Destiny is Calling
by Jeremy Elliott
This sermon considers the so-called "intelligent design" debate, in light of the traditional Universalist position on single predestination for salvation. In it, I attempt to explore what "intelligent design" might mean to modern Unitarian Universalists. This sermon was written and offered at Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California.
May we observe a moment of silence, to sense the Holy Spirit of perfect openness, trust, and reciprocity that fills this sanctuary. In this most holy presence of community, let us renew our covenant to approach each other with a reverence for the webs-of-existence that we each bring here—to weave together—this night.
I believe in intelligent design. I believe this whole-heartedly not because of the supposed gaps in evolutionary history or because of the micro-cellular complexity of the human eye, but because I live an existence that is held in a complicated interdependent and intra-dependent web-of-relationality, and co-dependant meaningfulness, that is neither entirely lineal nor random. And I believe in intelligent design because I am a Universalist, and I have placed faith in “the Kingdom to come”—to borrow a phrase from the Christian tradition—because I see it taking shape in this world.
I don’t believe that the headline debate about intelligent design is really all about the nuts and bolts of evolutionary process. It has more to do with whether we believe, or even fear, that our existence is a random occurrence of chance, or that it is grounded in a reality of almost infinite depth and meaning. It is from this perspective that I approach the debate, as an advocate of my own Universalist understanding of the intelligent, spiraling, and seemingly infinitely growing webs-of-meaning, in which I find myself.
Let us take a few moments to consider the complex and intricate patterns, histories, and wombs of time and place, from which we arose. Sense what holds you in this particular place, right now, in this moment—the almost incomprehensible matrix of people, and care, and resources that ensure that this institution exists and thrives: crucial staples that are not bound by time, but still feed us in this very moment; notice the portrait of Earl Morse Wilbur—the founder of the “Pacific Unitarian School”—that hangs in this room, a symbol of a presence that still lives in the people, in the walls, in the philosophies, and in the lifeblood of Starr King; recall Thomas Starr King himself, the visionary leader of decades past who even today still sculpts this school and impacts all who pass through its door. Call to mind even the anonymous figures who laid each of the bricks that line our walls, poured the cement that rests far beneath our feet, and built the automobiles and bikes that brought us here this evening. We can feel this intricate web-of-all-existence, wrapping all around us, holding us, in this place—its tender care.
Find the strands of these webs in your own life. Sense how they have tempered you. Feel the presence of your parents or guardians inside of you. Sense how you could not be who you are right now without the influence of such people. Go beyond your parents or guardians, see how your siblings or friends, relatives distant or near, have forged the person who now sits in this room. Sense the movement and migration of your ancestors—biological and spiritual—across vast seas, through storm and sleet, enduring incomprehensible oppressions of body and mind, spirit and soul—perusing a vision, and Mystery beyond themselves, a Mystery that ultimately included you. See these people, in their greatness, and see there mistakes, feeding your soul with the substance that makes it what it is today. See beyond humanity, sensing all of nature and the gradual progression of it, in relationship, over millions of years, growing together in all of its diversity and splendor.
Feel the first molten energy that formed our sun, and then our beautiful mother earth and sister moon, coursing through your veins. The primordial substances that gave rise to the air we breathe and the waters that rim the earth. Feel the star dust from the first moments of creation, of the cosmic expansion, of the gentle cracking of the holy egg of creation, glowing in your fingertips.
As I look around the room at the faces of all those gathered here this evening, many of whom have crossed the country to be here; each coming from different backgrounds, different cultures, different identities; I ask
myself, do I really believe that this beloved community came to being out of total, uncalculated randomness?
Is it possible to even claim that our voyage here was anything but destined—a part of a grand “intelligent” scheme? The movement of a Holy Wisdom as it courses through generations, across time and space. Are we not standing upon the shoulders of our ancestors, were we not in their visions, are we not living out many of the hopes and dreams of religious radicals, of nations, of our families and friends and loved ones, and are we not called by some yearning in our soul to be here together, to boldly move forward into the world? To fulfill our place in the vision of our ancestors and carry that bright torch, fueled now by our own lives, into the mysterious future.
Remember the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, reflecting upon his own life, and sense their relevance to our own existences here: “I believe in this life. I believe it continues. As long as I am here, I plainly read my duties as writ with pencil of fire, they speaks not of death, for they are woven of immoral thread.” Are we not also woven of this same immortal thread?
So we have looked over our shoulders and seen the histories leading to this moment. Do we have some sense of the world we look forward to, the world possibly “predestined before the beginning of time,” the beloved community, or a “Kingdom to come?”
Haven’t we touched it… as we have held hands in worship, and in celebration, and when we have stood in solidarity for humanity and for just causes, for righteousness; haven’t we tasted it in the sweetness of life, in the bounty of nature’s goodness; haven’t we smelled it in the sweat of our labor, in the perfume of our lovemaking and in the streams of incense that carry our prayers for a safer, more just world, to the heavens? Do not we hear its call, off somewhere in the distance—perhaps days or years or even decades, calling us to this place… calling us to place trust in the voice of our souls, the “still-small voice within,” urging us to create the living womb—here and now—from which the beloved community, the Kingdom or Queendom of God, the enlightened world, can blossom?
We just may be destined by some eternal Holy Wisdom to make our visions living realities.
Emerson warned, “The efforts which we make to escape from our destiny only serve to lead us into it.” Can we separate our “intelligent” dreams for the future from the first sparks that gave life to universe and led to those dreams? Is there only a random association between our dreams today and the aspirations of the generations before and the whole course of evolution?
Does the Holy Eternal lure us to some final predestined infinite perfection, to some ultimate universal salvation?
Unitarian founder William Ellery Channing wrote, “I call that mind free which is not passively framed by outward circumstances, and is not the creature of accidental impulse: Which discovers everywhere the radiant signatures of the infinite spirit, and in them finds help to its own spiritual enlargement.” Are we looking for the “radiant signatures of the infinite spirit” in our own lives? Where might we find these lighthouses beyond the evening sea?
Father Karl Rahner, the eminent Jesuit theologian of this past century, named God the “ever receding horizon” of existence, the “ever-receding horizon” of the human experience, which is always calling forth the full blossoming of our souls, and the total transformation of the world.
For Rahner, encounter with God is unavoidable, for God is the context of everything that exists, and the bright future of possibilities beyond everything that exists. God is the Holy Mystery behind and beyond our experience of reality; the “not yet known” and the mysterious destination of this voyage.
The Sufis believe that God flashes like lightening in reality. Each of our unique experiences of the transcendent, those which we can touch, taste, smell, hear, and see, are God’s being shining through reality, in an especially powerful way to guide us carefully into the future. They are signposts on the journey.