from The Cathedral of the World: A Universalist Theology by Forrest Church
By cosmologists’ latest reckoning, there are some 100 billion stars in our galaxy, and ours is one of perhaps 100 billion galaxies. There are as many stars in the heavens as there are grains of sand on all the earth. Divide the stars among us and, in our galaxy alone, every individual alive on earth today would be the proud possessor of some seventeen personal stars. If you choose to name yours (actually a fun thing to do), you can’t start too soon. Naming one’s own stars is more than a lifelong project. By my reckoning, the cosmic star-to-person ratio is 1.7 trillion to one.
So what do we do? Do we name our stars and shake our heads in humility and wonder? No. We sit on a single grain of sand on this vast cosmic beach and argue over who has the goods on God. Is it the atheist or the theist? The Hindu or the Buddhist? The Catholic or Protestant? The Muslim or the Jew? We duel (sometimes to the death) over which religious teacher has the best insider information on God and the afterlife. Is it Jesus? The Buddha? Muhammad? How about Nietzsche, Gandhi, or Freud? Billions of accidents conspired to give each of these compelling teachers the opportunity to teach. Knowing this—pondering numbers beyond reckoning—doesn’t strip me of my faith. It inspires my faith. It makes me humble. It fills me with awe.
There is a reason that I chose one of our high school students to deliver today’s reading. I was about his age when I began reading the works of Forrest Church. I checked out his books from the Wayland Public Library and especially delighted in three of his earliest works, a trilogy carrying the subtitles, “A Guide to Hell…”, “A Guide to Heaven…”, and “A Guide to Purgatory for Atheists and True Believers.”
For those of you unfamiliar with Forrest Church, let me provide the briefest of biographical sketches. Forrest Church, the son of Senator Frank Church of Idaho, earned a doctorate in church history from Harvard and received his first and only call from the All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City in 1978 at the age of 29 where he served until his death in September of this year. He was a superlative preacher, pastor, and scholar who marshaled the enormous wealth of his congregation on the Upper East Side of Manhattan to underwrite programs for the homeless and those with AIDS. Reportedly, the likes of Tom Brokaw and people you might read about in the New Yorker frequently attended his sermons. Requiring only four hours of sleep per night, Forrest Church wrote or edited twenty five books during his ministry.
In 2006 he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Following radical surgery he finished his book So Help Me God, a history of the religious lives of the first five Presidents. The cancer returned with a vengeance in 2008 and he quickly published another book, Love & Death, his culminating work as a pastor. This book is currently the subject of an adult religious education class being taught in our church. An experimental therapy lengthened Church’s life another 18 months and, having published his culminating works as a historian and as a pastor, he wrote one final book, his culminating work as a theologian, which was published posthumously in November.
Next month we will hold our annual Remembrance Sunday service, remembering the lives of those who died this past year. I toyed with the idea of dedicating the service to an exploration of Forrest Church’s thought, but decided against it. This morning I do not plan to give a book report of his final book, The Cathedral of the World. Rather, I want to focus on just one or two few of Church’s theological ideas and share them with you.
Resting at the center of Church’s theology is his concept of "the cathedral of world." His description of this idea is a lot more poetic than mine, but the simple version of it goes something like this.
Imagine that every human being on the planet, all 6+ billion of us, stands under the high vaulted ceiling of a massive cathedral. All around the cathedral there are millions of stained glass windows. The light shines outside, sending brilliant rays into the cathedral. The light is the light of truth, the light of God. But none inside are capable of seeing the light directly. For each and every one of us, the light passes through a stained glass window. The stained glass windows each distort the light outside. The tinted windows only allow certain parts of the light to shine through. Sometimes the light is refracted. Each window contains opaque places where the light is completely blocked. In other places the light is so deeply obscured that it is almost invisible.
This is a metaphor for universalism. The light outside is one; the windows through which we glimpse only a piece of the light are many. Each window is different and flawed and partial. Each window represents a different religion, a different ideology, a different philosophy, a different dogma, a different theology. Each window has been fashioned with human hands, often with the utmost creativity, skill, and artfulness, but through no window are we able to see the light as it is.
We can stretch this metaphor. Standing on the floor of the great cathedral of the world, we human beings can be led to believe things that are false and harmful. Some humans believe that the light does not shine through any other window but their own. Some humans believe that their window offers the one true representation of God and that all other windows offer distortions and falsehoods.
According to Forrest Church universalism means the understanding that each window conveys a part of the truth, but that no window frames the entire truth or has a monopoly on the view. The opposite of universalism is parochialism and provincialism, the insistence that the light that we see through our own window is the only light that matters, or even the only light that exists.
In my Unitarian Universalist Sunday school class in fifth grade, a generous and talented artist came and led us in the project of creating our own stained glass windows. We were each given a pane of glass and special paint that allowed us to stain the glass. I chose to paint a crude version of Zeus standing atop a mountain and hurling bolts of lightning. I don’t think this was the dominant image of God we learned about in the Sunday school of my youth.
The real lesson came when we hung each of our artworks in front of the biggest window in the church. The light shone through all. The lyrics to one of our more popular hymns also contain this lesson. The lyrics of this song are a warning about patriotism lest it become vulgar. “My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine; but other lands have sunlight too, and clover, and skies are everywhere as blue as mine.” Patriotism, or love of country, is a good thing. When that love is warped, it becomes jingoism; it becomes something ill. Love of religion is a good thing. When that love is warped it becomes fundamentalism. Sunlight beams on my religion but other faiths have sunlight too.
Forrest Church’s metaphor of the cathedral of the world teaches us the dangers of parochialism and provincialism, showing how wrongheaded it is to pretend that no other windows exist or that they are not worthy of our attention or our respect. And, so we might ask what our stained glass window looks like for us as Unitarian Universalists. I would like to think that our window would be double-paned, argon filled, super energy efficient windows, like the ones in my home. But our windows are not, perfectly and absolutely transparent.
In thinking about what the stained glass window of Unitarian Universalism might look like, I am reminded of an image that can teach us a lesson about humility. If you take a walk down Beacon Street in Boston, from the Unitarian Universalist Association headquarters right next to the State House to the Boston Public Gardens with its statue of William Ellery Channing, you will notice something peculiar about ten percent of the windows in the very oldest brownstones. This is one of the most historic blocks in the history of our country, and has housed way more than its fair share of Unitarian Universalists through the years. And, as I have pointed out to many unimpressed Coming of Age youth, one tenth of the window panes in the oldest buildings have a deep, rich purple color. These window panes were made and installed during the Civil War. They were transparent 150 years ago. However, they were made using manganese, instead of lead or selenium. Over the years, windows made with manganese have slowly purpled.
In the thirteenth chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, we find a great hymn to love and charity and also words that speak of the very nature of humility, “For now we see through a glass darkly.” The point Paul is making here is that when our knowledge and our understanding is suspect, we can’t go wrong with love and charity.
“For now we see through a glass darkly…” Our Unitarian Universalist stained glass window, assuming that I was commissioned to design it, would have a corner made with manganese-laced glass, for the sake of humility. And it would have a rainbow flag motif, for the celebration of diversity, for hope and for joy. I would leave off the image of Zeus throwing lighting bolts. Or maybe I wouldn’t; God knows purple panes of glass don’t interest the middle school aged youth of this church so I ought to include something that would. But I would also include the shape of a book for scripture, a telescope for science, a saxophone for music, and a tree for nature. I would include hands for service. But larger than any of those, I would include a heart for love. I would include a bright red and orange and yellow flame for all that is very delicate, for love and passion and inspiration. And I would include a chalice to represent the community that holds and nourishes all that is most tender.
Writes Forrest Church, “In the Cathedral of the World there are windows beyond number, some long forgotten, covered with many patinas of grime, others revered by millions, the most sacred shrines. Each in its own way beautiful. Some are abstract, others representational; some dark and meditative, others bright and dazzling. Each window tells a story about the creation of the world, the meaning of history, the purpose of life, the nature of humankind, the mystery of death. The windows of the cathedral are where the light shines through… One light and many windows… We shall never the light directly, only as refracted through the windows of the cathedral. Prompting humility, life’s mystery lies hidden.”
This week take a moment to think about what you would have us put on a stained glass window for our congregation if you were commissioned to design one. Thinking back to the reading, let us not forget that for each grain of sand melted to for every piece of glass on our earth – including every window in the Cathedral of the World – there is a star in the heavens. It is far too large to see clearly. Therefore, let us rejoice.