Return
 
The Contamination of
Awe
 


I started this commentary just about sixty years ago!
 

    It was a very cold day.  I was sitting in my little 1951 powder-blue Ford across the street from the Methodist Church in Bradford, Massachusetts. I was the pastor of the church.  I was deep in thought.  My brother and I had just finished the most horrible experience any person could possibly imagine!  We had to chop up the frozen remains of the cows that had been killed in that terrible fire that wiped out all of our dreams for a happy future for us and our families. We had to use chain saws to make pieces small enough to be hauled away. My brain was still numb.

    I remember glancing across the street at the church.  It was the loveliest little church any pastor could hope to have.  But, my brother and I wanted to be dairy farmers!  Too late for that now!  Also, I could pick up the pieces and go on with being a pastor.  But, it was too late for that also.  It was too late for that because whatever religious faith I had left before the fire was now pretty much extinguished.  As I watched the embers from the barn slowly cool,  I could feel my faith cooling as well.   

Try to imagine my mood that cold morning.
It was in sharp contrast with the bright white of the snow.

    I wanted to get out of the warm car and begin work in my cold office in the church.  My body, though, wasn't moving.  Some part of me didn't want to cross the street.  I haven't crossed the street yet.
    I began thinking about religion.  In a kind of daze I began wondering how it all began.  (I'm still wondering and wandering!)  I tried to imagine a time before buildings like the one across the street,  before creeds and beliefs and bibles and gods and preachers and altars and all the things we associate the word "religion."
    Archeology tells us that religions as we think of them began to take shape about 11,700 years ago at the end of the last great ice age when homo sapiens began leaving the forests as hunter-gatherers and began to practice primitive agriculture.  But my imagination was trying to reach back beyond that.  Anthropology tells us that the deepest roots of man's religions here on planet earth emerged long before that. 
    On that cold morning, when this commentary began to germinate,  I knew even less about anthropology than I know now!  But that didn't stop my curiosity!  Linguists estimate that language in its earliest forms emerged about 100,000 years ago.  Let's try to picture homo sapien existence even before that.  Studies of Pacific Island anthropology give us a few hints to go on.


Religion in its earliest, purest form seems to have begun as pure
AWE !
Make a real effort to relive these simple creatures hearing thunder or seeing lightening.
Or, watching the sun rise only to slowly disappear.
[etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.]
 

    As soon as the first homo sapien began to think about this pure awe,  the contamination commenced.  All kinds of spirits were created in their brains.  This was the beginning of theology!  Ages and ages later, when language evolved,  they not only thought about it, they spoke about it.  Woe is AWE when we try to speak about the utterly unspeakable!!  Then, once the Sumerians and the Egyptians developed writing, it was hopeless.  The contamination beyond repair. 
 

The ultimate enemy of religion is theology!!!
The only thing worse than thinking is speaking!!!
The only thing worse than speaking is writing!!!

    The good news is that we can cultivate whatever is left of our AWE.  Stop long enough to be amazed.  It doesn't matter what you're amazed at!  Just stop long enough to be amazed about something.  That is religion in its earliest and purest form.  Everything else is just contamination!
   
    Just a few weeks after this pivotal morning I was delivering the Sunday sermon when I heard myself say something to myself.  I said, "Jack, you don't believe what you just said." I don't remember what I said to the congregation that morning that I didn't really believe.  Now, sixty years later, I can only remember what I said to myself.
    I knew I couldn't go on.  The following Sunday I said, "Goodbye."  It was the only honest thing to do.