Confessions of a Morthanist

Sometimes, not often, but sometimes when it seems that, surely, all that needs to be said for awhile has been said, the muse seems elsewhere and the screen is blank, taunting in its emptiness, Something reaches in and says, “Here, read this.”

And so came this poem by Mary Oliver called, “The Pinewoods.”

Just before dawn
three deer
came walking
down the hill
as if the moment were nothing different
from eternity–

as lightly as that
they nibbled
the leaves,
they drank
from the pond,

their pretty mouths
sucking the loose silver,
their heavy eyes

I did not really see them.
I came later, and saw their tracks
on the empty sand.

But I don’t believe
only to the edge
of what my eyes actually see
in the kindness of the morning,
do you?

And my life,
which is my body surely,
is also something more–
isn’t yours?

I suppose the deer waited
to see the sun lift itself up,
filling the hills with light and shadows–
then they went leaping
back into the rough, uncharted pinewoods
where I have lived so much of my life.
where everything is so quick and uncertain,
so glancing, so improbable, so real.

Oliver says, “I don’t believe only to the edge of what my eyes actually see.” and then she asks, “Do you?” wanting your answer “of course.” The negative in the statement followed by the positive question is confusing-deliberately so, I think. It takes a moment to understand that she is asking if you, like she, believe there is more than what you see. She wants you to say, expects you to say, “Well of course, of course I believe that there is more beyond the edge of what I can see.”

But I know that there are some who will dig in here and insist, “No.” “No. What you see is what you get. What you see is what there is.” Nothing more.

Then Mary Oliver says that the body is the life but more than that and asks, “Isn’t yours?” wanting your answer “Yes, of course.”
But I know that there are some who will dig in here and insist, “No.” “No. What you see is what you get. What you see is what there is.” Nothing more.

We who gather here are not of one mind about what is and what we are, or about where the edges of the known world are, or whether there is a place to fall off into mystery. Some live only on the firm ground; others live with a toe dipping into the boundless, ready for the sea to part or smaller miracles. Such diversity of belief or non-belief in religious community is both our blessing and our challenge and we are like rocket scientists living in a circus or clowns flap-flapping about a laboratory. Each can cause the other consternation.
The whole thing works. It works for as long as we enjoy the mix. It works for as long as there are no locked doors or “keep out” signs on thought or faith. Which is why I call this sermon “Confessions of a Morthanist,” for it is a “confession,” an admission, perhaps of what, over the years, has become suspected to your delight or consternation-an admission that I live with a toe in the vast unknown, that, yes, I believe beyond the edge of what my eyes actually see, and, yes, I believe I am more than a pile of bones plodding toward the grave.

To the skeptic I can only say, with Hamlet to Horatio, “There are more things in heaven and earth …than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

I came by my credulity honestly, by family and by culture. My great-grandparents were English tenant farmers. Their forebears peasants, claimed by holy church and noble lords for the received faith but no doubt given to harvest gods and goddesses, fire-lit dances in wheat field clearings, witches, wizards, goblins, things that go bump in the night. My grandmother was a reader of tea leaves and palms, consorted with spirits and told dark tales-this before the Christians got her.

My father, it could be said, was a pagan. He and my mother never went to church except to hear me preach-and that was to worship their son, not God’s. My father taught me to converse with animals, to spot the places in the woods where, when the moon rose, fairies feasted, danced, and held their courts. With my people, there was always more there than met the eye and the eye was led to see beyond the obvious, to see or be prepared to see beyond the edge.

And so, though my foolish behavior in adolescence-more foolish than “average”-would seem to have belied it, I was ripe for religion of some sort and for some place in it. My gang of thugs and clowns, teachers and local constabulary, might have been surprised when I announced for the cloth; but those close behind my antic façade were not.

It has been a long and convoluted journey from unblinking belief in gospels, creeds, and cross to academic disbelief and the shucking off all the above, then into the mysteries of native peoples and back again to God: Sort of. I have been a hedonist, a Methodist, a humanist, and Unitarian Universalist and for all of that it came to me a few weeks ago that what I really am-all things melded together into one-what I really am is a Morthanist.

I’m delighted that when my sermon title was published several people in the congregation went to their dictionaries or online encyclopedias and looked up “Morthanist.” They didn’t find it, of course, because I’ve made it up.

It’s really very simple. Hear Mary Oliver again.

But I don’t believe only to the edge of what my eyes actually see”


“…my life, which is my body surely, is also something more-“

I am, then, like she- if, perhaps she were to name it-a Morethanist. I believe-no, I am a fundamentalist in this- I know that there is more than meets the eye, more in heaven and earth than our philosophies dream of, and that I am more than an aging body with a brain on top.

But, then, I now realize, I have always been a Morthanist. From the time I was a boy sitting beside my father amid the wildflowers in a meadow watching the rabbit watching us I have known that there was more than we saw. And I knew that I was part of whatever “more than” was.

And later, in the “trying out” years of my ministering, sitting beside a dying mother amid the beeping blinking huffing machines I knew that there was more than her body, more than mine, more than the machines, more than the Prayer Book closed and forgotten upon my lap.

In the hills, high above the desert floor I knew there was more than the eagles soaring above, more than the insistent calling of doves. There was more than my eyes could see or my ears could hear or my skin feel against wind and rock. More than once in that place I have thought of the words of Black Elk, who spoke of his mountain vision, “And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shapes of all things as they must live together like one being.” Humankind has always known that we, like all beings, live in the depth of all Being, having an awareness of More Than, Living in a Presence accepted or ignored.

One researcher has recently claimed to have isolated in the brain the “God Spot,” a place in the brain, he says, that predisposes human beings toward religion and religious experience.

Of course, what has been difficult for many of us has been humankind’s propensity to grasp the sense of wonder, sense of Awe, Idea of the Holy, Sense of the Sacred and set it upon legs, give it a face, voice,- Name it with an unutterable name-give it the power beyond the dreams of a thousand kings, cajole it, plead with it, fear it, love it, and, if it grows old and fails to deliver, disbelieve it.

The idea of Morthanism is very simple. The whole is more than the sum of the parts. I believe that humankind has always known that intuitively but crowded out the knowledge as civilization made it inconvenient. Laguna Indian Leslie Marmon Silko, in her novel Ceremony, sees white people as having been created by witches and the witches say of their creation “They see no life when they look, They see only objects. The world is a dead thing for them. The trees and the rivers are not alive. The mountains and the stones are not alive. The deer and the bear are objects. They see no life.”

Humankind cast off the sense of an enchanted world and has since not been content to live in the beauty of simplicity insisting on making of it something in our own image so that we could own it and use it to our own ends. It occurs to me that, in the Genesis story of the Creation, Adam and Eve never saw God until they messed up. Then God appeared to them in the Garden. It was as if God had said, “Don’t make me come down there!” But they did. They made him come down and walk and talk. And it was all over. What one theologian called The mysterium tremendum got stuffed into human form and thought.

The other day I sat in my office and looked at the rows of books. Tomes, treatises, pontifications, systematic theologies, comparative religions, psychologies of religions, histories, compilations, heresies, burnings, sermons, essays, dissertations. Angels on the heads of pins. The Problem of Evil; how could a good God allow evil. Barthianism versus Neo Orthodoxy. Free will versus predestination. I struggled for decades with all that, and more, as if there was some conclusion to be found, some resolution to be arrived at. But of course there isn’t.

I have not become an anti-intellectual. All that struggle with faith and wrestling with God must be noted, reconsidered and perhaps recycled-and those of you here who are going to seminary well, I had to do it and so must you. I mean only to say that, as I leave the profession of religion it is clear to me that all of that has no bearing whatsoever on my present personal religious life. I am converted to Morthanism. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. That is what I experience in what I call my religious experience.

When I sit on that bench on the rocky rise above the sea in Two Lights Park in Portland, Maine, and watch the waves in violence pound the shore and in then in peaceful, rattling retreat, I experience myself and the Being in which I am immersed and know that each part, each bone, shell, cell, boulder, molecule all added together is More Than the total.

And it is awesome. Awesome to be drawn beyond the edge to remember with body, mind, spirit who I am; not a subject observer of a scene of objects but an indivisible part of the whole.

It is the sad consequence of the “westernization” of our lives that we have come to distrust our experience and to distrust our intuition. Mature religion does not abandon reason; neither does it idolize reason, but gives reason, intuition, and experience equal status in living in the world.

Why do I tell you all of this? Certainly not to convert you if you have already given your soul to pure reason. Morthanism embraces you as you are and has no altar calls for sobbing penitents. Perhaps I mean only to distract you for a few moments, pull aside a curtain, so to speak, to offer a glimpse of another view of the world from a seasoned traveler’s perspective; perhaps simply to share experience with nothing expected from the sharing. But it is also to urge you to continue in a journey, not to stop, to be too sure of your arrival, not to be afraid to go over old ground.

I think again of the gladness with which, as a child, I embraced the obvious-those signs of fairy gatherings, a rabbit stopped to tell a story, an ancient presence amid the stones of a country church. I realize that my path has been not so much a Pilgrim’s Progress as a circling ’round and I’m reminded of the lines by T. S. Eliot,

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

T.S. Eliot – “Little Gidding”