Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Universalism, Politics, and Evil

May 3, 2015 at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois.

Opening Words: "Outwitted" by Edwin Markham

Introduction to the Reading: Historically, Unitarian Universalism gets the “Universalist” part of its name from the Christian doctrine of universal salvation, the belief that Jesus’ sacrifice paid the freight for everyone, so sooner or later — no matter what they believe or how evil they are — everyone is going to wind up in Heaven. There couldn't possibly be a Hell, because God is too good to create one, and God loves each human soul too much to give up on it and cast it away forever. 

As you might imagine, the Catholic Church considered universal salvation a heresy. They started stamping it out in the third century, but no matter how many books or heretics they burnedit kept popping up every few generations, until in colonial America it became the Universalist Church.

What made universal salvation so hard to suppress was that unpredictable people at unpredictable times kept having the same religious experience: a vision of the goodness of God and the unconditionality of God’s love. 

Christians are still having that vision, whether they’ve ever been exposed to Unitarian Universalism or not. Occasionally they have it at very inconvenient times. In 2005, the radio program This American Life devoted an episode to the extremely inconvenient universalist awakening of Carlton Pearson.

Carlton was a rising black televangelist, a protege of Oral Roberts. He had appeared in the pulpit with Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. His Higher Dimensions megachurch in Tulsa was drawing 5,000 people a week. And then this happened:

Reading: From This American Life (December 16, 2005)

Well, my little girl, who will be nine next month, was an infant. I was watching the evening news. The Hutus and Tutus were returning from Rwanda to Uganda, and Peter Jennings was doing a piece on it. 

Now, Majeste was in my lap, my little girl. I'm eating the meal, and I'm watching these little kids with swollen bellies. And it looks like their skin is stretched across their little skeletal remains. Their hair is kind of red from malnutrition. The babies, they've got flies in the corners of their eyes and of their mouths. And they reach for their mother's breast, and the mother's breast looks like a little pencil hanging there. I mean, the baby's reaching for the breast, there's no milk.

And I, with my little fat-faced baby, and a plate of food and a big-screen television. And I said, "God, I don't know how you can call yourself a loving, sovereign God and allow these people to suffer this way and just suck them right into Hell," which is what was my assumption. 

And I heard a voice say within me, "So that's what you think we're doing?" 

And I remember I didn't say yes or no. I said, "That's what I've been taught." 

"We're sucking them into Hell?" I said,

"Yes." "And what would change that?" 

"Well, they need to get saved." 

"And how would that happen?" 

"Well, somebody needs to preach the Gospel to them and get them saved." 

"So if you think the only way they're going to get saved is for somebody to preach the Gospel to them and that we're sucking them into Hell, why don't you put your little baby down, turn your big-screen television off, push your plate away, get on the first thing smoking, and go get them saved?"

And I remember I broke into tears. I was very upset. I remember thinking, "God, don't put that guilt on me. You know I've given you the best 40 years of my life. Besides, I can't save the whole world. I'm doing the best I can. I can't save this whole world." 

And that's where I remember, and I believe it was God, saying, "Precisely. You can't save this world. That's what we did. Do you think we're sucking them into Hell? Can't you see they're already there? That's Hell. You keep creating and inventing that for yourselves. I'm taking them into My presence."

And I thought, well, I'll be. That's weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. That's where the pain comes from. We do that to each other, and we do it to ourselves. Then I saw emergency rooms. I saw divorce court. I saw jails and prisons. I saw how we create Hell on this planet for each other. And for the first time in my life, I did not see God as the inventor of Hell.

Talk: If you read my Weekly Sift blog, you probably know that I reliably take the positions that are known as “politically correct”: I support marriage equality, I think black lives matter, I believe women when they talk about rape, I defend Muslims, I wish the rich paid more taxes, I advocate negotiating with unpopular countries like Iran and Cuba, I think voting should be easy, I believe in unions and a higher minimum wage, I think poor people usually work harder than rich people, I want everyone to have access to health care, and the idea that a few cheaters might be abusing food stamps doesn’t bother me nearly so much as the possibility that there still might be some hungry people out there. 

Down the line, politically correct.

Now, describing those positions that way is disparaging, because it implies that they are just a fashion. These are the chic ideas among the liberal tribe these days, and we display them so that we will recognize each other.

And it works. If I meet a stranger and she says, “It’s a shame Elizabeth Warren won’t challenge Hillary” I think: “Ah, one of my people.”

Because human beings are like that. We’re tribal. It’s evolution — another one of those fashionable liberal ideas. One explanation for why the brains of primates got bigger was that we needed to do a lot of social processing to hold together larger groups. Larger groups have a survival advantage, so evolution favors larger brains. 

If you compare humans to other primates, our brain size says we should run in tribes of about 150, compared to under 100 for chimpanzees and bonobos. That’s called “Dunbar’s number” and even today, it shows up in the literature about church size. In congregations with less than 150 members, everybody can have a personal relationship with everybody else. But 150 members is often a crisis point, and requires some kind of reorganization. It’s biology.

Now, one way our ancestors got around those limitations and held together tribes larger than 150 was to invent fashion. We learned to identify with each other's external trappings even if we didn't have a personal relationship. So we’d paint our bodies red or put bones through our noses, and that way if we met someone we didn't recognize, we could tell whether or not he belonged to our tribe. And if the next tribe started to copy us, then we’d have to change to a different color or a different kind of bone. Because that's how fashion works. It’s how like-minded people recognize each other.

Naturally, it’s easier for me to spot political fashionability in people I disagree with. For example, I’ll bet most of you know some smart, scientifically literate conservative who for some reason is blind to the evidence for global warming. You can be having a perfectly intelligent conversation, but something strange happens when climate change come up. He just can’t go there.

It’s tribal. Ten or fifteen years ago, a John McCain or a Newt Gingrich could acknowledge global warming. But fashion shifted, and climate change became a global socialist conspiracy. Today, a conservative who admits to believing in it risks being ostracized from his political community.

Of course, liberals and conservatives aren’t perfect mirror images of each other, so just because the other side has some fault doesn’t mean my side necessarily has it too. But in this case I think it’s fair to say that sometimes we do. Because tribalism and fashionability aren’t flaws in the conservative worldview, they’re part of basic humanity. We are all tempted to bend over backwards to fit in with the people we recognize as our own.

But just because an opinion or a practice is fashionable doesn’t mean it’s just fashionable. There also might be some good reason for it. For example, children are still reciting “Eeny Meeny Miney Moe”, but they say it differently than I did. Today they say, “Catch a tiger by the toe.” But if you’re my age or a little older, maybe you remember saying, “Catch a nigger by the toe.” We didn’t necessarily think about what we were saying, that’s just how the rhyme went in those days.

That version is out of fashion now, but it’s not just fashion that keeps us from teaching it to our children. There’s a reason to say it the new way, and I don’t think the old rhyme is ever going to come back.

So yes, I understand that all the opinions I listed at the beginning of this talk are fashionable among liberals, but that doesn’t mean that nothing more than fashion links them all together. 

Conservatives usually will grant me that. My views aren’t just liberal chic, they come from a higher principle. Like: I hate America. Or I want to destroy western civilization. Or maybe I just hate myself, so I push against whites and men and Americans and anybody else who resembles me. 

Those certainly are unifying principles. But they’re not the one I had in mind. To me, all those positions on all those diverse issues arise from the spirit of Universalism as I understand it. Which is not to say that Universalism has a political dogma, or that you can’t be a good Unitarian Universalist if you disagree. But this is where Universalism takes me.

When I introduced the reading I talked about the origins of Universalism in the doctrine of universal salvation. When you describe it that way, Universalism seems very etherial and other-worldly. It’s all about God and the afterlife, and doesn’t seem to have much to do with food stamps or foreign policy. But those theological ideas laid the groundwork for a radical kind of Humanism that we're still practicing today.

You see, in orthodox Christianity, as in many other faiths, the afterlife isn't one place, it's two places: a blissful Heaven and a torturous Hell. And that creates a fundamental division in humanity between the Saved, who will be on the boat to Heaven, and the Damned, who will be on the boat to Hell. Orthodox believers see this not as some unfortunate accident, but as divine justice. The Damned are bound for eternal torment because that is what they deserve.

That vision of the afterlife doesn’t force believers to take a harsh view of life here and now — many people who believe in Hell are kind and generous here on Earth. But if you have any harshness already in you, this vision of the Saved and the Damned will magnify it. Because it does lend itself to the harsh view that once you step off the path of righteousness, you deserve whatever you get. 

So if a young woman gets raped, well, what did she think would happen when she went to that party dressed like that? If a gay man gets AIDS, if a petty criminal gets killed by police, if a Muslim villager becomes collateral damage in a drone strike, why do they deserve our compassion? They stepped off the path laid out in a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible, and they got what was coming to them.

If you’re not careful, the Saved and the Damned can come to seem like two different species. In the New Testament, Jesus uses Judgment Day metaphors that seem to say that. He talks about God separating the sheep from the goats, or about the harvest, when the grain is kept but the weeds are burned. 

John Calvin went a step further. Not only would humanity be divided at the end of time, but it had been two species all along. From the moment of Creation, God had predestined some souls for Heaven and others for Hell. That was the kind of Christianity that many of the early American Universalists grew up with.

Human beings, as I was saying before, have a tendency towards tribalism. And if you’re not careful, this theology of the Saved and the Damned can ally itself with your tribal impulses. And then the Saved become the Good People, the people like us, and the Damned are the Bad People, the people like them. It becomes easier to look at someone who is different, and see not a fellow human being, a child of the same God, possessed of the same rights and faculties I have, but rather someone whose ticket to Hell is already punched and only the formality of death is delaying the completion of his damnation.

That is certainly how colonial Americans behaved sometimes. These heathen Indians — why shouldn’t they be driven off this land where I want to build my City on a Hill for the greater glory of God? These pagan Africans — why shouldn’t they be my slaves? And if I convert either of them to Christianity, well then they should thank me. I get their land and their labor, but they get eternal salvation, so it works out for everyone. 

Universalism said no to all this. There aren’t two afterlives or two boats to the afterlife, no Saved and Damned. There are just people. Humanity is one species, and we are all in the same boat. We all have the same basic set of emotions, the same drives, the same temptations, and the same yearnings for a better life. 

From the very beginning, that had political implications. When American Universalists began to think of themselves as a national movement, one of the first things they did was to call for the abolition of slavery. (They were the second denomination to do that, after the Quakers.) And perhaps the beginning of American feminism was the essay “On the Equality of the Sexes”, written in 1779 by Judith Sargent Murray, the wife of Universalist leader John Murray.

The political upshot of Universalism — which continues in Unitarian Universalism today, even among those of us who don't believe in God or the afterlife any more — is that since God isn’t writing anybody off, we don’t get to either. We are obligated to try to imagine the full humanity of everyone, to picture them not as damned or evil or inconsequential, but as people deserving of the same kind of consideration we would like to claim for ourselves.

That’s an easy thing to say, and easy to nod to when somebody else says it. But in actual practice, it is difficult and radical. Not many people manage it consistently, and I know I find it a struggle. 

When people live far away from us, or live so differently from us that we are afraid of them, or if they act in ways we find inconvenient, or if they are unpopular and lack the power to make us respect their point of view, it’s easy to slip into imagining them in stereotyped ways rather than seeing them as human beings as deep and as complicated as we are.

When this country first started debating marriage equality, I’d often hear someone say, “I can’t understand why two men would even want to get married.” Of course the people who said this were often married themselves and knew exactly why they had done it: They wanted to share a life with someone, to tell the world that this relationship was special, to build a secure household for raising children. Why a same-sex couple might want to marry was a mystery only to straights who could not let themselves imagine that gays and lesbians could be so much like them.

When protest — and sometimes violence — was erupting in Ferguson, and again last weekend in Baltimore, I heard the most amazing explanations of why people were out in the streets: Looting and burning weren’t isolated responses to mistreatment, they were the whole point. Michael Brown or Freddie Gray were just excuses to throw off the constraints of law and civilization. 

Again and again, I heard TV pundits talk about our fellow citizens as if they were animals to be tamed or vermin to be controlled. So few called on us to imagine our own neighborhoods being similarly tamed and controlled, or to ask ourselves how we would respond to such treatment.

Even when the poor are quiet, I hear astounding things about them. They are “lucky duckies” because they don’t have to work or pay taxes. They have no pride or ambition, and they don’t want their children to work hard and get an education and succeed. Somehow, that description is easier to believe than that the poor want the same things from life we do, but just have a harder time getting them.

Foreign countries are also split into the Good People and the Bad People. The Good Foreigners accept the place in the world order that the United States has assigned them, and the Bad Foreigners don’t.

And the reason they don’t is not because they love their land and their people the way we love ours. It’s not because they want their country to find its own place in the world or to shape its own system of government like we did. It’s not even because they fear and distrust us the same way we fear and distrust them. 

No, they oppose us because they are all madmen and monsters. They hate freedom. They are enemies of all human civilization. There is no understanding them or talking to them; all we can hope to do is go to war and kill them.

Universalism says no to all that.

It says that if you want to understand other people, the place to start is with our shared humanity and all that it implies. People living very different lives from us may have been shaped by different experiences, but underneath all that nearly all of them have the same needs, the same drives, the same fears, and the same hopes that we do. They aren’t a species of Bad People pledged to the Devil with a reservation on the boat to Hell. They have the same ticket to life and death that we all do.

Now I can’t just stop there without responding to the most common objection to Universalism: Universalism, people will tell you, is a rose-tinted worldview. Everybody is nice. Everybody is trustworthy. Everybody is like us. If you believe that, the critics say, you’ll be a sucker. Because bad people exist, evil exists, and you won’t be able to deal with that evil, because you have made yourself blind to it.

There is a difficulty there, a challenge. But it’s not the one the critics claim. If you approach the world as a Universalist, if you envision all people as human in the same way that you are human, then you won’t be able to deal with evil — if you imagine that there is no evil in you.

But if you give in to the tribal temptation to say “We are the Good People”, if you give in to the egotistic temptation to say “I am Good”, then you need to believe in the Bad People. Because how else could the world be this way? We didn’t do it. 

Earlier in the talk I criticized a couple of things Jesus said. Now I’d like to give him credit for an observation I find insightful: “Whosoever hates his brother is a murderer.” 

A lot of people interpret that in a way that doesn’t do Jesus much credit. They think he’s holding us responsible for the bad thoughts we don’t act on. But I think he’s saying that you’re kidding yourself if you imagine that some great moral divide separates you from the Bad People. 

Have you ever hated someone? Then you know where murder comes from. Have you been afraid and humiliated? Then you know why people lash out. Have you ever wanted to slough off inconvenient responsibilities? To forget a promise? To look at someone else’s suffering and say, “I don’t have anything to do with that” when deep down you know you really do? Then you know why people cheat and betray each other’s trust. Don’t act like evil is some great mystery; it isn’t. We all live with it all the time.

Universalism doesn’t deny the existence of evil, or the struggle between good and evil. It just refuses to frame that struggle as an external battle between Good People like us and Bad People like them. It doesn’t see the battle between good and evil as something that’s happening far away in Syria or the Ukraine, or in Washington, or in the poor neighborhoods of St. Louis or Baltimore. 

Good and evil are both part of our human inheritance, and not even an Almighty God can divide them so neatly as to send the Good to Heaven and the Evil to Hell. The battle between good and evil is always happening, right here right now, inside each and every one of us. We win some and we lose some. All of us.

I want to close back where I started, with political correctness and the liberal tribe. One consequence of recognizing that humanity is one species and we’re all in the same boat is that we have to own up to feeling the same tribal temptations that we see in our opponents. Universalism can warn us against that human tendency, but it can’t completely inoculate us. 

And so every day on my Twitter and Facebook feeds, I see link after link about the horrible things the other side is saying or doing;links that are there mainly to raise my anger, and to reinforce the idea that I and my friends are the Good People fighting the Bad People. And the Bad People do not have their own, perhaps misguided, view of right and good. They are monsters and maniacs, committed to falsehood and impervious to reason or compassion. So if my side doesn't do whatever it takes to win, the world will plunge into eternal darkness.

That’s not a Universalist style of rhetoric.

I face that issue every week when I put the Sift together. Whatever outrageous thing Michele Bachmann or Louie Gohmert said this week, am I tempted to include it because my readers need to know the full range of the ideas that are out there? Or am I just trying to raise their blood pressure and build their sense of our common righteousness?

I can't ignore that question. Because there is a weakness in the Universalist position, one that the other side doesn’t share: We can lose by winning. If we win by demonizing and stereotyping, if we win by casting ourselves as the Saved and our opponents as the Damned — then we’ve lost. If good vs. evil is a battle inside each person, then evil can win in us at the very moment that we are winning in the external world. 

Polarization is a fact of today’s political landscape, and we have to deal with it. But we can’t afford to lose ourselves in polarization. Because our virtues are not divine, they’re human. And their vices are not demonic, they’re human. 

Good and evil are both part of the human inheritance that everyone shares. And whenever we forget that, no matter what is happening on the battlefield out there, we’re losing.

Closing words: “Fire and Ice” by Robert Frost

Tuesday, April 28, 2015


Out there, the old man says, 

brushing the morning condensation off the inside of the glass,

the desert swallows whole rivers.
I’ve seen it. Long ago. Before.

A river came down from the Mountain,

roaring like the Source of Life itself.
And I thought, if I followed, it might lead me
to a port on some great salt sea,
like the ones in all the stories.

But it didn’t.
The sun, the wind,
and the simple incongruities of scale had their way.
Until in the end, it was just a damp place in the sand,
and then nothing.

I would like to have seen that, I say.
But really I mean
I wish I could hear it.
What would water have to do to roar
rather than burble or trickle or drip?

It’s better this way, he says.
We had to seal up.
Before the Dome, our little spring
didn’t amount to much on the desert's scale.
Barely a puddle most of the year.
If you timed your migration wrong you might miss it.
But now …
He waved his arm to take in the gardens and the trees
and the our healthy little village.
… now there’s a little paradise in here.

Do you think Paradise is really like this? I ask.
With a spring and gardens and a dome?

What else could it be?
It’s a place of goodness,
and what good survives without protection?
Without a dome over Heaven,
Hell would leech all its life out
until God Himself was just a damp place in the sand.

The Ancients, I say, for I like to study such things,
the Ancients pictured God much bigger than that.
Bigger than the desert, bigger than the whole world.

The Ancients, he says, and spits on the black dirt beneath our feet,
the thin topsoil it took decades to coax and conjure into existence.
They made that desert, in their infinite fucking wisdom.
If they’ve got a cock in this fight
I’ll bet on the other one.
We had to seal it up.

Occasionally, I recall as I look towards the horizon,
we still see travelers out there.
They come towards us as if we were a mirage,
as if there were still an open oasis here.
I saw one close up once.
He was pounding on the glass
like it was a door I could open.
He licked the glass as if it were porous
and some of the inside moisture might leak through.

He died there.
I tried to tell him to move on,
that I lacked the power to let him in,
that he needed to look elsewhere.
But either he didn’t speak our language
or he just didn’t want to believe me.

You shouldn’t think about him, the old man says.
He’s scary that way, hearing my thoughts.
People out there, they don’t concern us.
We’re separate now.
And even if you could have let him in,
where would it stop?

He’d want to rescue a wife or a child.
They’d get a message to their cousins,
and then word would get out that all the water is in here.
It isn’t, but they’d say that.
And as long as we weren’t dead,
we’d have more than them
and feel like we had to let them in.
But every day we’d have a little less more,
until eventually we’d be dead too.
You can’t start something like that,
if you don’t know where it will end.

I know he’s right.
But sometimes, sometimes,
sometimes the wishing builds up in me
until I think I might burst.
It wells up until it wants to roar down the mountains like a great river.
But what then?
I know there’s no sea to run to.

In here, in here we look after each other.
We’d never just watch each other die.
Paradise is a place of love.
But how long could such soft feelings survive
in the harshness out there?
How long before the roaring river of my compassion
became a damp place in the endless sand
and then nothing?

Do you still think about painting over the panels? he asks.
Just the lower ones, I say.
The ones about as high as my head.
It’s fine to look out and up.
I like it, most of the time.
What about the birds? he asks.

I’d forgotten about them.
It was three years ago they came.
A whole flock. Migrators.
Our little puddle, we figure,
must have been a stopover
on the route of some ancestor.
(Going where? I wonder.)

They sat up high on the Dome.
Feeling what, I can’t imagine.
Anger? anticipation? confusion? betrayal? hope?
Maybe they were just too tired to go on.
It took forever for the wind to push their bodies off.
And months more before I got back in the habit of looking up.

I’m glad you didn’t start, the old man says.
Don’t start things, if you don’t know where they’ll end.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Religion and the Imagination, Bedford version

Almost exactly a year ago, I gave a talk “Religion and the Imagination” at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois. The text and audio of that Sunday service is here. (It’s slightly longer, and has two additional readings.)

This past Sunday, I updated that talk for my home church in Bedford, Massachusetts. You can watch that service here, and also hear the choir do several thematic songs, including John Lennon’s “Imagine”. 

All the text pieces of the Bedford service are in this post. 

Thought at the beginning (printed in the order of service)

The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor. — Jonathan Haidt

Opening Words

All [people] dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity. But the dreamers of the day are dangerous ... for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible. — Lawrence of Arabia, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom


From “The Folly of Half-way Liberalism” by John Dietrich (1930)

The modern liberal …  is constantly telling us that things are both this and that, instead of either this or that. Would that our modern liberal would take the bull by the horns and grapple decisively with that tremendous either-or. Either the things of which religion speaks are realities, or they are illusions. If they are realities, let us embrace them. If they are illusions, let us dismiss them. 

From “How My Daughter Taught Me To Love Myth-Making” by Kyle Cupp

Today my daughter would have been four years old. Though Vivian is no longer with us, we will celebrate her birthday this evening, lighting a candle, and in its glow, dine and sing and share her story. We’ll do all this in memory of her.

Her older brother, now seven, has a few memories and mementos. Her younger sister knows her only by our pictures, treasured keepsakes, and our words. My wife and I contemplate her life as best we can with what we have left to us.

This is our ritual, our tradition, our own little family myth-making. It is how we, in an ever new present, give meaning to a life lived in an ever more distant past. It’s how we bridge the distance. It’s how we devote ourselves to someone now with us only in memory.

Vivian breathed, cooed, and gave us one loud cry when she was first carried through the cold hospital air. Not what I’d usually call major life accomplishments, but they were hers and about all she did. My own achievements seem insignificantly small 
next to the movements of the planets and the stars. If I can think the world of anyone’s small steps, I can think the world of hers.

What is the meaning of her life? What is the meaning of my own? I’ve come to believe that these are not questions with answers “out there” discoverable only if I search long enough, but questions I am called to answer creatively in my own small way, responding to the past from where I happen to be in the present moment, 
making something new for the future.

Vivian won’t be present for her party, so we will have to make her present.

Religion and the Imagination

Why, a little girl once asked me, don’t grown-ups like to use their imaginations? Hidden in that question was a judgement and an accusation. At the time, we had just landed on a distant planet, and we had a mission that I kept losing track of. Her younger brother had a lot to add to the shared fantasy, but I could barely keep up. Why was I so dull, so unimaginative, so grown up?

That question stuck with me for months, especially when I was with children. And eventually an answer came to me: The adult imagination is every bit as vigorous as a child's, and we live surrounded by imaginary things. But rather than take credit for those imaginative products, we insist that they are real. 

Much of a child’s education consists of learning to see what adults see, things that (strictly speaking) are not there. We see danger in streets that (at the moment) have no traffic. We see property lines, and invisible connections between objects and their owners. When the living room floor is cluttered, we see not just where things are, but also where they belong, and the system of organization that wants to pull them back into place. We see not just where we are in a room, but also where we are on the map and in the schedule and on the org chart. The left side of the highway looks physically different to us than the right side.

Kids don’t see any of that stuff until we teach them. Because it’s not real.

A few years ago I was in London with the LaFrance-Lindens. Jo-Jo was ten and Tommy seven. When they knew where we were going, they loved to run ahead, which got kind of scary in underground stations. The boys would thread their way through a crowd by racing up to within an inch of somebody, and then changing direction at the last instant like a halfback avoiding a linebacker. It was nerve-wracking to watch, but they never ran into anybody, and so it was hard to explain why they should slow down.

Eventually I realized that they simply did not see what I saw. I saw a bubble of personal space around each person. And so I saw the boys violently bashing their bubbles into other people’s bubbles. But they didn’t see that, because those bubbles were imaginary.

In some theories of physics, actual particles are surrounded by clouds of virtual particles, which probably aren’t there, but they could be; and somehow all that possibility needs to be accounted for. Similarly, in the adult world actual events are surrounded by clouds of virtual events: things that haven’t happened and maybe never will, but could. 

So a child will set a glass of orange juice on the edge of a table and go on playing. But any adult who looks at that glass will instantly see all the ways it could be knocked off. It is as if the real glass were surrounded by virtual orange-juice glasses that have already toppled to the floor and broken. We see those broken glasses, but children don’t, because they’re not really there.

Some days a virtual event is the most striking thing that happens. Say you’re walking beside the Great Road holding a child’s hand. But your grip gets sweaty. She slips away, 
darts out into traffic, and in just a second or two is on the opposite sidewalk perfectly safe. A couple of cars screeched to a halt, but no real harm was done.

The girl will probably not think twice about that incident, because she experienced only what really happened. But you ... you saw all the virtual cars that didn’t stop in time and all the virtual little girls who were injured or maybe even killed. That’s what leaves you shaking, 
and what will come back to you in the middle of the night: not the real event, 
but the one you saw in your imagination.

Like children, we adults make our fantasies more elaborate and more stable by sharing them with others. A shared fantasy can seem to have an external reality, because even if it slips your mind, other people can keep it going and pull you back in. 

But I like to run what I call the amnesia test: Test something's reality by asking whether it would still exist if we all forgot about it at the same time. For example, if one night we all forgot about the Sun, I’m pretty confident we'd rediscover it in the morning. And if we all forgot about gravity, I think it would regain our attention fairly quickly.

But on the other hand, if everyone simultaneously forgot that paper money has value, then it wouldn’t. Real as it may seem sometimes, money is an act of shared imagination. So are laws. If we all simultaneously forgot the laws, there wouldn’t be any. It’s our shared imagination that holds that system together.

Communities also fail the amnesia test. If I forgot about this church, I hope the rest of you would pull me back. “Where have you been?” you might say. “We miss you.” Or I might do the same for you.

But if we all forgot at the same time, First Parish would just be gone. Because the fundamental place this church exists isn’t in this building or in the legal structure of the bylaws, 
but in our imaginations. So if you new members are wondering exactly what you've signed up for, this is my answer: You've joined our shared fantasy, and we hope you'll lend the power of your imagination to the task of making this community as real as money or law.

Now, many of our social and cultural inventions serve some kind of purpose. So even if everybody forgot about them, they might eventually get replaced by something similar. Eventually there could be new communities and new laws and new economies that had some kind of currency. But I don’t believe those amnesiac people would rediscover the inherent worth of dollar bills or driving on the right. Because the value of those things is fundamentally imaginary.

But what would happen to the objects of religion? What would happen to God or the afterlife or souls? If everyone simultaneously forgot about those things would they be gone? Or are they as real as the Sun or gravity, so that we would have to rediscover them?

Reasonable people disagree about this, but personally I believe religion would be like law or money. New religions might develop. But the specifics of current religions — the theologies and cosmologies, the visions of Heaven and Hell and the plans of salvation that get us to one or the other — I believe those things would be gone, because they are products of imagination.

Now, for people who share my opinion, it’s easy to stop the thought experiment there 
and congratulate ourselves on how realistic we are: Jehovah and Allah and Zeus are imaginary; we don’t believe in them; aren’t we smart?

That self-congratulation is what I hear when atheists like Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins compare God to the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy. But I have a problem with that. Because it isn’t just other people’s God-based religions that fail the amnesia test. My own humanistic religion fails it too. 

What would happen to, say, human rights if we all forgot about them? I think they’d be gone. Look at that list of Unitarian Universalist principles at the front of the hymnal. What would happen to the inherent worth and dignity of every person if we all stopped imagining it? What would happen to the right of conscience or the goal of world community? What would happen to the interdependent web of all existence? What would happen to something as venerable and glorious as Justice itself?

I think all those things would be gone. These things are not truths, they're visions, and they exist because we imagine them. And so that is another thing I believe you commit yourself to 
when you become a Unitarian Universalist: We're not asking you to commit yourself to believing in the truth of the principles, the way Christians commit themselves to the Apostles Creed. We're asking you to commit your imagination to envisioning the principles, to live as if everyone had worth and dignity, as if we were all part of an interdependent web, as if justice, equity, and compassion were as real as property or the banking system.

So where am I going with all this? My point is that John Dietrich's either-or question 
is the wrong one. It sets us up to keep having the wrong arguments about religion, arguments that will keep going round and round without convincing anyone. On one side, fundamentalists tell us that the objects of their religion — God, Heaven, and so on — are as real as the Sun or gravity. And so they are important and deserve respect. On the other side, atheists tell us that the objects of religion are imaginary like the Easter Bunny. And so they are unimportant and deserve scorn.

But what the amnesia test teaches me is that if God and the afterlife are imaginary, 
they do have something in common with the Easter Bunny. But they also have something in common with justice and human rights. Just because something comes from the human imagination doesn't mean that it isn't also important and deserving of respect.

The discussion we ought to be having is not whether the objects of religion are real, as if we ourselves stand in an unembellished reality and can reject the products of imagination whenever they invade our rock-solid realm. No, the discussion we ought to be having is why human beings have imagined these things, what we are trying to accomplish by imagining them, and which imaginative products best fulfill those purposes.

For example, when my father was dying, he used his imagination to envision a way that his life story might continue past his physical death. He imagined that he had a soul, and that when he died, his soul would live on in Heaven, a place where the souls of the dead go, where his wife and parents already were, and where his children might join him someday. 

I didn't -- and don't -- believe in this vision. But that's not because I stand firmly in rock-solid reality and dismiss all imaginary things. I also use my imagination to envision my life as part of a story that does not end when my body dies. I do this by identifying with causes larger than myself, and by imagining connections between myself and the people who will carry on those struggles after me. 

Tom Joad is doing something similar in The Grapes of Wrath when he says

wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad. I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready, and when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise and livin' in the houses they build - I'll be there, too.

That's vision. That's imagination. Humanists do it too.

Now, once you've had that realization, it's tempting to go relativistic: I imagine things, you imagine things ... it's all the same. But my point is different: Once we give up the pretense that our religion is realistic while their religion is fantasy, once we realize how important imagination is to everybody, then we're in a position to talk about the right issue: the difference between good imagination and bad imagination.

The reading about the birthday party for the girl who died in infancy is another example of this middle position. A fundamentalist might claim Kyle Cupp's family ritual speaks to a real soul in a real Heaven. An atheist might say that souls are not real, so there’s no point trying to “make Vivian present” on her birthday. She’s dead, so she’s not present, and that’s that.

But Cupp himself takes a more subtle view. He recognizes that Vivian’s presence is imaginary, but her imaginary presence is precisely the point. Without such a ritual, his ability to imagine Vivian would fade, and part of the meaning of his life would be gone. The ritual addresses a question whose answer is not “out there”, but one that he feels “called to answer creatively in my own small way.”

I don't think I can finish this talk without confessing just how far 
I've been willing to take these ideas in my own life. For a few years in the 80s and 90s, I had what should have been my ideal job as a mathematican: I made an industry-level salary, but had an almost academic level of freedom to research whatever interested me. 

I thought I ought to be deliriously happy, and yet I wasn't, and I wondered why. So I asked myself: "What’s the difference between a good work day and a bad work day?" And the answer popped right into my mind: On a good day, I was motivated by a pure spirit of inquiry. I had questions I wanted to answer, so I just sat down and worked on them. But on a bad day, I fretted about the usual office stuff -- reviews and funding and promotions -- and the spirit of inquiry got lost.

And then I listened to what I had just said: “the Spirit of Inquiry”. Sure, it was a metaphor, a figure of speech. But the metaphor captured something. What my job had on its good days 
and lacked on its bad days was a reverent attitude of service. On my good days, my work was a kind of worship.

So I went with that. I created a one-man religion devoted to the Spirit of Inquiry. I drew a symbol for my religion on a big piece of paper and taped it to my desktop. All day long it was covered by my desk pad, so only I knew it was there. 

When it was time to go home, I put my desk pad aside, looked at the symbol and asked how well I had served the Spirit of Inquiry that day. And then, whatever the answer, I would reverently put the four tools of my research -- compass, calculator, ruler, and pencil -- in their appropriate places on the symbol. The next morning, the symbol would be the first thing I saw when I came in. I would reverently ask the blessing of the Spirit, remove my tools, replace the desk pad, and begin my day.

I did that for years, as long as I had that job, and from those years of practice, 
I can report this about the worship of the Spirit of Inquiry: It worked. I became happier, saner, and more focused on what was important to me. And the Spirit never got out of hand. It never demanded sacrifices or made me its prophet or condemned my co-workers to Hell.

Now, a hard-line atheist might scornfully tell me that the Spirit of Inquiry is not real. I didn’t work in the presence of a deity, I just had an imaginary friend. In response, I could turn fundamentalist and argue for the Spirit’s reality. And if I were stubborn enough, that argument could go round and round, the way religious arguments do.

Or I could accept the content of the criticism and reject the scorn it carries: The Spirit isn’t real the way rocks and tables are real. It was a projection of my unconscious. I had an imaginary friend.


If we make that shift, if we stop arguing about whether the objects of religion are real, and instead think about why we might imagine them and how well they serve the purposes we need them to serve, that opens a whole new conversation. Instead of questioning whether someone’s God is real, let’s talk about what is accomplished by envisioning that God. 

If God is the organizing principle of someone’s life, what kind of life does God organize? Is it a life of compassion and generosity, or of self-centeredness and self-righteousness? Do worshippers open up to mystery and wonder, or embrace small-minded arrogance? Are they filled with awe and gratitude, or with a sense of special entitlement? Does a vision of the afterlife help people accept death, or fill them with guilt and anxiety? Does it give them confidence to live more fully, or does it freeze them into inaction or rationalize procrastination?

As I think we all know: It can go either way. In religion as anywhere else, the power of imagination can be used wisely or unwisely. 

And once we recognize that, we face the challenge laid down by the philosopher Stan Lee: "With great power comes great responsibility."

If we tell ourselves that we just believe in what is real, we're not just fooling ourselves, we’re letting ourselves off the hook. Because reality can take care of itself, but visions need our participation. If justice is a vision, then it’s not enough to passively believe in it. We need to make it real. We need to practice envisioning justice, so that it will always be present to us 
and not wink out when we need it most. 

If the inherent worth of each person and the interconnected web of all existence are visions rather than facts, then we need to invoke those visions, experience them, and pass them on to others. 

And if a community like First Parish exists primarily in our imaginations, then we need to do more than just join and attend or even contribute. We also need to share our visions of what this community is and what it means and what it could be. A church is a vessel for shared imagination. So if we're not regularly filling that vessel and then drinking from it when our personal visions falter, we're missing the point.

Or, on the other hand, we could be asking ourselves what kinds of visions we need and the world needs. We could commit ourselves to that envisioning process and do it together,  pooling our imaginative power to resist the cynical and nihilistic forces 
of the larger culture. If we did that, then, I believe, we would truly be using our imaginations like grown ups.

Closing Words

Adapted from “It Matters What We Believe” by Sophia Lyons Fahs:

It matters what we imagine.

Some visions are like walled gardens. They encourage exclusiveness, and the feeling of being especially privileged. Other visions are expansive and lead the way into wider and deeper sympathies.

Some visions are like shadows, clouding children's days with fears of unknown calamities. Other visions are like sunshine, blessing children with the warmth of happiness.

Some visions are divisive, separating the saved from the unsaved, friends from enemies. Other visions are bonds in a world community, where sincere differences beautify the pattern.

Some visions are like blinders, shutting off the power to choose one's own direction. Other visions are like gateways opening wide vistas for exploration.

Some visions weaken a person's selfhood. They blight the growth of resourcefulness. Other visions nurture self-confidence and enrich the feeling of personal worth.

Some visions are rigid, like the body of death, impotent in a changing world. Other visions are pliable, like the young sapling, ever growing with the upward thrust of life.


Friday, September 26, 2014

Scavenging Crusoe's Ship: dealing with the legacy of traditional religion

a talk presented at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois (the town where I grew up)


Edith Wharton said: "There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle, or the mirror that reflects it."


I’ve found that I don’t have to believe a theology to appreciate its beauty. And of all the Christian theologies I know, I think the most beautiful one comes from the early 19th century Universalist Hosea Ballou.

Orthodox Christians of Ballou’s day taught — as many still do — that human sin made God angry, and that his anger could not be put aside until someone had been punished. According a the doctrine called substitutional atonement, that was what Jesus did: he took the punishment on himself, so that anyone who believed in him could escape God’s anger and have salvation.

Early Universalists like John Murray had extended this notion of atonement by saying that Jesus’ payment was good for everybody, whether they believed or not. So everyone was going to Heaven.

But Hosea Ballou turned the whole atonement doctrine upside down. God’s love, Ballou said, was unshakeable, and so he had never been angry with us, much less desired our eternal punishment. Sin had affected not God, but us. It caused us to lose our awareness of God’s love. And feeling unloved, we became angry with God. [Interestingly, this same motif —the creature who is angry with his Creator because he feels unloved —shows up 13 years later in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.] So in Ballou’s theology, that’s why Jesus had to come: not to appease God’s anger, but to appease our anger at God, by showing us that we had always been loved.

In Ballou’s view, all those theologies of a wrathful God were what later psychologists would call projections: Picturing God to be as vicious and small-minded as we are, theologians had hidden their anger with him behind the anger they imagined he had for us. In this reading from Ballou’s 1805 classic A Treatise on Atonement, he summed that projection up in a wonderful metaphor:

Unhappily, men have looked at Deity through the medium of a carnal mind, and have formed all their evil tempers in Jehovah; like the deceived astronomer, who fancied he saw a monster in the sun, occasioned by a fly on his glass. The creature, being in the medium of sight, was supposed to be in the object beheld; and though it was small in itself, and would have appeared so, could it have been seen where it was; yet carrying it into the sun, it magnified to an enormous size. 

So it is with the vile and sinful passions. Could we behold them in ourselves, and view them as they are, they would appear in their finite and limited sphere. But the moment we form those passions in Deity, they magnify to infinity.

How many various calculations have divines made on the fury and wrath which they have discovered in God! How much they have preached and written on the awful subject; and how many ways they have invented, to appease such wrath and vengeance! 

When we come to see the error, and find those principles in ourselves, all those notions vanish at once. The fly on the glass might easily have been removed, or destroyed. But had there been a monster in the sun, what calculations could mortals have made to remove it?

Nearly a century later, William James gave the lectures that became The Varieties of Religious Experience. In one lecture he collected case studies of what he called saintly behavior. And in the next lecture he asked a question that until that moment had been completely unthinkable: What was saintliness good for? And he answered it like this:

Herbert Spencer tells us that the perfect man’s conduct will appear only when the environment is perfect: to no inferior environment is it suitably adapted. We may paraphrase this by cordially admitting that saintly conduct would be the most perfect conduct conceivable in an environment where all were saints already; but by adding that in an environment where few are saints, and many the exact reverse of saints, it must be ill adapted. 

We must frankly confess, then, using our empirical common sense and ordinary practical prejudices, that in the world that actually is, the virtues of sympathy, charity, and non-resistance may be, and often have been, manifested in excess. The powers of darkness have systematically taken advantage of them. The whole modern scientific organization of charity is a consequence of the failure of simply giving alms. The whole history of constitutional government is a commentary on the excellence of resisting evil, and when one cheek is smitten, of smiting back and not turning the other cheek also. 

You will agree to this in general, for in spite of the Gospel, in spite of Quakerism, in spite of Tolstoy, you believe in the excellence of fighting fire with fire, in shooting down usurpers, locking up thieves, and freezing out vagabonds and swindlers. 

And yet you are sure, as I am sure, that were the world confined to these hard-headed, hard-hearted, and hard-fisted methods exclusively, were there no one prompt to help a brother first, and find out afterwards whether he were worthy; no one willing to drown his private wrongs in pity for a wronger’s person; no one ready to be duped many a time rather than live always on suspicion; no one glad to treat individuals passionately and impulsively, rather than by general rules of prudence; the world would be an infinitely worse place than it is now to live in. The tender grace, not of a day that is dead, but of a day yet to be born somehow, with the golden rule grown natural, would be cut out from the perspective our of imaginations.


I’m not sure how obvious this has been, but most of the talks I’ve given here over the last few years have had a common theme: What should we do with the legacy of traditional religion?

As you know, I was raised as a fairly conservative Lutheran, believing in the literal, historical truth of the Bible — the Flood, Jonah inside the whale, and all the rest. God was a real person, and Heaven and Hell were real places. 

Many of you were also brought up in more orthodox traditions. And even if you weren’t, Christianity so dominates this culture that it’s nearly impossible to avoid having an opinion about it and a relationship to it. 

Even if you personally don’t have a history with Christianity, Unitarianism and Universalism do. That’s why we meet on Sunday mornings and sit in pews and sing hymns. The great names of our history, people like William Ellery Channing and Hosea Ballou, interpreted the Bible very differently than most other preachers of their day, but God was very real to them, and the Bible and Jesus were very important.

So both individually and as a Unitarian Universalist, what should I do with that legacy? In one way or another, that’s what I keep talking about.

And I think I’ve made some of you nervous, with all the times I’ve read to you from the Bible or quoted some saint. Because you know how that goes: A Bible-quoting person may sound reasonable at first, but sooner or later he’s going to work around to explaining why you’re going to Hell. 

I think that’s why many Unitarian Universalists feel that we have to go one way or the other. Either reject that Christian legacy firmly and leave it all behind, or eventually the currents of the larger culture will pull us back in.

I haven’t been taking either of those paths. So what have I been up to?

In my own mind, I sum it up with an image from Robinson Crusoe. Crusoe has run away from England, where his parents wanted to make him a lawyer, and after a number of adventures he has become a plantation owner in Brazil. Subsequently, he is sailing to Africa to get slaves when a storm wrecks his ship. Everyone else drowns, and he washes up on a deserted island. After spending an anxious night in a tree, the next morning he sees that the ship did not go to the bottom, but has gotten stuck on a sandbar close to shore. 

At this point there are three ways the story could go. Crusoe could ignore the ship and say, “I’m not going anywhere near that death trap.” Or, if the story were more of a fairy tale, he could repair the ship, and single-handedly sail it home. 

What he actually does, though, is build a raft, and scavenge the ship for the things he needs to survive on the island: food, clothing, a hunting rifle, and so on. But one thing is worth more than all the rest. When he finds the carpenter’s chest of tools, he describes it as “much more valuable than a ship-loading of gold”.

Maybe you can already guess where I’m going with this metaphor. For me, traditional Christianity is a wrecked ship. It didn’t take me where I thought it was supposed to go, and when it all fell apart on me I considered myself lucky to wash up where I did. 

Now, I understand that the old-time religion is not a shipwreck for everyone. Back in 1966, when Time magazine’s cover asked “Is God Dead?” one of the churches here in town answered on its signboard: “Our God is alive. Sorry about yours.” 

I have no complaint with that viewpoint. If traditional religion is working for you, if it gives you a sense of direction and purpose, and makes you a more loving, more compassionate person, then I have no desire to talk you out of it.

But the Christianity I was raised in is a shipwreck for me. And yet, it didn’t sink to the bottom of the ocean. There it still is, run aground, but within swimming range. What to do with it? 

Some people will say: “Get as far away from it as you can.” And others will say, “Maybe it’s not as far gone as you think. If you fix it up a little, it might still get you home.” But I want to do something else. I want to scavenge it for tools.

That theme has been running through almost all my talks. One by one I’ve been picking up pieces of the old religion and not asking “Is this true? What are the arguments pro and con?” but rather “What is this for? What does it do? Can I make use of it? And if not, can I reverse-engineer something from it that I can use?” That approach, I’ve found, takes me out of the usual religious arguments that go round and round without convincing anybody, and sets me on a path I find more productive.

So when I led the Easter service, I spent no time at all on whether the historical Jesus did or did not rise from the dead. Instead, I looked at the tradition of spring holidays like Easter, Passover, and the pagan equinox, and I asked, “What do these holidays do? What are they for? Is there something an appropriately constructed spring holiday could do for us?”

And I concluded that there was. A spring holiday could be an occasion to re-examine our commitment to life, to ask ourselves whether we’ve really been living, or just marking time and getting by, waiting for the bad times to end. It could be a time to re-commit, to leave our safe but joyless places and start doing more with the gift of life. In short, we could reverse engineer Easter and make it our tool.

Another time, I talked about the afterlife. And again, I spent no time at all discussing whether or not Heaven is real. Instead, I asked, “What does the afterlife do? What is it for?” And I decided that of all the things it did, the one I envied most was that the afterlife helps people project their life stories into the future in a satisfying way. It helps them motivate future-directed action, in spite of the fact that they may not live to see the results. And then I discussed secular techniques for telling a life story that achieve a similar purpose. That was how I reverse engineered the afterlife.

The tool that I want to reverse engineer today is the love of God. Not the love that the believer has for God, but the love that supposedly streams down from Heaven onto all of God’s creatures. 

When I read Hosea Ballou, the love of God comes to seem like a very real thing, not just an abstract principle or a phrase in some recited creed, but a powerful presence that he felt every moment of his life. 

Universalists in Ballou’s day always ran into the argument that Hell was necessary. Without the threat of Hell, critics said, people would do whatever wickedness they thought they could get away with — steal, cheat, kill, whatever. And so, they thought, Universalists must constantly fall prey to all manner of temptation, and a Universalist church must be a complete den in iniquity.

Ballou always responded to these arguments with bewilderment. Because he knew that if you lived with a constant awareness of God’s love, if you felt it shining down on you every moment of every day, filling you with the joy of life, then what could you possibly do but reflect that love out onto others? In Ballou’s theology, sin didn’t mean giving in to pleasure, it meant turning away from the greatest pleasure of all, which was to bask in the unshakeable love of God.

Now, a theologian might examine whether Ballou’s perception was accurate: Is there really a God? Does that God love us constantly and unconditionally? Or does he instead love us when we’re good and hate us when we’re bad?

But as a religious engineer, as a scavenger on the shipwreck of faith, I ask a different question: That vision of the love of God — what did it do for Ballou? And when does my own life make me wish for a tool like that?

My answer is probably not what Ballou would have expected. Like his critics, Ballou was focused on the question: Why be good? The orthodox Christian answered with the threat of Hell, and Ballou answered with the love of God. Both would have expected doubters to struggle with that question.

But in fact we don’t. Contrary to expectation, ethics seems to come from somewhere deeper than theology. In my own life, there have been times when I believed in God and times when I didn’t. I can’t tell that it made any difference in how good I was. And whether you believe in some kind of God or not, I expect most of you have enough experience with atheists and agnostics to notice the same thing I have: that their overall morality is no worse than that of believers, and maybe even a little better sometimes.

No, when I try on Ballou’s vision of the love of God, I see a different benefit. My problem isn’t why to be good or how to be good, but that when I try too hard to be good, I burn out. Trying to be a giving person, a compassionate person, somebody who listens to everyone and takes their problems to heart, who (as James said in the reading) is “ready to be duped many a time rather than live always on suspicion” — it very quickly gets to be too much.

Maybe you feel it too. Every news cycle brings new horrors and atrocities. Do I really have to care about ebola in Africa or what climate change is doing to Bangladesh? About every panhandler who accosts me on the street? About every bad day in the lives of all my Facebook friends? It’s overwhelming.

James observed that his world was not conducive to sainthood, and ours seems even less so. In today’s consumer society, you are surrounded 24/7 by people who want something from you — your money, your attention, your time and effort. And if they can give you little or nothing back,so much the better.

To be a good person in such a world, to be caring and giving and compassionate, can make you feel like the only warm-blooded animal in a swamp full of mosquitoes. The constant pinpricks, losing a drop of blood here and another there, and feeling nothing afterwards but irritation. How long can you live like that?

One summer when I was feeling particularly burnt out, I spent a lot of time sitting in the sunlight. It was satisfying in a primal way that it took all summer for me to put words around. What I loved about the Sun was that it was too big for me to affect. The Sun couldn’t want anything from me, because there was nothing I could do for it. And yet, it shone down on me anyway. That was what I needed.

And that’s what Ballou gets from his vision of the love of God. Ballou’s God is too big and and too grand to spend his time weighing the virtues and vices of us tiny creatures. He just shines. And when you feel his love shining down on you, what can you do but reflect it out?

Ballou’s theology has a kind of balance that secular visions of goodness often lack. Love flows in, love flows out. Ballou doesn’t see himself as a generator of the world’s love. The generator is elsewhere. He is just part of the distribution network. In Edith Wharton's terms, he sees himself as a mirror, not a candle. And mirrors don’t burn out.

One thing a religious engineer knows is that not everybody can use every tool. Just because it would be convenient to believe something, that doesn’t mean you can. I feel that very strongly when I contemplate Ballou’s God and imagine experiencing the power of his love. I can envy that experience, and I can try on the worldview that evokes it. But it doesn’t stick. I don’t seem to be capable of maintaining a belief in that kind of God.

So what can I do? Is there a tool I can use that is like God’s love, that works on that same problem in a similar way? 

When you hold a question like that in your mind, sometimes clues turn up in the most unlikely places. I used to watch HBO’s gangster series, The Sopranos. (Talk about a world that is not conducive to sainthood.) I loved the theme song:

You woke up this morning, got yourself a gun.
Mama always said you’d be the chosen one. 

And the next line I couldn’t make out until I looked it up on the internet. It says:

You’re one in a million, you gotta burn to shine. 

You gotta burn to shine. That’s the problem in a nutshell. Hosea Ballou didn’t have to burn to shine. He could just reflect the light streaming down from God. 

But if you are trying to shine in the darkness, if you are one shining person surrounded by a million others, who suck up that light and reflect nothing back, then the only way you can keep shining is to burn some kind of fuel inside yourself. And since people are finite, someday you’ll burn it all up.

That’s the problem with shining in the darkness, shining alone, shining as one in a million. People can’t do that for long, because it’s unbalanced. In the long run, goodness doesn’t come from us, it has to flow through us. We can hope to amplify it a little, to give a little better than we get, but we can’t generate goodness out of nothing, not for long.

Ballou’s theology helps him cope with that limitation. By imagining an ultimate source of goodness, of light and love and joy and inspiration, by calling that source God, and placing it at the center of his world, Ballou was forcing himself to pay attention to that side of the equation.

Whenever he began to feel drained and cynical (as I’m sure he must have at times), his theology told him to work on his relationship with God, to read and pray and meditate and do all the other things that nourished his soul. Activities that in a secular framing might seem self-centered, his theology re-cast as centered on God.

We can learn from that. Yes, it’s vitally important that goodness flow out of you, that you do good things and make the world brighter. But that’s not sustainable unless something is also flowing into you, unless your antenna is attuned to the sources of goodness in your life.

Sources. Did you catch what I did there? I made it plural. Because if I can’t maintain a belief in one ultimate source, I also can’t deny that many things in life nourish me, restore me, and make it possible for me to keep shining: the Sun, obviously. The beauty of Nature. Also the created beauty of art and music and literature. Sometimes through museums or books I can feel the brilliance shining from those ancient masters, as if they were distant stars whose light is just reaching us now.

Through the media, I also receive the gifts of today’s artists and musicians, as well as the stories of scientists searching for truth, activists fighting for justice, and all those compassionate people who are healing the sick and feeding the hungry and grieving with those who have suffered enormous losses. Their examples also keep me shining.

But, you know, there’s no substitute for the people you meet face to face. And that’s why I belong to a congregation.

That’s something that puzzles a lot of people about Unitarian Universalists. They can sort of get that we have a different philosophy and look at life a different way. But why do we do the church thing? Why do you come here? Nothing we do this morning will get you to Heaven or forgive your sins, or improve your chances in the lottery. So why did you come?

For me, it’s that I need to be in the presence of people who are trying to shine, who are trying to give something to the world rather than just take as much as they can. That’s what draws me to my congregation at home, and that’s what I see here.

I only spend a weekend or two a year in Quincy, so there are only a few of you that I know to any depth, and I’m sure all of you do many things I never hear about. But even with my limited exposure I feel nourished and inspired and energized by the glow of this community.

I’m inspired, for example, when I drop by the mechanic’s workshop that Joe has turned into his studio. Because here’s somebody at a point in life where he can do pretty much what he wants, and what he wants to do is make beautiful things. I’m inspired by Carol, and so many others here who make music and look for ways to share it with the world. I’m energized by the infectious enthusiasm of Mike talking about restoring cool old cars, or when Rob brings up long-dead philosophers as if they were personal friends that he’s sure I’d hit it off with. More people than I have time to name have told me about community projects or political causes that they support and work on, not because they’ll benefit personally, but just to make the world better.This is a community full of people who want to shine, who have found a source of joy in life and want to share it.

Two years ago, when my father was dying, I felt this community’s light very personally. Several of you made sure that when I didn’t have to be at the nursing home or the hospital, I had somewhere to go and someone to talk to when I got there. I will always be grateful for that.

There is a lot of light shining in this community, and a lot of places to look for nurturance and inspiration.

But you do have to look. You have to pay attention. Opening up to the sources of light and love and joy and inspiration in a Unitarian Universalist church today may not sound as important as opening up to the love of God was in a 19th-century Universalist church. But it is, because that’s how you balance the equation.

If you don’t, then this all becomes just another drain, another set of responsibilities, another list of good deeds to do. There’s money to give and classes to teach and social action projects to organize and committees to chair and somebody has to make the coffee and on and on and on. More mosquitoes. More drops of blood. More irritation.

If you just keep your head down and work, you can start to believe that you are a single light shining in the darkness, and that the only way to keep shining is to keep burning up something finite and precious inside yourself. That misses the whole point of a Unitarian congregation. Lights are shining around you. On a regular basis, you need to look up and just bask in the glow.

The closing hymn is # 118, “This Little Light of Mine”. But before we sing, I have to confess that until recently I never liked this song, because I sang it wrong. I thought it was all about me promising to shine brighter, to do more. And where was the energy for that going to come from?

I was missing the significance of singing the song together. This isn’t just about you promising to shine brighter for others, it’s also about the rest of us promising to shine brighter for you. So as you sing, don’t just make a promise, accept the promises of the people around you. Not all of those promises will be fulfilled, but many will be. You aren’t going to have to shine alone. This community is full of light and love and the desire to give and create and do good. You don’t have to generate that, you just need to conduct it and reflect it out into the world.

So let’s sing.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Acceptance and Action

The text of the talk "Acceptance and Action" that I gave April 6 at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, IL is up on their website. This is a little more personal than most of my talks. It starts with the story of my wife's breast cancer, and works around to the question: "When we talk about reaching acceptance, what exactly should we be trying to accept?"

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Recovery From Privilege

a sermon given March 16, 2014 by Doug Muder at First Parish in Billerica, Mass.


These days when someone says that you’re in denial, they usually mean that you need to change. In our current thinking, denial is bad, so you need to start down the road to acceptance, which is good.

But an older folk wisdom takes a more favorable view of denial. Life is complicated, and thinking is hard. So if you don’t know how to think about some topic constructively, you might be better off not thinking about it.

That wisdom gets passed on to young Nick Adams at the end of Ernest Hemingway’s story “The Killers”. Professional hit men have commandeered the diner where Nick eats, because they want to kill one of the other regulars, Ole Anderson. Eventually the killers decide Anderson isn’t coming and leave to look for him elsewhere, so Nick races to warn him. But Anderson is so resigned to his fate he can’t be convinced to do anything other than wait in his room for the killers to find him.

Later, back at the diner, Nick says to George, the owner: "I can't stand to think about him waiting in the room and knowing he's going to get it. It's too damned awful."

"Well," the older man advises, "you better not think about it."

The second reading is from White Like Me, the autobiography in which Tim Wise calls attention to all the times when being white has made a difference in his life. One day while he was in college, Tim had his girlfriend’s car. He was about to go pick her up from class when he realized he had locked the keys inside. Annoyed, he got a wire hanger out of the apartment, and started trying to break in. He writes:
Unfortunately, the 1988 Toyota Tercel is among the hardest cars on earth into which one may break, which is ironic, considering how few people could possibly want to steal one. No matter my truly veteran efforts to open the door, I was having no luck even after ten minutes.
It was then, as I was furiously bending the hanger back and forth, trying desperately to jam it between the metal door frame and the rubber insulation around the window, that a police car pulled up. The officer hopped out and approached me.
"What’s going on here?" he asked, more curious than accusatory.
"I locked myself out of my car and I’ve got to pick up my girlfriend in like five minutes," I replied, exasperated with my shitty luck. I fully expected the officer to ask me for identification or some kind of proof that this was my car, which only goes to show how little I understood about the value of white skin in the eyes of law enforcement.
"Well, I can tell you right now," he interjected. "The problem is, you’re doing that all wrong."
"Excuse me?" I replied, not having expected to be told by a police officer than I lacked the necessary acumen to break into a car the right way.
"Yeah, that’s no way to break into a car," he insisted. "Let me show you how it’s done."
W. E. B. DuBois was one of the leading black intellectuals of the early 20th century. In his classic The Souls of Black Folk, he describes the other side of privilege: How it feels to live in a world where “normal” means “not like you”, and your mere presence and your desire to be included makes “normal” society uncomfortable.
Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word. 
Peggy McIntosh is famous for her insight that privilege is obvious when someone else has it, but hard to see when you have it yourself. She captured that observation in the metaphor of the Invisible Knapsack, a set of assets that you can’t see because they’re on your back, but that will come in handy if you need them.

She learned this lesson the hard way. As a professor of women’s studies, she taught college students how to recognize male privilege. But in the 1980s black feminists began writing about how oppressive white feminists could be, and after she worked through the shock of being seen as an oppressor, McIntosh realized that the same privilege patterns that gave men unfair advantages over women like her also gave whites like her unfair advantages over people of color. Her ideas were taken more seriously because the racial stereotypes say that white people are smart, and it was easier for her to get grants because stereotypic whites can be trusted to handle money.

Even in her own mind, she found unjustified assumptions of superiority, assumptions that of course she would have the answer, she would take the lead, she would be the spokesman. Because white people do that.

McIntosh had always imagined herself standing outside the citadel of privilege, demanding that the people in there change. Now she found herself inside the citadel wondering: How do I change?

A quarter century later, Peggy McIntosh is a grandmotherly woman who radiates a sense of wisdom, kindness, and inner peace, as you can see online in the 2012 TED talk this quote comes from.

And then I decided, because this work was spreading in many places, I needed to help with the matter of white guilt. I don’t believe we can be guilty or ashamed or blamed for being born into systems both above and below the hypothetical line of social justice. They’re arbitrary. They have to do with projections onto us. … I don’t think blame, shame, or guilt are relevant to the arbitrariness of our placement in privilege systems. …
So beside [the metaphor of the Invisible Knapsack] I decided to put a second metaphor: white privilege as a bank account that I was given. I didn’t ask for it and I can’t be blamed for it. But I can decide to put it in the service of weakening the system of white privilege.
That is my energy, that is my financial commitment, that is my daily life, and it’s been transformative to use my bank account of white privilege to weaken the system. It has absolutely transformed my life to be in work that feels right… [This transformation] is not based on guilt. I don’t know exactly the wording for it. … [But] it has been transformative to use the power that I did not know, I was never taught that I had, in the service of kinder, fairer, and more compassionate life for everyone.


One of the issues I write about on my political blog is privilege -- the unearned and unfair advantages you may get if you belong to certain favored groups. In the readings you heard about male privilege and white privilege, but there’s also straight privilege, first-world privilege, and many, many others.

And I have almost all of them.

So when my blog's commenters try to change the subject, or when people in conversation roll their eyes as if to say, "Oh God, not this again", I get where they're coming from. Thinking about privilege makes them uncomfortable, they don't know what they're expected to do about it, and besides, no matter how successful they might be, they don't feel privileged. Nobody handed them success in life. They had talent, they worked hard.

Me too. I remember staying up far into the night, working on my Ph.D. in mathematics and doubting that I could really do this. It sure didn't feel like anybody was giving me anything.

So I had a certain amount of sympathy when an anonymous commenter responded to my most popular post with: "Once again, I need to feel bad for being white and male.”

I've been there, so I knew what he was saying: "You're trying to make me feel guilty about something I didn't do and can't do anything about, so I'm just not going to have that conversation."

What could I possibly say to that?

What I wanted to say is that while I sympathize, the point of discussing privilege isn't to punish people for their sins by making them feel bad. It's to raise awareness of the unfairness in the world and motivate change.

And on a personal level, I wanted to tell him that his bad feeling is just temporary. It marks the beginning of a recovery process that (if he pursues it) will go somewhere good.

But is that true? What process would that be and what good place does it go to?

Smooth lives and bumpy lives. Let me start by observing that anybody who is justifying his decision not to think about privilege has already come a long way. For starters, he understands that there's something to think about. That's no small realization, because as obvious as it is from the outside, Peggy McIntosh was right: Privilege is hard to see when you have it.

Privilege is more subtle now than in the days of “Whites Only” signs and jobs explicitly reserved for men. Today, it is most likely to show up in the things that don’t happen to the privileged, like when Tim Wise didn’t get arrested for breaking into his girlfriend's car.

If you’re not looking for them, these non-events can go right past you. Two years ago, I was headed for the UU General Assembly in Phoenix, where we were going to protest S.B. 1070, the Arizona law that made it risky for Hispanics to wander around without proper ID and proof of their immigration status. Ironically, at Logan I discovered that I had misplaced my own ID. You know what happened then? Not much. TSA respectfully asked me a few questions, but I made my flight. And then I spent a week in Arizona completely undocumented. No one cared, because I'm an Anglo. I didn't have to stick to the shadows or avoid police. Everything went smoothly.

That's most of what it means to have privilege today: Your life is smooth in ways that other people's lives are bumpy. And while it's easy to recognize the bumps in your life, smoothness tends to fade into the background.

My life has flowed smoothly in lots of other ways I didn't think about at the time. When I looked for work, I could focus on proving that I could do the job, because no one questioned that a white man could do the job. After I was hired, I could just dress in the morning without wondering if I might be inviting sexual harassment, and if a boss asked me to stay late, I didn't have to worry about his motives, or what my co-workers might assume. All my life, I have had the luxury of walking into interviews or meetings or government offices confident in the assumption that I am normal, and so of course the system will be set up to handle my needs. That's an advantage I have over  W. E. B. DuBois: Nobody wants to ask me what it’s like to be a problem.

Smoothness like that slides right by. Bumps are what stand out. So privilege is easy to ignore, if you have it. You don't need denial, because you don't realize there's anything to deny.

Until... Until something happens that you can't ignore. Maybe you turned on your TV and saw the people trapped at the SuperDome after Hurricane Katrina. The whole world was watching, but no one was in a hurry to help them because they were too poor and too black to matter. Maybe you saw that and thought: That can't be right.

Moments like that are when you begin to need denial. And people are happy to provide it for you. Whatever injustice you may have noticed, the talking heads on TV will reassure you that the victims made mistakes, so it's their own fault. Or this is a totally unique event unrelated to how the world usually works. Or there was a problem but it’s fixed now, so you can forget about it. You can go back to your smooth life and other people will go back to their bumpy lives and you don't have to worry about them.

Until something else happens. Maybe you noticed the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh last spring, the one that killed over a thousand workers. The outer walls were already visibly bending when the morning shift showed up, but the bosses sent them in anyway. And they obeyed, because people that poor are more scared of losing their jobs than of the roof falling in.

And why are third-world workers exploited like that? So that I can pay fifty cents less for my shirts. I never demanded that benefit, but that's how the global economy works. And of course no one asked me or you or any of the other shoppers whether we wanted that, because we’re supposed to believe that all those beautiful products appear on the shelves by magic. If we stopped to wonder who made them, we might ask how they live, or if they're even still alive. And depressing thoughts like that could ruin our whole retail experience.

Once you glimpse the injustice that is built into the system and see how it works to your benefit, those simple explanations that helped you ignore it start to wear thin. Eventually you realize that you are actively avoiding the whole topic. And at that point, you don't just need denial, you a need a justification for your denial. You need to be able to explain why you are right not to think about this.

You've come a long way.

That's where my commenter had gotten. He deserves some credit for having made it that far.

Guilty Liberals. Now let's look at the particular justification he chose. It's a popular one. I've run into it many times and I’ve been tempted to use it myself.

It goes like this: The only reason people bring up privilege at all is to make me feel guilty. And I shouldn't, because I didn't do it. I didn't create the injustice in the world. I’m not conspiring against blacks or gays or third-world workers or anybody else. I’m just living my smooth life. Other people's bumpy lives are not my fault.

And besides, I can’t fix it. Injustice is bottomless. I’m never going to fill that hole or get rid of that guilt no matter how much I give or do. I’m always going to be white, I’m always going to be a man, and people are always going to blame me for their problems.

The stereotype that goes with this defense is the person nobody wants to be, the Guilty Liberal -- always agonizing about some imaginary thing he did to somebody, always looking for some kind of forgiveness or redemption that never comes. And he won't be happy until he's made everybody else feel as guilty as he does.

If you listen to the kind of talk radio that's popular among white men, that's the choice you're offered: You can be a Guilty Liberal and make yourself and everybody else miserable. Or you can just refuse to discuss this whole topic. If somebody starts talking about white privilege or male privilege or whatever, just shut the whole conversation down right there.

And you know, if those really were the only options — be a Guilty Liberal or refuse to think about it — denial really would make some sense. As George advised Nick Adams, if an idea is too damned awful and you don't know any constructive way to think about it, then you better not think about it.

Hope and courage. When you meet someone who is dug in like that -- who refuses to think about something and believes that he's right not to think about it -- the worst thing you can do is to pound on the exact spot where his defenses are concentrated. As Sun Tzu says in The Art of War: "The worst strategy of all is to besiege walled cities."

So if you just get louder and more aggressive about racism and sexism and how horrible this guy is, you're fitting right into his frame. You're just another Guilty Liberal trying to make him unhappy. So instead, I think we need to draw a lesson from our Universalist heritage, from that famous John Murray quote: "Give them not Hell, but hope and courage."

What my commenter needs to hear is not a stronger indictment of his white male privilege, but the hopeful message that there really is a way to think about this and deal with it.

He needs to hear the good news of social justice: That what he feels whenever he thinks honestly about his unfair advantages is not something he is condemned to either shove out of his mind or wallow in for the rest of his life. It is a wound that can be healed, and we know how to heal it.

But is that true? Do we know how to heal it?"

I think we do.

Guilt? The first step in healing is to get the diagnosis right. If you meditate on your own privileges and bring that bad feeling to mind, one of the things I believe you'll notice is that it actually isn't guilt.

There's guilt bound up in it, because most of us have abused our privileges at one time or another. Maybe we’ve told jokes that, in retrospect, were more cruel than funny. Or we’ve made decisions without thinking about their consequences for others. Or based our judgments more on stereotypes than on knowledge. Maybe we’ve felt superior to people who never had a fair chance to compete with us.

So sure, there is some guilt in there and most of us have lessons to learn. But if guilt were the whole problem, the wound wouldn't be that hard to heal. Because we all know how to heal guilt. We've known since kindergarten: Whatever wrong thing you did, you stop doing it, you confess, you do penance, and then you seek forgiveness -- preferably from the person you wronged, but if that's not possible, from God or from your own conscience.

But that process doesn’t work here. It fails at the first step, because no matter how much you learn and grow, the real evil isn’t something you can stop. Whether you like it or not, the system of privilege is going to keep channeling benefits to you. Repentance and forgiveness isn’t going to change that underlying situation. And if forgiveness won’t heal you, that should give you a clue that what you’re feeling isn’t really guilt.

But then, what is it? I believe it's actually shame.

How shame heals. Guilt is feeling bad about what you did. Shame is feeling bad about what you are. It’s a wound in your identity, like believing that you are ugly or stupid or disgusting. You can’t be forgiven for something like that, but you can be accepted and you can learn to accept yourself. That’s how shame gets healed: not by forgiveness but by acceptance.

So what's wrong with what I am that I should feel bad about it? It's not that I'm white. It's not that I'm male or American or straight or successful. None of that is anything to be ashamed of. But what I am ashamed of and I ought to be ashamed of is that I am a beneficiary of injustice. I say that I love justice, but injustice loves me. And that creates a dissonance that ripples through my whole identity. Deep down, which side am I on?

If shame is healed by acceptance, what exactly should I be trying to accept? I don’t want to accept injustice. I don’t want to say, “People suffer for my benefit, but I’m OK with that.” Clearly something about me has to change before acceptance can work its healing magic. But what?

Two things. First, I need to bring the spark back to my relationship with justice. No amount of guilt-ridden penance can do that. Instead, I need to find the positive love of justice inside myself, and I need to nurture it until it grows and flowers into action organically. I need to develop my compassion, expand my vision of a better world, and nurture my hope until I find myself working towards that better world, not as penance, not counting the hours and wondering when my sentence will be up, but just because I can.

And second, I need to make a change in my self-image so that the benefits of injustice stay outside my identity. This is what Peggy McIntosh is doing with her bank account metaphor. She pictures the benefits of white privilege not as part of who she is, but as something outside herself: a bank account where unearned benefits keep piling up whether she wants them or not.

Now, that image may be easy to picture, but to really internalize it requires humility. Because separating my identity from my privilege also means separating my ego from my accomplishments. It means recognizing that yes, I have some talents, and yes I have worked hard to do what I've done and get where I am. But I also had an extra push. When I came the plate, the wind was blowing out. So yes, I swung the bat and yes I made contact, but I don't get to take full credit for where the ball landed.

But if I can accept that diminishment of my ego, then my personal responsibility for injustice doesn't begin until I spend those unearned benefits. Am I going to spend the bank account of privilege on myself? Or will I be a steward and manage it for the cause of justice?

More specifically: If privilege has made my life smoother, if it has made me richer, freer, more powerful, and more influential than I otherwise would have been; if it has given me a podium and a microphone so that my voice is heard; or if my face, for no good reason, is one that police are reluctant to swing a billy club at -- what should I do with those advantages?

If I claim them as mine and use them solely for my own benefit, then I am taking the injustice back into my identity. But if I can manage that metaphorical bank account for the greater good, then the benefits of injustice stay outside my identity, and I can accept my self-image as a white male American without accepting racism, sexism, or American hegemony.

Getting started. Now, this kind of change in self-image is hard, and I don't claim to have perfectly implemented it yet. But in case you want to try it yourself, I want to leave you with a simple suggestion on how to get started: Find some small privilege that you already think about this way.

For me, it's height. I'm six foot one, which is tall enough to gain significant advantages in a world of high shelves and obstacles that are hard to see over. And yet, I don't think I have ever felt guilt or shame about being tall.

Maybe that's because I was brought up to think of height as a community asset. And so, if you're having trouble getting your bag into the overhead compartment, I'll help you. If you ask me to get you something you can't reach at the supermarket, I'll do it. And I won't be judging whether you deserve my help, or thinking, "These damn short people, always trying to get something for nothing. Why are they my problem?"

Short people's problems are my problems because height is a community asset. I have it, so I use it for the common good.

Probably there is some similar privilege in your life, some advantage that you routinely offer to others without thinking twice. And I'll bet it never occurs to you to feel bad about having that privilege.

What if you could treat all your privileges that way? As assets to be used for the common good? If you could do that, then no matter how many privileged groups you belong to, the wound in your identity would be healed. Not painfully, through guilt and penance, but joyfully, through compassion and love and generosity.

And that message of joy and healing is the good news of social justice.