Great Ideas: Divinity With or Without God

Once upon a time, a young Pygmy boy heard the most beautiful song coming from the forest. The song was so beautiful, he had to go and see who was singing. Deep in the forest he found the bird, and he brought it all the way back to the camp to feed it. This deeply annoyed his father; he didn’t want to give any of their food to the bird. But the boy pleaded and pleaded with him, and the bird was fed. The next day the bird sang again; it sang the most beautiful song, and again the boy went deep into the forest to find it, and again he brought it all the way back to feed it. This time the father was even more angered, but once again he gave in and fed the bird. The third day the same thing happened. But this time the father took the bird from the son and told his son to go away. When his son had left, the father killed the bird, the bird with the most beautiful song, and with the bird he killed the song, and with the song he killed himself and he dropped dead, completely dead, dead forever.

Joseph Campbell once said that the purpose of myth is to tell us-in metaphor and symbol-of “matters fundamental to ourselves, enduring principles about which it would be good to know if our conscious minds are to be kept in touch with our own most secret, motivating depths.” The myth of the boy and the bird and the father is clearly once upon a time, but also here and now. Now, there are songs to be heard which trigger experiences of awe and wonder. Now, there is a young Pygmy boy within us who is ready to be deeply stirred and moved. And there is an angry father as well, now, who wants no part of it.

But how so? What might this all look like, in real life?

Consider this story from a colleague of mine, the Rev. Dr. Kendyl Gibbons. She says, “As a young Unitarian Universalist in the 1960s, I was educated about human sexuality in a relatively open fashion; human religious experience, in contrast, was a closed book. I discovered my spirituality in much the same way that my peers raised in more conservative faiths discovered their sexuality-accidentally, furtively, without guidance, moved by overwhelming inner tides, and with some sense of shame. I longed for the white organdy First Communion dresses and the menorah candles of my neighbors. I secretly memorized Louisa May Alcott’s ‘My Kingdom’ prayer, written when she was thirteen, and sang myself to sleep with ‘For the Beauty of the Earth.’ I was fascinated by the hidden life of nuns. I yearned for someone, anyone, to take my childish capacity for devotion seriously. But seeds planted in paper cups on the Sunday school windowsill, the dead bird discovered in the backyard, the calligraphic hymns in We Sing of Life, and the annual flower communion were the scant resources my liberal religious education offered. To my parents and teachers-almost all of whom had grown up in other religious traditions-the absence of texts, rote prayers, sacraments, holy objects, and moralistic picture books represented freedom. But without any language for my emerging sense of mystery and wonder, I came to feel the contrary: deprived of the tools with which to understand or express those experiences. I floundered in a kind of guilty yearning until I became intellectually mature enough to claim the rich heritage of humanity’s religious cultures for myself. I did so greedily, with none of the literalism that afflicts fundamentalists, whether orthodox or humanist. As a student of religion in college, I read the Christian women mystics, Zen teachers, Taoist poets. I studied the art and architecture, music and mysteries of the world’s religions, and discovered how each constructed the landscape of spiritual experience. What I sought was some way to bring order to what had always been going on inside of me. And I encountered a whole universe of souls, across every culture and tradition, who knew all about it.”

That’s Kendyl Gibbons’ story, and in it, she is just like the boy ready to be deeply stirred and moved, who goes out far into the forest. As for the bird with the most beautiful song-how about the things to which Kendyl found herself drawn in reverence: initially the white organdy First Communion dresses, the menorah candles of her neighbors, a prayer from Louisa May Alcott, a song with which she would sing herself to sleep. Then, when she got older: the world’s religions, their literature and art and architecture, the whole universe of souls across every culture and nature who had heard the beautiful song. But then there is the religion she grew up in, in which spirituality was seen as regressive, cliché, lowbrow, not progressive enough. In her judgment, this reflects a kind of pridefulness. “There is nothing so petulant,” she says, as to throw away what our ancestors have tried to pass on to us, in stories and stones, in scriptures and songs, in rituals and prayers, because we think that we in our adolescent hubris know better now. Who can stand in the shadow of the great pyramids, or the radiant light and soaring stone of the cathedral at Chartres-who can listen to the deep cadences of the Book of Common Prayer fall sonorous on the ear-and not realize in the very fiber of being that our wonder and our hunger and our terror and even our most valiant ‘yes’ to life are not ours alone, but echo down the ages of the whole human race?” Whatever the reason, people in her congregation did not provide language and symbols of reverence that would have helped her give voice to her emerging sense of awe and wonder. Neglect threatened the bird with the most beautiful song with death-but somehow Kendyl had the resilience to outlast this, only to become one of the leading Religious Humanist ministers in our movement…

This is but one example of the myth unfolding in real life, and here is another, coming to us from Jonathan Haidt, author of our study book for this year, The Happiness Hypothesis. In it, he shares an experience he had while reading The Sacred and the Profane, by the great historian of religion, Mircea Eliade. Jonathan Haidt reads this book, and it tells him that the perception of sacredness is a human universal, and that regardless of their differences, all cultures have had sacred places and sacred times and sacred activities, all meant to allow contact with something that is larger than oneself, something which inspires reverence and awe. The book goes on to tell him that the modern West represents the first culture in all of history that has managed to strip space and time of sacredness and render it completely profane. But then he reads this passage: “Even a person committed to a profane existence has privileged places, qualitatively different from all others-a person’s birthplace, or the scenes of a first love, or certain places in the first foreign city he visited in his youth. Even for the most frankly nonreligious person, all these places still retain an exceptional, a unique quality; they are the ‘holy places’ of his private universe, as if it were in such spots that he had received the revelation of a reality other than that in which he participates through his ordinary daily life.” This is the passage that Jonathan Haidt reads, and as he does, he gasps. The realization is powerful, visceral. “Eliade,” he says, “had perfectly pegged my feeble spirituality, limited as it is to places, books, people, and events that have given me moments of uplift and enlightenment. Even atheists have intimations of sacredness, particularly when in love or in nature. We just don’t infer that God caused those feelings.” In other words: the bird with the most beautiful song never stops singing, though its song can be drowned out or denied by the culture surrounding it. The bird with the most beautiful song never stops singing, though its song may be different from how common stereotypes portray it.

The myth unfolds in Jonathan Haidt’s life, in Kendyl Gibbons’ life, and perhaps by hearing their stories you are on the way of drawing your own connections with it. For myself, at this point, above all, what I’m trying to figure out is why the father would want to kill the bird. Why a church might make spirituality a “don’t ask, don’t tell” sort of thing. Why an entire culture might try to deny or drown it out the bird’s song.

We’ve already heard one possible theory about this, coming from Kendyl and her musings about the church she grew up in: the father is prideful, arrogant, imagines nothing significant can come from the bird. Or perhaps this: the father wants to kill the bird because he thinks it is a phony and the most beautiful song a fake. Perhaps he refuses to give time to the bird because he imagines himself just too busy. Or perhaps he has never himself found a bird like that-perhaps it reminds him of one he once found but lost-and so, in his shame, he turns into a bully. So many possible reasons for why the father does what he does.

Each reason would take significant time to trace out, so here (in the spirit of this science and spirituality sermon series) I will look at only the second one: the father kills the bird because he thinks it is a phony. A delusion caused by chemical misfiring of nerve cells in the brain, with no positive purpose. Why should I take my precious food and give it to a useless delusion? Ever heard this objection before?

It’s fascinating how neuroscientists Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquili speak to this in their book Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief. One of their experiments involved injecting radioactive material into people practiced in meditation as well as in prayer, and using a high-tech imaging tool to scan blood flow patterns in their brains. The radioactive material would be injected only when subjects indicated that they were deep into the flow of their experience and close to a sense of interconnection with all life (or, alternatively, a mingling with God), so that the scientists could see what was happening in their brains at the climax of their meditation or prayer. And what they-Drs. Newberg and D’Aquili-saw was significantly decreased activity in the posterior superior parietal lobe, or the part of the brain responsible for orienting people in physical space-helping people know the difference between up and down, here and there, and above all, “me” and “not me.” Block activity in this part of the brain, through damage for example, and even a simple task like lying down becomes an impossible challenge. You can’t locate yourself. You miss the chair, hit the floor, don’t even know how to lie down. But this was not at all the case with the people meditating or praying. They maintained control of their bodies just fine; it’s just that they had these deep experiences of oneness with the Universe or oneness with God. In this, Drs. Newburg and D’Aquili did not see any nerve cells misfiring or anything manifestedly contrary to what our bodies are meant to do. They did not see anything that would smack of delusion.

Their ultimate conclusion? Our human capacity to hear the bird with the most beautiful song is a valid product of natural selection. It is primal. Evolution put the neurological mechanisms responsible for the experience of self-transcendence in our brains, because when we are able to escape the limited bonds of our narrow selves through love and trust and openness, we become stronger. We become able to accomplish things that otherwise we could never do. This is a “neurobiological need” we see in all living beings, expressed in various degrees of sophistication, from the ritualized behavior of animals to the most sophisticated of human ceremonies. In animals, think headbobbing, think vocalization, think grooming: all these and more enabling members of the same species to recognize eachother as such, enabling communication of various kinds, enabling most importantly mating and reproduction. And as for humans: think this morning: our singing together, our lighting of the chalice, our responsive reading, one event after another unfolding in our midst; and soon, the ringing of the bell, the time of meditation, the offering, the benediction. The rhythm to all of this, so that we can feel opened up, connected to each other and to the larger values we serve. Turn of those cell phones so that we’re not jarred out of our dance together… Underneath all of it is a naturally selected-for neurobiological need to reach out, connect beyond oneself, unite. Underneath is the reality of what poet Rabindranath Tagore spoke when he said, “The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures.”

This is nothing less than divinity, with or without God. Rooted in our biology and in our bodies, it is no wonder that people experience sacredness in some form or fashion regardless of theological belief. “The holy is nothing but the ordinary,” says Kendyl Gibbons, “held up to the light and profoundly seen. It is the awareness of a creativity and a connection that we do not control, in a universe that is always larger, more intricate, and more astonishing than we imagine. It is the acknowledgment that we are formed by the earth from which we arise, and in which we live and move and have our being; and that we are, finally, not alone.” Whether or not God exists, we need this awareness, and we can have it.

And it can happen in surprising ways….. I’ll close with a story from Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquili in their book I mentioned earlier, Why God Won’t Go Away.

“At midnight, in the shadowy choir loft of a candlelit gothic cathedral of the Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh, a fifty-four year old businessman named Bill sits in a crowded pew enjoying a concert by the innovative jazz ensemble known as the Paul Winter Consort. It’s a hallmark of Winter’s group to set their stage in unusual and atmospheric venues-canyons, beaches, old stone barns-to reflect the moody, reverent spirit of their music, which often blends their own live performances with the recorded songs of nature. Tonight’s concert … has included a lyrical duet with a school of singing humpback whales and a haunting serenade build around the keening of eagles. Now, as the evening draws to a close, Winter and his group are providing the instrumental accompaniment to the tape-recorded singing of a pack of free-roaming wolves. The rhythmic, otherworldly wolf serenade echoes eerily in the monumental quiet of the cathedral’s soaring spaces. The wolves raise their voices in raw howls of sheer animal power, then let them soften to haunting, melancholy cries. [With Winter’s moody soprano sax in call and response fashion, the effect is] to lift listeners out of their everyday lives, and into another world. And as the wolf serenade reaches its emotional crescendo, that’s exactly what is happening to Bill. […] He feels deeply, serenely at peace. Then, suddenly, he is seized by a surge of excitement. It rushes up from the gut in a burst of joy and energy, and before he can think twice about it, Bill is on his feet, with his head thrown back, and he is howling from the bottom of his soul. Remarkably, at the same moment, other people have begun to howl. At first it’s half a dozen, scattered throughout the church. But in moments others follow their lead and soon the entire cathedral is alive with joyous noise, as hundreds of people joyfully join in the primal song of the wolves.”

Something like that is what I hope for each of you, too. To join in with some primal song. In fact, right now I want you to feel the young Pygmy boy within-feel how he is ready to be deeply stirred and deeply moved. Now, from that, howl!

It’s the neurobiological need for self-transcendence we feel, as we sing that primal song and feel the shivers run up and down our spines … as we feel wonder. That’s what evolution has done for us. Put a capacity for wonder in our hearts. Divinity-with or without God.