May 9 2021

On Being Part of Everything.


Albert Einstein once famously suggested that our greatest challenge as human beings is to understand, despite our impression of individuality and objectivity, that we are entirely part of the universe. We are not unique and not separate from it.We came from it, and we are eventually reabsorbed back into it.

For a few rather strange moments (which we  call our lifetime) we are able to look at ourselves and at the universe as if we are distinct from it, but that does not mean that we are ever apart from it.

Religion often seems to want to teach the opposite of this. It often seems to suggest that we are different from the universe, the world, different from the flesh if you like. Religion tends to suggest that we are antonymous; that we have free will; that to a considerable extent we are responsible for our destiny. This is misleading.

Each religion has as a central part of its ethos the idea that we can gain merit and earn our place in some system of later reward, or indeed punishment perhaps. This is also misleading. You may recall Pope Francis was asked not very long ago what becomes of the sinful people when they die. Were they punished for their wrong-doings?  His surprising reply was that they simply cease to exist like the rest of us.  Unitarians are no less guilty than other religions in this, because although some of us may not necessarily be concerned about the effect of our behaviour upon our chances in an afterlife, we still emphasise our individual responsibility to a very emphatic degree.

All similar religious systems tend to contradict the implications of Einstein’s assertion, that any sense of separateness we have is no more than an illusion. But it is very easy to see why we feel that way. From the moment we are born we experience separation, from our mother, from comfort and security.

As we learn its lessons and grow in experience, life teaches us more about being self-sufficient and standing on our own two feet than it ever does about dependency. And of course, the offspring that remains in a dependent condition in relation to its parents is often regarded as unfit for the grown-up world.

Now, if I am right, and religious discipline generally teaches us individualism, then that is also in stark contrast to religious experiences, which usually create a sensation of the opposite. To over-simplify, religious experiences always destroy the individual’s sense of being separate from everything outside itself, and merge the individual with all that is, so that the person becomes “at one” with their surroundings and the people with whom they might be among.

In other words, the sense of separation which usually characterises our existence dissolves away during religious experience. We have a feeling that the apparent barriers which keep us apart from the wider environment are disappearing, we become part of the world surrounding us, and this often includes what we refer to as a sense of the holy or the divine. What is more, we feel safe and comforted, at peace, reassured and looked after, just as we did once before we embarked on the experience of individuality and separation which has come to characterise our days.

So, if nothing else, records of such religious experiences will endorse the thinking of Albert Einstein with which we began.

I was once in a tutorial with ministry students who were confidentially recounting the kinds of spiritual or religious experiences they had had, and one young woman was in tears because because she had never experienced anything like it, but wished ardently that she had, feeling that it was almost a prerequisite for going on to become a minister.

One wonders why this transcendent goal, this feeling of being “at one” with everything, is not made the object of our religious lives? Unitarians in particular do not often seek to transcend ordinary everyday experience, being rather suspicious of those who indulge in hysterical emotionalism as part of their belief. And yet, feeling “at one” or transcendent is not at all over-emotional. It is (I believe) calm, and perhaps it is just as well that recorded religious experiences take us out of ourselves only relatively briefly, returning us soon to the everyday world once again. An experience may only last for moments, but of course can change a lifetime.

If Einstein is correct in saying that the conclusion of our life is to become entirely one with the universe of which we are always a part, it does not mean that the days of our separate-seeming objectivity are without purpose.

Our periods of creativity, for instance, mirror the activity of The Creator. Many people are pro-creative in their family life, and there is no end to the different types of work and labour which can satisfy this urge in us to be meaningfully occupied. Retirement may prove difficult for some specifically because the sense of purpose and identity appears to be removed from us.

Because we have worked, because we have been creative, the world has been changed by what we have done. In the end we may well be reabsorbed into the universe, but what we have been reabsorbed back into has been changed by us, even if it is only by a little bit.

Shall we end with a few words of prayer:

O Thou giver of all good, we thank thee for the light of growing knowledge, and for our deepening sense of thy presence in the world around us, and in the inner world of thought and love…

Teach us that even as we are all children of thy care, so are we sisters and brothers in one universal family, dwelling on earth for a time, as in the home which thou hast prepared for us …

May it be our happiness to make others happy, and may thy blessing be with us now and always.




Sunday Service homilies from the Minister during coronavirus period