“What It Means to Be Religious”

October 13, 2013


Ecclesiastes 1:1-11

Romans 8:18-25


For some time now, a growing number of people have started referring to themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” What they’re trying to express, I think, is a personal sense that there is more to life than what is readily seen and understood, that certain practices such as prayer or meditation are important in their lives, that they might even believe in something or someone that they call “God,” but that organized “religion”—including corporate worship, membership in and support of a congregation, or taking on a label such as “Christian” or “Jewish” is not their way of expressing such “spirituality.”

You might know people like this. You might even at times think that “spiritual but not religious” is a phrase that describes yourself.

I favor “spiritual but also religious” as one way of describing my own life. Prayer is important to me, but so, too, is a congregation—specifically this congregation and our common life together. There is much about religion—the community it provides, the familiar worship, the shared action in the world—that appeals to me.

So this morning I want to think with you for a few minutes about what it means to be “religious,” why that is important for us as individuals and as a congregation—and why our being “religious” is important for the larger world as well.

And I want to begin with the exploration of science and religion that has been going on in our congregation for the past two years.

Scientists in our congregation have been a part of this project and so, too, have members with little or no background in science. A grant from the Templeton Foundation made all of this possible originally. And while that initial grant period has expired some remaining funds and our own interest let us continue down this path.

On the next two Wednesday evenings we are expanding our project to include an interfaith component. We’re meeting with members of the Agudas Achim synagogue to discuss The Great Partnership, by the recently retired Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathan Sacks. Rabbi Sacks is a man not only of great learning but also of great wisdom. And I invite anyone interested to join us for these discussions, whether you have read his book or not.

As many of you know, some of my work during my sabbatical focused on science and religion—reading further in this area, writing an article for the Huffington Post on what I have learned from scientists so far.

All of this has been fruitful work for me and for the members of our congregation who have participated in the discussions and attended the lectures. I think, too, that this has made a positive contribution to the life our whole church and to the life of the larger community as well.

And yet, for a while now, I’ve felt as though we were coming to some sort of conclusion to this project. You see, for the most part, Congregationalists have long had a pretty good relationship with science. Scientists, of course, are members of this congregation. We know that we can welcome the results of scientific inquiry, wherever those results might take us, and at the same time we can speak to scientists about the ethical and moral implications of their work.

And, well, in a sense we’re kind of “traditional” around here, so we’ve never embraced that innovative early twentieth century reading of the Bible that made Genesis out to be a science book. We don’t have a problem proclaiming God as the Ground of our being and the Creator of all that is while at the same time accepting and using the results of scientific studies of the origins of the universe, the evolution of life on earth, and the development of human beings.

Was our exploration, then, simply a feel-good exercise in stating what we’ve known all along—that science and religion can exist together? Did we need to take all this time to come to the same conclusion that Richard Feynman had over fifty years ago—that belief in science and belief in God are a consistent possibility?

As I said, I thought we were coming to a conclusion. And I feared it was a dead end.

I’ve worked with scientists on this project. I’ve read theologians.

But it took a dancer to shine some new light that shows a productive way forward, not just for those interested in our explorations but, I think for all of us as we seek to be people of faith in a world informed by modern science.

The contemporary dancer and choreographer, Liz Lerman, was in Iowa City last month. She talked over at the Theater Building one evening about the creative process and about her work with scientists. Some of her recent dances grew out of collaborations with scientists, including The Matter of Origins, inspired by the Large Hadron Collider, and Ferocious Beauty: Genome, based on genetic research.

At one point early in her lecture she said: “If you ask a big enough question, you need more than one discipline to answer it.”

At that moment I saw both the real purpose of our exploration of science and religion as well as the direction forward.

We’ve been asking some big questions: Why is there something rather than nothing? How did we get here? The answers to such questions are not found only in science. The answers are not found only in religion.

We need more than one discipline.

“If you ask a big enough question, you need more than one discipline to answer it.”

It took a choreographer to help me understand that our questions hadn’t been big enough. And I remembered the subtitle of Rabbi Sacks’ book: God, Science, and the Search for Meaning.

The real question—the big enough question—that we continue to ask is about meaning, about the purpose of our lives in this vast and wondrous creation.

The question of meaning is a religious question.

So this is where, as Christians, we turn to scripture in the hope of finding something that will help us with our questions about meaning.

And we come up against those strong words of Ecclesiastes that we heard this morning: “Vanity of vanities, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”

Perhaps for our purposes, the New International Version translation is better when it cries out: “Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!”

That’s a translation that gets right to the point—even if the point is bleak.

Rabbi Sacks tells us that Hevel—the Hebrew word that we translate as “vanity” or “meaningless”—is the word for a “shallow breath.” The author of this meditation on the meaning of life—someone who is familiar with great wealth, with fame, with power—is telling us that “a shallow breath is all that separates the living from the dead.” As Sacks puts it, the author of Ecclesiastes is telling us: “We live, we die and it is as if we have never been. We build, and others occupy. We accumulate possessions, but others enjoy them. The good we do is soon forgotten. The wisdom we acquire is useless, for it merely brings us back to a recognition of our mortality.” [1]

This cry from Ecclesiastes is echoed—or perhaps I should say it is amplified—by Paul when he tells the early Christians in Rome: Creation is subjected to futility—it is unable to attain its purpose—by the very will of God. As Paul tells it, not just human life alone but all of creation cries out: “Meaningless! Futility!”

Just when we would most despair of finding any meaning, any sense of purpose, Paul speaks of hope.

Now, one of the engineers in our congregation often reminds me, “Hope is not a strategy.” That is, our Trustees do more than “hope” that the elevator will work-crossing their fingers as they put you inside and press the button. They take action to make sure that it will operate.

And hope is not closing our eyes to the downside of our actions. It’s not advisable, say, to shut down the government and “hope” that things will work out.

Nor should hope be confused with the wishful thinking expressed when we say something like: “I hope it won’t rain this afternoon.” when we have no control over the weather whatsoever.

Instead, as one person put it, “Hope is the bird that sees the light and sings while dawn is still dark.”

The hope that Paul commends to us is a religious hope, one that grows out of a sense that our lives, however brief or long, however filled with sadness or happiness, however wealthy or impoverished, our lives are lived in the presence of God who breathes the breath of life into each of us and all of us. Religious hope trusts that God’s new day is dawning even as the world and our lives lie in darkness.

Such a hope is so strong that Paul can claim, “In this hope we are saved”—not that we have become part of some insiders’ club, but that we find the wholeness of life, the purpose that we seek as we live in the presence of God.

Out of this hope we dare to ask the big question: “What is the meaning of our lives?
Science alone, many would say, tells us that there is no meaning. Quite by unexplainable chance, we find ourselves for a few years on an insignificant planet orbiting a mediocre star in the corner of a small galaxy, in an infinite and uncaring universe. Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! is the cry of such scientists and those to take them at their word.

But other scientists find great meaning in the exact same facts. Informed by a religious sensibility, they claim that our vast universe and our seemingly insignificant lives are all held in the providential care of a loving God.

We need science to help us—to the extent that it is able, to the extent that it will let us—to help us see the facts. But the facts are not the end of the matter. Liz Lerman was right. We need many disciplines. We need science to help us grasp the vastness and intricacy of our world. We need religion to help us to respond out of the awe and wonder that we experience each day. And we need the arts, not to provide some pretty decoration around a bleak picture. We need writers to help us see the world and human beings at depths we often avoid. We need the visual arts, music, and dance to express what is before and beyond words.

Science. Art. Religion. We need these disciplines in order to answer the big questions. And we are fortunate to live in a place where all such disciplines are flourishing and available to us in abundance.

By the grace of God we will take what we receive from all of these disciplines and begin to see some meaning for our lives—some purpose for ourselves. Rabbi Sacks suggests that in general a meaningful life involves easing the pain of those who suffer and becoming an agent of hope in the world.[2] How this looks in particular will vary immensely. The meaning of my life will be different from yours. The meaning of your life will be different from that of your neighbor.

Albert Einstein once said, “To know an answer to the question, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ means to be religious.”

You see, we find those answers, not in isolated “spirituality” but through our interactions with other people in communities such as this one. Religion binds us together in a way that helps us discover the meaning of these amazing years that we are given.

Note that Einstein said to know an answer, not the answer.

Religion is not about one answer. It is about the great multitude of answers that we discover as we live together before the one God.

Each of us has an answer to the question “What is the meaning of life?”

Indeed each of us is an answer to that question.

And that answer is of great importance to this community, to the world, and to God.

[1] Jonathan Sacks, The Great Partnership, pg. 189.

[2] The Great Partnership, pg. 205.