I am and always will be the optimist. The hoper of far-flung hopes and the dreamer of improbable dreams.
– the 11th Doctor, The Almost People
“When you’re a kid, they tell you it’s all… Grow up, get a job, get married, get a house, have a kid, and that’s it. But the truth is, the world is so much stranger than that. It’s so much darker. And so much madder. And so much better.”
– Moira Weis (Doctor Who, Love and Monsters)
In the episode “Genesis of the Daleks” the Fourth Doctor is sent back in time to the planet Skaro to wipe out the evil genetically engineered Dalek race before they can be created. However, as he stands with a stripped wire in each hand, ready to send the charge that will ignite the explosives and end the Daleks forever, he begins to question himself:
Just touch these two strands together and the Daleks are finished. Have I that right? You see, some things could be better with the Daleks. Many future worlds will become allies just because of their fear of the Daleks. But the final responsibility is mine, and mine alone. Listen, if someone who knew the future pointed out a child to you and told you that that child would grow up totally evil, to be a ruthless dictator who would destroy millions of lives, could you then kill that child? Do I have the right? Simply touch one wire against the other and that’s it. The Daleks cease to exist. Hundreds of millions of people, thousands of generations can live without fear, in peace, and never even know the word Dalek. But if I kill, wipe out a whole intelligent lifeform, then I become like them. I’d be no better than the Daleks.
– The Fourth Doctor, The Genesis of the Daleks
The 12th Doctor, to prevent a war between two species on Earth, Zygons and humans, creates a box with a red button and a blue button. Each will destroy one side. In this reading, The Doctor argues with a Zygon who is intent on destroying humanity and is willing to risk her own side’s annihilation by pressing one of the buttons:
And when this war is over, when – when you have the homeland free from humans, what do you think it’s going to be like? Do you know? Have you thought about it? Have you given it any consideration? Because you’re very close to getting what you want. What’s it going to be like? Paint me a picture. Are you going to live in houses? Do you want people to go to work? What’ll be holidays? Oh! Will there be music? Do you think people will be allowed to play violins? Who will make the violins? Well?
Oh, You don’t actually know, do you? Because, just like every other tantruming child in history… you don’t actually know what you want. So, let me ask you a question about this brave new world of yours. When you’ve killed all the bad guys, and it’s all perfect and just and fair, when you have finally got it exactly the way you want it, what are you going to do with the people like you? The troublemakers. How are you going to protect your glorious revolution from the next one?…
Maybe you will win. But nobody wins for long. The wheel just keeps turning. So, come on. Break the cycle…. I’m trying to get you to see. And I’m almost there….. Because it’s not a game….
This is a scale model of war. Every war ever fought right there in front of you. Because it’s always the same. When you fire that first shot, no matter how right you feel, you have no idea who’s going to die. You don’t know who’s children are going to scream and burn. How many hearts will be broken! How many lives shattered! How much blood will spill until everybody does what they’re always going to have to do from the very beginning –sit down and talk!
Listen to me, listen. I just – I just want you to think. Do you know what thinking is? It’s just a fancy word for changing your mind.
You’re all the same, you screaming kids, you know that? “Look at me, I’m unforgivable.” Well here’s the unforeseeable, I forgive you. After all you’ve done. I forgive you.
– the 12th Doctor, The Zygon Inversion (excerpted)
“Rebuild your world, rebuild your race, rebuild your empire. Rebuild it all. But make sure you rebuild your ideals too. Rebuild the principles that made you a great and honorable galactic power in the first place. Don’t prey on the weak. Don’t steal from the helpless. Don’t murder the innocent. Be a force for good, not a force for yourself.”
― Dan Abnett, Doctor Who: The Silent Stars Go By
From this earthly home,
we lift our eyes and spirits
to the vast universe,
trembling with the beauty of the cosmos,
stretched in lights before and above our eyes.
Each light burns with a fire unimaginable,
the elements themselves shifting
with the pulse of the stars.
Each is a window to a time long past,
some, burning from before the earth began.
On this earthly home,
we struggle, suffer,
heal, find joy,
and give ourselves to justice.
It is easy to give up.
It is easy to become discouraged or distracted,
too easy to forget
what we know we must be.
So we lift our eyes,
the endless sky becoming our window to eternity,
our reminder that here,
on this small planet,
we are one people,
working to bring hope into reality.
and blessed be.
“Bigger on the Inside –Unitarian Universalism and Doctor Who”
In 1963, two British schoolteachers became concerned about one of their students, a fifteen year old girl named Susan, who although brilliant, seemed extremely odd. She lived with her grandfather, she said, but the address she gave led to nothing more than an old junkyard. She knew more science and history than her teachers could ever dream, corrected the textbooks on a daily basis, but didn’t understand basic things that everyone knows about getting along in the world.
Worried, the teachers drove to the junkyard and heard her voice shouting to her grandfather from inside a small blue police box – the kind common in Britain at the time, used to telephone authorities in an emergency. They pushed their way into the box, only to find themselves in the control room of a vast machine. That blue police box was the TARDIS – it stands for Time and Relative Dimension in Space and it can travel anywhere and to any time in the universe. The TARDIS is bigger on the inside, and can easily disguise itself to fit in with its surroundings – except this one has been stuck looking like a police box for as long as anyone can remember. The child’s grandfather is The Doctor, a Time Lord from the planet Galifrey. He looks human (although from his perspective, humans look Time Lord), but has two hearts, and because, in the tradition of his people, he looked into the time vortex as a child, he is able to be a sojourner through time and space. He can be grumpy at times, but is also generous and wise. He understands the universe in ways that no others do, and wherever he travels, he presumes the best of others, protects those who cannot protect themselves, and whenever possible he does it without violence. He has never carried any kind of weapon, but manages to work out almost every problem with nothing more than his mind, his companions, and his trusty sonic screwdriver. The Doctor’s companions have changed from time to time over the years – human life is so short, and the Doctor’s travels are long – but his journey has never ended, even if the TARDIS has often seemed to have a mind of its own, taking him not where and when he wanted to go, but where and when he is most needed.
Through his travels, The Doctor has collected innumerable friends, but also enemies – typically those who seek to abuse, control and oppress others. Most notorious and dangerous of these are the Daleks – genetically engineered living beings nested in metal armor, firm in their belief that they are the rightful masters of the universe. If I’m completely honest, the average Dalek looks like a giant rolling salt shaker with a plunger stuck to the front of it, but its malevolence more than makes up for its appearance. The word “Exterminate” became so frightening to British schoolchildren that they would very often watch Doctor Who from behind the safety of a couch. It was a good protection from killing machines who could only get around by rolling – until a more recent generation of Daleks figured out how to fly.
Of course, nothing lasts forever, and one day The Doctor collapsed at the controls of his TARDIS. “It’s all over!” he shouted, “But it’s far from being all over!” He fell – and he changed. Time Lords do not live forever, but they may regenerate into a new body many times over their long lives. Each regeneration has its own personality, but each retains the Doctor’s brilliance, along with all his memories and his goodness – and just as many quirks. Different quirks, each time, but definite quirks.
There is always a Doctor. There have been 12 so far (or 13, depending on how you count), each one as principled as the others, each utterly unique, yet somehow the same. The fourth Doctor, with curly brown hair, wore a twelve foot scarf and offered everybody jellybabies. The fifth wore an old fashioned cricket outfit with a piece of celery pinned to his lapel. The tenth wore a pin striped suit, loose tie and sneakers – or as the British would say, “trainers.” And then there was the guy with the fez. Personally I always found the guy with the fez a bit silly. But one way or another, there is always a Doctor.
There is always a TARDIS, still stuck in the form of a blue police box, still bigger on the inside. There is always a companion, sometimes two, because The Doctor needs others with him, to keep him from acting like the god it would be so easy for him to become. Besides, the Doctor always enjoys a smirk when they enter the TARDIS for the first time.
If you are among those who are hopelessly confused at this point, you are probably not alone. Don’t worry. It is, in fact, hopelessly confusing. But as the author Neil Gaiman said, “No, look, there’s a blue box. It’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. It can go anywhere in time and space and sometimes even where it’s meant to go. And when it turns up, there’s a bloke in it called The Doctor and there will be stuff wrong and he will do his best to sort it out and he will probably succeed ‘cause he’s awesome.”
I’ve loved Doctor Who from the time I was a teenager. I think it always appealed to the Unitarian Universalist in me, but it wasn’t until I sat down to write the impossible sermon about an impossible man, that I began to understand just why it did. It helped that when I opened my copy of Time and Relative Dimensions in Faith – yes, there is a book of serious theological essays about Doctor Who – I found that the first chapter centered around the theology of Charles Hartshorne, a UU theologian I not only admire, but actually went to church with for two years. I finally came down to two basic reasons this endless and endlessly changing British science fiction television show has such strong meaning for me.
One – Religious truth is wibbly wobbly, timey wimey.
Two – Unitarian Universalism is a TARDIS.
I’ll begin with the first. Truth is wibbly wobbly, timey wimey. This is the sort of thing the Doctor would often say. He is, after all, far more advanced than we are, and we cannot hope to understand the universe on his level of sophistication. Asked to explain, on one journey, how they ended up outside the universe, the Doctor said, “Imagine a great big soap bubble with one of those tiny little bubbles on the outside. It’s nothing like that.” This isn’t how things actually are, he so often seems seemed to be saying, but if it helps you, it’s worth thinking about it that way. “People don’t understand time,” he once said, “It’s not what you think it is…. It’s very complicated. People assume that time is a strict progression of cause and effect, but from a non-linear viewpoint, it’s actually more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly, timey wimey stuff.” “Yeah,” he said. “That got away from me.”
Religious truth is like that. It’s wibbly wobbly. It doesn’t and probably can’t describe reality as it actually is, but it does help us make sense of it, find meaning, and live in it from day to day. All of our theologies – our ideas about the divine, our beliefs about what happens when we die, our spiritual practices of prayer or meditation, our rituals – all of them point to a kind of truth that cannot be objective, because it’s all merely a way of thinking about a deeper truth which we are too small yet to understand. Religious language – words like “soul,” “grace,” “sacred,” “blessing,” “Heaven,” “God,” “karma,” even “goodness” – are helpful to us. They can guide us in our lives, but they do not and cannot represent the absolute truth of the universe.
Religious wisdom shifts from person to person and culture to culture, and it shifts within each of our personal journeys through time and space. No single human being can ever honestly claim to understand it all. That human beings do make that claim, have often made that claim, and that such claims rarely agree with one another, simply goes to prove the point. Real religious truth will always be wibbly wobbly.
But in the world of theology, truth is also timey-wimey. It shifts with the ages, as we shift and change, but we can always go back and find new wisdom from old sources. We can and should look ahead to what impact our choices in this life will have on the unfolding of reality into the future. We make a difference in this moment, and because we make a difference in this moment, all of reality is connected. All of us contribute to the next moment, and the next, and all the moments that are to come. There are no exceptions to that rule – even the Doctor, who can move backwards and forwards through time, must follow the rules of time. He can’t change his own personal timeline, and some events are fixed, although they may still be changed, just some, just enough to bring a little goodness and gentleness to bear. And once any choice is made, it will impact the world that is to come, for good or for ill. The Doctor will often tell one of his companions that she (usually she, because this is, after all, a classic science fiction television show), is the most important person in the universe. Very often, it’s true. He once said, on hearing someone described as “nobody important,” “Nobody important? Blimey, that’s amazing. You know that in nine hundred years of time and space I’ve never met anybody who wasn’t important before.” Everyone is important, and the choices each of us makes in this moment of time always matter.
When The Doctor was ordered by the Council of Time Lords to destroy the Daleks on Skaros, wiping them out before they could become the evil, machine like creatures they would grow into, he couldn’t do it. He just stood there, holding two wires of a bomb, knowing that if he wiped them out completely, wiped from all existence a still defenseless intelligent species, no matter how evil, he risked becoming them. The Doctor maintained his integrity – and if the evil of the Daleks remains, so does the goodness of The Doctor. It is just possible that the two balance one another. But we will never know for certain, because truth is all far too wibbly wobbly, timey wimey.
Our vehicle for navigating the wibbly wobbly, timey wimey world of religious truth is Unitarian Universalism, which brings us to my second insight – Unitarian Universalism is a TARDIS. Bear with me on this one. I am not saying we are a small blue box. I am, however, saying that we are bigger on the inside – far bigger, and in more ways than one. After all, we are the religion with room for all kinds of people, who believe all kinds of things, even if there have been times in our history when we didn’t think that was true. We began as two Christian denominations with very specific beliefs, but even in our early days we made sure there was room for new ideas and new thought. We understood the wibbly wobbly, timey wimey nature of truth and embraced it in our own travels through time and space. One day, we came to realize that we had room for Unitarians and Universalists who weren’t Christian, room even for people who didn’t believe in God, room for women to be ministers, room for all races and ethnicities, room for gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender people, room for people who were religious liberals, but not politically liberal. We have always found room. Not long ago, in many of our congregations, we didn’t think we had room for religious language. Words like “God” and “prayer,” we used to hear, have no place in church. Yeah, I know, but people really said things like that. It turns out we were wrong. Our religion is a TARDIS, bigger on the inside than you could possibly imagine, and there were simply rooms we hadn’t explored yet, or which we had explored, but so long ago, we had forgotten they were with us all along.
Our religion is a TARDIS. Like the blue box, it doesn’t always take us where we want to go. The search for truth has never worked like that, no matter how many people you may hear saying that Unitarian Universalism means you can believe anything you want. (It isn’t true.) Our religion does not necessarily take us where we want to go, but it does takes us where we need to go. We explore widely and deeply, moving backwards through time to find the wisdom of ancients, and forward to imagine the world that is possible if we dedicate ourselves to the principles of inherent dignity, peacefulness, equality and justice. A journey like that will often take us in odd and unexpected directions, but this is the religious life we have chosen. It fulfils us, because it is unrelentingly honest. It gives us moral direction, and in our living of it, the world really does become better and more fair.
It is not a life we undertake alone. Like The Doctor, we would flounder and fail if we were to try this life by ourselves. We need companions. We need people who see things differently than we do and can give us the benefit of their own thoughts and perspectives. Some of the most powerful moments in The Doctor’s journeys have been those in which a companion has stopped him from some impulsive action, making him listen to another mind, and another truth. This is the essence of Unitarian Universalism – not all of us going off in different directions, but all of us traveling together in the TARDIS that is our faith, gaining wisdom from the wide universe, and also from one another.
In that journey, a great many unexpected things will happen, and a great many things will go wrong, within our congregations, in all of our personal lives, and in society. This is simply the reality of life. But our Unitarian Universalist religion is a saving faith. Our communities, bigger on the inside, have room for all kinds of people, and there are members of our congregation in this room right now who will tell you, if you happen to ask them, that this congregation, and this religion, lifted them, rescued them, and yes, saved them, when all they could see was hopelessness. Yes, things are sometimes stressful, even in the most wonderful congregations. The TARDIS itself is always breaking down, and when it materializes in a new place, it makes a rough, scraping, grinding noise, but it is said that this noise brings hope to millions. The life of our religion and the life of each of our congregations can sometimes get messy and anxious, but if we give ourselves to that life, we too will be witness to hope.
And like the TARDIS, our congregations are very often piloted by people whose faces and personalities change, often quite suddenly. While each Minister is very different from the other, all of them – all of us – have some things in common. We all care deeply for Unitarian Universalism and our congregations, for people, and for the world. We are all imperfect. We all try to pilot the TARDIS of our religion in ways that help people, contribute to justice, bring a little more goodness into the world, honor inherent worth and dignity, embody all the things we value as a faith. And, most of us are a little weird. When we first materialize in a congregation, we are likely to be a little disoriented for awhile. We depend on the trust and good faith of our many companions to make sense of it all, and to help us as we begin to serve all of you.
Here, in this place, and in this time, we journey together. The journey will always go on, through all of time and space, through worlds of imagination and heritage, through ideas and adventures, dangers and great triumphs. Always, there will be people who need saving, and always, Unitarian Universalism will be there to lift up and love and wrap ourselves around each soul, here, in this faith that has so much room. Always, we hold forth the values of dignity and justice, honesty and truth seeking. Here, in this place and in this time, and in every place and every time, we bring all that we are, all that we have been and all that we are becoming to the wide and wonderful universe.
“There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, where the sea is asleep and the rivers dream. There are people made of smoke and cities made of song. Somewhere there’s danger, somewhere there’s injustice, and somewhere else the tea is getting cold.
Come on Ace, we’ve got work to do!”
– The Seventh Doctor, Survival