Versions of this talk were delivered at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois on April 30, 2017 and at First Parish Church of Billerica, Massachusetts on March 26, 2017
"Our faith comes in moments; our vice is habitual. Yet there is a depth in those brief moments which constrains us to ascribe more reality to them than to all other experiences. For this reason, the argument which is always forthcoming to silence those who conceive extraordinary hopes of man, namely, the appeal to experience, is forever invalid and vain. We give up the past to the objector, and yet we hope." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson
"Philosophy lives in words, but truth and fact well up into our lives in ways that exceed verbal formulation. There is in the living act of perception always something that glimmers and twinkles and will not be caught, and for which reflection comes too late." -- William James
from The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James,
Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet by Sherry Turkle,
Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal,
and “Oh, When I Was in Love With You” by A. E. Housman
When Modern Library selected the 100 Best Non-Fiction Books of the 20th Century, #2 on their list was William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience from 1902. In that book, James was trying to break down the wall between psychology and religious studies. He wanted to claim religious experience as part of human experience, and expand the language of psychology to include it.
And so in this book he walks a narrow path, neither rejecting religious testimony outright nor accepting it at face value. He constructs what was then a new kind of objectivity, one that could listen to people’s accounts of experiencing God’s presence the same way that it listened to their accounts of falling in love or sliding into depression. People experience things, and describe them honestly but imperfectly. What, if anything, do we think actually happened?
The center of the book is James’ description of conversion experiences, when people report that God reaches into their lives and changes them top to bottom, so that they become, in essence, new people. He begins his explanation of this phenomenon by noting that we are all, in some unremarkable way, different people in different settings. Teddy Roosevelt, he imagines, is a different person on a hunting trip than in the White House.
Our primary identity, then, the person that we think we are most of the time, is not the whole of who we are, it’s just the center of a larger system. The ordinary experiences of life may change this larger system in ways that we do not always take account of, until our central identity doesn’t fit quite right any more, leading us to feel a vague wrongness about ourselves that we don’t really know what to do with.
Sometimes that sense of wrongness resolves itself suddenly, and we may feel as if some external force has changed us. In James’ account, though, the new identity forms not in the mind of God, but in the unconscious of the individual. Without us even realizing what is happening, who we are in some tiny sliver of our lives may be the model for who we become in a broader sense.
He writes: "Neither an outside observer nor the Subject who undergoes the process can explain fully how particular experiences are able to change one’s centre of energy so decisively, or why they so often have to bide their hour to do so. We have a thought, or we perform an act, repeatedly, but on a certain day the real meaning of the thought peals through us for the first time, or the act has suddenly turned into a moral impossibility. All we know is that there are dead feelings, dead ideas, and cold beliefs, and there are hot and live ones; and when one grows hot and alive within us, everything has to re-crystallize around it."
An example of how a new identity might incubate in one sliver of your life and then spread comes from a much more recent book, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet by Sherry Turkle:
"My mother died when I was nineteen and a college junior. Upset and disoriented, I dropped out of school, I traveled to Europe, ended up in Paris, studied history and political science, and worked at a series of odd jobs from housecleaner to English tutor.
"The French-speaking Sherry, I was pleased to discover, was somewhat different from the English-speaking one. French-speaking Sherry was not unrecognizable, but she was her own person. In particular, while the English-speaking Sherry had little confidence that she could take care of herself, the French-speaking Sherry simply had to and got on with it.
"On trips back home, English-speaking Sherry rediscovered old timidities. [So] I kept returning to France, thirsty for more French speaking. Little by little, I became increasingly fluent in French and comfortable with the persona of the resourceful, French-speaking young woman. Now I cycled through the French- and English-speaking Sherry until the movement seemed natural; I could bend toward one and then the other with increasing flexibility.
"When English-speaking Sherry finally returned to college in the United States, she was never as brave as French-speaking Sherry. But she could hold her own. ...
"When I got to know French Sherry. I no longer saw the less confident English-speaking Sherry as my one authentic self."
Even more recently, computer-game designer Jane McGonigal’s book Reality is Broken has added one further twist: The part of life where your new and better self first manifests doesn’t even have to be real.
Sometimes gamers feel that their characters a virtual universe are closer to their true selves than the characters they express in everyday life. It is not unusual to hear someone say that their game character is simply a better person — bolder, more honest, more courageous, and perhaps even brighter and more creative — than who they are outside the game. McGonigal herself claims she sometimes envies her character in World of Warcraft. “If I have one regret in life,” she says, “it’s that my undead priest is smarter than I am.”
But a discussion of such transformations wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging that sometimes they don’t stick, as A. E. Housman noted in the following poem.
Oh, when I was in love with you,
Then I was clean and brave,
And miles around the wonder grew
How well did I behave.
And now the fancy passes by,
And nothing will remain,
And miles around they’ll say
that I am quite myself again.
A few months ago my wife and I drove to Florida and back, so we passed through a sizable chunk of the South, where we saw a number of billboards about Jesus.
What fascinated me about these Christian messages was the way they seemed intended to bring people up short, to stop an everyday thought-process in its tracks. “When you die,” said one, “you will meet God.” Others asked drivers where we were headed: not which exit, but towards Heaven or Hell?
Now, I’ll cut to the chase and tell you that I did not find Jesus and get saved on this trip -- I knew you'd be worried about that -- so the billboards failed in their direct purpose. But I grudgingly came to admire the underlying attitude: that religion ought to bring you up short. From time to time it ought to break through the hypnotic song of everyday life, the one that constantly keeps us focused a few exits or hours or days down the road: Who’s picking up the kids? What’s my next deadline at work? Where’s that TV series going? What’s Trump up to this time? And so on.
Too often, Unitarian Universalism just adds its own verses to that song: Should I make an announcement about that? Who do I want to talk to at coffee hour? Am I ready for my next committee meeting? A speaker may give you another issue to keep track of or another book to read. But your church experience usually doesn’t jolt you out of that focus on the near future.
It could, in either direction. Like a meditation practice, it might remind you of the irreplaceable richness of this moment, the glimmering, twinkling aspect of perception that you can only notice by being fully present here and now.
Or, like those billboards, it could call your attention to the larger story of your life. One of the many wise things Yogi Berra is supposed to have said is, “If you don’t change direction, you’ll probably wind up where you’re going.” So, where are you going? You don’t have to believe in a literal Heaven or Hell to realize that someday your life story will be complete. Are you satisfied with how it’s turning out?
It isn’t that UUs don’t ask questions like this. All people do from time to time. But we tend to have these thoughts someplace other than church. They show up, for example, on round-numbered birthdays. I turned 60 last fall: Is this where I thought I’d be? How do I feel about that? They also occur when somebody we measure ourselves against reaches a milestone: graduates or gets a promotion or retires or marries or has a child or grandchild. That’s where they are in their lives; where am I in mine?
And because these thoughts occur to each of us on our own idiosyncratic schedules, we tend to have them alone, when we’re waiting in line or awake in the middle of the night. If we’re lucky, some friend might listen to our concerns, but even then, the thoughts remain our own.
What we usually don’t do is get together as a community and admit that we all sometimes wonder where our lives are going, if we’re where we’re supposed to be, or if we need some kind of drastic change. Those questions are simultaneously intensely personal and very generically human.
One reason I think Christianity can get away with raising these kinds of questions, and even actively promoting people’s dissatisfaction with the course of their lives, is that Christians have a narrative of transformation. At the root of their worldview is a belief in sudden, sweeping change.
In an instant, the power of God could remake you completely. The Lord appears to Moses in a burning bush and calls him to save his people. On the road to Damascus, the voice of the risen Jesus speaks to Saul, the persecutor of Christians, and he becomes Paul, the greatest of the apostles. “Amazing Grace” claims that any sinner can go from lost to found, from blindness to sight — not through a long process of education and rehabilitation, but “the hour I first believed”. Grace comes into your life and blows away all the old obstacles.
In traditional Christianity, instant transformation goes all the way back to the Genesis Creation story, where there’s darkness, and then there’s light. The Sun and Moon, plants, animals, people — God says “Let there be” and there is, and it’s good. Just like that. By contrast, we tell the story of evolution, where progress is incredibly hard and takes forever. Generations live and die to mutate one little gene, so that over thousands or millions of years those tiny changes might add up to something.
Similarly, our church services are full of suggestions for change, but usually they are a thousand little changes: You should write your political representatives more often, and drive less, and recycle, and eat less meat, and stop using the language of the patriarchy, and boycott unjust corporations, and volunteer in soup kitchens, and register people to vote, and on and on and on. And nowhere in that story of being a good UU does otherworldly power infuse new energy into your life.
As a result, I sometimes come away depressed from talks that are supposed to inspire me. Rather than feeling fired up to go promote change, I sometimes think: “I have trouble getting taxes done and keeping the laundry from piling up. How am I going to do all that?”
Now imagine that someone starts talking about changing your whole life, and becoming a better person across the board. How? Without a belief in some kind of transforming power, bringing people up short and making them question where their lives are going is like a bad version of the old Listerine commercial: You persuade them that they have bad breath, but then you don’t have any mouthwash to sell them. Raising dissatisfaction without offering the hope of change on a similar scale is just cruel.
So I started to wonder if there might be some way to translate the Christian transformation narrative into Unitarian Universalist language. In other words: What would a born-again UU be like?How might a Unitarian life transform top to bottom?
Like William James, I went back and read a bunch of transformation stories out of the Christian tradition. And one of the first things I noticed is that the changes usually don’t happen as instantaneously as we sometimes think.
Moses isn’t listening to the burning bush one day and challenging Pharaoh the next. First he argues with God, then he meets with Aaron, then travels to get his father-in-law’s approval, then makes the 300-mile trek to meet with Jewish leaders in Egypt, and only then goes to Pharaoh. The Bible doesn’t tell us how long that took.
Saint Paul, similarly, has his experience on the road to Damascus, then continues into the city and waits three days before he’s healed of his vision-induced blindness. Then he spends time studying with the Christian community in Damascus, then goes to Jerusalem for another unspecified period, then sets off on the missionary voyages that eventually make him famous, and only then acquires his new name. The man whose authoritative voice we hear in the New Testament was many years removed from his supposedly instantaneous transformation.
But the story that really brings this point home is that of John Newton, who wrote “Amazing Grace”. His life did indeed transform. From a wild and rebellious sailor on slave ships, he eventually became a tea-totaling abolitionist Anglican priest.
Newton dated his conversion from 1748, after his ship survived a storm that he had been sure would kill him. But he continued captaining slave ships until 1754, when he had a stroke. Then he began studying for the priesthood and was ordained in 1764. “Amazing Grace” was published in 1779, and he wrote his first abolitionist tract in 1788, four decades after his conversion. So his transformation did not happen “the hour I first believed”, but played over the course of a lifetime.
Now, at this point it would be easy to stop and conclude that I’ve debunked the whole born-again idea, so we can ignore it and go on. But that’s not where I’m headed. Instead, I’d like to hone in on what exactly does happen in that first hour. Why do people like John Newton decades later still celebrate their “moment” of conversion, when they themselves must know just how many insights and how much hard work still had to happen? And the answer seems to be that while your whole life doesn't completely change in an instant, what you can do in an instant is turn around.
Moses did not become Moses the moment that he saw the burning bush. But after that experience, his life could never be the same. Suddenly he was on a new path, and eventually that path went somewhere.
This description fits with the testimonials you can hear today from people in 12-step programs. The traditional bottoming-out story, when the addict realizes that life can’t go on this way, resembles the Christian born-again testimonial in many respects. But the addict does not instantly transform. Quite the opposite, often the idea that change will be quick and easy is exactly what he needs to let go of. Part of turning around is realizing what a long, hard road now lies ahead.
It turns out that a major influence on the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous was William James’ account of conversion experiences. In particular, the vagueness of the “higher power” in 12-step programs comes from James’ observation that conversion experiences are universal, and depend barely at all on particular doctrines. The story of a spiritual crisis that resolves in a moment of renewal can be told in any religion.
In fact, if you listen to an atheist’s story of the moment when he escaped religion, you may well hear an affect that would otherwise be described as religious fervor. Whatever the content of the new belief system might be, suddenly there is a new way to look at life. Old barriers fall, old burdens can be cast aside, and new possibilities open up.
Unitarian Universalists also tell stories of crisis and renewal, but we don’t do it in any organized way. Former UUA President (and current interim co-president) William Sinkford has talked about finding unsuspected inner strength and spiritual depth while sitting by his son’s hospital bed, wondering if he would live.
In her book Blessing the World, UU theologian Rebecca Parker told of a crisis that led her to walk toward the waterfront late at night, planning to drown herself. What she found when she got there, though, was not the deserted lakeside park she had pictured, but a meeting of the local astronomy club with their telescopes, all eager to show her what they found beautiful and wonderful. “In a world where people get up in the middle of the night to looks at stars,” she writes, “I could not end my life.“ A central premise of all the essays in her book, it says in the introduction, is “that moments of despair can be opportunities for spiritual and theological breakthrough.”
In fact, modern Universalism begins in the 1700s with a series of born-again experiences that — from an Evangelical point of view — went astray. Trailblazers like George de Benneville and Hosea Ballou went through the spiritual crises that the fire-and-brimstone sermons of that era were supposed to ignite, but instead of leading to a sense of God’s personal love for them, and assurance of their own personal salvation, their crises resolved with an experience of God’s universal love, assuring the salvation of everyone.
Clearly, the Holy Spirit misfired.
But that bit of our history brings us back to the central question: For those of us who no longer share a belief in a God who takes direct action in the world, where can the energy to renew our lives come from? Is it also part of a naturalistic explanation, or are we left to either return to Christianity or gin up our own transforming power?
Here’s my hypothesis about one possible source of transformational energy: Dissatisfaction has a way of sneaking up on a person. You aren’t usually thrilled with your life one day and then in despair about it the next. So as the course of life slowly diverges from your hopes, one natural reaction is denial: Dissatisfaction, you tell yourself, is just a mood. Everything is fine. Life is under control, or soon will be. Any deviations from the ideal are temporary, incidental, and not my fault.
But as dissatisfaction grows, the denial of it has to grow as well. What begins as minor dissembling and a few omissions can turn into a 24/7 pretense of a happy life. And since part of pretending is pretending that you are not pretending, you can be completely unaware of just how much effort goes into maintaining that illusion. And when the things that are supposed to make you happy actually don’t, the natural reaction is to try harder. Maybe if I just did them right, did them perfectly, then everything would be OK. If I were just smarter, richer, more attractivemore vibrant, more lovable … then it would all work.
So when the crisis comes and pretense collapses, there is a hidden benefit: All the energy you have been putting into denial comes free again. Everything can just be what it is now, and doesn’t need to be explained away. Your castles in the air have fallen, but you also no longer need to hold them up.
In the period of despair that comes between the collapse and the beginning of renewal, it can be hard to notice that freed-up energy or appreciate the extent of it. I doubt Paul was feeling terribly energetic during those three days when he was sitting blind in Damascus. But once the process of renewal began, the energy to make a new life was available.
One final aspect of the born-again experience that I have yet to translate this morning is the one suggested by the word grace: the sense of being loved and nurtured and forgiven by some external power. When we are in denial, we often project the need for that denial onto the people around us. To the extent that we realize we are pretending, we tell ourselves that we do it for them. If the important people in our lives only knew what we are really like, if they suspected how unhappy, how angry, how depressed, how afraid, or how guilty we feel deep inside; if they knew what complete and total failures we really are, how little we resemble the people we pretend to be, they would drop us like a hot rock.
Or so we think.
But sometimes the exact opposite is what turns out to be true. The people who love us may be both better and smarter than we give them credit for. They may already see through us. They may already be rooting for us to confront our demons, to embrace our potential, and to become the person that is inside us waiting to come out. To the extent they cooperate in our denial, they may do so because we need it, not because they do.
The New Testament God, the loving all-knowing being who is patiently waiting to forgive us and welcome us back home if we would only ask, is both a symbol and a projection of that possibility. Accepting the perfect love of this divine archetype can be a step toward accepting the imperfect, human love of others, and ultimately, the deeply flawed love that we might someday have for ourselves. As Lewis the Dauphin says about his intended bridein Shakespeare’s King John, “I do protest I never loved myself till now infixed I beheld myself drawn in the flattering table of her eye.”
So, pulling this all together, I think Unitarian Universalism ought to be about more than a long list of small improvements we should make in our lives, or of projects that good people ought to contribute their energy and resources to. Now and then it ought to bring us up short, and ask us what — on the largest possible scale — we are doing with our lives. If we don’t change direction, we’re likely to wind up where we’re headed. Where is that? How do we feel about it?
And thinking outside of the box of our current identity, who could we be? Who have we thought about being, imagined being, wished we could become? Is there some tiny part of our lives in which we already are that better person? What’s stopping us from breaking down the barriers that keep our better selves from changing everything?
Changing everything is a big job. It doesn’t happen overnight. But if you start, if you turn around, you may be surprised how much energy suddenly comes free for the work of transformation, and how many people will support you in it. Those who love you, and who will love you, may have seen this truer, more authentic version long before you did, and have been waiting to meet you for a long, long time.
The closing words are by Sara Moore Campbell: "We receive fragments of holiness, glimpses of eternity, brief moments of insight. Let us gather them up for the precious gifts that they are, and, renewed by their grace, move boldly into the unknown."