Click Here For Proof of God

Today’s homily came about in a circuitous fashion.

A couple of months ago I had to come up with a title for this sermon. There is always a little pressure on what to call a sermon because the title usually has to come before you actually write it. I’ve been burned by this process a couple of times, having sermons that ended up with entirely different titles than were publicized. In this case I came up with the pithy title you see on the order of service, thought to myself what a clever fellow I am, and pondered what a sermon with that title would contain.

Then fate intervened.

Something happened that made words - abstractions - seem meaningless. I couldn’t string a sentence together on the page to save my soul as all my psychic energy was redirected down a dark and frightening path. Normally never at a loss for words, I was concerned that today would arrive and there would be no words on a page to deliver. I feared we might have a Quaker service.

But fate intervened again, the heavens opened, the power went out at my house for 36 hours, the words returned, just in time to write the sermon.

As it turns out, the title works. Let’s start clicking away.

The very meaninglessness of life forces man to create his own meaning. Children, of course, begin life with an untarnished sense of wonder, a capacity to experience total joy at something as simple as the greenness of a leaf; but as they grow older, the awareness of death and decay begins to impinge on their consciousness and subtly erode their exultation of spirit, their idealism – and their assumption of immortality. As a child matures, he sees death and pain everywhere about him, and begins to lose faith in the ultimate goodness of man. But, if he’s reasonably strong – and lucky – he can emerge from this twilight of the soul into a rebirth of life’s vibrancy. Both because of and in spite of his awareness of the meaninglessness of life, he can forge a fresh sense of purpose and affirmation. He may not recapture the same pure sense of wonder he was born with, but he can shape something far more enduring and sustaining. The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death – however mutable man may be able to make them – our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.

    - Stanley Kubrick

Those of you with children know that the single most rewarding - and demanding - experience we have as humans is raising those children. I remember being told how difficult it is to raise a small child. My experience was nothing of the sort. Of course there are sleepless nights and diaper changing and other nuisances that are part of the process, but mostly it is an exercise in joy and revelation and countless small moments that enrich us and our kids. I loved every moment of my son’s childhoods.

But a day comes when everything changes. We have only one rite of passage in our culture in the United States in these modern times, and when that initiation rite arrives, your blood will run colder than a glacial stream. I speak of the day they get their driver’s license. When they get that license, their life changes immeasurably. Your life becomes a daily exercise in terror.

This is a thoughtful group. I don’t have to tell you how many ways things can go wrong when a 16 year old baby, yes baby, gets behind the wheel of a car. Our own child would never consider doing anything wrong, but their friends, once wrapped in the adrenaline pumping freedom of an automobile, are capable of talking our beautiful child into any sort of blood curdling crime of passion. Your child is suddenly the captain of a two ton hunk of metal that travels 100 miles an hour and speeds down a thin ribbon of concrete directly towards other two ton hunks of metal traveling towards them, directly at them, and in those cars are drunks, and dope fiends, and phone callers, and texters, and people eating every sort of thing, and people putting on make up, and people reaching towards their cigarette pack on the floor, and psychotics, and narcoleptics, and tiny blue haired ninety year olds with glaucoma. All weaving erratically down the highway towards your beautiful baby and his undependable friends.

My oldest son excelled at concealing his youthful indiscretions from me. I didn’t know until years later the reckless nonsense he was up to once he got his license. I thank him for that deception. My youngest son however, made 10 trips to emergency rooms by the time he was ten years old. All of the stitches and broken bones were because of his rambunctious nature, and we became concerned that some database might alert the DCFS and we would have some explaining to do.

Suffice to say that when he got his license I stopped sleeping. I knew in my marrow that he was capable of anything behind the wheel of a car. Exactly one month after he got his license, about 9:30 at night, 30 minutes after he was supposed to be home, I received a phone call. This is one of those awful phone calls where you know after the first syllable that something terrible has happened. You’ve heard no information, but the tone of the voice communicates that the unspeakable has occurred. For a millisecond I utterly panicked. He must be mortally hurt. But wait. I was speaking to him. He was OK. But that tone only occurred when someone was in mortal peril.

“Dad”, he said, “I just ran over a man in the car”. 

This was the moment that I understood how the endocrine system is designed to help us out run tigers. I got a jolt of adrenaline that could have sent a rocket to the moon. I quickly asked where he was. He told me, I hopped on my motor scooter and away I went on one of the longest, most anxious mile long rides of my life. As I drove, shivering with fear and anxiety, this is what I thought. “Please God, don’t let my son be permanently scarred or go to jail over whatever has happened. Please. God”.

When I got there, there were police and an ambulance and emergency lights flashing madly, giving a surreal feel to it all. I found my son by the car and quickly realized that the reality was different than the image I had seen in my mind’s eye. There was a scooter, like the kind a child stands on with one foot and scoots down the sidewalk along the side of the car, it’s handle bar sticking through a hole in the windshield. It had a small motor on the back wheel.  My son was outwardly calm, but obviously in great distress. My heart ached in a way it never had before.

As we talked, I looked towards the ambulance and saw the man he hit on a stretcher. Something didn’t look right. The horror show intensified as I realized that the man on the stretcher was missing a leg. I wanted to fall to the ground and cry.

I asked my son if he was OK, he nodded silently, and then I walked to speak to a policeman. I feared that my son was about to be arrested and locked up forever, damaged for life. I introduced myself to the officer and asked him if he knew what had happened. 

“Your son made a left turn and this imbecile on the stretcher, who, by the way, lost his license for multiple DUI’s long ago, was driving that motorized scooter with no lights, on the wrong side of the road, drunk out of his mind, and crashed into the side of your son’s car. We’ve been dealing with this idiot for ages”

A new reality started to form in my head.

“But what about his leg?” 

“Years ago he crashed a car drunk and lost his leg, so now he has a prosthetic leg that fell off in the crash. It’s on the ground over there”.

I looked at the leg there in the grass, it’s shoe askew, and it sunk it that it hadn’t been severed in the crash. My son hadn’t torn a man’s leg off. “How badly is he hurt?”, I asked.

“Not a scratch on him. He was so drunk, he was completely relaxed. You or I would probably broke every bone in our body when we tensed up. We’re just taking him to the hospital as a precaution”.

I looked at the man on the stretcher and had an over powering urge to jump on him and beat him senseless with his fake leg.

Surprise. He had no insurance, so, in addition to scaring my son and I out of our wits, I had to pay a $500 deductible to fix my car. 

So my 16 year old ran over a one legged man a month after he got his license. Tragedy plus time equals comedy, and the horror I felt that night can now generate a chuckle. Life is strange.

But the real reason for telling this story is my spontaneous prayer on the way to the accident.

We all know of countless examples of events when people prayed and their prayers weren’t answered. The leading cause of death is birth. Everyone dies. Thus we have empirical evidence that all prayers aren’t answered. People pray for loved ones to survive illness and accidents countless times every day and many of them do not survive. My prayer, spontaneously beseeching the Creator to not allow my son to suffer, was answered, whether by divine intervention or, perhaps, just the circumstances of the event. The results of my impromptu prayer are not what really interests me. 

What interests me, indeed obsesses me, is the organic, instinctual, primal need to petition some entity outside of myself in times of great distress. I have experienced this phenomena on other occasions in my life. I am wired to be a skeptic in matters of the supernatural, with an abiding faith in science and reason, but oddly, like so many of my brethren, in those moments where life spins out of control, I find myself petitioning some force separate from myself. I bet it is the same for many of you. 

Two mondays ago, at about 9:30 in the evening, I was standing in my kitchen brewing a cup of tea. Suddenly there was a roar outside and the lights flickered, then went out completely. I looked out the window and quickly realized I was in one of the worst storms I had ever experienced. The rain was going sideways, along with tree branches and heaven knows what else. I like to sit on my porch during storms and take it all in. I stepped on to the porch and immediately lunged back inside, and locked the door. The energy outside was a primal, frightening, kill you in an instant reality. I went to the basement for the first time I can remember during a thunderstorm. This storm scared the stuffings out of me. This was an old testament, God is angry kind of meteorological phenomena. I bet a lot of people were in their basements silently praying to survive.

After a long, sleepless night I went outside to a changed neighborhood. Tree branches and debris were littering the yards and streets, piled high along the curbs. I hopped on my motor scooter and rode around town to see literally hundreds of trees that were either badly damaged or completely uprooted. It was heartbreaking to see so many beautiful trees, most decades old, gone forever.

Nature was doing what it does, the forces of natural selection at work weeding out the old, the weak, the poorly evolved. It is the way of life on earth. As Samuel Beckett once had one of his characters say, “We are all born astride the grave.” It’s no different for trees than for us.

Unfortunately the storm served as a cheap and easy metaphor for my own life. I am getting older, a little beat up by the storm and stress of life. My limbs aren’t as strong as they once were, and the miles on my odometer are piling up.

A few weeks ago I pointed out to my dermatologist a tiny, almost imperceptible bump on my lip. She said it was nothing but took it off so I wouldn’t scrape it while shaving. A week later I got a phone call while driving to visit my son in Carbondale. The tiny bump was cancer. Nature had noted that I had spent too much time in the sun as a child, further noted that it had weakened some of my cells, so nature began the weeding process on me. 

She told me matter of factly that I needed to have surgery and a time was available in 10 days. She said to be prepared for as much as six hours in the surgical office because they might have to make repeated removals of tissue to get all of the cancer. I haltingly asked what the consequences of the surgery would be. Would it alter my appearance? She responded, and I quote. “Well Dennis, you will never look like you did when God made you ever again.” My mind was off to the races. I was about to be permanently disfigured. I drifted off into an unpleasant reverie.

After what seemed like a few moments I realized that the Mississippi River bluff that should have been to my left was no longer there. I soon entered the town of Sparta, about 40 miles east of where I should have been. Such is the effect on the gyroscope when cancer is no longer an abstraction, but rather a reality.

I spent the 10 next days before the surgery to remove the cancer engaged in serious contemplation regarding the central conundrum of life. We are given the greatest gift in the universe, conscious, sentient awareness, with the understanding that this treasure will be taken away from us. And not just taken away, but taken away on a schedule that is unfairness itself. Some of us get a handful of years, some get a hundred years, with no regard to whether you are a loving, nurturing soul or a spectacular ass. This would seem to be a design flaw of great significance. Should I ever be honored to meet my maker, this is the first topic I will bring up. It is discouraging to remain faithful to your ideals, to passionately strive to live an honorable life, only to be told that a cellular anomaly the size of period at the end of a sentence is going to weed you from the herd. All this while an ex vice president, the owner of an apparently dead soul, seems to live on forever. Where is this intelligent design I hear so much about?

In the days before the surgery I thought myself into a frenzy. My always active imagination was off to the races, working myself into ever deepening anxiety. The greatest description of a nurturing relationship I’ve ever heard is that a successful romantic relationship involves taking turns being the optimist. But I am not in a relationship. I’m on my own. I feared that after disfiguring surgery I might always be on my own. I was in no state of mind to be an optimist. 

Is there any word in our language fraught with a more sinister ambience than “cancer”? It is a concept that is ground zero for primal angst. I considered needles, scalpels, blood, stitches, pain - disfigurement. This was not paranoia. This wasn’t misplaced fear. These were and are real fears.

When I wasn’t involved in anxious reveries I considered the phenomena I have noted at other episodes in my life. I recalled the episode with the one legged man. I recalled when my son was attacked by a dog and had to have countless stitches in his face and we feared he would be permanently disfigured, I recalled when my other son had a terrible illness that he couldn’t shake. In each of these cases, indeed, every time I have been involved in a terrifying episode involving mortality of myself or loved ones, I have instinctively petitioned some force outside of myself. Whether it was brain short circuiting terror, or an organic, primal response to forces outside of one’s control, I found myself praying.

As a person who is pathologically committed to reason, this is quite interesting, even unsettling. I feel like I am betraying my team, the team of science and logic. But mortal terror, a fear of the void, is universal, a psychological constant. It causes you to engage cognitive algorithms that you otherwise would dismiss. Life is like that. When you deal with interesting abstractions it is a wonderful parlor game. When the abstractions become visceral realities that can rob you or a loved one of the great gift of life, the BS is stripped away. Intellectual consistency no longer seems like an asset. Intellectual consistency suddenly seems like an enormous debit, a huge red splash on the spreadsheet of life. I prayed. I petitioned my creator with great gusto in the days leading up to the surgery.

Historically many people have come to similar crossroads. Thus history is littered with accounts of theretofore logical people trying to prove the existence of God, a strategy of making peace with the illogical  need to embrace and petition our Creator. They suffer, they petition God, they backtrack to come up with a logical explanation for this confounding and even embarrassing descent into the supernatural.

I had heard accounts of these brilliant people trying to come up with a proof for the existence of God. I had cancer, I was rattled to my core. I knew what I would do. I would research these proofs of God and provide myself cover for so organically petitioning my creator.

What does one do in this day and age to research anything? I went to Google. I typed in “proof of god”. I clicked.

I got many hits and now had to choose my adventure. I went with the old standby, Wikipedia, which, on a page title Existence of God, listed the categories used by true believers over the years to prove to themselves, if not others, that God exists.

Those categories, with many examples in each, include:
	Empirical arguments
	Deductive arguments
    Inductive arguments
    Subjective arguments
    Arguments grounded in personal experiences
I won’t make your eyes glaze over with examples of each of these arguments, but I must share with you that it is quickly obvious that a central theme is that they start with a conclusion and work backwards for a solution. Reverse engineering an argument for God’s existence does not build confidence in the strength of the argument. 

An example is an ontological argument rooted in deductive reasoning, championed by St. Anselm and Descarte, and is as follows:

	1.	God is the greatest conceivable being.
	2.	It is greater to exist than not to exist.
	3.	Therefore, God exists.

Convinced? Were I to find a rational, convincing proof of God, I would have to explore 

One of the things, aside from my introduction to the man with the scythe, that provoked my thoughts about God had been my consideration of the demise of one of my favorite authors and journalists, Christopher Hitchens. He was famously a belligerently devout atheist, and as an illness robbed him of his vitality, many people of Faith suggested that, as death approached, he would find God. Nothing if not a curmudgeon, and arrogant to a fault, Hitchens fired a preemptory strike. He would not find God he said, and if he somehow verbalized a newfound Faith, it would be because of damage to his brain caused by the illness or medication.

So he had covered all the bases to refute his critics, and consciously, as a tweak to the presumptions of others, equated Faith to brain damage.

This was a man who knew how to engineer an insult.

It was of interest to me that Hitchens was quite wealthy, had a large circle of friends and family, was almost never alone in life and in death. It occurred to me that it is a lot easier to be a stone cold atheist when surrounded by doctors, nurses, expensive health care, family, friends, and never a moment alone. The certainty of a Faithless universe, it seemed, would be easy to maintain surrounded by such comfort.

It struck me that a better exercise for testing an atheist’s belief system would be a situation when the atheist had no money, no health care, and spent each evening of his waning life alone. Those last moments would be a real test of a belief system for someone who professed to live in a world without meaning.

But one of the arguments for the existence of God I found on Wikipedia’s Existence of God page was constructed differently than all of the others, and seemed as clever as Hitchen’s broadside emphasizing his certainty that there is no God.

This argument for the existence of God hedges it’s bet, a strategy that is appealing to someone like me, who is uncomfortable with certainties whether they come from a person of Faith, or an atheist.

Blaise Pascal was a 17th century mathematician, philosopher, and physicist. To call him brilliant would be an understatement. He made many contributions to math and physical science and invented the first calculator, laying the groundwork for computer technology, a field that is logic itself. Towards the end of a life devoted to reason and religious skepticism, he was involved in a carriage accident, stared into the void, and had a spiritual epiphany of sorts, a spontaneous vision that drew him into spirituality. After his death his remarkable book of philosophy called “Thoughts” was published. In that book, thought number 233 has come to be called Pascal’s wager. The wager is fairly verbose and dense, yet utterly fascinating. I urge you to look it up online and read it in it’s entirety. But Pascal also reduced it to simpler terms: “Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.” 

LIke the other attempted proofs of God, a talented debater or logician can find the logical fallacies in a moment. And yet, for a person who has just been through what I’ve been through - well, Pascal seems to be just a bit more clever than his critics. Like the great atheist Christopher Hitchens, he has introduced a fail safe mechanism in his argument and I find Pascal’s fail safe mechanism to have a greater reward for someone who isn’t wealthy, isn’t surrounded by family and friends, and isn't so committed to nihilism.

He seems to say that, “Hey, were all making this stuff up as we go, so why not make up something that is beautiful instead of desolate?”

When I was younger, Pascal’s wager would have seemed like the silliest kind of rationalization to me. Cancer, the great teacher, has taught me I am not as self contained as I thought. I thought I was above and beyond such thinking. It turns out that I am not.

The weeding process of life is relentless. The most adaptable survive, but never forever. Another storm will approach, more trees will fall, and one of these days the weeding process will be successful for me as it will for everyone in this room. That process has hit home with me in a dramatic way, it is no longer an abstraction. The man with the scythe has shown his face. Thus I am confronted with the central conundrum of life, the question that brings many of us to this sanctuary - what to do with the too few precious moments with which we have been gifted.

What is the source of that gift? Paradoxically, we can’t know. The great gift of life, the greatest gift in the universe, is anonymous.

I do know this. I know how we should spend the time we have on this beautiful, life giving planet. We should find things we love to do and do them, we should find people we care for to do things with, we should strive to be our better selves, by considering the greater good in all we do. What we are doing right now, engaging in a communal church experience is an exercise in trying to be your better self. Bravo for us for being here.

Spontaneous, unscripted behavior is a window into the spirit and is always worthy of examination. As we have established, my entire life, most of which found me as an active participate in religious skepticism, I engaged in primal, spontaneous prayer in times of great distress. Illogical, perhaps a result of fear or even cowardice, but pray I did, pray I do, as naturally and organically as breathing.

My head tells me that it is improbable that their is a Greater Consciousness. But have any of you taken note of mankind’s track record on the use of reason? I give you phrenology, bleeding, alchemy, egocentricity, the four humors, spontaneous generation, the blank slate theory, the static universe, and so on. All these things once approached scientific consensus. Reason proved for thousands of years that heavier objects fall more quickly than lighter objects. Except that they don’t. Oh - If we invade Iraq they will greet us with flowers and the invasion will pay for itself. That’s simply logic. Human reason is so often wrong as to be laughable.  I remind you that three fourths of life of earth is invisible to the human eye. Most of what is going on in the universe we are oblivious to. Eastern religion teaches that life is an exercise in illusion. Reason is lovely, they seem to suggest, but it should be handled like a python.

One of the most loaded topics in UU circles, an inordinately educated group of people, is the concept of God. The word God, if not the concept, has been co-opted by a bunch of small minded, boneheaded fundamentalists. They use the concept, and the word, as cover for bigotry, neurosis, self loathing, and, too often, stone cold pathology. Because of this some UUs seem to approach the concept with suspicion, if not outright disdain.

Consider this service as one small effort to re-appropriate the concept of God for those of us not burdened with neurotic Abrahamic certainties. One of my heroes, the great philosopher Spinoza, suggested a Pantheistic universe, one where all matter, sentient and otherwise, is part of a universal consciousness. Many eastern religions support this point of view. This idea implies that each of us is part of creation, part of something bigger than ourselves - without insulting our intelligence. This could be the consciousness outside myself that I petition in moments of need.

As you can see, I am alive, and although for a week I looked like I was hit it the mouth with a steel pipe, I have not been permanently disfigured, although I have a visible scar. The nurse was correct. I do not look like I did when God made me. But I am quite happy with that scar given the alternatives. I am at greater risk than the average person for a repeat performance so I am reminded to embrace humility, to give thanks, to embrace the moment.

I prayed and the outcome was positive. Others prayed and their outcome was not positive. The great anonymous gift of Life isn’t remotely logical or fair.

I have a life policy that I never punish myself because someone else is an ass. Some people, like the one legged man, abuse alcohol with great destructiveness. That doesn’t mean I am going to deny myself a beer in the evening. Just because some people abuse the concept of God doesn’t mean I am going to deny myself an opportunity to take Pascal’s wager. 

I like that. Beer and God as cosmic cousins. Let’s leave it at that.

“If man merely sat back and thought about his impending termination, and his terrifying insignificance and aloneness in the cosmos, he would surely go mad, or succumb to a numbing sense of futility. Why, he might ask himself, should he bother to write a great symphony, or strive to make a living, or even to love another, when he is no more than a momentary microbe on a dust mote whirling through the unimaginable immensity of space? Those of us who are forced by their own sensibilities to view their lives in this perspective — who recognize that there is no purpose they can comprehend and that amidst a countless myriad of stars their existence goes unknown and unchronicled — can fall prey all too easily to the ultimate anomaly. The world's religions, for all their parochialism, do supply a kind of consolation for this great ache.” 

     -Stanley Kubrick

I wanted all things
To seem to make some sense,
So we could all be happy, yes,
Instead of tense.
And I made up lies
So that they all fit nice,
And I made this sad world
A par-a-dise.

      - from Bokonen, the fictional holy man in Kurt Vonnegut’s book Cat’s Cradle - On the creation of the religion of Bokononism:
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