SUMMER LITE SUNDAY SERVICES are here!
During June and August Sunday services often vary in style and ritual. They are less formal. The usual order of service may or may not be followed. There is no paper order of service handout. Shorts and sandals announce that some are heading to the peninsula after the service. Social hour features a simpler cookie and fruit table, or none. The one thing that will remain for sure is the opportunity to talk with each other. As always, we are happy to be together.
Approximately 890 shoppers visited the 2019 yard sale. Dispersal of remnants, including a lot of clothing, to local nonprofit charitable organizations is nearly complete. More than 70 UUCE congregants, friends, and family put time and effort into the sale.
Regis Sabol’s May 5 Sunday service message:
Back in 1972, I met my late friend Paul Clancy when we performed in a Gannon College Little Theater production of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” Paul told me a story about attending a party while under the influence of particularly potent LSD. You have to understand that, as my friend Peter Mahler would later lament, “Pity the younger generation; they’ll never know what good acid is.”
So, Paul is sitting on the floor of this student apartment next to a bookcase where he happens to see a copy of Rene Descartes’ “Meditations.” And he thinks, “Cogito, ergo sum. I think; therefore, I am.” Suddenly, it occurs to him. “Does that mean if I do not think, I am not?” Just then, a little man runs out from behind the bookcase. He wags his finger at Paul and shouts, “You can’t think that! You can’t think that!” Then, he runs back behind the bookcase. I guess you might say Paul had a moment of psychedelic enlightenment.
I ran into our friends Jim and Annette Wise at the Glenwood Y a few weeks ago. When I told Jim the topic of today’s service, he told me that, one time, Rene Descartes went into a bar. When the bartender asked him if he wanted a shot, Descartes replied, “I think not.” Then he disappeared.
I saw outdoor aprons on sale the other day. One of them read, “I grill. Therefore, I am.”
Such has been the power of that one idea that it continues to resonate today as an expression of our being. “I think, therefore I am”—ego cogito, ergo sum, as Descartes put it in Latin. Anthony Gottlieb calls it the most famous slogan in philosophy.
Consider the situation when Descartes came up with that radical idea. A century had passed since Martin Luther shook the foundations of Western Europe in the sixteenth century with the Protestant Reformation, shattering the hegemony of the Roman Catholic Church, with an enormous boost from the invention of the printing press, which enabled Christians to read The Bible in the vernacular.
Even so, the Catholic Church continued to hold enormous power. It excommunicated Galileo for publishing the findings of his astronomical observations that confirmed Copernicus’ theory that the earth and the other planets revolved around the sun. This, of course, contradicted official church doctrine, which upheld the concept of the Ptolemaic universe with the sun, the planets, and all the stars revolving around the earth.
Facing the same fate as other heretics burned at the stake during The Inquisition, Galileo knuckled under. He went to Rome and apologized for rocking the boat, but that cat of scientific knowledge was already out of the bag.
Still, Descartes took note. When news of Galileo’s condemnation reached him in1633, Descartes cancelled the publication of his first scientific treatise, “The World.” It didn’t matter, though. Like Luther and Galileo, Descartes would irrevocably alter the trajectory of Western thought and world history.
Descartes’s logic was determined to prove the existence of God, but he turned his back on centuries of the type of medieval philosophy expounded by the likes of Thomas Aquinas that Thomas Hobbes derisively called “the Kingdom of Darkness” and looked, instead, to Francis Bacon as his role model. In the spirit of the Francis Bacon adage, “if a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin in doubts, he will end in certainties,” Descartes invited his readers to join him in a cold bath of skepticism—which he found to be wonderfully invigorating.
Since I now wished to devote myself solely to the search for truth, I thought it necessary to … reject as absolutely false everything in which I could imagine the least doubt… Thus, because our senses sometimes deceived us, I decided to suppose that nothing was such as they led us to imagine. And since there are men who make mistakes in reasoning…and because I judged that I was as prone to error as anyone else, I rejected as unsound all arguments I had previously taken as demonstrative proofs. Lastly, considering that the very thoughts we have while awake may also occur while we sleep without any of them being at any time true, I resolved to pretend that all the things that had ever entered my mind were no more than the illusions of my dreams.
“Descartes soon found something that could not be an illusion, something he could know to be true even if he were dreaming. He had found his first certainty.”
I noticed that while I was trying thus to think everything false, it was necessary that I, who was thinking, was something. And observing that this truth, “I am thinking, therefore I exist,” was so firm and sure that all the most extravagant suppositions of the sceptics were incapable of shaking it, I decided that I could accept it without scruple as the first principle of philosophy I was seeking.
And so, Descartes, the devout Catholic, helped transform western thought from a god-centered universe to a humanistic sphere. It was no longer, God created me, therefore I am. It was now I think, therefore I am.
Yes, we owe a lot to Rene’ Descartes. Gottlieb and other scholars consider him to be a giant whose ideas shaped The Enlightenment.
As Gottlieb explains, “Descartes was in a position to speak with authority about the new science, for he was one of its principal authors. Modern applied mathematics is largely based on an invention of his, namely analytic geometry, which uses algebra to solve practical problems about space and motion. He did more than anyone else of his day to illustrate how mathematics could be put to work throughout the sciences. Galileo and Kepler were the pioneers in this project, but their efforts were fragmentary ones. Descartes’ work was more comprehensive.
“In physics and cosmology, Descartes propounded theories which were for a time serious rivals to those of Isaac Newton and which stimulated some of Newton’s own ideas. A few years after Newton’s death, Voltaire wrote, “I don’t think we really dare compare in any way (Descartes’) philosophy with that of Newton: the first is a sketch, the second is a masterpiece.” Nevertheless, “the man who set us on the road to truth is perhaps as noteworthy as the one who since then has been to the end of the road.
“Descartes’ scientific work except for his mathematics has been superseded, which is partly why he is now remembered as an abstract thinker rather than a man of science. This tends to obscure the fact that much of his life was spent not in ruminating about the topics of what he called “first philosophy” or “metaphysics”—the nature of the soul, the limits of knowledge, the existence of God, for example—but rather experiments, dissections, observations and calculations. Despite Descartes’ current reputation, the man himself seems to have less interested in metaphysics than in applying algebra to geometry and delving into the innards of cows.
“While living in Amsterdam in around 1630, he visited butcher’s shops every day to fetch carcasses for dissection. His explanation of the rainbow was a landmark in experimental science, and it was almost right. He independently discovered, and was the first to publish, the law of refraction, known in English-speaking countries as Snell’s Law, which explains why a straight stick can appear bent when partly immersed in water. He also conducted research in physiology, medicine, meteorology, geology and all the other mysteries that the “mechanical philosophy” promised to illuminate. It was Descartes who first demonstrated in detail that the workings of human bodies could be studied as if they were machines. He seized on William Harvey’s discovery of circulation of the blood, and generalized such ideas to develop a comprehensively mechanistic physiology. He also, however, made several incorrect criticisms of Harvey, and misdescribed the function of the heart.”
Hey, nobody’s perfect.
By establishing the legitimacy of physical observation and experimentation, Descartes gave credence to the concept of empirical reasoning that is essential to modern science. He not only opened the door to the discoveries of the great Isaac Newton, but also to those of the Unitarian pioneer and scientist Joseph Priestly, best known outside Unitarian-Universalism for his discovery of oxygen.
In fact, I contend that Descartes so altered the landscape of science and mathematics that the discoveries and inventions that created the Industrial Revolution resulted directly or indirectly from his work. Such is the enormity of Descartes’ impact.
In essence, Descartes raised doubt from a vice to a virtue. He legitimized skepticism as a vital tool in the free and meaningful search for truth and meaning. And that is where I see an intrinsic connection between Descartes and Unitarian and Universalist thought.
“The theology of doubt is the underlying theology of Unitarian Universalism,” says Christine Robinson. “It’s a theology which keeps us from self-righteousness, but not action.”
Now, I am no way suggesting that “the great doubter,” as Gottlieb calls Descartes, was a closet Unitarian. He considered himself to be a devout Catholic until the day he died. But, without Descartes, the martyrdom of Michael Servetus, who successfully challenged the doctrine of the Trinity and was burned at the stake in John Calvin’s Geneva in 1553, and Francis David, the first prophet of Unitarianism, who died in a Transylvanian prison in1579 after the death of King John Sigismund, might very well have been in vain.
As former President Barack Obama recently observed in another context, “Democracy is not fragile, but it is reversible.” And the same can be said of the ideas of religious tolerance and freedom propounded by Servetus, David, and their contemporaries. It is a pattern that would continue throughout The Enlightenment—the conflict between new ideas and entrenched doctrine.
Consider the brief timeline between David’s death and Galileo’s condemnation, a little more than half a century. Yet, this is the dangerous yet ever shifting climate in which Descartes dared to make his bold declaration, “I think, therefore, I am.”
How well, I wonder, would those sixteenth-century Unitarian ideas have survived without the one-time Jesuit’s declaration that our minds, not The Bible, prove we exist. Of course, Descartes insisted that his ability to think was proof of God’s existence, since God is incapable of doubt. The rickety nature of that proposition would inevitably, itself, face scrutiny.
Yes, I insist that the religious ideas of Servetus and David survived because of ideas promulgated by Descartes and others, notably, the British Enlightenment philosopher John Locke.
Locke’s “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” “was rightly seen as an ambitious elaboration and extension of the “new philosophy” of Galileo, Descartes and the Royal Society,” says Gottlieb. According to American philosopher C. S. Pierce, “Locke’s grand work was substantially this: Men must think for themselves.”
“Although Locke remained in the Church of England all his life,” says Unitarian historian David E. Parke, “his religious thinking was radical. His library contained the writings of (French reformer Sebastian) Castellio, (the Italian architect of modern Unitarianism Faustus) Socinus), (the first effective advocate for Unitarianism in England, John) Biddle, the Racovian Catechism, and most of the influential Socinians.”
“In questions of religion,” says Gottlieb, “Locke’s leading idea was that theological doctrine must be answerable to the court of reason: ‘Reason must be our last Judge and Guide in everything,” he said. On the question of religious toleration,” Locke maintained that on the whole people should have the liberty to make up their own minds on religious topics.
“In matters of morality, too, Locke argued that men must think for themselves They should not blindly accept the practices and standards of the day because,” he said, ‘moral Principles require Reasoning and Discourse, and some Exercise of the Mind, to discover the certainty of their Truths.’”
Locke’s appeal to reason would have even more profound consequences when he turned his attention to government. While he remained a loyal subject of the British crown, just as Descartes remained a devout Catholic, Locke rejected the Tudor-instilled concept of the Divine Right of Kings. In the aftermath of a great civil war that led to the execution of one king, the establishment of a dictatorship, and the restoration of the monarchy, Locke proposed another source of legitimate political authority—a social contract.
“By making a pact to join together and form a community,” Locke declared, “men lay the foundation of political power, which is then exercised on their behalf by a ruler or government. The authority of a ruler thus derives from a type of contract freely entered into by his subjects, and is neither imposed by God nor based on brute force.”
It is, of course, common knowledge that Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Paine, among others, drew heavily upon Locke’s writings to justify their revolution against British rule. It was Locke who declared, “All men are endowed with the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of property.” That, by the way, was Locke’s justification for colonists to seize Indian lands. As Gottlieb notes, “Locke would have been aghast to discover that ideas from his book were later used against the British colonial regime, in which he, himself, played an enthusiastic part.” Still, Jefferson expanded that notion into a Declaration that all men are born with the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Scholars continue to debate Jefferson’s expansion of Locke’s original idea. Some argue that Jefferson, being a patrician, slave-holding plantation owner, simply did not believe all men were endowed with the God-given right to property, a notion no doubt deeply cherished in tiny England. Others contend that Jefferson went beyond Locke. For Jefferson, it simply wasn’t about something as tangible as property. It was about the ephemeral He said we all had a right to be happy. Think about what a radical idea that was.
That was not Jefferson’s only Declaration of Independence. In 1779, he composed another declaration of independence, “this one designed to free the people of Virginia from spiritual tyranny. That resolution was adopted in1786 as the ‘Statute for religious freedom.’ Its principles of religious equality and separation of church and state were written into the basic law of the United States as the First Amendment to the Constitution.”
And the rest, as they say, is history. Or to borrow a line from one of our friend Kate Buczek’s favorite bands, The Grateful Dead, “What a long, strange trip it’s been.”
Michael Servetus and Francis David threw open the window to doubt and ignited a flame of liberal religious belief.
Then along came Rene Descartes, whose own ideas proved a bellows that allowed that light to burst into The Enlightenment. Then along came John Locke and Isaac Newton and Joseph Priestly and Thomas Jefferson, among others. And the light grew ever brighter.
And the liberal religious beliefs espoused by Unitarianism, while still battered, continued to grow in the fertile soil of Enlightenment thought, and, if I may mix metaphors, spread like proverbial wildfire throughout early America. They swelled to a new zenith with the rise of Transcendentalist thinkers Ralph Waldo Emerson and David Henry Thoreau. Universalism, legal in England since as far back as 1562, proved a healthy astringent to the excesses of The Great Awakening of religious fundamentalism in America, thanks to the forceful preaching of Universalist minister John Murray, who, we might say, fought fire with fire.
And, thanks to all those fires, we bask here this morning in the warm glow of Unitarian-Universalism. But now we face new challenges. As New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg observed on Friday, “One of the central questions of our time is whether enlightenment tools can deal with a post-enlightenment information landscape.” That is why we must always maintain our free and meaningful search for truth and meaning.
We owe it not just to ourselves, but to all those who came before us and to all those who will come after us. We must always nourish this little light of ours.