This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2007 Daniel Harper.
“The Book of Changes”
Anciently, when the sages wrote the Book of Changes, it was their design that its images should conform with the principles underlying the nature of humanity and things, and the ordinances for them appointed by Heaven
With this view, the sages described the way of heaven, naming yin and yang; and the way of earth, naming the weak and the strong; and the way of humanity, under the names of benevolence and righteousness.
The symbols of heaven and earth took their determinate positions; the symbols for mountains and collections of water interchanged their influences;
The symbols for thunder and wind excited each other the more; and the symbols for water and fire did each other no harm.
Then among these eight symbols there was a mutual communication.
Thunder serves to put things in motion; wind to scatter the genial seeds of them; rain to moisten them; the sun to warm them;
The crash of thunder to arrest them and keep them in their places; water in a lake to give them joyful course; the strong and undivided to rule them; and the weak and divided to store them up.
The Supreme God comes forth in the crash of thunder; brings processes into full and equal action in wind;
Processes are manifested to one another in brightness; the greatest service is done in the weak and divided;
The Supreme God rejoices in the water in a lake; and struggles in the strong and undivided;
The Supreme God is comforted and enters into rest in water; and completes the work of the year in the crash of thunder.
When we speak of Spirit we mean the subtle presence and operation of the Supreme God with all things.
Water and fire contribute together to the one object; thunder and wind do not act contrary to one another;
Mountains and collections of water interchange their influences.
It is in this way that they are able to change and transform, and to give completion to all things.
Arranged DH, from the Legge translation of the Yi Jing.
The first reading this morning comes from an essay about the I Ching, written by the famed psychologist Carl Jung as the Foreword to the Richard Wilhelm. Cary Baynes translation of the I Ching. Jung writes:
“I can assure my reader that it is not altogether easy to find the right access to [the I Ching,] this monument of Chinese thought, which departs so completely from our ways of thinking. In order to understand what such a book is all about, it is imperative to cast off certain prejudices of the Western mind. It is a curious fact that such a gifted and intelligent people as the Chinese has never developed what we call science. Our science, however, is based upon the principle of causality, and causality is considered to be an axiomatic truth. But a great change in our standpoint is setting in. What Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason failed to do, is being accomplished by modern physics. The axioms of causality are being shaken to their foundations: we know now that what we term natural laws are merely statistical truths and thus must necessarily allow for exceptions. We have not sufficiently taken into account as yet that we need the laboratory with its incisive restrictions in order to demonstrate the invariable validity of natural law. If we leave things to nature, we see a very different picture: every process is partially or totally interfered with by chance….
“…whoever invented the I Ching was convinced that the hexagram worked out in a certain moment coincided with [that moment] in quality no less than time. To him the hexagram was the exponent of the moment in which it was cast…. This assumption involved a certain curious principle that I have termed synchronicity, a concept that formulates a point of view diametrically opposed to that of causality. Since [causality] is merely statistical truth and not absolute, it is a sort of working hypothesis of how events evolve one out of another, whereas synchronicity takes the coincidence of events in space and time as meaning something more than mere chance, namely, a peculiar interdependence of objective events among themselves as well as with the subjective (psychic) states of the observer or observers.” [p. xxii; xxiv]
The second reading this morning comes from the best-known English translation of the I Ching, the translation by Richard Wilhelm and Cary Baynes. I could not decide which piece of this huge work would be the most suitable introduction for a sermon about the I Ching, so I took my cue from Carl Jung, and decided to consult the I Ching using standard divinatory practices, and use the resulting text as my reading. For this purpose, I had to pose a question, so I used a question that has been on mind from last week’s sermon: “How should we understand our personal responsibility for life?”
Upon consulting the I Ching oracle, I was referred to the hexagram Sun; which, translated into English, is Decrease.
Decrease combined with sincerity
Brings about supreme good fortune
One may be persevering in this.
It furthers one to undertake something.
How is this to be carried out?
One may use two small bowls for the sacrifice.
Decrease does not under all circumstances mean something bad. Increase and decrease come in their own time. What matters here is to understand the time and not to try to cover up poverty with empty pretense. If a time of scanty resources brings out an inner truth, one must not feel ashamed of simplicity. For simplicity is then the very thing needed to provide inner strength for further undertakings. Indeed, there need be no concern if the outward beauty of the civilization, even the elaboration of religious forms, should have to suffer because of simplicity. One must draw on the strength of the inner attitude to compensate for what is lacking in externals; then the power of the content makes up for the simplicity of the form. There is no need of presenting false appearances to God. Even with slender means, the sentiment of the heart can be expresses.
At the foot of the mountain, the lake:
The image of Decrease.
Thus the superior man controls his anger
And restrains his instincts.
The lake at the foot of the mountain evaporates. In this way it decreases to the benefit of the mountain, which is enriched by its moisture. The mountain stands as the symbol of a stubborn strength that can harden into anger. The lake is the symbol of unchecked gaiety that can develop into passionate drives at the expense of the life forces. Therefore decrease is necessary; anger must be decreased by keeping still, the instincts must be curbed by restriction. By this decrease of the lower powers of the psyche, the higher aspects of the soul are enriched….
To come up with the second reading this morning, I consulted an ancient Chinese oracle, or tool of divination. I daresay the more skeptical among you this morning have probably concluded that I have gone off the deep end — consulting an ancient Chinese oracle, for pity’s sake! For someone like me who claims to be pro-science, who started out his academic career studying physics, consulting an oracle is close to heresy. The word “woo-woo” comes to mind.
So before I go any further, and before you convict me in your minds of the peculiarly Unitarian Universalist heresy of being non-rational, I had better explain why consulting the I Ching is not necessarily “woo-woo.”
Ordinarily, we human beings rely on the principle of causality. We think that a certain cause will always lead to a certain effect. Drop a ball, and it will always hit the ground. The principle of causality tells us that a given cause will produce the same effect every time. Measure something more than once, we’ll get the same measurement every time. That’s what we ordinarily believe. But when I was studying physics, I learned that modern physics shows that cause-and effect doesn’t always work. Let me give you two examples.
In 1927, Werner Heisenberg showed that you can’t accurately measure both the momentum and the location of a sub-atomic particle. If you accurately measure the velocity of a certain subatomic particle, you cannot accurately measure its location; in fact, it could be way over on the other side of the galaxy. We cannot measure anything to perfect accuracy; some uncertainty will always creep into our measurements. This is called Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.
Second, there’s the “observer effect.” It turns out that whenever we observe something, we change what we’re trying to observe simply by observing it. There’s the famous thought experiment of Erwin Schrödinger’s cat, which goes like this: Let’s say you have a cat in a box, and in that box you set up a Geiger counter that can measure the decay of some radioactive substance that has a fifty-fifty chance of setting off the Geiger counter in any one hour. Then set it up so that if the Geiger counter goes off, it trips a mechanism that releases poisonous gas into the air, killing the cat. Until you open up that sealed box, you can’t know whether the cat is alive or dead. Schrödinger says the box has inside it “the living and dead cat (pardon the expression) mixed or smeared out in equal parts.” Similarly, if you hitch up an voltmeter to a circuit, by so doing you change the voltage. In the medical world, researchers can alter the outcome of research unless they use double-blind research techniques.
So you see, the principle of causality is not quite so universal as we ordinarily believe. And this has a direct impact on religion.
For many people — maybe for most people in the Western world — religion depends on the principle of causality. Many Westerners believe that if you do something wrong, God is going to get you, and throw you into hell when you die. That’s straight-forward cause-and-effect: you do something bad, you get thrown into hell. Conversely, many people believe that if you are good, if you read the Bible as the literal word of God, and if you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, then you get to go to heaven when you die. Straightforward cause-and-effect: do the right things, go to heaven.
Modern physics has been telling us that causality, cause-and-effect, is not quite so straightforward. Modern physics tells us: we cannot say with one hundred percent accuracy that a certain effect will always arise from a certain cause. We might be able to say that some effect will arise from some cause with, say, ninety-nine point nine percent certainty. Certainly that’s good enough for everyday life. But when it comes to getting thrown into hell for all the rest of eternity, I for one would prefer to have one hundred percent confidence that I’m either going to go to heaven or I’m going to go to hell. If we start to doubt the principle of causality, that raises some really interesting religious questions.
Our fundamentalist Christian brothers and sisters tell us that we can have one hundred percent certainty: just accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, they tell us, and you are one hundred percent assured of going to heaven. Although from what I see, that’s not how they live out their lives. They are constantly observing one another to make sure every good Christian is sticking to the straight and narrow path, because if you stray you could go to hell; which implies that even if you have accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior, you are not one hundred percent certain that you’ll get to heaven. According to this kind of Christian belief, we’re sort of like Schrödinger’s cat, because we can’t determine whether we’re saved or damned until God observes us after we die. In any case, we Unitarian Universalists do not think life is quite that simple.
The ancient Chinese book the I Ching gives us another way of looking at the world. The ancient Chinese who wrote the I Ching didn’t believe in an all-powerful God who ran the world. Instead, they saw the world as a complex web of relationships. That’s what we heard in the responsive reading this morning: that there is a “mutual communication” between things; that different things “interchange influences.” The person who translated what we heard in the responsive reading used the term “Supreme God,” but he certainly didn’t mean “God” in the usual Christian sense. Instead, the term “Supreme God” means process and change.
The psychologist Carl Jung claims that there’s an interdependence between the events around us — and that there’s a link between those outside events and what’s going on inside us. We’re not just observers of the world, we’re fully immersed in the world. We’re connected in many and various ways to each other and to everything around us. Our hearts and minds and bodies are connected to the world, not merely through linear cause and effect, but through a vastly complex web of chance and synchronicity.
That’s why I decided that if I’m going to be true to the I Ching in this sermon, I should skip all this dry and logical explanation, and treat it as an oracle. So I did. I asked the I Ching a question that came up in last week’s sermon. I asked: “How should we understand our personal responsibility for life?”
And the I Ching gave me a thoughtful “answer.” Here’s how I got that thoughtful “answer” : — I asked the question. Then, according to an accepted method of consulting the I Ching oracle, I threw three coins down on the table six different times. According to an established formula, the various combinations of heads and tails generated by random chance pointed me to certain passages in the book. I copied those passages down, and read them as if those passages were an answer to my question. Considered as strict cause-and-effect, I know that sounds a little goofy; but according to the internal logic of the I Ching, I asked a question of the oracle and it gave me an answer.
I asked the oracle, “How should we understand our personal responsibility for life?” The oracle said this: “Decrease does not under all circumstances mean something bad. Increase and decrease come in their own time. What matters here is to understand the time and not to try to cover up poverty with empty pretense.” That’s a moderately wise and fairly cogent response to my question. When we talk about personal responsibility, chances are that we are talking about our responsibility for mistakes, failures, or for inability to live up to high expectations. I did not ask, “How can we take credit for the good things we have done?” nor did I ask, “How can we understand it when good things happen to us?” The phrase “personal responsibility” implies the possibility of, or the reality of, something having gone wrong. The oracle tells us that even when it seems as though things are going downhill, that doesn’t always mean something bad. The path our life takes is never all uphill to glory; inevitably, there are downhill runs. The oracle tells us that when things are headed downhill, that too is a natural part of life’s path. We need not try to pretend everything is hunky-dory when it’s not — sound advice indeed.
The oracle continues: “If a time of scanty resources brings out an inner truth, one must not feel ashamed of simplicity. For simplicity is then the very thing needed to provide inner strength for further undertakings.” This is a profound truth. Of course times of decrease are normal in the world around us: warmth and growth decrease in the autumn and winter, light decreases at dusk. But the oracle tells us that times of decrease can allow us to see inner truths: when the leaves fall off the trees in autumn, we can see the inner structure of the trunks and branches; when light decreases at dusk, we can at last see the stars which are always there. More prosaically, the oracle tells us that simplicity, or the stripping away of inconsequentials, can grant us the strength to move forward in new endeavors. Day leads to night, and night leads to day; just so, times of decrease can lead to times of increase.
I believe the next part of the oracle’s answer pertains directly to us as a congregation. I like our congregation quite a bit: we are a group of interesting, smart people who are doing exciting things with our lives. Knowing what a great group we are, I have a hard time understanding why there are only forty or fifty of us here on a given Sunday — there should be two or three hundred of us! The oracle tells me: “Indeed, there need be no concern if the outward beauty of the civilization, even the elaboration of religious forms, should have to suffer because of simplicity. One must draw on the strength of the inner attitude to compensate for what is lacking in externals; then the power of the content makes up for the simplicity of the form.” Thus, the oracle tells me that even though we don’t have three hundred people here this morning — nor do we have a 60 voice choir, nor a particularly polished preacher and worship associate — nonetheless there is power in our simplicity. There is power in simply being who we are. The power of our being, the message of our liberal faith, is what counts. The oracle continues: “There is no need of presenting false appearances to Heaven.” We don’t need to try to be something we are not, because who we really are is more than good enough.
Having given us this judgment, the I Ching goes on to give us an image to think about. For me, this affirms that what we are hearing is a kind of poetic truth: not simple linear truth based in cause-and-effect relationships, but poetic truth that works through a web of connected images and ideas. The image that the oracle presents is this: “The superior man controls his anger / and restrains his instincts…. Decrease is necessary; anger must be decreased by keeping still, the instincts must be curbed by restriction. By this decrease of the lower powers of the psyche, the higher aspects of the soul are enriched.” I would add: while anger may an appropriate and necessary emotion at certain times, it is useless to get angry at the natural process of decrease. At such times, the instinct to become angry must be kept in check; by so doing, the higher aspects of our souls will be enriched. For example, we need not become angry because our congregation is small while the Religious Right seems to be growing by leaps and bounds. Instead of anger, we can pursue a path that enriches the higher parts of our soul.
In the image, the moisture of the lake evaporates, and the trees and plants growing on the mountain benefit from the lake’s moisture. Even though the lake decreases, its decrease is necessary for life elsewhere. And this image assures us that the decrease of the lake is not permanent: the rains will surely come again, and replenish the lake. Decrease is part of the natural cycle of life.
So ends the major part of the oracle’s answer to my question. It goes one to give an piece of advice.
The oracle tells us: “Perseverance brings good fortune. / It furthers one to undertake something.” I began by asking the oracle: How should we understand our personal responsibility for life? The oracle has already told us that decrease is a natural phenomenon, and we are not personally responsible for natural occurrences. The oracle has also told us that luck and chance always play a part in life — no matter how well prepared you are, there is a chance you can run into bad luck. But now the oracle is telling us to persevere; it is telling us that we should undertake something. Luck, chance, and natural phenomena play large parts in our lives. Yet that doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and simply give up. At some point we have to do something — at some point, we have to act as if we are in control of our destiny, we have to act as if we are mostly responsible for our actions. And the oracle adds this line: “Through perseverance and zealous work a man wins success and finds helpers as they are needed.” If we engage in worthwhile and meaningful work, other people will see what we are doing, they will see that what we are doing matters, and they will join our work.
How should we understand our personal responsibility for life? We tend to accept personal responsibility for everything; we often act as if we are the cause of everything in the world, and that we must take responsibility for every effect; we take the weight of the world on our shoulders. Sometimes, we Americans seem to think we can solve all the world’s problems. We say, for example, if we invade Iraq the Iraqi people will seize the chance to become a democratic society, and we will be able to leave Iraq within a year. We say, if only I had the right job, or the right clothes, or the right spouse, then life would be perfect. We say (at least, quite a few of us say), if I am good and read the Bible and accept Jesus, I’ll go to heaven when I die. But we cannot use such simplistic notions of cause and effect.
From our religious point of view as Unitarian Universalists, we know that life is not that simple. We know that chance and luck, and natural processes over which we have no control, all are a part of life. We know that we have to act as if we can take full responsibility for our own actions; but we understand the role of chance and luck and synchronicity in life. Thus we don’t have to take the weight of the world on our shoulders. We know that life is complex, that all of life is interconnected. And so we find ourselves in partial agreement with the ancient wisdom of the I Ching: knowing that we must act as if we are responsible, but acknowledging the interconnections of all life, and acknowledging the role of chance and luck and natural processes.