Monday, December 19, 2011

Sermon: "Miracles for People Who Don't Believe in Miracles" (Delivered 12-18-11)

Something very much like this actually happened. A decade ago I did my internship at a church in suburban Dallas. At this congregation there was an ongoing discussion group that met midweek to consider various religious texts, books, or current events. I was invited by this group to lead a series of discussions on a topic of my choosing and I chose the topic of mysticism because I had just previously taken a class on mysticism in divinity school. Following one of our discussions, a woman asked if she could visit with me. She wanted to tell me about her mystical experience.

The experience happened when she was alone and out in nature. All of a sudden she found herself completely paralyzed. Energy, like an electrical current, coursed through her. Despite being unable to move, she was not afraid. In fact, the feeling was intensely and immensely pleasurable. This experience lasted for what seemed to her like hours, but the experience also seemed to happen outside of time.

What actually happened? It is a question that this woman didn’t feel a particular need to answer. She had had a mystical experience. But, she was also afraid of speaking openly about this experience. She did not want to be judged or ridiculed. She didn’t want others to attempt to explain away her experience or deny that it had happened.

No, she was not suffering from mental illness. No, she did not have a seizure disorder or a brain tumor. No, she was not taking hallucinogenic drugs. No, while out in the woods she had not accidentally ingested mushrooms or berries and she had not licked any toads. And, no, she had not fallen asleep and dreamed the whole thing.

What had actually happened? She had an experience of mystical union with a divine being. At least that is how she made sense of it. But, how does one talk about that? Until she shared the story of this experience with me, she had kept it completely secret.


The Christmas stories that we hear this time of year, the stories that we will retell on Christmas Eve, are stories that contain miracles on top of miracles on top of miracles. In the first chapter and a half of the Gospel of Luke an angel appears to Zechariah, and then to Mary, and then to the shepherds along with a multitude of heavenly host; both Elizabeth and Mary conceive miraculously; Zechariah is struck mute fantastically and then cured in an equally fantastic manner; and John has something of a psychic episode while still inside of Elizabeth’s womb, detecting the presence of Jesus all the way over in Mary’s womb by way of fetal ESP. In the Gospel of Matthew an angel appears to Joseph, astrologers interpret an anomaly in the sky, and both Joseph and the astrologers have prophetic dreams.

These biblical texts are full of miracles, supernatural events, and synchronicities. How exactly has our own Unitarian Universalist tradition regarded these miracles? We know how Thomas Jefferson, influenced by British deistic Unitarianism, regarded them. Jefferson literally took a razor to the Gospels, performing an epic cut-and-paste job. He cut out every single miracle, not just the virgin birth and the angels, but the miraculous healings and the resurrection, too!

This miracle slashing tendency within Unitarianism was captured humorously by Christopher Raible when he rewrote a popular carol with these lyrics:
God rest ye, Unitarians, let nothing you dismay;
Remember there's no evidence there was a Christmas Day;
When Christ was born is just not known, no matter what they say,
O, Tidings of reason and fact, reason and fact,
Glad tidings of reason and fact.
There was no star of Bethlehem, there was no angels' song;
There could have been no wise men for the trip would take too long.
The stories in the Bible are historically wrong,
O, Tidings of reason and fact, reason and fact,
Glad tidings of reason and fact!
Our current Christmas customs come from Persia and from Greece,
From solstice celebrations of the ancient Middle East.
We know our so-called holiday is just a pagan feast,
O, Tidings of reason and fact, reason and fact,
Glad tidings of reason and fact.
Of course, Raible was not poking fun at Christianity or Christmas. He was lampooning us, encouraging us to laugh at ourselves for abolishing comfort and joy in favor of reason and fact.

I want to go back in time with you to the early 1800s, to the ministry and career of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and to a time in Unitarianism that was known for a theological debate called the “Miracles Controversy.” How many of you knew we had a Miracles Controversy? You may be surprised to know that this theological controversy was not about whether the miracles of the Bible, particularly the miracles involving Jesus, were true or false. The controversy was about whether the miracles of Jesus were unique. One side, the more conservative side, argued that the Biblical miracles had a kind of primacy. The other side argued that miracles did not only happen 2,000 years ago in the Middle East, but happened throughout human history, and, most importantly, were happening around us and to us now, directly. (I suspect that more than a few of us would have trouble choosing either side in this controversy.) The Transcendentalists took the here and now side of the debate. They were much more interested in experiencing the present than in believing in the past. They believed in miracles beyond miracles.

Here is where things begin to get weird. Just as the woman I spoke of at the beginning of this sermon kept her mystical experience a secret, we tend to keep an important part of our own religious tradition secret. Emerson’s wild band of Transcendentalist friends were deeply curious about such things as animal magnetism, mesmerism, séances, mediums, and various other forms of paranormal phenomena. That’s not a fact that we choose to broadcast, is it? Many of these same wild spiritualists were among the first to introduce the English speaking west to the religions of India, just as they were among the most eloquent voices speaking out and writing out in favor of the abolition of slavery and women’s rights. These are facts that we do broadcast. But here is the thing. I’m absolutely convinced that their commitments to greater human freedom, intellectual freedom, artistic freedom, and spiritual freedom were deeply interconnected with their willingness to explore and experiment with the occult and paranormal.

It’s been nearly two hundred years since the “Miracles Controversy.” Looking at much of contemporary Unitarian Universalism, it doesn’t seem like either side won. Rather, a third side came to dominate, the side that likes the Jefferson Bible and heartily sings out the words “reason and fact.” The experiences of the woman I spoke of earlier and the paranormal interests of the Transcendentalists are concealed. They are the secret story of our faith, and there is a secret story of our world. And, this is where things will get really weird.

In the early twentieth century, a man named Charles Fort began a most unusual project. He decided to read every single newspaper and scientific journal published in the previous century – in English and in French! What he was looking for was stories of uncanny coincidences and unexplained phenomena. And, did he ever find them! His notes mention tens of thousands of anomalies and coincidences. [see AI, 92-141] The world, according to Fort, is significantly weirder than we like to admit. In the words of Jeffrey Kripal [see note below], Fort wrote about,
tablecloths and lace curtains bursting into flames around teenage boys and girls (mostly girls, it turns out), or, even better, rains of fish, periwinkles, frogs, crabs, or unidentified biological matter falling from the sky and piling up in the ditches for anyone to see. Or smell.
Kripal continues,
Fort, by the way, was not the first American writer to notice the fish. Earlier, Henry David Thoreau had wryly observed that “Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.” [AI, 95]
None of this is about belief, by the way. This is not about believing that frogs actually, factually fell from the sky in the nineteenth century, much less that frogs fell from the sky in Pharaoh’s Egypt. What is absolutely factual, though, is that newspapers reported that frogs, and fish, and periwinkles, and unidentified biological matter did rain from the sky.

Here is another strange fact. Wolfgang Pauli was a brilliant physicist who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1945. He also was a patient of Carl Jung, going to the doctor for help with emotional and sexual problems that plagued him. Anyone who knew him as a scientist knew about something called the “Pauli Effect.” You see, when Pauli entered a lab, weird things tended to happen. Equipment would malfunction, break, or explode. It was humorous, to an extent. When something went haywire around a laboratory, scientists would inquire about Pauli’s whereabouts. Even his presence in the same city as a laboratory was thought to cause bizarre things to happen. At a physics conference in a warm weather location, his colleagues insisted that he sit well away from the air conditioner. And, just what should we make of the fact that the furnace in our sanctuary stopped working on the same morning that I decided to talk about Pauli? Finally, during World War II Pauli was not invited to join the Manhattan Project, the team of scientists charged with developing the first atomic bomb, despite his reputation as a brilliant scientist. It is rumored that those organizing the research worried about what would happen if the “Pauli Effect” was unleashed on an atomic research laboratory. It was more of a risk than they were willing to take. To put it bluntly, a community of the world’s greatest scientific minds was willing to engage the idea that one of their colleagues possessed untamed telekinetic powers. [see AI, 14; MM, 128-129]

The secret story is that a whole parade of the brightest, boldest thinkers in virtually every field have been interested and involved in spiritualist, psychical, paranormal, and occult pursuits. The people we’re talking about here are psychologists, philosophers, anthropologists, scientists, inventors, artists, and literary figures, people who altered the course of human events and our understanding of what it means to be human. [see AI, 11-17] In their secret lives we find them contemplating and experiencing the “miraculous” despite being people who were not passionately committed to the miracles of the Bible in any way that was even remotely orthodox. And, in many cases, we find that the strange and bizarre is not a hobby off to the side of these brilliant thinkers, but an integral part of their work and their being, even a source of their “superpowers.”

There are stories far weirder than those I’ve shared. There are hundreds and thousands, if not millions, of these secret stories. I’m less interested in the facts behind any one story than I am in the fact that these stories mean something.


I want to come back into this room, this community, this congregation. The woman who shared her mystical experience with me a decade ago poses an interesting question for us. What would happen here if someone shared a personal story about a personal mystical experience, an anomaly, a synchronicity? I mean actually share it. Talk about it. Like during an adult religious education class, or in a Covenant Group, or in the Exploring Membership class, or at coffee hour, or over dinner at one of our Saturday Suppers, or even from the pulpit on Sunday morning.

I suspect that quite a few of us have had experiences that are not easily explained. I’m not talking only about full-blown miracles or paralyzing mystical trances. I’m talking about the subtle anomalies, minor synchronicities, sensations, premonitions, the tingling of sixth senses.

Jeffrey Kripal [see note below] shared with me a series of four sermons he delivered at the Emerson UU Church in Houston on this very same subject. About experiences like those I’ve talked about, he told his listeners, “Next time something like this happens to you, do not ignore the event. Do not let it pass without comment or interpretation. Most of all, do not approach it as a mere coincidence or a miracle. Approach it as a tiny piece of a story in which you are the central character. Who knows what might happen?”

My own charge and challenge to us is just a bit different. The experiences that I’ve talked about this morning are ones that many communities are completely unable to accept. In orthodox religious communities, spiritual experiences are fine, as long as they follow a very narrow script as to what is acceptable. The moment they cross boundaries, they are deemed heretical and taboo, and are forcefully, even violently, opposed. Outside of these religious traditions, our cultural institutions have a prevailing attitude that scoffs at and excludes these experiences for violating the principles of scientific rationalism, or insists that these experiences be disguised, obscured, or hidden away.

I’m interested in what I would call a “gnostic community.” Alas, a better name eludes me at this moment. It would be the type of community in which Ralph Waldo Emerson would happily stay. It would be a community in which the woman of whom I spoke at the beginning would feel no need to keep her story a secret. It would be a community that tells Wolfgang Pauli that he can sit wherever he wants. It would be a community, somehow, for those who are partial to the traditional miracles, for those who prefer reason and fact, and for those who experience miracles but don’t believe in miracles.

Thank you for considering this. And, I wish a very weird Christmas.


Jeffrey Kripal. This sermon would not have been even remotely possible without the scholarship of Jeffrey Kripal. I took a course from Kripal in the spring of 2001 at Harvard Divinity School. He is the J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University, where he is also the Chair of the Department of Religious Studies. His two most recent books, Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred and Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal, provided the core source material for most of the stories and ideas in this sermon. In the text of the sermon above I’ve cited the pages from these two books that discuss Charles Fort and Wolfgang Pauli.

Trout in Milk. When I read this quote by Henry David Thoreau I laughed so hard that I simply had to include it. But, what is Thoreau writing about? Here is a rational explanation. Dairy farmers of Thoreau’s era were known to increase their profits by watering down the milk they sold. Thoreau may have been making a joke. “You’re obviously watering down your milk; there is a trout in it.”