STLT#304, A Fierce Unrest

I need the hope of possibility.

I need the promise of unanswered questions.

I need the assurance of unsealed revelation.

Especially today, as I conclude my ministry at First Universalist Church of Southold and begin a community ministry in the arts and worship – a ministry whose form is not entirely clear but whose call is – I need these things in large supply, in my professional life, my personal life, and most definitely in my spiritual life.

This hymn – one of a few serious poems by early 20th century humorist Don Marquis – holds none of these things for me. In fact, it strikes me as rather determined to close the door to possibility and question, even as it promotes questioning in its third verse.

And it’s the third verse I really have a problem with. The first two aren’t bad – they’re a rather decent retelling of the creation story that is evolution. But the third verse…

A fierce unrest seethes at the core of all existing things:
it was the eager wish to soar that gave the gods their wings.
There throbs through all the worlds that are this heartbeat hot and strong,
and shaken systems, star by star, awake and glow in song.

But for the urge of this unrest these joyous spheres are mute;
but for the rebel in our breast had we remained as brutes.
When baffled lips demanded speech, speech trembled into birth;
one day the lyric word shall reach from earth to laughing earth.

From deed to dream, from dream to deed, from daring hope to hope,
the restless wish, the instant need, still drove us up the slope.
Sing we no governed firmament, cold, ordered, regular;
we sing the stinging discontent that leaps from star to star.

The first two lines are great. yes! This is how many of us, whatever our particularities, think is true – humanity driven by some need, some hope, something possible. It’s at the core of our Unitarian Universalism.

But then, boom. Marquis shuts the door hard, never letting our drive find what some call God. Nope. We don’t sing about that. We’re discontented beings in a wide scary universe. Period. No possibility of a new revelation. No possibility of Mystery.

Is this what we want our humanists and atheists to think? That in fact, science has sealed possibility and hope and cut us off from mystery? Because that’s how I read this last verse, and it is most assuredly not what I want anyone to think. I want neither science nor religious belief to seal possibility. Instead, I want them to work together to show us how much more is possible, how much more mystery there is in the universe, how many more questions there are than we can ever imagine.

I appreciate that some would be comforted by this hymn. And I do like the first two verses as an alternative to hymns like Earth Was Given as a Garden. But I will never sing that third verse.

I need the hope of possibility.

4 responses to “STLT#304, A Fierce Unrest”

  1. […] hymn. The tune is soaring and lush, and very fitting for these words by Don Marquis. And as much as our last encounter with Marquis frustrated me, this encounter draws me directly into the mystery of life and death and Mystery […]

  2. Leika Lewis-Cornwell Avatar
    Leika Lewis-Cornwell

    For me, the third verse reads as all about the hope of possibility. I read the last two lines, especially, as saying “we’re not accepting that it’s all done, set in finality with nothing left to explore — instead, we’ll keep seeking the next great question, on and on ad infinitum.”

    1. I feel the same way. It also seems a little strange to me to say Marquis slams the door on God. Why should the hymn talk explicitly about God? And why is is deemed an atheist hymn because it doesn’t talk about God? As well call “Let Nothing Evil Cross this Door” or “From All the Fret and Fever of the Day” atheist.

      Back when I was in seminary and bought my own copy of SLT, I added an item to the topical index– Process Theology–just to add this hymn to it. The last verse in particular is a statement of process theology, whose adherents sometimes believe in a god and sometimes don’t, but never think that the universe is under someone’s strict and unwavering control. Creation leaves room for restlessness, change, and possibility.

  3. Having experienced first-hand, in Boston, the closing-of-doors that past-president Sinkford ushered in to our UU Movement and the closing-down of critical theological thinking that it engender as unregenerate Theists sought their own comfort in our services and diverse worship, I can only question this minister’s misunderstanding of the genius of Liberal/Progressive Religion, and wonder why they don’t find a more doctrinaire & dogmatic tradition-based setting in which to minister….

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