United Church of Jaffrey
To hear this sermon as preached in the parking lot of UCJ, please press play below:
A reading from Hamlet, Act 1, scene 3: Polonius’ Advice to Laertes: Yet here, Laertes! aboard, aboard, for shame! The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail, And you are stay’d for. There; my blessing with thee! And these few precepts in thy memory See thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue, Nor any unproportioned thought his act. Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar. Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel; But do not dull thy palm with entertainment Of each new-hatch’d, unfledged comrade. Beware Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in, Bear’t that the opposed may beware of thee. Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice; Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment. Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy, But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy; For the apparel oft proclaims the man, And they in France of the best rank and station Are of a most select and generous chief in that. Neither a borrower nor a lender be; For loan oft loses both itself and friend, And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry. This above all: to thine ownself be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man. Farewell: my blessing season this in thee!
Adventure camp was for the older kids. To get to adventure camp you had to pull yourself across the lake on a raft that was attached to a rope and pulley. Once you were on the far side of the lake, you climbed a steep and winding path through the woods. I want to say that adventure camp — that beloved circle of tents set in a shrug of the hills — was about a ¼ mile from the lake — but I’m sure it wasn’t that far. I was fifteen years old. It seemed like a long way.
One night, in the middle of that hot Virginia summer, my counselor and I jumped off the raft and were standing on the dock on the farside of the lake, when he turned to me and said:
“Turn off your flashlight.”
What? I said…
“You heard me,” he said. “Turn off your flashlight.”
“Don’t worry,” he said. “It’ll be alright.”
My flashlight clicked off.
“Let’s hang out here for a couple minutes,” he said, “and let our eyes get used to the dark.”
The small dock stuck out over the lake. The lake was still and dark. The cicadas were humming in the night. The sky over the lake was still and dark. The moon and the stars were in the sky. The moon and stars were in the lake. After a minute or so, I could see pretty well.
“Let’s go,” he said.
In front of us, the path led into the darkness beneath the trees. A much deeper darkness. This didn’t make any sense. I gulped down my fear and I followed him.
The two reading that I have chosen for this morning are moments when people are giving advice. The reading from Romans — in which Paul gives advice to the Christians in the early church in Rome reminded me, in its tone, with the famous advice that Polonius gives to his son Laertes in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. So I put them next to each other. The results are interesting.
Lets look, first, at what Polonius has to say. Since the language is as unfamiliar as it is beautiful, let me offer a brief translation.
What? Your still here Laertes? The ship is waiting for you. But first a little advice for your journey. Keep your thoughts to yourself and don’t act without thinking. Be friendly but avoid being a clown. Do all you can to hold onto to good friends and don’t waste time with untested ones. Dress well, but don’t get too fancy cause you’ll never beat a Frenchman at that game. Don’t borrow or lend cause thats the best way to lose friends and money. Most of all be true to yourself and naturally, you’ll be true to others too.
This is all pretty good advice. If he follows it, Laertes will do well, I think. He will protect himself and he will prosper.
As you all know, in addition to being your minister, I am also a teacher at Northfield Mount Hermon. Most of the time I teach literature classes but sometimes I get pulled in to pinch hit in the religious studies department. And so it will come to pass that I will be teaching an Ethics course during the winter trimester.
If you read at all in the subject of ethics, these days, you are bound to encounter a man by the name of Peter Singer. Singer is one of the only public intellectuals who is trying to keep the discussion of ethics vital in our modern world. I admire him — but I don’t always agree with him. For one thing, Singer, has very little time for religion.
In a short essay entitled “God and Suffering, Again…” Singer tells his side of a public debate that he had with a conservative Christian thinker named Dinesh D’Souza. Singer and D’Souza quickly descend into the familiar religious vs. atheist tug-of-war. If God is all good, all knowing, and all powerful, why then is there suffering in the world? Singer’s tone is smug. He feels very good about himself as he uses logic to systematically reduce Christianity into a bucket of hogwash. He does a fine job of it, and, though we don’t get D’Souza’s side of the argument, I have no doubt his responses were probably as lame as Singer reported. Why? Because D’souza was playing Singer’s game — he was trying to make religion logical.
You can’t use logic to prove religion, in the same way that you don’t use oil paints to fly a plane, or poetry to remove a brain tumor. Applying logic to religion is like trying to use a phillips head bit on an allen wrench bolt. You can try, but you’ll strip the bolt for sure. It’s the wrong tool for the job.
All of this begs a question.
If a field of human inquiry does not submit nicely to logic, is it, for this reason, utterly and completely worthless?
If the answer is yes — if something that is not logical is, in fact, worthless, then we will all have to be ok with a world in which logic is the sole measure of worth.
There can be no doubt that logic is immensely important.
Science is real.
Climate change is real.
But is logic the only way to get to truth?
I don’t think so.
I know that I don’t live in that world.
Here’s another question.
If religion does not submit nicely to logic, what does it submit to? How are we to understand it? If we figure this out, maybe we can figure out if it’s worth anything.
When I turned my flashlight off, something happened.
I was afraid. At first, things made no sense.
But gradually, as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I became aware of something primordial and forgotten about myself as a creature. Homo sapiens, it turns out, have a decent ability to see in the dark.
The pupils in my eyes gradually expanded. My vision was grainy and indistinct, but I could recognize the shapes of things, and though I moved with some hesitancy, I did not crash into things or trip on roots.
In the darkness, I connected with something essential about myself. Something deep. Something forgotten.
When I turned my flashlight off, something else happened.
Rendered incapable of depending on sight to the extent that I usually do, my body compensated. I found that I could depend on a mysterious and beautiful instinctual sense of my physical being in space. My muscle memory reached out of my body. I gathered about me everything that I remembered about the path, and I used this memory as a new sense through which I encountered my environment.
It was the same path that I had walked a hundred times, but now it was deep, mysterious, a little frightening, and completely new.
Logic, I think, is a flashlight-on way of looking at the world. Logic begins with the assumption that everything that can be observed, can be made sense of. This assertion is precisely why logic is an invaluable tool in the pursuit of science, and why logic is an absolutely useless tool when applied to religion.
Religion begins from the assumption of mystery.
Religion begins with mystery.
Religion begins with the flashlight off.
Religion asks us to experience the world with more than our intellect. Faith is not about controlling the world with our remarkable ingenuity. Faith is mystery and assurance — that there is a mystery that we will never hope to comprehend at the core of existence, and the assurance that, through some unaccountable blessing, we have been given a small share of that existence. We can live. We can feel sadness and beauty.
Polonius’ advice begins with the assumption that his son Laertes should look out for himself.
This is good flashlight-on advice. This advice makes sense because it begins from the assumption of self preservation — a logical place to begin, when giving advice. It will serve Laertes well. He will be a savvy man. But he will not be a religious man.
But what about St. Paul’s advice:
“present your bodies as a living sacrifice,”
What was that? Paul’s advice doesn’t make sense at first. Its kind of scary. A living sacrifice? Why would anyone do that?
“Don’t be conformed to this world”
“Don’t be conformed to this world?” Why not? We live in this world. Polonius would never give this advice.
“Don’t think to highly of yourself…”
“Outdo one another in showing honor…”
“Bless those who persecute you…”
“Bless those who persecute you?” Why? That’s not logical. If you bless your persecutor, aren’t you giving them more chance to persecute you?
“do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly;”
“do not claim to be wiser than you are.”
Paul’s advice is flashlight-off advice. It does not begin from the logical position of self-preservation.
It begins at a different place — a kind of fearful place. It begins with the acknowledgment that our bodies exist within something mysterious that we don’t know. Something that we dedicate ourselves to.
Paul’s advice moves us outward from self-preservation, to something else — something greater.
When we dedicate ourselves to something outside ourselves, we are humble. We begin to move outward in love. We seek to understand the other. We even bless those who persecute us.
Logic is an important way to get to observable truth.
But it’s not the only measure of what is valuable or truthful.
By turning off that flashlight, and moving into the mystery — by accepting the possibility of that which is beyond us — we enter into a religious life. A life that can find value and meaning even in paradox. A life that serves more than just the logical dictates of self-preservation.