Sermon to the Unitarian-Universalist Church of Blacksburg:

Religious Scholarship, Spirituality, and Planetary Maturity

4 December 2005

Glen T. Martin

The truly religious person is not concerned with reform, he is not concerned with merely producing a change in the social order; on the contrary he is seeking what is true, and that very search has a transforming effect on society…To find out what is truth there must be great love and a deep awareness of man’s relationship to all things…. The search for truth is true religion, and the man who is seeking truth is the only religious man.  Such a man, because of his love, is outside of society, and his action upon society is therefore entirely different from that of the man who is in society and concerned with its reformation.  The reformer can never create a new culture.  What is necessary is the search of the truly religious man, for this very search brings about its own culture and it is our only hope.  You see, the search for truth gives an explosive creativeness to the mind, which is true revolution, because in this search the mind is uncontaminated by the edicts and sanctions of society.  Being free of all that, the religious man is able to find out what is true; and it is the discovery of what is true from moment to moment that creates a new culture.

Jiddu Krishnamurti, Think on These Things, 1989,  pp. 240-241

At the dawn of the 21st century, it appears that our human situation is very bleak, and that thoughtful and sensitive human beings can easily be led into an abyss of despair and hopelessness.  War and militarism flourish worldwide; two-thirds of the world’s population live in the misery of poverty, suffering, and disease; the global population continues to explode; and our planetary ecosystem that sustains the lives of all of us is disintegrating and showing signs of possible collapse.  Meanwhile the fragmented and cruel institutions of monopoly capitalism and the sovereign nation-state continue to rage destructively everywhere on the planet.

On the other hand, the 20th century was a century of breakthroughs and paradigm-shifts that have provided entirely new possibilities for human existence on Earth.   Quantum physics and Einsteinian relativity physics have demonstrated the fundamental unity of the entire universe from its microscopic to its macroscopic dimensions.  The science of ecology has demonstrated the fundamental unity of our planetary ecosystem and the inseparability of human activities from the proper functioning of that ecosystem.   Sociology, anthropology, and psychology have shown the sameness of all human beings.  

Similarly, religious scholarship has shown the universality and fundamental unity of the religious dimension for all human beings.    This understanding has been assimilated by Unitarian-Universalists, and by other universalistic religious orientations such as the Bahai faith, Zen-Buddhism, and the Oomoto religion of Japan.   During my college years at the University of Buffalo, I attended the Unitarian-Universalist Church on Elmwood Avenue whose pastor was the Reverend Paul Carnes, latter President of the Unitarian-Universalist Association.   The sermons of Paul Carnes were one of my great weekly intellectual adventures.   He was a powerful, deep thinker who appropriated the wealth of our modern intellectual and scholarly traditions in the service of a new religious maturity.

All these breakthroughs and paradigm-shifts of the 20th century, from relativity physics to ecology to religious scholarship, lay the foundations for a new human maturity that I call “planetary maturity.”   The touchstone of planetary maturity is “unity-in-diversity.”   We are one humanity on this planet; we are part of a single, fragile ecosystem, a single planetary social system, a single globalized economy, and a single instantaneous, planetary communications system.  We are also one in our ability to draw on the deepest sources of religious inspiration.   We can respect and protect the diversity of persons, cultures, nations, and religions on Earth only if we simultaneously embrace our oneness.  Unity-in-diversity necessarily go together from the macro-physical structure of the universe down to its sub-atomic level.  It is this paradigm that we have not yet realized as human beings and that signals our present state of immaturity and fragmentation.

The beginning of the end for traditional, naive embodiments of religion was the famous “Copernican Revolution” of 16th century Europe.   When Copernicus and his followers Galileo and Kepler showed that the Earth was not the center of the universe as the Christian Church had assumed, the process of having to evaluate religion in the light of science, intellectual integrity, and the quest for truth had begun in earnest.   Copernicus showed that the Earth was at the periphery of the known universe, rotating in an orbit and spinning on its axis in ways that called into question the anthropocentric nature of the religious orthodoxy of the time.

The development of methods of scientific scholarship in the late 19th century continued the Copernican Revolution in religion.   These methodologies investigated the Christian scriptures and soon were applied to all the world’s scriptures.  Scholarly mastery of the world’s languages soon gave investigators high quality translations of all the world’s scriptures and the comparative study of religion was developed.    A new scholarly awareness of the historical character of all cultural expressions was applied to the great religious scriptures of the world.  They were now understood properly as products of their period, with cultural and cosmological assumptions common to their period, and as written by authors who were, indeed, very human.   It was realized that there are no timeless, ahistorical revelations of truth that come to humanity from beyond the world.

This is not a counsel of despair but a great truth that makes possible a new religious maturity in which we can now be open to the very depths of the universe.  We can make responsiveness to these depths a transforming force in our own lives and in human civilization.  The Copernican Revolution in religion shows us the possibility of “unheard of” social and personal transformation and points up the ground for a truly revolutionary unity of the human race.  It creates the possibility of moving to a global spirituality that may well transform our conception of what it means to be human, our relationship with one another, and our relationship with the precious Earth and the astonishing universe of which we are an integral part. 

But personal transformation very much implies transformation of the institutions that destroy and inhibit a world of justice, peace, and prosperity.  I have been personally blessed with the opportunity to travel to several different areas of our world and to encounter the common humanity of people very different from myself.  In my work as Secretary-General of the World Constitution and Parliament Association, for example, I have been repeatedly in southeast Asia, West Africa, and Central America.   In every one of these places, I have taken it upon myself to visit the poor where they live in the slums, ghettos, and hell-holes of the world.  For me this has been a transformative religious experience.

My first encounter with the poverty in which two-thirds of our fellow human beings live was through a social project that we had in Nicaragua from 1987 to 2002 called the “New River Bocay Project.”   The project worked with the poorest of the poor in north-central Nicaragua.   On one of my trips on behalf of the project, in 1996, I wrote the following entry into my personal journal.


Nicaragua, Journal Entry     16 May1996 

The level of poverty that we have seen here defies the imagination and leaves one sick inside.  We visited a woman in San Jose de Bocay two days ago with nine children, no husband, and no shoes on her feet.  She works a small plot back in the rugged hills and lives in a dirt floor open air shack on the back side of town.  A tiny, illiterate, hard working human being who lives from day to day, from hand to mouth, who owns nothing, not even an aspirin to lessen the pain of her daily struggle to survive.

Today we traveled into the countryside to meet Mercedes’ mother. Mercedes is one of the many young people in this area befriended and helped by Gary, who lives in Nicaragua and is serving as our guide.  Today happens to be Mercedes’ birthday.  She was so excited that Gary and his friends (we) were going with her to visit her mother that two days ago she walked the two hours walk out into the country to tell her mother we were coming.

The poor do not have birthdays here.  There are no records and no one remembers or notices them.  The only reason Mercedes has one is that several years ago, when she was a young girl about 12, Gary asked her to pick a day and remember it every year.  She is now 18 and is proud to be a person who has a real birthday.  Her pride at having a real birthday, I imagine, may be because itis a clue to her that, despite all evidence to the contrary, she has dignity as a human being.

Mercedes’ mother lives in a dirt floor shack about one half mile from the nearest dirt road and about two hours walk from Bocay.   There is nothing in the house: one stool and two make shift benches.  An adobe oven, mere openings for doors, ramshackle boards and ragged plastic sheeting for walls.  Electricity, or any kind of appliances, are undreamed of here.  Her only kitchen tool is an old machete.  There are a few odd cups and dishes.   No food, no cupboards, no sink, not even an outhouse – nothing.  Excretion is done out in the bushes beyond the perimeters of the clearing.  Toilet paper is leaves from these same bushes.

They carry water in plastic buckets 300 yards from a stream in a nearby gully.  The food they prepared for us and the Kool Aid they served us were all from what we had brought as gifts.  No other food was visible anywhere.   There were a couple of pigs and a few chickens running freely around the house.   All the other shacks dotting this area are basically the same.  This is the way most people in the countryside live in Nicaragua.

Such poverty, found everywhere we have stayed in Nicaragua – in Jinotepe in the south, Managua, the Capitol, the town of Bocay, and now in the countryside – is a crime against humanity.   It cries out for democratic socialism and is a blight on the existence of all the rich.  By “rich” I do not mean only the big corporations raping the natural resources of Nicaragua and exploiting their poverty for cheap labor.  They are only the obvious ones.  Rather, I mean 60% of the people in the first world, by “rich” I mean you and I, ordinary middle class people whose self-satisfied ignorance of their misery is an integral part of our crimes against humanity.

The very existence of such human misery as is found in the so called “third” and “fourth” worlds is a moral blight on our existence.   Anyone who supports monopoly capitalism with its ideology of so-called “free enterprise” is wittingly or unwittingly complicit in the slow torture and death of these hundreds of millions of people who have nothing and are valued at nothing by the capitalist system.


I want to suggest to you that the new religious maturity is also part of an emerging transformation that is going on as we speak today that I am calling “planetary maturity.”   We are becoming one as human beings, and because our religious lives are inseparable from the quest for truth, being religious simultaneously means examining the ideologies and institutions that block and destroy our common humanity, the common truth that every one of us on this planet is an immaculate and precious child of God.

There are many spokespersons for this new religious maturity from Indian sage Jiddu Krishnamurti, whom I quoted earlier, to Protestant Theologian Paul Tillich, to Catholic theologian Raimundo Panikkar, to secular humanist Eric Fromm, to scholar of religion, James Fowler.  But the new religious maturity also is, and should be, a planetary maturity.  This means that we as individuals and as citizens of the world are in a position to appropriate the transformative openness of the new relationship to God made possible by religious scholarship.   Raimundo Panikkar writes that “We could describe faith as existential openness toward transcendence” (MD, p. 118).   This is an openness available any time and any place, whether or not a person identifies with a traditional religion.    By removing the false cosmologies, parochial, and ‘idolatrous’ elements of traditional religions, religious scholarship has made possible this new openness to the very foundations of the universe.

A person so open is receptive to the deepest sources of planetary maturity.  He or she becomes a transformative force with regard to the social institutions and practices that block, inhibit, or destroy our potential fulfillment as human beings on the Earth.   The two central institutions that destroy our potential for planetary maturity, in my view, are monopoly capitalism and the system of so-called “sovereign” nation-states.  We need to create a planetary economic order that creates prosperity for all God’s children and we need to create a planetary political order that guarantees the rule of democratic world law to every person on Earth.

Professor James Fowler, in his well-known book, Stages of Faith, studies several stages in the growth of religious maturity in persons.   In the quotation below, Fowlerdescribes the development of religious maturity to its highest stage, which he calls “Stage 6 faith.”   He writes that:

Stage 6…persons….have become incarnators and actualizers of the spirit of an inclusive and fulfilled human community.  They are “contagious” in the sense that they create zones of liberation from the social, political, economic and ideological shackles we place and endure on human futurity…. [Their vision includes] the criteria of inclusiveness of community, of radical commitment to justice and love and of selfless passion for a transformed world, a world made over not in their images, but in accordance with an intentionality both divine and transcendent.” (1981, pp. 200-201).

Here I refer to what has been called the “subversive” impact of their visions and leadership.  Even as they oppose the more blatantly unjust or unredeemed structures of the social, political, or religious world, these figures call into question the compromise arrangements in our common life that have acquired the sanction of conventionalized understandings of justice…. In these persons of Universalizing faith these qualities of redemptive subversiveness and relevant irrelevance derive from visions they see and to which they have committed their total beings.  These are not abstract visions, generated like utopias out of some capacity for transcendent imagination.  Rather, they are visions born out of radical acts of identification with persons and circumstances where the futurity of being is being crushed, blocked, or exploited….  (1981, pp.202-204)

The wonderful religious scholarship of the 20th century has made possible religious maturity.  The Copernican revolution in religion means that we have become more and more capable of filling our lives with what is universal and eternal, flowing from the sacred depths of existence.   But insofar as the depths of existence, traditionally called the voice of the living God, enters into our own lives, we are called to transform the institutional structures of our world that block, inhibit, and destroy the lives and dignity of our fellow human beings on this planet. 

We become subversive of the fragmented and destructive institutions that create war, poverty, and environmental destruction on Earth.   We become prophets and spokespersons for a new era of peace, prosperity, and justice for the Earth, of a new world order, based on the principle of unity-in-diversity.   We become living embodiments of planetary maturity.  Our home becomes the Earth itself, and our need  becomes the need to make the Earth a decent place for all the people who live upon it.

May God bless all who live with us upon this Earth, our common planetary home. Amen.