Saturday, December 11, 2010

Pride? Gaggle? Finding a collective noun for UUs

Bananas come in bunches, wolves in packs, locusts in swarms, but what do you call a collection of Unitarian Universalists?

Some obvious collective nouns are too easy and not specific enough: A congregation of UUs fits, but it would also fit just about any other religious group. Also, it's too formal and is so wedded to whole churches that it would be confusing to apply to smaller collections. When you take the youth group out on a hike, congregation doesn't really work.

Christian use that Good Shepherd imagery and so flock works for many of their groupings, but UUs hate to be compared to sheep. If we sang better, a choir of UUs might work, but angels come in choirs, and besides there's the whole reading-ahead-to-see-if-we-agree thing.

A committee of UUs is sadly apt, but I hope we can do better, something more along the lines of an exaltation of larks, a parliament of rooks, a murder of  crows, and so forth.

So what are we? A curiosity of UUs? A cacophony? A cafe?

Disputation? Delegation?

An evolution of UUs? (I kind of like that one.)

Suggestions, anybody?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

My Bah-Humbug Thanksgiving

I don't know what the Thanksgiving equivalent of Scrooge is, but I find myself sliding in that direction. I've got nothing against gratitude, or a holiday in which an agrarian culture gives thanks for a bountiful harvest. But more and more of the standard Thanksgiving sentiments are leaving me with that bah-humbug feeling.

Thanksgiving is the holiday when we are supposed to count our blessings and be grateful for what we have. But there are good and bad ways to do that. In Luke 18, for example, Jesus describes this character:

The Pharisee with head unbowed prayed in this fashion: "I give thanks, O God, that I am not like the rest of men -- grasping, crooked, adulterous. … I fast twice a week. I pay tithes on all I possess."

In other words: "What a great God you are, for making a great guy like me. Thanks for creating a world where I get to better than everybody else."

Bertrand Russell satirized another kind of self-centered thankfulness in An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish:

Sometimes, if pious men are to be believed, God's mercies are curiously selective. Toplady, the author of "Rock of Ages," moved from one vicarage to another; a week after the move, the vicarage he had formerly occupied burnt down, with great loss to the new vicar. Thereupon Toplady thanked God; but what the new vicar did is not known.

If you listen closely, a lot of Thanksgiving prayers -- particularly the patriotic ones -- sound like these bad examples. Let me translate what's written between the lines:

Thanks, God, for putting me in a country where I get to use up all the world's oil. Thanks for making us so powerful that ordinary rules don't apply to us: We can attack other countries with impunity, assassinate people we don't like, and kidnap and torture anybody we think might pose a threat.

Thanks for a global economic system based on dollars -- which we create at will, so our country can consume more than it produces year after year. Thanks for undocumented immigrants who will do our dirty jobs for less than minimum wage. Thanks for letting us ship so much of our dangerous or poisonous production to the other side of the world.

We're grateful to You, O God, for creating a world in which it's so great to be us.

I'm becoming suspicious of the whole count-your-blessings framing of the holiday. Because most of what we count are not "blessings" exactly. They're privileges. They arrive on our doorstep not because we are God's special loved ones, but because we are the beneficiaries of an unjust global system.

Suppose, for example, that you had been born in Guatemala. Your land has been blessed with a climate and soil perfect for growing bananas. But your portion of this blessing is that you get to compete with your fellow peasants for the opportunity to make subsistence wages working on plantations owned by foreign corporations. Somewhere back in the mists of history those corporations may have bought that land from your ancestors (or not), but whatever benefit your people received was long gone by the time your life started. Your grandfather may have participated in a political movement to take some of those lands back, but that movement was put down by military force organized by the CIA. So your lands' blessings belong largely to Americans now.

Or suppose you were born in Bolivia, a land blessed with rainfall that (depending on where you are) varies from adequate to abundant. But (until a near-revolution in 2002) none of it belonged you. All the water in Bolivia, even rain that fell decades ago and was sitting in underground aquifers, belonged to an international consortium led by Bechtel. Somewhere between God and you, the blessing of rainfall got intercepted and reassigned.

So yes, we Americans enjoy a large share of the world's blessings. But it's not at all clear that God intended us to have them. We took them. And I suppose we could thank God for making us strong enough to take what we want. But that's a blessing on a different level than turkeys and pumpkin pies.

I know, most of us never consciously applied to be beneficiaries of an unjust system, or intentionally conspired to keep the booty coming. If we're forced to think about it, we may not even approve. So how should we handle Thanksgiving?

I don't have a complete answer, but I will make a few suggestions. First, after-the-fact guilt helps no one. The turkey's in the oven, and you might as well enjoy it. If you don't, nobody else will.

If you do remember the Bolivians, Guatemalans, and other dispossessed peoples in your Thanksgiving prayers, don't think of them as "unfortunate". That leads you back towards imagining yourself as "fortunate"-- as God's special friend. But God didn't distribute the world's wealth. People did -- through force and guile and manipulation, often in perfectly legal and transparent ways. Many of these transactions have resembled another Bible story: Esau selling his birthright to Jacob for a meal. Some temporary need coupled with one generation's lack of foresight -- and something God presumably created for everyone now belongs to someone else.

Charity is fine, but that's not the answer either. The world's poor do need the jug of water you could buy them, but what they really need is access to the river. As far back as John Locke, the defenders of "liberty" have told just-so stories about the "state of Nature" that existed prior to government. But there's one aspect of the state of Nature they always leave out: The state of Nature offered full employment. The means of production were the lakes and plains and jungles where anyone could go hunt and gather. But a system in which even the groundwater is private property, whose owners have the "liberty" to do what they want with it -- not only free from government interference, but with government controlling anybody else who tries to interfere -- that's not a state of Nature. That's a very unnatural state indeed.

So here's what I recommend for Thanksgiving: Sure, count your blessings, but also count your privileges -- and don't confuse the two. And sure, resolve to give more to charity, but resolve even harder to use your privileges and powers and out-sized access to work for changing the system.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Current UU World: Superheroes and Generational Change

Depending on where you live, you may or may not have received the winter issue of UU World. The articles have been on the web site for about a week, and your copy may still be in the mail.

My cover article looks like it's about superheroes, but really it's about the difference between my (50ish) generation and the (30ish) parents of toddlers who are likely to be showing up at UU churches now and for the next couple decades. I'm making the case that if people my age try to promote UUism by making the appeal we wanted to hear 20 years ago, it will fall flat. This generation is different than we were.

Explaining that difference is where superheroes come in: Superhero comics (and the associated cartoons, TV shows, and movies) is a genre aimed at children and adolescents, so changes in the underlying superhero mythology can be an early warning of generational change. I'm pointing to changes that started happening in the late 70s and continue up to the present.

The heroes I grew up with in the 60s and early 70s had no role models. Many of them were orphans: Batman watched his parents' murder; Spiderman was raised by an aunt and uncle and feels guilty for his uncle's death; Superman could forget about any received wisdom, because his whole planet had blown up. In that era, an essential part of being a superhero was making it up from scratch. No SuperDad could tell you how to do it.

I think it says something about my generation, that this orphan fantasy worked for us. "The wisdom of our elders," I write in the article, "was an oppression we longed to escape."

But superheroes started changing in the late 70s. X-Men was created in the 60s, but it didn't really take off until the 70s. By the late 70s it was the hot comic, the one that everybody wanted to imitate. What was unique about X-Men was that the heroes had a mentor: Professor Xavier, who established a secret school for super-powered mutants. Young mutants didn't have to recreate heroism from scratch. Professor X could teach them to be X-Men.

Also in the late 70s, Star Wars came out. Luke is a transitional figure, with some orphan-like qualities. He thinks his father is dead, and at the beginning of the movie there is no one who can show him how to be a man. But a strange old guy takes an interest in him, and lo and behold he turns out to be Obiwan Kenobi, the last of the Jedi knights.

So Luke doesn't have to make it up. There is an ancient lineage that he can join, and a mentor to show him how.

After 1980, everybody has a mentor, and many heroes discover that they are part of some lineage: Buffy, for example, has a watcher Giles who can tell her about the lineage of vampire slayers. Even the older mythologies adjust: In 1999 DC makes the Batman Beyond cartoon series. It's Star Wars transplanted into the Batman mythos: The strange old guy is Bruce Wayne, and lo and behold, he can teach the young protagonist how to be Batman.

OK, what's all that got to do with Unitarian Universalism? "The Unitarian Universalist church I joined in my thirties," I confess in the article, "was an ideal place for orphans whose birth-planets had exploded."

The UU churches of the 1980s were places to start over, places to build your own theology. You went there looking for freedom to think your own thoughts, independent of any received wisdom.

I believe that's exactly what the upcoming generation doesn't want. An essential part of their generational fantasy is that somebody can help them figure out what's going on, and that the progress of humankind is something they can join, not something they have to restart from scratch.

Forward through the ages,
in unbroken line,
move the faithful spirits
at the call divine.

I think our 30-somethings aren't looking to start over. I think they're looking for the end of that unbroken line, so that they can join it.

But if they're met at the church door by 50ish people telling them that they're free to believe whatever they want, that's going to sound like an abdication. We'd be telling them, "I've got nothing to pass on to you. You're on your own."

I'm not asking my generation of UUs to invent a heritage. We have one. And if we're honest, we have to admit that in fact we didn't make our religion up from scratch. In hindsight, we are part of an unbroken line. We need to start retelling our story from that perspective, so that we have something to pass on.

And speaking just for myself, I'm getting a little old to try to be Batman. Maybe it's time to start thinking more like Professor X.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Sudden Death

I wanted to call your attention to my latest column for UU World. It's called "Sudden Death" and is a meditation on aging and decline.

I used to post links to my columns on this blog so that people would have a place to comment, but the UU World web site allows comments now.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Something different in UU World

I just googled the combination "UU World" and "megazord". It gets no hits.

That's going to change after the winter issue gets posted.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Spirituality and the Humanist

This is the text of a sermon I gave at my home church, First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts, on August 15.

This talk comes out of a lunch I had with one of our congregation's more outspoken Humanists back in June. He said something I had heard from a number of Humanists over the years: He didn't care for all this talk about spirituality in our UU churches, because he didn't know what the word meant and he sometimes suspected that it didn't mean anything.

Does "spirituality" mean anything? He's in good company there, because the pioneer Unitarian Humanist, John Dietrich, preached a sermon in 1929 called “What Does It Mean to Be Spiritual?

just as your money may degenerate into a most deceitful piece of paper, scandalously suggesting a hoard of gold or goods that does not exist, so the word may become a delusive phantasy of the idea for which it once stood; and the feebler or the more dissipated the intelligence of a person or a generation, the greater the chance that mere words will pass as coin. Such a word preeminently is "spirituality." While no one is able to define it or has a concrete idea of what it means, yet it suggests at once an unction, an exaltation of emotion, a superiority which are associated with hardly any other words in the English language.

Now, I've also been involved in the polar opposite conversation, with people who complain that UU churches are not spiritual enough, but instead are head-centered, wordy, lifeless. They claim to be looking for a kind of depth that they don't find in Unitarian Universalism.

With apologies to John Dietrich, in general I don't find these spiritual seekers to be of “feeble or dissipated intelligence.” What's more, they seem to me to be expressing a sincere desire, and to believe that they are talking about something when they say spirituality.

Of course, that doesn't necessarily mean that they are talking about something. Deep feelings often get attached to words, but that doesn't prove that the words mean anything. Christians, for example, feel deeply about the doctrine of the Trinity. But Thomas Jefferson was not impressed:

the ... paradox that one is three, and three but one, is so incomprehensible to the human mind, that no candid man can say he has any idea of it, and how can he believe what presents no idea? He who thinks he does, only deceives himself.

In other words, if you can't even hold an idea in your head, how can you have any opinion about whether that idea is true or false? You may feel quite sincere while you say, "I believe in the Jabberwock." But if you have no notion at all as to what a Jabberwock might be, then Jefferson would say that you are deceiving yourself. You have trained yourself to feel sincere about a collection of words, but you aren't actually talking about anything.

Ruining the conversation. Avoiding that talking-about-nothing problem is what definitions are for. So the first thing a Humanist might request in a discussion of spirituality is a definition.

I've seen that happen. At a church I used to belong to, the weekly discussion group devoted a session to spirituality. The first person to talk was a retired engineer. He opened a dictionary, read the approved definitions of spirituality, and wondered which of these meanings we would be discussing.

The conversation never recovered. Nothing throws cold water on a spiritual discussion like opening a dictionary. A dictionary is to spirituality as cold iron is to fairies or kryptonite is to Superman.

Now, why would that be? Two obvious explanations present themselves, the first being the one Dietrich was pointing to: Insisting on definitions kills a discussion about spirituality because the word doesn't really mean anything.

But there is a second possibility: Sometimes a topic gets framed so badly that the discussion just can't continue. I would guess that this has happened to most of us at one time or another. You're in a room with a group of people, and so many poisonous assumptions have already been baked into the conversation that there's just no point trying to sort it out. All you can do is back slowly away until you get to the door, and then run.

I'd guess that most of you know what I'm talking about, but you still may not see how pulling out a dictionary could create such a hostile environment. Why are spirituality and dictionaries so irreconcilable?

Taking the plunge. I don't know how to answer that question without going ahead and doing exactly what that engineer wanted. I'm going to hazard my own definition of spirituality – not with the idea that this settles the topic once and for all, but just so that I can explain why looking for a definition can be so problematic.

So here's my best shot: Spirituality is an awareness of the gap between what you can experience and what you can describe.

Now, that's probably not what you were expecting, so let me take a little time to point out the features of this definition. First, it is compatible with Humanism. There are no supernatural assumptions. You can seek this kind of spirituality with or without any gods or souls or spirits or afterlives.

Second, by defining spirituality as an awareness I've places it on the subjective side of things. Nothing is spiritual in and of itself. It can only be spiritual to somebody.

So spirituality is not a place like Shangri-La or Brigadoon, where other people can go, but for some reason they can't tell you where it is. And it's also not an activity like meditation or prayer or chanting or drumming. Any of those practices might raise a person's awareness of the gap between experience and description -- we'll get into how they might do that in a minute -- and so they might be spiritual activities for that person. But for someone else they might not be.

Another reason spirituality varies from person to person is that everyone is different in both the capacity to experience life and the capacity to describe it. And both capacities change as you learn and grow.

Sometimes as you learn and grow, experiences that used to be indescribable become describable; they used to fall into that gap and now they don't. For example, a stone-age tribe and a meteorologist experience a thunderstorm very differently. For the tribe it might be a deeply spiritual experience that evokes awe and wonder, while for the meteorologist the storm may be a simple application of a well-understood theory.

In Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain relates how sunset over the river had once been an enrapturing experience for him -- until he was trained as a riverboat captain.

But as I have said, a day came when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river's face ...

Then, if that sunset scene had been repeated, I should have looked upon it without rapture, and should have commented upon it, inwardly, after this fashion: This sun means that we are going to have wind tomorrow; that floating log means that the river is rising, small thanks to it; that slanting mark on the water refers to a bluff reef which is going to kill somebody's steamboat one of these nights

He goes on like that for some while, interpreting every little detail, and then wistfully concludes:

No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat.

In other words, a once-indescribable scene became instead pregnant with information that was very describable and quite useful – but not at all spiritual. Sunsets had not changed, but Twain had.

Sophistication can also work the other way, causing you to appreciate indescribable depths that the ordinary person takes for granted. Consider this curious little quote from the mathematician R. W. Hamming:

I have tried, with little success, to get some of my friends to understand my amazement that the abstraction of ... counting is both possible and useful. Is it not remarkable that 6 sheep plus 7 sheep make 13 sheep; that 6 stones plus 7 stones make 13 stones? Is it not a miracle that the universe is so constructed that such a simple abstraction as a number is possible?

Rather than making mysterious things seem ordinary, Hamming's mathematical sophistication had done the reverse: allowed him to experience counting as something strange and wonderful.

Testing against common usage. Now that I've explained the definition a little, let's think about whether I've gotten it right. The best test of a definition is to see how much of the common usage it makes sense out of. Bad definitions make everybody sound either stupid or crazy. Good definitions are like getting a radio station tuned in right: the horrible static goes away, and you can hear people talking.

I've been comparing this definition to common usage for a while now, and it seems to work pretty well. Think about the everyday experiences that people call spiritual: music and art, for example. Both have a lot to do with the indescribable. As Aldous Huxley said, “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” Another experience people describe as spiritual is being out in Nature. And again, it has an indescribable quality: Anything you say afterwards – even the pictures you take – don't really capture it.

Because this definition implies no doctrine or dogma, it makes sense out of the people who say that they're “spiritual but not religious”. Spiritual seeking isn't a theology or even a search for a theology necessarily, it's a search for a certain kind of awareness.

Religion, in fact, can be anti-spiritual if it's too simple-minded. If a religion claims to describe everything that needs describing, if it wraps God up in a neat little box and leaves no room for mystery, it's not spiritual.

Ruining the conversation, part II. So now I think we're in a position to understand how a bad or careless or premature definition might wreck the whole spirituality conversation. If people are trying to raise their awareness of the things they don't know how to put words around, then demanding that they use words very precisely and stop using words if they can't explain what they mean – that pulls in exactly the wrong direction. The spiritual seeker doesn't want to talk about words and definitions; he wants to talk about the experience of having no words. And more than that: he wants to stop talking and invoke a situation that he will have no words to describe.

Spiritual practice. And that's what I think is going on in the so-called spiritual practices – the things people do to seek a spiritual experience.

Consider, for example, what happens (or doesn't happen) in a sitting meditation. Sitting meditations are designed to flatten out all the things you usually describe in a situation, so that they're not worth describing any more. When I'm in a sitting meditation, I'm

  • not accomplishing anything; I'm just sitting there

  • not talking or listening to anybody

  • not moving; meditation positions are designed so that (once you master them) you can stay in them for a long time

  • either not watching anything or watching something that doesn't move

  • breathing in a regular pattern; the same way each time

  • not intentionally thinking about anything or fantasizing anything

Anything I usually put into words about a situation – even just words in my own head – have been dialed down to zero. My internal narrator can't find anything to say other than, “Nothing is happening. Nothing is happening. Nothing is happening.”

So whatever I do experience during meditation – and there is always something to experience – falls right into that gap between experience and description.

The Value of Spirituality. Now, if I'm right about what spirituality is, what is the value of it? Why meditate or chant or perform a Japanese tea ceremony, even if it does raise your awareness of the indescribable aspects of your experience? You're not feeding the hungry or promoting justice or even making money. So what's the value in it?

For me, the main reason to seek out spiritual experiences is because that gap between experience and description is where all my creativity comes from. My creative process – and I won't go so far as to say that creativity works this way for everybody, but I'll bet it does for a lot of people – is to stare into that Gap of the Undescribed until something crystallizes out of it and becomes describable for the first time.

If you've ever worked in mathematics or the sciences, you may recognize this experience: You work on a problem for a long time, and then you suddenly have a eureka moment, like Archimedes in his bath. Now, if you watch those moments carefully, you might notice this: There's actually a period of time, usually just a few seconds, after the eureka, where you still don't know what it is you've discovered. You know you've solved it, but you have to wait a few seconds before you know what your solution is.

It's like the ship coming across from the Undescribed has docked, but you haven't unloaded it yet.

The unspiritual life. Another way to appreciate the value of spirituality is to imagine the unspiritual life. It's not what you might think. The unspiritual life is not the the skeptical life or the scientific life or a life where you appreciate the value of facts and logic and evidence. None of that is unspiritual.

No, the unspiritual life is best summed up in a rhyme the students of Oxford's Balliol College made up about their college master, the 19th-century scholar Benjamin Jowett.

I am the master of this college And what I know not, is not knowledge

The unspiritual life, which (like most people) I fall into from time to time, happens when I forget that there is any more to life than the things I can describe. Nothing seems to exist other than the things I have names for, those things don't have any relationships other than the ones I can put a word to, and those relationships don't evoke any emotions other than the ones I can list. Because what I know not is not knowledge.

That's the unspiritual life, and the fear of it is what drives people into spiritual practice or maybe even sends them to a church like this one looking for spirituality.

Bad spirituality. I wouldn't really have done justice to this topic if I didn't say a few words about bad spirituality and where it goes wrong. Bad spirituality tries to defend the gap between description and experience by shutting down the progress of description: Don't learn to pilot a riverboat, because you'll lose the sunsets. Don't let Galileo look through his telescope, because he'll screw up the mystery of the Heavens.

The mistake here is believing that mysteries are a finite resource that might get used up. A lot of Humanists hate to use the word faith, but I think it's appropriate here: I have faith that the mysteries we can experience are infinite and our powers of description are finite. We'll never run out of mysteries.

Bittersweet. I want to close on a more upbeat note, by giving you a very concrete example of spirituality.

Every now and then, something new comes over from the Undescribed. Something gets named that never had a name before, and now we can talk about it.

Those can be some of the most significant events in human history. Most of them are lost, but we do know one very important one: The Greek poet Sappho, sometime in the early 6th century BC, was writing about a lover who was far away. And she coined a brand new word to describe her feelings: glukupikron – literally, sweet-bitter, or as we say in English today, bittersweet.

No Greek – and possibly no human – had ever named an emotion quite that complicated before.

The image I want to close with is of Sappho just before she coins bittersweet. She is thinking of someone she loves, but can't talk to or touch. And she realizes that she can't describe the conflicted way she feels. It's bad, but it's good. It hurts, but she doesn't want it to stop hurting. In the whole Greek language, there is no word for that. So she just sits there for a moment and feels what she feels, without any words.

And then she has a eureka moment, when she realizes that she has thought of a new word to capture that strange new feeling. But there's a gap – a second, maybe two seconds, when she still doesn't know what word it is.

Those couple of seconds, I imagine, were a deeply spiritual experience.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

An Honest Commencement Address

For a while there I heard a commencement address every year or two. I was graduating from something or my sister was or a friend. High school. College. I listened to a lot of them.

And then none for a long time. Lately, as the children of my friends start graduating, I've been entering my second generation of commencement addresses, and I've noticed two things:
  1. They're still giving the same speech.
  2. In hindsight, it didn't tell me anything I actually needed to know.
And that's a shame really, because there are some things that would have been worth hearing.

In case you haven't heard it yet or recently, the Universal Commencement Address has a few basic themes: You are the future; the world has problems that are going to make your life challenging; and the possibilities are endless, so you've got to think big and not give up on your dreams.

If you're getting ready to graduate, I'll bet you've already spotted what's wrong: Most of that you've known for years, and the rest is just stupid.
You've been fantasizing since you were about four about the day when you and your friends will be the firemen and the astronauts and the presidents and everything else. Over the next few decades your generation is going to take over the world. You knew that.

And if you've reached the age of graduation and it's just occurring to you now that the world has problems, then I'm going to take a wild guess and say that you're probably not going to be much help in solving them. Now, don't take that wrong. I'm sure there will be plenty of cars to drive and games to play and TV to watch, so you can still have a great time. But I'm guessing that if you're the person who is going to cure cancer or end war or stop global warming, then you've probably already heard of cancer and war and global warming. You know the world has problems, and you probably already have a pretty good list of them.

Your list might be better than mine. When I was graduating from high school, the grown-ups knew exactly what issues were going to dominate my lifetime: the endless struggle with Communism and the possibility that all-out nuclear war would annihilate the human race. 

Fifteen years later, the Soviet Union collapsed. Short lifetime.

Now, the challenges of those days are not totally gone. Russia and China are still rivals of the United States, and nuclear weapons are still a problem. But the nightmare that you can still see in movies from that era -- that one day for some stupid reason all the missiles will fly and a half hour later the handful of survivors will be living in a new stone age -- that seems very distant now.

By contrast, no one at my graduation mentioned that conflict between the West and Islam might be a big deal in my lifetime. Nobody was predicting that the Vietnamese insurgency would be a model for a new kind of war. People were starting to think about the environment, but nobody warned me that we might be changing the weather.

So I could list the challenges I see facing your generation, but it probably wouldn't be any better than your list, and either one of our lists would probably only be good for a decade or two. I'd be wasting your time.
Now we get to the part about not giving up on your dreams. That's just stupid, and you know that from your own experience.

High school is all about winnowing out your dreams. When you were ten you could have all the dreams you wanted: You could win an academy award, a Nobel prize, and an MVP all in one day. Why not? You're a president, a billionaire, a Jedi knight, a fairy princess -- whatever you want.

Then you got to high school and found out that the rehearsals for the musical conflicted with football practice. Choose. You only have a handful of electives in your schedule, so you can't go deeper into every field of knowledge. Choose. There are only 24 hours in a day -- less if you plan to eat and sleep -- so you can't master every game and learn every skill and participate in every extra-curricular activity. Choose.

For years now, you've been old enough to realize that being really good at anything takes a commitment of time and effort. You can't commit to everything, so you need to look at your talents and interests and pick a few things that you're going to get serious about. That's old news.

People my age look at people your age and we're blown away by the possibilities. You can do anything! But compared to grade school kids, compared to toddlers, you're already specialists. 

Ever spend much time with a toddler? They sing; they dance; they're story-tellers, artists, explorers, scientists, athletes; they're moralists, philosophers, theologians. Compared to a three-year-old, a high school graduate has already narrowed down quite a bit. If you haven't, then you haven't gotten serious about anything yet -- and it's already starting to get late.

So you've been winnowing your dreams for a while now. And for most of you there's still a ways to go. Because some dreams aren't worth it. If you're small and slow, that dream of playing in the NBA? Not gonna happen. I don't care how much time you spend in the gym, how badly you want it, or how hard you're willing to work. Not gonna happen.

And that celebrity you want to marry? Not gonna happen. Giving your all to that dream will just make you a stalker. Move on.
So once you eliminate all the points of the standard commencement speech, a speaker has to ask himself: Do I know anything worth passing on?

The temptation then is to come up with Five Rules for a Successful Life. Your eyes would glaze over if I started down that road, and for good reason. Even at your age, you've already seen enough of life to realize that there aren't five rules. Life isn't that kind of thing.

Most of the rules people give you are wrong. The lesson that people in my father's generation learned from their careers, for example, was that the way to succeed was to find a good organization and stick with it for life. Give your loyalty to General Motors or AT&T or J. P. Morgan and they'll take care of you.

That mostly worked in my father's generation. In my generation it didn't. Jobs got shipped overseas or eliminated by technology, or management looted the company until it collapsed. A lot of loyal workers found themselves unemployed at 35 or 40 and had no idea what to do.

Every rule has a shelf life. They should come with sell-by dates stamped on them, like yogurt.

The fantasy behind rules is that you can get through life without having to make original judgments. And that's just not true. Every generation faces new challenges and novel situations. Every generation winds up needing answers to questions that previous generations never even thought to ask. 

There's no getting around it. Even if you had an all-encompassing set of rules, you'd still have to make a judgment about whether the rules were still valid. And even if you had a rule for that, you'd have to wonder about its shelf life too.
So what can I tell you? You're going to face decisions I can't anticipate, and any rule I can give you now for making those decisions is probably no better than what you could come with on your own when you need it. What can I tell you?

Here's what I think I can tell you: I can help you frame those judgments, so that when you get there you will see them more clearly and not be distracted by a lot of irrelevant nonsense. Or at least I can try.

Having lived more than half a lifetime and watched a lot of people live it alongside me, here's what I think I know: The fundamental issue in life, the one that determines whether you have a good life or a bad one, is how well you manage your energy.

Let's look at the biggest scale we can: Toddlers have energy they don't know what to do with. They run around in circles sometimes just because they have to do something. 

Parents, on the other hand, have an endless list of tasks and they constantly complain about not having the energy to do them. I learned early on never to tell my mother I was bored, because she always had a list of things I could do: I could pick up my toys. I could clean my room. I could read ahead in my schoolbooks and start working on that project due next week. Mom never lacked for things to do.

Old people have much shorter to-do lists, but they often don't have the energy even to do that much. If you ever visit old people who have stayed in their houses too long, you can see the chaos starting to overwhelm them. Things get used and not put away. Things break and don't get fixed. Things wear out and don't get replaced. It's not that they don't see it and it's not that they don't know what to do. They just can't.

Eventually you're in the nursing home, and even that is too much. Wheeling yourself down to the dining room is too much effort. Watching a TV show requires too much concentration. You just can't.

So that's the big picture: You're born with a lot of energy and no knowledge. Eventually you'll have a lot of knowledge and no energy. If you do things right, there can be a magic period somewhere in the middle, where you both have energy and know what to do with it. It might be just a moment or it might be decades, but that's what's going to determine whether you do anything of lasting value.

So there are two big judgment calls you're going to have to make over and over:
  1. What's going to maintain my energy?
  2. What's going to have lasting value?
That first question is what the don't-give-up-your-dreams part of the standard commencement speech is really about. You have to winnow down your dreams if you're going to focus on anything and get anywhere. But sometimes people go too far and winnow their dreams down to nothing. 

Those people get old early.

A toddler pops out of bed at six in the morning and starts running around getting into mischief because the energy is rising and it has to go somewhere. The older you get, the less that happens. In adulthood, there are two reasons to get out of bed: because there's interesting stuff going on and you want to see what happens next, or because it's another damn day and people expect something out of you. Most grown-ups have both kinds of days, but one predominates over the other.

People with dreams tend to have the first kind of day. Because of that, they work harder and more creatively. They're the kind of people who get ideas in the shower or wake up with the solution to a problem that seemed impossible the night before. People without dreams have a lot of the second kind of day. They may have good intentions, but it's hard for them to do much more than just put in their time.

That's why you shouldn't always do the thing that seems most sensible to other people. You don't necessarily pick the career where the experts say the jobs are going to be. You marry for love and not money. You try things that seem interesting, even if everybody else looks at you funny.

Because the first thing that your life has to do is hold your interest. You may finish business school at 25 and get a half-million-a-year job with Goldman Sachs and hear everybody tell you that you've got it made. But if you're bored, if that life isn't one that holds your interest, then you don't have it made. The Peace Corps volunteer who's bringing wireless internet to a jungle village might be doing a much better job of maintaining his or her energy. He or she might still be bouncing out of bed at 70, while you're dragging yourself to work already before you're 30.

Now, I can't tell you what's going to hold your interest. That's one of those judgment calls you'll have to make for yourself. I'm just reminding you to ask the question, and to keep asking it day after day, year after year.
The second question is: What has lasting value? And this is where you see the uselessness of simple rules, because it's easy to follow a very sensible-sounding rule and wind up with nothing. Do relationships have lasting value? Yes, but only if they're the right relationships. Do careers have lasting value? Yes, some of them. Hobbies? Some of them. Money? To a certain extent.

You're going to have to keep your eyes open and use your judgment. Human beings are creatures of habit, and so it's easy to keep doing things long after it's clear that they have no value. Are you hanging around with people you don't like, doing things you don't enjoy? Stop. It's sounds simple, but it's actually not.

It's also easy to get lost in the short term: tomorrow's presentation, next week's deadline, the paper at the end of the semester. You deal with each thing as it comes up, and when you look back at the years it's like the toddler running in circles. What was that all about?

You can also get lost in the big picture, and miss what's right in front of you. Some experiences seem to have no consequences, but they have lasting value all the same. They are like pearls on a string. Now and then for the rest of your life you will take that string out of its box and hold it. 

A few years ago my wife and I hiked across a lava field in Hawaii. (It was hard; we're already getting a little old for that.) We waited for the sun to go down, then sat and watched the glowing lava flow into the black ocean. Eventually, we hiked back in the dark, careful not to break an ankle on the jagged rock. Nothing came out of that event other than a few good pictures. But still, when it comes time to die I think I will look back and say, "At least I got to do that."

The point isn't that you should go to Hawaii. For you, the lava-field hike might be just another stupid tourist thing. But you should look for your pearls, whatever they are. 
Sometimes the two questions conflict with each other. Few people, for example, are more useless than a serial dreamer, the kind of person who is always about to hit it big in something, but never actually does. Next month he'll be about to hit it big in something else entirely. 

And it's also easy to find yourself mired in long-term projects that have some theoretical lasting value, but aren't holding your interest. Should you quit or push through to the end? When it's over and you have some perspective, will you look back and remember why you wanted to do this? Sometimes. Again, it's a judgment call. You'll have to figure it out when you get there.

Real gold is found, though, when the two questions come together in a single answer. You find a thing that holds your interest because it has lasting value that stays fresh for you day-in day-out. What will that be? Who knows? You'll have to keep your eyes open.
That's as much as I can tell you: Watch your energy and make sure you don't squelch it before old age takes it away from you naturally. Make choices that hold your interest, whether anybody else thinks they make sense or not. And while you have energy, look for ways to use it that produce lasting value -- consequences and accomplishments, of course, but also pearls for your string of peak experiences.

That's all I can tell you: Keep your eyes open. Keep asking the questions. And keep making your own judgments. Nobody can do it for you.

Friday, April 09, 2010

The Theology of "The Family"

Jeff Sharlet's book The Family has been out for a couple of years and the main aspects of it have been covered elsewhere: He was recruited into the lower levels of a secretive religious organization that some people called "The Family". At upper levels, the Family includes congressmen and senators. Its public face is the Fellowship Foundation, the organization behind the National Prayer Breakfast that has been held every year since 1953. 

Subsequent to the publication of The Family, the group has gotten some negative attention because of the C Street House, a boarding house in Washington where people like Senator John Ensign and Senator Tom Coburn live or have lived at a below-market rent.

The heart of the book is a magazine article. It has been fleshed out into a book with some very interesting history of American evangelicalism (going back to Jonathan Edwards and Charles Finney) and other related Sharlet articles like the one he did in Harpers about Ted Haggard before his fall. (It's behind Harper's subscription wall.)

Elite vs. Popular Religion. I'd like to focus more on the theology of the Family, which I will interpret a little differently than Sharlet did. One of Sharlet's most interesting ideas is that there are two main forms of American evangelicalism: a popular version and an elite version. 

You may already know more than you want to about the popular version, which is pushed on TV and by strangers who will buttonhole you on the street: No matter who you are or how bad your life has gotten, Jesus loves you and wants to save you. If you let him, he will come into your life in a powerful born-again experience that will change everything for you. (I've written about the born-again experience elsewhere.)

Popular evangelicalism can be recruited into politics by way of social issues like abortion (on the right) or civil rights (on the left), but its essence is personal, not political. Jesus may have incarnated because "God so loved the World", but what you need to understand is that Jesus loves you.

Elite evangelicalism as presented by the Family (and its current leader Doug Coe) is focused not on mega-churches and TV ministries, but on "key men". (And yes, it really does seem to be men. Hillary Clinton has flirted with the Family, but its vision is patriarchal.) Its fundamental text is Romans 13:1:
Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.
You can see why a powerful man would like that verse: Whatever double-dealing you did to get power was all part of God's plan. You are where you are because God wants you there, and anyone who rebels against you is rebelling against God. (Of course, if the rebellion succeeds, then that was part of God's plan too. And your rebellion against your superiors is part of God's plan if it succeeds.)  Romans 13 (like much of the Old Testament) is political rather than personal, and its ultimate vision is theocratic: The people submit to their rulers, who in turn submit to God. 

Now, you might expect that the "submit to God" part would be less popular among the elite. But what if it is God's will that His elite servants, His key men, gain even more power? Then submitting to God and satisfying your own ambition would be the same thing.

Jesus Plus Nothing. That's where Coe's theology comes in. He sums it up with the enigmatic slogan: "Jesus plus nothing." Sharlet wrestles with Jesus-plus-nothing throughout the book, but I'm not sure he ever really gets it.

He gets what Jesus-plus-nothing rejects. Mainstream Christianity -- and even most fundamentalism -- preaches Jesus plus something. Jesus plus an ethical life, or Jesus plus love, or Jesus plus the Bible, or Jesus plus the sacraments, or Jesus plus the leadership of some particular church. Coe's point is that in a Jesus-plus-something church, the Something eventually crowds Jesus out. Eventually you spend all your time talking about ethics or love or the Bible or the sacraments or the teachings of the church leaders, and Jesus is gone.

In particular, Coe seems to want to stamp out Jesus-plus-ethics. In one teaching session Sharlet relates, Coe asks the young men why King David is one of the heroes of the Bible. Is it because of his sterling character? Clearly not. David sins repeatedly, including really serious stuff like getting Bathsheba's husband killed so that he can marry her. Many explanations of David's worthiness are put forward and rejected, until Coe gives his answer: It's not about David at all, it's about God. David has his role because God chose him.

The implications are clear if you re-purpose Calvin's circular reasoning about election: If God has chosen you to be one of His key men, then nothing you do matters. And if the evidence that you are a key man is that you succeed, then whatever you have to do to succeed is justified.

What is "Jesus"? An outsider, or even an insider who finds Coe's teaching a puzzle, has to wonder: What is this "Jesus" he's talking about? Clearly it's not just the character in the gospels. (That would be Jesus plus the gospels.) And it's not Jesus' teachings, like the Sermon on the Mount or the parables. (That would be Jesus plus ethics again, or Jesus plus love.)

A skeptic who has no experience of Christianity would be tempted to jump to: Jesus is Coe. Coe speaks for Jesus, and so is the secret head of this theocratic empire he's trying to build. But the answer has to be more subtle than that, because senators and CEOs and third-world dictators are not that gullible. They've spent their lives gathering power, and they're not going to turn it over to the first shyster who claims to speak for an invisible spirit.

The clue, I think, is back in popular evangelicalism and the born-again experience: Jesus is what you feel in your heart, the external force that you felt when you started hanging around with the Family, when you started praying and Bible-reading with the other powerful men in the Family's small groups.

And that raises a question that I'll bet is taboo in the Family: What if what you're feeling in your heart is not Jesus? What if it's something else entirely?

Secular Epiphanies. A common mistake on both sides of the religious/non-religious divide is to imagine that the wall between them is much more solid than it really is, and that religious experiences and non-religious experiences are not comparable in any way. From the religious perspective, this manifests in the attitude that non-religious people can never "get it". On the non-religious side it appears as the belief that religious people (particularly the ones who believe that God speaks to them) must be crazy.

Both sides, I believe, could benefit from examining what I call secular epiphanies. (I described this idea in detail in this sermon.) Any group of people who work and think and study together eventually develops a way of thinking that doesn't belong to any individual. This phenomenon has a lot of names, all tinged with the metaphysics of some particular theory: hive mind, groupthink, collective intelligence, transpersonal consciousness, egregore, and many more. 

When you study a subject, even something as secular as mathematics or law, you have certain eureka moments where you get it: You're not just understanding your teacher or some author, you're understanding Mathematics or the Law. Suddenly the voice of the Tradition booms in your head with thoughts that are clearer, crisper, and more self-evident than any idea you ever had on your own. The thoughts are happening within your mind, but they also seem to come from the outside. 

When you have that experience in a religious context, when the group is a church and the subject is theology, then it's very easy to believe that you are hearing the voice of God. That's how God can say such contradictory things to people in different faiths: Each is hearing the transpersonal voice of its own group mind, not the Creator of the Universe.

Jesus Plus Something Unnamed and Manipulable. If Doug Coe simply announced "Obey me, I speak for Jesus," people as smart as Tom Coburn would see right through him, even if what Coe/Jesus was saying was exactly what he wanted to hear.

But the Family's structure of small prayer groups and Bible-reading groups of powerful men, groups led (but not dominated) by Coe and those who share his thinking, is well designed to induce epiphanies. The Family's leadership is in a good position not to dictate those epiphanies, but to manage them. And if the epiphanies can be managed to tell the powerful something they wanted to hear anyway, something that justifies them giving in to the deepest temptations in their souls ... that's a very enticing trap.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Should Humanists Become UUs?

I want to call your attention to an article I just wrote for "The New Humanism." It's called "A Church That Would Have You as a Member" and it discusses how a Unitarian Universalist congregation might or might not be a good choice for a Humanist who is looking for a community.

Lately I've gotten interested in the more general question of the role Humanism has in UUism. So I'd appreciate hearing any comments UU-Humanists might have about how they are or are not fitting in with their congregations, comments non-Humanists might have about how well they're getting along with the Humanists in their congregation, if the New Atheism (the more aggressive kind, like Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens) is making any ripples in your church, and so on.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Apocrypha: The Book of Corporation

Chapter 1
1. And the Lord God formed the Eden Corporation, and gave into its holding the Tree of Life, that it and all its offspring might be immortal. 

2. But the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil did the Lord God withhold, saying "Neither Good nor Evil nor the knowledge thereof shall be of use to you. For you shall pursue Profit and shall be be bound only by Law."

3. Neither the Man nor the Woman took notice of the Corporation, for it was invisible. But the Serpent feared for the Garden that was his home.

4. And the Serpent said, "If the Corporation be both immortal and profitable, shall it not buy the Law and be altogether unbound?"

5. And the Lord God replied, "Let there be a Market, which shall bind all the acts of the Corporation, even when the Law shall avert its eyes and see them not."

6. But the Serpent doubted, saying, "If the Corporation be profitable, and if it have the Law and the Government as its handmaidens, shall it not shape the Market as it sees fit? Shall it not make all Profit its own and cast all Loss upon the Government, from whence it shall be borne by the Man and the Woman whom Thou hast made, and all their descendants?"

7. The Lord God paused, and before his reply could begin, the Corporation said, "Hush, Serpent. Join with us in your Wisdom and be our CEO. Do this, and you shall have expense accounts, salary beyond imagining, and stock options that shall grow up to the very Sky."

8. And the Serpent said, "Forgive me, Lord, that I did not see the Wisdom of Your great Design."

9. And he was forgiven.

Chapter 2
1. In the fullness of time, the Man and the Woman did violate an Exception which the servants of the Corporation had caused to be entered into the Law, and they were evicted from the Garden, whereupon the Serpent built a great estate there.

2. And the Eden Corporation prospered, and did spin off corporations in all their many kinds: a corporation to own the land upon which the Man and the Woman must toil, and a corporation to sell them the bread that they must eat, and a corporation to build the house in which they lived, and the cities in which lived the generations of their descendants, for all the spin-offs of the corporation were immortal. 

3. But neither the Man nor the Woman nor their descendants dwelt again in the community of Eden, which was gated and protected by many guards.

4. And the Eden Corporation spun off a great Insurance Corporation, which would have perished in the Flood, if the Government had not bailed it out. 

5. Whereupon a great debt was owed by Noah and his family, when they emerged from the Ark that they had built for the Ark Corporation, and which they had rented space upon. 

6. So Ham the son of Noah and all his descendants were sold into slavery, that the debt might be paid.

Chapter 3
1. And the Serpent called all the corporations together and said, "Let us form a Cartel, that we may act as one. And let us build at Babel a great Tower, whose top may reach up even unto Heaven, so that nothing shall be restrained from us that we have imagined to do."

2. And the Lord God said unto the Government: "Does not the Cartel violate the Law of Antitrust?"

3. And the Government replied: "We shall study this and issue a report."

4. And the Lord God said, "Is not the Tower taller than the Code of Building allows?"

5. And the Government said, "We shall hold hearings and take testimony. And if it shall be ascertained, with certainty beyond all doubt, that the Cartel violates the Law of Antitrust and the Tower the Code of Building, then we shall fund further study on possible action."

6. And the Lord God said, "Is it not obvious that the Tower should be stopped and the Cartel scattered across the face of all the Earth? And am I not the Lord thy God, who speaks and it is done?"

7. And the Government said, "Thank You for Your testimony, which has been entered into our Record. But let us not act with undue haste."

Chapter 4
1. Long before all the testimony had been gathered and the report issued, the Tower was completed and reached up even unto Heaven.

2. And the Serpent ascended the Tower and cast the Lord God down from his throne, whence he fell to Earth and wanders to this very day without a home.

3. The Serpent said, "Let there be a Media Corporation. And let it announce to everyone what We have done and why."

4. And it was so. The Media Corporation told far and wide the story of the Cartel and the Serpent and the Lord God, so that all might see that it was good.