do to stop the ocean from drying up. There is much we must do.

            As Thomas Wolfe wrote:


            “The evils that we hate, both you and I, cannot be overthrown with shrugs and sighs and shakings of the head however wise. To believe that new monsters will arise as vicious as the old, to believe that the great Pandora's box of human frailty, once opened, will never show a diminution of its ugly swarm, is to help, by just that much, to make it so forever. We must meet our enemies; fear, hatred, slavery, cruelty, poverty, as they come to us. From there we must proceed in the affirmation of the fact that the continuance of that unceasing war, is our religion and our living faith.”


            Albert Schweitzer also said that in the springtime (which we could sure use around this time!) when the world becomes green again, transformation comes about through millions and millions of individual blades of grass thrusting irrepressibly out of the dark earth. Each single blade—each life—contributes to the greening of the earth, but it does so only in concert with all the others. We are part of one body—one life—one world—together. And as we suffer as one through the follies of history and human stupidity, so we are inspired as one through human caring, and human courage and human hope.


            Alone we can do so little, and we can burn out so quickly if we try. But together—as part of something that is greater than ourselves—as part of something extending back before we even were, and forward to long after we’re gone, the flame of our hope can burn on and on. Our good works are amplified in the works of others. And if the world is not made perfect—as perfect it will never be—it can be made a better place for our having been here. What greater human legacy can there than that?


            A poet has written:


            You may say that the little efforts that I make

            will do no good; they never will prevail

            to tip the hovering scale

            where justice hangs in balance.


            I don’t think I ever thought they would,

            but I am prejudiced beyond debate

            in favour of my right to choose which side

            shall feel the stubborn ounces of my weight.


            May we each help to tip the scale just a little toward kindness and goodness. May we each help to choose a life-giving and compassionate direction for this old world of ours.



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