Why? - By Ed Stoever
Audio Recording Of Service
Let us enter the atmosphere of a service with the Chalice Lighting:
We light this chalice for the light of truth
We light this chalice for the warmth of love
We light this chalice for the energy of action.
And… These we carry in our hearts until we are together again.
From a 1901 book, “COSMIC CONSCIOUSNESS - A Study Of The Evolution Of The Human Mind,” by Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke (location 348-362), describing a revelation that he had early in his 36th year:
“All at once, without warning of any kind, he found himself wrapped around as it were by a flame colored cloud. For an instant he thought of fire, some sudden conflagration in the great city, the next he knew that the light was within himself. Directly afterwards came upon him a sense of exultation, of immense joyousness accompanied or immediately followed by an intellectual illumination quite impossible to describe. He saw and knew that the Cosmo is not dead matter, but is, on the contrary, a living Presence, that the soul of man is immortal, that the universe is so built and ordered that without any peradventure all things work together for the good of each and all, that the foundation principle of the world is what we call love and that the happiness of everyone is in the long run absolutely certain.”
Have you ever wondered to yourself, “Why do I exist? What is my purpose in existing? Why does the world exist? What is its purpose?”
My belief is that the answers to these and similar questions are best approached from within the famework of our own personal and unique spirituality.
There is no single, widely agreed-upon definition of spirituality. An article in Wikepedia, the free online encyclopedia, it is reported that, “One author surveying reviews of spirituality found 27 explicit definitions, among which there was little agreement.” The article further states that:
“In modern times the emphasis is on subjective experience and the deepest values and meanings by which people live incorporating personal growth or transformation, usually in a context separate from organized religious institutions. “ That is worth repeating. It makes sense and we will proceed with that understanding.
To begin with, let’s take a look at the words in a well-known gospel song written in 1913, “In The Garden.” The writer of this song was obviously an evangelical Christian. But, just as obviously this person was deeply moved by their personal feelings sparked by their interaction with the living organisms in the garden. I am not an Evangelical Christian, but nevertheless this song has always deeply moved me, and those feelings are a reflection of my own personal spirituality.
The song makes just as much sense to me if the words are altered as follows: “I walk in the woods alone, while the dew is still on the grasses, and they walk with me and talk with me, and tell me that I am their own.” When I am in the woods, I experience the subjective feeling that they are part of me and I am part of them, and that is what I believe the song is saying. I experience these subjective feelings not only when I am alone in the woods, but driving down the highway, or even when thinking about it.
Furthermore, I can tell you that I have often experienced these same subjective feelings in other circumstances , such as: experiencing a sunset, or the heavens on a clear night; or being one of a group of people who are inter-acting with each other; or listening to a stirring piece of music, or a poem; or viewing an artwork, etc. I am sure that many of you have experienced these same feelings.
Those subjective feelings are a reflection of my spirituality. They constitute what can be termed a, “mystical experience,” a feeling of the infinity, a consciousness that there is something beyond one’s own self . The study of these experiences gets us into the study of the neural mechanisms of emotion, a field of inquiry which has only fairly recently begun to be seriously recognized in scientific studies into the workings of the mind. And this quickly gets us into areas that I am woefully inadequately prepared to discuss intelligently. Be assured that I will try to avoid doing so. But there are aspects of these experiences that are relatively easy to grasp and these I want to share with you.
Blessed with an insatiable curiosity about why things are the way they are and how they got to be that way and what might happen to them in the future, I have spent my entire lifetime in a quest for the answers to the questions raised at the beginning of this talk. While I certainly do not yet have all of the answers, this search coupled with insights gained during the Building Your Own Theology workshops conducted here during the last few years has led me to personal conclusions that have given me a great deal of satisfaction and a feeling of completeness.
A little more than a year ago in a book by a Unitarian Universalist minister (more about that later), I came across the concept of, “Cosmic Consciousness,” the study and reflection of which put everything into perspective for me. This was for me a mystical experience, similar to that of a walk in the woods.
Here are the characteristics of, “Cosmic Consciousness, as described by the original proposer:
A consciousness of the life and order of the universe,
An intellectual enlightenment that places a person on a new plane of existence,
A state of moral exaltation,
An indescribable feeling of elevation, elation, and joyousness,
A sense of immortality,
A consciousness of ethical life,
A conviction not that one shall have all of this, but a conviction that one has it already.
Consciousness, as the term is used here, refers to the state of awareness of an individual to themselves and the world around them. The subjective experience of realizing this consciousness is highly appealing to my sense of spirituality, and hopefully to yours also.
All of these elements are related to the first characteristic, one which I felt particularly able to experience because of my lifelong involvement in science. And as I contemplated these characteristics, undoubtedly influenced by other bits of information and perspective that I have encountered in my years of study, I found myself conceiving of the universe and my relationship to it in a far different manner than previously.
The term Cosmic Consciousness first appeared in a book by a Canadian psychiatrist, Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke, titled, “COSMIC CONSCIOUSNESS-A Study Of The Evolution Of The Human Mind.” published in 1901. Dr. Bucke proposed three degrees of human consciousness: Simple Consciousness, by means of which the higher forms of animals, dogs or horses or Homo Sapiens for example, are conscious of their own limbs and body and know that these are part of themselves; Self Consciousness, by means of which mankind is capable of being conscious of themselves as a distinct entity apart from all of the rest of the universe; and Cosmic Consciousness, by means of which mankind has a consciousness of the life and order of the universe, and the other characteristics given aboive.
Dr. Bucke thought that cosmic consciousness was a higher form of consciousness than that possessed by ordinary mankind, and that possessing this would place the individual on a new plane of existence - almost as a member of a new species. I do not share his contention that only a very few individuals are able to reach this condition of cosmic consciousness, but remember that he wrote this in 1901. I firmly believe that realizing this form of consciousness is a matter of education, and that it is attainable by all. However, Dr. Bucke did also go so far as to name historical figures who possessed this highest form of consciousness. These included, to name a few, Buddha, Jesus, and Walt Whitman (who interestingly enough was a Unitarian).
A similar classification was described over 200 years ago by the influential theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), in which he described 3 forms of human consciousness: animal, brutish self-awareness consciousness; sensual consciousness; and higher self-consciousness. He used this concept to defend religion against growing scientific and secular critique. He also introduced the concept of, “mystical experience,” as a, “religious experience.” Many Western and Eastern movements have incorporated and influenced the emerging of the modern notion of, “mystical experience,” including Unitarian Universalism.
Dr. Bucke was far, far ahead of his times in terms of anticipating our modern world view, but right on the mark as you can see from the following comments extracted from the 2018 book by Canadian-American evolutionary psychologist Stephen Pinker, “ENLIGHTENMENT NOW – The Case For Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress,” p. 393 – 396:
“The moral worldview of any scientifically literate person - one who is not blinkered by fundamentalism - requires a clean break from religious conceptions of meaning and value.
To begin with, the findings of science imply that the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures - their theories of the genesis of the world, life, humans, and societies - are fatally mistaken. We know, but our ancestors did not, that humans belong to a single species of African primate that developed agriculture, government, and writing late in its history. We know that our species is a tiny twig of a genealogical tree that embraces all living things and that emerged from prebiotic chemicals almost 4 billion years ago. We know that we live on a planet that revolves around one of 100 billion stars in our galaxy, which is one of 100 billion galaxies in a 13.8 billion year-old universe, possibly one of a vast number of universes. We know that our intuitions about space, time, matter and causation are incommensurable with the nature of reality on scales that are very large and very small. We know that the laws governing the physical world (including accidents, disease, and other misfortunes) have no goals that pertain to human-well-being. There is no such thing as fate, providence, karma, spells, curses, augury, divine retribution, or answered prayers - though the discrepancy between the laws of probability and the workings of cognition may explain why people believe there are. And we know that we did not always know these things, that the beloved convictions of every time and culture may be decisively falsified, doubtless including many that we hold today.
In other words, the worldview that guides the moral and spiritual values of a knowledgeable person today is the worldview given us given to us by science. Though the scientific facts do not by themselves dictate values, they certainly hem in the possibilities. ……. By exposing the absence of purpose in the laws governing the universe, science forces us to take responsibility for the welfare of ourselves, our species, and our planet. For the same reason it undercuts any moral or political system based on mystical forces, quests, destinies, dialectics, struggles, or messianic ages. And in combination with a few unexceptionable convictions - that all of us value our own welfare, and that we are social beings who impinge on each other and can negotiate codes of conduct - the scientific facts mitigate toward a defensible morality, namely principles that maximize the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings.”
I highly recommend that everyone read this book. As you can see, the elements of cosmic consciousness are more than adequately reflected in these comments.
More recently, the Rev. Thandeka, , a Unitarian Universalist minister and liberal theologist, in a book published in 2018 titled, “LOVE BEYOND BELIEF – Finding The Access Point To Spiritual Awareness,” considered cosmic consciousness to be a form of spiritual awareness relating to what she termed, “Contemporary Affect Theology,” based on the brain science of human emotions (Affective Neuroscience). She has been utilizing Contemporary Affect Theology in working to promote spiritual vitality programs for Unitarian Universalist congregations. Those interested may consult her website: revthandeka.org.
It is worth noting that in the development of scientific inquiry and understanding in our history, the greatest and most significant advances were often made by highly religious people attempting to further recognition of the greatness and validity of concepts of God. It is encouraging that at the present time many scientific-minded and religion-minded people are recognizing their common interests and working together in developing further understanding.
There is much in this material on mystical experience, human consciousness, and spiritual awareness that would be of interest and value to all, and especially to members of this fellowship, and I urge you to investigate these subjects further.
Now, let’s get to answers to the fundamental questions raised at the beginning of this talk. Why do we exist? What is our purpose? Why does the world exist? What is its purpose?
If you think that a loud voice from the sky is going to give you the answer to these questions, you are going to be disappointed. If you think that I am going to answer these questions for you, you will also be disappointed. But do not be discouraged. These questions will be on the final exam, and the good news is that any answer that is your own answer is automatically correct.
I do believe that the spiritual relationship that people feel with the natural world surrounding them is something that has existed within human beings from the time of earliest mankind. And this awareness led our ancient ancestors to develop explanations of these subjective experiences that included the concept of a God or gods. In this modern day and age, the concept of divine authority is no longer tenable, although certainly valuable to a great many people’s spirituality. I personally feel comfortable with the concept that all that exists reflects not a god but an, “Ultimate Reality,” one which we will almost certainly never know or comprehend in our lifetimes. And, I am perfectly happy with this. As a consequence, I believe that it is up each of us, individually and yet collectively and with love for one another, to so structure and live our lives as components of this larger entity, the universe, of which we are a part in such a way that it will be a better place when we are gone than it was when we started. We can do no more. And I believe that the continued learning directed toward attaining cosmic consciousness is a highly promising path toward answering these fundamental questions.
Your comments, questions and reactions to these remarks are invited and welcome.