Monday, October 17, 2005

Hope: a 49th birthday reassessment

As a teen-ager I got a lot of my wisdom from the movies, and so I never considered the possibility that Hope might not be good. The movie world of my youth had two kinds of people: Those who give up and fail, and those who keep trying until they succeed. As the ballplayers sang in Damn Yankees:

You’ve gotta have hope
Mustn’t sit around and mope
Nothin’s half as bad as it may appear
Wait’ll next year and hope

All teens ought to think this way, because their powers are growing. If you can’t do something now, wait until you’re stronger, wiser, richer, and better connected, then try again. Hope keeps making sense through your twenties and maybe even into your thirties. Haven’t met the right girl yet? Think you deserve a better job? Can’t afford your dream house? Wait and try again.

I turn 49 today. I’m not ready for the old folks' home yet, but many of my powers have been shrinking for some while. I still jog, for example, but not without my medical insurance card. I get injured more easily and heal more slowly. My thinning hair seems to be planning to skip gray entirely and go straight for white. More and more often I look at my latest vacation pictures and think: “Who is that old guy?” A few years ago I didn’t hit on sexy young women because I was a virtuous husband. Now, although I’m as married and (I suppose) as virtuous as ever, I’m mostly just afraid they’d be horrified.

Supposedly we older folks make up for our physical shortcomings with smarts, but I wonder. I can already see other people my age becoming less flexible mentally – more opinionated, more set in their ways, less likely to say “What the hell?” and do something new. Maybe it’s happening to me too. How would I know?

Midlife is a time of reassessment. And nothing, I think, needs reassessing quite so much as Hope. Should a middle-aged guy hope? How? And for what?

Feeding the Fire of Karma
Life-threatening illness is the #1 situation in which you're supposed to hang onto Hope. At least in the movie world. In the real world the last dozen years have given me a lot of opportunities to reconsider.

It started when my mother-in-law was dying of breast cancer. Less than a year after the initial diagnosis and surgery, the cancer was back and had spread to her lungs and liver. My wife Deb looked up the statistics and started preparing for the worst. But her younger sister Melissa kept hoping, and took any positive sign as evidence that everything was going to be OK. Everything was not OK; a few months after the recurrence my mother-in-law was dead.

Hospital vigils are emotionally intense, but things happen slowly. I had a lot of time to observe and think. Melissa’s hopefulness, I came to see, caused her a lot of pain. Watching her, I understood for the first time what the Buddhists meant by the Wheel of Karma: The effort to escape suffering comes around to cause more suffering. We suffer because we lose our loyalty to The-World-That-Is and instead pay homage to The-World-I-Want. A hopeful fantasy that does not come true just increases the gap between those two worlds. It hides pain the way that a pile of dry leaves hides a bonfire.

Hope turns bad, in other words, when it teams up with Imagination and gets too specific. If it commits you to a future that may not happen, you can find yourself in an argument with God.

You never win those arguments.

Death as an Instructor
A few years later it was Deb who had breast cancer. It began with some specks on a mammogram, and for about a month afterward each new test showed that things were worse than the previous test had indicated. Eventually surgery was called for. The surgeon was optimistic that the cancer was contained, but the pathologist unexpectedly found several malignant lymph nodes. As we waited for the results of the bone scan, I knew that one more bad result would almost guarantee a swift decline and a painful death.

Fortunately, that was where the streak stopped: Her bones were clean. So were the lungs and the liver. We went through nine months of grueling treatment followed by a long tail of anxiety, but nine years have passed and we haven’t seen the breast cancer again.

During those months of treatment I did not put energy into hoping for specific events – maybe because of what I had learned by watching Melissa. The only possible future I thought about was Deb dying, because that was the future that needed work. If she lived we would deal with whatever came up, but if she died I needed to figure out how my life could go on. Eventually I developed confidence that I would get through it, and then both of us mostly stopped thinking about the future at all.

But living in the present, we found, has its own challenges. When we missed our favorite annual folk festival, we couldn’t comfort ourselves by saying “We’ll catch it next year.” Because (unlike the ballplayers of Damn Yankees) we weren’t sure there’d be a next year. When our friends talked about things we might all do in the distant future, we smiled and humored them the way we’d humor children talking about growing up to be Indian chiefs. We lived, not with a sense of Doom, but in the presence of a Great Unknown that had to be respected. Very slowly, the future came back to us. We started talking three months ahead, then six months, then a year.

When Deb was diagnosed with a different and even scarier cancer in 2003, we treated it much the same way. It was our second trip to the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and we knew the landscape pretty well – well enough to recognize that the psalmist had it right: He didn’t deny that Evil was there, he just pledged not to fear it. The Valley, we knew, is a place of breath-taking vistas. But you have to remember to look up.

Even though I did not cling to any specific hope, my deepest dread was finding out that there was no hope at all. I feared (and still fear) knowing with certainty that it is all downhill from here. So far, that has not happened. Our miracle drug (Gleevec) remains miraculous. The situation continues to be hopeful.

Active Hope and Passive Hope
These events have taught me something unexpected about myself: I have no curiosity for knowledge I can’t handle.

For example, Deb and I are both fairly good amateur Tarot readers. (I can rationalize fortune-telling in terms of unconscious processes and knowledge you don’t know you have, but this is not the place.) In nine years, however, neither of us has done a reading about her health. All along I have had a gut feeling that it would be wrong, and I haven’t really understood why until now: I believe in active fortune-telling, not passive fortune-telling. I’ll ask for insight that affects my actions, but not for information about what’s going to happen beyond my control. If I can’t do anything about it, I don’t need to know.

In the same way, I find that I only believe in active Hope, not passive Hope. It’s good – even essential, I think – to have a vague and general belief that effort is worthwhile, that trying to improve life is a worthy endeavor. But Hope turns bad in a second way when it becomes passive. Rather than getting motivated to do things, you just hope that good things will happen to you on their own.

They usually don't.

Hoping and Not Hoping
It’s been interesting to watch myself apply these lessons even before I had fully formulated them. Strangely, I’ve found that my new-found pessimism has an unexpected upside: I don’t procrastinate as much. If things are only getting harder, why put stuff off? In the last few years I’ve learned to rollerblade, joined a writers’ group, started this blog, and finally made it to Rome. Maybe youthful Hope had been holding me back, not pushing me forward.

This spring and summer, I found myself dealing with promising situations rather than dire ones -- in particular, the overall encouragement I’ve been getting from people who read my writing. At the end of winter, for example, I had lunch with two editors of UU World. They had read the Red Family, Blue Family article on my web site and liked it. They outlined a plan that was more than I had imagined: Immediately I would carve a book review out of Red Family; later I’d do a cover article for them; and down the road maybe I’d have some kind of continuing relationship with the online version of their magazine.

I put (and am still putting) almost no effort into hoping that this scenario would play out. I told very few people about anything that hadn’t already happened – the book review appeared in the May/June issue and the cover article in the new Fall issue – because I knew they would encourage me to hope. Instead, I’ve just done what the scenario required without visualizing where it might go: I’ve been writing, not hoping.

But while I’m avoiding any specific or passive hope, I have a lot of hope of the generic, active kind. More and more often, I decide that it’s worth trying to do things. I can’t guess what will happen, but I’m increasingly inclined to throw my effort out there and find out.

So I guess I’ll give the ballplayers of Damn Yankees a C. They got one thing right: You can’t just sit around and mope. But you also can’t reach middle age without realizing that some things really are as bad as they appear. And by your late 40’s “Wait’ll next year” is a very bad strategy. Maybe a middle-aged guy does better to forget the movies and take his advice from the I Ching: “perseverance furthers.”

The UU-FAQ VI: Death

Do UU’s believe in an afterlife?

Some do and some don’t. Many (probably most) believe that the living cannot know for sure whether or not the dead survive in some way. And, if the dead do live on, it is even more doubtful how behavior in this life affects a person’s afterlife. Consequently, even though individual UU’s may believe in Heaven and/or Hell, in reincarnation, in spiritualism, or some other version of a conscious afterlife, UU's hardly ever use posthumous reward or punishment to motivate behavior in this life.

A UU funeral must be a very sad event, if the mourners have no common vision of an afterlife.

Most mourning has little to do with theology. Even if you believe that your loved one is sitting at the right hand of God now, you’re still going to miss having him or her around. And if the death was painful or premature or unusually tragic, the community still has to work through its shock and loss.

Religion sometimes gets in the way of the grieving process. A dogmatic religion may care more about rationalizing difficult points of its theology than helping survivors come to terms with their loss. (What parent, for example, is really comforted by the thought that their child’s death was God’s will?) The death of a loved one can lead people to doubt their faith, so a religion that equates doubt with sin increases rather than eases their burden. And if the image of a loved one in Heaven is comforting, the possibility that he or she may be in Hell is anything but.

A bereaved UU can benefit from our lack of theological baggage. A typical UU funeral celebrates the life that has ended. People are free to be happy or sad as the spirit moves them, and to do or say or visualize whatever will help them find peace and continue on the journey of their own lives.

In short, a UU funeral is no sadder than any other kind of funeral, and may be less so.

Are UU’s afraid of death?

In the face of death, UU’s demonstrate the full human range of fear and courage, just as the members of any other religion do.

What does Unitarian Universalism have to say to someone who is afraid of dying?

Since death is both natural and inevitable, those who die have not been picked out for misfortune. A debilitating fear of death, however, is not inevitable. Many people arrive at a state from which they can accept death without horror and live in its shadow without fear.

They do this in one of two ways. The popular culture provides a clear image of the first way: The dying person is at an advanced age and largely without pain, surrounded by loved ones. Quarrels are resolved, good-byes are said, and the positive legacy of the person’s good works are apparent to all.

Obviously, this picture depends on many factors beyond an individual’s control. Anyone, no matter how careful or healthy, may die prematurely or painfully. Loved ones may already be dead themselves, or they may refuse to cooperate with our good-death scenario. And no matter how hard we try, the goals we set for ourselves in life may not be achieved. We may reach death believing that we leave behind a mess for others to clean up rather than a bounty for them to enjoy.

But there is another way to die well: You can approach death with compassion, both for yourself and for others. On this path, the end of life is a time for cancelling debts and letting people off the hook – yourself not the least. High standards and harsh judgments may have served an important purpose during your life (to push yourself to improve, for example, or to discourage others from treating you badly). But these purposes become less and less relevant as death approaches. Those who have wronged you in the past will not do so after you are dead, and your own failings and bad habits will die with you. So what is the point of continuing to punish yourself or others? Why not, at long last, open yourself to acceptance and love?

This second path to a good death is open to everyone. It doesn’t require that your disease proceed in a particular way or that your friends and family follow your script. But a lifetime of hard-hearted condemnation can difficult to reverse, especially if you try to begin practicing compassion on your deathbed. If, on the other hand, you have spent your life asserting the inherent worth and dignity of all people (including yourself), and championing justice, equity and compassion in human relationships, then the second path is much easier. If you have been on a free and responsible search for truth during your life, death will not hit you with the added force of all your repressed doubts.

In short, when consistently practiced and taken to heart, the UU Principles do a good job of preparing a person to face death and die well.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The UU-FAQ V: God, Miracles, and Prayer

Do UU’s believe in God?
The best short answer to almost every question about what UU’s believe is: “Some do, some don’t.” While accurate, that answer isn’t very useful without further commentary.

The question “Do you believe in God?” means different things to different people. Some religions use the word God to denote a very specific being with a character, history, and known attributes. The point of such a religion is to establish a personal relationship with this being. As one old Christian hymn puts it: “He walks with me and He talks with me.” In such a context, the question “Do you believe in God?” means “Do you know the same Being I know?”

Other religious people regard God as beyond human conception, and so believe that any specific human vision of God is necessarily wrong. As C. S. Lewis’ poem A Footnote to All Prayers laments “taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme.” In this more mystical context, the word God points to an ineffable mystery rather than naming a specific being. “Do you believe in God?” is now more difficult to translate, but might mean something like “Do you believe that the ultimate source of meaning and wonder is too big for our words and symbols, but is worth trying to talk about anyway?”

There is also a God-of-the-philosophers, the Divine Providence who set the Universe in motion. Now “Do you believe in God?” might mean “Do you think the Universe is orderly rather than chaotic?” or “Do you believe that humanity was conceived in benevolence, so that an optimistic approach to life is appropriate?”

The “Higher Power” of 12-Step programs is yet another version of God. After accepting that the conscious Ego’s intention to change is ineffective, the addict needs to postulate another location for true saving power to reside.

God can also be a way of talking about an ultimate point-of-view, a truth that is beyond any relativism. “Do you believe in God?” might mean “Do you believe in Truth?”

Complicating matters further, many people use the word God poetically or metaphorically, similar to the way that others talk about Mother Nature or Lady Luck. Belief is irrelevant in this context.

Unbelief has as many shades as belief. Some atheists merely reject the idea of a super-powered “Guy in the Sky” who discards physical laws to meddle in human affairs. Others are rationalists who reject the mystical notion that anything is forever beyond human understanding. Some picture the Universe as indifferent to human happiness or survival. Others imagine a nihilistic Universe, in which everything is random or arbitrary.

If you hang around a UU community long enough, you will probably run into all of these viewpoints, plus several others. For this reason, the word God is seldom used casually in large groups where misunderstandings are likely to result. If you want to talk to other UU’s about God, you should provide enough context that people will know what the word God means to you.

If you don’t share a vision of God, what is at the center of your religion?
The human experience. Each of us is living a human life, trying to make sense of it, and trying to experience it in a way that is meaningful, satisfying, and (in some primal way that we will always fail to capture adequately with words) right. We all face death, pain, the loss of loved ones, and our own inability to make the world come out the way we want. We all have hopes, fears, regrets, longings, and a desire to make things better. That commonality provides plenty of material to center a religion.

Do UU’s believe in miracles?
The word miracle has almost as many connotations as God. Perhaps the least controversial meaning is this: We are never aware of all the forces at work, so situations that seem hopeless may yet come out well. Patients apparently moments from death sometimes survive, rickety vessels make it through storms, lost travelers find uncharted oases, small armies defeat large ones, lifelong villains have sudden changes of heart, unexpected help arrives in the nick of time, and so on. The decision to give up should not be made lightly.

But miracle sometimes refers to events that are not simply unexpected, but actually impossible inside any naturalistic worldview. (It’s hard to give specific examples, because one generation’s miracle may be the next generation’s science.) Some UU’s believe in such miracles and others don’t. The ones who don’t tend to be louder than the ones who do, but which side is in the majority is hard to say.

In some religions, miracle refers to regularly occurring events that stand outside science and are not subject to rational analysis, such as the transubstantiation of the host in the Catholic mass. Calling something a miracle in this sense often means “Stop asking questions about it.” You will probably not run into this usage in a UU congregation.

Do UU’s pray?
Obviously, those UU’s who don’t believe in God or supernatural miracles do not pray to God for supernatural miracles. But this hardly exhausts the meaning of prayer.

The more loosely you define prayer, the more likely you are to find UU’s who practice it. Many UU’s meditate. Many have some practice in which they try to commune or identify with forces and currents beyond their ken. Many seek out experiences of awe and wonder, and cultivate those emotions in private moments. Some use a traditional prayer practice to express their deepest needs and wants, whether they believe a God is listening or not. And some UU’s have a personal relationship with a higher power, just as a Baptist or Catholic might.

It is controversial whether UU ministers should lead prayers during church services. Some do and some don’t. Some members value the practice while others – particularly those who are escaping from a fundamentalist upbringing – find it too coercive. A prayer in a UU Sunday service will probably not be very specific about who or what is being addressed, and will ask for psychological gifts like comfort or strength rather than for changes in the material world. Prayers at funeral services are more varied, as a minister will usually defer to the beliefs and practices of the family.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Boundary-Breaking Books

If you're like me, your mind has a tendency to get over-categorized: Each little fiefdom of knowledge gets walled off from all the others, as if one set of facts came from an entirely different planet from the other. A book that breaks those boundaries can be a surprising and awe-inspiring experience.

My earliest memory of that experience comes from reading Alfred Zimmern's classic The Greek Commonwealth. Zimmern took for granted that the ancient Greeks lived in the same world as the ancient Hebrews, and that you might gain insight into early Greek literature by reading the Hebrew prophets, or vice versa. I had been raised in a religious community that read the Bible in religion classes and the Greeks in history classes -- two different worlds. How strange it was to tear down that wall and see them both inhabiting the same planet.

The books I'm going to describe below are boundary-breaking in the same way. None of them is as well-known as it deserves to be, and all provide the intellectual rush that comes from linking previously separated parts of your brain.

The Ornament of the World by Maria Rosa Menocal recreates the vanished world of al Andalus, the Muslim empire that once dominated what is now Spain. Menocal turns upside down our notions of medieval and modern. Medieval al Andalus was a place of tolerance and high civilization in which Jewish and Christian culture flourished alongside Islam. Ultimately, it was replaced by the modern nation-state of Spain, which protected its fragile national identity by forcing Jews and Muslims to convert to Christianity, and then set up the Inquisition to enforce those suspect conversions. In Menocal's book it is the medieval world that is capable of handling contradiction and living with ambiguity, while the modern world arrives with an oppressive and sterile uniformity.

The boundary this book breaks is the one between Christendom and the Dar al Islam. One major theme of the book is how the high civilization of al Andalus seeded the rise of European culture. Greek writers that had been forgotten in the Latin west were translated into Arabic in Baghdad and survived in the libraries of al Andalus. When Christians began to reconquer parts of Spain, they acquired not only some of these libraries, but also Arabic-speaking Christians and Jews who could re-translate these works into Latin. This is how Thomas Aquinas came to know Aristotle and Fibonacci brought Arabic numerals (and the ever-useful concept of zero) to Europe. It probably is how Dante learned the story of Mohammed's trip through Heaven and Hell, guided by the archangel Gabriel.

Entire languages were transformed in al Andalus. Jewish poets like Halevi followed the model of Arabic and recreated Hebrew as a language of man and not just of God, of love songs as well as prayers. Under similar influence, Castilian became the first of the European vernacular languages to usurp the role of Latin in high literature. Immigrants out of al Andalus brought Arabian inventions like the astrolabe that made possible the European age of exploration. They also brought entire forms of literature; Menocal connects the dots between Arabian Nights and The Canterbury Tales and The Decameron. The foundation of Jewish Kabbalah, The Zohar, was written in Castile. Moses Maimonides came from al Andalus, and Spinoza from the Jewish community that emigrated to Amsterdam to escape the Inquisition. Menocal sees the ruins of the Islamic and Jewish communities of al Andalus as the necessary background to understanding the early 17th century Don Quixote.

Isn't it a Cervantes-like delusion to imagine we can read the novel outside its complex and tragic historical setting, a setting that does not have to be detailed in Don Quixote itself precisely because it is the everyday fare of its author and its readers, and which perhaps cannot be detailed on pain of being burned?

The story of al Andalus has its own romantic qualities. It begins with an 8th-century power struggle in the Islamic caliphate, when the Abbasids overthrow and massacre the previous Umayyad dynasty. The last surviving Umayyad escaped to the farthest western arm of the Islamic world, where he overthrew the client government in the Iberian peninsula and began establishing the basis for a rival caliphate. His descendants built Cordoba to be a world capital, a rival of the Abbasids' new city of Baghdad. It was beautiful Cordoba that a Saxon writer of the 10th century described as "the ornament of the world."

The Umayyad dynasty of al Andalus fell in the 11th century and much of Cordoba was destroyed, including the legendary gardens of Madinat al Zahra. Subsequently, the region divides up into rival city-states -- some Muslim, some Christian -- that battle among each other until Spain is united under Catholic rulers. But many of the Catholic city-states had maintained the tolerance established by the Umayyads, and Menocal does not present the Inquisition as inevitable.

The fact that Ferdinand and Isabella did not choose the path of tolerance is seen as an example of the intractability and inevitability of intolerance, especially in the premodern era. But their actions may be far better understood as the failure to make the more difficult decision, to have the courage to cultivate a society that can live with its own flagrant contradictions. They chose instead to go down the modern path, the one defined by an ethic of unity and harmony, and which is largely intolerant of contradictions.

Ultimately, the author leaves us with a question:

Is the strict harmony of our cultural identities a virtue to be valued above others that may come from the accommodation of contradictions?

The Jesus Sutras by Martin Palmer recreates the culture of the Silk Road, where East and West were not sharply divided. Ostensibly the book is about the scriptures produced by the little-known Taoist Christian community before it was wiped out in a 9th-century Chinese purge of foreign religions (which was aimed at Buddhism). But like Marco Polo, Palmer can't resist passing on the good stories he comes across while investigating the Taoist Christians.

Mostly, these stories involve influences that almost everybody else has forgotten. For example: the Silk Road kingdom of Gandhara, where pagan Greek-speaking artists ran into Buddhism while escaping from the Christian oppression of the late Roman Empire. Any first-rate American art museum has one or two examples of Gandharan art if you look for them. They're very striking, because they show Greco-Roman people in traditional Buddhist poses and settings. Oddly enough, this was the beginning of representational Buddhist art. The early Buddhists didn't make statues of Buddha. Instead, they represented him indirectly and abstractly, sometimes as a set of footprints. With no Buddhist models to work from, the Gandharans based their image of Buddha on Apollo. That's why Buddha wears a toga, has a solar halo, is clean-shaven, and has a bump on the top of his head of curly hair.

Palmer makes a more speculative connection between the Virgin Mary and the goddess Quanyin. Oversimplifying greatly, the male Bodhisattva of Compassion Avalokitesvara goes down the Silk Road, runs into the Virgin Mary, and comes back East as Quanyin.

Everybody knows about the Roman Catholics and the Greek Orthodox, but the Thomarist Christians of India are not so well known, so Palmer tells us about them. They trace their origin to the Apostle Thomas, who (according to local legend) was martyred in Madras.

Palmer's story starts with his rediscovery of the ancient Christian monastery of Da Qin in far western China. But Da Qin is just a stone's throw from Lou Guan Ti, so we hear its fascinating legend as well:

Traditionally Lao Zi [more commonly written Lao Tzu] is thought to have been an adviser at the emperor's Court. Famous throughout the country for his wisdom, he eventually grew tired of the corruption he saw at Court. Believing that all of China had become as degraded as the Court, he decided to leave.

The story goes that a watchman, told by the gods to be vigilant for a sage leaving China, built a lookout tower at the Pass to the West. One day he saw a sage riding upon an ox and rushed from his tower to invite him to stay the night. Recognizing that his guest possessed great wisdom that would be lost when he left the country through the Pass, the watchman pressed Lao Zi to write down his philosophy of life. The next morning, legend says, having stayed up all night writing, Lao Zi shook the dust of the kingdom from his feet and departed for the West, never to be seen again. But his book, which became known as the Tao Te Ching, survived and is the foundation of Taoism.

Eventually, Palmer gets around to telling us what's in the sutras of the Taoist Christians. And while that doctrine is interesting in its own right, the real reason to read the book is for all the surrounding stories. You'll never again think of East and West as entirely alien to each other. If Islam and the Mongols hadn't intervened, the Silk Road would have created a mediating culture.

The Shape of Ancient Thought by Thomas McEvilley is a tome, not to be picked up lightly. But it tells the surprising story of the mutual influence between ancient India and ancient Greece. The bird's eye view of that story goes like this: a set of ideas that McEvilley calls the monism complex develops in India sometime before 500 BC. Simplifying enormously, the monism complex revolves around the idea that there is one cause or one set of causes behind everything that happens, and all things partake of one substance. That idea gets taken west by Jains and other missionaries who travel to other lands as a method of overcoming their egos. (In other words, it's really hard to reach enlightenment if you're surrounded by peasants who think you're a holy man, but if you travel to a country where everybody thinks you're weird, you have a better shot.) Some of these folks wind up in what is now the west coast of Turkey, where they inspire the pre-Socratic philosophers like Thales, Anaximander, Empedocles, Parmenides, and the early Pythagorians. Indian mystical ideas were simultaneously influencing Greek mystery cults like the Orphics.

Whether by cause or coincidence, Greece starts its golden age at about the same time as these ideas show up. After 200 years of rapid progress, the monism complex and its associated notions has turned into the logic of Aristotle and the dialectic method of Plato. At that point, it gets re-introduced into India via the Greek-speaking or Greek-influenced Silk Road kingdoms like Bactria and (once again) Gandhara, at which point Greek ideas start to influence the development of both yoga and Buddhism.

That short description does little justice to McEvilley's huge book, which gives an excellent introduction to all sorts of Indian and Greek thought and culture. It is also a treasure-trove of religious and philosophical tidbits. Consider this bizarre practice:

In the stage of Pasupata practice known as the "seeking of dishonor," the devotee was to efface his ego through courting contempt and abuse from his fellow humans by actions deliberately feigned but appearing to be forthrightly despicable. "He who is despised," explains the Pasupata Sutra, "lies happy, free of all attachment."

An unjust act creates bad karma for the perpetrator and good karma for the victim, a process which the seeker of dishonor manipulates like this:

The aspirant is told to behave like a vampire, deceptively and deliberately draining off the good karma of others and secretly transferring his own bad karma to them. While they seem to be mistreating him, he is really mistreating them.

After you've reviewed a number of permutations of ideas (like karma) that you may thought you understood, you'll never look at them the same way again.

If you have any other examples of boundary-breaking books, add them to the comments.

Monday, August 29, 2005

The UU-FAQ IV: Hyphenated UU's

Q: Are Unitarian Universalists Christians?
The best one-word answer is no, but the actual situation is much more complex. Both Unitarianism and Universalism came out of the Christian traditions of colonial America, and each was considered a Protestant denomination at one time. (That’s why many UU church services look so much like Protestant services. We didn’t copy them, we arose from the same roots.) But Christians are a minority in UU churches today, and many self-proclaimed UU-Christians would not be accepted as Christians by other Protestant denominations.

The term unitarian originally meant non-trinitarian; in other words, Jesus was not elevated into the Godhead. Today, UU-Christians tend to focus on the teachings of the human Jesus rather than on the mission of the Christ spirit to redeem the world from sin – the Sermon on the Mount rather than John 3:16. Originally, universalist referred to a belief in universal salvation; in other words, there is no Hell in which some souls will be eternally separated from divine love. The Universalist Principles of 1899 affirmed “the final harmony of all souls with God.” Both the Unitarians and the Universalists evolved towards a more generally humanist outlook, and their beliefs were sufficiently compatible that they merged in 1961.

As with any statement about UU beliefs, these are statistical tendencies rather than doctrinal commitments. If Jerry Falwell wanted to join a UU church, he could. Attempting to welcome both Christians and people who are running away from Christian denominations that they find oppressive is a balancing act that each congregation has to perform for itself. Some do a better job than others.

You can learn about the range of UU-Christian views from the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship which also publishes the journal Unitarian Universalist Christian.

If UU’s aren’t Christians, what are they?
Just about anything. A sizable plurality (somewhere above 40%) of UU’s call themselves Humanists. Humanists focus on life in this world rather than an afterlife, and attempt to find natural explanations for events rather than supernatural ones. Similar attitudes are widespread even among UU’s who don’t call themselves Humanists.

Smaller numbers of UU’s also consider themselves to be Buddhists, Pagans, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, and many other faiths. Collectively, all such people are sometimes called hyphenated UU’s because they use a hyphen to describe their religious commitments: UU-Buddhist, for example.

Many of these groups have some formal organization: HUUmanists, Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans, Unitarian Universalists for Jewish Awareness, and Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Fellowship, among others. The Unitarian Universalist Association maintains a more extensive list of such organizations.

How did all these people wind up being UU’s?
There are three basic paths. Some people are UU’s first, and their search for truth and meaning leads them to Buddhism or Paganism or some other belief system. (In a similar way, UU-Humanism developed gradually from liberal Christianity in late 19th and early 20th centuries.) From there, they choose to remain UU’s rather than join a more sectarian community. Some interfaith couples (particularly Jewish/Christian ones) come to UU churches as a place where each spouse can be accepted equally and their children can be raised to respect both parental traditions. And some members of small, liberal branches of other faiths (Sufi Muslims, for example) seek community in a UU church either because they find themselves in towns where their particular sect is not represented, or because their particular interpretation of the belief system is incompatible with the local sectarian organizations. Many such people become enthusiastic UU’s even as they continue to practice their original faith.

How do they all manage to get along?
Not perfectly, but surprisingly well. The key feature of Unitarian Universalism that makes this coexistence possible is that our communities are covenantal rather than credal. In other words, we are committed to help one another rather than to promote a particular belief system. UU communities work best when members give each other the benefit of the doubt -- when we assume, in other words, that our fellow members have some good reason for believing what they believe, even if we cannot fathom what it is.

Friday, August 26, 2005

UU World article: Who's afraid of freedom and tolerance?

My article Who's Afraid of Freedom and Tolerance? is on the cover of the Fall issue of UU World, the flagship magazine of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

This would be a fine place for comments on and discussion of that article.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Walter Brueggemann, Meet Cindy Sheehan

I believe that the proper idiom for the prophet in cutting through the royal numbness and denial is the language of grief, the rhetoric that engages the community in mourning for a funeral they do not want to admit. ... I have been increasingly impressed with the capacity of the prophet to use the language of lament and the symbolic creation of a death scene as a way of bringing to reality what the king must see and will not. -- Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (1978)

Cindy Sheehan's vigil outside President Bush's vacation home is being interpreted in many divergent ways, but I'm coming to favor this one: A prophet is confronting a king. Walter Brueggemann's Carter-era model of the prophet/king relationship applies so well that it seems ... prophetic.

The key concept in Brueggemann's model is the royal consciousness, which is perhaps the best label I can think of for the attitude that pervades the Bush administration. The royal consciousness believes -- or at least says in public -- that everything is fine. The right people are in power and they are doing the right things. Everything is on track. Everybody should be happy. No mistakes have been made.

It isn't just that the King has made the right decisions: The King has done the only things possible. No realistic alternatives exist. People who imagine otherwise are fools -- dangerous fools, pathetic people unworthy of respect or even attention.

The royal consciousness leads people to numbness, especially numbness about death. It is the task of the prophetic ministry and imagination to bring people to engage their experiences of suffering.

A society dominated by the royal consciousness becomes numb. It is obvious that things are wrong and people are suffering, but nothing can be done, so why even think about them? Why count the dead Iraqi civilians? Why count the workers who have given up on finding a job? Why measure the climate changes or count the species being extinguished? Why bother feeling compassion for the homeless, the millions without health insurance, or even those whose loved ones have died in the war? Nothing could have been different; nothing can be different in the future. Why indulge in pointless emotions?

Anything painful should be kept out of sight, in deference to those who do not wish to have pointless emotions. Coffins of the war dead should not be photographed. The president should not call attention to funerals. Who could be so presumptuous, so hateful, as to make him notice an individual death? On his vacation, no less. Would you want to deal with grieving mothers on your vacation? Of course not.

The task of the prophetic imagination and ministry is to bring to public expression those very hopes and yearnings that have been denied so long and suppressed so deeply that we no longer know they are there.

The task of the Prophet is not to put forward a 15-point plan for reform. The Prophet does not come to replace the King and start a new administration. The job of the Prophet is simply to stop the royal consciousness in its tracks, to make it recognize that something is wrong. People are suffering. People are dying. Life out in the kingdom is not just bike rides and motorcades and helicopter flights to million-dollar fund-raising dinners.

Nothing can be done? That is not true. At the very least, we can grieve. And having grieved, we can dream. We can dream about peace, about maintaining the Earth's health and beauty, about caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, and comforting those who have suffered losses. We can dream about asking forgiveness of those we have wronged. We can dream about making restitution. We can dream about going forth and sinning no more.

Perhaps the King is right. Perhaps none of that is possible. But we can dream of impossible things.

If we are to understand prophetic energizing, we must see that its characteristic idiom is hope and not optimism. ... Hope expressed without knowledge of and participation in grief is likely to be false hope that does not reach despair. ... Clearly, only those who anguish will sing new songs. Without anguish the new song is likely to be strident and just more royal fakery.

Dreaming has to come before planning, not after. The royal consciousness maintains its hold by limiting our dreams to what we already know how to do. It will brook no foolish dreams, no impractical dreams, no dreams of things that do not already exist.

But after the Prophet has led us in grieving and led us in dreaming, then our creativity has something to work with and to work on. Optimism belongs to the known; it believes that our plan will work. Hope reaches to the unknown; it has faith that something new and previously unimagined may come to pass.

Cindy Sheehan doesn't bring an answer, she brings a question: Why did my son die?

She has not come to us as a saint, an angel, or some other holy and transcendent being. The prophets in their own era were nobodies. They were without honor. They were poor, dirty, uneducated. Undoubtedly their families were ashamed of them.

The prophets used cheap theatrics. It's easy to imagine the frustration of King Zedekiah when Jeremiah started wandering through Jerusalem with a yoke around his neck: That's not a plan! That's not a program! It's just a stunt!

Camping out in Crawford is a stunt too. That's what prophets do. They are not planners, technocrats, diplomats, or philosophers. They channel the grief of a numbed society. And they open the door to dreams of renewal.

Monday, August 08, 2005

The UU-FAQ III: Covenants

When I went to a UU service, the congregation recited a “covenant statement.” What’s that all about?

One typical UU covenant statement was written by James Vila Blake:

Love is the spirit of this church,
and service is its law.
This is our great covenant:
To dwell together in peace,
To seek the truth in love,
and to help one another.

Most UU congregations recite some similar “unison affirmation” as a regular part of their Sunday services -- more or less filling the slot taken by a creed in most Christian services. Covenant statements like this go way back in UU history, at least as far as the Puritan settlers in Massachusetts. They express the democratic belief that a church is established by the commitment of its members rather than by the authority of a bishop or king.

If a creed is one way to define a church, a covenant is another. In a creed, people look outward and agree that they see the same things. In a covenant, they look at each other and exchange promises. Marriage vows are one type of covenant; they say nothing about what the couple believes, but describe the commitments that the individuals are making to each other. Unitarian Universalist congregations, then, are united not by a core set of beliefs, but by a set of commitments.

Like a creed, a covenant statement can become a meaningless recitation. But taken seriously, a covenant like the one above lays out a challenging spiritual path. How should you act, for example, if in all of your dealings with your fellow parishioners you consider yourself to be an agent of the Spirit of Love?

“To seek the truth in love” is another promise that is much easier to make than to carry out, particularly in a congregation that has no creed. In reciting the covenant, you are committing yourself to help your fellow members seek the truth, even if they are looking in places that you consider totally wrong-headed. This commitment calls on you to remain engaged with others in their search while restraining yourself from non-constructive criticism. You can’t just humor fellow members by agreeing with whatever nonsense they say, and you can’t just blast them either. If you think that Unitarian Universalism is an easy religion, think again.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Confessions of a Moral Relativist

It's not easy being a moral relativist these days. Everyone is down on us. Addressing the College of Cardinals just before being selected as Pope Benedict, Cardinal Ratzinger said:
We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.

In his book Be Intolerant James Dobson's son Ryan summarized our worldview like this:
Moral relativism. Know what that is? Moral relativism is a way of looking at the world that says what is right or wrong for you depends on what you think is morally right or wrong. In other words, everything is relative.

Syndicated columnist John Leo blames us for this:
We are seeing large numbers of the young unable or unwilling to make the simplest distinctions between right and wrong. Even horrific acts -- mass human sacrifice by the Aztecs and genocide by the Nazis -- are declared to be unjudgeable. "Of course I dislike the Nazis," one upstate New York student told his professor. "But who is to say they are morally wrong?"

In the face of this shock-and-awe bombardment, it's not surprising that few people are willing to stand up and declare themselves to be moral relativists. Consequently, a vicious cycle is forming in which the term is used only by its enemies. The worse they make it sound, the less likely anyone is to defend it.

I Remember Liberals

We've seen this happen before: the Right did the same thing to the word liberal.

Conservatives can say anything they want about liberals these days -- Ann Coulter wrote a whole book about how we're traitors -- because no one admits to being a liberal any more. (Most ex-liberals are progressives now.) The problem with this Fabian strategy is that it gives the Right a demon-word. Anyone who tries to talk about real issues like health care ends up having to explain why he isn't a liberal -- and gets tied in knots because he probably really is a liberal, just not the demonic kind of liberal the Right talks about. As Barack Obama said: "Conservatives have created a boogeyman. Liberals take all your money; hate God; hate family." No wonder he doesn't sign up for that label.

But I don't want to make up a new label and then spend the rest of my life explaining why I'm not a moral relativist. So I'll confess right now: I am a moral relativist.

So, does that mean I think genocide is OK and Hitler was as good as anybody else? Hardly.

This is what moral relativism means to me: Every moral discussion takes place in a context, among a community of people who share some common language, assumptions, and values. Unlike the hypothetical examples raised by absolutists, actual moral judgments are always made in a time and a place, under the aegis of one or more moral communities. If you take a statement out of its context, it loses so much of its meaning that I probably can't say whether I agree with it or not. But in an actual situation, I'm as likely as anybody else to have a strong conviction about what is right and to take action based on that conviction.

Moral absolutists, on the other hand, believe that the words right and wrong refer to something as real and objective as height and weight. The moral properties of a situation might be hard for flawed human beings to measure or discern, but there is always a truth-of-the-matter independent of anyone's ideas, a God's-eye-view of the clear and absolute distinction between Good and Evil.

My Family's Values

A simple example brings these abstract ideas about context down to Earth. I was raised with very definite ideas about conversation, attention, and respect. In my parents' household one did not chatter. To speak was to demand the attention of others, and one did not make such demands lightly. But when you did speak, you got attention and were not interrupted unless someone needed to point out that the house was on fire.

I learned these standards by osmosis and applied them unconsciously, never realizing that they weren't universal. Imagine my surprise when I visited my friend Sean's family during a college vacation. In that household no one saw any reason to deny themselves the pleasure of speaking at any time. If you thought you had something important to say and couldn't be heard over the din, you raised your voice. Stunned by the cacophony, I imagined that these people must have no respect at all for each other. I expected violence to break out at any moment. It never did, and by the end of my visit I had realized that Sean's family loved and respected each other every bit as much as my family. Conversation just played a different role in their interactions. They had their own ways, and those ways seemed to work for them.

But if they weren't wrong, did that mean my own family was? Or is it "all relative"? And if the highest goal of relativism is "one’s own ego and one’s own desires," well then, the next time I went home I should have interrupted my parents whenever I felt like talking and told them they were stupid to react by taking offense.

I did no such thing. Instead, I recognized that different contexts call for different standards. My parents' house operated under one moral consensus, and Sean's house operated under another. The question: "Is it wrong to talk over somebody who is saying something that is just as important to them as what you want to say is to you?" has no absolute answer. I don't believe in a context-independent God's-eye-view.

Breaking the Chain

Having covered a simple case, we're almost ready to talk about Nazis. Is the morality of killing Jews relative, like the morality of interrupting your parents? I'm going to answer that question, but you'll have to wait for it.

First I need to discuss the most common over-simplification of relativism: the failure to recognize that the modern individual lives in multiple overlapping moral communities. That, in a nutshell, is the defining characteristic of modern Western society. In tribal society, by contrast, the tribe and your family belonged to the same consensus and there was nothing higher. More complex societies all worked (at least in theory) according to some version of the Great Chain of Being: a moral vision in which the same principles applied at every level. Conflict between two levels meant that one of them was in the wrong hands, requiring either a revolution to change leadership or an inquisition to bring the people into line.

The Renaissance and Reformation broke the Great Chain of Being in the West, and the situation has only gotten more complex since. Today, every individual belongs to dozens of moral communities -- families, companies, churches, nations, professions, cultures, and even subcultures like folk music or home-schooling. Each has its own shared assumptions and values, and each imposes its own obligations and restrictions. The central problem the modern individual faces is how to resolve the contradictions among these diverse moral visions: How do you form an authentic identity that can participate honestly in all the communities of which you are a part?

The most difficult moral issues of our day are not the ones that turn one person against another, but rather those that turn one of your community loyalties against another. How, for example, can you balance your admiration for a valued co-worker against your allegiance to a church that condemns him to Hell? How do you square the morality you practice in the marketplace with the morality you teach your children? How do you stay loyal to both your country and to abstract moral principles that your country is violating? Your neighbors, your pastor, your wife, your friends, the government -- no matter what you do, somebody is going to think you're dead wrong.

Moral absolutism tempts us with the promise of making all these contradictions go away. Somehow, the Great Chain of Being can be restored and one vision imposed on every sphere of life. Then one harmonious set of rules will apply wherever you go, and no one will ever fault you for following them. (In fact, what absolutists call relativism is actually an egocentric form of absolutism: I make the contradictions go away by defining a universal right and wrong according to my own interests. What favors me is right and what works against me is wrong.)

Unfortunately, the methods for achieving this charmingly harmonious world have not changed since the Middle Ages: war and inquisition. Scratch the surface of any moral absolutist from Osama bin Laden to Jerry Falwell, and you will find either a conqueror or an inquisitor. Or both.

What About the Nazis?

John Leo's simple-minded relativists would apply my family-conversation example directly to the Holocaust: Maybe it's wrong to murder Jews in America, but in Nazi Germany they did things differently and who's to choose? When in Mussolini's Rome, do as the Fascists do.

The problem with that analysis is that it ignores the multiple overlapping contexts. Bush's America and Hitler's Germany are not two different worlds, and I can't separate myself from a concentration camp guard by drawing neat circles around our two countries. In fact, the guard and I belong to many of the same moral communities: His family may be similar to mine; we may share a religion; we definitely share the heritage of Western moral thought that goes back to Jesus and Socrates and Moses. He not just a follower of Hitler, but also an inheritor of Goethe and Leibnitz and Beethoven. Like me, he probably claims the Western scientific heritage -- which, if he applied it soundly, would show him the flaws in the theory of an Aryan master race.

It is, in fact, these shared contexts that give us our intuitive conviction that the guard is still wrong, in spite of what his country's laws might say. We can judge him because he belongs to our community. To a lot of our communities, in fact. By contrast, a pack of wolves might kill just as many people as our hypothetical camp guard. And though we can choose to fight the wolves, we can't judge them the way we judge the Nazis. A moral judgment against the wolves seems ridiculous, because there is no context for it, no shared moral community or consensus.

Ryan Dobson's relativists would have to shrug and let the guard go on about his business, but in fact the guard and I would have a lot to talk about, because we have so much in common. I could attempt to show him that in following Nazism, he was violating every other piece of his identity. I suspect I would get further with him than Dobson would.

Of course, I might have run into the kind of Nazi who was happy to sacrifice every other scrap of his identity -- to be a Nazi and nothing else. I would get nowhere with such a person, and neither would anyone else. This kind of person is like the wolves: We can kill him or run from him or try to control him, but our morality means nothing to him. I could tell him that he was wrong according to moral communities he had rejected; Dobson and Leo and the Pope could tell him that he was wrong in the eyes of a God he had rejected. Other than the possible satisfaction of imagining the guard roasting in Hell, I can't see much advantage one way or the other.

Summing up

Moral relativism doesn't mean that you lose all claim on right and wrong, or that you make moral judgments in a whimsical, arbitrary, or self-centered way. You do lose the ability to make sweeping claims about poorly fleshed-out hypothetical situations. In exchange, you get to stop chasing chimeras and stop looking backward to the Middle Ages.

Personally, I think it's a pretty good deal. But that's a judgment you'll have to make for yourself.

Friday, June 24, 2005

The UU-FAQ II: UU Principles

Aren’t there any common beliefs in Unitarian Universalism?

Yes. The Unitarian Universalist General Assembly has adopted the following statement of its principles:

We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote

* The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
* Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
* Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
* A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
* The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
* The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
* Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Why isn’t that a creed?

Creeds are designed to be membership tests. The original purpose of reciting a creed during church services was to force heretics to perjure themselves, and creed recitals still serve to make less-than-orthodox believers uncomfortable – maybe uncomfortable enough to leave.

The UU Principles make a crummy membership test, because billions of people who don’t consider themselves UU’s can pass it. The principles describe the center of Unitarian Universalism rather than its boundaries. They provide a focus for our attention, not a way to differentiate ourselves from the infidels. Moreover, the principles are in no way sacred. We are pledged to revisit them from time to time, and they will undoubtedly be changed or reworded from one generation to the next.

Finally, you can deny the UU Principles from top to bottom and not get thrown out. The principles are affirmed and promoted by the member congregations of the UUA, not necessarily by every individual in those congregations. If you do deny the UU Principles, people might reasonably ask why you want to belong to a congregation committed to promoting them. But if you think you have reasons to stay, that’s your decision.

It’s not obvious what some of the principles mean. Take the first principle, for example. What does it mean to affirm “the inherent worth and dignity of every person”?

Individual UU’s interpret the principles differently, and this principle probably has more interpretations than any of the others. One sure way to start an argument is to ask a roomfull of UU’s whether or not Adolf Hitler still had worth and dignity in 1945, and (if he did) what kind of treatment that worth and dignity entitled him to.

Historically, Universalism was a radical rebellion against the Calvinist doctrine of predestination – the idea that people are chosen for Heaven or Hell before they are born. The first principle reflects this history by expressing the belief that no living person is irretrievably lost to Evil. The decision to oppose another person and work for his or her defeat should always be taken in sorrow rather than anger, and we should always be as aware of our own failure to find and reach the good inside another person as we are of our opponent's failings.

The first principle also cautions us against negligence. Much suffering in the world results not from malice, but from allowing ourselves to ignore the interests of others as we make our decisions. One unfortunate but very human tendency is to divide the world into an Us, whose needs and desires count, and a Them, whose needs and desires don’t count. Historically, many groups of people have fallen through the cracks of societal concern because of their race, gender, class, religion, nationality, sexual preference, or some other factor that made them seem less worthy than other people. The first principle calls on us to be aware of the worth of all people, not just the people who are like us or who currently have the power to make their needs and desires felt.

What is a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning”?

As we said previously, neither the UUA nor the individual Unitarian Universalist congregations will discipline an individual’s expressions of belief. Nor will they prevent an individual from reading, praying, worshipping, meditating, thinking, or doing any other legal act in pursuit of understanding and spiritual growth.

That’s the free part. But what about responsible? Any religious authority who tells his or her followers what to believe is also taking a certain amount of responsibility for those beliefs. Followers have a right to expect that the belief system has been vetted or authorized. They trust that someone else has considered the consequences of having large numbers of people follow these beliefs for long periods of time. (Sometimes that trust is misplaced, but that’s a separate issue.)

The fourth principle reminds us that just as the community does not limit or discipline our search for truth, it also does not authorize the answers we come to. If we are satisfied with self-serving or self-destructive beliefs and practices, we are responsible for the harm they cause.

People who have grown up under a strong religious authority (whether it be an individual, a book, or a single-minded community) sometimes have trouble grasping this concept. For example, a Mormon may chafe under his religion’s ban on alcohol, and may feel liberated to join a UU church that has no such restriction. But he can’t excuse his perpetual drunkenness by saying, “It’s OK for UU’s to drink.” Unitarian Universalism doesn’t authorize his drinking, it merely provides the freedom for him to reach his own conclusions about it.

Are there other common beliefs?

One popular summary of the UU ideological commitments is: Freedom, Reason, and Tolerance. Freedom and Tolerance are amply represented in the UU Principles. Reason is mentioned in another important list sometimes referred to as the UU Sources. Unitarian and Universalist history revolves around the struggle of people to think for themselves about more and more issues, rather than have their inquiry constrained by dogma. Consequently, the commitment to Reason runs deep.

What do you teach your children?

The UU Principles. Freedom, Reason, and Tolerance. The history of our tradition. The goal of UU religious education, however, is somewhat different than in most other religions, because our tradition of free thought is not compatible with rigorous indoctrination. We are attempting to raise children who will make intelligent choices, and not necessarily children who will grow up to be like us. While many do remain UU, it is not unusual for a child raised as a UU to choose another religion in adulthood. (Actually, it’s not unusual for a child raised in any religion to choose a different one in adulthood.) Unlike most religious groups, we’re OK with that. Good people can be found in any religion, and if our children grow up to be those people we’ve done our job.

Consequently, our religious education program includes a lot of discussion, a lot of material about other religions, and comparatively little indoctrination. Most UU congregations have some kind of “Coming of Age” program for teens. Unlike a Protestant confirmation, Coming of Age typically culminates in a Sunday service in which the teens tell us what they believe, rather than repeating back what we’ve told them to believe. Such a service is inspiring in a uniquely UU way. The youths sometimes put forward the most bizarre ideas, but we rejoice in the fact that those ideas are their own. The content of their credos is secondary; we celebrate their commitment to a lifetime of thinking for themselves.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The UU-FAQ I: A Creedless Religion

A year or two ago I was complaining to my minister (John Gibbons) about a booklet of questions and answers about Unitarian Universalism. I found it too doctrinaire and too humanistic. You would never have guessed from that booklet that there were UU-Buddhists or UU-Pagans – or that they have as much of a claim on the UU tradition as anybody else. John did the perfect ministerial thing and called my bluff: He suggested that I write my own set of questions and answers.

The UU-FAQ, as I started calling it in my own mind, was a back-burner project for a long time. Finally, some nagging from my wife brought it to a conclusion this spring. Since then, I've gone over it with her and with John, and have shown it to a handful of other people. I think I'm ready to get a wider set of comments.

The questions fall into eight categories: Creedlessness; the UU Principles; Covenants; Hyphenated UU's; God, Prayer, and Miracles; Death; Good and Evil; and Society and Politics. I thought I'd put the categories out for discussion one at a time.

Does Unitarian Universalism have a creed that sums up its beliefs?

No. Unitarian Universalism is an intentionally creedless religion. It isn’t that we haven’t gotten around to writing a creed yet or that we just couldn’t agree on one. We like not having a creed.

So, does that mean you can believe anything you want?

Beliefs are not whims, so I don't think it makes sense to talk about believing “anything you want.” I might want to believe, for example, that I have never made a mistake, or that if I jump up and flap my arms I’ll fly away. But wanting to believe is not the same as believing.

Maybe you meant to ask whether Unitarian Universalism imposes some kind of discipline on its members’ beliefs or expressions of belief. No, it doesn’t. In UU churches and other UU organizations, you can admit (to yourself and to others) that you believe the things you really believe – and doubt the things you really doubt. Even if other UU’s disagree with you, you won’t be excommunicated or ostracized for your beliefs. Of course, you don’t get to excommunicate or ostracize the UU’s who disagree with you, either.

How does that work?

Clumsily, sometimes. When you believe something very strongly, it can be disturbing to associate on a regular basis with people who don’t believe it. (Conversely, if you don’t believe in something, it can be upsetting to associate with people who do.) But the world isn’t likely to agree on a set of beliefs anytime soon, so maybe the ability to live and work with people of different beliefs is worth cultivating. The 16th century Unitarian theologian Francis David said, “We need not believe alike to love alike.” In other words, we can stay in community with people who disagree with us.

Groups of individual UU’s sometimes come to consensus about particular issues, and if you happen to disagree with the local consensus you may find life in that community very annoying. But they can’t throw you out just for disagreeing, and most of them wouldn’t want to.

One way to picture how creedlessness works is to look at science. If 18th century scientists had felt obliged to produce a creed for physics, they couldn’t have done any better than to include Newton’s laws of motion. After all, they did believe those laws to be true; so why not make a creed of them? But if they had, then the 20th century scientists who discovered relativity and quantum mechanics would have been in violation of the creed. They would have had to form some new branch of science and leave physics, which would have died out as the next generation of scientists joined the new science. But by being creedless, physics was able to change its core beliefs about the universe without ceasing to be physics.

What does creedlessness do for me as an individual?

You get to continue learning and growing. If at some point the experiences of your life cause you to completely overturn your view of the world, you don’t have to say good-bye to all your friends and find a new church. (You can if you want, of course, but it’s your decision.) You may find, in fact, that other UU’s sympathize with the stresses involved in having your worldview flip upside-down. You may receive moral support at precisely the moment when another church would be pressuring you to get back in line.

Belonging to a creedless religion puts the responsibility back on you to figure out what you believe, who you trust, and what you want to be doing with your life.

Isn’t that exhausting?

It can be, but it can also be exciting. The best UU churches foster curiosity and exploration. They are good places to hear about new ideas and new ways of looking at things.

Naturally, most people eventually discover a core set of beliefs that are not in constant upheaval. But the continuous challenge of new ideas and divergent perspectives prevents them from taking their beliefs for granted.

It sounds like a religion for wishy-washy people.

You might be surprised. When beliefs emerge from deep inside yourself rather than being forced on you by the community, you can wind up feeling intensely committed to them.

The history of Unitarian Universalism (including the separate histories of Unitarianism and Universalism prior to their merger in 1961) is full of people who exposed themselves to considerable ridicule and danger. Such people were at the forefront of the movements to abolish slavery, give women the vote, and get rid of the Jim Crow laws, just to name a few controversial issues.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

The Stages of Rest

Synopsis: Knowing the structure of the recovery process can help you route around the standard traps.

Many years ago I was burnt out. The details aren't interesting -- no deaths, illnesses, or tragic love affairs play any part in the story. I just mismanaged my time and energy. I committed to too many things and judged myself by standards I couldn't live up to. Over time, all my zest for life bled away.

But at some point I began taking steps to remedy the situation. In other words, I started to rest. I talked my employer into letting me work three days a week through the summer and scaled back my other commitments proportionately. I spent a lot of time sitting in the sunlight, staring at the horizon, and listening to music. In dozens of little ways I let myself off the hook. For a few months survival became my standard rather than perfection.

It worked. By the time I resumed my regular schedule I felt like myself again. I had reclaimed the full human range of emotions and could once again be happy, curious, and occasionally creative.

My recovery, in other words, wasn't any more remarkable than my burnout. No magic herbal enzyme unleashed my body's unsuspected wells of energy. No ancient meditation technique raised my kundalini or tapped into the psychic flows of the planet. I got tired, so I rested, and then I felt better -- that's about as interesting as an eat-less-and-exercise weight-loss plan.

So why am I wasting my time (and yours) by writing about it?

Rest has structure

Resting turns out to be harder than it looks and people routinely fail at it. Pushing themselves from one task to the next, dragging themselves through one day after another, they lead what Thoreau described as "lives of quiet desperation." Unable to rest and recover, they have forgotten what it was like to be genuinely playful or curious or motivated by something other than anxiety and fear.

Some, of course, fail through no fault of their own. If you're the single mother of twin two-year-olds, you have my sympathy. Your opportunities to kick back and regain your psychological strength may be limited. Ditto if you're the sole proprietor of a business on the edge of bankruptcy or a soldier in an active combat zone. My observations may be useless to you.

But many of the rest of us have some kind of slack: accrued vacation time, a boss willing to grant leave, standards we could lower, extra-curricular tasks we could drop, savings that could cover a temporary loss of income, or a spouse willing (maybe even begging) to take over a few of our responsibilities for a while. For some reason, that slack never gets deployed.

Or worse, we try to deploy it and fail. We pick up two new commitments for every one we put down. Vacations and even leaves-of-absence get filled with so many stressful activities that we might as well be working. We try to put a day or an evening or perhaps just an hour of inactivity into our calendars, but something always comes up.

Worst of all, you can deploy your slack, make an opportunity to rest, and it just doesn't work. But how can that happen? Rest is supposed to be easy. Isn't failing to rest like failing to hit the floor when you fall?

Not at all. What I learned during my summer of recovery was that rest has a structure. I noticed four distinct stages, each with its own characteristic traps, pitfalls, and temptations that threatened to derail the recovery process. In the years since, I have occasionally gotten run down again (though never quite that badly), and each time I rested I noticed the same four stages. At first I thought this might be my own idiosyncracy. But when I started telling other people about the stages, it was like discovering that we had visited the same obscure foreign country. Invariably they would nod in recognition, sometimes enthusiastically. Eventually, people at social events started dragging strangers over to me and saying: "Tell him about the Stages of Rest."

So I'm telling you.

First Stage: Paradox

When you get tired rest is supposed to make you feel better. But if you're really burnt out rest makes you feel worse, at least for a while. In the first stage of rest you get more tired, not less.

Perhaps you've seen this yourself: You push hard to finish some big project and then take a three-day weekend to sit on a beach somewhere. Tuesday morning you come back to work and feel terrible. Friday you were tired, but at least you had some momentum. You could have kept going into Saturday if you had to. But now you're just dead in the water. What's going on?

First, you need to understand that you're suffering from an illusion: You aren't actually worse off after resting, no matter how bad you feel. You're like the frostbitten hiker who has finally made it back to the cabin and built a fire. As your limbs thaw out, they hurt. When you were trudging through the snow your hands and feet were numb -- they didn't hurt at all. If the cabin had been another mile down the trail you could have made it, but now you hobble pitifully from one side of the room to the other. Even so, don't be fooled: Sitting in front of the fire is an improvement.

Numbness is a key feature of the burn-out process. As you pushed, your body and psyche kept sending you signals: You're tired. You need sleep, down time, and a chance to remember why life is worth living. But you ignored those signals. Another cup of coffee, another early alarm, another jolt of desire from a fantasy of success, another jolt of anxiety from a fantasy of failure. You kept going. Eventually, you got so good at ignoring the signals that you even forgot you were ignoring them. You were numb. Now you're not numb and you feel awful. The longer you rest the less numb you get and the more it hurts.

The characteristic temptation of the Paradox stage is to give up on recovery and go back to doing whatever burned you out. People told you that you'd feel better if you rested and they were wrong. You tried it, so you know. You're pretty confident that you'll feel a lot better if you just go back out into the cold and get numb again.

But you need to realize what you're giving up if you stop trying to recover: your soul. I mean that literally. People who are burning themselves out can feel a certain amount of temporary excitement around success and failure. But they miss out on any real happiness, deep satisfaction, genuine motivation, or anything else that you need a soul to experience.

The challenge of the Paradox stage is to have faith in your soul. In other words, you need to have faith that there is some point to taking care of yourself and nurturing yourself, that (given time) you can indeed hope to feel some real curiosity, ambition, and zest for life again. And you need to have faith that you are indeed recovering. Eventually, after you get back all of your feeling and have no more numbness to overcome, you'll gradually start feeling better rather than worse.

Second Stage: Stasis

After you've recovered all your feeling, happiness becomes possible in small doses. Now the burn-out is like a bandaged wound. As long as you don't poke at it or try to exercise it, you can be happy. In the Stasis stage you can have a simply marvelous time reading novels in a coffee shop or watching DVDs. That may sound obvious, but in the Paradox stage it wouldn't have worked -- you'd have been miserable no matter what you did.

In these happy moments you can imagine that you've recovered, but the merest hint of responsibility explodes this illusion. You may, for example, feel perfectly wonderful while sitting on the porch watching the sun go down. But let your cell phone start ringing and the pits of despair open up. Who could be calling? What are they going to ask you to do? Why can't they leave you alone?

In Stasis you're vulnerable to this thought pattern: "There's nothing really wrong with me. I've just gotten lazy from all this resting. I just need some will power. I should light a fire under myself, push myself out the door, and make myself do something useful."

The problem is that you still have no genuine motivation. Actually pushing yourself out the door just makes you want to cry. That's not normal. There's still something wrong with you.

The temptation of the Stasis stage is to pump up your will power with fear or anger. This is like pumping up your body with amphetamines, and is just as dangerous. If you scare yourself or rile yourself, you may well get out the door and start doing something, but you'll be sorry. That kind of motivation doesn't last and interferes with good judgment. If you're not careful you'll find yourself in a nasty fight over something stupid -- probably with someone you love. Or maybe the injustices of the world will finally get to you and you'll feel compelled to write angry letters to your congressman, your minister, or your local newspaper -- hopefully not your boss. Or you'll convince yourself that the mole on your cheek is a deadly skin cancer or that your best friend's marriage is about to fall apart and you really have to do something about it.

Try to stay calm. There are six billion other people in the world, and probably they can handle whatever comes up for a little while longer. As you read and watch and sit, you may think that you're stuck, that nothing is changing. But look closer. Maybe you're starting to read more challenging novels. Maybe the sunsets you're watching are starting to affect you on a deeper level. Maybe you have more to talk about than you did a week or two ago. As you rest and your soul comes back, ever so gradually the world around you becomes more interesting.

Third Stage: Stupid Projects

When motivation finally begins to rise, it refuses to go where it's told. In fact, it actively seems to avoid the places you want it to go. Is there some project that really needs your attention before something awful happens? Forget about it. Instead, your motivation will appear in places so odd you may not even notice them. Maybe you'll start playing blocks with a four-year-old, and some time later notice that you've built a tower so high you have to stand on a chair to cap it. Or maybe curiosity will be the first thing to surface. Your bike rides (rest doesn't have to mean inactivity, as long as the activity isn't dutiful) start getting longer, and you start wondering what's over here or over there. Or you hear some talking head on TV make a claim, and you think "That can't be right." Before you notice what you're doing, you've spent an hour digging into the Bureau of Labor Statistics web site.

Other people's chores start to seem interesting. If you're the household accountant you still get depressed at the thought of balancing the checkbook, but you'll blow the dust off your cookbooks to figure out how to make Pad Thai. If you're the cook, it's exactly the reverse: The Joy of Cooking fills you with dread, but you're starting to wonder how Quicken works.

The third stage isn't complete until you've done an honest-to-God Stupid Project. A Stupid Project has several defining features:

- You want to do it.
- No one is expecting you to do it.
- It requires a lot of effort.
- Its value is almost completely intangible, or even non-existent.

When my minister was on sabbatical, he came up with a great Stupid Project: His 80-something predecessor, a well-known figure in the denomination, had a brief and little-known career as a minor league baseball player in a nearby town. My minister spent a length of time (he has never owned up to precisely how much) in a library, going through old newspapers until he found a box score with his predecessor's name in it.

Some Stupid Projects have a small practical value which makes them easier to rationalize, but the task's low priority and high level of effort gives it away. That box of old photographs has been safely in the closet for fifteen years; you don't have to organize it right now. You don't really save much money by building your own computer. Changing your bedroom's color scheme isn't an urgent priority.

Early in the third stage, you need to re-learn how to recognize genuine motivation. When you've gotten accustomed to having all your energy committed -- or just not having any energy -- you can forget how to tell the difference between something that needs to get done and something you actually want to do. An idea -- taking your camera for a walk in the park, say -- pops into your head and you dismiss it because it's unnecessary. Wait a minute. Back up. Nobody said it was necessary. The only reason the idea came to you at all was because you want to do it. When was the last time you really wanted to do something? OK, it's a silly little thing. It's not like discovering that you want to write the great American novel. But that's how the Stupid Projects stage starts.

Think of your motivation as a horse that you rode half to death during your burn-out. The horse doesn't trust you any more -- and why should it? During the Paradox stage the horse was injured. In Stasis it would run away when you approached. During Stupid Projects the horse is skittishly approaching you; it's wondering if you can have a relationship again. It wants to get out and run. But you have to earn its trust.

Your first excursions are going to be short and seem somewhat foolish. But it's that or nothing. The characteristic mistake of the Stupid Projects stage is to think of these activities as distractions or diversions. "Why am I taking photographs in the park when I need to be renewing my driver's license? If I've only got so much energy, I've got to focus on the things that need to get done."

Wrong. The energy of a Stupid Project isn't being diverted from somewhere else. It's new energy. It has been earmarked for one purpose only, and you can take or leave it. If you take it, that same source might provide more energy for something else later. If you leave it, you can either go back to Stasis or start dragging yourself around again.

Dignity and a sense of propriety are baggage in the third stage. "This is silly," you think as you train the dog to catch frisbees. "If I've got the energy to do this, I should be able to do something useful." You think? Try it and see. Go home and pull out something dutiful, like that list of people you're supposed to call to organize your son's soccer team. Pick up the phone.

Where'd that energy go?

Do your Stupid Project. Pay attention. This is what it feels like to be alive. Remember the feeling. Recall it often.

Fourth Stage: Re-entry

Those practical thoughts you were having during the Stupid Projects stage were just misplaced, not wholly misguided. Eventually, your savings will run out, your spouse will have his or her own burn-out issues, or your company will stop holding your job open. And any life in our modern industrial society, no matter how simple or how privileged, requires a certain amount of maintenance. In the long term people depend on you and the things to do. By now you may even have enough perspective to recall that this is good: As much as you enjoyed your Stupid Project, a life that was nothing but a string of stupid projects wouldn't be very meaningful. Even the most childish of us has a little bit of Thomas the Tank Engine inside: We all want to be useful engines, as long as it doesn't get out of hand.

But now that you have recovered enough of your energy, your curiosity, and your playfulness to complete a Stupid Project, you can approach your duties and responsibilities differently. This is the time to take a careful look at the life you were living. How did you burn yourself out? Have you learned anything, or are you just going to go back and do it all again? Was all that really necessary? Re-entry is a time to make new habits, a time to re-think and re-negotiate.

The characteristic mistake of Re-entry is to forget. It can embarrassing and inconvenient to recall that you are vulnerable, that you have limits, that you can break. Why not just forget about it and move on? The whole thing -- the burn-out, the rest, the stages -- it never happened. Forgetting goes hand-in-hand with denial. If it never happened before, it can never happen again. Right?

Don't forget. Learn.

There's a lot to learn. Whole books have been written about right livelihood, about setting appropriate goals, and about maintaining boundaries that keep expectations from rising to infinity. There's obviously more to know than I can cram into a few paragraphs. But I'll leave you with three pieces of advice:

- Don't assume that life has to be a particular way. The life you were trying to live before ... it might be a fine life, but maybe not for you. Maybe you're not a genius or a saint or a super-hero. Maybe that's OK.

- Pay attention to your motivation. It's not enough to remember what you have to do, you also need to remember why you want to do it. Don't just pick up after your kids, remember how much you love them. Don't just go to work, recall why you chose this profession. Don't let long periods of time go by without relating your effort to the things you care about. And if you can't make that connection, look for what you can change.

- Try to imagine self-love. I'm not asking you to love yourself; that's way too hard. Just try to imagine what it would be like to love yourself. And by love I don't mean thinking that you're great or being impressed with your accomplishments or even rooting for yourself. I mean taking real joy in watching yourself be yourself -- the way you might have felt about your ten-month-old when she was crawling around the floor bumping into things.

Hard to imagine? Work on it. No one who can look at himself or herself that way will ever burn out.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Red Family, Blue Family -- the sermon

My most popular political essay to date is Red Family, Blue Family, where I discuss the difference in family values between liberals and conservatives -- quoting heavily from George Lakoff's Moral Politics but modifying it with the insights from James Ault's Spirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church. The essay's purpose is to provide some insight to liberals who look at the Religious Right and can't understand how they can possibly think that way.

Well, it cried out to be a sermon, and my church (First Parish in Bedford, Mass.) has a tradition of letting lay members preach. (I had done it before, but not for a couple years.) May 29 was an open date on the worship calendar, mostly because attendance is always spotty on Memorial Day Sunday -- too many members take vacations. So I grabbed the date.

Sermons, of course, are different from essays. You're speaking directly to real people, and have more of a chance to engage their emotions. Also, I was speaking to my home congregation rather than to the dark and echoing halls of the Internet, where you never know who may be listening. And finally, a sermon could and should bring out the religious aspects of the subject rather than just the politics. So I honed the essay and personalized it and cut it way down in size. It came out like this:

from Moral Politics by George Lakoff
Contemporary American politics is about worldview. Conservatives simply see the world differently than do liberals, and both often have a difficult time understanding what the other’s worldview is. ...

Whenever a cognitive scientist hears the words “It’s just common sense,” his ears perk up and he knows there’s something to be understood. Nothing is “just” common sense. Common sense has a conceptual structure that is usually unconscious ... -- not unconscious in the Freudian sense of being repressed, but unconscious simply in that we are not aware of it. ... When we think, we use an elaborate system of concepts, but we are not usually aware of just what those concepts are like and how they fit together into a system.

That idea is elaborated in Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson
We have found that most of our ordinary conceptual system is metaphorical in nature. ... To give some idea of what it could mean for a concept to be metaphorical, and for such a concept to structure our everyday activity, let us start with the concept ARGUMENT and the conceptual metaphor ARGUMENT IS WAR. ... It is important to see that we do not just talk about arguments in terms of war. We can actually win or lose arguments. We see the person we are arguing with as an opponent. We attack his positions and we defend our own. We gain and lose ground. ... If we find a position indefensible, we can abandon it and take a new line of attack. ... The metaphor is not merely in the words we use -- it is in our very concept of an argument. ...

Even if you have never fought a fistfight in your life, much less a war, ... you still conceive of arguments, and execute them, according to the ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor because the metaphor is built into the conceptual system of the culture in which you live.

from Spirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church by James Ault
Ault is a sociologist who studied a small fundamentalist church in Worcester that he called Shawmut River Baptist.

The taken-for-grantedness of our own pattern of family life makes it a faulty lens through which to perceive the actions of others. The misperceptions it creates occur in both directions between conservatives and liberals in American life. ...

One day, several months into my fieldwork, Pastor Valenti turned abruptly to me and asked in puzzlement, “Where do you live out there in Northhampton? You’re still at home, aren’t you?” He meant with my parents. Even though I had told him on more than one occasion that my parents lived in Pittsburgh, he could not help but imagine that, since I was not married, I would still be “at home.” In fact, as I looked around, I realized that virtually all the unmarried men and women at Shawmut River -- even those who were well into their thirties -- still lived “at home.”

By contrast, by the time my friends and colleagues and I married -- even if just out of college -- we generally had established ourselves as independent individuals removed from daily cooperation with parents and other relatives. Rather than conform to an existing moral code shared by our elders ... we were encouraged and needed to fashion our own moralities within an environment where diverse and unreconciled ones jostled uneasily with each other and in which perhaps the only standard we might readily share was mutual tolerance for different values. We did not choose to be moral relativists; the lives we lived, in some sense, required it.

... These contrasting sensibilities ... I came to see, were one reason why some people felt immediately “at home” when they first attended Shawmut River, even if raised in quite different churches or no church at all. Its villagelike atmosphere was simply an extension of the kind of sociability prevailing in their own family circles, within which the personal was readily aired, people stood ready to “oblige” and relationships were seen and acted upon as given rather than chosen.

Finally, while we’re talking about family values, I thought you should be aware of the following statistics from the Barna Group, one of the few institutions to study the relationship between religion and divorce:

21% of atheists, agnostics, Catholics, and Lutherans have been divorced.

Mormons: 24%

Mainstream Protestants: 25%

Baptists: 29%,

and non-denominational Protestants, the most conservative group of all: 34%

James Dobson wrote the following about same-sex marriage: “Barring a miracle, the family as it has been known for more than five millennia will crumble, presaging the fall of Western civilization itself.”

Did I hear that right? “Barring a miracle, the family as it has been known for more than five millennia will crumble, presaging the fall of Western civilization itself.”

What can you do with something like that?

Most of you, I imagine, just can’t take it in. Two weeks ago, Roger and Sylvia [our student and assistant ministers] did a service on marriage, including a number of same-sex couples. I had many thoughts during that service, but none of them was: “I wonder if this presages the fall of Western civilization.”

How does a thought like that get into a human head?

One way to resolve this problem is denial. We could deny that such a thought ever really does get into a human head: Dobson himself doesn’t believe what he’s saying. He’s just making an excuse to justify being nasty to homosexuals. He doesn’t intend it to makes sense.

Unfortunately, Dobson’s statement clearly does make sense to a lot of people, who repeat it as if they believe it ought to make sense to us. They seem to believe that we are the ones who are faking: Deep down we know Dobson is right, we just pretend not to for our own sinister purposes. Denial cuts both ways.

A second coping strategy is: They’re crazy. Don’t bother trying to make sense of what they say. Occasionally it sounds like coherent English, but it really isn’t.

Sometimes that’s the right answer. There are crazy people. They say nonsensical things and you can’t always get somewhere by discussing those things with them. You just have to keep them away from sharp objects and try to work around them.

But maybe a quarter of the country identifies with the Religious Right. If there really is no sense to what goes on in their minds, then they could do anything. How are you going to live in a society where a quarter of the population could do anything?

For your own sanity, you need to make some sense out of the Religious Right. But how?

George Lakoff thinks that the reason liberals and conservatives seem to live in different worlds, is that in some sense they really do. According to Lakoff, when we look at something a very fast unconscious process frames it and presents it to us as an event. Two people who have different frames may see different events even though they’re looking at the same thing.

Take this event. Consciously, you don’t just looking up here and see light waves: You see a person preaching a sermon. You could make up reasons to explain how you know that, but mostly you just know it. You don’t even realize you’re interpreting the situation, you think you’re just seeing it the way it is.

But what if the left half of the room looks up here and sees me leading a discussion? And doing a really bad job of it. “Enough introduction! When is that guy going to shut up and let somebody else talk?”

“Call on me! Call on me!”

Meanwhile, you folks on the right are sitting here thinking: “What’s wrong with those people?” When you all get together at coffee hour, you’re going to have some bizarre conversations.

Let’s apply that to marriage. When someone says marriage, I don’t consciously decipher the word. Some unconscious process causes a network of ideas and images to pop into my head: Two people in a partnership, facing whatever life throws at them, and making it up as they go along. I never decided to think about marriage that way, I just do.

But a very different network of ideas and images pops into James Dobson’s head. He sees the timeless roles of Husband and Wife, and two people taking on those roles like actors agreeing to be in a play.

Now we hear gay marriage. I picture: Two men in a partnership, facing whatever life throws at them. Why not? But Dobson has a very different problem: Who’s the Husband and who’s the Wife? If they raise children, who’s the Father and who’s the Mother? He can’t make it fit in his frame. Neither of us really understands our framing process, because it’s unconscious. We can make up reasons and argue about them, but it’s all after the fact. We each think we’re just seeing the situation the way it is, and we don’t understand why other person doesn’t.

In Lakoff’s theory, we frame a situation through metaphors. We think about abstract things in terms of more concrete things: Time is Money. That’s not just a poetic image: We actually spend time, save time, waste time, and even budget time. Give me a minute. Take five. If you had to talk about time without using any words that were more appropriate for money, you wouldn’t know what to say.

We think about institutions as if they were people. So we might ask: “Does this church want to grow, or not?” You may not even realize the question is metaphoric, because you interpret it without asking what it means for a church to want something.

We describe institutional relationships in personal terms: Is China our friend or our enemy?

We describe our nation in family terms. George Washington is the father of our country. On April 15 you pay Uncle Sam. And look out if you don’t, because Big Brother is watching. Most often, we picture the government as a parent. It defends us, educates us, helps us if we’re in trouble, and even punishes us if we’re bad.

Lakoff studied American political rhetoric, and boiled it all down to this: What kind of parenting advice do you want to give the government? If you think the government is too permissive and want it to be more strict, you’re a conservative. If you think it’s too harsh and want it to be more nurturing, you’re a liberal.

No Child Left Behind, for example, is strict: It treats an underperforming school district as if it were a lazy child. Clear standards and the threat of punishment, it thinks, should shape that district right up. Liberals, on the other hand, would rather nurture the district, as if it were a child with special needs. Two metaphors. Two very different frames.

In his book Moral Politics, Lakoff goes through the full collection of social issues and explains how the conservative and liberal positions come from a metaphor of the government as a strict parent or a nurturing parent. Lakoff says that welfare, taxes, crime, abortion, the environment, the arts, and affirmative action “are not ultimately different issues, but manifestations of a single issue: strictness versus nurturance.”

James Ault reduces conservative and liberal family values to a different pair of concepts: the Given and the Chosen. Ault’s liberal academic friends took for granted that the major relationships of their lives would be chosen and negotiated -- like the description I gave of marriage. The key idea of the chosen relationship is commitment. You negotiate a relationship with someone and then choose to commit to that relationship.

But for the working-class fundamentalists Ault studied at Shawmut River, relationships are given, and the key notion is obligation. You are born into a network of obligations. Your survival depends on other people fulfilling their obligations to you, and as you grow you pick up more and more obligations to them. Good people fulfill their obligations and bad people don’t. If nobody fulfilled their obligations, civilization would fall. (Maybe that’s what Dobson was thinking.)

At Shawmut River, obligations take the form of fixed roles: Husband, Wife, Son, Daughter, Father, Mother. You don’t make these relationships up as you go. They are timeless and they’re not up for negotiation.

One of your obligations is to carry on your family and your community by having children. You have an obligation to find someone to marry, so that together you can take on the timeless roles of Husband and Wife, and then of Father and Mother.

Shawmut River promises you long-term satisfaction and pride, but not that you’ll enjoy every minute of it. Obligations, by their nature, are inconvenient. It’s inconvenient to raise children, it’s inconvenient to stay faithful to your spouse, it’s inconvenient to take care of your parents when they get old. But, inconvenient as they are, obligations are what gives depth to life.

And that brings us to an important point: Choice and freedom, which are always good words in the liberal vocabulary, are ambiguous to the Religious Right. Sometimes they’re good, but people who choose to be free of their obligations are bad people.

Let’s look at how these two notions -- commitment and obligation -- play out in the issue of abortion. To a liberal, parenthood is the biggest commitment you can make. It’s a huge amount of effort, and you can’t be sure that you’ll get anything back. You may hope to have a lifelong relationship with your children, but you’ll have to wait and see what they want. Your nurturance has to be a gift, not a deal.

But your heart isn’t automatically filled with that kind of generosity just because your birth control fails. The sacrifices and uncertainties of liberal parenthood are unthinkable without a moment of commitment when you say, “This is my child; I’m doing this.” Without the option of abortion, you may not get that moment. Conception may be an accident, and then there’s a baby you never wanted and don’t feel committed to.

The obligation model of family doesn’t require a moment of commitment. Sure, it may be really inconvenient to have a child right now. Maybe you’d rather pursue a career, maybe you’d rather wait until you have more money, or until your marriage is on firmer ground. But pregnancy creates an obligation, and obligations are always inconvenient. And besides, parenthood is a good deal. In the long run the child’s obligations to you more than compensate for your sacrifices. By insisting that you have this child, society is forcing you to make a good investment that, given your own short-term view, you might otherwise chicken out of. To the Religious Right, having a child is like getting an education or buying a house. It’s hard at first, but in the long run you’ll thank them for making you do it.

To sum up: To a liberal, the possibility of abortion creates the moment of commitment that makes the whole parent-child relationship work. To a fundamentalist, a woman who wants an abortion is just trying to slough off her obligations because they’re too inconvenient. And a permissive government that lets her get away with it just encourages people to be self-indulgent.

That, I might add, is the general fundamentalist view of liberals: We’re self-indulgent. They believe that liberals want to be free so that we can live a life without obligations. We want to be able to slough off anything that’s inconvenient. That’s why they see liberalism as a superficial, morally trivial way to live. That’s not rhetoric; it’s what they think of us.

Superficial. Morally trivial.

Have I made anybody mad yet?

It’s always unpleasant to see yourself the way your enemies see you. But I needed to put you through that so that I could answer the question that I know is on most of your minds: How do we beat these people?

Understanding, of course, is good in itself. And I believe that our UU principles require us to try very hard to see our opponents’ points of view. But we don’t want to be so high-minded that we can’t take our own side in an argument. It matters whether we have war or peace, whether the poor have health care, whether church and state remain separate. So how do we win?

One thing I like about Lakoff’s terminology is that it becomes really easy to describe what Gandhi did to the British: He broke their frame. The British framed themselves as the standard-bearers of civilization and the Indians as their children. Gandhi won India’s independence by staging a series of events that the British could not ignore and could not fit into that frame.

So how do we break the frame of the Religious Right?

I’ll tell you what doesn’t work: Getting really angry and damning them for not living by our values. They know they don’t live by our values. They’re proud of it. And we play the petulant, self-indulgent liberals they think we are: No impulse control. We just blow up for any old reason.

You have to understand the Right to criticize it effectively. Those divorce statistics, for example, really bug them. How can they frame themselves as the stronghold of family values if their families don’t hold together as well as the atheists’ do?

It’s also effective to call them on violating their own values. Take, for example, this latest flap about judges and the nuclear option. Dobson and his allies tried to read things into the Constitution that aren’t there, and they tried to slough off Senate rules that they find inconvenient. Those are their values, not just ours.

But attacks by themselves won’t break the frame of the Religious Right. You see, the Dobsons and the Falwells and the Robertsons have a fundamentally negative view of where the world is going. The Anti-Christ is coming. Armageddon is coming. Things are going to get really bad. And so, if Tom DeLay or Rush Limbaugh or Jimmy Swaggart get into trouble -- and they have -- that just shows how strong the winds of temptations are in this fallen society. It just shows how strong Satan is in these last days. And whatever conservative scandals come out, they will imagine that we are doing much worse.

Conservative vice, no matter how outrageous, will not break the frame of the Religious Right. But liberal virtue will.

Let me repeat that: Liberal virtue breaks the frame of the Religious Right. They can’t account for it.

For years, religious liberals have been publicizing the wrong thing about ourselves: our freedom. The Right knows that we have more freedom than they do, and they see it as evidence of our superficiality: Sure, you’re free. You can get an abortion. You can get a divorce. You can drink. You can sleep in on Sunday mornings. You can go to porno movies. You can sleep around.

They’re not impressed.

They see us as people who want to be free to slough off our obligations. They don’t understand that we want to be free to make commitments. And that we do make them and keep them. That part doesn’t fit. It breaks the frame.

When I look at this congregation, I see a lot that would break the frame of the Religious Right, if they only knew about it. I see married couples -- gay and straight alike -- who stand together and handle gracefully whatever the world throws at them. Their frame can’t account for that.

I see children who are growing up to be fine young men and women. Their frame can’t account for that.

I see people who give up their time, their energy, and their money to make the world better. Who build affordable housing. Who are committed to peace. Who make beautiful art and music. Who care for the mentally ill. And there are people I don’t see right now, because at this moment they’re back there teaching our children to be better people.

Their frame can’t account for that.

The Religious Right sees itself as the last embattled fortress of virtue in a world overrun with vice. If evil is breaching that fortress, it just makes their battle more desperate. But if goodness is alive and well outside the walls, that doesn’t fit. It breaks the frame.

We fight them best by making lives that they have to admire. By building better families and better communities. By contributing more to the world. By doing it in public. By doing it in ways they can’t ignore. If you want to hear sermons about family values, go listen to Jerry Falwell. He’s good at that. But if you want to be surrounded by people who live values, whose example can show you how to make your family work, come here.

That’s the message that wins.

The message I want you to take home from this sermon is that the personal is political again. Your life, your family, your marriage, your children, your church, your town -- this is where the battle is going to be won. It’s not about talking heads on TV. It’s about people on the ground showing in our lives that our way works better.