Excerpted from Worshipping Together with Questioning Minds, by Sophia Lyon Fahs. Copyright (C) 1965 by Sophia Lyon Fahs. Reprinted by permission of Beacon Press, Boston.
Two first-person anecdotes from Fahs' experiences as a religious educator, each followed by her analysis.
As long as I live I do not expect to forget that morning during one of our Junior Department services of worship when I had vivid evidence that some of the boys and girls, at least, felt an exhilaration in their realization of being linked with the ages. We had been discussing how old we were and when we really began. We traveled in imagination step by step back from our own birthdays to the time of our conception, then on to our parents' birthdays, and to our grandparents', and our great grandparents' and so on, and on. We decided finally that something now within our bodies must have been living hundreds, thousands, millions of years ago. We could never get back to our own beginnings. We must then all be very, very, very old; or at least something within us must be billions of years old.
The experience was a thrilling one for me, but I had not expected to find it had been even more thrilling to some of the children. I learned later that, after the service was over, a group of boys in one class ran down the stairs to their classroom in order to greet their teacher when she arrived later, with the gleeful declaration "Hurrah! We are as old as you are! We are as old as you are!"
Such experiences may not come often, yet they are beyond price when they are experienced. Nor are they usually generated in children's groups through some generalized talk about the universe. Such experiences arise more often when some simple concrete meditation in questioning one thing or one event is elicited.
In some of our church schools it has become almost a habit for the leader of the services of worship to have some natural object, or objects, on an altar or table in the chancel or on the platform where it may become the center of attention and awaken curiosity. Perhaps the object is a branch of autumn leaves, a rose or lily, a flowering plant, an unusual stone, or a bowl of apples or oranges...
Sermonizing through object lessons for children is no newly-discovered art. It has long been known that an object that can be seen is highly successful as a device to awaken children's interests; and that from the visible, one can direct attention to the invisible.
If, however, we truly believe in a religion nurtured in [such] realistic natural experiences rather than in visions of supernatural events, we have a different reason for starting by asking questions of things that boys and girls can see and handle. Rather than using things in order to find spiritual lessons from them, we consider things in order to discover more of their own nature. In the terminology of today's philosophers, we would say, in order to know them "existentially."
Wendell and Jimmie in our sixth-grade class could have helped me lead a service of worship, had I been sensitive enough at the time to see the possibilities. For one day in class Wendell had said, "Some one says that if you boiled all the chemicals in your body down and sold them, they'd be worth only seven cents. It's the way you're put together that's the hard part." And Jimmie had added: "just chemicals can't have children."
We might have filled a table with containers holding samples of the different chemical elements in one human body. What dynamic questions might have been awakened! How reverently we would have felt as together we stood before the Great Mystery of Life!
We need not labor to reach up into another realm to feel the touch of Infinity. Although it is far off, yet it is also nearer than hands or feet. We can never know anything, even the most microscopic bit of matter or protoplasm, without facing what eludes our understanding and even our imagination. As Rufus Jones once said, "There is a more yet in our very being." There is a "more yet" in every being, in every thing. It is really not strange that what mankind has believed is in a "supernatural" realm can already be here in the natural.
"Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow... ," said Jesus. "Consider the flower in the crannied wall," said Tennyson.
"Consider anything you please," says the Zen Buddhist, "but just consider it not as a symbol of eternity, as God in miniature, as a moral lesson. But just consider it."
By way of summary, let us rethink the four needed revisions in our personal attitudes and philosophies that have been suggested if, in our generation, we can hope to keep our minds and hearts working in harmony together. First is the greater emphasis we need to put on understanding inner feelings, especially motivations and unconscious assumptions. Second is the significance of learning to face life's issues realistically and understandingly. Third is the need not only for a natural humanism, but also for a religious naturalism that brings the whole of Nature into the area of ethical concern and religious appreciation. And finally the need to question concrete bits of Reality until we feel the nearness of the Universal. Other equally important changes may have been omitted. These here considered, however, are worthy of much meditation and will require persistent learning in actual experiencing.
We are left with a feeling of the greatness of our unknowing, and with the need for a continuing questioning attitude of mind.