The Reverend Mark DeWolfe Sermon


June 14, 1987

Before we get into the heart of this sermon, I want to ask you to do something. I want you to think of a time, one time will be enough, when you felt a feeling adequately described by the word, awe.”  Think of one time, and then ask yourself this question: what was it about the experience which enabled it to provoke such a feeling in you? What was the quality of that experience? Did it change your understanding in any way?

This morning I’d like to reclaim the word awesome”  from the slang of our contemporary teenagers. Oh, they can still use it in their own way, I don’t begrudge them that. For them, it is the ultimate modifier, the word which carries the thing being described out of the realm of the ordinary. And we’ll allow Bell Canada to continue to use the term in its telemarketing ads to let us know that even the chief executive officer of a firm doesn’t know how many grapple—grommets his company makes. He can be awed at the figure. Let’s not complain about that.

But instead, let’s think about the experience of awe in our own, unique lives. Let’s add some high-power currency to the word’s account, by touching for a moment those experiences truly worthy of awe. I believe we wouldn’t have a word for it if it hadn’t been experienced, and wasn’t still there to be experienced now. Somewhere in our lives we have probably been touched by the truly awesome, and from it we can deepen our sense of the religious.

The awe—provoking experiences of life are what provoke one kind of religion. In a round— table discussion at seminary once, a woman who didn’t believe in the God of her Protestant childhood told of going to the hospital to see her daughter after the birth of her granddaughter. She walked into the hospital room to see the newborn child in her daughter’s arms. Struck by the incredible beauty of the miracle of birth, she exclaimed, “Oh, my God.”

Her daughter looked up and said, “Mother, this is no time to curse.”

“I’m not cursing,” the new grandmother replied. “I think I’m praying.

The experiences of awe provoke one kind of religion.

There’s a technical term for that quality of experience which provokes awe. It’s called the numinous. It comes from numen, an ancient Latin word for a God whose presence is felt. The numina were Gods believed to inhabit particular place or objects, Gods who were there to be experienced. So their name comes into our language for things which excite awe and reverence.

I use the word theology in a broad sense. Theology is any attempt to express in language religious experience and its consequent reflections. Theology is putting into cultural expression the experiences which give life meaning. Among those will be found the experiences which provoke awe.

All theologies grow up among particular peoples in their particular journeys. They express a relation to the numinous which evolves out of a unique geography and social structure.

The religion of our Ismaili Muslim neighbors reflects their experience and that of their ancestors: in India, then Africa and now Canada. Their religion reflects three very different climates and social structures. Canadian Christianity begins in the Levant and is filtered through two thousand years of European history. It embodies the experiences of feudalism, the Renaissance rebellion, the Reformation. With the exception of the indigenous peoples, all the visible religions of contemporary urban Canada The Jews, the Muslims, the Sikhs, the Buddhists developed in other places and other cultures. All these people will find that their religions and their cultures will transform  their experience in Canada continues.

Canadians have a problem when it comes to articulating our experience with the numinous. All our categories for religious dialogue come from some place other than our own country. Except for that of the indigenous peoples, all our religions are imports.

All theologies are born of a time and a place, even those which pretend to be universal and eternal. They are a product of human vision and so reflect the things which determine human vision: culture, environment, experience, education, and expectations. Theologians who think they are writing for all time unconsciously reflect their own time and place.

Until the arrival of the global village, we didn’t have to pay attention to how parochial our religious expressions were. We could always assume that everyone everywhere was just like us, and would see the world the way we did. What was true in Rome was true in Calcutta, for all we knew.  Or Cape Town, or Santiago.  Or Toronto.

Now, if we are reminded of anything, it is that different people see things differently.  And different peoples see things differently.  The confrontation between cultures throws us back on ourselves: it forces us to ask ourselves who we are, not as a planetary people, but as a local people.  Who are Canadians?  What does it mean to be from here? If the Hindu world view is born of millennia of life on the Indian subcontinent, how does being in Canada shape my world view?

It was a mistaken belief twenty years ago that the global village would mean the homogenization of societies.  In fact, it has meant that societies are becoming more distinct.  In the May/June edition of the World a Unitarian Universalist historian muses about nationalism as an overlooked force in twentieth century history.  In the history of the century which has technologically done more to bring nations together, the strongest historical force has been nationalism.

The imperialism of both the last century and this one has made nationalism the struggle of our time. The Islamic revolution in Iran is in part religious, in part nationalistic; it is largely anti—imperial.  It is a revolution against the cultural imperialism of the West, epitomized by the United States. The Sandinista revolution is also part religious, part nationalistic; it is largely anti— imperial.  It is a revolution against the economic imperialism of the West, epitomized by a United States whose president said of the first Somoza placed on the throne by U.S. gunboats, “He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”

The global village has made us more conscious of our differences, and also more conscious of the demand for self-determination.  Here in Canada, the questions of self-determination for peoples is on our national agenda every day. The Native peoples want their right to it enshrined in the Constitution through self-government.  The Quebecois have it embodied in the concept of a distinct society. Meanwhile, others are worried that a free trade deal with the U.S. will compromise our sovereignty, and what is sovereignty but self-determination?

The Latin Americans developed liberation theology as a way of expressing what it means to be a Latin American today.  It uses the cultural heritage of Latin Americans, including Roman Catholicism, to describe the current experience of Latin Americans: feudal economics masked as capitalism, military dictatorships masked as democracies, a church which cultivates its relations to the powerful and ignores the powerless.  Liberation theology came along to express a message of hope for today’s Latin peoples.  It began with understanding the situation of those people in their culture, their geography and their politics.  It dug into their heritage, especially their religious heritage, for symbols with which to address their current pain. It found the symbol of Christ the Redeemer, Christ the Liberator, a symbol who brought strength to their struggle for self-determination.

Liberation theology is fashionable among North American leftists these days, since it has lent a strength to the left which the old liberalism had lost.  But liberation theology is a theology born of another people’s struggle, and belongs to them. If Canadians are to have a theology of their own, a language for describing what it means to be a religious person in this culture and this geography, it cannot be borrowed from abroad.  It must be born of our experience, our land and our heritage.

When Saturday Night magazine published its centennial edition last winter, it asked prominent Canadian writers to reflect on the people, places and things which made Canada a country unlike any other. As a keepsake snapshot of the country at this moment in time, it is a valuable tool; we can see how many of our cultural voices see us.  One article, the one which appeared last in the magazine, was by novelist Robertson Davies, and was entitled, “Keeping Faith.” Davies wrote on the religious identity of Canada, and of all the articles reviewed, his was objected to the most often.  Several reviewers objected to his obsession with the numinous.  Ignoring the main thrust of his argument, they asked why we should be concerned with ephemeral things which don’t exist?  Why did he have to use that word, why did he think it was so important, and must he say it so often?  Did the numinous have to be so numerous?

Davies’ article raised difficult questions for Canadians.  First of all, it raised the question of whether or not Canada had a soul, and asserted that in fact she did.  This in a nation created only to foster the pedestrian goals of peace, order and good government?  This in a nation whose avowed existence was depended upon a transcontinental railroad, built by adventurers and subsidized by the government?  This in a land whose government has always owned businesses in order to make other businesses profitable and consumers comfortable?  This country has no truck with the spirit!

Davies concluded that the soul of Canada was neglected and battered, and overdue for some loving attention.  Yet frustrating this attention was the Canadian habit of finding our religious ideas elsewhere, of letting others do our thinking for us. Inherited forms of Christianity, Davies suggested, stifled a true introspection; and American concepts, hard to ignore because of the cultural pressure from the south, were contrary to Canada’s introverted character.

Davies believes we should pay more attention to the experience of numinosity in our lives. He points out that most churches derive their understanding of religion from religare, meaning “to bind together again.”  Religion has meant binding and restraining, to traditional churches.  Unitarian Universalists have loved the word religare because in a chaotic world, religion was the ways individual had of reconnecting disparate experience, and religion was therefore the ways we put together the variety of life into coherent meaning.  We Unitarian Universalists have ignored the other root for religions, relegere.   Its meaning of careful attention to the numina, the awe provoking, spoke to us of superstition.   Yet I would like to reclaim relegere for Unitarian Universalists. I think it is high time we paid some attention to the numinous. Must the numinous be so numerous?  More so, I say.  We have not looked at it enough.

We have prided ourselves on building a church free of the restricting meanings of religare. With Davies, I believe our church, and our country, needs to know more of its own soul.  Davies suggests we look more inward, take an introverted approach, do the hard intellectual work required to know ourselves and how the universe addresses us, here in this country which is like no other.

Our biggest mistake, Davies argues, is to ape the Americans in matters of fundamental orientation. Canada’s soul is different.  Let me quote him a while:

“In psychological terms, the U.S. is the most extroverted country in the world. This is not to say that there are no people who are, personally, introverted types in that country, but extroversion is the national attitude, and it has historical roots. The most influential settlers of the American colonies were the Pilgrims, who were people determined to have their own way in every important matter, and ready to make sacrifices to achieve it. The U.S. had its birth in a successful revolution, which lit fires of confidence and determination to succeed that are blazing still. The U.S. meets every external problem head—on, determined to conquer and certain of its rectitude. Of course, there is a price to be paid, and it is the price exacted of the extroverted attitude; numinosity, and the world of the unseen, cannot be conquered by extroverted means. Is it fanciful to suggest that enthusiasm for space exploration reflects a refusal to face what is nearest to the soul? Has the ultimate in external travel been undertaken to avoid the inner journey and the personal quest?

“…Canada is in a psychological mess from which it can extract itself only by taking thought.  Canada is not an extrovert county. Its history and its settlement by refugees from various sorts of oppression and betrayal dispose it toward introversion. (Oppression, when the Loyalists came here to escape from the triumphant revolutionaries in the South, who sequestered their lands and made their lives a burden; betrayal, when Scottish and Irish landlords exported their peasants, at so much a head, to the new world in order to seize their lands.) Introvert by inheritance, Canada nevertheless persists in aping the extroversion of the U.S., because to do so requires no thought-only intellectual submission and peonage. But if Canada is to find herself, she must find her own psychological direction, and radical changes in her religious orientation will follow.

“…Does a psychological introversion necessitate the abandonment of whatever we have achieved, and a national attitude of mysticism, of inanition, of navel-gazing? Not at all. Introversion is another way of approaching problems of every sort.   The extrovert, as the word implies, advances upon the world, and though he gains much he may miss what the world is presenting to him. The introvert, on the other hand, takes careful heed of what the world is offering him. He weighs it carefully. Both have their losses and their gains. Until Canada wakes up, uses her excellent head, and adopts her true psychological direction, she will never be herself, but always a shadow of something else. She has nothing to lose, and her soul to gain. R

Davies points out the process ahead of us if we are to develop a theology a way of religious speaking appropriate to Canada. We must learn what this country is saying to us, and react in line with our national character. Such a national character evolves out of heritage.  Not every American came as a Pilgrim, but the Pilgrims are the dominant myth; every American owns it. Though my family came to Canada before there was a revolution to escape, the Loyalists are the pre-eminent cultural myth in Canada. It may be more than the experience of dispossession which makes Canada prone to introversion; it may also be the awesome qualities of our land itself.

Do you feel addressed by the universe?  Our Unitarian ancestor, Margaret Fuller, was typically American and extroverted when she proclaimed, “I accept the universe!”  Our Unitarian ancestor, Thomas Carlyle, was typically British and introverted when he rejoined, “She had better!”

It is extroverted to expect new immigrants to adopt the American way; it is introverted to look at immigrants as offering cultural diversity which somehow addresses us.  The melting pot and the mosaic, the most classic distinction between the two North American anglophone cultures, embodies again the distinction Davies points out.  Carry it one step further: why is it that we, and not the Americans, are discussing self-government with Aboriginal peoples?  The extroverts expect conversion; the introverts look to be addressed.

It is time, I believe, high time, that Canadians took seriously what being here and now means in spiritual terms. It is time to look at Canadian experience, Canadian heritage, Canadian culture and geography and learn what these things tell us about religious things. It. is time to develop a theology for the Canadian context, to come to know the numina who inhabit this land.

During the next year, the Canadian Unitarian Council is embarking on a national project in Canadian contextual theology.  It is time, the Council’s board believes, to explore together how we can speak our own religious language, neither aping other churches nor Unitarians of other lands.  I will be teaching a course here in the fall which will begin to build the lexicon for our discussions.  You are all invited to take part.

A contextual theology for Canada will have its consequences. We will find it has political and cultural implication to come to know our own soul.  Already in our politics and culture there are intimations of where we are going.  Uncovering the intimations and making new choices in the trail are before us this year.

I invite you to begin the work with me this summer.  In fact, you began it when, at the start of this sermon, I asked you to remember a time you experienced awe.  The numinous is not a bad place to begin. There was perhaps some wisdom in the recognition the ancient Latins had that there were gods embodied in particular places, that countries had their own exposures to the holy.  When and where did you encounter the truly awesome?  What were the qualities of that experience?  You have begun to theologize.  You have begun to get to know the numina who have graced your life.  You have begun the religious quest of coming to know yourself, and in knowing yourself, the world.

Reverend Mark DeWolfe

Thank you!

Kathy, Judy, Joan, Bert, Camille, Tisa, Susan, Anthony, Fiona.
Without your help, this work would not have been possible.

Brigitte Twomey