CPR certification onlineCPR certification onlineCPR certification online

Bank Street Unitarian Chapel

Open Hearts Open Minds

The place of facts in the spiritual journey

A Reflection based on words delivered by Stephen Lingwood

17th May 2015

You might remember the song "They All Laughed" written by the Gershwin brothers and performed by Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire from the 1937 movie Shall We Dance:

"They all laughed at Christopher Columbus when he said the world was round

They all laughed when Edison recorded sound

They all laughed at Wilbur and his brother when they said that man could fly"

It's a song about not going along with crowd, because the majority aren't always right. Sometimes you have to think for yourself against the majority opinion. A good song for this month's theme of curiosity, when we're thinking about being a seeking questioning faith. But, in this case, if we are curious, and do seek things out, we find, ironically, that the song is in fact wrong, on one point. They didn't laugh at Christopher Columbus when he said the world was round. In Christopher Columbus' time everyone knew the world was round. And he certainly didn't set out on his voyage to prove the world was round.

The idea that people used to think the earth was flat is, in fact, a bit of a myth. Medieval philosophers knew the earth was round, ancient Greeks knew the earth was round. Almost everyone who thought about it at all, knew the earth was round. They didn't think it was flat.

A lot of the things we think we know are wrong. And there's a lot we don't know.

As we think about curiosity as a spiritual value this month today I want to think about the place of facts in the spiritual journey, and our need to seek out facts as well as truth.

I love a good fact. There are so many interesting things to find out in the world. My original life plan was to become a scientist and so I am still very much driven by the love of discovering new things. A lot of my facts nowadays come from the television show QI, one of my favourite things on telly. Here's some good facts:

The number of people living in caves in China today outnumbers the total population of the world in the stone age.

Blackboard chalk is almost never made of chalk

A sponge (the animal) can be put into a blender, mashed up, if you put it back into a jar, it will reassemble itself

An armadillo's shell is so tough if you fired a gun at it, the bullet would bounce off

If you jumped into a tunnel that went to the centre of the earth, it would take 38 minutes to come out the other end.

Now these are fun facts, but there are other types of facts as well. Like the fact that the Baka people of Cameroon have an ancient myth about God creating humans that were immortal and lived in a beautiful paradise. There was the tree of one fruit that was forbidden, but the woman ate it, and then the man, God found out, punished them, threw them out of paradise so that they would now feel pain and be mortal. This seems to be the origin of this myth that made it into Egypt and then into the Middle East.

Now I find that fascinating, but if you believe that the Genesis story describes history, and is without error, then this might undermine your world view. The Bible is full of plagiarism from other religions and cultures.

But here's the point I want to make: facts are always good. Facts, if they are truly facts, lead us closer to truth and so need to be welcomed by a liberal faith like ours. If tomorrow they discovered the body of Jesus, proving that he did not rise from the dead, then we would have to absolutely affirm that fact and take it on board. Or if a document was discovered that proved beyond reasonable doubt that Jesus never existed, that it was all made up, then we would have to absolutely affirm that fact and take it on board. And this would be a good thing. Now these things haven't happened. But new discoveries have been made, new Gospels have been discovered, like the Gospel of Thomas. Now if you want to follow Jesus, why would you not be really curious about these new gospels? Why isn't every Christian church reading these gospels out? If you're curious about Jesus, why would you ignore these? Because it threatens your religious world view. But if we take curiosity seriously we must take on all we can even if it disturbs our world view.

As I said, I am scientifically inclined, and my science does influence my faith. Here are some facts that I think, should affect the way we think about spiritual things.

We, Homo sapiens, are only one species, out of the millions of species that do exist and have existed on earth. We are a tiny twig, on a tiny twig, on a tiny branch of the tree of life.

We have been here for a very short time. If we think of the whole of earth history, 4.5 billion years, as one 24 hour period, then life appears at 4am. But its just single celled life until about 8.30 in the evening when we get complicated life forms. It's 11pm before we get dinosaurs and they're extinct at 11.39. It's 11.58.43 before there are humans on earth. All of human civilisation, all of history, as opposed to "prehistory" lasts a few seconds. We have been here a very short time.

And we are so very small. We are one planet, orbiting one star, in one galaxy. There might be 400 billion stars in our Milky Way, our galaxy. And more than 100 billion galaxies in our universe (as far as we know). So there are possibly 10 billion billion stars in the universe. That means there are more stars in the universe than grains of sand on every beach on earth. So think about that when you're at a beach, staring at millions of grands of sand that make up a beach. There are more stars in the universe than grains of sand on every beach on the planet. We are so very small. "The universe does not revolve around you," as Lynn Ungar wrote. This stuff begins to blow my mind when I think about it. It makes me think of times when I've laid on my back staring up at a perfect night sky, seeing the thousands of stars in this universe. And I've sometimes had moments of almost panic, when I've felt I was looking down, instead of up, which I am in a way, and it's only this force of gravity that prevents me from falling down into this infinite drop into the universe.

And there are two, kind of terrifying, options we have. Either we are alone in this huge universe, we are the only things in this vast universe that can ask these questions, and wonder at these things. Or, we're not. And there are thousands, or millions, or billions of alien civilisations; each with their own understandings of truth; each with their own cultures, and their own religions.

And we think we can pronounce about God, about the meaning of life, about the universe?!

How arrogant we must be if we think we are anywhere near the full truth of it all!

As our hymn said, the God of galaxies has more to govern than once was thought when... well, when the Bible was written, or any other major religion was founded. The universe is vast. And we are small. Curiosity needs to be coupled with humility. That is a scientific spirituality. There is so much more than we know.

And yet we can say this, we really can: it is wonderful. It is beautiful. We are part of it. A great dance. A great symphony, that we are invited to join in. Though we are small, we are a part of this great beautiful universe. Humans are amazing. We are amazing. You are amazing. We can join in the song.

And facts can only get us so far to the truth. There's a point when we must turn to poetry. Because we must respond to the world, not only with awe, but also with love. We must love the universe. And in a strange way, realise that the universe loves us. Our lives are deeply meaningful. We can find joy and depth and love in the ordinariness of our lives. Though you are small, you are also, incredibly important. As I say, a truth that can only be apprehended with poetry, and not with facts.

The universe, the beautiful, joyous universe, takes your hand, and asks you to dance. How will you respond?

Holy Curiosity

A Reflection by Stephen Lingwood

based on words delivered 10th May 2015

Every Wednesday lunchtime as a Chaplain at the University of Bolton I sit in the university cafe and try to chat to whoever wants to chat to me. Some conversations start spontaneously, but at other times I give out little postcards with a question on to try to encourage people to have a deeper conversation. Those questions can be about anything from politics, to ethics, to philosophy, to religion.

A few weeks ago I had a question about the afterlife - what, if anything, people thought there was after death. A woman sat down next to me and read the card and I asked for her opinion. Well, luckily for me, this person knew the exact answer! She told me you have to give your life to Jesus, you have to be born again, and that that is the only way to heaven, the only way to salvation. We talked for quite a long while, as she jumped on the chance to try to persuade me of this truth.

"What do you think is God's name?" she asked me,

"I think God has many names," I said.

No. I was told in no uncertain terms, God has one name. The name is Jesus. The only name by which anyone could be saved.

I tried to engage with this conversation. I tried to be really open to the belief that we could both learn from each other in this encounter. I believed that, even if she didn't. But to be honest, the whole encounter sorted of rubbed me up the wrong way. There was something about the insistent, aggressive nature of this "evangelism" (it didn't feel like "good news") that hacked me off, if I'm honest.

I've tried to think about what it was that annoyed me about this conversation. I think I felt patronised, and belittled, and just a bit steamrollered by this person.

 

What I really struggle with is the absolute certainty of fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is all about certainty; in an uncertain world, it offers certainty, and that's why it's popular. That's why it fills a need in the modern world.

But what fundamentalism displays most powerfully is a fundamental lack of curiosity. This woman showed little curiosity about my position, about my faith. And why would she? She had the truth (so she believed). And if you have the truth, and the whole truth, you never need to be curious again, because there's nothing more to know. There's certainty, and there's no need to be curious ever again.

And this lack of curiosity can also be displayed at the other extreme of atheist fundamentalism, the kind displayed by Richard Dawkins. Dawkins shows no real curiosity about religion. He believes he knows it's all rubbish and so can write a book about religion without ever talking to any experts on religion, or reading any books on religion, or even engaging with other secular pursuits like history and sociology and cultural studies and literature. No: his overarching theory of evolutionary biology he believes can explain everything, so there's no need for him to engage with anything else that might give a different perspective. As one reviewer of Richard Dawkins wrote, "Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology."

For a scientist he displays a complete lack of curiosity.

Fundamentalism is about certainty, it's saying, "Look at me, I've worked out the very nature of the universe, the very nature of existence. Lucky me. I don't need to be curious ever again."

The opposite of this, the liberal way, the Unitarian way, is to see curiosity as a foundational spiritual practice.

 

Albert Einstein said, "The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when [one] contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvellous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity."

For us, curiosity is holy. Even as far back as the 1770s when Joseph Priestley led the first generation of Unitarians, he could say that we must keep inquiring, keep being curious, using our reason, even if it should destroy Christianity. What a radical statement to make 250 years ago!

What makes us Unitarians is the belief that truth is constantly unfolding, constantly revealing more and more to us to understand and see, and we must remain curious, otherwise we will miss something of the truth.

We're not here because we have all the answers. We might sometimes wish we did. I know I do. I know I am jealous, in many ways, of the person who says they have all the answers. But I know I'm turning my back on truth if I believed that, and I can't do it.

We're not here because we're certain. We're not here because we've worked it all out. We're not here because we have the answer to the very meaning of the universe.

We're here because we're curious.

We're here because we have glimpsed the beauty, the power, the deeper meaning in life, and we want to find more.

Last week I told the story of two tiny frogs living in a flower. Their whole lives they had lived inside the flower, there was water and nectar inside these large flowers at the top of trees in the rainforest, and they had no idea about the rest of the world. Until one day one frog climbs to the edge of the flower, peeks over the edge and sees the whole rainforest, the whole rest of the universe.

One frog wants to explore the rest of the universe, while the other frog is quite content to stay where she is. One frog is curious. She is prepared to go out into the big wide dangerous world, and see what there is to be explored. The other frog believes she has all the answers, that the flower is all there is, and there's no need to explore anything else.

Some mystics use the image of a baby in the womb saying, "Clearly there's no evidence of anything else than the womb. The womb is all there has been, all there will be, it provides me with all I need, why I should I worry myself with any wild speculation about the world outside the womb? Clearly it's all nonsense."

 

Don't be content with the small answers, keep curious, keep exploring, keep doubting.

The Buddha is supposed to have said,

"Believe nothing because a wise man said it.

Believe nothing because it is generally held.

Believe nothing because it is written.

Believe nothing because it is said to be divine.

Believe nothing because someone else believes it.

But believe only what you yourself judge to be true."

And so we must keep on this path of curiosity, believing and doubting along the way. And it's OK to doubt. It's OK to doubt what you are told by books, by authorities, and by me. It's good for us to doubt sometimes our politicians, and our newspapers, when they tell us the way it is, it ain't necessarily so.

And it's OK to struggle with our spiritual beliefs. It's OK to doubt everything, to be unsure whether you believe in God, unsure what God is, unsure of any religious doctrine. It's OK sometimes to say, "I don't know. I don't know. I'm not sure," as long as we keep moving, keep exploring, keep curious.

 

But our curiosity, our lack of certainty, shouldn't be an excuse for never committing to anything or never deepening our spiritual lives. The Buddha provides some useful guidance on this.

One of the things you should always be curious, and sceptical about is quotes from the Buddha. There are a lot of quotes that you see on the Internet that are supposed to be from the Buddha, but on closer inspection you find out that they're a bit dodgy. Ironically, really, the quote I just read out is a bit dodgy. The one that says, "believe nothing because a wise man said it.... believe only what you yourself judge to be true." I'm guilty of thinking this was a real quote from the Buddha and I even included it on the handout on curiosity that I gave out last week. But this week I was a bit more curious and did some research, and found that this is the real quote,

"The Blessed One said, "Don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, 'This contemplative is our teacher.' When you know for yourselves that, 'These qualities are skilful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to welfare and to happiness' — then you should enter and remain in them.""

And as you can see, it's sort of similar, but not really the same. The context of this is a some folks who said to Buddha, "Look we get a lot of religious types coming here with their teachings, their wisdom. How are we supposed to know which ones to follow?" It's a question about choosing a spiritual path, choosing who to trust as a source of spiritual wisdom. And the Buddha says, "not by tradition or scripture, or authority, not even by logic. But when you see that those who practice and teach the spiritual path create welfare and happiness in the world." In other words this teaching is not about "believing what you yourself judge to be true" it's actually echoing what Jesus taught, "by their fruits you will know them." It's saying we follow the spiritual path that we can see gives joy and welfare to those who follow it and to the world.

So certainty is not possible, because of the unfolding, evolving nature of truth, and we must be open and curious to the world. But just because certainty is not possible, doesn't mean we can't choose a spiritual path that will give us Life. We can't have certainty, but we can experience that which will make us more compassionate, more content, more open-eyed to the world, more loving.

Be curious. And experience for yourself the wonder, the awe, and the Depth of this world which fills our hearts with joy.

 

 

Minister’s Letter

June's Theme: Oneness

 

"If God is One, we are one with God and with one another in the universe. For me, these are the true and logical meanings of the words Unitarian and Universalist."

Yvonne Seon

 

One of the convictions of the earliest Unitarians what that God is one, as opposed to the doctrine of the Trinity. Today, our understanding of Oneness is, I think, a bit deeper. I think we have got passed worrying about doctrines to get to the mystical heart of the understanding of oneness. This mystical oneness is an experience spoken about in many of the world's great spiritual traditions.

Often we humans view ourselves as separate, and this belief leads us into fear of the world and worry about whether we're better or worse than anyone else. But the spiritual truth is that we are one, deeply interconnected with everyone and everything else. We are one with God, and one with all-that-is. Our world is one, and it is only our stupidity and ignorance that means we see each other as "us" and "them" divided by religion, nationality, ethnicity.

Our call as Unitarians is to believe in one love, one world, one human race; and to work to make this come true.

In love and peace,

 

Stephen

Minister's Message

May 2015

May's Theme: Curiosity

 

"I know that in faith and with your whole heart you question me. Therefore I am glad because of you. Truly I say to you I am pleased, and my Father in me rejoices, that thus you inquire and ask. Your boldness makes me rejoice, and it affords yourself life."

Jesus of Nazareth (Epistula Apostolorum)

 

Curiosity is a central Unitarian value. Our faith does not try to close the mind to questions, but constantly challenges us to open our minds to find out more truth. Unitarians must always ask the questions: is it true? Who said so? Why? What does that mean? How does that affect the way I should live my life?

We are curious about the history of our religion. We do not say, "the Bible says so, therefore that's what I believe," neither do we ignore the Bible or ancient texts - both positions show a lack of curiosity. But we ask, "Who wrote this book? What was going on at the time? What do we know about this? How can we understand this more?"

We do not think we know all there is to be known about the world, but pay attention to all sciences that can tell us more about the world, how it works, why it is the way it is. We continue to be fascinated and curious about the world around us.

We do not ignore all the world's religions, thinking we have all the answers, but we are curious to find out more about all religions, believing we cannot be arrogant enough to think we have all the truth - that there is still more truth to be discovered if we are curious enough to ask.

The world is a wonderful place. It's treasures are open to us if we are curious enough to seek out new answers. Let's stay curious.

In love and peace,

 

Stephen

Minister's Report to the Annual General Meeting

12th April 2015

 

Our purpose is to inspire spiritual journeys, engaging with the world with open hearts and open minds.

As Minister of Bank Street Unitarian Chapel it is my role to lead and coordinate the spiritual ministry of the congregation and to be a resource in helping the whole congregation to fulfil our purpose.

An Annual General Meeting is a good time to step back and ask the questions: "How are we doing in fulfilling this purpose? Where are we in our spiritual journey together?"

The most significant part of our journey in the last year has been the coming together of two spiritual journeys: the journeys of Halliwell Road and Bank Street communities, separate for 115 years, have come together again. This time last year the Bank Street community heard the wonderful news that the Halliwell Road community was coming home to Bank Street again. We hope it has been a "coming home" and that we have got to know one another in the last year, as we have grown together into one community. Next week we mark this formal coming together with a service of Welcoming and Uniting. We are one.

This of course brings challenges. As our congregation gets bigger it is more difficult for us all to know one another other. We need to work extra hard to build relationships and to operate as one community. I continue to work with the Pastoral Care Team in trying to lead our ministry to love and care for one another, prioritising those most in need. But the pastoral and community life of the congregation is the responsibility of all of us, together.

We continue to inspire spiritual journeys in many ways. The development in the last year has been to move to a pattern of monthly themes for our Sunday services. This allows us to go deeper into a spiritual topic as adults and as children in Junior Church. This pattern will continue to grow and develop.

Our Junior Church has grown a great deal in the last year and we should be really grateful for that. It's wonderful for us to be truly a congregation for all ages! However this work is always a challenge on limited volunteer energy and small numbers. I believe as a congregation our number one priority right now should be our children's ministry to make sure we are truly welcoming to families and children.

We also continue to inspire spiritual journeys with a variety of activities outside our usual Sunday services. This year this has included "be" worship gatherings, Twelve Steps to Spiritual Health, the Spiritual Film Club and the meditation group.

The purpose of this community is not to serve ourselves but to look outwards to the needs of the world. Our purpose is to engage with the world. I continue to prioritise this outward looking focus in my work. Working alongside others I keep our profile high with updating our website, using social media, appearing on local radio and contacting newspapers.

I also have responsibilities beyond this congregation. I am a Chaplain at the University, and this year I have been Chair of Christians Together in Bolton Town Centre. Although this year I have stepped down from my role in the Ministry Strategy Group I continue to serve our wider Unitarian movement by doing some project work for the Ministry Strategy Group, as well as being a tutor on the Ministry in the Making conference for student ministers, teaching on the Worship Studies Course, and being a mentor for a ministry student.

More locally this year I have been part of a group that has founded the Bolton Fair School Admissions campaign and am Chair of the Steering Group. And although I am less involved than previously, I am still proud to be a Bolton Street Angel, and we as a congregation should be deeply proud that we are still able to support this important project in Bolton.

So we are an outward-looking congregation, and we are a growing congregation. Our Sunday morning attendance has grown substantially in 2014. In 2013 our average Sunday attendance was 33.6. In 2014 it was 37.7 (or 36.6 if you take out Sundays when we had large congregations because of baby blessing ceremonies). This growth represents more than 10% in one year, which is good on any measure.

Despite this growth, we are still a small congregation. Those of us who have found the Unitarian faith and this Unitarian community know what a difference it can make in their lives. This could be true for many more people who could find a spiritual home with us if only they knew we were here and found a warm welcome when they visited us. We can continue to grow!

But we face many challenges. We still struggle to find enough volunteers to do all that needs to be done and maintain a building like this. I am deeply grateful for all your volunteering and our shared ministry together. Thank you to everyone who does so much for our community.

But there is still much to be done. We have a shared ministry here. What is your ministry? I would love for us to be a community where people bring their passions and their talents to serve the world through all that we do. How can we fulfil that vision?

Once again I am hugely privileged to be the Minister of Bank Street Unitarian Chapel Bolton. Thank you. Thank you all.

 

 

 

Stephen Lingwood

You are here: Home Reflections