Croydon Unitarians: Newsletter

From our newsletter

Our Newsletter is available each month in the church: please contact us if you would like to be put on our mailing list to receive it regularly by email. The following article by our minister is from a recent edition of the Newsletter.

The Sixth Servant

Settle down now and listen carefully. You can take notes if you want to. Because this is really, really important. I’m going to explain to you the whole, entire meaning of life and how to live it. Ready...? I’m looking now to see if anyone actually reached for their ballpoints. Or even a momentary flicker of interest in some pairs of eyes out there. But – no luck. I suppose that’s because you know very well that such a prescription doesn’t exist. And if one did, you also know very well that I couldn’t give it to you. I couldn’t give it to you because I am also subject to nightmares, insomnia and existential anxiety. I don’t have a snake oil remedy for life and its problems. I’m just too obviously subject to the pitfalls of life myself to tell anybody how to avoid them. If being in this pulpit has shown anything over the past eleven years, it will have shown you that: I don’t have any magic answers.

Some people do peddle answers, in case you’re interested. In a notable case a few years ago, three people died and 18 others were hospitalised when a New Age guru put 60 people into a sweat lodge in the Arizona desert and basically cooked them. They each paid $9,000 for the privilege. When one of the survivors was asked why she didn’t simply leave the mud and plastic oven when she felt herself becoming unwell, she replied that she hadn’t wanted to spoil the exercise for all the others. The guru, a frequent visitor on Oprah Winfrey’s TV show, decamped to California, and, reportedly, when asked about the tragedy, he said that he was dealing with his ‘personal challenges’.

It appears he didn’t have the answer. Nor do I. So, Art – you may well ask – if you don’t have answers for us, why don’t you sit down? What’s the use of listening to you if you can’t provide remedies for life’s problems? That’s a tough question, and – believe me – one I have asked myself often. If I were asked it in some post-death tribunal way up yonder, I suppose I would have to answer like this: we’re all in the same boat. We don’t believe in snake oil or nine-day programs to become giants; that’s not why we come here.

We come here anyway, God bless us, because we feel that answers come from within the boat, even though it often seems to be foundering in what some modern theologians call the heaving tide of meaninglessness and relativity. We aren’t going to find stone tablets that decode reality or burning bushes that tell us secrets. Whatever we find out about life, the universe and all that, we will find within the baffling experience that we all share. We feel that the answer to life, if any, can only be found within it. We feel, as so many of the great voices from spiritual tradition have told us, that life may be all about learning.

In the last few years we have been treated to a welter of popular theories from physicists, mathematicians, even biologists, like Richard Dawkins. In their furious need to explain everything – not to say explain it away – they have done what can only be seen as metaphysical claim-jumping. Hence, we have autopsies and electrode experiments looking for what has been called the ‘God node’ in the human brain – the reason why the concept of God universally occurs to human beings.

As luck would have it, I read two articles this week that attempted to explain why some of us still go to church. Both pieces assumed that no reasonable, modern person could possibly believe in God. One talked about our neighbours, the Quakers, who have recently amended some of their literature to exclude a necessary belief in that higher power. The author, a famous columnist, concluded that Quaker meetings were a good place to ‘clear one’s thoughts.’ Better than nothing, I guess.

Another article, this time by a well-known sociologist, attempted to give us an ‘acceptable’ motive for religion. It seems that having a belief in God, or whatever name you want to use, is useful from an evolutionary standpoint. God-botherers may live longer and be more successful in the struggle for survival. So, that’s us explained. I think I might have been more charitable if the guy wasn’t so condescending in tone. Oh well…

Both writers display the unintentional arrogance of people who know better than poor old misguided us. And in case you wondered, I’m not anti-scientific. What I object to is what is called Scientism, a new pseudo-religion that has lots of eager converts. I’m certainly not opposed to the science that – for example – saved the sight of my right eye a few years ago. And I get all sorts of wonderful facts to play with, like the discovery that sharks never sleep, but just keep moving ahead to avoid drowning. Fantastic! Thanks BBC. Lots of metaphors there.

What does weary me is the misuse of that three-letter word some scientists employ so readily when they say, “This is why such and such a phenomenon takes place.” I feel that they don’t mean “why” at all, but an inflated version of “how”. Rudyard Kipling, who was perhaps above all a journalist, penned a little poem to give advice to starting reporters. One version goes like this: ‘I have six honest serving men, who never me deny; their names are who and how and when and what and where and why.’ The ‘how’ of something is not its ‘why’.

Aristotle described four kinds of causality – why something happens. The last two should perhaps be integrated into the curriculum of any budding scientist. They are ‘efficient cause’ and ‘final cause.’ Efficient cause is linked to the idea of agency: what it is that happens to make something else happen. For example, the car’s brakes failed, causing an accident. But ‘final cause’ is a bit more complex, and way outside the scope of scientific research – at least as we know it so far. Final cause would answer the question ‘Why it was necessary for the car to crash?’ In other words, the meaning and significance of the event, not just a description of it.

That little interrogative pronoun – ‘why’ – is something that people in my line of work hear quite a lot. Some years ago, when I was at another church, I got one of those six a.m. calls from a member that indicated a personal crisis. Her granddaughter, who was eighteen and newly enrolled in a prestigious California university, had been killed in a road traffic accident. Her grief was hot and terrible. I stayed on the phone with her for about twenty minutes. She grew calmer. Then she said the word I had been waiting for. The word to which there is no response: ‘why?’

I realised then that the word is the most basic prayer of humanity. It leaps to the fore in times of hurt. It wasn’t a query about what mechanical or human failure had caused her granddaughter’s death. It was a stark call to the Universe. I saw that the question could not have been asked at all unless there was some background belief, however faint, that there was an answer. That’s as close to prayer, authentic prayer, as we need to come. And perhaps one we all share. When the scientific method becomes the single lodestone of human knowledge, we are stuck one level too far back. We get caught up in an endless loop of ‘how’, when what our hearts long for is an answer to the bigger question: ‘why’. Maybe that’s because, in the lexicon of Scientism, there is no ‘why’ at all.

There are psychotherapists who believe – and I agree – that all psychological problems come back to the why of things. It holds that people who present themselves with problems of relationship, depression, addictions and a host of other symptoms have one thing in common: what underlies them is a lack of meaning in their lives. And this is like some major flu pandemic of the modern world. You don’t have to be an alcoholic or a shoplifter to have it – we all do. And yes, there are many who offer quick fixes to this universal problem, ways of distracting oneself with hobbies, love affairs, patriotism, new cars. We are familiar with all this – we all do it. It may be efficient for a while, may offer some soothing music to drown out the drone of the constant question we might hear if we listened: Why? What does it all mean? What’s the point?

How hard we work to avoid hearing this question! How much we fear its being asked, and how we resist when it snatches us out of bed or descends upon us in a doctor’s surgery or seems to float in the air of spring like the discarded blossoms from the trees. But sometimes, when we simply cannot avoid it, the question grips us. This moment is not an affliction, but a gift. Just as crises are said to bear a secret benefit of opportunity, the question of meaning, or the sense of its absence, carries with it something of our birth-right, a treasure waiting to be discovered.

Learning depends upon the question ‘why’. Education, as we have come to know it, may respond to questions of how or what as we substitute training for real learning. As Paolo Freire said, ‘You train a donkey, but you educate a person.’ The hows and whats were not so important to Socrates or Lao Tse – the whys were. If you teach somebody to be a barber or a brain surgeon, you have still not even scratched the surface of learning about the real questions.

No, for that, you need a better teacher. Socrates is long dead; we cannot replace him with a panel of PhD’s. For real learning, nothing beats life itself. Most of the great spiritual teachers have said this. Life is a great school, one in which every sentient being has guaranteed place, just by being born. For curriculum we have that entire myriad of experiences; for resources, consciousness. As to the teacher, well, you may take your pick of ideas. I am content to say that God does that. That which in our essence we really are, from which we have sprung and to which we return without ever having been separate from it – that’s a long way of saying the same thing. There are bright pupils and dim ones, swots and truants, those who take their exams on time and those who skive off, but no one is left out. Everybody graduates. Not only that: everybody gets an A, sooner or later. So, what’s the hurry?

Sharks continue to swim, sleepless, in the sea. The scientific establishment may continue looking furiously for their next boson, and we may go out and get saved this afternoon or buy a new car. But the bell hasn’t rung yet; we are all still learning the three R’s of existence, and we will do it until we get it right.

So, the next time something wakes you, prods or scares you, makes your palms sweat or calls upon more than you have ever imagined yourself capable of – don’t worry. It’s only life, doing what it was intended to do – help us learn. Don’t run from it: it’s too fast. Don’t ignore it: it’s too insistent. And don’t fear it: it’s what we’re all about. That’s why.

— Art Lester