More Intimate for the Distance

30 December 2007

Sermon delivered at the UNMC on April 10, 2005.

I have always depended on the possibility of meaning in all experience. Nothing is so trivial that I don’t want to discern its significance and put it in a universal context. Every bite of an apple, every bus ride, every conversation, offers transcendent grace, if only we will choose to perceive it. The deeply-lived life is painted stroke by stroke.

In October I began my travels through Mexico and Central America. I was excited that my route through southern Mexico took me through the city of Oaxaca on last year’s Day of the Dead, November second. El Día de los Muertos is a very big deal in that part of Mexico — Memorial Day, Halloween, and a bit of Mardi Gras all in one — and is a vital event in the spiritual lives of many of Mexico’s indigenous peoples. For a person determined to draw meaning from the world, it offered an marvelous opportunity.


A few days before the holiday, I was already in Oaxaca, reading some of the books I’d brought with me. Among them were B. F. Skinner’s books Beyond Freedom and Dignity and Walden Two, which present his theory of deterministic behaviorism, the notion that all learned human behavior is attributable to conditioned responses.

For me, the personal and the philosophical inevitably intersect. The abstract conviction that there is meaning in existence had always been a very real guide and source of strength. It drew me toward ministry as a vocation, and gave me a context in which to understand and better myself. I knew that Skinner’s valueless world wouldn’t jibe with mine, but I thought I was prepared for that. Moderate mental tensions are the growing pains of the soul. So I read.

Well, those two books boil down to this: If Skinner is right, then all human existence reduces to pleasures sought and pain avoided — to mere hedonism, albeit with varying degrees of sophistication. Nothing can be left of human morality or goodness. Nothing remains but the accident of our existence and the evolutionary habit of survival. Nothing remains of our selves, and much less of the God of light and goodness and all-conquering love.

My purpose here is not to argue for or against Skinner’s behavioristic determinism. That’s for another time. Here’s why I bring it up: Even before I exhausted Skinner’s pages, I’d started to panic. The implications of such a compelling and comprehensive determinism were devastating, not least of all because it rang so true. I was questioning whether or not I believed any of this, about the sacredness of Creation, the goodness of God, the reality of Transcendence. I doubted whether I wanted to believe. I doubted whether I really wanted this hard, complicated, illusory life to which I used to feel called.

The crescendo to the Day of the Dead outside my window echoed my internal stirrings. Before reading Skinner’s books, the holiday had promised understanding not only of Mexican culture, but of some small corner of Transcendence itself. Now all I could see were operant conditioners. Before, the fanfare of trumpets had honored the departed. Now they blew, and the walls came a-tumbling down.

Doubt is a particularly insidious form of suffering, because it robs the crutch that makes other suffering manageable. Nietzsche’s words ring true to the reluctant doubter: “[W]ho has a why to live can bear almost any how.” Who lacks it, he neglects to mention, cannot bear any.

I wrote a long e-mail to friends and family at home describing my unbearable disillusionment, and feeling blindly to reclaim some scrap of the purpose with which I’d come. Over three days, I stopped only to eat and to sleep. Writing helped me to think about my problem systematically, but sending it did not salve my sorrow. That night I found myself wandering the Oaxacan streets, passing tortillerías and mole shops, weaving back and forth among the parades and roving fiestas. An inescapable meaninglessness pursued me, darting and hiding behind puppets and tubas and drums.

Only later did I figure out that, despite my suspicions to the contrary, I was not going mad. Victor Frankl survived a number of years in Nazi concentration camps, and went on to found an influential school of psychoanalysis called logotherapy. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, he writes:

“Not every conflict is necessarily neurotic; some amount of conflict is normal and healthy. In a similar sense suffering is not a pathological phenomenon; rather than being a symptom, suffering may well be a human achievement, especially if the suffering grows out of an existential frustration. I would strictly deny that one’s search for meaning to… existence, or even… doubt of it, in every case is derived from, or results in, any disease. Existential frustration is in itself neither pathological nor pathogenic. [D]istress, even… despair, over the worthwhileness of…life is an existential distress but by no means a mental disease.”

Doubt, and its attendant discomfort, are not an illness. Worry over the meaningfulness of life is not an sickness. But my experience of doubt makes me want to go further. More than simply not being harmful, I believe that doubt is a healthy and necessary part of religious life.

The conventional argument for doubt is that it’s a means to a stronger relationship with the divine. Scar tissue is stronger than unwounded flesh, and doubt ultimately binds us more strongly to the divine. But I believe the real goodness and power of doubt has less to do with the strength of our bond with God than with its quality. The strength of our need for God is always absolute. It cannot be greater or lesser, only more or less recognized. But the nature, the quality of our need, and the way in which we satisfy it, changes. This is where doubt and uncertainty are indispensable organs of authentic faith. Doubt is a symptom of living religion, not its antithesis, because it breaks the artificial boundaries we have established and demands that we stretch toward the Infinite. Doubt is an idol-breaker.

It is possible to go too far. Modern Unitarian Universalists have avoided the historical error of looking on doubt at something to be avoided for a person of faith. We are unlikely to burn anyone at the stake for professing honest doubts, or to pull at their fingernails until they recant. We are unlikely to torment ourselves too much one way or the other. This is surely progress.

But in making our little, sophisticated universe safe for doubt, we have too often confused doubt and disconnection. Doubt is different than not caring, or than actively avoiding relationship. These do not serve us or honor our place as “divinely human” creatures. Both are endemic in our congregations. Though ours is a liberal orthodoxy, and not a conservative one, it is just as idolatrous, and just as unfaithful toward the Divine. To say that doubts of God preclude transcendence is to admit the truth of the very dichotomy we ought to be rejecting, that doubt and faith are opposite, irreconcilable poles.

The essential choice is not between faith and doubt. It is between relationship and separation. It is between seizing the Holy from every morsel, and ignoring the prospect of holiness. It is between breathing with two full lungs, and a slow suffocation unto death. It is between relishing all the flavors of awe, and numbness.

Doubt can serve us well; we mustn’t be afraid of it. Like all suffering, it is wasted if we fail to breathe it in deeply. God can handle our doubt of God’s goodness and grace, God can handle our denial of God’s presence in every being — if we use our troubles for deepening.

As Universalists, we are called to be receptive to the meaning in every experience, pleasant or not, to draw out its significance and make that our own. We are called from every direction, even through doubt, not by booming voices from the sky, but by the innumerable elements of a single reality.

I had a terrible fight once with someone I loved. I said some things I didn’t mean, she said some things she didn’t mean, and we found ourselves in the middle of a Montague-and-Capulet, I-don’t-even-remember-what-we-were-fighting-about fight.

There we were, furious but holding hands, loosely and more intimate for the distance
Our loose-locked hands left room for breeze, midwife to a common soul

All sin is separation, and separation is the only sin. Conflict, even detachment, when it is an intimate experience, is not sinful, but sacred.

Relationship demands more, and in unexpected ways, but that’s healthy, and appropriate for Universalists. Whether we perceive it or not, whether it is intentional or by some subtler design, the challenge and reward of all relationships — except dead ones — is in their shifting winds.

Existential crises are healthy. They keep us in a living, dynamic, and intimate relationship with the possibilities of existence. My panic in Oaxaca was partially a result of having allowed that connection to stagnate, and noticing it, catastrophically, only when I slowed down enough to let it catch up with me. All the stages of my doubt — heartbreak, uncertainty, and even avoidance — have been valuable. They have kept me from retreating to a new certainty. When I read B. F. Skinner’s books, the walls I had built, that had separated me from a vibrant connection with God, tumbled down.

To the extent that knowledge sparks these little revolutions, it is in the service of God. Faith and knowledge draw the same sleigh. Their real value is not in the contentment, but in the anxiety they provide, in the way they spur us to ever-deeper, ever-better, though perhaps more difficult, lives.

Being in relationship with the Infinite requires recognition of our own finite dimension. Not to doubt is idolatry because it requires a certainty that is, and must be, beyond us as created beings. As followers of Jesus, we are called to be eternally skeptical of any idol, even — especially — one hidden in the trappings of a beloved and all-too-certain idea of what our religion ought to be. The key to self-actualization, Victor Frankl writes, is self-transcendence. If we can transcend ourselves by not fearing doubt, then, paradoxically, we will overcome our attachment to our own narrow perspective and become closer to the Universal God.

Love is the most subtle of idols, but even love can suffocate a relationship with the divine. In my case it certainly did: I was so enamored of a theology, of an idea of God, that I lost the real pulse of Spirit. I thought I had lost my God, but I had only lost my idea of God, and the distinction is crucial. In Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Lenny suffocates a mouse from love. He simply doesn’t know not to squeeze so tightly. Similarly, a part held too tightly keeps the Whole unknown to us. Only by constantly shedding ideas of God can the real, unknowable God be approached. Be not afraid. No soul is ever lost from God.

Our understandings of God are inherently inadequate, and even our cherished beliefs can become idols precisely because we cherish them. If our love of Christianity, or of the church, or of each other keeps us from that which transcends and includes all, we will have defaced Christianity, the church, and each other them by making them into merely the objects of our vanity.

So this is our challenge: to exist between the extremes of separation and ossification. We must learn to be serious but not self-important. A cult, after all, is just a religion without a sense of humor. We must seek a mature religion that is whole and of one piece, without ever being so idolatrously complete that it prevents evolution of our relationship with the ever-flowing Waters of Grace. God is not finished. The holy age continues. Revelation is not sealed. A living relationship, with all its doubts and dark crooks, is a surpassing beatitude.

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