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

Only in the Creation — Sermon by the Rev. David Pyle

Last preached on September 29th, 2013


Our theme for this past month has been creation, and through that theme we have explored imagination, creativity, the building of beloved community, and how it is a fine line between creativity and foolishness.  We explored the roots of human creativity as resting in our being the part of the universe that can reflect back upon ourselves in awe and wonder.  In our Wednesday night services this month we have thought, if our life were an art project, what kind of art project would we be?  We have built Pyramid Poems together on Wednesday night, where we each added a line, moving from one syllable to four, and then back down…  and I thought to share one of my own…



Really can

Be written by,


Who da


And yet, there is another meaning, a more traditional religious meaning to the word Creation, and I would not feel we had explored our theme of the month if we did not spend a few moments exploring it as well.  And to explore this more traditional Hebrew and Christian understanding of the word Creation, I feel called to turn to the writings and ideas of someone who had quite intentionally left Christianity.

And, if I am honest about it… encountering this one person’s religious ideas probably had more to do with my becoming a Unitarian Universalist than just about anyone else.

His name was Thomas Paine.

He was born in 1737 in the county of Norfolk in England, and with the help of Benjamin Franklin emigrated to the Americas in 1774, right before the revolution.  He was, to borrow a phrase from Saul Padover, “a corsetmaker by trade, a journalist by profession, and a propagandist by inclination”.  What many of us might have learned of him in school was that he wrote two very influential pamphlets, “Common Sense” and “The American Crisis” that helped propel the American Colonies to declare their independence from England in 1776.  John Adams, our nation’s second president and one of the most influential Unitarians of his day once said that without Thomas Paine, the American revolution would have been in vain.

Yes, for those who don’t know… the second, the third, and the sixth American Presidents were all Unitarians.  So, in some ways I feel religiously connected to the founding of our nation, because many of this nation’s founding ideals were quite intentionally linked to the principals and values of Unitarian faith.  As some have remarked, if the United States were to have a public state religion, it would almost have to be Unitarian Universalism… so deeply rooted were the two at our founding.

But I digress…

Thomas Paine would have probably lived out his life in the newly founded American nation as an honored statesman and hero of the revolution, had he just stopped writing when the Revolution was over… but he did not.  It is one of the things I like most about him… he never knew when to leave well enough alone.

Though he was not a Unitarian or a Universalist during his life, I have thought that, if he could get past his dislike of anything that called itself a “church”, he might have found himself more at home in the Unitarian Universalist congregations of today than the Unitarian or Universalist churches of his time.

Third Unitarian Church of Chicago has a small plaque on the front of their pulpit that dedicates said pulpit to Thomas Paine.  There is even a painting of him set behind the pulpit, so that no one can listen to a sermon without seeing him.  I think he would have loved that his painting is up on the wall with Jesus, Confucius, Gandhi, and Emerson, among others.

Why is Thomas Paine, this cheerleader for the American Revolution, why is he up on that wall with those great religious leaders and thinkers?  Because, as I said, he could not leave well enough alone.  Having inspired a political revolution, he then set out to inspire a religious revolution… to a very different level of success.

After moving to France and writing in support of the French Revolution, and going to prison for it, Thomas Paine released a book, the first half of which at least was written in prison.  It was called “The Age of Reason”.  One of the legends around Paine’s writing of “Age of Reason” is that the only book he was allowed in prison was the Bible, and so being in jail gave him the chance to really read it in depth for the first time… and he was aghast at what he found there.  He found it full of logical fallacies, unbelievable stories, and an understanding of God that was mean and cruel as often as caring and loving.  He found in the stories of Jesus a good moral sentiment, but also that said sentiment was lost among the obviously false stories, to Paine’s eye, of miracles and magic.

So, from his prison cell in 1793, he released the first half of Age of Reason, which was a catalogue of all the things he thought was wrong with religion in general and with Christianity in particular.  Because he was Thomas Paine, the Pen of the American Revolution, and at that point of the French Revolution as well, the pamphlet was widely printed and read.

Let us just say that, this resounding propagandistic critique of Christian Theology and Church Authority was not received well by most of society, in America or in France.  Even those who agreed with what he had to say were taken back by the polemic and propagandistic way in which he said it.  Apparently, what was a wonderful way to talk about English and French nobility was not a good way to talk about God and Jesus in 1793.

And so, in 1794, Thomas Paine released the second half of Age of Reason.  In the first half he stated all of the things in religion that he was against… but in the second half of the work he took the step that too few of us have the courage to take… he moved away from talking about what he did not believe in, and instead focused on what he did believe in.

Though Deism had existed and had been written about almost two centuries before Thomas Paine was born, the second half of Age of Reason became in some ways the first book of the “Deist Bible”.  Deism, as Thomas Paine described it, is the belief that God existed and created the universe… and then chose to leave it alone.  Deists believe that the universe is designed like a clock, and that the clockmaker, or God, designed it so well that it does not need any intervention to continue to operate.  It might wind down someday, but until then the natural systems of the universe will run themselves without any divine interference.

Deism says that the primary tool humans need to live a religious life is not faith, but reason.  It claims as the primary source of religious inspiration not any book of sacred scriptures written by humans… but rather the universe, the creation itself.  If you want to know more about God, Paine says, you do not need to go study ancient writings.  You only need to study a leaf.

Though there is much that is influential and valuable in the religious writings of Thomas Paine and the other Deists (and their more modern relatives that call themselves Religious Naturalists), it is this idea that I want to stay with today…  The idea that it is in the Creation that you can come to know God… come to know what is divine about the universe.

One of my friends who is a leader in the Deist community on the internet has a great way to know if you are a Deist.  He says if when you talk to Christians, they think you are attacking God, but when you talk to Atheists they think you are defending God… well then you might just be a Deist.

He also says that you might be a Deist if everytime you write the word Reason you capitalize it… maybe with some underlining and highlighting…

When I first encountered “Age of Reason” and the writings of the other Deists when I was in my early twenties, I remember being struck by the beauty and simplicity of understanding the universe around me, the creation, as if it were scripture.  Let me share the full text from Age of Reason from which our opening words were adapted… with the understanding that it was written in 1794 and does not conform to our modern understandings of gender neutral language…

“It is only in the CREATION that all our ideas and conceptions of a word of God can unite. The Creation speaketh an universal language, independently of human speech or human language, multiplied and various as they may be. It is an ever-existing original, which every man can read. It cannot be forged; it cannot be counterfeited; it cannot be lost; it cannot be altered; it cannot be suppressed. It does not depend upon the will of man whether it shall be published or not; it publishes itself from one end of the earth to the other. It preaches to all nations and to all worlds; and this word of God reveals to man all that is necessary for man to know of God.”

It is, to me, one of the most pure and simple propositions in all of theology.  It accepts one premise… that the universe, that all of nature, was in some way inspired or created by that which is sacred and divine in the universe, however you define that which is sacred and divine.

This is a premise that almost every human religion since the dawn of time has begun with… including “The Great Story” of evolution that I told our children at the beginning of this month.

In essence, Thomas Paine is saying that to understand the clockmaker, study the clock.  To understand the artist, study their art.  To understand the architect, study their buildings.  To understand God or however you define the Divine and sacred, study the universe.  Study nature.  Study science.  Study biology.  Study chemistry.  Study Astronomy.

And all you need for this study is curiosity, reason, and method.

How different that is than the belief that you learn about God by studying the stories of the Bible, or the Torah, or the Koran, or the Sutras, or the Gita, or any of the many written scriptures.  How different a concept of the relationship between religion and science!  By studying nature we are learning theology.  By being in awe of the universe we are in awe of the divine.

To learn about the clockmaker, study the clock.   And to study the clock, you must use reason.

And for this, Thomas Paine was ostracized by American and European society, and he died in 1809 believing himself something of a reject and a failure.  Such is true of so many whose beliefs now inspire us as Unitarian Universalists!

So, what does the creation have to teach us?  I’m not sure we will ever know in its fullness.  Albert Einstein once related the human study of the universe to a child, who has entered a library, but is only learning how to read.  The knowledge is vast, and our ability to comprehend it is at its beginning.  But I have a few things that I have come to believe, from looking into the sacred depths of nature, to borrow a phrase from Ursula Goodenough.  I thought I would close today by sharing a few of those Creation inspired beliefs of mine, in that it might inspire you to your own.

No matter how big I think it is, it is always bigger than that.  The universe is vast.  Really vast.  Remember that video before I began this sermon?  It is hard to conceive how vast the universe is.  That truth has led me to the practice of, whenever I think I have a good grasp on how full and big something is, look a little wider.  I will likely see more than I initially thought I would.

It is all a system.  From the movement of an atom to the work of ants to the functioning of human culture to the movement of the stars… it is all a system.  In order to understand something that is happening, you have to look not at just an individual, but at the systems they are a part of.

What you think I know is often dependent on all that I do not know.  Some scientists who are tracking the behavior of objects that have now left our solar system are noticing that they are no longer behaving according to the Law of Gravity as we understand it.

So… if the Law of Gravity might not be as final as we thought, then I kinda have to hold some doubt about everything else I believe, and be willing to change those beliefs when they are shown to be less than perfect.

Everything has a place.  There is nothing, or no-one that is surplus, or useless, or without contribution in this vast system we call a universe.  If something appears not to have a useful purpose, then either I don’t understand what its place is yet, or something has moved it out of where it should be.

All of this and more the Creation has taught me… so far.  And one more thing.

If we understand nature and the universe as the Word of God… then each and every day we walk among the holy.  Even things that I might not like have sacredness resting within them.  My not seeing that sacredness is more about me than anything else.  Every person is a part of creation, and so are their stories.  We all walk in and participate in that holiness.

Thank you Thomas Paine.  So may it be, blessed be, and amen.

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