Delivered at the South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation

January 8, 2006

 “Onward and Upward Forever”

Rev. Catherine Torpey


Year after year we get… a new year. Perhaps you are not like me. Perhaps you really do become more and more self-actualized each year. Perhaps each January, you look back over the past and think, "Ah, I've come so far. What wonderful thing should I make of my life for this year to come, since I've had such success every previous year?"

If that's you, I really don't want to know about it.

So, here we are. We begin anew. Onward and upward forever.

This phrase, “Onward and Upward Forever,” is, of course, taken from what Anne read this morning: a sermon given by Unitarian minister James Freeman Clarke in 1886. Clarke was a very important figure in the Unitarian church in the nineteenth century. He was the stepson of James Freeman. James Freeman was the minister at King's Chapel in Boston who took the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and took out all references to the Trinity. Clarke, the stepson, took a post in Kentucky to help spread Unitarianism out of its Boston confines and into the wild west. When he returned to Boston, he created churches that were responsive to new realities, and not reliant on the stayed ways of old-style Unitarianism. For some time, he was the chaplain to the Massachusetts Senate and then a leader in the American Unitarian Association. He was a professor at Harvard Divinity School, where he argued unsuccessfully for the admission of women. He was successful, however, in persuading the school to offer courses on non-Christian religions. Clarke was also, we are proud to remember, active in many movements for social reform: for temperance, women's suffrage, educational reform, and against slavery.

In 1886, when Clarke delivered his sermon on the five points of the coming theology, the North had won the war twenty years earlier. The abolition of slavery had given an enormous moral boost to those who had mourned the collective sin of the nation for so long, and created a sense of optimism. Clarke was a member of the group of friends known as the Transcendentalists; it must have been exciting to be part of the intellectual ferment of that time and place. Clarke's sermon captured the mood of the time. The coming theology that he enumerated caught on like wildfire in Unitarian circles, and many churches adopted his five points as a common statement of belief. Many churches for many decades recited each Sunday this statement, recapping Clarke's expression of the "coming theology":

"We believe in The Fatherhood of God, The Brotherhood of Man, The Leadership of Jesus, Salvation by Character, and The Progress of Mankind, onward and upward forever."

In his sermon, Clarke asserts that "the one fact which is written on nature and human life is the fact of progress, and this must be accepted as the purpose of the Creator." Clarke believed that all we need do is look around us to see that, obviously, it is the nature of things to progress, onward and upward forever. "[The gospel teaches us]," Clarke preached, "[that] there is always something to look forward to, some higher attainment, some larger usefulness, some nearer communion with God. And this accords with all we see and know: with the long processes of geologic development by which the earth became fitted to be the home of [humanity]; with the slow ascent of organized beings from humbler to fuller life; with the progress of society from age to age…. The one fact which is written on nature and human life is the fact of progress, and this must be accepted as the purpose of the Creator.”

It would be difficult, I think, to convince the families of the West Virginia miners that society progresses from age to age. Or, to convince those who have lost everything in New Orleans that life gets better and better, or to convince the victims of last year’s tsunami that somehow there is constant progress.

Not long ago, I read a book by Stephen Hawking. Stephen Hawking, as you know, is today's Albert Einstein. He is a professor at Cambridge University, and, despite a degenerative neurological condition, which makes him less and less able to use his body, he has managed to have an extremely productive academic career. On his website, he writes with humility and gratitude about all of the people who have helped him deal with his disease. In fact, it was not until he began to suffer serious problems, during his college years, that he gained a sense of purpose in life. It is certainly true that progress made in technology has made Professor Hawking's life enjoyable and productive. If it were not for his motorized wheelchair, he could not move about with the freedom he now has. If it were not for computer programs which he can operate by head and eye movements, he could not lecture, write books, or communicate the thoughts in his remarkably active brain. This kind of progress is certainly cause for encouragement and optimism.

But the universe that Professor Hawking describes as a physicist is hardly a place where anything we call progress is capable of going onward and upward forever. In fact, in Professor Hawking's universe, there is no such thing as forever. The book he wrote is called The Universe in a Nutshell, and his intention was to write in a manner accessible to a general audience. I hope that most people in his general audience have had better luck than I did in comprehending what he wrote. The book is fascinating, that's for sure, but what is most fascinating is that there are apparently people who understand what he's talking about. Imaginary time, an 11-dimensional universe, quantum fluctuations. I don't really understand much of it, but it's fun to know that the universe acts is even more complex, strange and miraculous than what we experience in day-to~day life.

What's been best about reading Hawking's book is that it has re~awakened my sense of wonder at this universe we live in. When I was in early adolescence, I remember being over-awed by pondering the enormity of the universe. There is vast space out there. We are sitting on a huge ball that is spinning wildly on its axis, and circling through vast empty space around an enormous flaming ball. That's happening right now. It is astonishing. This world is astonishing. In our day to day lives, we simply don't live in awareness of the strangeness of the physical world.

The hurricane in our gulf coast this year, and especially the tsunami in Asia last year were woeful reminders of geological time and space. Around us, above us, and beneath us, there is constant movement. The galaxies move away from one another; the earth spins and orbits, and the tectonic plates adjust and readjust their positions. These processes go on without the least consideration to the lives of the creatures who walk on the earth's surface, swim in its seas, or burrow and nestle in its soil. The universe is vast, cold, and heartless. Air and ocean currents, plate tectonics, planetary motion, celestial atomic fusion—these are the unthinking actions of a universe which created thinking beings. This heartless world created the hearts that pulse within us. How is it that mute, brutish, impassive laws of the universe, which lurch the earth and roil the water—how is it that these same laws could create the mind of Stephen Hawking or the heart of a parent, weeping for a child swept away in raging waters?

I remember the first time I learned that the earth would not last forever. I was in elementary school, and I guess the teacher was teaching us about the solar system. I don't remember the lesson, except that I remember being taught that someday the sun would burn itself out. This upset me greatly. The teacher repeated that this would not happen for at least a few million years. She seemed to think that the timing of the event was significant. She seemed to believe that since neither I nor anyone I personally knew would be on earth to experience the sun's demise, I should not care what happened in a few million years' time. I, on the other hand, could not fathom why she thought that the timing of this natural and inevitable apocalypse made any difference. The significant information was that the sun and earth were on an inevitable trajectory toward oblivion. This is not what one wants to hear when one is just beginning one's life. This fact does not mesh well with the optimistic viewpoint of an elementary school student. The trajectory toward oblivion does not serve to buttress the contention that humanity will progress onward and upward forever. A really, really long time, even several million years, is not forever. If there is not a forever, then what is the point of progress? What is the point of anything, when you get right down to it?

I have had over thirty years to get used to the idea that earth is on a collision course with destiny. So, I was able to handle Professor Hawking's book The Universe in a Nutshell without undue cognitive dissonance. It turns out, though, that not only will the earth come to an end, but, according to Hawking, time itself will come to an end at some point in the far off future. Time began, you see, when an infinitely small and infinitely dense “singularity” exploded. That is, everything that is now in the universe—you, me, this building, the entire earth, all the planets, all the stars, all the galaxies, were compacted together into a space infinitely smaller than the head of a pin. Then, that matter exploded, creating celestial bodies, and defining the universe by the outward boundary of the distance to which the particles have expanded. The universe is expanding despite the gravitational pull which all bodies exert upon one another. At some point, however, the explosive energy which is hurtling all the galaxies ever farther away from one another will be countered by this gravitational pull. At that point, all of us—you, me, this pulpit, the chalice, the earth, the sun, the distant galaxies—will come closer and closer together due to our gravitational attraction. We will all pile together like a crew of students seeing how many people can fit into a Volkswagen bug. But we'll all be cramming into a singularity—a point of infinite density, from which nothing can escape. At that point, time will end. Professor Hawking states that it does not make sense to ask what happened before the Big Bang, or what will happen after the Big Crunch (my term, not his), since time outside the context of the universe is an undefined term.

As a scientist and as a self-described positivist, Professor Hawking speaks not about what time means, or about why things are the way they are, or what the nature of reality is. He is interested only in accurate descriptions of observable phenomena. If the concepts of imaginary time and an 11-dimensional universe explain and predict phenomena, then he accepts them. He doesn't worry about whether they are "true" in some objective way.

Therefore, he doesn't take up the question, "What happened before the Big Bang, and what will happen after it all ends?" He doesn't ask, "If the universe has boundaries, what is outside the universe?” He doesn't ask, "Why was there a singularity of infinite density in the first place?"

But I ask those questions. And the most basic theological implication that I have taken away from reading his book is this: if our universe had a beginning and will have an end, then it is impossible to know how many times this process has happened before us, or how many times it will happen after us. The history of the universe is not one that goes onward and upward forever, but, like the understanding of some Eastern religions, the universe is created and destroyed, created and destroyed, created and destroyed.

To most of us in Western culture, such a notion is disconcerting. It was certainly disconcerting to me back in elementary school. Hawking writes that even Albert Einstein found much of the theoretical physics being propounded during his lifetime disturbing. Einstein believed that stars, rather than burning out, would settle into a permanent state of equilibrium and burn forever. He himself was on the brink of making the discovery that the universe is expanding; yet because a changing universe was unthinkable to him, he created a mathematical concept called the cosmological constant, which allowed his conception of the universe to remain static. Einstein later said that the cosmological constant was his greatest scientific error.

In many of the struggles that we have in our lives, many of us find it important to believe that there is constant—if slow and bumpy—progress in humankind. Some feel that they would have no hope, and no will to keep struggling, if they didn't believe that there is steady progress over time. In particular, I remember a conversation with a woman who said that her whole motivation for working for the rights of gays and lesbians in our society was based on her expectation that over time, there would be steady progress. Though she didn't say it, she might as well have said, "Onward and upward forever."

Of course, there has been progress in science and medicine, in particular. Our level of knowledge and sophistication in technology grows as a species over the decades, and this allows us to do things that our ancestors never dreamed of. We can replace organs, fly to distant countries, help people with disabilities to be far more independent than in the past. Yet, there are still millions of Africans dying of AIDS; for them, what good are advances in medicine, if they have no access to them? And technology and modem advances can, of course, can be used as easily for destruction as for compassion.

Does humankind progress onward and upward forever? How would one measure progress? What is the ultimate goal toward which such progress is aiming?

Do we as individuals progress onward and upward forever? Does each New Year's resolution build progressively on the success of the previous year's resolution?

It may be, as I suspect, that the James Freeman Clarke was both right and wrong, Humanity does not progress onward and upward forever by God's design. It is not a passive process. But he was right when he said that we are contented, no matter how poor our lot, so long as we can hope for something better; that we can suffer and yet have everything if we believe that something better is on its way. But the "something better" is for us to constantly define, articulate, and strive to bring about. A passive belief that things will be better because it is the way of the world will soon prove heartbreakingly false. In the wake of great personal or national tragedies, it is impossible to say that life is constantly moving toward some higher, better place through the will of the Creator. Tell that to the New Orleanians on the bridge, crying out for help to what seemed a heartless nation. Tell that to the families in West Virginia. Tell that to a person who has just gotten a diagnosis of a terminal illness, or who has just had their heart broken.

But each of us in our own hearts can make a decision, whenever we choose to, to orient ourselves upward. We can get up in the morning and choose to say, "Onward and upward forever." We can see what is happening in our country and our world, and decide to be one person who is moving the body politic onward and upward forever.

This earth will grow cold,
a star among stars
and one of the smallest,
a gilded mote on blue velvet—
I mean this, our great earth.
This earth will grow cold one day,
not like a block of ice,
or a dead cloud even
but like an empty walnut it will roll along in pitch-black space.

But in the meantime—in the meantime—we can love it enough to move ourselves onward and upward forever.

Happy new year.