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.

Introducing the Free and Responsible Search

The title of this blog comes from the Fourth Principle of Unitarian Universalism: "A free and responsible search for truth and meaning." I created it to make a place for my philosophical and religious writings separate from my political writings (which you can find under the name Pericles at DailyKos or at my Open Source Journalism project).

So, who am I and what might you expect me to write about here? My name is Doug Muder. I'm 48 years old and live in Nashua, New Hampshire. I'm an ex-mathematician, an ex-Dummies-author, and an aspiring writer of all sorts of things. I'm a Unitarian Universalist (though for historical reasons I go to the Bedford, Massachusetts church rather than the Nashua UU church that is only a few blocks away). I have read and practiced promiscuously in religion, and used to think I was anything other than a Humanist -- a Pagan, a Buddhist, a ceremonial magician, a Western-tradition mystic, a Stoic, and several other things too obscure to mention. I've even been known to say a few good things about Christianity, which I know fairly well from my eight years of Lutheran grade school.

I had run into a number of Humanists in UU circles, and I was pretty sure I wasn't one of them. They were all rationalists, and as a mathematician I was far too familiar with reason to worship it the way they seemed to. And yet, I value human experience above revelation, believe in yielding to science within its domain, and think that any religion worth its salt needs to justify itself in human terms by making life better. Eventually I decided that's what true Humanism is, and the rationalists just have it wrong. So I guess I'm a Humanist reformer or something. A Full-Spectrum Humanist.

A question you can expect me to come back to again and again is: What is Humanism if not rationalism? One of my heroes is William James, and one of my favorite books is Varieties of Religious Experience. So in particular, I want to put forward a Humanism that values ALL human experience, not just the experience that you can reproduce in a laboratory or write up in the Euclidean theorem/proof style. I don't think I have to stop being a mystic to be a Humanist, though I recognize that I have a lot of explaining to do.

You'll eventually meet several other characters in this blog: my wife Deb, who has been battling two different cancers over the past eight years and is currently showing no evidence of disease; my friend Steve from high school, who is about to finish his second tour of duty in Iraq; numerous other-people's-kids, of whom there are many in my life; and a long list of anonymous or pseudonymous people from First Parish Bedford.

Mostly, what you're going to see on this blog is a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. As Michael Schneider wrote in A Beginners Guide to Constructing the Universe, "The Universe may be a mystery, but it's not a secret."