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A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, given on February 22, 2009

CHURNING THE OCEAN: Hindu and Unitarian Universalist Encounter and Transformation on the Way Toward a New Universalism

Every person, every creature, every stone, every place is sacred. Everything is part of God. God is in the Grand Canyon and a Transylvanian village with more horse carts than cars and Disney World. God is atop Mount Everest and in the junkyard outside of town and in the sprawling cattle feedlot in Nebraska. God is in the concert hall and the library and the Mumbai train station. God is in the young man’s petting of his golden retriever companion outside my office window. God is within you and me and Barack Obama and George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden and the cantankerous neighbor across the street with the heart of gold and the shivering woman I saw walk into the homeless shelter the other day. God is in the beauty and in the mess of life.

—Roger Bertchausen in the sermon “My God.”

The old Twentieth century joke for Unitarian Universalists is that we believe in at most one God. However, things have changed. Walt Wieder, one of my dearer friends and a ministerial colleague, serving our congregation in Surprise, Arizona, has observed that one God is either one too many or nowhere near enough. He isn’t at all fond of that one God thing.

While I have genuine sympathy for both the atheist and the polytheist views, I have come to have a different take on the nature of the divine. God, I suggest, is an ocean. God is the ocean. And, some complications: Sometimes we’re the sea itself, more often we’re in a small boat sailing on the sea. God above, God below, God all around: In all the ten directions just God.

Now in our circles to say the word God can be a showstopper. We hear the word and tend to go to our hard positions, no God, or, of course God. So, hello! Please come back from wherever the word has taken you, and join me in a little reflection on what it is we as Unitarian Universalists at the beginning of the Twenty-first century might find in that word, about ourselves, and the world, and how we might relate to the world.

To start, let’s go back two weeks. We were enormously fortunate in having some very interesting people present at my installation as our minister. The list of participants who helped to make this event as special as it was is actually too long to repeat completely here. But it appears for many of us the most memorable speaker was Swami Yogatmananda, minister at the Providence Vedanta Society. His sweetness of character and his insightful references to past connections between our faiths struck strong resonances among us.

It wasn’t the first time a Vedanta yogi has stolen the show. Yogatmananda’s spiritual predecessor was the renowned nineteenth century sage Swami Vivekananda. He was invited to come from India to Chicago in 1893 for a World Parliament of Religions. For many of the Christian and Unitarian organizers, the barely hidden agenda was to show the superiority of Western religions, well, actually the superiority of Protestant Christianity. But that show was, by universal acknowledgment, totally and completely stolen by the swami from Calcutta.

As Swami Yogatmananda told us, Swami Vivekananda’s first public talk in the west on his way to Chicago was at the Universalist congregation in Annisquam Massachusetts, near Gloucester. And that wasn’t his last Universalist or Unitarian connection. He would go on to give quite important talks at the Unitarian churches in Detroit and Oakland. We’ll return to the swami and Vedanta in a moment.

First, here’s an important point. While I believe the humanist impulse within Unitarian Universalism is a central and powerful current, and I particularly cherish rational religion, I also believe that somewhere along the line our North American Unitarian Universalism in its quest for intellectual integrity disconnected from the matters of heart. The result was a long sojourn in the desert.

There has been, however, in recent times a powerful spiritual revival among us. Unitarian Universalists, particularly our younger members, have been seriously exploring matters of heart, of spirit for the past two decades. The Buddhist strand of Unitarian Universalism of which I am deeply a part emerged among those who felt that aridity, but still found most of traditional western spiritual language unhelpful. At the same time God language, re-imaged, was beginning to re-enter our churches among feminist thinkers and people primarily investigating earth-centered religion; the old man replaced by a dancing goddess. And the exploration hasn’t stopped there. We keep engaging what the divine might be in dynamic and exciting ways.

I now see a new wave coming and I find it fascinating if a little disconcerting. But I also feel deep resonances. Some time ago I spoke of the nineteenth century saint Ramakrishna’s famous vision. Ramakrishna was Swami Vivekananda’s spiritual mentor and considered by some to be an incarnation of God.

Ramakrishna had a vision of Kali, the Divine Mother. She arose out of a river and walked toward him. As she walked she swelled out in pregnancy, gave birth and then ate her child. What I didn’t mention and what gives this vision some of its power in my life took place many years ago, although after I had read that account. I was in a park in Oregon sitting beside a creek. On a sunny spot on a good-sized rock in the middle of the creek I watched a large fat toad sunning itself. What I didn’t notice until just as it struck was the snake. In a bloody moment snake and frog fell behind the rock out of sight. Minutes later the snake slithered up onto the rock in the same place, with a large swelling in its middle, and lazed in the same sunny spot. I couldn’t help but think of Kali and Ramakrishna and a horrific, beautiful vision.

I think of those images of life and death, and the background of creek and river, and I think of God as the ocean, which sometimes we are, and which sometimes, perhaps more often, is the sea upon which we are sailing. I’m deeply interested in what this means and where it appears to be going, arising from our continuing project of reclaiming God within our liberal faith tradition. God has returned, now as she, now as he, more often as standing for the whole precious mess, as an ocean of faith, as an ocean of heart, as the ocean in which we swim and live and take our being. And to which at the end we return.

Another old friend, the UU minister Roger Bertchausen, who serves our congregation in Appleton, Wisconsin, is one of those younger Unitarian Universalists. In a sermon titled “My God,” Roger uses the image of a recipe for his belief about God. Among the ingredients he finds include a “cup of agnosticism,” a “cup of equal parts Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ‘Oversoul’ and the Hindu view of God,” a “half cup of process theology,” a “teaspoon of liberation theology,” a “tablespoon of the Star War’s Force,” a “quarter teaspoon of forgiveness, half a teaspoon of gratitude and half a teaspoon of joy.” He then provided baking instructions.

Personally I’d go much heavier on forgiveness, gratitude and joy, but beyond that I find it a fascinating list and genuinely representative of our current spiritual thinking, writ large. But it’s that Emerson and Hinduism allusion that I think we should most closely look at, at least today. “Emerson,” Roger writes, “who so consistently celebrated the uniqueness and individuality of each person, paradoxically also believed that at the deepest level of each individual soul, there is a unity. This unity is within all of us and in everything in nature. It is exactly the same in each of us. Emerson often called this unity the ‘Oversoul.’ Sometimes he called it ‘God.’ ‘Within each of us,’ he wrote, there ‘is the soul of the whole, the wise silence, the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal One.’

“This central belief of Emerson,” Roger feels, “reveals the great extent of Hinduism’s influence on him. He drank deeply at the spiritual well of the Bhagavad Gita and other significant Hindu texts. In Hinduism, God is everywhere: embodied in stones and statues, in trees, rivers and mountains, in animals and people. There are millions and millions of gods and goddesses in the Hindu pantheon; each is unique. And at the same time, there paradoxically is only one God: the great God Brahman in whom everything on the earth and in the heavens is included. This is the seed of the idea in Emerson’s Oversoul.” And, I hope fairly obviously, the basis of that image of an ocean I’ve shared, which we are both a part of and upon which we sail through the course of our lives.

There need to be some caveats, always. Chris Walton, editor of the UU World, while at seminary wrote a great essay called “Unitarianism and early American Interest in Hinduism.” He points out how Unitarian thinkers have engaged Hindu thought from as early as the scientist theologian Joseph Priestly and the former president John Adams. But it really is with Emerson that we get a serious dialogue going. Chris notes “the Bhagavad-Gita impressed … Emerson with its discussion of karma yoga and jnana yoga.” That is with the spirituality of work and the mind. But, Chris adds, “bhakti yoga (ecstatic spirituality) appears to have made no impression on him at all.”

As Chris notes, “Action and thought (Emerson) could understand, but not devotion.” Sound familiar? For Chris this is part of a larger concern about how many of these early encounters with Eastern faiths were marked by attending to parts but not the whole, often missing context and nuance, and sometimes emphasizing one doctrine over another in ways not held in the original faith. The net result being a presentation of a religion, in this case Hinduism, that didn’t actually exist. This is one concern of appropriation, the fundamental missing of the original, and with that frequently the trivialization of that original.

I agree in the specific that Emerson’s blindness to ecstasy and devotion was a loss. But, I disagree with at least some of Chris’s larger concern; in fact this tension within religious encounter, of hitting and missing and transforming into something new is a natural part of the evolution of religious thought. The primary doctrine in one age becomes minor in another. And indeed something completely new may emerge, like Kali from the river.

Today, it turns out, is Mahashivaratri, celebrated in much of Hinduism as the festival of the Lord Shiva, Shiva whose dance created the world. But, I’ve also been taken with one of the stories associated with him, about the churning of the ocean, where both gods and demons had to work together to seek the nectar of bliss and immortality, and the play of things that followed. I suggest there are hints and pointers for us on our way in this and similar stories. But, also, that we need not embrace all of that story, or of the many stories connected to this festival, to find hints for us on our way. Indeed, for me, for us today, I want simply to hold up the image of the churning ocean.

I’m not trying to write an essay here, nor to provide, although it might look like it, a history of Hindu and Unitarian Universalist encounter. I’m actually trying to draw your attention to the deep matters of the interior life, of your lives and mine; and what it is we find when we look deeply within our hearts or deeply at each other. And I suggest we consider the ocean: that image, that dream, that metaphor for who and what we really are.

All my life I’ve dreamed of the ocean. I’ve been a fish and a whale. I’ve drowned and I’ve been a merman. I’ve sailed a small craft in deep waves and I’ve been the boat crossing from some long forgotten continent to some new and hopeful world. Ocean currents run through my veins. I suggest ocean currents run through all our veins. These currents are the deep connection that joins all of us. And why not call it God?

Maybe you inclination is more Buddhist-like and you are inclined to encounter that greatness of which we are intimate parts in an impersonal way. Maybe you are more Hindu-like and see it all as the most personal of encounters, I and Thou. The fact of the matter is, as we engage how we are connected, we are each of us diving into the deep waters. We are sailing the great ocean that is at the same time our very hearts.

In that wonderful UU hymn, “Blue Boat Home,” Peter Mayer sang some words that put this into perspective for me. “The wide universe is the ocean I travel/and the earth is my blue boat home.” We sail the churning ocean, which is our true heart, in a very small boat, which is our very selves, and sensing that as our truth, how can we escape the call to sing?

I give thanks to the waves upholding me
Hail the great winds urging me on
Greet the infinite sea before me
Sing the sky my sailor's song
I was born upon the fathoms
Never harbor or port have I known
The wide universe is the ocean I travel
And the earth is my blue boat home

Amen.