Monday, December 13, 2010

Sermon - God Is Not One Pt. 2

God is Not One Pt. 2

This morning’s service is the second part of a two-part series. But don’t worry; you won’t be lost. Last week we learned about Judaism, Islam and Christianity. This we I’m going to talk about Hinduism, Buddhism and Atheism. See, it’s all new stuff.

This sermon comes largely from a recent book by Stephen Prothero called, “God is Not One.” He believes, and I tend to agree as I think about it more and more, that different religions are fundamentally different at their core. That’s not just because they believe different things. It’s more foundational than that. Different religions are different because they start from a different question, a different challenge of life, so obviously they will have a different answer.

In a way, comparing different religions is like comparing apples and oranges. They are fundamentally different things because they each respond to a different challenge. True, they respond to core challenges of human experience. But each religion is essentially asking a different question, solving a different problem. So to compare them, as if they all have the same goal is simply a mistake.

Last week I talked about these questions and proposed answers. Sin and salvation were the core problem and answer in the Christian tradition. In Islam, the central problem isn’t sin, but hubris, and the answer is submission. In fact, Islam means submission. Muslims are submitters who seek peace in this life and the next by surrendering themselves to the one true God. The problem posed in Judaism is exile, and the answer is return to relationship with God, and return to a true home. The path to that return is an interweave of narrative law. That’s right, for Judaism the answer is not so much about something that we should believe, but about something that we should do. It’s very different in that way. So today, I will follow that same track, first describing the core challenge or question that the tradition faces, and then the answer that they offer.

Before diving into the question and answer, the theology of Hinduims if you will, we first need to get a little bit of its vibe. When we think about Hinduism, I want you to think big. Think Bollywood films. Hinduism is BIG in every way imaginable.
It is the third largest world religion today with 900 million followers, about 15 percent of the worlds population. It is also the oldest of the major traditions, dating back at least as far as 2500 BCE. And it’s library of sacred texts is overwhelming. It’s oldest and most sacred text the Vedas, dates back to 1200 BCE. And the Mahabharata, contains 1.8 million words, dwarfing the Bible, the Iliad, and the Odyssey combined. As outsiders, we may notice the extreme noise, color and fragrance of Indian temples. And devotees perform feats of pain and endurance beyond compare. Hinduism is BIG in every sense of the word. But perhaps most of all, Hinduism is big in all that it encompasses. It is without a doubt the most diverse world tradition. That is probably due to its very old age and its tendency to incorporate rather than reject new influences. So, more than any other tradition, please take what I have to say about Hinduism with a grain of salt.

Speaking in vast generalities, in Hinduism,the problem to be solved is samsara. Literally samsara means wondering or flowing by, but here we are talking about the cycle life, death, and rebirth, or what we know as reincarnation, over and over again. It’s an endless, and unsatisfying cycle, so the goal is moksha, or release. Moksha is spiritual liberation, freeing the soul from the endless cycle of samsara and reuniting with the eternal spirit of the universe.

There are two important pieces of Hinduism that I want to highlight. The first is Brahmanic Hinduism. Although it’s not the most popularly practiced, it is what Westerners mostly understand as Hinduism. Within the Barhmanic Hinduism we each have an eternal spirit, called Atman. This Atman, or spirit is ultimately indistinct from Brahman, the universal spirit. According to Hinduism, the goal of life is to recognize that simple fact that one’s own Spirit, or Atman is in fact the same as Brahman. The goal is to come to the realization that we are fundamentally one with each other and with the entire universe. And once we realize that interconnection, we escape the cycle of samsara and enjoy moksha. It is this truth that reminded me of our opening hymn. There’s a River Flowin in my Soul, and it’s tellin’ me that I’m somebody. There’s a River flowin’ in my soul.

But what Hindus do mostly is something completely different. They practice devotional worship to seek favor with their god. Hindus go on pilgrimages to sacred cities, rivers, and mountains, places associated with their chosen gods. They also observe a variety of festivals.

There are tons of opportunities to offer devotion to the god of your choice. But the central ritual for American Hindus and around the world is puja. Pujas are something like ancient priestly sacrifices, offering a gift to the gods. If these offerings are made in a temple they are typically lead by a priest. But they can also be given by ordinary people at a home or shrine, with oil lamps and incense sticks lit in front of an icon. The simple act of devotion is by far the most popular religious practice for Hindus.

Just last week, Kimberly LeMon lit our chalice, partly because she had studied sacred dance in the temples of India for two years. While she was there, as a gesture of hospitality some locals built for her an altar to Jesus. They assumed that because she was from American, she was Christian. The gesture seems a little strange from an American perspective. But hopefully we now see, that this is just how Hindus worship their gods. They build temples and shrines to venerate the god that inspires them. In so doing they may find favor with that god, or even better, be granted enlightenment and liberation from the endless cycle of reincarnation.

The next tradition that I want to talk about is Buddhism. It comes from a similar theological world-view, an endless cycle of reincarnation, but it takes a very different turn.
For Buddhists, the primary problem in life is suffering or dukkha. And the obvious goal is relief from that suffering. The final relief from suffering is called nirvana, which literally means blowing out. This is where one of the key differences comes into play. I described Hinduism’s moksha as a union between two eternal souls, the soul of the self and the soul of the universe. In Buddhism the goal is the opposite. The goal is to finally burn off all of one’s karma, a sort of soul residue, so that like a candle, your existence along with your suffering is extinguished.

The Buddha taught that life is suffering, or dissatisfation. Time and time again we don’t get what we want or the things that we love in our lives slip through our fingers. Life is suffering because of attachment. We get attached to material things that are fleeting. We also get attached to disappointments of the past, or anxieties of the future. We are attached to the way things could have been, or the way we didn’t quite make the mark that one time. We even get absorbed in how wonderful life used to be. We get attached to what is not here and now, and we long for a different experience. And thus we are dissatisfied.
The challenge within the Buddhist framework is to live in the present moment. Are you focused on the past or future, or maybe some other place? Or is you mind present in the here and now? That is the primary goal of Buddhist practice, to live in the present moment, free of attachments that only bring dissatisfaction. It’s a big challenge if you take it seriously.
That is where the practice of meditation comes in. Various methods of meditation work toward the goal of stilling the mind. We practiced one form of meditation earlier together, as we sat in silence and followed our breath to still our minds. Later in our closing hymn we will practice another form, called Metta. It’s a practice of extending compassion to the world, starting with ourselves and offering wider and wider circles.
Perhaps the most unique thing about Buddhism as a religion is its utterly disinterest in theological speculation. In fact it warns against it. One of the more popular stories is about a monk who comes to the Buddha with a litany of questions. He wants to know about the soul and death and reincarnation and the cycle of karma and a whole gamut of things that we might traditionally call religion.
The Buddha responds with a question of his own. He says, “If you were shot with an arrow, would you not first remove the arrow before seeking out who shot it or what kind of bow was used. So it is with the teachings of Buddhism. We should first aim at removing the suffering from our lives because that is a far more important than speculating about the theological reasons behind it.
Many religions claim to be a way of life more than a set of beliefs. But it is especially true to Buddhism. As a tradition that eschews theological speculation, some have questioned whether Buddhism is a religion at all. Is it really just a philosophy? Well defining what is and is not a religion can fill volumes. But I’ll leave it to you. Is Buddhism a religion?

I also raise that question because it’s on that many people raise about atheism. Is it a religion?
Following the problem and solution equation that we have used so far, atheism has a particular answer. For outspoken atheists, especially those who have published popular books recently, the human problem cannot be solved by religion because religion is the problem. The solution is to flush out this poison from our system. Several of you have read books by the New Atheists. In the past ten years several very popular books have come out with just that argument.
According to Richard Dawkins, “faith is one of the world’s greatest evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate.” According to Sam Harris, theology is “ignorance with wings.” According to Christopher Hitchens, organized religion is “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children.”
These atheist frequently pursue a straw man argument against religion, picking out the most radical and damaged branches of religion as an opportunity to condemn them all. But I think it’s important that we don’t do the same things in return. There is another kind of atheist, the kind that many of you are.
Unfortunately the author of “God is Not One” gives only minor recognition to this group. These are the atheists that do not believe in God. But more importantly, they believe that religious traditions, no matter what they are, should never lead us to demean or exclude, oppress or diminish anyone else, including those who believe in God. These later atheists, the kind that I think many of you are, simply don’t believe in God but don’t express the urgent need to make others agree with you. It’s very much a humanist approach, a belief that the health and wellbeing of people is more important than the religions to which they subscribe. Religion exists to serve humanity, not the other way around.

I want to close our time together addressing the unspoken question. Which of these traditions is best. Like I have explained, comparing religious traditions is a little like comparing apples and oranges. Each tradition aims to answer a different question or life challenge, so comparing them is extremely difficult.
But that doesn’t mean that all religion is good, or even that all religion is acceptable. Some of it is in fact very bad. As we read earlier together, it matters what we believe. Some beliefs build walls and separate us, while other beliefs open our minds and our hearts.
It is often misstated that Unitarian Universalists can believe anything they want. As a Unitarian Universalist you can have a huge spectrum of different beliefs. But your belief must fall within two basic criteria. It has to make sense, and it has to make a difference. Your core values and religious principles must resonate with what seems true and reasonable to you. And your faith must make a difference; it must make you a better person in the world.
We have two standards within Unitarian Universalism. For the rest of religion, I set only one standard. Your faith must make a difference. Your religion must make you a better person. I don’t mean that it must make you believe in the same politics as me. It likely will not. But it must make you a more generous and compassionate person.
If we take it seriously, the role of faith is to transcend the self, and come more fully into community with our wider world. Each tradition has its own unique way of pulling our concerns beyond ourselves to care for a wider world. The theology involved comes in staggering variety, almost as much variety as the methods of practicing those various beliefs. But if any religion is worth its salt, it must make a difference. It must make its adherents more compassionate and generous people.

Every single faith tradition, including our own has the capacity to build up walls or to tear them down. Not all beliefs are equal. As people of faith, we are called to the difficult task of examining our own beliefs. Which ones make us more loving people, and which ones separate us. We are called to the difficult task of examining our own beliefs. And we are called to engage compassionately with others about their beliefs. And learn from one another in the process.


1 comment:

  1. Kent, this was great for me to read, and I especially appreciate your taking on the myth (at the end) of "you can believe anything you want."