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A Sense of a Cosmic Reality

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Unitarian Universalist Christian Table of Contents

The James Luther Adams Papers

The Unitarian Universalist Christian, Vol. 48, nos. 3-4, Fall/Winter 1993

Part 11:  A Sense of a Cosmic Reality

One of the strangest aspects of human nature is the puzzling way in which friendship often expresses itself. It has often been said that the test of the true friend is that she or he knows when not to talk. When an acquaintance of mine returned from a period of years of missionary work among the Indians of the Southwest, he related that one of his most difficult problems was learning how to call upon his Indian parishioners. When he began his work, he set out on horseback to call upon the Indians in his territory. After several days of unsuccessful amiability, he determined to seek advice of a nearby mission worker. After having stated his problem, he was told by this veteran in the work that he must learn not to talk so much. He started out on his work again and soon discovered that the most satisfying kind of parish call was that in which he rode up to an Indian home, nodded his greeting, dismounted from his horse, and took his seat on the ground by the side of his parishioners. He would remain there silently for about twenty minutes, then nod his salutation, exchange smiles, mount his horse again, and call it a parish visit. In this way, he insists, he soon became intimately acquainted with the members of his flock.

There are different ways in which we sometimes are silently aware of a special sacred presence. A poem of William Wordsworth makes that presence explicit:

We have felt
A presence that disturbs us with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

For others of us, this awareness is only implicit, but whatever our own personal religious convictions may be, whenever we attend public worship where there is the absence of an object of worship, we are left in some vague way unsatisfied. It is only the reality of the more-than-human, the intense realization of the presence of a Cosmic spirit that makes possible sincerity and spontaneous devotion in our worship. It is because of the awareness of this spiritual reality of presence that we would object to the reduction of a service of worship to the hearing of a sermon. Indeed, it may seem to some of us that certain churches lay too much emphasis on the sermon.

A contributor to the Atlantic Monthly asserts in half-earnest that: “Nothing would be so beneficial as to have our pulpits silenced for a year. The other phases of worship would be restored: Prayer, praise, and enlightened faith. Some of them are entirely gone from the churches. The people no longer pray but listen to a minister as he prays. Worship has become a passive matter. The congregation has become an audience, a body of listeners.”

Worship that has reality points beyond itself to God. The real worshipers attend church not merely for the sake of moral encouragement or uplift but because they seek to worship God in spirit and in truth. They do not look upon the anthems and hymns as being sung solely for the pleasure of the congregation. The office of song is to praise God. The most worshipful hymns and anthems are not those which direct our attention inward to an introspective prying into our human condition but rather to those which direct our attention to the glory of God.

The leading form of worship, prayer, depends absolutely upon the worshipers’ sense of the objective reality of the Deity to whom prayer is directed. No true worshipers have any thought when they pray of the subjective effect prayer may have upon them. A Boston wit once gave an excellent description of sham worship when he summed up a prayer of an eminent clergyman as “the most eloquent prayer ever addressed to a Boston audience.”

Too often evidence of confusion of mind is apparent in churches that have a vested choir seated in the chancel. I recall attending a very important function at one of these churches. The service proceeded in a true spirit of worship until the offertory, and then the choir arose to sing an anthem which included a soprano solo. The chorister who was to sing the solo stepped forward to the center of the chancel and faced the congregation. The rest of the choir remained in place and sang the anthem as it were to God, the object of worship. The soloist sang as if her prayer were to the praise of the congregation. It is this confused attitude that the music of the church is concert music that most effectively destroys the true sense of worship.

James Bissett Pratt, the Williams College professor who wrote Religious Consciousness comments on worship as an awareness of a Cosmic Reality and of our relation to it. He says: “For an increasingly large number of people in our days the only form of religious service left is an occasional funeral. With the rarest of exceptions, the funeral is always a religious ceremony, and though the religious value of the funeral is seldom recognized, or at least seldom mentioned, it is very considerable. For in the presence of Death we find ourselves face to face with the dreadful and silent forces which lie beyond our control—the Cosmic Reality, our conscious relation to which is religion. Here we stand on the very edge of the mystery. The curtain for a moment is partly drawn, and we get a glimpse of the cosmic process. We return to our little tasks, to be sure, all the more mystified, but with at least a renewed sense of the reality of the mystery. It takes something like Death to startle us out of our complacent scientific and practical attitude, and to reveal to us the vista of cosmic mystery which (in cruder forms) was ever present to our less scientific forbears. It is this sense of the Unknown, this realization of our own dependence, this intimation of the Power not to be exhausted by the study of science, this questioning of the Why, the Whence, and the Whither, this placing of ourselves for once in a cosmic setting that the funeral brings, and to this it owes its uniquely religious value.”

Worship gives us a union of awe and gratitude, which is reverence, as well as a time for consecration and communion. The feeling of reverence every thoughtful person must experience in the presence of the cosmic forces and in reflecting upon them. Worship, therefore, is not something to be outgrown. Its forms change with the changing symbols by which the human imagination decks out the determiner of its destiny, but the thing itself is as eternal as our finitude.

Perhaps one of the most familiar pictures in Christendom is that of the Angelus by Millet. Here the painter has depicted the peasant and his wife, who on hearing the ringing of the Angelus for matins, have paused in their work in the fields and have bowed their heads in quiet and peaceful reverence. It has often been said that the painter has given us in this picture a sense of a third presence, the reality before whose inscrutable and eternal power the peasants bow in thanksgiving. It is the presence of that most real mystery and Creator that can give to our worship that sincerity and spontaneous joy which alone can satisfy our deepest yearning.