Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

The Compass and the Violin — Sermon by the Rev. David Pyle

Last preached on October 10th, 2010

Albert Einstein told the story about the Magic Compass

over and over during his life,

as the moment in his life that inspired him

to seek out the mystery that made his compass needle move,

as the reason that he became a scientist.

It was the moment that he realized that, in the universe,

there  “had to be something behind things, something deeply hidden.’

As a young boy, he committed himself to finding the hidden.


As this young, bright eyed son

of non-practicing Jewish parents grew up,

he discovered more wonders,

such as the beauty and purity of mathematics,

but also similar beauty and purity in the music of Mozart

he played on a violin his father had given him.


From the earliest age

Albert knew that neither science alone,

nor religion alone could answer the questions in his mind…

could reveal for him the “invisible, hidden things”,

the magical world to which his compass needle pointed.

He realized that if he was to understand,

he would need to explore the magic of the compass

and the magic of the violin together.


One of the most commonly perceived conflicts of western society

is that of Science and Religion.

It has been fought for over a century,

and its roots go back much, much further.

From the condemnation of Darwin and the Scopes monkey trial

to today’s efforts to put warning labels on High School Science texts,

the “us vs. them” view of science and religion

seeps into many aspects of our lives.


From fundamentalists of many faiths who claim

that hurricanes are punishments from God,

to scientific advancements that are turned into death and destruction,

the division between these two aspects of our nature

has done, and continues to do incredible harm.


Into this debate came the superior intellect, laughing soul,

and deep and abiding connection to the universe that was Albert Einstein.

In the fields of science, his legacy is unsurpassed,

but what I have found most profound about his life’s work

were his attempts to heal the division between science and religion,

carried out in newspaper and magazine articles,

lectures, private letters, and personal conversations throughout his life.


“Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind”

Albert said in lecture given in New York in 1941,

just a few short months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Einstein believed that Science could determine facts about the universe,

but could not offer any social guidance or values.

He decried philosophies rooted solely in science,

such as “social Darwinism” as immoral and unjust.

At the same time, religion could speak

to how we would like things to be in our world,

but without science to point out how things were,

you would never be able to find a path to that prophetic vision.


Albert believed, and believed deeply,

that the rift between science

and the inherent religious impulse within humankind

was very harmful to the development of both science and religion.

And harmful to the development of humankind.

He often spoke of how the most effective scientists

were moved by deep religious feeling

in their explorations of the natural laws.

When religion ignores science,

it ignores one of the primary sources of religious experience,

the vast and awe inspiring nature of the universe.


Einstein said…


“What I see in nature is a grand design that we can comprehend and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility….”


And though science can explore that grand design,

Albert acknowledges its inherent limitations.


“The content of scientific theory itself offers no moral foundation for the personal conduct of life.”


In each of these statements, Albert gives us

the inherent reason why science and religion need one another.

Without the wonder of exploring the universe,

Religion can be caught in a trap of stagnant traditions.

Without an understanding of the religious impulse,

Science can fall into the dangerous realm

of using discoveries for negative, destructive, and unethical ends.


This was a deeply personal issue for Albert late in his life,

as he reacted in horror to the atomic destruction

of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

He viewed that as a failure of both science and religion,

as well as a personal failure.

Near the end of his life he admitted to a close friend…


“I made one mistake in my life… When I signed that letter to President Roosevelt advocating that the bomb should be built.”


He allowed his desire for scientific advancement

to outrun his own religious moral sense.

He would not do so again.

His reaction to the use of the atomic bomb led him

to my favorite Einstein quote….

“I am a militant pacifist… I will fight for peace!”


Yet, was the religion that Albert Einstein spoke of…

the religious impulse that he felt was needed

to compliment and moderate pursuit of science…

was it to be found in the religions of his day? Or of our day?


Like many Scientists, Albert had a progressive view of knowledge…

that knowledge built upon prior knowledge,

learning upon prior learning,

leading humankind to a greater and greater understanding

of ourselves and of the universe we inhabit.

He also viewed religion as a progression

towards a clearer understanding of the questions

that Science cannot answer…

questions about purpose and values, ethics and morality.


For Albert, religion began as a reaction

to the fear of the natural world that was inherent in humanity.

In a world of cause and effect,

where our early ancestors could see the effects of nature,

but not understand the causes,

humanity developed a theology

that corresponded to many of these things they did not understand.


These Gods could be appealed to for protection,

could be enlisted against ones enemies,

and could be used as a salve for the fears

that were at the heart of existence in an incomprehensible universe.


Albert’s argument claimed that over time,

as humanity began to understand their world a bit more clearly,

the need for a salve against fear of nature lessened

and some peoples began to move towards religious traditions

that were based more upon enforcing morality

and less upon relieving fear of the natural world.


As our ability to kill each other grew, and grew, and grew,

Albert believed humanity became more fearful

about what other humans might do,

and less fearful about the dangers of nature.


Religious traditions that enforced moral codes

based upon the “stick and carrot”

of “eternal damnation” and “heavenly reward”

came into being as a check upon

our increasing destructive ability as a species.


When I look at recent history, however,

I cannot but see that what Albert called religions of morality

have been of only limited effectiveness

in preventing the evil we humans choose to visit upon each other.


These are the same traditions which so often come

into public and passionate conflict with the institutions of science,

for they sense that science, in its objectivity,

is also essentially amoral. It has no inherent morality of its own.


The progressive scientist in Albert saw another step

in the religious path of humanity…

and that was a religion that was centered not only in the past,

but in the present and in the future.

A religion that, while not composed of science,

both complimented it and was complimented by it.

A religion that was inspired by the grandness, mysticism,

and majesty of the universe itself…

from the smallest atom to the largest galaxy…

from the organization of ants to the boundless chaos

of human religious, art, and philosophical creativity.

A religion that embraced an ever changing concept

of both knowledge and faith.


Albert said that “The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. The religion which is based on experience, which refuses dogmatism.”


Albert foresaw a non-creedal religion,

based upon our experiences in this world,

and yet still able to learn and grow

from the religious scriptures of our past.

A religion in which he said,

“Life is sacred. That is to say, it is the supreme value, to which all other values are subordinate.”


Sound Familiar?


In speaking of his own religious faith, Albert said in an interview that

“I cannot conceive of a personal God who would directly influence the actions of individuals, or would directly sit in judgment on creatures of his own creation…My religiosity consists in a humble admiration of the infinitely superior spirit that reveals itself in the little that we, with our weak and transitory understanding, can comprehend of reality. Morality is of the highest importance—but for us, not for God.”


But it is on the question of the relationship between

the pursuit of knowledge through science,

and the pursuit of understanding through religion,

that Albert most speaks to us today.


“All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree. All these aspirations are directed toward ennobling human life, lifting it from the sphere of mere physical existence and leading the individual towards freedom.”


Albert did not believe in a personal God…

he did not believe in God as a being

that intervened in the universe.

And yet he believed that what was true about religion

was that connection that we as humans can feel

with the universe and with the divine.

The awe and mystery, the wonder around us

can inspire us to hold sacred the mystical nature of life.

In his time, Albert believed that the religion that most closely fit

his view of this third stage of human religious development

was Buddhism.


And yet, our movement of religious liberalism

has changed from what it was in Albert’s time.

In that span of years, though our own religious journey,

we have retraced many of the paths that Albert took

within the playgrounds of his own mind.

We have come much closer to embodying that

“subtle religious spirit”, and that next stage

in Albert’s progressive view of the human religious impulse.


With the realization that Unitarian Universalism may well be,

or become that religious tradition Albert Einstein dreamed of,

there is also a challenge and responsibility.

The task of healing the rift between science and religion,

the mission of making religion the true partner of Scientific exploration,

the goal of showing that they are not only compatible,

but necessary for one another…

That task falls to us.

It should not be scientists alone who actively oppose efforts

to teach science classes based in biblical traditions

in our public high schools, such as has been proposed

in Kansas and Texas, but those of us of liberal faith.


When I first presented this sermon, I had no basis in personal experience

to understand this connection between science and religion

that Albert was speaking of.

Sure, it appealed to my intellectual religious nature,

something I share with many of my fellow UU’s,

but I did not have any experience in a scientific community

to see it in practice…

My science experience was limited

to a high school chemistry professor

who gave me enough points on my final exam so that I would graduate

because, and I quote, she did not ever want to see me again…


Since I first presented this sermon to the scientists and congregants

at the Oak Ridge Unitarian Universalist Church,

just outside Oak Ridge National Labratories,

I have had the privilege to serve as a chaplain

in three research and teaching hospitals.

I also had the privilege to attend a series of lectures by Thomas Moore,

a psychologist and author focusing on spirituality and the soul.

Thomas put forth an idea that I saw over and over again

in my experience as a hospital chaplain.


In our secular modernism, we like to pretend

that medicine is primarily a science.

Our Doctors and nurses are trained in very scientific methods,

they are assisted by the cutting edge of modern technology.

Helicopters and ambulances bring you to the center of health and healing,

experimental trials are conducted,

resident doctors and medical students are trained, and so much more.


And yet, the similarities between a modern hospital,

and ancient temples of healing are fascinating… think about it.

The modern temple of medicine is often set in a park-like setting,

and is usually a quite imposing structure.


It is built as a labyrinth, and you can only find your way around

with the help of one of the initiated,

or by learning enough of the holy language

to read the signs yourself

(Radiology, Cardiology, Gastroenterology, Ihavenoidea-ology).


You are surrounded by a hierarchy of priests and acolytes

(aka, doctors, nurses, and techs),

all of whom show a certain deference

to those higher in the priestly order,

but in which you are the supplicant.

The priests, initiated into the secret knowledge through years of training,

all wear special identifying robes showing their status…

we call them “White Lab Coats”. Or the nursing scrubs of the Acolytes.


The entire system is religious in nature,

and is designed to instill in all who enter, initiated and uninitiated alike,

a religious respect for the sacred knowledge and mystery

that is contained within the temple.

It is designed to reinforce the authority and mystery of the priest-shaman,

the doctor, when you finally reach that small room,

buried deep in the heart of the labyrinth,

and are granted the private session with the priest of health.


That we have, even in our desire to portray medicine

as one of our most modern and secular institutions,

integrated so many religious elements without ever really intending to

says to me that we humans inherently understand

that science and religion cannot, should not, and will not be separated…

Efforts to do so will fail, and will lead to a lessening

of both science and religion.

There is nothing more religious in nature than health…

than decisions of life and death.


I believe the trends that we see in medicine,

of integrating religious symbology and feeling,

exists throughout all science.

As a faith tradition, our goal should be to help science and religion

realize that they have never been separate,

and they weaken each other when they try.


Rev. Michael Dowd refers to scientists as “empirical theologians”,

naming the study of the Universe to be a religious act.

We humans are always looking for an answer

to the question of “Why do we exist?”

That question could be considered the basis of all human religion.

Perhaps humans exist to try and understand and appreciate

all of the rest of the creation from which we have come.


As Michael Dowd puts it, “We humans are the universe becoming self-aware”.


The two practices of that universal self-awareness are religion and science.


Judith Hoehler calls upon our prophetic faith

to have our feet firmly planted in our living tradition,

our eyes fixed upon the future,

and our voice compelling us to act within the present.

Albert is gone, and so the task of healing

the division between science and religion falls into our hands.

We must be the religion of both the compass, and the violin.


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